By Zeverin Emagalit,Ph.D.

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

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 talking about and the trends of philosophy that determine the prevailing philosophy in Africa be labeled "contemporary."


A modern contemporary African philosopher by the name, Tsenay 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. Hountondji, 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 African world-view, 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 all know, 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 peoples. Ethnophilosophy is thus a specialized and wholly customs dictated 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 Temples, Leopold Senghor, John Mbiti and Kagame.

The second current trend of philosophy in Africa today, is the Sagacity Philosophy. 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. This philosophical trend is a creation of Professor Odera H. Oruka of Nairobi 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 Nationalist-Ideological philosophy. It is a system of though, based on traditional African socialism and familyhood. It represented by the works of politicians like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere 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 professional philosophy. 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 African philosophers, Kwasi Wiredu, Paulin Hountondji, 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, "What is 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 of self-criticism.

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