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Dismas A. Masolo

The Making of a Tradition

African Philosophy in the New Millenium


It is a little more than fifty years that African cultures have been the subject of open and widespread philosophical deliberation. It is even more recent that African philosophy has been a subject of academic learning, investigation and debate, both in Africa itself and abroad. The end of European colonization of Africa in the twentieth century has enabled African scholars generally and philosophers particularly to pursue consciously, and at times also vigorously, Africans' cultural freedom. As we know and debate them today, several of the key issues in African philosophy are a critical part of the wider postcolonial cultural critique which has occurred across the disciplines. At their gloomy end, many of these issues may continue to address what some continue to perceive as Africans' need for total cultural independence. On the heuristic side, Africans' practice of philosophy in the postcolonial period has made it possible to reconsider many philosophical issues and problems with the freshness of new comparative conceptual dimensions. This latter approach makes it possible for African philosophers to participate in a cross-cultural philosophical discourse without sacrificing the independence of African modes of thought. The essay reviews some of the recent works of various of those African philosophers who have particularly influenced the perception and reception of African philosophy both within and outside the continent.



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With some cautious fairness, it can be said that African philosophy has benefitted as much from the collapse of European cultural hegemony as it has contributed to the sustenance of that collapse and emergence of the pluralism of cultural voices in the academy. 1 The past quarter-century has been a particularly productive period for African philosophy, especially because it has involved the voices of African thinkers more directly and in greater numbers than ever before. During this period, most African universities have established departments of philosophy which have grown considerably in human and intellectual resources. In the same period, several universities founded philosophical associations some of which were armed with excellent journals that provided enrichment forums for philosophical discourse across the African continent.
2 Since 1983, that is, since the publication of the English edition of Hountondji's African Philosophy; Myth and Reality 1, African philosophy has found increasingly greater audience in the English-speaking academy, particularly in the United States. A number of factors are responsible for this turn-around.
3 Firstly, publication of African philosophy in English has taken strong roots among American publishers in recent years. Secondly, for a variety of reasons, prominent African intellectuals, including major African philosophers, have relocated to academic institutions in the United States in the same period or remained there after their studies. Thirdly, the growth in the numbers of African-Americans in the discipline, and their struggle to give focus to an Afro-centric discourse have often included an interest in or need to integrate African philosophy as part of the wider Africana horizon of their discourse. These factors, and perhaps others too, have contributed to the visibility that African philosophy has gained in North America in recent years.

From myth to reality

Paulin J. Hountondji
external linkBiography
4 Hountondji is not only one of the most prolific African philosophers. He is also one of the best and most widely read and, perhaps, one of the most controversial. The question is whether the controversies which his writings have generated fairly represent what he stands for as a leading and influential intellectual concerned, on the one hand, with Africa's performance on the global stage of production and consumption of knowledge and, on the other, with the role knowledge plays in relation to social transformations.
5 Hountondji's work is perhaps best known for his critique of what has gained both notoriety and currency as »ethnophilosophy«. Launched by a methodology pioneered by Placide Tempels, ethnophilosophy itself gained currency among African and Western Africanist intellectuals, mainly theologians, as a handy tool that spoke to the autonomy and dignity of African cultural values in a world that was best known for its skepticism about African goodness.
6 Under the shadow of a global anti-colonial awakening and the onset of the post-colonial movements, the convergence of the secular political and cultural movements of the nationalist liberators on the one hand, and the new missiological strategies necessitated by the decline of what was once a vast and powerful empire of the Christian mission Church on the other enabled the resuscitation of non-Western cultures to self-expression. It is from this wider historical context that Tempels' idea of a Bantu philosophy was born. By affirming the expressive indispensability of local cultures to its self-propagation, the Christian Church found a way to both its own self renewal and its indigenization into local idioms.
7 In the African context, the notion of merging the universal into the particular became a philosophical project, first with Alexis Kagame, and fast thereafter with a growing number of African philosophers and theologians. By the time Hountondji's text came into the scene, skepticism regarding the relations between the universal and the particular was already clearly underway. While embracing but also radically polishing Tempels' thesis, Kagame identified the local abode of universal philosophy in the structural complexity of local languages, arguing that structure incarnated the categories of being in their entirety as listed in Aristotelian metaphysics.
8 Hountondji's objection to this view was both scathing and instructive. He argued that what the project produced was only ethnophilsophical at best, driven by the ambition to merge what were otherwise in oppositional relation to each other – the ethnographical and the philosophical. The former is collective and passive, and its claims are anonymous. The latter, on the contrary, is dialectically located in a radically different kind of rational process. Indeed, that the conceptual categories into which reality, or Being as its most abstract form, appears in the ordinary language as learned by children for communication seemed to be an overdone exaggeration of Kagame's ethnophilosophical method.
9 It is obvious that the exponents of ethnophilosophy were taking advantage of the convoluted character of the idea of philosophy itself, confusing the two related but separable orders of the discourse: on the one hand the general reasons and commitments for which people believe specific things and practice in certain specific ways and, on the other hand, the very different activity pursued as an academic discipline by departments of philosophy within institutions of tertiary education. Hountondji's chief quest at the time appeared to be the separation between the grids of a professional practice and the relatively loose beliefs and norms of everyday life. If such separation did not already clearly place the disciplines away and out of reach of ordinary folks' concerns, he believed there should be one.
10 Hountondji's insistence was therefore not that there cannot be philosophy in the first order, but that ethnophilosophers were wrongly continuing to obfuscate the separation between the two orders by blunting the divide in their writings, an effort which was evidenced by the volume of publications, doctoral dissertations and other formal presentations on collective cultural beliefs as philosophy. Philosophy, he vehemently argued, does not sit inside collective beliefs, practices and other behaviors waiting only to be discovered and re-described for the world. Such re-descriptions, he lamented, had nothing philosophical to show about themselves other than their authors calling them so.
Philosophy, Hountondji vehemently argued, does not sit inside collective beliefs, practices and other behaviors waiting only to be discovered and re-described for the world. Such re-descriptions, he lamented, had nothing philosophical to show about themselves other than their authors calling them so. 11 He insisted further that ethnophilosophy had not been aimed at an African readership for reflection and critique as a true philosophical discourse (among any people sharing a culture of ideas, Africans included) should be. Rather, he argued, African ethnophilosophy was directed at the satisfaction of a Western audience, particularly the less or completely non-intellectually oriented one.
