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Souleyman Bachir Diagne

Beyond the Hyphen-Syndrom

Tasks for an African Philosopher


This presentation will first examine the history of the debate that took place around the notion of an African philosophy. Then it will proceed to define a certain number of tasks that are, in my view, to be undertaken by the African philosophical community today. »Today« meaning then: after the debate has calmed down and that we have come to more serene and pragmatic answers to the question: »What is ›Africanity‹ in philosophy?«


The metaphilosophical debate

Placide Tempels
at Centre Æquatoria:
external linkBio-Bibliography

Alexis Kagame
at Centre Æquatoria:
external linkBio-Bibliography
1 The terms of the debate concerning African philosophy are well known as they have been translated into a confrontation between ethno-philosophers and euro-philosophers. Let me just recall what these terms are for those who are not familiar with the literature. The constructed notion of ethno-philosophy came first. In fact Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Nkrumah used the term in his Consciencism to convey a philosophical approach to the African reality and experience just as, say, ethno-botanic is understood to be the branch of the discipline called ›botanic‹ when dealing with the flora of a »different« geographic area. Then it was coined again by the philosopher from Cameroon Marcien Towa and by Paulin Hountondji from Benin with quite a different connotation – actually a disparaging one – to characterize works that were published as ›philosophies‹ of the Africans. The notion of ethno-philosophy thus targeted publications such as the celebrated pioneer Father Placide Tempels' Bantu philosophy, Alexis Kagame's La philosophie bantu-rwandaise de l'être, or, in a slightly different way, Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotommêli.
2 To present very broadly the criticism against ethno-philosophical approach, I would say that it is the denunciation of a form of inductive reasoning starting from the data collected through ethnographical enquiry to end up with generalities about the peoples' worldviews labeled as their ›metaphysics‹, ›ontologies‹ or ›philosophies‹. The trouble with this kind of constructions being that, in a Popperian sense, they are absolutely non falsifiable. You cannot discuss the detail of what Father Tempels has to say about the philosophy of the Bantu in general to say this is so this is not so. All you can do is to de-construct it, that is to say dig out what the hidden interest behind the whole intellectual construction is.
»Les Bantu voient dans l'homme la force vivante, l'énergie ou l'être qui possède la vraie, la plus haute vie et la plus réelle. Ils voient dans l'homme la plus haute, la plus puissante des énergies, parmi toutes les forces créées, et parmi tous les êtres et forces, notamment parmi les animaux, plantes et minéraux. Ces dernières forces, basses, n'ont pas en elles la pleine, la vraie vie, cette vie plus haute et plus forte du muntu

