Changing How the World Thinks

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African Philosophy Is More Than You Think It Is

African philosophers have shaped Western philosophy more than we acknowledge

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North Atlantic professional philosophy has only recently been awakening to the realization that societies in the global South have rich traditions of thought. While efforts to break beyond the narrow canon of academic philosophy ought to be welcomed, a truly robust engagement with African, Asian, Latin American and other philosophical systems will demand more than the odd additional reading tacked on at the bottom of the syllabus to round off the semester. Rather, it will require, among other things, a thoroughgoing excavation of the reading schemas by which philosophers engage with non-Western texts. 

A recent essay written by Katrin Flikschuh, a respected professor of modern political theory at the London School of Economics, may serve as an illustration of how North Atlantic philosophers often misread African philosophical texts. In an otherwise fine article pushing back against Western dismissals of African beliefs as devoid of rationality, Flikschuh ends up reasserting several troubling presuppositions that prevent a robust understanding of the diversity and insights in African philosophical work. After drawing a contrast between African and Western conceptions of personhood, Flikschuh then argues that “just as communal African conceptions of the person may be culturally unavailable to a ‘Westerner,’ so a Western more individualistic conceptions of the person may be culturally unavailable to many citizens of modern African societies.” The upshot, she concludes, is that such an engagement with “African philosophical conceptions of the person can teach us to acknowledge that we have no reason to expect members of modern African polities to embrace Western individualism as a condition of social and political development."

Flikschuh’s article begins with an assumption that has a long pedigree in North Atlantic thought about Africa: the treatment of African thought and ways of life as the 'Other' of North Atlantic philosophy. Driven by a notion that African societies constitute the antipodean limit, as it were, of 'Western civilization', some philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel flatly dismissed the very possibility of the existence of philosophy in these societies. But even as increasing numbers of North Atlantic philosophers have repudiated the most vulgar iterations of Hegelian prejudice, many like Flikschuh have retained his presumption of 'African otherness'.

One major flaw with reading African philosophy as 'the Other' of Western philosophy is that it assumes that the world can be carved up in self-contained, self-generated civilizational blocs. As any moderately critical historian can attest, no such civilisation exists. Far from springing full-formed from the head of the goddess Europa, the 'West' as both idea and social structure has come to be through encounters – much of it bloody and pitiless; some of it irenic and fruitful – with those it branded 'barbarians', 'slaves', 'foreigners', and 'aliens'. 


"One major flaw with reading African philosophy as 'the Other' of Western philosophy is that it assumes that the world can be carved up in self-contained, self-generated civilizational blocs."


It is not insignificant that Diogenes Laertius gives widespread expression to a commonplace view among his ancient Greek contemporaries when in his Lives and Doctrines of Illustrious Philosophers he writes that the “the study of philosophy had its beginnings among the barbarians.” In the same vein, it should not be possible to claim a knowledge of North Atlantic philosophy without acknowledging the constitutive role of Africa in its making. 

There are at least two ways of understanding the claim that North Atlantic philosophy has been deeply shaped by Africans. The first involves acknowledging the powerful presence of Africans and people of African descent in the shaping of the 'Western canon'. Thus, for example, this would involve registering how the likes of Augustine shaped debates in metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and ethics; how Anton Amo proffered novel arguments in legal philosophy; and, more recently, how thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Charles Mills, and Kathryn Sophia Belle have radically reshaped the topography of political philosophy. 

But there is a yet another, subtler way, in which Africa has been a felt presence in North Atlantic philosophy. This has to do with how critical concepts in North Atlantic philosophy have been articulated in relation to real and imagined encounters with Africans. For example, David Hume works out his theory of human nature by contrasting what he believes to be the superiority of the white mind to that of black people. Immanuel Kant bolsters his claims about personhood and moral psychology by sifting through travelogues of explorers, missionaries, and imperial administrators about the capabilities (or lack thereof) of non-white people. Hegel – who defined philosophy as its time grasped in concept – grapples with a theory of freedom in the wake of the aftershock of the Haitian revolution and what it portended for European supremacy. These are but a few examples of how 'Africa' is furiously disavowed by North Atlantic philosophy precisely because it is the condition of possibility for thought about 'rationality', 'taste', and 'freedom'.  

Flikschuh suggests that it is unlikely that African people will embrace Western individualism as a condition for development given the metaphysical conceptions of the person advanced by African philosophers. Such an argument, of course, follows from the crudely drawn opposition she posits between these complex and spectacularly diverse geographical landmasses. One wonders how such a claim can be sustained in light of the mezzanine political, economic, and cultural practices that circulate in actually existing postcolonial African countries – from a now dominant capitalism to residual socialisms, autocratic liberalisms alongside radical democratic social movements, religious fundamentalism and syncretic spiritisms that jostle alongside atheistic and agnostic secularisms, and so on. 

