In this week’s Essential History feature, we take a look at the history of African philosophy, how it has shaped African identity, why it’s important and whether it can provide solutions to some of today’s biggest challenges.
“There are no facts without history.”Jonathon O. Chimakonam
The importance of African philosophy and thought is commonly understated. Particularly because it can go a long way to erasing some of the most devastating consequences of the continent’s torrid colonial history. However, African thought is largely unexplored and has been twisted by biased narratives, which forced the native people of this land to forgo their culture, heritage and that which made them know their philosophies were worthwhile.
Definitions & misconceptions
Much like we struggle to define Western ideologies like fascism, defining African philosophy is a tremendous challenge. African philosophy is often put under the parameters of ethnophilosophy, which implicitly assumes that a specific culture can have a philosophy that is not applicable and accessible to all people and cultures around the world. For example, the concept of ubuntu has been presented as an alternative collective of discourses which takes differences, historical developments, and social contexts seriously. Historical context plays a critical role in African philosophy, because it provides a framework for inspecting philosophical issues.
It must be understood that African philosophy is different to Western and Eastern philosophies in that almost all ancient writing systems have either been lost over the course of history and have been confined to the continent’s rich culture of oral traditions. It was incredibly convenient for Europeans to morally justify the colonisation of Africa by reducing several diverse cultures to illiterate barbarians. This allowed Europeans to “aspire for dominion, not equality” in the Berlin Conference’s mandate.
However, in our modern society, we have come to learn that the misconceptions about Africa’s lost history were grounded in racism, for the sake of political expediency and economic exploitation. And this is equally relevant for descendants of slaves in other parts of the world, such as those in America, who contributed towards African diasphoric philosophical traditions. Slaves and their descendants were completely stripped of their cultural identities, made to believe that they were sub-human and then forced to assimilate to Western value systems and beliefs once they were granted their freedom.
And to suggest that cultures maintaining and propagating their cultural history and traditions are “illiterate” or less intelligent is remarkable. Reciting generations of thoughts by memory, with no means of physically recording it seems to require far more mental competency than simply reading and writing – but that’s just my opinion.
Africa’s diverse philosophical history
To reduce all of Africa’s history of thought to a single cultural monolith is another misconception brought about by racist, colonial thinking. Africa has a broad range of ethnicity and cultures, with separate schools of thought that span across North Africa, West Africa, the Horn of Africa, Southern Africa, Central Africa and the African diaspora. This is particularly complicated due to the fact that Africa societies weren’t shaped and structured in the same way European nations were, with clearly demarcated borders. Kingdoms and tribes often coexisted with one another and/or territories would have been demarcated by a mountain range or a river or a valley, rather than the straight lines drawn by Europeans, some of whom had never stepped foot on the continent.
Furthermore, African philosophy has evolved over millennia. In fact, Ancient Egyptian philosophy predates the birth of Western philosophy, with the earliest works of political philosophy espoused by Ptahhotep being introduced to Egyptian schoolboys for centuries. These philosophies made significant contributions to Hellenistic Philosophy and Christian philosophy. And the vast, vast body of African philosophical thought stretches all the way to contemporary thinkers aiming to change the systematic position which makes Africans look down on themselves. We frequently forget that Africa is the cradle of mankind and the history of the continent has been lost due to the actions of men whose intentions were to repress and demonise African identity.
Researchers such as Leonhard Praeg, Mogobe Ramose, and Fainos Mangera implement the communitarian method in their works on Ubuntu. It emphasises mutualism in thought. Others, like Mesembe Edet implement the complementary method, which focuses on how histories, identities and other variables all affect one another and scrutinizes the relationship between them. The conversational method, on the other hand, consists of a proponent of a particular thought (the nwa-swa) being questioned by a disagreeing party (nwa-nju). It is used by Edet as well, with Victor Nweke being another thinker to implement it. It emphasizes the interconnected networks that make up our reality.
These broad methodologies are used extensively among schools of African thought to one extent or another.
African philosophical trends
Kenyan philosopher, Henry Odera Oruka, categorized African philosophy into four trends: ethnophilosophy, philosophical sagacity, nationalistic–ideological philosophy, and professional philosophy.