Placide Tempels
3 For example, in the case of Bantu Philosophy Placide Tempels places at the core of it – and this is indeed a notion quite pervasive in all ethno-philosophical literature – the concept of vital force as a fundamental characteristic of the Bantu worldview. And, indeed, it has been considered as a common denominator for different African ontologies, in different cultural areas, not only Bantu but Dogon or Bambara, etc… And this vital force is said to be admitting of increase or decrease and to function in all different domains of individual and collective life: thus, for instance, good governance (the right choice of a leader) is that by which an increase of the vital force is assured for the whole community; the right action is that by which the vital force is increased; religious rituals exalt the ancestors' vital force which in turn benefits the community, etc. In a word the definitions of right and wrong, just and unjust will all amount to what increases or diminishes the vital force.
4 Now – and this would be the de-constructionist view – Father Tempels' interest in revealing to the Bantus what their own implicit ›philosophy‹ is, is for him and all the missionaries to understand fully what kind of metaphysics they are being confronted with in their task of preaching the Gospel and evangelizing the Bantu peoples. And in his correspondence he says in particular how he came to understand what use he could make, in his evangelical mission, of the words of Jesus: I am life, I give life. Which, by the way, could be seen as undermining the essentialist and differentialist premise he had been working with, namely that Bantu dynamic ontology of the vital force was radically different from the western notion of a static ontology represented by Aristotle's metaphysics. In a word, and to conclude with this point, the critics against ethno-philosophical works following this model set by Tempels would argue that these are un-authentic, condemned by definition to miss their own purpose, namely to present the ›philosophy‹ of the Bantus or the Ibos or the Wolof…
5 I come now to the other hyphen-constructed notion of euro-philosophy. It was, I believe, coined by Pathé Diagne in his L'europhilosophie face à la pensée du negro-africain to strike back in a symmetrical way at those like Marcien Towa and Paulin Hountondji accused to be holding the position they were holding against ethno-philosophy ultimately because they had themselves accepted and internalized the Hegelian discourse on philosophy as the universal expression of western spirit and history via Marxist universalism. Thus, Hountondji for example has quite often received ad hominem criticism for the original sin of elitism, for having been a student of Louis Althusser at Ecole Normale Supérieure.
Kwame Anthony Appiah:
African philosophy.
In: E. Craig (ed.):
Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
London: Routledge, 1998.
external linkArticle
6 Now in this combat, the question of what philosophy is has occupied quite an important place: as a matter of fact the debate has been through and through meta-philosophical in the sense that euro-philosophers and ethno-philosophers have been throwing hyphens at each other in this battle, the stake of which seemed very often to be the correct definition of philosophy or genuinely philosophical activity. In that context, Paulin Hountondji's articles and conferences, many of them collected in his African Philosophy: Myth or Reality have been very influential as the author was leading the crusade against ethno-philosophy.
7 Actually, at one point, with the launching of a journal called Consequence (which did not, as usual unfortunately in African academia, go beyond the enthusiastically written and quite promising issue number one) by Kwasi Wiredu, the late Henry Odera Oruka and Paulin Hountondji, it was taken that the crusade was being conducted by the Trinity of the three of them. But eventually it appeared that Oruka's program of work on Sage philosophy (to interview African sages, that is to say individual thinkers with knowledge of the cultural values of the group and insight about the changes brought by time, and record their views) and Wiredu's exploration of what he called in one of his articles an African orientation in philosophy were not altogether anti ethno-philosophical enterprises. As a matter of fact, Kwasi Wiredu is quite willing to be called an ethno-philosopher if one insists in using this terminology: this is a declaration he made during a lecture that he gave in the Spring 1999 at the Program of African Studies in Northwestern University.

Orature in question

Niels Weidtmann:
Kann Schriftlichkeit fehlen? Afrikanische Weisheitslehren im interkulturellen Dialog.
In: polylog 3 (2001).
internal linkArticle
8 Anyhow, the most virulent attack against ethno-philosophy was what I would call the universalist grapho-centric claim that African philosophy should mean exclusively written texts, presented as philosophical by their authors, who happen to be African. This is a paraphrase of Hountondji's strong exigency as to what would be considered as African philosophy. 1 The purpose of it is clear: while it avoids the difficulty of having to deal with ›africanity‹, it goes 1) against the contradictory notion of an ›implicit‹ philosophy to be discovered and unveiled by some intellectual explorer trained in philosophy, 2) against the politically dangerous idea of an ontological unanimity binding together the members of a given African society (and binding them also to their past: the dead are thus continuing to weigh upon the living).
9 That the notion of an implicit philosophy to be made explicit by the observing philosopher is contradictory has been very well demonstrated by Paulin Hountondji. 2 But the main point is that of unanimism: the fact that one consequence of the notion of a pervasive worldview binding together all the members of a community is the impossibility of true pluralism and dis-sensus as a condition for a democratic open society. It suffices to see the way in which »tradition« has been constructed and used by authoritarian regimes to agree that this is not only theoretically questionable but also practically dangerous.
10 While these two points explain why such an extreme claim as to what could be considered as African philosophy the price paid was quite high: nothing less than dismissing altogether the very notion of orature (oral literature). And without orature most of Africa would be unknown and enveloped as Hegel says »in the dark mantle of the night«. Here the point at stake is this: on the one hand it will be argued that orality is antinomic to critical thinking because the mind is so occupied with memorizing and repeating with as much fidelity as possible the tradition that any critical distance vis-à-vis its content becomes impossible. But then there are evidences that could be used to argue that oral transmission of history, myths, traditions, etc. is not contradictory with self criticism. In fact, tales for example can be found everywhere which are obviously subversion, parodies or mock versions of grand narratives and supposedly founding myths.
11 In the Wolof area of Senegal, Copans had collected quite a few of these published as Contes Wolof du Baol. These stories are visibly burlesquing traditional narratives for moral edification; but he was so occupied with the notion of a »natural colorful African exuberance« that he missed the whole irony of these stories. His surprise in front of the filthy literature he had collected came from the fact that he was not bearing in mind that peoples adhering unquestionably to their own founding narratives generation after generation is in all probability a myth and that an absolute zero level of critical distance and irony vis-à-vis oneself does not exist in any human culture. 3

