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A Companion to
William E. Abraham, Abiola Irele,
Ifeanyi A. Menkiti
A Companion to African Philosophy
Blackwell Companions to Philosophy
This outstanding student reference series offers a comprehensive and authoritative
survey of philosophy as a whole. Written by today’s leading philosophers, each
volume provides lucid and engaging coverage of the key figures, terms, topics, and
problems of the field. Taken together, the volumes provide the ideal basis for course
use, representing an unparalleled work of reference for students and specialists
A Companion to Bioethics
Edited by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer
A Companion to the Philosophers
Edited by Robert L. Arrington
A Companion to Business Ethics
Edited by Robert E. Frederick
A Companion to the Philosophy of
Edited by W. H. Newton-Smith
A Companion to Environmental
Edited by Dale Jamieson
A Companion to Analytic Philosophy
Edited by A. P. Martinich and
A Companion to Genethics
Edited by Justine Burley and
A Companion to Philosophical Logic
Edited by Dale Jacquette
A Companion to Early Modern
Edited by Steven Nadler
A Companion to Philosophy in the
Edited by Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy
12 A Companion to Continental
Edited by Simon Critchley and William
A Companion to African-American
Edited by Tommy L. Lott and John P.
13 A Companion to Feminist Philosophy
Edited by Alison M. Jaggar and Iris
A Companion to Applied Ethics
Edited by R. G. Frey and Christopher
14 A Companion to Cognitive Science
Edited by William Bechtel and George
A Companion to the Philosophy of
Edited by Randall Curren
A Companion to African Philosophy
Edited by Kwasi Wiredu
Already published in the series:
1 The Blackwell Companion to
Philosophy, Second Edition
Edited by Nicholas Bunnin and
2 A Companion to Ethics
Edited by Peter Singer
3 A Companion to Aesthetics
Edited by David Cooper
4 A Companion to Epistemology
Edited by Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa
5 A Companion to Contemporary Political
Edited by Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit
6 A Companion to Philosophy of Mind
Edited by Samuel Guttenplan
7 A Companion to Metaphysics
Edited by Jaegwon Kim and Ernest Sosa
8 A Companion to Philosophy of Law and
Edited by Dennis Patterson
9 A Companion to Philosophy of Religion
Edited by Philip L. Quinn and Charles
10 A Companion to the Philosophy of
Edited by Bob Hale and Crispin Wright
11 A Companion to World Philosophies
Edited by Eliot Deutsch and Ron Bontekoe
# 2004 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
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108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 IJF, UK
550 Swanston Street, Carlton, Victoria 3053, Australia
The right of Kwasi Wiredu to be identified as the Author of the Editorial Material in this Work has been
asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise,
except as permitted by the UK Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988, without the prior permission of
First published 2004 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A companion to African philosophy / edited by Kwasi Wiredu.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-631-20751-1 (alk. paper)
1. Philosophy, African. I. Wiredu, Kwasi.
A catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Set in 10/12.5 Photina
by Kolam Information Services Pvt. Ltd, Pondicherry, India
Printed and bound in the United Kingdom
by MPG Books Ltd, Bodmin, Cornwall
For further information on
Blackwell Publishing, visit our website:
Notes on Contributors
Introduction: African Philosophy in Our Time
1 Egypt: Ancient History of African Philosophy
2 African Philosophers in the Greco-Roman Era
D. A. MASOLO
3 Precolonial African Philosophy in Arabic
SOULEYMANE BACHIR DIAGNE
4 Some Nineteenth-Century African Political Thinkers
PIETER BOELE VAN HENSBROEK
5 Africana Philosophy: Origins and Prospects
LUCIUS T. OUTLAW, JR.
6 Contemporary Anglophone African Philosophy:
7 Philosophy in South Africa Under and After Apartheid
MABOGO P. MORE
8 Philosophy in North Africa
9 The Light and the Shadow:
Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat:
Two Ethiopian Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century
Zera Yacob and Traditional Ethiopian Philosophy
Anton Wilhelm Amo
WILLIAM E. ABRAHAM
Amo’s Critique of Descartes’ Philosophy of Mind
Albert Luthuli, Steve Biko, and Nelson Mandela:
The Philosophical Basis of their Thought and Practice
MABOGO P. MORE
Frantz Fanon (1925–1961)
Theory and the Actuality of Existence: Fanon and Cabral
Alexis Kagame (1912–1981): Life and Thought
Post-Independence African Political Philosophy
Some Methodological Controversies in African Philosophy
A. G. A. BELLO
Sage Philosophy: Its Methodology, Results, Significance, and Future
KIBUJJO M. KALUMBA
LOGIC, EPISTEMOLOGY, AND METAPHYSICS
Logic in the Acholi Language
Yoruba Moral Epistemology
Ifa´: An Account of a Divination System and Some
Concluding Epistemological Questions
Toward a Theory of Destiny
On the Normative Conception of a Person
IFEANYI A. MENKITI
African Conceptions of a Person: A Critical Survey
DIDIER NJIRAYAMANDA KAPHAGAWANI
Quasi-Materialism: A Contemporary African Philosophy of Mind
THE PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION
Religion in African Culture: Some Conceptual Issues
Okot p’Bitek’s Critique of Western Scholarship on African Religion
SAMUEL O. IMBO
Islam in Africa: Examining the Notion of an African
Identity within the Islamic World
SOULEYMANE BACHIR DIAGNE
ETHICS AND AESTHETICS
Some African Reflections on Biomedical and Environmental Ethics
GODFREY B. TANGWA
Ethics and Morality in Yoruba Culture
JOHN AYOTUNDE ISOLA BEWAJI
Aesthetic Inquiry and the Music of Africa
Art and Community: A Social Conception of Beauty and Individuality
The Many-Layered Aesthetics of African Art
AJUME H. WINGO
Government by Consensus: An Analysis of a Traditional
Form of Democracy
Democracy, Kingship, and Consensus: A South African Perspective
Fellowship Associations as a Foundation for
Liberal Democracy in Africa
AJUME H. WINGO
Economic Globalism, Deliberative Democracy, and the State in Africa
Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Violence
ALI A. MAZRUI
Western and African Communitarianism: A Comparison
D. A. MASOLO
Human Rights in the African Context
FRANCIS M. DENG
The Politics of Memory and Forgetting After Apartheid
The Question of an African Jurisprudence:
Some Hermeneutic Reflections
Knowledge as a Development Issue
PAULIN J. HOUNTONDJI
African Philosophy and African Literature
ANTHONY KWAME APPIAH
Philosophy and Literature in Francophone Africa
Feminism and Africa: Impact and Limits of the Metaphysics of Gender
To the memory of Cheikh Anta Diop and Alexis Kagame,
departed leaders of Contemporary African Philosophy,
and of our lamented colleagues John Arthur,
Peter Bodunrin, Didier Kaphagawani, Benjamin Oguah,
Henry Odera Oruka, and John Olu Sodipo.
William E. Abraham was born in Lagos, Nigeria, of Ghanaian parents, and educated
in Ghana and Great Britain. He has taught in various universities, including Oxford,
Ghana, Stanford, and California, and has held fellowships including at All Souls
College, Oxford, Rockefeller, and the Stanford Hoover Institution. Now an emeritus
professor, his principal publications include The Mind of Africa, articles on African
philosophy and culture, on Leibniz, and on topics and figures in Greek philosophy. He has also held civic positions, including the chairmanship of national committees or commissions of inquiry, and membership of the first Presidential
Commission of Ghana.
Born in Ghana, Kofi Agawu is Professor of Music at Princeton University. He
earned his M.M. from King’s College, London (1978) and Ph.D. from Stanford
(1982). He has taught at King’s College London, Duke, Cornell, and Yale. His books
include Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classic Music (1991), African
Rhythm: A Northern Ewe Perspective (1995), and Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions (2003). He received the Dent Medal from the Royal
Musical Association in 1992 and an Outstanding Publication Award from the Society for Music Theory in 1994. He was elected Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts
and Sciences in 2000.
Until recently the Charles H. Carswell Professor of Afro-American Studies and of
Philosophy at Harvard University, Anthony Kwame Appiah is the Laurance
S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University. He was
born in Ghana and studied at Cambridge University (UK) and Yale. He has taught
at the Universities of Ghana, Yale, Cornell, and Duke. He has done work in the
philosophy of mind, language and logic and in African philosophy and the philosophy of culture and politics. His books include Necessary Questions, In My Father’s
House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, and Color Conscious: The Political Morality
of Race (with Amy Gutmann).
John Ayotunde (Tunde) Isola Bewaji, Visiting Scholar, University of Botswana, is
a senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Mona. He was born in Esa-Oke,
Nigeria, studied philosophy at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and has taught at
the University of Ife, Ogun State University, Nigeria, and the University of Botswana.
He was awarded the T. T. Solaru Prize in 1979 and won a Rhodes Visiting Scholarship in 1991. He was founding President of the International Society for African
Philosophy and Studies, co-editor of Quest, African Philosophy and Africana Philosophy.
His publications include Beauty and Culture and numerous articles.
A. G. A. Bello is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Ibadan. He was
born in Bibiani, Ghana, of Nigerian parentage. He did his undergraduate studies at
the University of Karachi, Pakistan, and took his Ph.D. from the University of
Ibadan. He has research interests in Islamic philosophy, African philosophy, and
logic. His publications include Introduction to Logic (2000), ‘‘Moral Discourse in the
Qur’an’’ (Muslim Education Quarterly, 18(2), 2001), and ‘‘Towards a History of
African Philosophy’’ (Ibadan Journal of Humanistic Studies, No. 8, 1998).
Jean-Godefroy Bidima is Professor of Philosophy at the Institut d’Ethique du
Centre Hosp, Universitaire St Louis, and Directeur de Programme at the Colle`ge
International de Philosophie, Paris. A Cameroonian, he studied at the Universities
of Yaounde´ and Sorbonne and has held Fellowships in Germany. He has been
Visiting Professor in Bayreuth. His books include: The´orie critique et modernite´ ne´groafricaine: de l’e´cole de Francfort a` la ‘‘Docta Spes africana’’, La Philosophie ne´gro-africaine, L’Art ne´gro-africain, and La Palabre: une juridiction de la parole. He has edited
some books and published many articles.
Until recently George Carew taught philosophy at Spelman College, Atlanta. He is
now a missionary of the United Methodist Church in Africa. Born in Sierra Leone,
he studied philosophy at Westmar College, Iowa and gained his Master’s from
Howard and his Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut. He has taught in Fourah
Bay College, Sierra Leone, and has been Visiting Professor at the University of
Connecticut. He has also been Sierra Leone’s ambassador to the USA. His publications include ‘‘Myths, Symbols and other Life-Worlds: The Limits of Empiricism,’’ in
Floistad (ed.), Contemporary Philosophy, and ‘‘Transitional Democracy,’’ in Yeager
Hudson (ed.), Studies in Social and Political Theory.
Francis M. Deng is Research Professor of International Politics, Law, and Society
at Johns Hopkins’ SAIS and Director of the Center for Displacement Studies. Born in
the Sudan, he holds a B.A. from Khartoum University and a J.S.D. from Yale.
Previously he was Sudan’s ambassador to the USA and Minister of Foreign Affairs.
He has held senior fellowships at the Wilson Center, the United States Institute of
Peace, and the Brookings Institution. He was Distinguished Professor of Political
Science at CUNY in 2001–2. He has written more than 20 books, including The
Dinka of the Sudan (1972), Dinka Cosmology (1980), and (with William Zartman) A
Strategic Vision for Africa (2002).
Souleymane Bachir Diagne is Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University, Evanston. He was born in Saint-Louis, Senegal, and studied at the Ecole Normale Supe´rieure and at the University of Sorbonne in Paris. He taught for 20 years
at the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, Senegal. His books include Boole,
l’oiseau de nuit en plein jour (1989), Islam et socie´te´ ouverte: la fide´lite´ et le mouvement
dans la pense´e de Muhammad Iqbal (2001), and 100 mots pour dire l’islam (2002). He
has published articles in the history of philosophy, history of logic, Islamic philosophy, and African philosophy.
Pieter Duvenage was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and studied philosophy and
communication theory in South Africa and Germany. He is currently Associate
Professor in the Department of Communication at Rand Africaans University,
Johannesburg. He was previously a Professor of Philosophy at the University of the
North in South Africa. He has published various articles on hermeneutics, Critical
Theory, postmodernism, and South African intellectual history. His book Habermas
and Aesthetics is published by Polity (2003).
Segun Gbadegesin was born in Nigeria. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of
Ife, Nigeria, now Obafemi Awolowo University, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently Professor at Howard University’s
Department of Philosophy, which he has chaired for several years. He was previously Head of the Philosophy Department at Obafemi Awolowo University. He has
been Visiting Professor at Wisconsin-Madison and Colgate. His publications include
African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities
(1991) and a great number of articles, including ‘‘Current Trends and Perspectives
in African Philosophy,’’ in Deutsch and Bontekoe (eds.), Blackwell Companion to
World Philosophies (1997).