12 Hountondji's sharp, scathing and uncompromising critique of ethnophilosophy soon earned him the accusations of occidentalism, idealism, elitism, and aristocratism. The critiques of Hountondji were varied, ranging in their tones from populist rhetoric to seemingly serious personal attacks and threats. The former genre was exemplified by the sociologist Abdou Touré and the latter by Koffi Niamkey. Ironically, in these critiques, it was Hountondji himself who was being accused of uncritically adopting and demanding of Africans a European idea of philosophy, which there is an elitist idea and practice by its exclusiveness. This general direction of reproach was echoed also by Olabiyi B. Yai and Pathé Diagne. European intellectuals too, including such prominent philosophers like Heidegger, eager to protect philosophy in rather familiar manners as exclusive or essential property to Europeans, followed suite.
13 In Hountondji's view, occidentalism is not eliminated by finding in Africa those modes of intellectual creation which are regarded to be the same as those of Europe. Nor will African intellectual productions be given value by merely claiming of them what they are not, or by blowing their importance or worth out of proportion. Their value must come from making of them effective tools for shaping Africa's future rather than making of them impoverished and simplistic forms of thinking. Hountondji's contention was that vigorous thought makes itself visible in the multiplicity and intensity of the discursive currents it spurs, some of which may even be antagonistic among themselves. Contrary to the wishes and abstractions of ethnophilosophers, Hountondji observed, real African thinking portrays such multiplicity and intensity.
14 In a new preface to the second edition of African Philosophy, Myth and Reality (1996) Hountondji repeats some of these responses to critics, but he also gives good and timely clarifications of a number of issues that became the chief targets of criticism of both the original French and the first English editions. Indeed, both the preface to the second edition and other recent work help to clarify that Hountondji is not – and he explains he never was – an enemy of Africa's indigenous knowledge systems as misleadingly assumed by most of those who did not like his critique of ethnophilosophy. He has lately become one of the strongest and most visible and audible defenders of indigenous knowledges. His point, as we shall explain shortly, is that in most areas indigenous knowledges are in dire need of critical jump-starts.
Paulin J. Hountondji:
African Philosophy:
Myth and Reality
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
book cover
Indiana University Press:
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Online order:
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15 Inadvertently, the controversy over ethnophilosophy had given a new angle to a larger debate which was already raging even as African philosophers and politicians were at war over the philosophical merits of locally produced or indigenous knowledge systems. That controversy, rekindled and contextualized by the ethnophilosophy debate, examines the relations between local and universal perceptions of knowledge. Hountondji had put emphasis on the idea of knowledge as dialectically grounded, and on the idea of philosophy as a form of »discourse and the history of discourse«. According to him, discourse, in both its internal structure and dialectical historicity, is an absolute necessity for the development of critical philosophy and scientific culture as a whole. Lack of elaboration of this view, and the uncompromising nature in which it was stated in the first editions of Hountondji's book prompted the impression that he grew a sharp divide between professional practice and the sociological conditions under which professional practitioners lived and worked. Critics saw Hountondji to particularly denigrate indigenous oral traditions as irrelevant to the production of philosophical knowledge. Although writing is comparatively privileged over orature in the promotion and sustenance of a continuous discourse, it does not follow, as some critics misconstrued Hountondji to be claiming, that oral literature generally loses importance, or that oral expression of philosophy – philosophical »orature« – is in particular ipso facto disqualified as an expressive form of philosophy.
16 The insistence on the theory of science in particular, and on the sociology of knowledge generally – understood here as dialectically propelled through critical engagement with problems of life – leads Hountondji to the critique of Africa's intellectual and scientific dependence on the outside world, and to the postulation of the value of Africa's own local knowledges. With almost unsurpassable emphasis, Hountondji's writings strongly call for the return of the African subject, a responsible subject who will chart out and take up responsibility for and control of his own intellectual, social, political, scientific and economic destiny. It is the path towards the definition of African subjectivity that takes Hountondji through the anthropology of knowledge, the sociology of science, and especially through marxist theory and its Althusserian articulation.
17 Like the multiplicity of African paths to socialism, there also have been multiple senses and paths to what Africans perceive as a politically meaningful and locally sustainable development. Hountondji's recent focus on local knowledges as the basis for politically meaningful and locally sustainable development is related to what he perceives as the imbalance in the global politics of producing, distributing and consuming knowledge. Knowledge, according to him, is the basic capital for sustainable development in any society. But, he argues, for Africa's local knowledges to become legitimate starting points for the production of developmentally relevant knowledge and skills, they must be subjected to critical and constant appraisal and modification. Africa's development must begin with net growth in its knowledge, especially scientific knowledge. According to Hountondji, the fact that a large number of African peoples inhabit a world built on a »dual language« is enough reason for a renewed effort to integrate and think together these two forms of rationality. In other words, because they inhabit and operate within a world which is defined by the coexistence of the »recent« and »older« theoretical and technological approaches to the solutions of everyday problems, they are best placed to pursue the transformation of older indigenous knowledge as a response to new needs and interests.
Like the multiplicity of African paths to socialism, there also have been multiple senses and paths to what Africans perceive as a politically meaningful and locally sustainable development. 18 It is evident, then, that although Hountondji places emphasis on the categories of »scientific« and »modern« as advanced developmental stages in the dialectical transformation of knowledge and technological means, and that Africans need to transform their world toward these levels, he also argues that the terms »scientific« and »modern« need not mean »foreign«, nor does the desire for them mean the desire for what is not African as several of his critics appeared to misconstrued from the earlier edition of his book.
19 In a rather surprising turn, Hountondji's latest book-length publication, The Struggle for Meaning (2002), now explains how he arrived at the positions he has been criticized for. It will be surprising to many of Hountondji's readers how he pegs his intellectual itinerary on Edmund Husserl, especially on the latter's Ideas: General Introduction to pure Phenomenology. He narrates that his intentions, following in Husserl's footprints, was to ground the idea of science, which he thought to be crucial to understanding the exigencies of Africans' experience in the postcolonial period and condition, on the idea and structure of consciousness. The connection between discipleship to Husserl and the early antitraditionalist mood is not always clear.

