CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY
This is a re-creation of a lecture delivered to the students
of Mount Saint Mary College
in Newburgh, New York on principal schools of philosophy of 20th
century African continent.
This page was created by Laura Kelly with help from Steven Jee, students
at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York 5>
Before starting the body of the lecture, Dr. Emagalit
distributed this map and asked members of the audience to name as
many countries as they could while working in teams.
Take five minutes now before continuing. On a sheet of paper
number 1 to 55. Fill in as many countries as you can.
Now check your answers by clicking here.
How did you do?
How much do you know about this continent?
I know that all of you this afternoon are wondering and asking
yourselves fundamental questions as to what I am going to talk about
under the umbrella of Contemporary
African Philosophy. I intend to talk about some philosophical
frameworks on which African people base
themselves in interpreting, organizing and rendering their lives
possible in our physical and spiritual universe.
My choice of this topic is accounted for by the fact that in every
culture, human beings have sets of principles by which their
experiences are ordered, rationally justified and are rendered
meaningful, ethical and valuable.
The entire focus of life depends on these models. In the like
manner, in African contemporary life today, life as a whole
continues to be explained, understood, reflected upon and rendered
meaningful by mindsets that are unique to the African cultures in
their various environments.
I hope that a brief analysis of some of these categories by which
Africans direct their lives and hope to survive in this modern
complex world, will reveal to us another way our mysterious universe
keeps unfolding itself. But before I embark on this main topic, I
would like to place before you a picture of the kind of Africa I am
and the trends of philosophy that determine the prevailing philosophy
in Africa be labeled "contemporary."
A modern contemporary African philosopher by the name,
Serequeberhan teaching African Philosophy at Hampshire College once
remarked that when he told students and the faculty there that he was teaching African Philosophy, they were shocked and raised eyebrows
by asking if such a thing like "African Philosophy" ever existed at all! There are certainly reasons for that surprise. One of them is the popular understanding of Africa as a Dark Continent where there are no roads, no schools, no governments and no civilization.
This is the Africa of journalists, merchants and tourist business people who want to promote their products.
Another reason why some people usually express wonder and doubt at the mention of the existence of African Philosophy is due to the image of Africa as delineated by some anthropologists, social scientists, political analysis's and historians with a slanted approach to reality.
Any person who reads the book entitled, The Savage Mind by
C. Levi-Strauss or V. Brelsford's work entitled, The Philosophy
of the Savage, or Levy Bruhl's
Mental Functions among Lower Societies, or C. P. Groves work,
The Planting of Christianity in Africa,
will logically understand that the picture of Africa projected by
these scholars to the international community is tantamount to a
photograph of a person without a head and hands.
Many people who are not enlightened about Africa today in the
Western world still retain a mental picture of Africa where animals
are parading everywhere in jungles and people roaming about in deserts. It
is of course true that there are deserts, forests, nomadic peoples
like the Masai,
the Turkana, and the Karimojong
inhabiting semi-deserts and roaming about pasturing their cattle.
But is that the complete image of Africa, a continent comprised of
55 different countries?
The Africa I am talking about in this lecture is a vast continent
of 55 countries that have different forms of governments, economies,
systems of education, thousands of diverse cultures and modern
infrastructure. The image of Africa relevant to our topic is the
one where education,
especially philosophy, is rife. It is the Africa that has
Universities with full-fledged divisions of philosophy and religions. It is the Africa where the
philosophies of ancient to contemporary African thinkers are taught.
It is the same part of the globe where Curriculum
Boards have designed programs that critically study European, Asian
and African philosophies and religions. It is that part of our
universe where philosophical conferences like Africana Philosophy
Conference, Nigerian Philosophical Association Conference, Afro-Asian
Philosophy Conference, Dr. Anthony William Amo Conference, Conference
on Metaphysics as well as Theological Conferences have been
organized and do take place time and again. It is that zone of
the universe adhere professionally trained philosophers and
theologians like Odera
H. Oruka, Dismas Masolo, J. O. Sodipo, Peter Bodunrin , Prof.
V. Y. Mudimbe,
John Mbiti, Wiredu, Idowu, et al have established Research Centers within University premises and are currently engaged in both philosophical and religious researches. When I talk about
African Contemporary Philosophy, it is the present picture of
Africa that I request you to bear in mind.