Barry Hallen is Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia,
USA. He was born in Chicago, Illinois, and studied at Carleton College and Boston
University. He has taught at the University of Lagos and Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria, and is Fellow of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University. His
books include Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft (1997), The Good, the Bad, and the
Beautiful (2000), and A Short History of African Philosophy (2002). He has published
articles in aesthetics, African philosophy, epistemology, and ethics.
Paulin J. Hountondji was born in Abidjan. He is Professor of Philosophy at the
University of Cotonou and Director of the African Center for Advanced Studies in
Porto-Novo (Benin). His publications include African Philosophy, Myth and Reality
(1997), The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in
Africa (2002), and other books and articles mainly in French. From 1998 to 2002
he was Vice-President of the International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic
Studies (CIPSH) and is currently Vice-President of the Council for the Development
of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA).
Samuel O. Imbo is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the African
American Studies Program at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was
born in Kenya and studied at the University of Nairobi and at Purdue University
where he took his Ph.D. in 1995. He is author of An Introduction to African Philosophy (1998) and Oral Traditions as Philosophy: Okot p’Bitek’s Legacy for African Philosophy (2002). In addition to his research and teaching interests in Africana
philosophy, he has contributed book chapters on communitarianism and on cyberspace.
Liboire Kagabo is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Burundi in Bujumbura. He was born in Kigarama, Burundi in 1947. He studied modern literature at
the University of Butare (Rwanda), philosophy in Fribourg (Switzerland) and Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium, and theology at Fribourg and Bujumbura. He has published many articles in African philosophy, especially in ethics and the philosophy
of values, including ‘‘La Proble´matique des valeurs au Burundi,’’ ‘‘Democracy and
Civil Society in Africa,’’ and ‘‘Quest for Paradigm in the Philosophy of Values in
Kibujjo M. Kalumba is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ball State University
in Muncie, Indiana. He was born at Mpigi, Uganda, and educated at Katigondo
Seminary, Uganda, St Francis Seminary, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Indiana University, Bloomington. He has co-edited, with Parker English, African Philosophy: A
Classical Approach (1996), and published several articles in African philosophy and
social philosophy, including ‘‘The Political Philosophy of Nelson Mandela: A
Primer’’ ( Journal of Social Philosophy, 26(3), 1995).
Didier Njirayamanda Kaphagawani was Professor of Philosophy and Vice-Principal of Chancellor College, University of Malawi. He was born in Malawi and had
his undergraduate education at the University of Malawi and his graduate education at Belfast University. He had specialist interest in Leibniz, and wrote a book on
him entitled Leibniz on Freedom and Determinism in Relation to Aquinas and Molina
(1999). He also had research interests in African metaphysics and epistemology.
His articles include ‘‘Themes in Chewa Epistemology,’’ in Coetzee and Roux (eds.),
African Philosophy Reader (1998). To our deep mortification, Kaphagawani passed
away in 2000 not long after completing his chapter for this volume.
Teodros Kiros is a philosopher and writer. Currently a Du Bois Fellow and Associate in Residence at Harvard University, he has published extensively in journals. He
received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Kent State University. He is editor and writer at
large for the newspaper, Ethiopian Reporter and a columnist for Somerville Journal.
He has published six books. His Self-Construction and the Formation of Human Values
won the Harrington Book Award. His most recent books are Explorations in African
Political Thought, and his forthcoming Zara Yacob, a Seventeenth-Century Philosopher
Safro Kwame is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania. He was born and raised in Ghana and educated at the Universities of
Ghana and Cincinnati. He holds two doctorates from Ghana and Cincinnati. His
areas of specialization are metaphysics and moral and political philosophy. His
current areas of research include African philosophy and the philosophy of computers. His publications include Readings in African Philosophy: An Akan Collection
(1995) and ‘‘African Philosophy: An Overview’’ (Philosophy Now, 28 (August/September) 2000). His website is located at <http://www.lincoln.edu/philosophy/
D. A. Masolo is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Louisville, Kentucky
(USA). He was born in Alego, Kenya, and studied at the Gregorian University in
Rome, Italy, gaining his Ph.D. in 1980. He previously taught philosophy at the
University of Nairobi and at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio (USA). He has
held academic fellowships at several other universities. His books include African
Philosophy in Search of Identity (1994) and African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry, coedited with Ivan Karp (2000). He has published articles in comparative philosophy,
philosophy and society, and African philosophy.
Born in Mombasa, Kenya, Ali A. Mazrui is Albert Schweitzer Professor and Director of
the Institute of Global Cultural Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton. He obtained his B.A. from Manchester University (UK), his M.A. from Columbia, and his Ph.D. from Oxford. He is Senior Scholar in Africana Studies at Cornell.
He has been a Visiting Scholar at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and has published
more than 20 books and hundreds of articles. He is best known internationally for
his television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage (1986). His latest book is Africa
and Other Civilizations (2002). He has been Dean at Makerere University, Uganda,
and Research Professor at the University of Jos, Nigeria. He is now Albert Luthuli
Professor-at-Large at Jos.
Ifeanyi A. Menkiti was born in Ontsha, Nigeria. He studied at Pomona College. He
holds an M.S. from Columbia, an M.A. from New York University, and a Ph.D. from
Harvard where John Rawls supervised his doctoral dissertation. He has been Professor of Philosophy at Wellesley College since 1973. His publications include ‘‘Person
and Community in African Traditional Thought,’’ ‘‘Normative Instability as Source
of Africa’s Political Disorder,’’ ‘‘Philosophy and the State in Africa: Some Rawlsian
Considerations,’’ and ‘‘The Resentment of Injustice: Some Consequences of Institutional Racism.’’ He is also author of two collections of poetry: Affirmations (1971)
and The Jubilation of Falling Bodies (1978).
Mabogo P. More is currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of
Durban-Westville, South Africa. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, he studied at
the University of the North, University of South Africa, and Indiana University (USA).
He has taught philosophy at the University of the North (South Africa) and has held
academic fellowships in Britain and the USA. He has published articles on African
philosophy, social philosophy, and political philosophy in a number of academic journals such as South African Journal of Philosophy, Dialogue and Universalism, Quest,
Alternation, Theoria, African Journal of Political Science.
John Murungi is Professor of Philosophy at Towson University, Towson, Maryland. He was born in Kenya, and studied at Beloit College and at Pennsylvania
State University. He also studied Law at the Law School of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where he received his JD (1986). He is co-editor of two books,
Transformations of Urban and Sub-Urban Landscapes (2001) and Tensional Landscapes
(2002). He has published articles in the philosophy of art, African philosophy, and
existential and phenomenological philosophy, and is currently doing research in
African jurisprudence and in the philosophy of geography.
Nkiru Nzegwu is Associate Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Africana
Studies at Binghamton University, New York State. She has published extensively in
the areas of gender studies, African philosophy, African art, and aesthetics. She has
edited two books on African art: Issues in Contemporary African Art (1998) and
Contemporary Textures: Multidimensionality in Nigerian Art (1999). She is the founder
of the online educational portal, africaresource.com, and its academic journals,
notably, West Africa Review, Ijele: Art eJournal of the African World, JENdA: A Journal
of Culture and African Women Studies, Journal on African Philosophy and others.
The´ophile Obenga is Professor and Chair of African Studies at San Francisco State
University, where he teaches Egyptian language and African civilizations. He was
born in Brazzaville, Congo, and studied at the University of Bordeaux and Sorbonne,
the University of Pittsburgh (USA), and Geneva University. He earned his Ph.D. at
Montpellier University (France). He has taught at Temple University (USA), Brazzaville, Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Libreville (Gabon), Bangui (Central Africa Republic),
and Lubumbashi (Congo, formerly Zaire). He is a member of the French Association
of Egyptology (Colle`ge de France, Paris). His books include African Philosophy during
the Pharaonic Period (1990) and Egyptian Geometry (1995).
Victor Ocaya was born in Uganda and studied at Makerere University. Until recently he was Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Botswana, Gaboroni. He previously taught philosophy at Makerere and at the University of Zambia.
His research interests are in African philosophy, epistemology, critical thinking and,
most particularly, logic. He has made a special study of logic in Acholi, his mother
tongue. Since his M.A dissertation on this subject, he has continued to deepen his
Olusegun Oladipo is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Ibadan,
Nigeria, where he studied and has been teaching since 1984. Among his publications are The Idea of African Philosophy (1992) and Philosophy and the African Experience: The Contributions of Kwasi Wiredu (1996), as well as articles, including: ‘‘The
Commitment of the African Philosopher’’ ( Journal of Philosophical Research, XX1,
1996), ‘‘Emerging Issues in African Philosophy’’ (International Philosophical Quarterly, XXXVIII(1) 1998), and ‘‘Knowledge and the African Renaissance’’ (Philosophia Africana, 4(1) 2001).
Formerly T. Wistar Brown Professor of Philosophy at Haverford College (Pennsylvania), Lucius T. Outlaw, Jr. is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the African
American Studies Program at Vanderbilt University. He works on Africana philosophy, Marx, social and political philosophy, and the history of Western philosophy.
Born in Starkville, Mississippi, he studied at Fisk University and at Boston College,
gaining his Ph.D. in 1972. Recent essays have been published in Philosophical
Forum, Journal of Social Philosophy, Man and World, Graduate Faculty Philosophy
Journal, The Journal of Ethics, and a number of anthologies. His book, On Race and
Philosophy, was published by Routledge.
Eritrean by origin, Tsenay Serequeberhan secured his Ph.D. at Boston College in
1988. He is a teacher of philosophy whose work is focused on African/Africana and
Continental philosophy. He has taught at Boston College, the University of Massachusetts (Boston), Hampshire College, Brown University, and Simmons College, and
is now Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morgan State University. He is author of
African Philosophy: The Essential Readings (1991), The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy (1994), Our Heritage (2000), and numerous papers. He is currently working on
a book-length manuscript, Contested Memory: The Icons of the Occidental Tradition.
Claude Sumner (‘‘Canadian by birth, Ethiopian by choice’’) is Professor of Philosophy at Addis Ababa University. He was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
in 1919 and studied philosophy, theology and linguistics in Canada. He has resided
in Addis Ababa since 1953, when he was invited to the University. He has written
56 books, including The Philosophy of Man (3 vols.), Ethiopian Philosophy (5 vols.),
and Classical Ethiopian Philosophy (1994). He has organized two Pan-African Conferences on African Philosophy and has published more than 200 articles. More than
350 articles, reviews, theses, and dissertations have been published on his work.
Olu´fe´mi Ta´´ıwo` is Director of the Global African Studies Program and Professor of
Philosophy and Global African Studies at Seattle University. He was born in Ibadan,
Nigeria, and studied at the Oˆbafc¸mi Awoloˆwoˆ University, Nigeria and the University of
Toronto, Canada. He has taught at Oˆbafc¸mi Awoloˆwoˆ University, Loyola University,
Chicago, the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and the Institut fu¨r Afrikastudien,
Universita¨t Bayreuth, Germany, and has received fellowships from the Rockefeller and
Ford Foundations and the Getty Senior Grant Program. He is author of Legal Naturalism: A Marxist Theory of Law (1996). His numerous articles include ‘‘Exorcising Hegel’s
Ghost: Africa’s Challenge to Philosophy’’ (African Studies Quarterly, 1(4), 1997).
Godfrey B. Tangwa was born in Shisong, Nso’, in Cameroon and studied in Cameroon and Nigeria, gaining his Ph.D. at Ibadan in 1984. He has taught philosophy
at the University of Ife, Nigeria, and is currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at
the University of Yaounde´ 1, Cameroon. He is a current member of the Board of
Directors of the International Association of Bioethics (IAB) and a founding executive member of the Pan-African Bioethics Initiative (PABIN). Recent publications
include ‘‘Traditional African Perception of a Person: Some Implications for Bioethics’’ (Hastings Center Report, 30(5), 2000) and ‘‘The HIV/AIDS Pandemic, African
Traditional Values and the Search for a Vaccine in Africa’’ ( Journal of Medicine and
Philosophy, 27(2), 2002).
Joe Teffo is currently the Professorial Assistant to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the North, South Africa. He was previously Professor and Head of the
Department of Philosophy there. He was born in South Africa and studied in South
Africa and Belgium (Katholike Universiteit Leuven). He has been President of the
Philosophical Association of South Africa. His publications include ‘‘The Other in
African Experience’’ (1996), ‘‘Science, Religious Pluralism and the African Experience’’ (1997), and, with Abraham Roux, ‘‘Themes in African Metaphysics,’’ in
Coetzee and Roux (eds.), Philosophy from Africa: A Text with Readings (2002).