Philosophy and the roots of universal categories

20 If the German philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that people reason most aptly and ideally when disconnected from social and other immediate concerns, African philosophers have over the years argued strongly that not only will humans not be able to understand and appreciate themselves outside their relations with others, they also will not be able to have a sense of the ideal moral and cognitive values Kant attributed to him. Thus, subtly but no less strongly, African philosophers have made a huge contribution to an alternative ways of considering both new and already familiar philosophical issues by revisiting them from a communal point of view. Noone accomplishes this task better than Kwasi Wiredu as he does in his latest book-length work, Cultural Universals and Particulars (1996).
21 One of the outstanding accomplishments of this important book is Wiredu's ability to reflect on philosophical issues from both Western and African – specifically Akan – perspectives. Taking advantage of the additional linguistic and other cultural resources several non-Western philosophers often enjoy, he expands the analytic field of the references and meanings of terms and concepts in ways that both reveal conceptual contrasts between intellectual traditions emergent from diverse cultures and suggest fresh views on old unresolved and problematic theories and doctrines. In so doing, Wiredu reveals his admirable ability to think comparatively about the universal character of philosophical issues without giving up philosophy's dependence on the specificity of local knowledges and frameworks. What such approach does is that it indirectly supports pluralism, that is, the view that there are competing evaluative points of view with compelling merits of their own that ideally all people can and should recognize. In other words, multiculturalism, especially when it endows us with multiple linguistic avenues to work with, is not a luxury for a more complete and comparative philosophical endeavor. Rather, it enables us to see conceptual limitations when they are accessible through limited linguistic models. Indeed, what Wiredu calls for and enables his readers to see by considering conceptual contents from diverse linguistic standpoints is what has enabled the thriving of philosophical thought in the West through analysis of texts originally written in either Greek, Latin, or Persian, or in languages other than those in which they are made accessible to readers from a different culture.
Kwasi Wiredu
external linkBiography
22 But while much of the study in the West of original foreign-language texts is often limited to exegetical clarifications, Wiredu calls for cross-cultural conceptual comparisons and contrasts in a manner that advances and expands conceptual fields. For Wiredu, though, the notion of pluralism must be used cautiously so as not to imply any sort of relativism or incompatibility in the conceptual and communicative diversity among the communities of the human species. It is Wiredu's strong and pervasive view that the human species is universally bonded in all those things that matter for the species such as norms of thought and communication which ensue therefrom among and between all humans cross-culturally and cross-nationally.
23 In fact, the basis of Wiredu's notion of cultural universalism is a panpsychologism, the view that the cognitive capacity and process(es) through which knowledge and other forms of consciousness are generated, and which is the very basis of the idea of mind, are the same in all members of the human species. This basic biological fact is not only the basis of similitude among all members of the human species, it is also the basis of the antithesis to relativism or any belief in a fragmenting feature of humans.
24 The fundamental question of his book, in our opinion, could be re-framed as follows: how would the philosophical theories as we have been made to know them look if one were to shift the basic underlying sociological assumption upon which they are built? Western philosophy, at least what is accepted as its dominant features passed down the corridors of history, is built on an understanding of the human intellect as a self-sufficient tool because the individual person is a self-sufficient and independent entity. Such a view is bound to develop a view of the world that sets values, both moral (what is good) and cognitive (what is true), as themselves being independent entities which human reason can independently attain subject to the observance of specific rules of procedure. It is clear that if one assumes such a primal view of the individual, not only will their understanding of the nature of the category of the person be peculiar to such assumption, their definitions of what matters, and how it should be pursued and protected will similarly be aligned to such peculiarity. In Wiredu's view, then, subtle cultural differences and similarities, at both the ordinary and practical level of everyday life and the theoretical idealizations of the ends of human endeavor, are to be found precisely on how any group of people regards the individual or the category of the person. 2 How, then, would one account for a morally right action, or truth, in epistemology, if they departed from the primacy of the individual which crystalizes the way Western philosophy has treated such matters?
How would the philosophical theories as we have been made to know them look if one were to shift the basic underlying sociological assumption upon which they are built? 25 One of the criticisms laid against Philosophy and an African Culture was that Wiredu overwhelmingly characterized philosophy as a universal endeavor at the expense of Africans' claim to specificity and difference. Wiredu responds to the charge by arguing that cultures are simultaneously particular and universal and defends the view that cultural universals are not only possible, but do in fact exist. The case is developed first by deploying considerations about the nature of meaning presupposed by the primacy of human communication. Wiredu argues that if the fundamental goal of communication is to share meanings or significations, then meanings or significations must be objectively accessible to all people who engage in that basic and defining human practice. Meanings surpass the finiteness of either their referents or the forms of their culturally specific linguistic expressions. They are objective, and so they can be accessed by anyone capable of handling communication. Yet, in Wiredu's view, the history of philosophy is fraught with mistakes regarding what is meant by the idea that »meanings are objective«. Platonism, and conceptualism after it, presuppose that because meanings are objective, they must be »entities« of some sort, existing separately and independently of human minds. In an argument similar to Aristotle's third-man argument against Plato's theory of forms, Wiredu contends that if meanings were entities, they could not be explained, as doing so would regressively require recourse to a third entity, ad infinitum.
26 But denying that meanings are entities does not make nominalism right either. While rightly denying that meanings are entities, the exponents of nominalism went on to eliminate the category of signification from semantic analysis altogether.
27 For Wiredu, the objectivity of meaning, and hence the universality of communication, lies precisely on the difference between signification and reference, a crucial difference which nominalism overlooks. For Wiredu, the objectivity of meanings is based on their role in defining universal human nature. We bear the distinctive characteristic we have as humans by virtue of our universal biological system which allows us to receive and process information by forming meaning as the general communicative content of others' intelligible utterances. Meaning, then, surpasses the specific communicative mediums by which they are transmitted and received, implying that they are more general than the multiple and idiosyncratic human languages. Humans are biologically »wired« to process and use meaning in communication with others irrespective of their basic cultural medium of doing so. It is clear that by theorizing so, Wiredu contributes and adds an African tone to the familiar and perhaps one of the most influential preoccupations of twentieth-century philosophy, viz., analytic theories on the relation between language, meaning, and mind. What he adds to the literature is the view that meaning cannot be understood in pure logical terms without the collective and relational social base that makes the very idea of meaning possible. Meanings and, by implication, mind, are objective in the sense that they are biologically made possible, and not in the sense that they exist as entities independently of the communicative act. Humans deprived of ability to communicate can therefore not be said to possess mind or to be able to develop meanings as understood from the communicative point of view. And to the extent that communication helps build the foundation for individuals' roles as agents, that is, as endowed with the capacity and ability to competently perform (cognitive, moral and social) roles which belong to us as members of the species, it is the basis of our personhood.
Communication triggers off special brain stimuli in the recipients of communicated meanings, thus creating a condition of meaning formation – that is, the ability and actual act of deciphering the complex body of symbols from another person. 28 The discussion of the nature of communication and of the objectivity of referential meaning leads Wiredu to the discussion of the nature of mind. In an explicit defense of monism, Wiredu denies that mind is any such entity as may be distinguishable from other components of personhood. He again attributes the conception of mind as an entity, such as occurs in the second Cartesian Meditation, to the invalid assumption of realism that for anything to be objective it must exist independently of the mind, the latter being distinguishable from other entities. For him, mind could just be the complex state which emerges or occurs in the process and as a result of the formation of ideas or meanings during communication. In that regard, then, mind is the state that is simultaneously formed or made in the course of the development of the ability to formulate ideas as meanings. Communication, the transfer of meanings between interlocutors, triggers off special brain stimuli in the recipients of communicated meanings, thus creating a condition of meaning formation – that is, the ability and actual act of deciphering the complex body of symbols from another person. It is this condition of meaning- formation which we then call mind: a systemic (biological) disposition to react to in that specific manner to the kind of noises we call language. Humans are defined functionally in reference to this prototypical characteristic which descriptively identifies them as »made communicatively for each other«. Mind is a functional property of the brain, a physical organ whose functions are partly to react to a variety of stimuli, including communication from others. From infancy, human brains are trained to react to communicative stimuli of specific sounds as uttered in the language of those around them.
29 Wiredu contributes to the debate by bringing to it the typically African relational nature of personhood as the basis of the physicalist basis of mind. Humans are relationally inter-dependent for both survival and self-realization.
30 Obviously, it would be interesting to compare this view with analyses of various other African conceptions of the person to determine whether various categories implied in such conceptions indicate or refer to body, mind, and possible other elements as separate substances or only as capacities and dispositions produced by the organically specific type of the (human) body.
31 Over the past several years, research from neuroscience and the sub-field of cognitive science in particular, clearly in support of the atomic view of personhood generally and of mind in particular, appear to be indicating ever more strongly that human mental activity starts much earlier than once believed. It is now apparent, for example, that electrophysiological processes and cognitive abilities observed in children support the organistic rather than the social beginnings of both reactions to surroundings and knowledge formation in humans. To be sure, Wiredu's argument for communication as the birth of mind does not deny this neurophysiological view; rather, it makes a clear case for the separation between knowledge as a body of concepts, which are socially based, and neurological reactions as mere physical or organic occurrences.
32 An important similarity between Wiredu's position and that suggested by John Locke is particularly interesting. The seventeenth-century British philosopher is credited with suggesting that there is no contradiction in the notion that God might have added to matter the power of thought. While many Western materialist theories of the mind are based on the identity theory which claims that mind and body (brain) are one and the same thing, Wiredu's own theory is one that separates the two without accepting dualism.
»On these grounds it may be asserted that the principle of sympathetic impartiality is a human transcending cultures viewed as social forms and customary beliefs and practices. In being common to all human practice of morality, it is a universal of any non-brutish form of human life.«

