African philosophy

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Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne Souleymane Bachir Diagne-Strasbourg-Septembre 2018 (1).jpg
Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne

African philosophy is the philosophical discourse produced by indigenous Africans and their descendants, including African/Americans. African philosophy presents a wide range of topics similar to its Eastern and Western counterparts. African philosophers may be found in the various academic fields of philosophy, such as metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy, and political philosophy. One particular subject that many African philosophers have written about is that on the subject of freedom and what it means to be free or to experience wholeness. [1] Philosophy in Africa has a rich and varied history, some of which has been lost over time. [2] One of the earliest known African philosophers was Ptahhotep, an ancient Egyptian philosopher. In the early and mid-twentieth century, anti-colonial movements had a tremendous effect on the development of a distinct African political philosophy that had resonance on both the continent and in the African diaspora. One well-known example of the economic philosophical works emerging from this period was the African socialist philosophy of Ujamaa propounded in Tanzania and other parts of Southeast Africa. These African political and economic philosophical developments also had a notable impact on the anti-colonial movements of many non-African peoples around the world.



There is some debate in defining the ethnophilosophical parameters of African philosophy and identifying what differentiates it from other philosophical traditions. One of the implicit assumptions of ethnophilosophy is that a specific culture can have a philosophy that is not applicable and accessible to all peoples and cultures in the world. In A Discourse on African Philosophy: A New Perspective on Ubuntu and Transitional Justice in South Africa, Christian B. N. Gade argues that the ethnophilosophical approach to African philosophy as a static group property is highly problematic. His research on ubuntu presents an alternative collective discourse on African philosophy that takes differences, historical developments, and social contexts seriously. According to Edwin Etieyibo and Jonathon O. Chimakonam in their article “African Philosophy: Past, Present, and Future”, historical context plays an important role in African philosophy. History provides the framework in which we can inspect philosophical problems. In terms of African philosophy, one must look at the whole picture through the lens of African history.  “There are no facts without history." [3]

African philosophy can be formally defined as a critical thinking by Africans on their experiences of reality. Nigerian born Philosopher K.C. Anyanwu defined African philosophy as "that which concerns itself with the way in which African people of the past and present make sense of their destiny and of the world in which they live. [4]

Nigerian philosopher Joseph I. Omoregbe broadly defines a philosopher as one who attempts to understand the world's phenomena, the purpose of human existence, the nature of the world, and the place of human beings in that world. This form of natural philosophy is identifiable in Africa even before individual African philosophers can be distinguished in the sources. [5] Like Western philosophy, African philosophy contemplates the perceptions of time, personhood, space and other subjects.


African philosophy's beginning is linked to the 1920s. African individuals who had studied in the United States and Europe ("Western" locations) had returned to Africa and reflected on the racial discrimination experienced abroad. Their arrival back in Africa instigated a feeling of onuma, which is an interpretation of "frustration." The onuma was felt in response to legacies of colonialism on a global scale. The beginning of African philosophy is important because onuma inspired some who had traveled and returned to formulate a "systematic beginning" of philosophizing the African identity, the space of African people in history, and African contribution to humanity. [6]


Two conflicting components are deemed integral to a work for it to be considered African philosophy. First, the piece must have a racial focus. This facet is valued by Traditionalist groups, who posit that African philosophy should be an expression of the world experienced by African individuals. African philosophy must be produced by African authors.In contrast, Universalist groups suggest that African philosophy should be analyses and critical engagement of and between individual African thinkers. A work is African philosophy based on a focal point of tradition. African philosophy must pull from African cultural backgrounds or thought processes, but it should be independent from racial considerations and use "African" only as a term of solidarity. [7]


Communitarian Method

The communitarian method of African philosophy emphasizes mutualism in thought. It is most commonly used by researchers following ubuntu. The common expression of ubuntu is that "a person is a person through a person." Leonhard Praeg, Mogobe Ramose, and Fainos Mangera implement the communitarian method. [8]