Pieter Boele van Hensbroek was born in the Netherlands. He studied philosophy
at the University of Groningen where he is currently Research Coordinator at the
Center for Development Studies and lecturer in the Faculty of Philosophy. He has
taught at several institutions, including the University of Zambia. His publications
include Political Discourses in African Thought: 1860 to the Present (1999) and a
number of articles on cultural citizenship, ideology, culturalism, and the philosophy
of the social sciences. He was co-founder, in 1987, of the African Journal of Philosophy QUEST, and its managing editor until 2001.
Mourad Wahba is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Ain Shams University,
Egypt. He has been a member of the Steering Committee of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies (FISP). He is also Founder and Honorary President
of the Afro-Asian Philosophical Association (AAPA) and President of the Averroes
and Enlightenment International Association. His publications include The System of
Kant, The System of Bergson, Dictionary of Philosophy, and, more recently, Love as the
Foundation of Moral Education and Character Development (1995) and Averroes and the
Enlightenment (1996), jointly edited with Mona Abousenna. He is a Humanist
Laureate of the International Academy of Humanists.
Edward Wamala was born in Uganda. He received his M.A. in New Delhi University, India, and his Ph.D. in Makerere in 1999. He currently lectures in philosophy
at Makerere University, Uganda. His research interests are in African philosophy,
the philosophy of development, and political philosophy. His publications include
‘‘The Socio-Political Philosophy of Traditional Buganda Society: Breaks and Continuity into the Present,’’ in Dalfovo et al., The Foundations of Social Life: Ugandan
Philosophical Studies, vol. I (1992) and ‘‘Cultural Elements in Social Reconstruction
in Africa’’ (same series, vol. II).
Nicolas de Warren who translated Jean-Godefroy Bidima’s chapter in this volume, is
Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wellesley College. He studied in Paris, Heidelberg,
and Boston, and his interests include German idealism, phenomenology, and hermeneutics. He has published articles on Husserlian phenomenology and Descartes, and is
currently writing a study of Brentano’s peculiar brand of Aristotelianism.
Ajume H. Wingo was born in Nso, Cameroon. He studied at the Universities of
Yaounde´ (Cameroon), California (Berkeley), and Wisconsin-Madison, where he took
his Ph.D. in 1997. He is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Senior Fellow at the
McCormack Institute’s Center for Democracy and Development, University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is a Fellow at the Harvard Du Bois Institute. He has published many articles on African politics and aesthetics and is the author of Veil
Politics in Liberal Democratic States (2003). He is currently working on a book titled
Kwasi Wiredu is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida. He was
born in Ghana and studied at the University of Ghana and Oxford. He was for many
years Professor and Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of
Ghana. He has been Visiting Professor at the University of Ibadan (Nigeria), UCLA,
Richmond, Carleton College, and Duke, and has held fellowships at the Wilson
Center, Washington DC and The National Humanities Center, North Carolina. His
publications include Philosophy and An African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective (1996).
This volume is intended to be a comprehensive anthology of essays on the history of
African philosophy, ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary, and on all the
main branches of the discipline, including logic, epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, and politics. The chapters are nearly all new. They have been written in
such a way as to be reflective, enlightening, and useful to both students and scholars.
Methodological concerns as manifested in contemporary controversies among African philosophers on the proper relations between the traditional and the modern in
their discipline have been addressed. But pride of place belongs to substantive issues
of philosophy as these have occupied the African mind in communal conceptions and
Accordingly, this text will not only serve as a companion to a main text in a course
in African philosophy; it can also serve as the principal text at the graduate as well as
the undergraduate level. The reader will therefore find ample bibliographies appended
to most chapters. But this is not their only rationale. The discipline itself, of contemporary African philosophy, is in a phase of intense postcolonial reconstruction, which
manifests itself in print in many different ways. The availability of relevant literature
must therefore be a welcome aid to the curious. But even to the incurious outside of
Africa, who are still often frankly taken by surprise by the mention of African philosophy, such notification of availability might well occasion the beginning of curiosity.
Teachers newly embarked upon courses in African philosophy will also be empowered by the same circumstance. They will find that the Introduction to this
volume was designed with their basic needs, though not only that, in mind.
It is a pleasure to specify my own helpers. My thanks go first to Professors
Abraham, Irele, and Menkiti for their help as advisory editors. Thanks go next to all
the contributors for their contributions. The call of the Companion often diverted
them from pressing pursuits. Last, but most lasting of all, my thanks go to Barry
Hallen for helping me with this work in every conceivable way from conception to
completion. His lengthy survey of contemporary Anglophone philosophy (see chapter 6), which, more than any of the entries, gives this work the stamp of a companion, is only a sign of the lengths to which he has gone to bring help to me in
various ways. To be sure, without him, that survey would most likely have taken a
committee of at least five scholars.
In a class of its own is my indebtedness to Blackwell’s technical staff. Without the
initiative of Steve Smith, Blackwell’s philosophy editor, in concert with inputs from
Professor Tommy Lott, the project would never have started. And without the
combination of patience and purposefulness on the part of his colleagues at Blackwell, Beth Remmes, Nirit Simon, and Sarah Dancy, it would never have been
completed. The completion was also facilitated by the extraordinary collegiality of
Professor Lewis Gordon through whom I had access to the facilities of the Department of Africana Studies when I was Visiting Scholar at Brown University in the
summer of 2002.
A Companion to African Philosophy
Edited by Kwasi Wiredu
Copyright © 2004 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Introduction: African Philosophy in Our Time
The Postcolonial Situation
A principal driving force in postcolonial African philosophy has been a quest for
self-definition. It was therefore quite appropriate that Masolo entitled his history of
contemporary African philosophy, the first full-length history of the discipline in
English, African Philosophy in Search of Identity. This search is part of a general
postcolonial soul-searching in Africa. Because the colonialists and related personnel
perceived African culture as inferior in at least some important respects, colonialism
included a systematic program of de-Africanization. The most unmistakable
example, perhaps, of this pattern of activity was in the sphere of religion, where
mighty efforts were made by the missionaries to save African souls perceived to be
caught up in the darkness of ‘‘paganism.’’ But, at least, it did seem to them that
Africans had something somewhat similar to religion, and some of them actually
wrote books on African religion and even, in some cases, mentioned that subject in
their university teaching.
The position was markedly different as regards African philosophy. Philosophy
departments tended not to develop the impression that there was any such thing. I
graduated from the University of Ghana in 1958 after at least five years of undergraduate study. In all those years I was not once exposed to the concept of African
philosophy. J. B. Danquah’s The Akan Doctrine of God, subtitled A Fragment of Gold
Coast Ethics, had been published in 1945. Yet for all the information that was made
available at the Department of Philosophy, that would have remained a secret to
me if I hadn’t made acquaintance with it in my own private reading in secondary
school. I do not now remember what else in the literature relevant to African
philosophy I knew by the time of graduation (1958) either by the grace of God or
by the play of accident, except for the bare title of Radin’s Primitive Man as
Philosopher. However, when I ran across or stumbled over it, the word ‘‘primitive’’
in the title put me off, and I stayed away from its pages until a long time after
I do not say these things with the slightest intention of casting aspersions on my
teachers. They were hired to teach my schoolmates and me Western philosophy,
and they did that well. I remember them with the fondest feelings, not only because
they gave us good mental training, but also because they were good men. In any
case, at the time in question, although there was a lot to research, there was little
to teach. The reason for bringing up these things is that they give some idea of the
kind of academic and pedagogic situation that faced the first wave of post-independence African teachers of philosophy. Ghana won independence from Britain in
1957. Independence for other African countries followed in rapid succession. In
1960 alone, 16 African countries became independent. Thus by the mid-1960s
there were significant numbers of post-independence African academics in various
universities throughout Africa. African Studies became a very visible feature of
university life in Africa, now with the participation of Africans in leadership positions. Certain African disciplines made immediate progress, as, for example, African
history and also African literature, in which there were early manifestations of
In African philosophy the situation was somewhat more imponderable. Unlike
the disciplines just mentioned, African philosophy was usually non-existent in university departments of philosophy. If the post-independence African philosophers did
not start with an absolute tabula rasa, it was because some relevant materials were
available in the departments of anthropology and in those concerned with the study
of religions. We may note examples like Evans-Pritchard (1937); Forde (1954);
Herskovits (1938); Rattray (1923); and Smith (1950). African philosophers are
beholden to these authors among others for a certain amount of preliminary data.
But due to no fault of these authors, the works in question have tended to foster
models of exposition in African philosophy that have been the source of considerable controversy. The troublesome features of these models were the following.
First, they were narrative and interpretative but, as a rule, not evaluative except
indirectly. Their main aim was to explain, largely to foreigners, how Africans lived
by their ideas. Their philosophical relevance was due to the fact that some of these
were fundamental ideas regarding such topics as God, mind, time, causality, destiny, freedom, and the good. In the field of religion, the evaluative element in these
accounts of African thought, which were generally (though not universally) written
by Christian authors, consisted in the presumption, carried by immanent implication rather than explicit assertion, that if an African idea proved to be irreducibly
incompatible with a Christian one, it was due for correction in the interests of
salvation. In anthropology, indications as to where validity or truth might lie often
came in the form of explanations of how given African modes of thought deviated
from those of the researchers concerned. Nevertheless, as far as their basic intent
was concerned, the texts were intended to be informative rather than speculative.
Investigations into the validity or soundness of the ideas were no intrinsic part of
the objectives of the researches.
Second, the accounts in question attributed ideas to whole African peoples, sometimes even to the entire African race. Information was, of course, collected from
individual ‘‘informants.’’ But interest lay in the beliefs of the communities to which
the individuals belonged and not in the thinking of the individual ‘‘informants.’’
The case of Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli (1965), in which exposure was
given to a named individual of an African society, is an (apparent) exception that
proves the rule. Wittingly or unwittingly, the impression seems to have been
INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY IN OUR TIME
created of unanimity of belief among African peoples. Underlying this whole situation was the fact that the African ideas under study in the present context usually
existed in an oral rather than a written tradition of thought. The best way of
gaining information about those ideas seemed to be by interviewing living repositories of African world views and also piecing together information embedded in
proverbs, folktales, funeral dirges, ethical maxims, and the like.
When, by the force of historical circumstances, African teachers of African philosophy found themselves relying on works of the kind just described, that reliance
soon bred, in many instances, unmistakable affinities of approach. Thus, in the
hands of some African philosophers, African philosophy was becoming hard to
distinguish from a sort of informal anthropology. An important difference between
the resulting literature and its precolonial antecedents was that the African philosophers concerned wrote in a nationalistic spirit that brooked no nonsense about the
possibility of philosophical error within African traditional thinking. The ground of
dismay in the minds of other African philosophers with this development consisted
in the conviction that philosophy is not just a narrative, but also an evaluative
enterprise, the latter being an essential aspect of the discipline. On this view, philosophers should not content themselves with just informing others of the ideas
entertained by their communities; they should also concern themselves with figuring out, for their own enlightenment and, perhaps, that of others, what in them is
true, if any, and what is false, if any. Sometimes associated with this conviction has
been the opinion that philosophizing is such an individualized activity that it is not
plausible to suppose that whole cultures could have a common philosophy. There
has also been the suggestion that without writing you don’t really have philosophy,
for the discipline must go hand in hand with science, and without writing you do
not have science.
The person in whose writings all these reservations about the anthropology-like
approach in African philosophy have been united, which for convenience we may
call traditionalist, is the French-speaking African philosopher Paulin Hountondji.
Among Francophone African philosophers, he is the one who has had the most
impact on philosophical discussions in the world of Anglophone African philosophy.
The best-known presentation of his views is in his African Philosophy: Myth and
Reality (1996). He has, along with some Francophone African philosophers, used
the word ‘‘ethnophilosophy’’ as a kind of negative characterization of what I have
called here the traditionalist approach to African philosophy. The controversy that
Hountondji’s critique of ethnophilosophy has precipitated has constituted quite a
large part of the concerns of contemporary African philosophy. That controversy
may be studied in quite a few books. I mention the following almost at random:
Appiah (1989: ch. 8); Appiah (1992: ch. 5); Gbadegesin (1991: ch. 1); Gyekye
(1987: chs. 1–3); also see the preface to the revised edition; Kwame (1995: Introduction, chs. 1, 2, and 5); Makinde (1988: chs. 1–3); Masolo (1994: chs. 2, 3,
and 7); Mosley (1995); Oladipo (1992); Oruka (1990a); Serequeberhan (1991);
Sogolo (1992: ch. 1); Wiredu (1980: chs. 1–4); and Wright (1984: chs. 1–5 and 8).