Before I embark on the models that constitute the current
it may be appropriate if we asked the question, "What is the
overall picture of contemporary philosophy in the African Continent
today?" Basically, there are four trends that can be regarded as the
core of African Contemporary Philosophy in our present times.
The first of these trends is Ethnophilosophy. While the second is
branded as Philosophic Sagacity, the third trend is
Nationalist-ideological Philosophy. Finally, there is what we
Professional Philosophy. What precisely do these philosophies mean?
Ethnophilosophy is a system of thought that
deals with collective worldviews of diverse African peoples as
a unified form of knowledge.
It is based on the myths, folk-wisdom and the proverbs of
the people. The term "ethnophilosophy" was coined
by Paulin Hountondji to refer to the
works of those anthropologists, sociologists, ethnographers and
philosophers who present collective philosophies of life of African
Ethnophilosophy is thus a specialized and wholly customs
philosophy that requires a communal consensus. It identifies with
the totality of customs and common beliefs of a people. It is a
folk philosophy. An ethnophilosopher is committed to the task of
describing a world outlook or thought system of a particular
African community or the whole of Africa. Apart from Paulin
Hountondji, it is also represented by authors such as Placid
John Mbiti and Kagame.
The second current trend of philosophy in Africa today, is the
Philosophic Sagacity is a reflective system
of thought based on the wisdom and the traditions of people.
Basically it is a reflection of a person who is acknowledged both
as a sage and a thinker. As a sage, the person is well versed in
the wisdoms of his/her people and the people of a particular
society will quickly recognize that sages possess that wisdom.
But that is not enough. For it is possible to be a sage and not a
thinker. The acknowledged sage must also be a thinker who is
rationally critical and are capable of conceiving excellent
options and recommending ideas that offer alternatives to the
commonly accepted opinions and practices. Sages therefore
transcend the communal wisdom and remain the spokespersons of
their culture. Sagacity philosophers are convinced that the study
of African Philosophy does not consist in the study of general
works but in identifying wise women and men in society whose
repute is very high on the basis of their wisdom. By interviewing
them, their recorded wisdom and that of the professional
philosopher amount to true African thought. Their aim is to show
that literacy is not a necessary condition for philosophical
reflection and exposition and that in Africa, there are critical
independent thinkers who guide their thought and judgments by the
power of reason and inborn insight. Their philosophy is based on:
the evidence of their research. For instance. in Marcel Griaule's
Conversations with Oqotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogan Religious
Idea. Ogotemelli is a sage who is interviewed by Marcel and the
result is the philosophy of religion of the Dogan people.
philosophical trend is a creation of Professor Odera H. Oruka of
University and it is a trend subscribed by many
contemporary philosophers mostly in Eastern Africa and other
parts of Africa.
The third current trend of Philosophy In Africa is the
philosophy. It is a system of though, based on traditional African
socialism and familyhood. It represented by the works of politicians
like Kwame Nkrumah,
and Leopold Senghor.
This trend of philosophy aims at seeking a true and a meaningful
freedom for African people that can be attained by mental liberation
and a return to genuine traditional African humanism wherever it is
possible. So it is basically a socio-political philosophy.
The final unit of philosophy in Africa today is the
In the African context, professional philosophy consists in the
analysis and interpretation of reality in general. It
further consists of criticism and argument, which to them, are the
essential characteristics and conditions for any form of knowledge
to be judged
as philosophy. Philosophy to them is a universal discipline that
has the same meaning in
all cultures in spite of the fact that a particular philosopher maybe conditioned by cultural biases, method and the existential situation in his/her
society. According to this school represented by basically four
Oruka Odera and Peter Bodunrin, African philosophy is the philosophy
done by African
philosophers be it on the subject matter that is African
or alien. To these philosophers, African philosophy today is
predominantly a metaphilosophy dealing with the central theme of,
"What is philosophy?" and the corollary,
African philosophy?" Viewed in this context, it has some
limitations that have been, identified by Odera H. Oruka as lacking
personal subject matter, a prolonged history of debates and
literature to preserve and expand itself as well as a limited degree
To Pieces of World Philosophy