The concept of ethnophilosophy, as we alluded to earlier, plays a major role in our understanding of African philosophy. It has been used to record the beliefs found in African cultures and 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. It is seen as uniquely African worldview. This is mostly found in the study of Buntu Philosophy, which proports that the linguistic categories in Bantu languages are the best way for us to understand African philosophies. Writers such as Joe Alagoa also believe that African proverbs tell us a lot about the history of African philosophy words, with proverbs like “More days, more wisdom”, and “What an old man sees seated, a youth does not see standing”, providing insight into African philosophy’s emphasis on age and using it to gain wisdom or interpret the past.
Leopold Senghor, a Senegalese theoretician and proponent of Negritude, argues that the African approach to reality prioritises emotion over logic, participation over analysis and arts over the sciences. However, this is rejected by the likes of Cheikh Anta Diop and Mubabinge Bilolo, who agree that African culture is unique, but not essentially emotional and artistic. THey point to the massive contributions made towards science, mathematics, architecture and philosophy by Ancient Egyptians. And this doesn’t even consider the great library of Timbuktu, extensive trade routes in the kingdoms of North, West and Central Africa, the Horn of Africa and Great Zimbabwe, as well as the other great empires in Southern and South-East Africa.
Philosophical sagacity can best be understood as something akin to an individualist variant of ethnophilosophy, where one makes record of the beliefs held by special members of the community. These special community thought leaders are people with a particularly high level of knowledge and understanding of their culture’s worldviews. These “sages” also venture beyond knowledge and understand to reflection and questioning, which “become the targets of philosophical sagacity”. However, this view is criticised because it doesn’t distinguish between philosophy and the history of ideas. Philosophy appears to be used as a secondary term.
Nationalist and ideological philosophy
This school of thought branches off of philosophical sagacity. However, ideologues are the subjects, rather than sages. There are also shortcomings with regards to distinguishing between ideology and philosophy, as well as between specific ideas and reasoning. This is best reflected in the ideologies expressed through African Socialism and Nkrumaism, for example.
This is the branch of African philosophy that most closely resembles Western philosophical tradition. It embraces a universal philosophical worldview, concerning itself with a common methodology and concerns. Ethnophilosophy is typically rejected by thinkers in this school of thought and requires the philosophy to be applicable to all people and cultures around the world. Individual , national or regional philosophies differ, but specific philosophical questions remain a priority in our analysis.
While it’s not possible to put all of African thought under a single umbrella, Ancient and contemporary, from culture to culture, there are a number of recurring themes and one can create an ethical framework for some of the shared moral ideas that are found across many ethnic groups. Ethics is centered on an individual’s character. In linguistic analysis, it’s found find that the phrase “he has no morals”, translates to “he has no character” in several African cultures. A person’s character is reflect by his/her deeds and conduct and can change over the course of their life, while “personhood” refers to an adult with moral virtues. Those who lack these virtues, in the same breath are not considered human.
Traditional African societies may have been religious, but those religions are not revealed. Therefore, ethical frameworks are not grounded in divine rights, which such a vast body of Western philosophy is. African ethics, therefore, are humanistic and utilitarian and focus on the creation of a functional, socially cohesive society, where human flourishing is treated as the primary motivator. Social welfare in African philosophy is not an aggregate of individual welfare, but rather a collective, social good that embodies collective values, such as peace and stability. African philosophy, in general, is far more collectivist than it’s individualist counterparts in the West.
Does African Philosophy have a role to play in the 21st Century?
In the context of our contemporary world, which has been plagued by the Covid-19 pandemic and is looking straight down the barrel of a shotgun taking the form of climate change, the collectivist approach to ethical questions is one we need to take. Western philosophical thought makes up the foundations for the world we live in today, and relying on this mode of thinking to get out of this terrible mess we find ourselves in is unlikely going to be the answer to our existential threats that will come to define the 21st Century.
We are fortunate enough to live in a moment in history where we are no longer bound by the mental shackles of racism and colonial propaganda, where we can truly explore and embrace the values and ethics of African philosophy to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing mankind today.