Complementary Method

The complementary method focuses on the prospect of a missing link. All variables are important in consideration of histories and identities, and no variable should be overlooked or under-considered. Additionally, all variables affect one another, so the relationship between them and their affects on other variables should be scrutinized. Mesembe Edet implements the complementary method. [8]

Conversational Method

The conversational method creates thought by assessing a relationship between oppositional works. The defender or proponent is named "nwa-swa," and the nwa swa is questioned and doubted by a disagreeing party, known as "nwa nju." The conversational method emphasizes the interconnectedness of networks within reality; the more accurate a thought should be, the more specific a location should be. This method is endorsed by the Conventional School of Psychology, and it is used by Victor Nweke and Msembe Edet. [8]



North Africa

In North Africa, arguably central to the development of the ancient Egyptian philosophical tradition of Egypt and Sudan was the conception of "ma'at", which roughly translated refers to "justice", "truth", or simply "that which is right". One of the earliest works of political philosophy was The Maxims of Ptahhotep, which were taught to Egyptian schoolboys for centuries.

Ancient Egypt have several philosophical texts that have been treated by scholars in recent years. In the 2018 podcast "Africana Philosophy", the philosophers Peter Adamson and Chike Jeffers devoted the first eight episodes to Egyptian philosophy. [9] The American Philosophical Association (APA) has published a text on the classical text "The Immortality of Writers" ("Be A Writer"), ca. 1200 BCE. The Blog of the APA article also covers “The Dispute Between a Man and His Ba” of 19th century BCE; “The Teaching of Ani”, 13th century BCE, which gives advice to the ordinary man; “The Satire of the Trades” by Khety; and the text of Amennakht (active in 1170–1140 BCE) from Deir El-Medina, whose teaching states that “it is good to finish school, better than the smell of lotus blossoms in summer.” [10]

Ancient Egyptian philosophers also made important contributions to Hellenistic philosophy and Christian philosophy. According to Busiris by the ancient Greek philosopher Isocrates, the senior of Plato, “all men agree the Egyptians are the healthiest and most long of life among men; and then for the soul they introduced philosophy’s training…” [11]

Isocrates declared that Greek writers traveled to Egypt to seek knowledge; one of them Pythagoras of Samos who “was first to bring to the Greeks all philosophy.”

In the Hellenistic tradition, the influential philosophical school of Neoplatonism was founded by the Egyptian philosopher Plotinus in the 3rd century CE.

West Africa

The most prominent of West Africa's pre-modern philosophical traditions has been identified as that of the Yoruba philosophical tradition and the distinctive worldview that emerged from it over the thousands of years of its development. Philosophical concepts such as Omoluabi were integral to this system, and the totality of its elements are contained in what is known amongst the Yoruba as the Itan. The cosmologies and philosophies of the Akan, Dogon, Serer and Dahomey were also significant.

In pre-colonial Senegambia (modern Gambia and Senegal), the 17th-century philosopher Kocc Barma Fall stood out as one of the renowned philosophers in Senegambian history. His proverbs are still recited by Senegalese and Gambians alike, including in Senegambian popular culture - for example in Ousmane Sembene's films such as Guelwaar [12] [13] Other notable philosophical thinkers include the Gambian historian Alieu Ebrima Cham Joof, and the Malian ethnologist Amadou Hampâté Bâ.

Horn of Africa

In the Horn of Africa, there are a number of sources documenting the development of a distinct Ethiopian philosophy from the first millennium onwards. Among the most notable examples from this tradition emerge from the work of the 17th-century philosopher Zera Yacob, and that of his disciple Walda Heywat. [14] Yacob in his writings discusses religion, morality, and existence. He comes to the belief that every person will believe their faith to be the right one and that all men are created equal. [15]

Southern Africa

In Southern Africa and Southeast Africa the development of a distinctive Bantu philosophy addressing the nature of existence, the cosmos and humankind's relation to the world following the Bantu migration has had the most significant impact on the philosophical developments of the said regions, with the development of the philosophy of Ubuntu as one notable example emerging from this worldview.

