What Is African Philosophy?
African philosophy is philosophy produced by African people, philosophy that presents African worldviews, or philosophy that uses distinct African philosophical methods. African philosophers may be found in the various academic fields of philosophy, such as metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy, and political philosophy. African philosophy can also be defined as any epistemic endeavor that attempts to understand the world from an African perspective. It is therefore not just about Africa but about the world even if the location of the subject is Africa.
Much of modern African philosophy has been concerned with defining the ethnophilosophical parameters of African philosophy and identifying what differentiates it from other philosophical traditions. One of the implicit assumptions of ethnophilosophy is that a specific culture can have a philosophy that is not applicable and accessible to all peoples and cultures in the world, however this concept is disputed by traditional philosophers. Furthermore, in A Discourse on African Philosophy: A New Perspective on Ubuntu and Transitional Justice in South Africa, Christian B. N. Gade argues that the ethnophilosophical approach to African philosophy as a static group property is highly problematic. His research on ubuntu presents an alternative collective discourse on African philosophy (“collective” in the sense that it does not focus on any individual in particular) that takes differences, historical developments, and social contexts seriously.
The Nigerian philosopher Uzodinma Nwala, prior to his employment to teach at UNN, said that there was no African philosophy available as a course of study in universities. “All we were taught as students were Western philosophy. Nothing like African philosophy existed anywhere. In fact, many years after the introduction of the courses, there still remained arguments among experts, whether there was really African Philosophy”. He was awarded the Aimé Césaire award in 2013 at the University of Abuja for his work.
African philosophy can be formally defined as a critical thinking by Africans on their experiences of reality. Nigerian born Philosopher K.C. Anyanwu defined African philosophy as “that which concerns itself with the way in which African people of the past and present make sense of their destiny and of the world in which they live.”  In this regard, African philosophy is a critical reflection on African leaderships in the administration of their duties towards their citizens; the morally blameworthiness or praiseworthiness of it. It will also provide possible solutions to the problems experienced in African governance.
One of the most basic disagreements concerns what exactly the term ‘African’ qualifies: the content of the philosophy and the distinctive methods employed, or the identities of the philosophers. On the former view, philosophy counts as African if it involves African themes such as perceptions of time, personhood, space and other subjects, or uses methods that are defined as distinctively African. In the latter view, African philosophy is any philosophy produced by Africans or by people of African descent, and others engaged in critiques or analysis of their works.
Nigerian philosopher Joseph I. Omoregbe broadly defines a philosopher as one who attempts to understand the world’s phenomena, the purpose of human existence, the nature of the world, and the place of human beings in that world. This form of natural philosophy is identifiable in Africa even before individual African philosophers can be distinguished in the sources.
Philosophy in Africa has a rich and varied history, dating at least as far back to the ancient Egyptian philosophy identified in pre-dynastic Egyptian thought and culture, and continuing through the development of the major regional philosophical traditions of North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, and the Horn of Africa.
In the early and mid-twentieth century, anti-colonial movements had a tremendous effect on the development of a distinct African political philosophy that had resonance on both the continent and in the African diaspora. There was also notable engagement in the pre-colonial and early post-colonial era with the Marxist and Communist philosophical traditions developing throughout the twentieth century, resulting in the flourishing of a distinctive African economic philosophical tradition. One well-known example of the economic philosophical works emerging from this period was the African socialist philosophy of Ujamaa propounded in Tanzania and other parts of Southeast Africa. These African political and economic philosophical developments also had a notable impact on the anti-colonial movements of many non-African peoples around the world.
In North Africa, arguably central to the development of the ancient Egyptian philosophical tradition of Egypt and Sudan was the conception of “ma’at”, which roughly translated refers to “justice”, “truth”, or simply “that which is right”. One of the earliest works of political philosophy was The Maxims of Ptahhotep, which were taught to Egyptian schoolboys for centuries.
Ancient Egyptian philosophers also made important contributions to Hellenistic philosophy and Christian philosophy. In the Hellenistic tradition, the influential philosophical school of Neoplatonism was founded by the Egyptian philosopher Plotinus in the 3rd century CE.