In this controversy, Hountondji’s dialectical resilience has been much on display. But
he has not been averse to revision. In his contribution to the present volume (see
chapter 44), he adds extension to revision by demonstrating how the scope of his
critique of ethnophilosophy may be extended to comprehend the need to marshal our
indigenous resources of knowledge as a basis of scientific development.
Since I myself am often grouped together with Hountondji as belonging to the
anti-ethnophilosophy school, I might take the opportunity both to acknowledge the
basic correctness of the classification and to point out, however, that my own
reservations about the traditionalist approach are more limited than Hountondji’s. I
have no objection, in principle, to attributing a philosophy to a whole people, at
certain levels of generality. Nor, although I am all for a scientific orientation in
philosophy, do I define philosophy in such close intimacy with science as Hountondji does. My main unhappiness with the traditionalist approach derives from its
insufficiently critical stance. Just as there was an element of implied evaluation in
the accounts of African thought offered by the anthropologists and specialists in
religion, there is an evaluation implicit in traditionalist accounts. The difference is
only that whereas in the former case, particularly, where the authors concerned
were Western scholars, the evaluations tended, by and large, to be negative, in the
latter they have uniformly tended to be positive. In itself, that is no problem. But
there are, among traditionalists, as hinted above, clear indications of impatience
with any suggestion, on the part of an African philosopher, that philosophical
fallibility might possibly be encountered in the thought of our ancestors or that
there might be some aspect of an African culture that could be less than ideal from
a philosophical point of view.
Traditionalists have tended, furthermore, to restrict the concerns of modern African philosophy to issues having some connection with traditional African thought
and culture. But the modern world presents intellectual challenges which may not
all admit of such a derivation, and to abstain from involvement with them on the
grounds of a non-African origination is unlikely to prove a blessing to Africa in the
modern world. Should it occur to anyone to liberalize the restriction by requiring,
not that everything in modern African philosophy must have a connection with
traditional Africa but only that it should bear some relevance to Africa, it can be
shown that the new restriction is vacuous, for what makes Africa modern must
include her ability to domesticate any useful modern resources of knowledge and
reflection not already to hand. This is, of course, without prejudice to the need for a
proper sense of African priorities. On any judicious reckoning, such priorities will
include a careful study of African traditional thought. Thus one can be both sympathetic to traditional (not necessarily traditionalist) thinking and sensitive to the
imperatives of modern existence. (See A. G. A. Bello’s forthright discussion of methodological controversies in African philosophy in this volume, chapter 18.)
Indeed, what to do with modern issues and resources of philosophical thinking
not directly originating from Africa is one of the two main topics around which the
controversy on the question of African philosophy has revolved, explicitly or implicitly. The other topic is, of course, what to do with our inheritance of traditional
philosophy. Among Africans, there has not, contrary to copious appearances, been
INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY IN OUR TIME
any question as to whether there is any such thing as African philosophy, but
rather how best African philosophy may be done. The question whether African
philosophy exists, taken simpliciter, has always, in my opinion, been an absurd
question. Any group of bipeds that are barely rational will have to have some
general conceptions about such things as, for example, what is meant by saying
that a person is virtuous or the opposite. It would be an extreme step indeed to
deny to the traditional African mind any tendency of a philosophical kind. Certainly, Hountondji does not take that step. He concedes at least that ‘‘we Africans
can probably today recover philosophical fragments from our oral literature’’
(1996: 106). On the other hand, if we do not include in our philosophical program,
in addition to the study of our traditional philosophy, the investigation of modern
issues not dictated by traditionalist prepossessions, then the question whether there
is a modern tradition of African philosophy would continue to have at least a prima
The Study of African Traditional Philosophy
But let us reflect for a moment on the study of African traditional philosophy. As
already noted, there is a conflict between the traditionalist and the anti-ethnophilosophical approach, in regard, for example, to the need for a critical evaluation. But
there is a prior question as to how the traditional thought-contents are to be
discovered. One historic claim to such discovery was Father Placide Tempels’s Bantu
Philosophy (1959). Tempels was a Belgian missionary belonging to the Catholic
faith, who ministered unto the Baluba of present-day Zaire (see Barry Hallen’s
survey of contemporary Anglophone African philosophy in this volume, chapter 6).
Tempels formed the impression, which in the circles in which he moved was quite
revolutionary, that those African peoples actually had a coherent philosophy and
that it governed their day-to-day living. Not, of course, that he thought much of the
validity of the Bantu philosophy. ‘‘No doubt,’’ he remarked, ‘‘anyone can show the
error of their reasoning, but it must none the less be admitted that their notions are
based on reason’’ (p. 77). He wrote the book to prove this revolutionary point and
to equip fellow missionaries with an insight into the thinking of the Bantu accurate
enough to facilitate their conversion to the truths of the Christian message.
Tempels’s book, which was actually published in the present English translation
by a group of African intellectuals in Paris, was received with considerable enthusiasm among some African scholars and others of the generation of Senghor. Senghor
was the first post-independence President of the West African State of Senegal, a
man of many parts, who was responsible for elaborating the philosophy of Negritude
to which we shall return below. That philosophy fell into disrepute, however,
among Francophone African philosophers roughly of the generation of Hountondji,
such as Marcien Towa and Fabien Eboussi-Boulaga, and has been one of the principal objects of attack in the critique of ethnophilosophy. Another principal target of
anti-ethnophilosophy has been Alexis Kagame’s linguistic studies of Bantu thought.
In connection with Kagame, whose principal works, as far as I know, have not
been translated into English, an extremely important question arises, namely, to
what extent do the characteristics of a natural language give any indications as to
the philosophical thinking of the people who speak it? Kagame (see chapter 16 by
Liboire Kagabo in this volume) thought that the Bantu languages were fairly
revealing in this respect, and he has been criticized quite considerably on this
count. But the constraints of language on philosophical thinking are notorious in
the Western tradition. Witness, for example, Bertrand Russell’s animadversion with
respect to the metaphysical notion of substance that ‘‘A great book can be written
showing the influence of syntax on philosophy; in such a book the author could
trace the influence of the subject-predicate structure of sentences upon European
thought, more particularly, in this matter of substance’’ (1946: 225). Another book
could be devoted to the influence of the superabundance of abstract nouns on
European philosophies. Whatever the truth in this matter, it is plain that, although
language may not necessarily lead to the discovery of truths about reality, it can
lead to the discovery of some truths about the thought of an individual or a group
about reality. Language is, in fact, an essential resource in the discovery of the
philosophy embedded in an oral tradition not just in a lexicographical, but also in a
deep conceptual sense. It goes without saying, of course, that caution is necessary
in any recourse to language in this matter. Attention to the language issue is
evident in the following pieces of writing in African philosophy: Bello (1990);
Gyekye (1987: ch. 11); Masolo (1994); Sogolo (1992: ch. 1, sect. 3); and Wiredu
(1996a: chs. 7 and 8). In this volume, considerations of language assume an
evident importance in A. G. A. Bello’s ‘‘Some Methodological Controversies in African Philosophy’’ (chapter 18), Victor Ocaya’s ‘‘Logic in the Acholi Language’’
(chapter 20), and Barry Hallen’s ‘‘Yoruba Moral Epistemology’’ (chapter 21).
To return to Senghor, his Negritude is, of course, a philosophy of black identity.
Senghor argued that black people had a particular way of knowing, determined by
their psychophysiology, which may be described as knowing by participation. In
contrast to Western ways of knowing, which, he said, analyzes the object, breaking
it into pieces, so to speak, African cognition proceeded by embracing the object. He
actually once said approvingly, in a lecture in Nigeria in the 1960s, that this
cognitive procedure ‘‘con-fused’’ objects rather than breaking them down; which
raised anxieties among some African intellectuals that this came a little too close to
making non-hyphenated confusion a congenital trait of the African psyche. To the
Francophone critics of ethnophilosophy, indeed, the mere postulating of a peculiarly
African mentality was obnoxious enough.
It is an interesting fact that keenness on the critique of ethnophilosophy has not
been as much in evidence among Anglophone African philosophers as among their
Francophone counterparts. (On philosophical thought in Francophone Africa generally, see Abiola Irele’s (1995) magisterial survey. Among Anglophone African philosophers, the study of communal African philosophies has not evoked any
concerted outcry, and works such as Abraham (1962), Danquah (1944) or Idowu
(1962) remain highly esteemed, and rightly so. If Mbiti (1990) has been greeted
with considerable criticism, it has been mainly because of certain specific things,
such as its claim that Africans cannot conceive of a future extending beyond two
years, to which we will return below. In fact, the study of traditional communal
philosophies is a time-honored branch of African philosophy, with antecedents in
INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY IN OUR TIME
the work of such historic thinkers as Edward Blyden, Africanus Horton, and Mensah
Sarbah. These thinkers are discussed briefly by Pieter Boele van Hensbroek in the
present volume in ‘‘Some Nineteenth-Century African Political Thinkers’’ (chapter
4) and at more length in his book Political Discourses in African Thought 1860 to the
Present (1999). More recent works of high standing in the tradition of Abraham,
Danquah, and Idowu are Gbadegesin (1991) and Gyekye (1987).
A notable fact about the books by Abraham, Danquah, Idowu, Gbadegesin, and
Gyekye is that they undertake detailed and in-depth exposition, analysis, and interpretation of the traditional philosophies of specific African peoples of whose languages the authors have at least a first-hand knowledge. Also they eschew
unrestrained generalizations about the traditional philosophies of the entire continent. In one chapter, indeed, Gyekye ventures some continental generalizations, but
he is at pains to tender his evidence (1987: ch. 12).
The peak of such methodological circumspection is reached in Hallen and Sodipo
(1997). In this work Hallen and his late co-author Sodipo study, among other
things, the epistemological thought of the Yoruba of Nigeria in close collegial collaboration with traditional specialists in Yoruba medicine, language, and culture.
Their inferences and interpretations are based on copious quotations from the discourse of the traditional thinkers in question, who remain unnamed at their own
express request. The significance of the methodology of the two authors goes
beyond mere circumspection. It is a definite departure from the old procedure –
which elicited data from ‘‘informants,’’ veritable informational servants – about
African traditional thought. In the present method, traditional thinkers are brought
into the enterprise of expounding and elucidating the traditional thought of an
African people as authorities commanding respect in their own right. Hallen’s
‘‘Yoruba Moral Epistemology’’ (chapter 21 in this volume) and, on a greater scale,
his The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful: Discourse about Values in Yoruba Culture
(2000) are continuing fruits of that program of meticulous research.
One of the most remarkable results of the investigation under discussion is the
finding that Yoruba discourse lays down more stringent conditions for knowledge
(or more strictly, what corresponds to knowledge in the Yoruba language) than is
apparent in English or, generally, Anglo-American speech. In English-speaking philosophy it seems to be generally accepted that somebody may be said to know
something, provided that she believes it, and it is true, and the belief is justified in
some appropriate way. By the way, the need for not just a justification, but also one
of an appropriate type, was pressed upon the attention of contemporary AngloAmerican epistemologists by Edmund Gettier, in a three-page article entitled ‘‘Is
Justified True Belief Knowledge?’’ (1963). The control that those three pages have
exercised on recent epistemology has been, to say the least, tremendous.
On the showing of Hallen and Sodipo and their traditional Yoruba colleagues, a
further condition would seem to be indicated, namely, that the prospective knower
must have an eye-witness acquaintance with what is claimed to be known. This
difference in English and Yoruba discourse about knowledge does not seem to be a
matter that can be reconciled by mere verbal readjustments; it reflects different
valuations of cognitive data. Interestingly, the language of the Akans (of Ghana)
does not seem to carry any eye-witness imperative in its concept of knowledge;
which must reinforce the need for caution in the generalized attribution of philosophical persuasions to the entirety of the African race.
A project in some ways akin to that of Hallen and Sodipo, but quite distinct, was
pursued by Henry Odera Oruka (of treasured memory) in Kenya. In his research
into what he called ‘‘sage philosophy,’’ he sought out individuals among traditional
Kenyans who were reputed for wisdom and noted for their independence from
foreign influences, and held (and recorded) long question-and-answer sessions with
them. In these encounters the sages expressed their views about various topics,
such as the existence and nature of God, freedom, justice, equality, and so on.
Oruka (1990b) published translations of these discussions together with the names
and even pictures of the sages concerned.
Already, this marks a difference between Oruka’s project and that of Hallen and
Sodipo. But a deeper difference is that Oruka’s traditional collaborators, especially
those among them that he called philosophic sages, expressed their own personal
views and were sometimes quite critical of the communal thought of their society.