Kwasi Wiredu
(1996, 29)
33 One of the possible questions which this position prompts, assuming that we have got it correctly, is whether the universality of such capacity is sufficient ground for assuming that it mills concepts in an identical manner for everyone. The argument put forward by Wiredu can be explained by analogical comparison to a posho mill, the machine widely used in rural Africa to grind grain into flour. The assumption here would be that all posho mills, when they have an identical type of the grinding »teeth«, will produce the same degree of finesse of flour for all same types of grain fed into it, provided its working condition is unvaried for all the cases of the respective grain types. The question is whether we can legitimately assume that »mind mills« concepts from communication with such manner of uniformity like the posho mill transforms grain into flour. In other words, can we assume that human thinking takes place much as a machine is made to function by the structure and operation of physical causes?
34 It is my wish here that a correct response would be in the negative. While exposure to specific communication types may cause variations in how the capacity is actually used by specific communicants, such variation does not, ipso facto, negate the notion of a universal rationality. In fact, while such variations as in language may account for what we call cultural idiosyncrasies in specific human beliefs and practices, their fundamental basis, which Wiredu regards as the more crucial, remains universally the same among all the members of the species. Such universality is reflected in the universality of the form – i.e., rules of thought – in which human communication takes place. This universality of form allows members of the species not only to be adaptable to different language variations, they can also translate between them, because concepts, like the rules of thought by which they are produced, are universal.
35 From a moral point of view, Wiredu takes his fight against the (Western) atomic view of mind to Kant's moral theory. He argues that he would agree with Kant's categorical imperative only if an »injection of a dose of compassion into [it] would convert it into a principle of sympathetic impartiality« (1996, 29). According to Wiredu, it is not hard to see the practical strength of such a principle, since »it takes little imagination to foresee that life in any society in which everyone openly avowed the contrary of this principle and acted accordingly would inevitably be ›solitary, poor, nasty, brutish‹, and probably short« (29).
36 In Wiredu's view, Kant's categorical imperative would thus have made more sense if it had openly been built on this human biological principle which »is a human universal transcending cultures viewed as social forms and customary beliefs and practices. In being common to all human practice of morality, it is a universal of any non-brutish form of human life« (29).
37 Here Wiredu builds on what is well known to be particularly underdeveloped in Kant's enterprise. Kant's categorical imperative inadequately accounts for the transfer to others of independently attained moral principles. Wiredu closes that gap by suggesting that the unity between the individual and the universal does not reside in the abstract. Rather, it is in the biological unity (relational inter-dependence) of the species. For Wiredu, both cognitive and moral capacities of humans are based purely on their organically specific type of existence. Both the appearance and workings of the mind, on one hand, and the development of moral principles for self protection through restraint of behavior, on the other, are part of the physiological mechanism proper to humans. And their emergence and development are conditional upon the social nature of human life. If a person were to be isolated from society from birth, their defining human capacities would never be known, and it would not even make sense to assume of them to have mind or to be moral. In other words, they would not be persons.

The debate on personhood

»[T]he dualistic conception of body and mind, which is often attributed to Africans, in fact, presupposes a mode of conceptualization that ill-coheres with African traditional thought habits which are frequently empirical, as distinct from empiricist.«

Kwasi Wiredu
(1998, 139)
38 There are two basic issues which Wiredu's work raises. One is the question of his materialist-monist view of human nature. This view contrasts sharply with the widely assumed African pluralist view of personhood. This issue certainly is quite a theoretical challenge to African philosophers who might be inclined to believe that numerous expressions in African languages and beliefs regarding the nature of the self tend to suggest that human capacities or faculties which regulate human agency, cognitive and moral alike, are not quite reducible to extensions of the operations of the body like Wiredu has so compellingly argued.
39 The second issue is whether or not the variations of beliefs and practices which constitute human cultures are really only superficial to the underlying unity of the species. In Wiredu's view, »the dualistic conception of body and mind, which is often attributed to Africans, in fact, presupposes a mode of conceptualization that ill-coheres with African traditional thought habits which are frequently empirical, as distinct from empiricist.« And as he says it himself, »this and other issues in the interpretation and evaluation of the Akan concept of a person, remain matters of controversy among Akan philosophers« (1998, 139).
40 Indeed, Anthony Ephirim-Donkor's work (1997), also a recent work on the Akan conception of a person, points to a much more complex Akan conception of personhood. According to his analysis, the constituents of personhood in Akan system of thought can be classified under two distinct categories: those capacities that are passed through the genetic processes of biology on the one hand, and those that point to the divine (spiritual) nature in humans. The goal of leading a virtuous worldly life, he explains, is to earn one admittance to »the immortal community of ancestors called Nananom Nsamanfo. This model is predicated on a theory of the personality that has its ontological basis in God (Nana Nyame), and the archetypal woman and her children who constituted the ideal abusua or matrikin« (1997, 4).
41 It is Wiredu's view that Africans' dualist descriptions of the nature of the person have been influenced by the teachings of Christian dualism which many African scholars at the turn of the century were so uncritically eager to embrace. Ephirim-Donkor is a good example of Wiredu's criticism. Writing from an evangelical backdrop and with the goal of illustrating how the Akan concept of the person, in its relation to their sense of ideal life as »predicated upon the God-given existential purpose called nkrabea [destiny]« (4), he claims that Akan beliefs fit into the wider Christian scheme of the religious world view. Given this objective, Ephirim-Donkor is careful to confine himself to those references which lend support to his dualist exposition while avoiding totally those texts, including those by noted Akan scholars, which point to different conclusions.
Kwasi Wiredu:
Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
book cover
Indiana University Press:
external linkWebsite

Online order:
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42 I return to Wiredu's Cultural Universals and Particulars, especially to his monist view that biological unity of all humans is the basis of cultural universals. In formulating meanings, people follow and use »conceptual schemes«; that is, experience itself results in the formulation of meanings and other conceptual representations of the lived world which in turn become the object of communication. The question that this position leads to is whether there are any problems which defy cultural limitations. In fact, according to Wiredu, people can communicate across cultures about just everything, given especially that communication is the transfer of meanings which are general. And because mind is the function of special brain stimuli generated through and in the course of communication, mind itself is a boundless state through which people become communicatively connected. It follows, then, that our very biological constitution is the basis of inter-personal connection within and across cultures. The mind, which is a universal state of human function, operates on the basis of specific principles, or what we generally call the laws of logic, namely reflective perception, abstraction, deduction, induction, and the law of non-contradiction, with their attendant sub-rules (1996, 22). Among all peoples, according to Wiredu, cognitive operations follow these laws irrespective of their habitats or specific cultural milieus. They are universal just like all other endowments which drive and guide the instinctive (emotional), somatic, and other processes of the constitution of humans. They are the basic principles which make thought-formation possible at all by giving form and structure to concepts so formed. They are to the mind in its cognitive operations what gravity is to all bodies suspended in the air.
43 The nature of mind, and its role in the constitution of personhood is one of the very best discussions in Wiredu's work, but it is also one that raises more fundamental questions. For example, although Wiredu passes quickly over the idea of intercultural communication as beyond dispute, the question of what happens in the mind when people communicate is not as obvious, and is not resolved by simple assumption that there must be common understanding, however minimal, for any communication to happen and to proceed. It is based more on what happens inside people than between them, which brings our posho mill analogy to mind once more. Take the example of a discussion between two or more people. Frequently, in such events, saying »yes« to other people's terms and explanations may be for reasons other than mutual concordance on their »meanings«. Perhaps Russell's idea that we know other minds only by analogy from our own puts Wiredu's assumptions here in better perspective. When we say »table«, for example, we usually have only a generic sense of the word, meaning a general field of possible referents to which the word may be related, not a specific object. Within this field, mental images which the word solicits in the minds of the different people engaged in its use may never be the same or alike, because they are made up of the memory of the specific referents, specific to every participant in the discussion which prompted them. In Wiredu's view, communication uses only »fields of possible referents«, not actual referents.
»There is no equivalent, in Akan, of the existential ›to be‹ or ›is‹ of English, and there is no way of pretending in that medium to be speaking of the existence of something which is not in space.«