Further information: Christian philosophy
In the Christian tradition, Augustine of Hippo was a cornerstone of Christian philosophy and theology. He lived from 354 to 430 CE, and wrote his best-known work, The City of God, in Hippo Regius (now Annaba, Algeria). He challenged a number of ideas of his age including Arianism, and established the notions of original sin and divine grace in Christian philosophy and theology.
Further information: Islamic philosophy
In the Islamic tradition, Ibn Bajjah philosophized along neo-Platonist lines in the 12th century C.E. The purpose of human life, according to Bajja, was to gain true happiness, and true happiness is attained by grasping the universals through reason and philosophy, often outside the framework of organized religion.
Ibn Rushd philosophised along more Aristotelian lines, establishing the philosophical school of Averroism. Notably, he argued that there was no conflict between religion and philosophy, and instead that there are a variety of routes to God, all equally valid, and that the philosopher was free to take the route of reason while the commoners were unable to take that route, and only able to take the route of teachings passed on to them.
Ibn Sab’in challenged the above view, arguing that Aristotelian methods of philosophy were useless in attempting to understand the universe, because those ideas failed to mirror the basic unity of the universe with itself and with God, so that true understanding required a different method of reasoning.
The most prominent of West Africa’s pre-modern philosophical traditions has been identified as that of the Yoruba philosophical tradition and the distinctive worldview that emerged from it over the thousands of years of its development. Philosophical concepts such as Omoluabi were integral to this system, and the totality of its elements are contained in what is known amongst the Yoruba as the Itan. The cosmologies and philosophies of the Akan, Dogon. Serer and Dahomey were also significant.
In pre-colonial Senegambia (Gambia and Senegal in particular), the 17th-century philosopher Kocc Barma Fall stood out as one of the renown philosophers in Senegambian history. His proverbs are still recited by Senegalese and Gambians alike, including in Senegambian popular culture – for example in Ousmane Sembene’s films such as Guelwaar Other notable philosophical thinkers include the Gambian historian Alieu Ebrima Cham Joof, and the Malian ethnologist Amadou Hampâté Bâ.
Historically the West African philosophical traditions have had a significant impact on Islamic philosophy as a whole as much of the Islamic philosophical tradition was subject to the influence of scholars born or working in the African continent in centres of learning such as Djenne and Timbuktu in Mali. Many of these intellectuals and scholars created a philosophical tradition in these cities.
Horn of Africa
In the Horn of Africa, there are a number of sources documenting the development of a distinct Ethiopian philosophy from the first millennium onwards. Among the most notable examples from this tradition emerge from the work of the 17th-century philosopher Zera Yacob, and that of his disciples.
In Southern Africa and Southeast Africa the development of a distinctive Bantu philosophy addressing the nature of existence, the cosmos and humankind’s relation to the world following the Bantu migration has had the most significant impact on the philosophical developments of the said regions, with the development of the philosophy of Ubuntu as one notable example emerging from this worldview.
Many Central African philosophical traditions before the Bantu migration into southern Central Africa have been identified as a uniting characteristic of many Nilotic and Sudanic peoples, ultimately giving rise to the distinctive worldviews identified in the conceptions of time, the creation of the world, human nature, and the proper relationship between mankind and nature prevalent in Dinka mythology, Maasai mythology and similar traditions.
Some pre-Modern African diasporic philosophical traditions have also been identified, mostly produced by descendants of Africans in Europe and the Americas. One notable pre-modern diasporic African philosopher was Anthony William Amo, who was taken as a slave from Awukenu in what is now Ghana, and was brought up and educated in Europe where he gained doctorates in medicine and philosophy, and subsequently became a professor of philosophy at the universities of Halle Halle and Jena in Germany.
Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka has distinguished what he calls four trends in modern African philosophy: ethnophilosophy, philosophical sagacity, nationalistic–ideological philosophy, and professional philosophy. In fact it would be more realistic to call them candidates for the position of African philosophy, with the understanding that more than one of them might fit the bill. (Oruka later added two additional categories: literary/artistic philosophy, such as the work of literary figures such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Okot p’Bitek, and Taban Lo Liyong, and hermeneutic philosophy, the analysis of African languages in order to find philosophical content.) In the African diaspora, American philosopher Maulana Karenga has also been notable in presenting varied definitions for understanding modern African philosophy, especially as it relates to its earliest sources.