For example, some of them avowed atheism, contrary to the widespread impression
that traditional Africans are universally religious. Oruka’s work in this area confirms a belief which the present writer, for one, has entertained right from the
beginning, that among our traditional peoples there are original philosophers from
whom we may have something to learn. The work on ‘‘sage philosophy’’ was not
the only contribution that Oruka, who died prematurely in 1996, made to contemporary African philosophy; but for that in particular we are all eternally indebted to
him. (For further discussion of the sage philosophy project, see Kibujjo M. Kalumba,
‘‘Sage Philosophy: Its Methodology, Results, Significance, and Future,’’ chapter 19
in this volume.)
A point, which is obvious once you think about it, but which is easily overlooked,
is that African traditional philosophy is not coextensive with African communal
philosophy, for traditional thought, as is apparent from the immediately preceding
remarks, has an individualized component. Moreover, a communal philosophy is, in
any case, a kind of historical pre´cis of the excogitations of individual philosophic
thinkers, usually, though not invariably, of unknown identity. Some of these would,
inevitably, have had views that did not conform to previously received notions.
There are, for example, in some of the deliverances of Akan talking drums some
cosmological paradoxes, which, in my opinion, suggest pantheistic views quite at
variance with the commonplace theism of Akan communal thinking (see Wiredu
1996a: 119–21). Looked at in this way the study of traditional philosophy becomes
more multifaceted than hitherto.
Mbiti and Time in Africa
Controversy is one of the marks of vitality in philosophy. In contemporary African
philosophy controversy has tended to be more about traditional African philosophy
itself than in it. Among the issues that have invoked discussions of the latter
category, pride of place belongs to the debate about the question of ‘‘the African
conception of time.’’ This circumstance is thanks to Mbiti’s treatment of the subject
INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY IN OUR TIME
in his African Religions and Philosophy (1990). The issue concerns his claims as to
the shortness of African prevision. In an exceedingly interesting discussion of what
he called the African conception of time, Mbiti asserted that, for Africans, time is a
composition of events, those that have happened, those that are now happening
and those that are about to happen, longest two years hence. What has not yet
happened or is not happening or has no likelihood of immediate occurrence falls
into the category of what he calls ‘‘No-time.’’ But if something will inevitably
happen within the recurrent rhythm of nature, then it belongs to ‘‘potential time’’
In spite of the window into the infinite future that his quaint notion of ‘‘potential
time’’ seemed to open up for the African mentality, Mbiti held that the African
conception of the future is so circumscribed by this overall notion of time that ‘‘any
meaningful event in the future must be so immediate and certain that people have
almost experienced it. Therefore, if the event is remote, say, beyond two years from
now . . . then it cannot be conceived, it cannot be spoken of ’’ (ibid. 21). He adds:
In traditional African thought there is no concept of history moving ‘‘forward’’ towards
a future climax, or towards the end of the world. Since the future does not exist beyond a
few months, the future cannot be expected to usher in a golden age . . . The notion of a
messianic hope, or a final destruction of the world, has no place in the traditional
concept of history. So Africans have no ‘‘belief in progress,’’ the idea that the development of
human activities and achievements move from a low to a higher degree. The people neither
plan for a distant future nor ‘‘build castles in the air.’’ (ibid. 23; italics added)
On display in this quotation are the true, the false, and the doubtful in equal
measures. There is some truth here, for neither tidings of a future golden age nor
forebodings of an eventual cosmic cataclysm are heard of in accounts of African life
and thought. Moreover, to say that Africans do not build castles in the air is to pay
them a compliment that some, though perhaps not all, Africans, surely, deserve.
But to suggest that Africans do not traditionally plan for a distant future is to debit
them with an incapacity that some of them at least do not deserve. How could the
great empire-builders of African history have accomplished such objectives in total
innocence of long-term planning? In this respect, then, what we have from Mbiti
here is the opposite of the true. As it happens, moreover, Mbiti himself, in a moment
of inconsistency, declares, in effect, that he is aware that Africans can ‘‘act, plan,
and live . . . knowing that, for example, their ten-year-old child will be getting
married one day (though it does not matter whether this occurs after another ten
or fifteen years’’ (ibid. 28).
As for the claim that Africans have no belief in progress, it is at best doubtful. Nor
is it absolutely clear what the belief in question amounts to exactly. In any case, it is
the view that Africans traditionally had no conception of the future beyond two
years that has scandalized Mbiti’s African critics. Among the numerous discussions
of this matter one might mention the following: Alfa (1988); Appiah (1984); Gyekye
(1987: ch. 11, sec. 2); Masolo (1994: ch. 5); Oruka (1990a: 8, 9); Parratt (1977);
and Wiredu (1996b). See also Hallen’s ‘‘Contemporary Anglophone African Philosophy’’ (chapter 6 in this volume). Of these, only Parratt is sympathetic to Mbiti. All
these discussions, except Hallen’s and Wiredu’s, came before the second edition of
Mbiti’s book. In the new edition (1990) Mbiti reacted to the hue and cry, but
retracted nothing. On the contrary, he added remarks, such as the last quotation
above, that made the original confusion even more confounded.
Yet, Mbiti’s basic claim that time, for traditional Africans, is a ‘‘composition’’ of
events is extremely interesting metaphysically, and is worthy of investigation independently of his problematic inferences from it. This view has a basic similarity to
Leibniz’s conception of time as nothing but an ordering of events. Two questions
arise immediately. Is the attribution correct? And is its content valid? Gyekye
(1987: ch. 11, sec. 2) powerfully disputes the accuracy of the attribution, as far as
Akan thought at least is concerned, and seems to perceive in that system of thought
an absolutist conception of time not altogether unlike Newton’s. According to
Gyekye, ‘‘In Akan philosophy time is regarded as a concrete reality’’ (ibid. 170).
Time ‘‘is held to have an objective metaphysical existence, so that even if there
were no changes, processes, and events, time would still be real’’ (ibid. 171). This is
not altogether unlike Newton’s absolutist conception of time as something which
‘‘of itself and from its own nature flows equably without relation to anything external.’’ Newton famously opposed this conception to Leibniz’s relational view of time
in a controversy in the history of Western philosophy that was as important as it
was undignified. Neither giant has run out of followers, nor does the corresponding
issue in African philosophy resemble one that allows of easy resolution. The apparent parallelism here between African and Western philosophies of time demonstrates nothing, perhaps, beyond the fact that dissimilar cultures may sometimes be
faced with similar metaphysical options.
It must be acknowledged that the issues here, not only in regard to the validity of
the absolutist or the relational conception of time, but also in regard to the accuracy
of ascribing the one or the other to the Akans or their thinkers, are unusually subtle.
As to the latter, the following reason might, perhaps, incline one to attribute a
relational or ‘‘compositional’’ conception of time a` la Mbiti to the Akans. The concept
of existence, as it functions even at the pre-philosophical level of Akan discourse, is
spatial, or even locative. To exist is to wo ho, that is, to be there at some place. (In
support of this conceptual claim about the Akan language, see Gyekye 1987: 179.)
Given this understanding of existence, it would be deeply paradoxical to speak of time
as existing, for it would then have to be at some place. And, whether or not the
Akans, notwithstanding any resulting incoherence, entertain an absolutist conception of time, it seems that a spatial conception of existence is not compatible with
such a conception of time. Thus if the spatial conception of existence is sound, one
option in the ontological elucidation of time is ruled out. But is that conception of
existence plausible? Considering the widespread reverberations that such a conception is bound to have in any system of thought, this question should challenge the
most earnest attention of all inquirers into the traditional philosophy of the Akans
and various other African peoples. If Alexis Kagame (1976) is right, the particle ho is,
interestingly, used in Bantu languages to perform the same semantic function as ho
in Akan. The Bantu, according to him, express ‘‘exists,’’ by liho or baho, which means
‘‘is there’’ or ‘‘is at that place.’’ (Kagame, Rwandese philosopher, poet, and linguist, is
discussed by Liboire Kagabo in this volume – see chapter 16.)
INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY IN OUR TIME
A defense of the spatial conception of existence on independent grounds, that
is, by means of considerations that do not rely on the peculiarities of one language
or culture as opposed to any other, does not strike me as an impossibility, but it
is not a priority here. Our motive here is to illustrate how the study of African
traditional philosophy is apt to precipitate issues of the most direct contemporary
Contemporary African Philosophy as Comparative Philosophy
Contemporary work in African philosophy has a certain richness deriving from its
unavoidably comparative character. This is due to the interesting fact that contemporary African philosophers belong to two cultural traditions, the African and the
Western. This can be an advantage, because working in more than one tradition
can broaden your mind by acquainting you with a multiplicity of fundamentally
different conceptual options. But it is also a problem, because African philosophers
came to be situated within the Western tradition through the historical adversity of
Now, in colonial times, as previously noted, African philosophy was generally not
investigated in philosophy departments in Africa. It was left to departments of religion and anthropology, usually staffed by foreign scholars, to study African thought
as best they could. Unsurprisingly, the resulting literature often reflected the uncritical employment of foreign categories of thought.
Taken together, the circumstances noted define the following imperatives of
research for contemporary African philosophers. There is the need, first, to bring
out the true character of African traditional philosophy by means of conceptual
clarification and reconstruction and, second, to try to find out what is living or
fit to be resurrected in the tradition. To this might be added any insights that
might be available from the foreign traditions of philosophy with which Africa has
become associated by the force of historical circumstances. Of course, other traditions too can be quarried with the same motive, the shortness of time being the
only constraint. At any rate, these imperatives have informed my own research
In talking of the uncritical use of foreign categories in the exposition of African
thought, one is thinking of such categories of thought as are embodied in the
distinctions between the spiritual and the physical, the natural and the supernatural, the religious and the secular, the mystical and the non-mystical, or, by way of
substantives, between substance and attribute, mind and matter, truth and fact, etc.
As I have argued in various places (see, for example, Wiredu 1996a: ch. 7), it is
questionable whether any of these distinctions corresponds to anything, at least in
Akan thought. A noteworthy fact, then, about the colonial accounts of African
thought is that although the authors often thought that they were explaining the
differences between African ways of thought and those of their cultures, they usually were, in fact, unwittingly assimilating African thought to that of their culture,
because they routinely formulated those accounts in terms of their own conceptual
The Question of Relativism
If one has been used to thinking exclusively in languages in which such concepts as
the ones in question are embedded, it is likely to sound strange to hear it suggested
that they are not applicable in the thought of some peoples. But this is exactly why
exposure to such ways of thought can broaden the human mind. They challenge
one to rethink the fundamental categories of one’s way of thinking. This remark
assumes that it is possible to evaluate categories of thought across cultures; it
assumes, in other words, that conceptual relativism is false. Relativism in this sense
is the view that the soundness, or even intelligibility, of any set of categories of
thought is relative to its time, place, or context of origin. And this relativity is
intended to exclude the possibility of critical evaluation from the standpoint of
another time, place, or context. Relativism is, in itself, an issue of great interest. In
contemporary African philosophy it is an unavoidable one. The most obvious argument against it is based on the empirically verifiable biological unity of the human
species. A subsidiary premise is to be found in the actual fact of cross-cultural
communication among the peoples of the world, in spite of the well-known difficulties of inter-cultural translation. (On both counts see Wiredu 1996a: chs. 2 and 3.)
In truth, any contemporary African philosopher or, indeed, any teacher or researcher in African philosophy, because of the historically engendered cultural
duality noted above, is a walking refutation of relativism.
The notion of the cross-cultural evaluation of thought implies the universality, at
some levels, of some canons of thought. Such an idea is nothing short of anathema
to many traditionalists, for they are apt to suspect that African philosophy might
thereby become subordinated to Western philosophy. Accordingly, in such circles
‘‘universalist,’’ especially as applied to a fellow African, is a term of reproof. It is not
clear that traditionalists wish to commit themselves to an unlimited relativism. That
would generate quite an unlimited inconsistency, for, in expounding African traditional philosophy, they do not hesitate, either on behalf of their communities or of
themselves or both, to make universal claims, such, for example, as that every
human being comes to the world with a destiny apportioned to them by God. This
is, most assuredly, not intended to be true only of Akans or Yorubas, but of all
human beings everywhere. And, obviously, it would be high-handed to advance a
claim about all humankind, and then withhold from those not belonging to one’s
epistemic circle the right of philosophical comment. Anybody who consciously tries
to avoid such arbitrariness by total abstention from universal claims will quickly
find herself compelled to abandon philosophy in favor of some non-dialogical employment.
Yet in certain specific cases some form of relativism seems operative in traditionalist protestations. Suppose, for example, that someone were to comment that empirical evidence is lacking for the proposition that our ancestors are alive and
kicking in some region adjoining the world of mortals. Such a person would be
liable to be met with the complaint that she is inadmissibly importing Western
canons of reasoning into a domain of African discourse that has suitable canons of
INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY IN OUR TIME
Actually, in this debate the traditionalists have sometimes had some foreign aid.