Kwasi Wiredu
(1996, 49)
44 The subtext of Wiredu's theory of personhood in general, and of mind in particular, is the critique of cultural relativism which, in its recent resurgence in philosophy, at times has threatened to nearly shut out the possibility of intellectual and even ordinary dialogue and debate about issues across cultural boundaries. While it is true that sometimes cultures may differ, sometimes even greatly in perceptions and practices, one could extend Wiredu's argument on those themes as partly pointing out that such differences do not preclude communication as a healthy means of inventing and sustaining the global community of humanity. Furthermore, the possibility of intercultural communication is bound to spread out the analytic horizons in the practice of philosophy with tremendous gains for the discipline. Wiredu's own text is an excellent testimony to the value of inter-cultural communication and the practice of analyzing, contrasting and comparing concepts across cultures.
45 The relational underpinning in Wiredu's philosophy is pretty much evident in his treatment of other themes like the notion of being and of truth. In regard to the first, Wiredu defends the view that »There is no equivalent, in Akan, of the existential ›to be‹ or ›is‹ of English, and there is no way of pretending in that medium to be speaking of the existence of something which is not in space.« This is because »In the Akan language to exist is to wo ho, which, in literal translation, means ›to be at some place‹« (49). According to the Akan language, existence is always locative. In other words, existence is an attribute of things in their relation to other objects or to place. The notion of an absolutely autonomous self as envisaged and presupposed by both Descartes and Kant in their respective philosophies is hard to comprehend in the Akan language. Expressing in Akan the notions of abstract existence, or of creation ex nihilo, becomes cumbersome and calls for further examination of the basis of such metaphysical notions in Western philosophical and religious traditions, and of the epistemological theories and concepts which arise from them. One such interesting examination which Wiredu makes, in addition to the metaphysical themes discussed above, is the concept of truth. 3
46 The correspondence theory of truth in particular assumes such a privileged status for the individual that correspondence of her assertion to reality is considered to be an adequate condition of truth. Such a view claims an objectivist notion of truth by implying that there are independent and timeless states of affairs out there that are knowable equally by all who care for them. The cognitive agent would have to be disturbingly abstract for this definition of truth to obtain.
47 In the real world, however, whatever is called the truth is always only someone's truth. In other words, for a statement to be qualified as »true«, it must be discovered by, known by, or defended by human beings somewhere, sometime. Thus he refutes the objectivist view of truth and replaces it with the view that truth is an opinion. Truth is a function of human endeavor in both its individual and social dimensions. Wiredu tries to distinguish the individual and private from the social and public veritistic dimensions. At the individual, private or purely cognitive level, we perceive reality according to the universal stimulative or physical laws of our biological constitution. Thus, perception, as a purely cognitive process, is a fairly private and individual affair, yet intrinsically crucial to the concept of truth. Also intrinsic to cognition, from a purely biological endowment specific to humans, as we already mentioned earlier, are the formal laws by which we organize beliefs. »At the very minimum this status [as homo sapiens] implies that we are organisms that go beyond instinct in the drive for equilibrium and self-preservation in specific ways, namely, by means of reflective perception, abstraction, deduction, and induction …« (22) These laws allow us to formulate and process conceptual relations in such a manner as is required for our very survival. The drive to truth is part of this crucial human endeavor. We are always striving for truth. In this fact, though, lies also the implication that truth, as a basic drive for all human cognitive action is a fairly private enterprise. But the sense of the content of cognition, or meaning, which is the seat of what counts as knowledge, is not wholly a private matter. As agents who are bio-cognitively constituted the way we are, our knowledge of the world can only be from our perspective, our point of view.
48 In communication we transmit our points of view to others. Unless we are insincere to ourselves and want to be so also to those with whom we are in communication, we will transmit to them, truthfully, our points of view as we perceive and describe the world. Thus, to say of anything that it is, is to say that I believe that it is, or that I believe that it is so, just as I say it is. This position, although widely debated and only very guardedly accepted by Wiredu's readers, retains the drive to objectivity while also emphasizing that objectivity independent of opinions is only an ideal at best. Knowledge, then, in Wiredu's view, is constantly a social pursuit that requires the best available and sincerely applied tools, both intellectual and instrumental or technological.
It is clear, then, that Wiredu's position rejects relativism in all its variants, including the view that what counts as true is variously determined by cultural institutions. 49 It is important that Wiredu's position not be confused with the claims widely attributed to social constructionism. The latter can be framed as follows: There is no such thing as objective truth. What we call »true« is simply what we agree with. So-called truths or facts are merely negotiated beliefs, the products of social construction, and not »objective« features of the world.
50 Wiredu's position neither denies objectivity nor repudiates truth. It merely claims that claims to objectivity need to take into account the cognitive constitution of humans as epistemic agents, and the processes of knowledge acquisition. Given how these two realities are made up, he contends, objectivity as a state of the world independently of how it is perceived and known, or truth as the property of an establishable non-personal statement about the objective state of the world, are graspable only as ideals at best, but not attainable by humans. Indeed, he writes, »any claim to know something as it is in itself would be a contradiction in as much as it would amount to a claim to know something as it cannot be known« (113).
51 It is clear, then, that Wiredu's position rejects relativism in all its variants, including the view that what counts as true is variously determined by cultural institutions. Indeed, it is his view, and a strong one at that, that truth is a central concern of many cultures including African ones. What his position introduces in a novel manner is the social dimension which he argues grounds human nature so strongly that all human endeavors, including epistemic phenomena, are crucially entangled with this social dependency of our being.
52 The enterprise of knowledge is about comparing, contrasting, re-evaluating and testing points of view, which is why inquiry, especially scientific inquiry, remains important to Wiredu's view. Knowledge, then, requires both the private cognitive and the public social dimensions of its pursuit He argues that truth is not just a matter of whims, whether subjective or collective. Rather, it is the fundamental goal of rational inquiry. Unless we are just kidding around, it is the case that when we make statements, we believe them to be true. But rather than dwell on truth, the theory of truth as opinion suggests that truthfulness be considered as a crucial virtue upon which many human endeavors, both moral, social and cognitive, should focus, such as is done by the Akan in their modes of thought.

African heritage in contemporary philosophy

»Try to think through in your own African language and, on the basis of the results, review the intelligibility of the associated problems or the plausibility of the apparent solutions that have tempted you when you have pondered them in some metropolitan language.«

Kwasi Wiredu
(1996, 137)
53 Colonialism did two things to how some of us have been imagining our philosophical enterprise: first, several African philosophers thought that the postcolonial dictated the total and uncritical opposition of what we thought to be indigenously African to what was identifiable as Western; second, some saw the colonial as a sort of requiem for indigenous values, and the postcolonial as a form of an African enlightenment, a new slate inhabited only by new categories of thought. But in reality these two effects of colonialism were similar in that they both were bent on reproducing the colonial categories and geographical and racial distribution of critical and uncritical thinking. We can become victims of colonial discourse by either uncritically carrying philosophical deadwood from our own past traditions, or by uncritically accepting the colonial superimposition of foreign conceptual categories and values.
54 What does Wiredu recommend in the place of the above? To exploit »as much as is judicious the resources of our own indigenous conceptual schemes in our philosophical meditations on even the most technical problems of contemporary philosophy« (136). Rather than uncritically take concepts they have inherited through the mediums of metropolitan languages of their training to be the guiding categories by which to translate or describe our indigenous experiences, African philosophers should embark on the following: »Try to think through in your own African language and, on the basis of the results, review the intelligibility of the associated problems or the plausibility of the apparent solutions that have tempted you when you have pondered them in some metropolitan language.« (137) 4 This is certainly what he himself has done so superbly in the essays of this book. Echoing the familiar call in postcolonial scholarship, especially in the African writings, Wiredu calls for »the need for conceptual decolonization in African philosophy«.