Central Africa

Many Central African philosophical traditions before the Bantu migration into southern Central Africa have been identified as a uniting characteristic of many Nilotic and Sudanic peoples, ultimately giving rise to the distinctive worldviews identified in the conceptions of time, the creation of the world, human nature, and the proper relationship between mankind and nature prevalent in Dinka mythology, Maasai mythology and similar traditions.

African Diaspora

Some pre-Modern African diasporic philosophical traditions have also been identified, mostly produced by descendants of Africans in Europe and the Americas. One notable pre-modern diasporic African philosopher was Anthony William Amo, who was taken as a slave from Awukenu in what is now Ghana, and was brought up and educated in Europe where he gained doctorates in medicine and philosophy, and subsequently became a professor of philosophy at the universities of Halle and Jena in Germany.


Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka has distinguished what he calls four trends in modern African philosophy: ethnophilosophy, philosophical sagacity, nationalisticideological philosophy, and professional philosophy. [16] In fact it would be more realistic to call them candidates for the position of African philosophy, with the understanding that more than one of them might fit the bill. (Oruka later added two additional categories: literary/artistic philosophy, such as the work of literary figures such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Okot p'Bitek, and Taban Lo Liyong, and hermeneutic philosophy, the analysis of African languages in order to find philosophical content.) In the African diaspora, American philosopher Maulana Karenga has also been notable in presenting varied definitions for understanding modern African philosophy, especially as it relates to its earliest sources.

Achille Mbembe, Modern African philosopher Achille Mbembe 2.JPG
Achille Mbembe, Modern African philosopher

One notable contributor to professional philosophy is Achille Mbembe. He interacts with a multitude of modern subjects, including thoughts on statehood, death, capital, racism, and colonialism. His invokes attention to moral and political arguments through a tone of morality in his works. Many recent pieces from Mbembe, including Critique of Black Reason, suggest that understanding Europe as a force not at the center of the universe is a point from which philosophy and society should view the world. Mbembe asserts that he positions himself in multiple worlds of existence at one time. This method creates an empathetic point from which the world can be viewed. [17]

Ethnophilosophy and philosophical sagacity

Ethnophilosophy has been used to record the beliefs found in African cultures. Such an approach treats African philosophy as consisting in a set of shared beliefs, values, categories, and assumptions that are implicit in the language, practices, and beliefs of African cultures; in short, the uniquely African worldview. As such, it is seen as an item of communal property rather than an activity for the individual.

One proponent of this form, Placide Tempels, argued in Bantu Philosophy that the metaphysical categories of the Bantu people are reflected in their linguistic categories. According to this view, African philosophy can be best understood as springing from the fundamental assumptions about reality reflected in the languages of Africa.

Another example of this sort of approach is the work of E. J. Algoa of the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, who argues for the existence of an African philosophy of history stemming from traditional proverbs from the Niger Delta in his paper "An African Philosophy of History in the Oral Tradition." Algoa argues that in African philosophy, age is seen as an important factor in gaining wisdom and interpreting the past. In support of this view, he cites proverbs such as "More days, more wisdom", and "What an old man sees seated, a youth does not see standing." Truth is seen as eternal and unchanging ("Truth never rots"), but people are subject to error ("Even a four-legged horse stumbles and falls"). It is dangerous to judge by appearances ("A large eye does not mean keen vision"), but first-hand observation can be trusted ("He who sees does not err"). The past is not seen as fundamentally different from the present, but all history is contemporary history ("A storyteller does not tell of a different season"). The future remains beyond knowledge ("Even a bird with a long neck cannot see the future"). Nevertheless, it is said, "God will outlive eternity." History is seen as vitally important ("One ignorant of his origin is nonhuman"), and historians (known as "sons of the soil") are highly revered ("The son of the soil has the python's keen eyes"). However, these arguments must be taken with a grain of cultural relativism, as the span of culture in Africa is incredibly vast, with patriarchies, matriarchies, monotheists and traditional religionists among the population, and as such the attitudes of groups of the Niger Delta cannot be construed to the whole of Africa.