Ethnophilosophy and philosophical sagacity
Ethnophilosophy has been used to record the beliefs found in African cultures. Such an approach treats African philosophy as consisting in a set of shared beliefs, values, categories, and assumptions that are implicit in the language, practices, and beliefs of African cultures; in short, the uniquely African worldview. As such, it is seen as an item of communal property rather than an activity for the individual.
One proponent of this form, Placide Tempels, argued in Bantu Philosophy that the metaphysical categories of the Bantu people are reflected in their linguistic categories. According to this view, African philosophy can be best understood as springing from the fundamental assumptions about reality reflected in the languages of Africa.
Another example of this sort of approach is the work of E. J. Algoa of the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, who argues for the existence of an African philosophy of history stemming from traditional proverbs from the Niger Delta in his paper “An African Philosophy of History in the Oral Tradition.” Algoa argues that in African philosophy, age is seen as an important factor in gaining wisdom and interpreting the past. In support of this view, he cites proverbs such as “More days, more wisdom”, and “What an old man sees seated, a youth does not see standing.” Truth is seen as eternal and unchanging (“Truth never rots”), but people are subject to error (“Even a four-legged horse stumbles and falls”). It is dangerous to judge by appearances (“A large eye does not mean keen vision”), but first-hand observation can be trusted (“He who sees does not err”). The past is not seen as fundamentally different from the present, but all history is contemporary history (“A storyteller does not tell of a different season”). The future remains beyond knowledge (“Even a bird with a long neck cannot see the future”). Nevertheless, it is said, “God will outlive eternity.” History is seen as vitally important (“One ignorant of his origin is nonhuman”), and historians (known as “sons of the soil”) are highly revered (“The son of the soil has the python’s keen eyes”). However, these arguments must be taken with a grain of cultural relativism, as the span of culture in Africa is incredibly vast, with patriarchies, matriarchies, monotheists and traditional religionists among the population, and as such the attitudes of groups of the Niger Delta cannot be construed to the whole of Africa.
Another more controversial application of this approach is embodied in the concept of Negritude. Leopold Senghor, a proponent of Negritude, argued that the distinctly African approach to reality is based on emotion rather than logic, works itself out in participation rather than analysis, and manifests itself through the arts rather than the sciences. Cheikh Anta Diop and Mubabinge Bilolo, on the other hand, while agreeing that African culture is unique, challenged the view of Africans as essentially emotional and artistic, arguing that Egypt was an African culture whose achievements in science, mathematics, architecture, and philosophy were pre-eminent. This philosophy may also be maligned as overly reductionist due to the obvious scientific and scholarly triumphs of not only ancient Egypt, but also Nubia, Meroe, as well as the great library of Timbuktu, the extensive trade networks and kingdoms of North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, the Horn of Africa and Great Zimbabwe and the other major empires of Southern, Southeast and Central Africa.
Critics of this approach argue that the actual philosophical work in producing a coherent philosophical position is being done by the academic philosopher (such as Algoa), and that the sayings of the same culture can be selected from and organised in many different ways in order to produce very different, often contradictory systems of thought.
Philosophical sagacity is a sort of individualist version of ethnophilosophy, in which one records the beliefs of certain special members of a community. The premise here is that, although most societies demand some degree of conformity of belief and behaviour from their members, a certain few of those members reach a particularly high level of knowledge and understanding of their cultures’ worldviews; such people are sages. In some cases, the sage goes beyond mere knowledge and understanding to reflection and questioning—these become the targets of philosophical sagacity.
Critics of this approach note that not all reflection and questioning is philosophical; besides, if African philosophy were to be defined purely in terms of philosophic sagacity, then the thoughts of the sages could not be African philosophy, for they did not record them from other sages. Also, on this view the only difference between non-African anthropology or ethnology and African philosophy seems to be the nationality of the researcher.