African philosophy and the world

Okot p'Bitek
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55 Working through the notion of conceptual universality, Wiredu's philosophy elevates African virtues to a global usefulness and applicability. In particular, his philosophical position, built on the idea that no individual is self-sufficient nor can accomplish themselves in isolation from others, promotes democratic principles and peaceful collaboration among members of society and among nations of the world in search of what works for humanity. Relativism is resisted not only because it is rationally untenable, but also, at a socio-global level, because it is a hindrance to mutual understanding across cultures and nations of the world. For these ends, Wiredu contrasts concepts from Western and African traditions of thought, and argues against relativists – cultural or philosophical, as they may define themselves – that while certain concepts may emerge in only a limited number of cultural systems, such contingential limitation is not a valid ground for claiming any form of relativism. He warns of the fallacy, common to both some present-day African professional philosophers and African statesman philosophers alike, that if a philosophical theme or position does not have links with African traditional thought then it cannot have a place in contemporary African philosophy. More specifically, in Cultural Universals and Particulars (chapter 7) Wiredu takes on Okot p'Bitek for his claim that the metaphysical idea of creation is a Western-Christian idea which, in p'Bitek's opinion, is totally foreign (and inconceivable?) within the Acholi conceptual scheme. P'Bitek's contention is that the Nilotes (of whom the Acholi are part), like the Jews, did not think metaphysically. According to Wiredu, even if such a claim were true, nothing bars the Acholi, and any other people who do not share the Christian world view, from incorporating such concepts as germane to Christian belief – like creation and Logos – into their theories of the origin of the world. Once again, he evokes the central role of the idea of communication as a means of responding to p'Bitek. Evangelization and colonization are two forms of a historical process through which intercultural transfer of meanings can be and has been made possible. 5 And let us not forget that this takes place both ways. And if so, then either of the processes can be useful resources for assimilating new, good, and hopefully useful meanings to regenerate our own.
56 Wiredu argues (91) that indigenous expressions can acquire meanings and gain new referents where they did not have any in their indigenous schemes, or acquire additional ones to those they possess already as a result of intercultural communication with and influence between different linguistic-conceptual traditions. Thus, for example, while Lubanga means »the hunchback spirit« in indigenous Acholi, there is absolutely nothing strange with the fact that for most current-day Acholi speakers Lubanga may only mean »God« in the Christian sense. Thus the history of the transformation of the word Lubanga in Acholi becomes part of the cultural history of the Acholi, so that such transformations could one day become interesting subject matter for linguists, philologists and, why not?, also for historians of ideas and philosophers.

Indigenous thought and analytical comparisons

57 If one sentence were to describe the core of Barry Hallen's and J. Olubi Sodipo's work, I risk stating that such a sentence would be as follows: ingredients of analytic grids are not limited to the individualist Cartesian model of epistemological practice; rather, they are also built into the kind of knowledge that informs general cultural norms and values. Like Wiredu, Hallen and Sodipo too, in their book, Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft, elegantly accomplish the execution of philosophical analysis comparatively across cultural borders. Originally published in 1986, Hallen's and Sodipo's book raises, from a specific African context, some of the major questions raised recently also by one of the most outstanding American philosophers today.
58 In its methodology, this work sets off on a pedestal now widely attributed to the Kenyan philosopher Odera Oruka, namely the philosophically significant and sensitive concepts embedded in the elucidation of traditional knowledge by cultural experts. Hallen and Sodipo went farther than Oruka in regarding their chosen cultural experts, the onisegun of the Yoruba, as parallel colleagues with whom they could and did hold discussions and debates on the philosophical implications of some of the concepts featuring prominently in their teachings and practice as healers, particularly when these are compared to their counterparts in English. The authors proclaim the book to be a faithful transcription of these discussions. The most prominent in this Yoruba-English comparison is the knowledge-belief (mo-gbagbo) distinction. According to the analysis, the Yoruba concept of mo (knowledge) exacts more stringent conditions under which belief (gbagbo) can qualify as or become knowledge (mo). It is not sufficient, as appears in the Anglo-American rendition of this epistemological problem, that one be justified in believing, for example, that p, for one to know that p, even if p were to be true.
Barry Hallen / J. Olubi Sodipo:
Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophy.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.
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59 The implication is that in the Yoruba system, as distinct from its counterpart in contemporary English speaking epistemological theory, claims to knowledge require first-person experiential (verifiable) testimony and not mere justification. The Yoruba system draws a much smaller map for knowledge-claims. Furthermore, while in the Anglo-American epistemology it is always assumed that, as stated above, knowledge is always a form of belief under special conditions, in the Yoruba system mo does not entail gbagbo. The two are simply distinct, and any attempt to link the two in Yoruba language creates a contradiction, thus making Yoruba propositional attitudes radically different from their counterparts in the Anglo-American tradition. One cannot say in Yoruba that »I believe that p, and I also know that p«. Either one (only) believes, or she knows, but she cannot both believe and know that p. This is all a very beautiful analysis, and a good comparative use of Quine's doubt on the extent to which determinate translation is possible between, or even within, languages. Within African philosophy in general, such beautiful work may present a material problem for the growth of the debate beyond the speech community in reference. For, to sustain the debate on the claims based on the analysis, competence in the language being analyzed would be a minimum requirement. In the absence of such competence widely beyond native or adopted speakers of our languages, the doors to a fruitful philosophical enterprise among Africans will remain only thinly and frustratingly open. Yet we must encourage it, and that endeavor must begin with such excellent work as Hallen's and Sodipo's.
60 Because truth, which is a significant component of knowledge, is a property of statements, that is, the embodiment of secondary sources, cannot be possible. In other words, truth is not communicable, it is only directly experienced. Communication can only convey what many who receive the information will have as belief, not knowledge (where this entails truth-conditional). It would appear, then, that for the Yoruba, like for all people considerate of the limited human ability to witness everything first-hand, a large majority of our everyday statements is based not on knowledge (mo) but on belief (gbagbo).
61 In Hallen's and Sodipo's reckoning, the claim, by Western critics, that the epistemic world of Africans is guided by the proclamation of custom as the criterion of truth, in effect that any claim is »believed or upheld« by later generations merely on the strength of tradition, that is, »because the forefathers said so«, or »because that is how it always has been« could not be more misguided. According to Hallen and Sodipo, such accusation ignores the sharp differences between English-language-analytic and Yoruba definitions of knowledge. It wrongly assumes that the Yoruba conflate belief and knowledge (provided the former is accompanied with justification to qualify as the latter) as is the case in the English-language-analytic definition. Hence the critics assume that what is attributed to tradition is what is held to be »knowledge«.
62 But, on the contrary, at least for the Yoruba, because oral tradition belongs to the genre of claims heard from others' accounts rather than directly witnessed, it is only believed, in the Yoruba sense of the term »believe«, as a corpus of claims that she or he who receives them can hardly claim to make up what she/he »knows«; they could be false.