One recalls, for example, Peter Winch (1964), in which he criticized EvansPritchard (1934) for saying that the Azande belief that spiritistic forces can influence rainfall is not in accord with objective reality. (I use the word ‘‘spiritistic’’ here
as an adjective formed from the word ‘‘spirits.’’ The plural use of ‘‘spirit’’ often
refers to semi-physical entities such as ghosts and other such apparitions. I reserve
the word ‘‘spiritual’’ for the Cartesian concept of a non-extended substance, whatever that means.) To return to Winch, his own view was that ‘‘what is real and
what is unreal shows itself in the sense that language has’’ (1964: 82). EvansPritchard was thus trying, ‘‘on the contrary, to work with a conception of reality
which is not determined by its actual use in language’’ (ibid.). The implication
seems to be that the phenomenon of rain being brought on by pro-spiritistic incantations is a reality determined by Azande usage. (One wishes that one could count
on such usage in times of major drought in Africa.) Although, on the question of
relativism, Winch himself was unhappy to be called a relativist, his doctrine seems
to be exactly such as to encourage relativistic talk. Whether this is the case or not,
there is no doubt that many African philosophers seem to regard relativism as an
avenue to philosophical self-respect. Barry Hallen is, therefore, right, whether or not
one agrees with him as to details, in devoting a lot of attention to the question of
relativism in his tremendous essay in this volume (chapter 6).
But what, one might ask, is wrong with relativistic talk? A preliminary answer is,
‘‘It depends.’’ Suppose relativism is understood to mean that what is right, true,
valid, intelligible, is relative to culture. This immediately invites the question, ‘‘What
do you mean by ‘relative’ in this context?’’ One answer is that to say of a concept
that it is intelligible, or of a proposition that it is true, or of an argument that it is
valid is to say nothing more nor less than that it is used or accepted within a given
culture on the basis of criteria operative therein. The same applies, mutatis mutandis,
to judgments of right and wrong: The entire meaning of the comment that an
action is right is taken to be that it is approved of by some culture under consideration. This is normative relativism, with a cultural scope. It does not actually follow
from this thesis that different cultures employ different criteria in their thinking. It
might, for all that is contained in normative relativism, just happen that all the
peoples of the earth use the same criteria with respect to some issues of thought or
conduct. But it is easy to see that where different peoples differ, there can be no
dialogue, if normative relativism is right. Under this dispensation, the most that a
potential disputant can do is to point out that some proposition accepted in his
culture is not accepted in another culture or vice versa. And that would be an end
of the matter, as far as intercultural communication is concerned. (It might, however, be the beginning of less benign forms of interaction, such as war.) The infelicities of normative relativism are legion – I have discussed some of them in detail in
‘‘Canons of Conceptualization’’ (1993) and ‘‘Knowledge, Truth and Fallibility’’
(1995) – but the fact alone that it is incompatible with intercultural dialogue in
conditions of diversity is a sufficient reductio ad absurdum of the theory.
However, relativity to culture can have another connotation. It might mean
simply that the ways in which certain aspects of life and reality have actually been
conceptualized and evaluated are relative to culture. Assuming relevant diversity,
this means that certain concepts and values are not universal among the different
cultures of the world. This might be called descriptive relativism. It notices difference; it does not canonize it. It leaves open the possibility of dialogue among cultures. Some, including me, might not want to call this relativism unless a suitable
rider is attached, but the intellectual state of affairs referred to is of the last consequence. Intellectual relations between cultures have sometimes been marred by the
forced universalization of the modes of thought of a colonizing culture. This is
exactly what happened in the Western colonization of Africa. Accordingly, pointing
out the lack of universality in certain modes of conceptualization in Western philosophy could be a first step in the clarification of an African mode of thought.
Another step would, of course, still await being taken, and that is the comparative
evaluation of both the African and the Western conceptions.
Hallen and Sodipo (1997) have argued that the English word ‘‘know’’ does not
translate unproblematically into Yoruba, since ‘‘mo,’’ the nearest Yoruba approximation, still requires eyewitness acquaintance. This implies that the degree of value
attached to eyewitness cognition is variable among cultures. But whether one
degree of valuation is better than another in relation to some shared human imperative or not remains an open question. Similarly, as mentioned above, I have argued
that the modes of conceptualization embodied in such distinctions as that between
the physical and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, are not universal to
human thought, since they are absent from Akan thought (see Wiredu 1996a). I
have also suggested, as a separate point, that those distinctions can be shown to be
incoherent on independent grounds, though the arguments need to be set forth more
fully than so far. Such kinds of African-illustrated limits to the supposed universality
of certain Western modes of thinking are more appropriate than cases such as the
Azande belief in extra-scientific rainmaking, which is discussed by Evans-Pritchard
and Winch. The reason is simple. Belief in extra-scientific rainmaking is not peculiar
to Africa; it has been known in Europe (and other parts of the world). The wonder is
why Evans-Pritchard and Winch saw it as an African problem. More generally,
contra-scientific, spiritistic beliefs are not met with in Africa alone. They are routine
in much Western thought. In Christianity they are even foundational.
At all events, it is with regard to the more abstract concepts just mentioned that we
need to be most alert to the effects, on African thought, of the premature universalization of certain Western modes of thought that came along with European colonialism and evangelism. As matters stand now, concepts such as the physical, the
spiritual, the natural, and the supernatural lie at the deepest reaches of our thought
about life and reality – and I am referring to most of us African philosophers. For
that very reason, they are apt to be taken for granted. Suppose they should turn out
not to be coherent within an African conceptual framework. That circumstance
should lead, in the first place, to a re-examination of the resources of that African
framework of thought and, in the second place, to a critical review of the concepts
concerned in their own original European conceptual setting. However the exercise
INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY IN OUR TIME
turns out, the results should hold two kinds of benefit. To an African, it should
bring freedom from any subjection to a colonial mentality in relation to the intellectual issue on hand. To a Westerner, who, on observing the disputing of so fundamental an array of Western categories of thought, takes the opportunity to review
them critically, it should bring the satisfaction of having implemented the precept of
one of the most illustrious of his spiritual ancestors, who said that the unexamined
life is not worth living.
But let us return to the decolonizing effect. What is in play here is what might be
called conceptual decolonization. It consists in an African’s divesting his thought of all
modes of conceptualization emanating from the colonial past that cannot stand the
test of due reflection. This divesture does not mean automatically repudiating every
mode of thought having a colonial provenance. That would be absurd beyond description. What it calls for is the reviewing of any such thought materials in the light of
indigenous categories, as a first step, and, as a second, evaluating them on independent grounds. Of the indigenous categories of thought one can take appropriate cognizance by simply trying to think matters through in the vernacular. To do this,
however, requires a conscious and deliberate effort, because if you are trained in
philosophy exclusively in a second language, it tends to become your first language of
abstract meditation. If, upon such a review, some Africans should become confirmed
exponents of some Western mode of thought, they would, of course, be within their
rational rights. The considerations leading to the sought-after intellectual liberation
merely enlarge our options, they do not decide them. For example, if an African
Christian, on critically examining his faith in the light of renewed attention to his
indigenous conceptual framework by way of his own language and culture, decides
that there are good reasons to retain the faith in Christ, philosophy cannot demand
any more than that of him. Due reflection, to be sure, could also lead to atheism. No
matter. After all, atheists were not unknown in African traditional society. For
example, some of Oruka’s traditional sages were atheists. To return to the African
Christian: there is one thing he cannot do in the face of the imperative of due reflection. He cannot say that he entertains his preference for the Christian faith over the
African one by faith. Since the question is ‘‘Why go with faith A rather than faith B?’’
such an answer would only manifest a brazen resolve to persist in the unexamined life.
The need for conceptual decolonization in African philosophy is pervasive. Only a
few of the concepts that cry for a decolonized treatment have been mentioned. To
them might be added the following list:
Reality, Being, Existence, Object, Entity, Substance, Property, Quality, Truth, Fact,
Opinion, Belief, Knowledge, Faith, Doubt, Certainty, Statement, Proposition, Sentence,
Idea, Mind, Soul, Spirit, Thought, Sensation, Matter, Ego, Self, Person, Individuality,
Community, Subjectivity, Objectivity, Cause, Chance, Reason, Explanation, Meaning,
Freedom, Responsibility, Punishment, Democracy, Justice, God, World, Universe,
Nature, Supernature, Space, Time, Nothingness, Creation, Life, Death, Afterlife, Morality, Religion. (Wiredu 1996a: 137)
In regard to all these, the simple experiment of trying to think various issues
through in an African vernacular is likely to generate second thoughts about a lot
of notions that have seemed intelligible or even plausible when viewed within the
framework of some Western system of thought. (I have discussed various issues
from a decolonizing standpoint in ibid. chs. 5–11. See, alternatively, Oladipo 1995.)
Of all the areas of African philosophy, the need for conceptual decolonization is
perhaps greatest in that of religion. In the present volume (see chapter 27), Oladipo
engages in the exercise of conceptual decolonization to good effect. The most impressive antecedent in conceptual decolonization is to be found in p’Bitek (1970).
Bitek, one of Africa’s best writers was, in my opinion, also one of her best philosophers. He is the subject of Samuel O. Imbo’s contribution to this volume – see
The Concept of a Person
The study of African traditional philosophy provides many opportunities for conceptual decolonization. Approached from this standpoint, it can be quite enlightening
to both Africans and non-Africans in furnishing concrete embodiments of categories
of thought alternative to some Western ones. African traditional philosophies are,
perhaps, richest in ethics and metaphysics. In these areas of inquiry the concept of
God and the nature of human personality are the dominant issues. Concerning the
concept of God, see chapter 27 in this volume, by Oladipo. The concept of a person
is probably the topic that has evoked the most interesting discussions. There is a
basic similarity in the conceptions of a person to be found in the traditional thought
of many of the peoples of Africa. (See in this connection the late Kaphagawani’s
contribution to this volume, chapter 25.) A human being is held to consist of a
variable number of elements, one of which typically might be called the life
principle, that is, that in a person whose presence makes him alive and whose
absence makes him dead. This is sometimes called in English ‘‘the soul,’’ but that is
incorrect, because in English-speaking philosophy the word ‘‘soul,’’ which is used to
refer to a kind of entity, is often used interchangeably with the word ‘‘mind.’’ But I
do not know of any African thought system in which mind is conceived as an entity
rather than as a capacity, namely, the capacity to think. The life principle, then,
being a kind of entity, cannot be identical with the mind.
This, however, is a claim of interpretation, and, as in all philosophy, has been
subject to controversy. As far as Akan is concerned, some of its interpreters, such as
Gyekye, my good friend and former colleague at the University of Ghana, have
defended the identification of the life principle (in Akan the okra) with the soul. He
has argued lucidly for his position in his Essay on African Philosophical Thought
(1987: ch. 6). For my part, I have sought to clarify my interpretation in various
writings (see, especially, Wiredu 1987). A simple consideration I have urged in this
connection is that mind – adwene in Akan – is never mentioned in any enumeration
of the entities that unite to constitute a person. If mind were thought of as an entity,
this omission would be totally inexplicable. Elsewhere (for example, in Wiredu
1996a: 121–3), I have given a less simple reason why the okra (the life principle)
cannot be interpreted as being identical with the soul: In Western discourse, the
soul is usually conceived as an immaterial entity. Such a conception is, however,
INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY IN OUR TIME
inadmissible within any known Akan conceptual scheme. The reason is that existence in the Akan language is intrinsically locative, as we saw in an earlier connection. To exist is to wo ho, i.e., to be at some place. Since the soul, being supposedly
an immaterial entity by definition, does not occupy space, it is highly implausible to
suppose that such a leading idea of Akan thought as the okra could be equated with
To return to the inventory of the constituents of human personality, the other
constituents of a person additional to the okra are even harder to characterize in
English. There is what might be called the individuality principle, something in a
person that is supposed to be responsible for the unique impression that he or she
communicates to others. And there is also an element that is thought of as the basis
of lineage or clan identity. Various subtle issues of a metaphysical character arise in
the discussion of these elements of human personality. (See chapter 25 in this
However, from a more strictly traditional standpoint, ethical issues are more important than metaphysical ones in the characterization of human personality. A
person is perceived as definable only in terms of membership in a society. This is a
consequence of the communalistic character of African society. Right from the beginning of socialization one is brought up to develop such strong bonds with large
kinship units that one comes to see oneself as necessarily bound up with a community. (Recently, communitarianism has been much in the news in Anglo-American
philosophy. It is, however, not quite the same thing as communitarianism in African
culture. Dismas Masolo clarifies the differences in chapter 40 of this volume.)