Another more controversial application of this approach is embodied in the concept of Negritude. Leopold Senghor, a proponent of Negritude, argued that the distinctly African approach to reality is based on emotion rather than logic, works itself out in participation rather than analysis, and manifests itself through the arts rather than the sciences. Cheikh Anta Diop and Mubabinge Bilolo, on the other hand, while agreeing that African culture is unique, challenged the view of Africans as essentially emotional and artistic, arguing that Egypt was an African culture whose achievements in science, mathematics, architecture, and philosophy were pre-eminent. This philosophy may also be maligned as overly reductionist due to the obvious scientific and scholarly triumphs of not only ancient Egypt, but also Nubia, Meroe, as well as the great library of Timbuktu, the extensive trade networks and kingdoms of North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, the Horn of Africa and Great Zimbabwe and the other major empires of Southern, Southeast and Central Africa.

Critics of this approach argue that the actual philosophical work in producing a coherent philosophical position is being done by the academic philosopher (such as Algoa), and that the sayings of the same culture can be selected from and organised in many different ways in order to produce very different, often contradictory systems of thought.

Philosophical sagacity is a sort of individualist version of ethnophilosophy, in which one records the beliefs of certain special members of a community. The premise here is that, although most societies demand some degree of conformity of belief and behaviour from their members, a certain few of those members reach a particularly high level of knowledge and understanding of their cultures' worldviews; such people are sages. In some cases, the sage goes beyond mere knowledge and understanding to reflection and questioningthese become the targets of philosophical sagacity.

Critics of this approach note that not all reflection and questioning is philosophical; besides, if African philosophy were to be defined purely in terms of philosophic sagacity, then the thoughts of the sages could not be African philosophy, for they did not record them from other sages. Also, on this view the only difference between non-African anthropology or ethnology and African philosophy seems to be the nationality of the researcher.

Critics argue further that the problem with both ethnophilosophy and philosophical sagacity is that there is surely an important distinction between philosophy and the history of ideas, although other philosophers consider the two topics to be remarkably similar. [18] The argument is that no matter how interesting the beliefs of a people such as the Akan or the Yoruba may be to the philosopher, they remain beliefs, not philosophy. To call them philosophy is to use a secondary sense of that term, such as in "my philosophy is live and let live.

Professional philosophy

Professional philosophy is usually identified as that produced by African philosophers trained in the Western philosophical tradition, that embraces a universal view of the methods and concerns of philosophy. [16] Those philosophers identified in this category often explicitly reject the assumptions of ethnophilosophy and adopt a universalist worldview of philosophy that requires all philosophy to be accessible and applicable to all peoples and cultures in the world [16] This is even if the specific philosophical questions prioritized by individual national or regional philosophies may differ. [16] Some African philosophers classified in this category are Paulin Hountondji, Peter Bodunrin, Kwasi Wiredu, Tsenay Serequeberhan, Marcien Towa and Lansana Keita. [16]

Nationalist and ideological philosophy

Nationalist and ideological philosophy might be considered a special case of philosophic sagacity, in which not sages but ideologues are the subjects. Alternatively, it has been considered as a subcategory of professional political philosophy. In either case, the same sort of problem arises with retaining a distinction between ideology and philosophy, and also between sets of ideas and a special way of reasoning. Examples include African socialism, Nkrumaism, Harambee and Authenticite

African ethics

Although Africa is extremely diverse, there appear to be some shared moral ideas across many ethnic groups. [19] In a number of African cultures, ethics is centered on a person's character, and saying "he has no morals" translates as something like "he has no character". [19] A person's character reflects the accumulation of her deeds and her habits of conduct; hence, it can be changed over a person's life. [19] In some African cultures, "personhood" refers to an adult human who exhibits moral virtues, and one who behaves badly is not considered a person, even if he is considered a human. [19]