Philosophy and the idea of nation

63 In opposition to the views of some eighteenth-century thinkers like the German romanticist Johann Gottfried Herder, Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Gyekye argues that nations are like most communities in that they are imagined social constructs whose reality is »characterized by the ethos of cohesion, solidarity, fellow-feeling, and mutual recognition, sympathy, and understanding« (1997, 79). This sense of nation as a constructed imagination rather than a natural entity need not include, and indeed surpasses that of a territorial determination, for it can be lived through the imagination and assumption of compliance with the cultural specifics which are believed to characterize it. Nations in this sense qualify more as »ethnocommunities« in Gyekye's preferred expression. He calls it »the first sense of nation« and urges that it not to be confused, as has been done, with another sense of nation which can be developed as a larger unit which brings together any given number of first sense nations under another set of shared interests. Gyekye calls the latter the »multinational state«, and argues that it can be sustained at the same time as the former. Their co-existence depends, however, on a measured practice of allegiance which does not, especially, overemphasize ethnonation at the expense of the multinational state. Over time, such measured practice of allegiance matures to a level where the various ethnonations attain a cohesion and unity while allowing the various constituting units to exist. That level leads to the birth of a nationhood as a product of moral and political evolution.
Kwame Gyekye:
Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience.
New York – Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
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64 Gyekye's discussion of Africa's struggles with nation-formation, together with the solutions he suggests, ring familiar sounds. The good point he makes, and this one too is not a novelty, is that the reality of Africa's multi-ethnicity is not a hindrance to either the birth of nation-states in the western model or democracy as the model of political system built on open participation by citizens, whether this is representative, as in the West, or party-less, as in Wiredu's ideal(istic) form. During the onset of the recent and still on-going round of attempts to re-democratize the public space in Africa, several African political leaders were known to argue, regrettably, in the manner of old-fashioned and recent colonialists, that the persistence of ethnicities in Africa's social landscape did not favor democracy. In Gyekye's view, although the territorial boundaries of nations in the first sense might become less visible as the metanationalities (the present political nation-states) grow, they remain the constituting elements of Africa's uniquely pluralist socio-cultural formation. The metanation would, in this sense, be based on a different sense of culture, national culture, which is similar in definition to what Fanon proposed in his classic work, The Wretched of the Earth, but which would not be inimical to the ethnic cultures constituting and supporting it from below. What is more, Gyekye observes, knowledge of Africa's traditional political principles indicate that at least most traditional governments were firmly democratic, for, »in traditional African politics the people – the common people – not the chiefs or kings, are the basis of all properly constituted authority« (117-118).
65 The failure to adopt ways that are appropriate to the coming of democracy is, according to Gyekye, attributable to Africa's own leaders. Like Wiredu, Gyekye too argues that democracy based on a broader consensus than a mere majority vote is the better way for Africa to go. He too argues against the representative (parliamentary) system as a sufficient form democracy where the latter is understood as government »by the people« and »of the people«. Both these aspects of democracy are more commensurate with the moderate communitarianism of indigenous African societies than they are with Western representative democracy.
66 Related to the discussion of the best possible forms of government in Africa today is the familiar concept and socio-political movement popularly known as African socialism. Although it is a well worn-out domain among African social theorists, Gyekye brings back to life the debate on African socialism with some refreshing philosophical refutation of old views on the subject. He starts with the refutation of the communist criticism of the very idea of an African socialism. Against the exponents of the idea that socialism was a scientific – and therefore universal – view of the economic drivers of sociopolitical evolution, Gyekye argues that the analogy between socialism and, say, biology is not only false, it also is a misconception of what Marx himself held about the »realism« of his materialist idea of history. Also, he adds, those Africans were wrong who drew a relation of identity between African communitarianism (or communalism) with socialism for, contrary to their claims, some of the key and defining factors of the latter were neither believed in nor practiced in indigenous African societies. There are differences, he argues, between traditional communitarianism and socialism of the Marxist conviction. The former was a socioethical doctrine and not an economic one like African politicians have erroneously interpreted and tried to make it. He explains that African societies always encouraged and supported ownership of private property, sometimes even in the form of land, the commodity so frequently cited as being at the center of the practice of socialism by traditional societies.
67 The experimental pursuit of Marxist socialism by African intellectuals and politicians therefore set aside some of the important values that indigenous societies had stood for, and which were in line with their understanding of personhood, including fair pursuit of personal achievement through hard work. As a result, the experiment ran aground and came to a sad halt, largely leaving African societies in the nations that embraced it invariably more impoverished than they were at the start of the ideological drive.

Modernity and tradition: how useful are the categories?

68 Africa's recent discourses, especially those developed in the period leading to and following independence from colonialism, has been so consumed by concerns about the opposition between everything European on the one hand and their African alternatives on the other, that scholars appear to have arrested time as well as Africans' imaginative and performative practices in it to a pause mode until the sifting is done and completed. As part of the postcolonial lexicon, the distinction between what counts as either »modern« or »traditional« is part of the theoretical and critical strategies whose objectives include the examination of the cultures of former colonies of European empires by questioning the salutary effects of empire.
African philosophers now largely concur, that the difference with the change engendered by European colonization is that its objective was to superimpose Western categories, values and practices in a manner that halted African cultural continuity and regeneration. 69 It goes without question, given our reading manifested so far in these pages, that African philosophers have been no less engaged in the decolonization discourse than, say, literary critics and writers, historians or politicians. What the philosophical literature achieves, or what we have been endeavoring to show it achieves, is a proposal to the rest of the world, of new categories for doing philosophical analysis. African philosophy transcends the mere oppositional stance characteristic of much of the postcolonial scholarship by proposing alternative assumptions for re-examining both already-familiar and new philosophical issues in the cognitive, moral, and socio-political domains. In other words, it is now Europe's turn, if it is committed to openness of mind as philosophy requires, to practice self-examination and self-critique by means of non-Western categories of thought.
70 This strategy not only blunts the essentializing opposition between modernity and tradition in African discourse by arguing that the two are dialectically related categories which define every historical moment of any living culture, it also opens doors to a global comparative philosophical dialogue. Thus, for them, modernity is ushered into every society's history through the constant processes of introducing, and then reworking and adapting the familiar and the new to each other. The discernment of tradition and modernity as separate categories becomes, then, not so much about drawing exclusionary boundaries and sharpening competition between what is African on the one hand and what is typically European on the other. Rather, it takes the form of a conscious organization and management of change.
71 African philosophers now largely concur, that the difference with the change engendered by European colonization is that its objective was to superimpose Western categories, values and practices in a manner that halted African cultural continuity and regeneration. Conceptual decolonization, then, ought to combine »reversing through a critical conceptual self-awareness the unexamined assimilation in our thought (that is, the thought of contemporary African philosophers) of the conceptual frameworks embedded in the foreign philosophical traditions« with »exploiting as much as is judicious the resources of our own indigenous conceptual schemes in our philosophical meditations on even the most technical problems of contemporary philosophy« (Wiredu 1996, 136).
72 Modernity must be Africa's own, its creation. What this means is, then, as Mudimbe writes in his recent work, that every modernity is, from an existential point of view, a form of »cultural ›hybridation‹ witnessing to contemporary dynamics of dialogues between peoples and histories« (1997, XII).
73 Thus, Wiredu reiterates and shares with Hountondji and Mudimbe the view that an African modernity must be a scheme or system (of thought and practice) that looks inward for the best of its local (re)sources which it lifts to the exigencies of newer times even by allowing them critically to appropriate and adapt to elements from abroad, from within or from without the continent, region, country or community. Hountondji's thesis, a legitimate outcome of a combination of lessons taken from Louis Althusser and Georges Canguilhem, is that one cannot think of science, in its structure and history, in alienation from the structures and histories of the societies within which they become alive and take shape.
Valentin Y. Mudimbe:
Tales of Faith: Religion as Political Performance in Central Africa.
London: Athlone Press, 1997.
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74 According to Mudimbe, Africa's modernity is already here, and it is the result of the tumultuous historical events of several centuries which have reflected and reflected upon the historical transformations of and in African societies. Like he did in his earlier and enormously influential work (1988), Mudimbe makes another journey into the making of Africa's modernity. This time he selects one of the three trajectories of the colonial library already identified in The Invention of Africa, that is, the Christian mission as an agency for the project of modernization through conversion. Again, like he did earlier, Mudimbe makes in Tales of Faith the subtle claim that disciplines are not immune to the ideologies under whose wings their objects become determined and their objectives acquire specific historical significance. Thus it is under the powerful influence of the objects of Western disciplines and of Western ideologies that African modernity became an event and its character took form: hybridized, métisé, as both state and process.
75 Not even philosophy and science can remain neutral to the ideologies of the people and societies that develop them. All knowledge is either good or bad depending on how it serves the multi-layered interests of those who develop it. 6 Knowledge helps us in continuing to want and to express that which we believe to be good about us. It is the basis of our relation to ourselves and to Otherness, whether it is the world or other people. Knowledge is therefore inextricable from the idea of power. History of ideas is partly the history of how people, as individuals or as groups, react to and participate in the shaping of power in which they believe or are made to believe they have a stake. It is for this reason that tracing the history of knowledge and its relation to the institutions of power, in its advancement or resistance, may come down to biographical histories, with all their successes and failures, tragedies and celebrations. To make sense of events in human and social history one needs to cast their gaze into the epistemological mutations which have shaped them and the politics which have provided the context of their possibility. And vice versa.
76 The history of the definitions and uses of »primitivism« clearly shows how it has been manipulated to fit specific objectives in the study of similarities and dissimilarities between human societies. Despite anthropologists' admission of the ambiguity of the term, they also have continued to assert that »the primitive« remain the object of their discipline. Briefly, Mudimbe writes, »›a true primitive society‹ cannot be but an invented, constructed, and pure perfection« (1997, 21). The political and disciplinary alliance between colonialism and Christianity, and between colonialism and anthropology then completes the power-knowledge relationship in the practice of conversion and of African anthropology (see 148-154). In a dialectical negation of the anthropological creature, we can then observe the emergence of afrocentricity, a movement which, in Mudimbe's words, »conceives its goal from a position that claims to render a genuine reality of an African history and its cultures« (30). The oppositional relation so created apropos the »real African self« is critically expressed by Mudimbe when he contrasts the goals of both anthropology and afrocentricity as aberrations of the non-fixity of existence and of cultures. While selves are dialectically grounded as existentially expressed by Sartre, cultures, as the modes of this grounding, are essentially projects. Mudimbe writes: »The condition for being oneself as self-consciousness is to apprehend oneself as a self that does not and cannot coincide to itself. As Sartre would have put it: ›A freedom which wills itself freedom is in fact a being-which-is-not-what-it-is and which-is-what-it-is-not, and which chooses as the ideal of being, being-what-it-is-not and not-being-what-it-is‹.« (30)
»[Now] it becomes possible to speak of, analyze and understand every culture, individual and language from the rationality of their own norms, internal rules, and within the logic of their own systems. In African studies, the shift meant a radical passage from mapping the difference of an ›invented‹ genesis to the mapping of cultural individualities.«