Critics argue further that the problem with both ethnophilosophy and philosophical sagacity is that there is surely an important distinction between philosophy and the history of ideas, although other philosophers consider the two topics to be remarkably similar. The argument is that no matter how interesting the beliefs of a people such as the Akan or the Yoruba may be to the philosopher, they remain beliefs, not philosophy. To call them philosophy is to use a secondary sense of that term, such as in “my philosophy is live and let live.
Professional philosophy is usually identified as that produced by African philosophers trained in the Western philosophical tradition, that embraces a universal view of the methods and concerns of philosophy. Those philosophers identified in this category often explicitly reject the assumptions of ethnophilosophy and adopt a universalist worldview of philosophy that requires all philosophy to be accessible and applicable to all peoples and cultures in the world This is even if the specific philosophical questions prioritized by individual national or regional philosophies may differ. Some African philosophers classified in this category are Paulin Hountondji, Peter Bodunrin, Kwasi Wiredu, Tsenay Serequeberhan, Marcien Towa and Lansana Keita.
Nationalist and ideological philosophy
Nationalist and ideological philosophy might be considered a special case of philosophic sagacity, in which not sages but ideologues are the subjects. Alternatively, it has been considered as a subcategory of professional political philosophy. In either case, the same sort of problem arises with retaining a distinction between ideology and philosophy, and also between sets of ideas and a special way of reasoning. Examples include African socialism, Nkrumaism, Harambee and Authenticite
Although Africa is extremely diverse, there appear to be some shared moral ideas across many ethnic groups. In a number of African cultures, ethics is centered on a person’s character, and saying “he has no morals” translates as something like “he has no character”. A person’s character reflects the accumulation of her deeds and her habits of conduct; hence, it can be changed over a person’s life. In some African cultures, “personhood” refers to an adult human who exhibits moral virtues, and one who behaves badly is not considered a person, even if he is considered a human.
While many traditional African societies are highly religious, their religions are not revealed, and hence, ethics does not center around divine commands. Instead, ethics is humanistic and utilitarian: it focuses on improving social functioning and human flourishing.On the other hand, social welfare is not a mere aggregate of individual welfare; rather, there is a collective “social good” embodying values that everyone wants, like peace and stability. In general, African ethics is social or collectivistic rather than individualistic and united in ideology. Cooperation and altruism are considered crucial. African ethics places more weight on duties of prosocial behaviour than on rights per se, in contrast to most of Western ethics.
Africana philosophy is the work of philosophers of African descent and others whose work deals with the subject matter of the African diaspora.
Africana philosophy includes the philosophical ideas, arguments and theories of particular concern to people of African descent. Some of the topics explored by Africana philosophy include: pre-Socratic African philosophy and modern day debates discussing the early history of Western philosophy, post-colonial writing in Africa and the Americas, black resistance to oppression, black existentialism in the United States, and the meaning of “blackness” in the modern world.
List of African philosophers
This is a list of notable philosophers who theorize in the African tradition, as well as philosophers from the continent of Africa.
- Bruce B. Janz, Philosophy in an African Place (2009), pp. 74-79, Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, https://books.google.com/books?isbn=0739136682
- Samuel Oluoch Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy (1998), pp. 38-39, https://books.google.com/books?isbn=0847688410
- Mutsindikwa, Joel. ““The phrase African Philosophy““.
- Peters, R.S. (1959). Authority, Responsibility and Education. London: G. Allen & Unwin.
- Maurice Muhatia Makumba, An Introduction to African Philosophy: Past and Present (2007), p. 25, https://books.google.com/books?isbn=9966082964
- Ware, Rudolph T., The Walking Qurʼan: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa, UNC Press Books (2014), p. 101, ISBN9781469614311
- Murphy, David, Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film & Fiction. James Currey Publishers (200), p. 63, ISBN978-0-85255-555-2
- “OVERVIEW AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY”, p. 172, One Hundred Philosophers, Peter J. King, Zebra, 2006
- Gyekye, Kwame (9 Sep 2010). “African Ethics”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall 2011 Edition. Retrieved 7 October 2014.
- Okere, Theophilus. African Philosophy: A Historico-Hermeneutical Investigation of the Conditions of its Possibility. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983.
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