While many traditional African societies are highly religious, their religions are not revealed, and hence, ethics does not center around divine commands. [19] Instead, ethics is humanistic and utilitarian: it focuses on improving social functioning and human flourishing. [19] On the other hand, social welfare is not a mere aggregate of individual welfare; rather, there is a collective "social good" embodying values that everyone wants, like peace and stability. [19] In general, African ethics is social or collectivistic rather than individualistic and united in ideology. [19] Cooperation and altruism are considered crucial. [19] African ethics places more weight on duties of prosocial behaviour than on rights per se, in contrast to most of Western ethics. [19]

Africana philosophy

Africana philosophy is the work of philosophers of African descent and others whose work deals with the subject matter of the African diaspora. This is a relatively new (since the 1980s) and developing name given to African thought, and it is given credible attention by professional organizations, including the American Philosophical Association. [20]

Africana philosophy includes the philosophical ideas, arguments and theories of particular concern to people of African descent. Some of the topics explored by Africana philosophy include: pre-Socratic African philosophy and modern day debates discussing the early history of Western philosophy, post-colonial writing in Africa and the Americas, black resistance to oppression, black existentialism in the United States, and the meaning of "blackness" in the modern world. [19]

List of African philosophers

This is a list of notable philosophers who theorize in the African tradition, as well as philosophers from the continent of Africa.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Mucale, Ergimino Pedro (Fall 2015). "The Libertarian Paradigm in Ngoenha: A Contribution to the African Philosophy". Philosophia Africana. 17: 45–54.
  2. BBC (2010-01-13), Neglected African History - Lost Kingdoms of Africa Nubia - BBC4 Highlight , retrieved 2019-03-13
  3. Etieyibo, Edwin; Chimakonam, Jonathan (Fall 2015). "African Philosophy: Past, Present, and Future". Philosophia Africana.
  4. Peters, R.S. (1959). Authority, Responsibility and Education. London: G. Allen & Unwin.
  5. Maurice Muhatia Makumba, An Introduction to African Philosophy: Past and Present (2007), p. 25.
  6. Chimakonam, Jonathan. "History of African Philosophy". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  7. Gyeke, Kwame (1987). An Essay in African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. 1 2 3 Wiredu, Kwasi (1989). On Defining African Philosophy. APP Publications.
  9. "Locating and Debating Precolonial African Philosophy | History of Philosophy without any gaps". Retrieved 2019-06-20.
  10. Contributor, Blog (2018-12-17). "The Radical Philosophy of Egypt: Forget God and Family, Write!". Blog of the APA. Retrieved 2019-06-20.
  11. Contributor, Blog (2018-12-17). "The Radical Philosophy of Egypt: Forget God and Family, Write!". Blog of the APA. Retrieved 2019-06-20.
  12. Ware, Rudolph T., The Walking Qurʼan: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa, UNC Press Books (2014), p. 101, ISBN   9781469614311
  13. Murphy, David, Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film & Fiction. James Currey Publishers (200), p. 63, ISBN   978-0-85255-555-2
  14. "Yacob and Amo: Africa's precursors to Locke, Hume and Kant – Dag Herbjørnsrud | Aeon Essays". Aeon. Retrieved 2019-06-20.
  15. Sumner, Claude (1994). Ethiopian Philosophy.
  16. 1 2 3 4 5 Samuel Oluoch Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy (1998), pp. 38-39,
  17. says, Shaka Yesufu. "MBEMBE, Achille". GLOBAL SOCIAL THEORY. Retrieved 2019-12-17.
  18. "Overview African Philosophy", p. 172, One Hundred Philosophers, Peter J. King, Zebra, 2006
  19. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Gyekye, Kwame (9 Sep 2010). "African Ethics". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall 2011 Edition. Retrieved 7 October 2014.
  20. Outlaw Jr., Lucius T. (2017), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Africana Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2019-12-17
  21. Okere, Theophilus. African Philosophy: A Historico-Hermeneutical Investigation of the Conditions of its Possibility. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983.

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