Existentially, the link between the African individual and his large kinship affiliations manifests itself as a combination of obligations and matching rights. The
concept of a person, not surprisingly, becomes essentially normative: A person is
not just a certain biological entity with a certain psycho-physical endowment, but,
rather, a being of this kind who has shown a basic willingness and ability to fulfill
his or her obligations in the community. Personhood, on this showing, is something
of an achievement. It is only comparatively recently that attention has been called,
in contemporary African philosophy, to this normative character of the traditional
African concept of a person. In anthropology, however, Meyer Fortes, in the 1940s,
noted (1987) the normative dimensions of the concept of a person among the
Tallensi of Northern Ghana and other African peoples. In contemporary African
philosophy the locus classicus of the normative conception of a person is Ifeanyi
Menkiti’s ‘‘Person and Community in African Traditional Thought’’ (1984). My
views regarding the normative conception of a person are in substantial agreement
with Menkiti’s (see Wiredu 1992b; see also Wiredu 1992a). Criticisms of the normative concept of a person, as expounded by Menkiti, were offered by Gyekye
(1992). Later, Gyekye returns to the subject (1997: ch. 4), now agreeing in
principle with the normative conception, but disputing certain aspects of Menkiti’s
elaboration of the idea. Menkiti, for his part, pursues further aspects of the normative conception of a person in chapter 24 of this volume. The dialectic, for sure, is at
work in our midst, and we can anticipate a synthesis.
There are some normative hints in the concept of a person in English-speaking
discourse. But they are quite peripheral in comparison with the normative
dimension of the African conception of a person, which is part of its very connotation. To note the contrast is, of course, not to prove validity either way. What it
does is to challenge cross-cultural evaluation. So much work for the future!
Talking of the normative concept of a person brings us naturally to the subject of
morality. In its narrowest sense, morality is universal. Dishonesty is bad, by definition, everywhere – China, Africa, Europe, America, etc. In this sense, morality is
the harmonization of the interests of the individual with the interests of the community from a standpoint of empathetic impartiality, a fragile endowment of the
human psyche. Nevertheless, we can legitimately speak of African ethics or European or American or Chinese ethics. That refers to the systems of local rules or
customs by which a particular society regulates human relations. Confusion sometimes occurs because the words ‘‘ethics’’ or ‘‘morality’’ are frequently used now
with the first sense, now with the second, without due notice.
With respect to ethics in the broad sense, it is easy to understand from what we
said in the previous section that African ethics would be of a communalistic kind. A
communalist ethic is one in which the interests of the individual are placed in a
reciprocal adjustment with the interests of others in the community with reference
to many specific circumstances of life and beyond the call of pure morality. Communalistic rules of conduct are a clear extension of the imperatives of pure morality.
Since both are defined in terms of human interests, the African ethic might be
called humanistic, as opposed to supernaturalistic. This contradicts the widely received notion that in Africa morality logically depends upon religion. A number of
contemporary studies of traditional African philosophies of morals converge on this
point. (See Gbadegesin 1991: 67–8; Gyekye 1987: ch. 8; Kudadjie 1976; and
Wiredu 1991; also see chapter 31 in this volume: J. A. I. Bewaji, ‘‘Ethics and Morality in Yoruba Culture.’’)
Africa’s Philosopher Kings
It is remarkable that the most substantive body of African philosophical literature in
early post-independence Africa was produced by the first wave of post-independence
leaders, notably, Nkrumah of Ghana, Sekou Toure of Guinea, Senghor of Senegal,
Nyerere of Tanzania, and Kaunda of Zambia. That was in response to the challenges of national reconstruction in the 1960s and 1970s. In a relatively short time
many of them produced political philosophies that reflected their understanding of
their own cultural heritage in combination sometimes with their appreciation of
certain elements of the political thought of the West. That Western input usually,
though not always, came from the thought of Marx and Lenin. This combination
was known as African socialism. Whether of a Marxist tendency or not, the African
part of the intellectual construct always consisted of the construal of African communalism, of which mention was made above, as either an incipient or an idyllic
INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY IN OUR TIME
form of socialism. Those of a Marxist persuasion, such as Nkrumah and Sekou
Toure, argued that the socialist potential of traditional African communalism could
only be brought to fruition through an infusion of Marxist dialectics. That socialism
was the form of social organization best suited to the circumstances of Africa was
taken to be proven by its assumed cultural authenticity and its supposed moral
merits. The same conviction underlay the socialist faith of those like Nyerere and
Kaunda who found Marxism unattractive. (Senghor’s position in this matter of
Marxism was quite ambiguous. He seems to have found aspects of Marxism highly
intriguing intellectually, but he was hardly addicted to it ideologically.) All the
resulting varieties of socialist experiments, however, brought little salvation to
Africa, and one wonders what Plato would have thought of such philosopher kings.
Nevertheless, their intellectual legacy demands a philosophical study. One recent
such study can be found in Gyekye 1997: ch. 5. Among other things, Gyekye
develops a considerable critique of the construal of traditional African communalism as a form of socialism. In ‘‘Post-Independence African Political Philosophy’’ (see
chapter 17 in this volume), Olu´fe´mi Ta´´ıwo` too takes the legacy seriously, though
not uncritically. (See also Gbadegesin 1991: ch. 7, and Wiredu 1998.)
The Question of Violence
A question that exercised the philosopher kings a great deal was the question of
violence. If anything, it is now of a more grievous urgency than before. Previously,
this question arose in two connections. First, those cognizant of the Marxist doctrine of the class struggle as a mode of struggle for socialism were moved to consider whether that mode of struggle was necessary in the conditions of Africa.
Mixed feelings were apparent. Second, the question of the legitimacy of violence
arose in regard to the struggle for independence from colonialism and also for
liberation from white-settler minority rule in Africa. Here, most African thinkers
affirmed the legitimacy of armed struggle, though with varying degrees of anguish,
ranging from zero in the case of Franz Fanon to a very high degree of agonized
soul-searching in the case of Kaunda.
The liberation struggles are now all won, but the philosophical problem of violence
remains in Africa and everywhere else. Armed conflicts are raging in various parts of
the world. In Africa one has to deal both emotionally and intellectually with the
spate of military coups that have afflicted political life since the mid-1960s or so, not
to talk of the variety of ethnic conflicts in which lives have been lost on an unspeakable scale. Much of the problem, in my opinion, is due to the kind of democracy being
sought to be implemented in Africa. Trying to imitate majoritarian democracy in the
conditions of Africa’s ethnic stratification, which, at best, is what is being done, is a
tragic experiment from which Africa can hardly expect anything but the opposite of
salvation. Everything seems to indicate the necessity for fresh thinking about democracy in Africa. Of course, social problems hardly ever arise from single causes, and it
will always be rational to explore additional possible causes and solutions.
Certainly the problem of violence in Africa seems somewhat more straightforward
in the context of the anti-colonial struggles than it does now. Still, writings on the
subject raise questions of continuing interest. Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth
(1978) continues to be a strong incentive to reflection. The same applies to Kenneth
D. Kaunda’s The Riddle of Violence (1980). Kaunda’s earnest reflections on the
‘‘riddle’’ of violence have an eloquence and a poignancy that are not widely recognized. The following publications, with the exception of Oruka’s book, deal in one
way or another with anti-colonial violence: Axelsen (1984: 237, 239–40); Fashina
(1989); Mazrui (1978); Serequeberhan (1994); Wiredu (1986). The late Oruka’s
Punishment and Terrorism in Africa (1976) was concerned also with the use in Africa
of state violence against citizens. Ali A. Mazrui’s ‘‘Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Violence’’ (chapter 39 in this volume) is an even broader study of violence with both
continental African and international ramifications. It is, perhaps, not too farfetched to see the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa as, among
other things, an approach to the problem of violence. The thinking underlying it
sought a mutual balancing of the imperatives of truth, justice, and reconciliation in
circumstances in which a single-minded fixation on justice would predictably have
generated violence of unpredictable consequences. Pieter Duvenage grapples with
the underlying issues in ‘‘The Politics of Memory and Forgetting After Apartheid’’
(chapter 42 in this volume).
The Question of Democracy
A connection was indicated between violence and democracy in Africa in the last
section. That alone is a reason for a concentrated interest in the subject of democracy. But there are even more direct reasons for such a concernment. It is not lost
on too many people that one has a natural right of democratic representation. As
Francis M. Deng makes clear in his contribution to this volume (chapter 41,
‘‘Human Rights in the African Context’’), this was not lost on traditional Africans
either. The question naturally arises as to what is the most suitable form of democracy for Africa. It is becoming increasingly clear that the multiparty system of
politics that is currently being operated in Africa, though, of course, better than the
accursed one-party dictatorships of a few years ago, does not necessarily ensure a
suitable form of democracy. There are, therefore, currently, some attempts to think
out possible alternative embodiments of democracy. It is being remembered that in
many parts of traditional Africa, decision by consensus in the governing councils
ensured a veritable democracy without any analogue of the present-day system of
parties. The problem in contemporary Africa is how to devise a system that, unlike
the one-party regimes of the recent past, fully recognizes the right of free political
association, and yet does not rely upon a party-based majoritarianism in the formation of government. It is arguable that only some such system can peacefully
accommodate the complicated ethnic composition of most contemporary African
states. In regard to this problem of democracy and good government, there is still a
good deal of conceptual ground-clearing to be done by the philosophers. An issue
that cries out for elucidation is whether any decision procedure not based on the
principle of consensus could possibly ensure substantive representation for the
people. The concept of a party itself is one that calls for a careful scrutiny in any
INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY IN OUR TIME
philosophical examination of the relation between democracy and the party system.
These are but a few of the conceptual as well as practical issues that African
philosophy needs to confront. The enterprise, if successful, might conceivably yield
benefits beyond the borders of Africa. I have discussed elsewhere (2001) some
issues of this kind; see also Gyekye 1997: ch. 4. My earlier discussion of democracy
and consensus (1996a: ch. 14; see also chs. 12 and 23), evoked a response from
Emmanuel Eze (1997). Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba, at any rate in his pre-guerrilla
phase, had some interesting ideas in the direction of a non-adversarial form of
democracy in Africa (1996).
The controversy that raged in Africa from the 1960s to the early 1990s as to
whether the one-party system of statecraft is compatible with democracy is also
relevant to the issue of democracy and consensus. This controversy may be studied
in Mutiso and Rohio (1975): see Part VII: chs. 1 (Busia – contra), 2 (Sithole – more
or less neutral), 3 (Busia), 4 (Kaunda – pro), 5 (Nyerere – pro), 6 (Nyerere), 7 (Sekou
Toure – pro), and 11 (Ben Yahmed – ambiguous). This particular debate has been
eclipsed by the recent establishment of multiparty constitutions (against the designs
of resident dictators) in many parts of Africa with the help of international forces.
The demise of the one-party system in Africa must remain unlamented. But there is
an associated question that needs to be explored philosophically. The question is
whether there might not be a non-party form of democracy based on consensus,
which is more in harmony with most African indigenous traditions, and more suited
to Africa’s contemporary conditions. Indeed, it is a legitimate question, of interest to
all humankind, whether a non-party, consensual system of democracy would not be
a better form of democracy than the multiparty variety. But in Africa at the present
time it is a question that has a life-and-death urgency. Note that a conceptual issue
of considerable general interest arises here, namely, whether democracy, by its very
meaning, entails a multiparty polity. Not much attention, however, has been given
to this question, either in its African particularity or in its general applicability.
The question of democracy and the party system, by the way, provides an
example of how conceptual issues in philosophy can have practical, normative
consequences. For example, if it should turn out that democracy does not conceptually entail a party system, the demand for parties as a necessary condition of democracy, which some Western financial authorities have made a condition of help, may
begin to seem less than well considered.
There are fully four articles on democracy included in this volume, contributed
by Edward Wamala (chapter 35), Joe Teffo (chapter 36), Ajume H. Wingo
(chapter 37), and George Carew (chapter 38). Together they constitute a quantum
jump in the philosophical literature, quantitatively as well as qualitatively. Philosophy may yet assume its practical responsibilities in Africa. Ultimately, that may be
all the rationale it has anywhere in the world.
Dimensions of African Philosophy
The foregoing should give a sense of some of the dimensions of African philosophy.
There is the dimension of the traditional. This is multifaceted not only because, as
we saw, it has a communal as well as an individualized component, but also
because it has multifarious media of expression. Access to it can be gained through
‘‘communal proverbs, maxims, tales, myths, lyrics, poetry, art motifs and the
like’’ (Wiredu 1996a: 114). Art motifs are in some ways approximations to writing.
In some ways, indeed, they may have a vividness of message that a piece of
writing may not approximate. In terms of profundity, this is even truer of some
of the deliverances of African talking drums, which communicate abstract
reflections through riddles and paradoxes in the very midst of music and dance
This last observation brings us to the intimate connection between philosophy
and art, music, and dance in African society. This volume is indebted to Kofi
Agawu (chapter 32, ‘‘Aesthetic Inquiry and the Music of Africa’’), Nkiru Nzegwu
(chapter 33, ‘‘Art and Community: A Social Conception of Beauty and Individuality’’), and Ajume H. Wingo (chapter 34, ‘‘The Many-Layered Aesthetics of African
Art’’) for bringing this home to the reader.