But even putting that aside, there are several hermeneutical problems that emerge from such a characterization of African philosophy. Recall that for Flikschuh, “just as communal African conceptions of the person may be culturally unavailable to a ‘Westerner,’ so Western more individualistic conceptions of the person may be culturally unavailable to many citizens of modern African societies.” 

By 'cultural availability', Flikschuh appears to mean the possibility of an idea being endorsed, appropriated, or adopted by a particular people. One logical implication of Flikschuh’s argument is that the ideas of Plato or Kant are somehow more 'culturally available' to Westerners than those of African philosophers like Kwasi Wiredu, Ifeanyi Menkiti, or Segun Gbadegesin. It would follow from such a claim that contemporary African philosophers are not coeval with their Western contemporaries. In his book Time and the Other, Fabian argued that the characterization of certain societies as 'primitive' and others as 'modern' was legitimized through the denial of coevality – that is, the belief that non-Westerners don’t inhabit the same historical time as Westerners.  Thus, rather than, say, taking African philosopher Ifeanyi Menkiti’s ideas on personhood as one account among many articulated in a specific historical moment, it is not unusual for some to interpret his arguments as a timeless insight on African beliefs. Such a belief is particularly pernicious in the case of Africa because it casts the continent 'outside history', forever mummified as 'primordial', 'premodern' or 'traditional'. 


"It makes no sense to compare African folk thought with the ideas of Western canonical philosophers."


Moreover, the reading of African philosophical texts as repositories of 'traditional' culture conflates the opinions of ordinary publics in Africa with the work of African professional philosophers. In his pathbreaking article, “How Not To Compare African Traditional Thought With Western Thought,” the eminent African philosopher Kwasi Wiredu offered a devastating critique of this misreading. Wiredu draws attention to a tendency common in Western scholarship to compare African folk thought – taken to be representative of African epistemologies and metaphysics – with Western scientific thought. By the same token, Wiredu continues, it makes no sense to compare African folk thought with the ideas of Western canonical philosophers. Wiredu’s point is that African professional philosophers presumably intend to do more than simply reflect the conventional wisdom dominant in their societies. Their task involves clarifying, critiquing, and even inventing new concepts and practices.

The treatment of African philosophical texts as cultural storehouses is also fraught with a different sort of hermeneutical danger. It encourages the notion that the test of a philosophical tradition – or of specific philosophical texts – are to be measured by their 'purity', 'authenticity', 'originality', and 'uniqueness'. It should not be difficult to determine the provenance of these frames in North Atlantic philosophy, specifically as the creation of Enlightenment and Romantic European philosophers of the 18th and 19th century. Indeed, they mark the very constituents through which 'the West' was fabricated. The 'originality', 'authenticity' and 'uniqueness' of Western philosophy was established not only through a mythic history that claimed ancient Greece as the 'miraculous birthplace' of philosophy, but also by a metonymic linking of intellectual work to biological (read racial and ethnic) purity.  The upshot has been that – even when racial categories are overtly rejected – they continue to set the deeper terms of philosophical classification.  

This places a burden on African philosophy that it is only ever authentic precisely to the extent that it most diverges from Western philosophy. It is no wonder, then, that readers of African philosophers – including many African philosophers – have thought that the only possible way African philosophy can establish its bona fides involves emphasising its cultural uniqueness.


"There is the assumption that African philosophy has to be an entirely different order of discourse from Western philosophy – never mind that such a discourse would be hardly intelligible in the first place – for it to count as proffering anything new."


For their part, North Atlantic philosophers sympathetic to African philosophy have invoked such cultural differences as proof of African philosophical originality. Flikschuh, for example, writes that “African philosophy offers insights into dimensions of human experience made uniquely available through African metaphysical beliefs and normative commitments.” It isn’t simply that such demands for 'authenticity', 'purity', and 'originality' encourage invidious forms of cultural essentialism. It is also the case that such accounts are apt to dismiss as derivative and unoriginal those forms of African philosophical work that take up themes familiar to the West. Part of this follows from the assumption that African philosophy has to be an entirely different order of discourse from Western philosophy – never mind that such a discourse would be hardly intelligible in the first place – for it to count as proffering anything new. 