Philosophy and the African languages

Teodoros Kiros:
The Meditations
of Zara Yaquob
Paidea World Philosophy Conference Paper.
external linkArticle
12 In his last book, Paulin Hountondji has come to some self-criticism concerning his previous provocative and rather abrupt statement about orature. But the point I want to make, and here I am entering the second part of this presentation concerning the tasks to be undertaken now, even if we consider the universalist grapho-centric claim of the first book, we have to say that the African written philosophical library does exist beyond the memoir in Latin by Ghanaian born philosopher Amo and the Ethiopian texts commented mainly by Claude Sumner. One important task is now to assess what the intellectual history of Africa has been and in doing so to establish in its very materiality the African philosophical library. The debate on African philosophy has taken the form I have been recalling precisely because it has almost totally ignored the reality of this intellectual history which remains to be written. Now Congolese disciple of Cheikh Anta Diop, Theophile Obenga, has tried to establish what the main periods of this intellectual history are.
»Does language determine the logical categories we use and also our concepts of time, being etc…? How is ›determine‹ to be understood? What about translation? Its possibility? Its effects?…« 13 Here is the periodization he proposes:
  • Ancient Egyptian philosophy
  • Philosophical tradition in Alexandria, Cyren, Carthage or Hippone
  • Philosophical tradition in the Maghreb
  • Sudanese (Sudan meaning here sub-Saharan Africa) tradition of philosophy that existed in the learned centers of Timbuktu, Gao or Djenne; which Obenga calls »negro-muslim«
  • African philosophy today
14 In fact, and this is also a remark made by Kwame Anthony Appiah (1992, 144), a real account of what was actually the tradition of philosophy in Africa presupposes the appropriation, by African philosophers, of what was taught and written in the continent, in the learned Muslim world, centuries before the colonial period, on Aristotelian Logic or neo-platonic Metaphysics, for example. John Hunwick and Rex Sean O'Fahey's bibliography of Arabic Literature of Africa will be an extremely useful starting point in such a task. Mervyn Hiskett too has insisted that behind the jihads fought by Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio (d. 1817) for example one should see the revolution that was, in the Sultanate he created, the development of an intellectual tradition and consequently of the Fulani and Hausa languages as vehicles for political, social, theological and also philosophical knowledge. I was very much interested in particular by one philosophical work of a nephew and disciple of Muhammad Bello, Abd al Qâdir b. Mustapha al Tûrûdû (d. 1864) whose bibliography has been given by John Hunwick; the complete title of the text known under the abridged form Futûhât al-rabâniyya shows clearly how the author is preoccupied with falsafa and themes like the permanence of the world, the nature of the celestial spheres, etc…
15 One important issue related to this process of appropriation will be the issue of African languages as vehicles for philosophical thought. What is often presented as something to be done, namely the use of African languages for philosophical thinking has actually been done for a long time in the literature known as Ajami, not to speak of Swahili in East Africa. Ajami literature is African languages such as Fulani, Hausa, Wolof, etc. using Arabic script. Once again it is quite clear that a bridge needs to be built, in African Academia, between scholars trained in the universities and those Ousmane Kane has called in a work to be published shortly by Codesria, the »non-europhone intellectuals«.
16 I would like now to finish with two other points that seem to me important tasks to be undertaken also by African philosophers.
Kwasi Wiredu:
Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.
In: African Studies Quarterly 1.4 (1998).
external linkArticle
17 The first one is related to the issue of African languages and philosophy and continues a direction that was first indicated by Congolese philosopher Alexis Kagame. Kagame's La philosophie bantu-rwandaise de l'être has been overlooked as the simple continuation of Tempels' enterprise, with the difference that he put a special emphasis on Bantu languages. As a matter of fact, on the premise that Aristotle's ontology was a consequence of Greek grammar, Kagame has tried to bring to light what he believed to be the ontology underlying the different Bantu languages. The remark must be made here that Kagame expressed this view in 1956, that is two years before French linguist Emile Benveniste. 4 And so he has come out with a table of Bantu categories on the model of Aristotle's. Once again limitations coming from being trapped in differentialism but under the light of the development of cognitive sciences the type of research Kagame has started on Bantu languages and that one could call about ›philosophical grammar‹ using a Nietzschean expression, would be fruitfully pursued by African philosophers.
18 Kagame quite clearly set the program of what he called linguistic-philosophy. This program could be defined by questions (of cognitive anthropology) such as: does language determine the logical categories we use and also our concepts of time, being etc…? How is ›determine‹ to be understood? What about translation? Its possibility? Its effects?…
19 These questions are at the core of what Kwasi Wiredu has called »an African orientation in philosophy«. This notion is important showing that the question is not that of differentialism and of an alternative African philosophy. When a philosophical question is translated into an African language, says Wiredu, we learn important things about the language and about the question. And he gives the example of his translation, in Akan language of Tarski's definition of the concept of truth, showing eventually that the very formulation of the definition (p is true if and only if it is the case that ›p‹ – for instance, the sentence ›it rains‹ is true if and only if it is the case that it actually rains) is un-translatable in the Akan language he considers. One could just adopt here a relativist point of view. But more profoundly we would learn here how to question universal definitions such as Tarski's by being able to navigate between the logic of different languages. Which is ultimately what philosophy is about.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 4 (2003).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/4/ads-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
© 2003 Author & polylog e.V.