To the dimension of the traditional, obviously, is to be added that of the contemporary. This is an evolving or, more strictly, an escalating tradition of thought and
talk by way of books, journals, classroom teaching, and conferences. A good indication of this dimension is writ large in Barry Hallen’s survey of contemporary
Anglophone African philosophy (chapter 6 in this volume). In truth, every contribution in this volume is evidence of work in contemporary African philosophy. But
it might be convenient to group together here those more concerned with making
a point than with noting a traditional one. Additionally, we might note here those
that mainly discuss contemporary efforts at philosophic thinking. Such contributions need not, of course, be devoid of all allusion to traditional sources. Proceeding almost in random order, we note Jean-Godefroy Bidima’s reflective survey
(chapter 46) of philosophy and literature in Francophone Africa. Engaged with
literature and philosophy also, but in an Anglophone direction, is Anthony
Kwame Appiah’s ‘‘African Philosophy and African Literature’’ (chapter 45). The
intersection of philosophy and literature in Africa is more important than the
space available to it here. It deserves a whole volume to itself. As for the rest of
the contributions in the present category, it is sufficient barely to mention some of
them to get an idea of their scope and variety. We have Victor Ocaya, ‘‘Logic in
the Acholi Language’’ (chapter 20); Olu´fe´mi Ta´´ıwo`, ‘‘Ifa´: An Account of a Divination System and Some Concluding Epistemological Questions’’ (chapter 22);
Segun Gbadegesin, ‘‘Toward a Theory of Destiny’’ (chapter 23); Safro Kwame,
‘‘Quasi-Materialism: A Contemporary African Philosophy of Mind’’ (chapter 26);
Souleymane Bachir Diagne, ‘‘Islam in Africa: Examining the Notion of an African
Identity within the Islamic World’’ (chapter 29); Godfrey B. Tangwa, ‘‘Some African Reflections on Biomedical and Environmental Ethics’’ (chapter 30); J. A. I.
Bewaji, ‘‘Ethics and Morality in Yoruba Culture’’ (chapter 31); and John Murungi,
‘‘The Question of an African Jurisprudence: Some Hermeneutic Reflections’’ (chapter 43). Paulin J. Hountondji’s ‘‘Knowledge as a Development Issue’’ (chapter 44),
though already mentioned in an earlier connection, deserves to be mentioned here
again on account of the extraordinary importance of the ‘‘capitalization’’ of indigenous knowledge systems advocated therein. It should be easy also to recognize
INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY IN OUR TIME
contributions mentioned in earlier connections that belong here. At the least, all
the contributions dealing with music and art belong here. So too do all those in
the sections on relativism, democracy, Africa’s philosopher kings, violence, and
conceptual decolonization. Nor can one forget the contributions on individual contemporary thinkers.
A contribution to this volume that deserves special mention is Lucius T. Outlaw’s
‘‘Africana Philosophy: Origins and Prospects’’ (chapter 5). By Outlaw’s definition, Africana philosophy is philosophy by and in the interests of black peoples.
This, evidently, encompasses both African philosophy and philosophy as cultivated
by all peoples of African descent in the diaspora. (The diaspora qualification is
necessary, by the way, since otherwise, in light of well-known archeological
discoveries, the definition would cover all the peoples of the entire world.) As philosophy is an essentially collaborative enterprise, this concept should open up, in the
imagination at least, vistas of cooperation between the Africans of Africa and the
Africans of the diaspora. Historically, that kind of interaction has been an objective
fact of blessed consequences. The most effective and influential African liberation
leaders, such as Leopold Senghor, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, owed much of their inspiration, at the level of philosophy and ideology, to
figures of the diaspora, such as Aime Cesaire, Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois,
Alain Locke, and others. In the converse of this flow of influence, Nkrumah had
considerable impact on the struggles of the peoples of the diaspora. Masolo brings
out the first direction of influence with particular clarity (1994: ch. 1). And van
Hensbroek explores the workings of the same flow of influence on the ground
in Africa in the nineteenth century (1999; see also this volume, chapter 4). There
is little doubt that in our own time more interchanges among all the worlds of
Africana philosophy will yield, to say the least, non-trivial results. Lucius Outlaw
has been responsible for much of what has been done so far in this area of
It remains to take note of the historical dimension of African philosophy. The´ophile Obenga’s authoritative chapter on ancient Egyptian philosophy (chapter 1 in
this volume) is a highly informative exposition of philosophical thought in a historically all-important part of ancient Africa. Similarly informative is Masolo’s survey
of African philosophers in the Greco-Roman era (chapter 2). The philosophers in
question – unsung ones apart – are Origen (a d 185–253), Clement (a d c.150–
c.215), Tertullian (ad c.155–c.240), Augustine (ad 354–430), and Cyprian (ad
200–58). An interesting question arises at once. These thinkers were Africans and
were responsible for a considerable body of thought. But did that formation of
thought constitute an African philosophy? This question poses a problem at all
because these philosophers, though African, thought and wrote within the context
of a Western tradition. Granted. But, in this respect, how different are they from
contemporary African philosophers? The answer is not as simple as one might, at
first sight, have supposed. Every point of differentiation turns out to be a matter of
degree rather than of kind. Contemporary African philosophers too, especially if
they are Christians, are in no wise innocent of Western influence. Perhaps the
greater difference is that the psyche of a contemporary African philosopher is
shaped by an African culture and imbued with a commitment to it. But, for
example, Augustine’s consciousness was not untouched by his African roots, and it
is speculated that some of his views were conditioned by that circumstance. In the
final analysis, it is the degree of dedication to the advancement of an African
tradition of thought that must make the difference. Whether this is so or not, it
seems clear that, if the thought of Augustine, as also of the others mentioned along
with him, were to become a subject of sustained and prolonged interest among
contemporary African philosophers, it would ipso facto become part of African philosophy in a quite stout sense.
The philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo (1703–58), discussed in this volume by
William E. Abraham and Kwasi Wiredu (chapters 11 and 12), is somewhat like
St Augustine, but, if anything, closer to home. Born in Axim, Ghana, he was raised
in Germany and academically trained there. He was productive philosophically
within the traditions of German philosophy operative at his time. But his commitment to Africa was explicit and repeated. He returned to Ghana and remained there
until the end of his days. His work invites African exploration.
By comparison with either Augustine or Amo, the place of Zera Yacob and
Walda Heywat in African philosophy is totally unmistakable. It has been known for
a long time that Ethiopia has a remarkable tradition of written philosophy. But it is
only comparatively recently that the literature has become easily available. The
enabler has been Claude Sumner of Addis Ababa University, ‘‘Canadian by birth,
Ethiopian by choice.’’ He has produced countless publications about Ethiopian philosophy (see, e.g., 1974, 1976/8). His most accessible book is aptly titled Classical
Ethiopian Philosophy (1994). His essay in this volume (see chapter 9) is nicely
complemented by Teodros Kiros’s contribution (chapter 10).
Bearing interesting similarities to the status of the thought of the African philosophers of the Greco-Roman era and that of classical Ethiopian philosophy is
the tradition of Islamic philosophy in East and West Africa. Souleymane Bachir
Diagne’s contribution, ‘‘Precolonial African Philosophy in Arabic’’ (chapter 3), is
quite a groundbreaking account of that tradition. Its affinity with the tradition of
Tertullian, Augustine, and others consists in the fact that both are assimilations
of religious philosophies emanating from abroad. But one gets the distinct impression of a strong African self-consciousness among, for example, the West African
Islamic philosophers. That is impressive enough. But, according to Diagne, they
sometimes, at least in the north of Nigeria, wrote philosophy in Hausa, their vernacular. This would seem to suggest that, in the matter of African purposefulness,
they sometimes went beyond at least most contemporary African philosophers who
write exclusively in some metropolitan language. The scholarly world is indebted to
John. O Hunwick and Rex Sean O’Fahey for (in Diagne’s apt word) ‘‘exhuming’’
Arabic texts in East and West Africa and getting them translated and published.
Diagne notes that two out of the six volumes projected in these two authors’ program of publication on Arabic literature of Africa have been published (1994/
1995). What has come out already enlarges our idea of the historical dimension of
When all the dimensions surveyed above are viewed together, our conception of
African philosophy in our time must be even more amply enlarged. With that
enlargement must come a legitimate excitement about future possibilities.
INTRODUCTION: AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY IN OUR TIME
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A Companion to African Philosophy
Edited by Kwasi Wiredu
Copyright © 2004 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
A Companion to African Philosophy
Edited by Kwasi Wiredu
Copyright © 2004 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Egypt: Ancient History of African Philosophy
It is a mere prejudice to believe that the philosophical epoch of humanity begins
first among the Greeks in the fifth century bc . This prejudice implies that other
ancient people did not engage in speculative thought. Undoubtedly, speculative
thought transcends experience, but it always attempts to explain, interpret, and
unify it in order to systematize it. Speculative thought, using aphorisms, allusions,
metaphors, negative or positive methods, and dialectics, can be oral or written, and
it is necessarily connected with the problems of life. Thus philosophy can be defined
as ‘‘systematic reflective thinking on life’’ (Yu-lan 1976: 16).
The spirit of Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, African philosophy, European philosophy, and Maya philosophy can differ greatly in their treatment of a
subject, but philosophy always deals with human knowledge, and the elevation of
the mind. The future philosophy of the world must then take into account the great
speculative systems of all humanity.
Therefore, there is an urgent need to gain some acquaintance with the traditions
of African philosophy from the remote times to the contemporary era. I am going to
try to present the ancient history of African philosophy by bringing into focus the
speculative thought of ancient Egypt.
African philosophy as a historical fact must be understood within a historical
frame. The origin, evolution, and development of African philosophy follow the
streams and currents of African history. The long history of African philosophy
has shown connections with other continents, chiefly with Europe, since the
Graeco-Roman world. In remote times African philosophy was mainly located
in the Nile Valley, that is, in Kemet or ancient Egypt, and in Kush (NapataMeroe). Philosophy flourished in Egypt from about 3400 bc to 343 b c and
in Kush (also known as Nubia or Ethiopia by the Greeks) from about 1000 bc to
625 b c.
The task of the historian of philosophy requires valid methods for clarifying the
ideas, concepts, and speculations of the philosophers of the past, and to push their
theories to their ultimate conclusion in order to show their effectiveness. But the
historian of philosophy is himself to some extent a philosopher, because his work is
not only a mere historical investigation, but also a creative one. The historian of
philosophy thinks about the ideas and theories of the past. Thus the analytical and
critical methods of history undergo mutations to become a productive method of
The Question of Ancient Egypt
The question of the ancient Egypt connection with the rest of Black Africa was
opened to an intensive discussion involving opposing points of view in 1974 during
an international symposium organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held in Cairo and Aswan. Present were more
than 20 of the best Egyptologists in the world. All the outstanding scholars and
specialists at the Cairo symposium, although they took opposing sides about other
items, came, in spite of that, to agreement regarding the following significant
First, Egyptian language as revealed in hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic
writings, and Coptic, that is, the old Egyptian language in its latest developments,
as written in the Greek-Coptic script, and modern African languages, as spoken
nowadays in Black Africa, constitute the same linguistic community broken into
several parts. Comparative grammar and the method of internal reconstruction
allow scholars to reconstruct certain features of the language spoken by the original, unseparated community, on the basis of corresponding features of the descent
languages. The comparative method in historical linguistics is still a valid method
for defining change and determining earlier forms of two or more related languages
to prove their precise relationship. Technically speaking, no scholar, using the
method of internal reconstruction, has proved objectively that the Semitic, Egyptian,
and Berber languages are descended from a common ancestor. The so-called ‘‘AfroAsiatic family,’’ or ‘‘Chamito-Semitic family,’’ which has gained wide circulation,
has no scientific foundation at all. There is no proof of an ‘‘Afro-Asiatic historical
grammar.’’ One may recall here what Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) called ‘‘the
prejudice of the prestige of the multitude,’’ that is to say, the supposition that what
everyone says must be true. In the human sciences ‘‘scientific’’ circles often make
claims not based on any objectively verifiable grounds but rather just on this kind
Second, ancient Egypt was a flourishing ancient kingdom of Northeast Africa,
located in the Nile Valley, nowise in ‘‘Asia Minor’’ or in the ‘‘Near East.’’ The
Egyptian civilization of the Pharaonic period (3400–343 bc ) was intrinsically, that
is, in its essential nature, an African civilization, on account of its spirit, character,
behavior, culture, thought, and deep feeling.
As we know, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), who was not a historian, but a great philosopher, stated in his lectures delivered in the winter of