A fetishistic insistence on 'originality', and 'purity' does more than fail to account for the inextricable entanglement of all philosophical discourses with others. It is also undergirded by a peculiar proprietorship to philosophical thinking that assumes that ideas cannot be generated independently from different geographic and social formations. But such assumptions have been repeatedly falsified by the historical record. For example, Dag Herbjørnsrud has argued persuasively that the 17th century Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob articulated a philosophical system that – in its rationalist methods and egalitarian commitments – bears remarkable resonances with those articulated in the European Enlightenment. It should be clear from such examples that the denial of originality to African philosophers can just as often stem from the assumption that the movement of ideas can only ever be from the West to the non-Western world. This has meant that ideas emergent from Africa (and other non-Western continents) have often been ignored or simply attributed to North Atlantic philosophers. The philosopher Lewis Gordon in his book What Fanon Said, makes note of a “tendency that often emerges in the study of intellectuals of African descent—namely, the reduction of their thought to the thinkers they study. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre was able to comment on black intellectuals such as Aimé Césaire, Fanon, and Léopold Sédar Senghor without becoming ‘Césairian,’ ‘Fanonian,’ or ‘Senghorian’; Simone de Beauvoir could comment on the thought of Richard Wright without becoming ‘Wrightian’; the German sociologist Max Weber could comment on the African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois without becoming ‘Du Boisian.’ Why, then, is there a different story when black authors comment on their (white) European counterparts?”


"The problem isn’t so much that North Atlantic philosophers know little about African philosophy; rather, a deeper problem is that they do not see, do not hear, the African philosophy that is practiced right before their eyes."


A counter-intuitive insight may be gleaned from the above points. The problem isn’t so much that North Atlantic philosophers know little about African philosophy; rather, a deeper problem is that they do not see, do not hear, the African philosophy that is practiced right before their eyes. The problem, in other words, is much more one of attention and acknowledgment than it is one of ignorance. If this is true, we ought to be wary of the inordinate attention often given to African metaphysics by those who are interested in getting a foothold into the discipline of African philosophy. The point here is not that African metaphysics does not matter. Rather, there are at least three possible dangers that can follow from an overemphasis on African metaphysics. The first is that concern with mining the 'metaphysical depths' that purportedly underlie manifest beliefs and actions of Africans may look past actual writings and ordinary meanings put forward by African philosophers. Second, the focus on metaphysics is too often underwritten by a 'holistic fallacy' that a particular metaphysical system offers an all-encompassing canopy that accounts for the beliefs and behavior that are dominant within African society. Such a belief ignores the extent to which most societies have congeries of metaphysical systems entangled and often in tension with one another. It also wrongly takes metaphysical systems as seamless wholes rather than the patchwork quilts that they are. Moreover, the notion that there is a one to one correspondence between a metaphysical system and the actions of particular persons offers a far too fantastical causal efficacy between belief and action. 


"The problem, in other words, is much more one of attention and acknowledgment than it is one of ignorance."


There is another reason why we ought to be careful about the disproportionate attention paid to metaphysics in African philosophy. This is because such an approach may narrow the reading of African philosophy to its propositional claims. We may then be in danger of a host of other lessons that can be imparted by African philosophy, such as, for example, the 'negative truths' advanced by African philosophy, the rhetorical styles of African philosophy, the creative and imaginative insights and pleasures to be found as much on the margins and footnotes as from the central arguments put forward by African philosophers. To clarify what I mean here, let us consider a familiar example. In Plato’s Republic, Cephalos defines justice as telling the truth and giving back what one owes. In response, Socrates refutes this definition by positing the following scenario: suppose one is keeping arms belonging to another and the owner who is in a state of madness demands them back. In such a situation, Socrates argues, it would be wrong to give back the arms. By so doing, Socrates exposes a fatal contradiction in Cephalos’s idea of justice and gives the reader powerful grounds for rejecting it. This exchange strikingly shows that one need not agree with Plato’s often implausible metaphysics to learn from reading the Republic. That is, the lessons imparted by Plato go beyond metaphysical lessons; indeed, are often powerful despite his metaphysics. In the same vein, approaches to African philosophical texts that are solely concerned to tease out the metaphysical scaffolding of particular cultural practices fail to do justice to the depth and breadth of readings possible in the field. African philosophy, it is true, has produced a rich body of metaphysical thought. But a narrow focus on metaphysics gives short shrift not only to African political philosophy, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, but arguably to the pleasures and insights – rhetorical, aesthetic, and argumentative – also to be found in African philosophy.  

If there is a takeaway to this essay, it involves inviting philosophers and teachers to reexamine the hermeneutical approaches implicit in their engagement with African (and other non-Western) philosophies. Against postures of reading that emphasize absolute forms of sovereignty, autonomy, and transcendence, I hope North Atlantic philosophers can follow African philosophers in acknowledging encounter as a constitutive practice of reading and writing.

Omedi Ochieng teaches rhetorical theory and criticism, argumentation, and aesthetics at Denison University. He is the author of Groundwork for the Practice of the Good Life: Politics and Ethics at the Intersection of North Atlantic and African Philosophy (2017). His book, The Intellectual Imagination: Knowledge and Aesthetics in North Atlantic and African Philosophy is forthcoming.

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DaWitt Abraha 14 July 2018

This essay by OMEDI OCHIENG is a breath of fresh air to my understanding of universal philosophy and to my musings in my mind.
I am encouraged to write more of his writings.