He has gone through some self criticism on this point and his present views are now expressed in his Combats pour le sens. Un itinéraire africain, published in 2000. An English translation entitled The Struggle for Meaning: Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa, Athens: Ohio University Press, has been published in 2002. go back
On this aspect I wrote a memoir, back in 1978. In this unpublished work, inspired by my reading of African Philosophy: Myth or Reality, entitled Le faux dialogue de l'ethno-philosophie, I had considered the famous passage in Tempels' Bantu philosophy when the author pretends that the Bantu people would recognize themselves in what is presented as a re-constitution of their world view and consequently declare: »Now you know the way we know«. The point I raised was about the language in which this agreement could take place: it has to be in the Bantu language for obvious reasons but then the meta-language in which the implicit unfolds itself into the explicit would have to be already there and need no ›revelation‹. go back
See my writing Sur le caractère littéraire de la littérature orale. This is an important element in Jane Guyer's (1996) "Traditions of Invention in Equatorial Africa", African Studies Review 39.3, which deconstructs the false equation between non-literacy and repetitive ›tradition‹. go back
(Categories de langue, categories de pensee. Grammar of reasoning in general = grammar of his language.) go back


Souleyman Bachir Diagne is Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University, U.S.A. Before joining Northwestern University, he was the vice-dean of the College of Humanities and a professor in the philosophy department at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal. He is an alumnus from Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he studied with, in particular, Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida. He completed his doctorate on Boole's algebra of logic at Université Paris I (Sorbonne) in 1988. His work is focused on the history of logic and mathematics, epistemology, the tradition of philosophy in the Islamic world, identity formation, and African philosophies. His most recent books (both 2001) are Islam et société ouverte. La fidélité et le mouvement dans la pensée de Muhammad Iqbal, Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, and Reconstruire le sens. Textes et enjeux de prospectives africaines, Dakar: Codesria.
Prof. Dr. Souleyman Bachir Diagne
Northwestern University
Department of Philosophy
Kresge Hall
1880 Campus Drive
Evanston, IL 60208-2214
external linkhttp://www.cas.northwestern.edu/philosophy/Persons/diagne/diagne.htm
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