Valentin Y. Mudimbe
(1997, 40)
77 There is a double sense here which Mudimbe himself also refers to. On one hand, both the anthropological and afrocentric projects, in their respective claims to determinate the »true identity« of an African self, miss to see their own projects as practices in the knowledge-power game. In other words, they claim to fix that which cannot be fixed. On the other hand, despite their doubtful assumptions and assertions, because they are fictional, the oppositional relation of their claims and goals sets the very dialectical terms of representational politics as condition and practice. In this sense, afrocentricity could, in spite of itself, be a politically rational choice. As Mudimbe himself summarizes, »God's inflections narrate the politics of readings that claim to fulfil them as knowledge, mediation or vision. These performances reflect memories of the past as conceived from the present: things and events take place, lodging themselves in rational grids and their proper determinations« (35).
78 The opposition between past and present is not only applicable to the practice of articulating the historicity of human experience. Past and present have become, in the course of such articulation, the categories for drawing socio-cultural differences between peoples and for charting and describing change, or for demanding and imposing it. By adapting Lévy-Bruhl's theory of difference into a historical framework, anthropologists have tried to theorize socio-cultural differences in evolutionary terms and by using religion as one of the indices of evolutionary difference between peoples and cultures. Religion thus becomes an explanatory model for accounting for general beginnings and for differences in temporal mobility from such beginnings. Accordingly, paganism is contrasted to Christianity through the assumption that while it represents stagnation in primordiality, Christianity represents the historical distancing from it by virtue of its elevation to an assumedly superior cognitive level comparable only with that of the sciences of the abstract. Western obsession with the politics and articulation of difference at the beginning of the twentieth century accounted for and justified colonization, Christianization, and anthropology.
79 But a different map started to emerge between 1950 and 1960 which started to interrogate and to modify the previous political and epistemological assumptions of colonialism, Christianity, and anthropology. The signifying outcomes of this turnaround are well known in the politics of independence, in the new and anti- Lévy-Bruhlian anthropological approach inaugurated by the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and in the emergence of the movement of »Black Theology«. What is significant and worth noting about them, however, is their models which draw similarities, connections, and adaptations rather than polarized differences. More recently, as visible in the works of Golden, Mauss, and Dumézil, this reversal means that »[now] it becomes possible to speak of, analyze and understand every culture, individual and language from the rationality of their own norms, internal rules, and within the logic of their own systems. In African studies, the shift meant a radical passage from mapping the difference of an ›invented‹ genesis to the mapping of cultural individualities« (40).
80 One almost does not know how to write a conclusion to this text. It is itself a text without an end, without a conclusion. There is a reason: the discourse continues to unfold, even as we arbitrarily decide to bring this narrative to a pause. Through it, however, those who take pleasure and exercise patience in tracing the theorized nuances of biographical journeys will enjoy the autobiographical search of the threads of self-constitution. Above all, those who choose to do so constantly will use the same threads to map out the larger fabric of African space of which they themselves make part.
polylog. Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 6 (2005).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/6/amd-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
© 2005 Author & polylog e.V.



The original edition in French dates from 1976: Sur la ›philosophie africaine‹ (Paris: Maspéro). The English translation, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, was published in 1983 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). go back
On this subject the work of Steven Lukes has been illustrative: Steven Lukes (1973): Individualism. New York: Harper & Row; and Michael Carrithers / Steven Collins / Steven Lukes (eds.) (1985): The Category of Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The latter's comparisons of the ideas of self from different cultural expressions are particularly interesting. go back
A robust and technical discussion of »truth as opinion« is to be found in his earlier work, Philosophy and an African Culture, of 1980, especially in chapters 8 and 12, but he makes significant clarifications in the form of a rejoinder to critics in the »Postscript« in Cultural Universals and Particulars. go back
He lists examples of such concepts on pages 93 and 137, and they include Law, Custom, Morality, God, Mind, Person, Soul, Spirit, Sentence, Proposition, Truth, Fact, Substance, Existence, Belief, Knowledge, Reality, Certainty, Meaning, Objectivity, Cause, Justice etc. go back
It should be noted that in saying this Wiredu does not imply a praise for either Christian evangelization or colonization. In fact, he hates and is a staunch critic of both, and makes sharp criticisms of both even in the book in which this idea appears. His position should then be interpreted as merely addressing inter-cultural transfer or exchange of ideas and concepts. Colonialists and Christian missionaries superimposed their ideas and values on Africans rather than let Africans critically choose and pick from European value systems what they freely deemed usefully adaptable to their own modes of thought and ways of life. go back
The idea that analysis of knowledge is social theory is indebted to the influence of several figures in Mudimbe's intellectual development. One of these influences, admitted by Mudimbe who calls Paris his intellectual birth-place, is certainly Michel Foucault, but the general idea of the theory of knowledge as social theory is legitimately connected with Jürgen Habermas' greatly influential work. See Jürgen Habermas (1971): Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. go back


Dismas A. Masolo, a native of Kenya, is Justus Bier Professor of Humanities at the Department of Philosophy, University of Louisville (USA). Previously he has taught philosophy at the University of Nairobi (Kenya) and at several American universities and colleges. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the Gregorian University in Rome in 1980. His research interests are mainly in African philosophy and social philosophy. He has published widely on African philosophy and philosophy and cultures. His work includes African Philosophy in Search of Identity (1994) and African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry (2000), a collection of essays co-edited with Ivan Karp. He is the current President of the Society for African Philosophy in North America (SAPINA).
Prof. Dr. Dismas A. Masolo
Department of Philosophy
University of Louisville
Louisville, KY 40292
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