Anton Wilhelm Amo, Arius Didymus, Augustine, Hebrew Bible, ibn Khaldun, ibn Rushd, ibn Ṭufayl, John McDowell, Juli McGruder, Kwasi Wiredu, Maimonides, Philo of Alexandria, Placide Tempels, Plotinus, René Descartes, Tertullian, Zera Yacob
For the most part, the study of non-Western philosophy has tended to focus on the continent of Asia. There are many good reasons for this. More than half of humanity lives in Asia. And Asia has long, rich traditions of philosophical reflection that have survived and left their works to us – unlike the thought of Mesoamerican traditions, where so much was pillaged and destroyed by the barbarian Spanish invaders. Asia is not even one single context; I would argue that South Asian philosophy is in many respects more like Western philosophy than it is like East Asian. In particular I see no problem in maintaining an Asian focus in my own work, since it is the philosophies of Asia – especially Buddhism – that have left by far the biggest influence on me. One can love all wisdom, but one cannot inhabit all of it.
Still, when we do aspire to love all wisdom, it’s worth taking a look beyond both Asia and the West – at least what we usually think of as the West. There is considerably more to the world. The continent of Africa, in particular, may well overtake Asia in population by the end of this century. So perhaps it is particularly worth thinking about African philosophy.
The key difficulty with studying African philosophy is that Africans have not left the kind of long indigenous tradition of reflection on metaphysical or ethical questions that has been practiced by the Indian darśanas or the Confucians. To anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Asian cultures and history it is, or should be, immediately obvious what Asian philosophy is; African philosophy is not quite as obvious. It is striking that while the most prominent philosopher character in recent media is African, he and his show make no mention at all of African philosophy. But that is certainly not to say African philosophy doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. It does; one just has to know where to look.
Specifically, I think, there are three major places one can find something to be called African philosophy. First, today there are many modern Western-style universities across the continent with formal departments of philosophy, and philosophy professors doing philosophy there. The content of this philosophy is often exclusively Western, but it is still taught in Africa, by Africans, to Africans. I don’t think the philosophers in those universities are well known outside Africa; this is at least partially because some of the brightest academic stars are enticed to leave for wealthier and more famous universities elsewhere. But those stars are significant: John McDowell did his bachelor’s degree at what is now the University of Zimbabwe, Kwasi Wiredu at the University of Ghana. (Wiredu is black and McDowell is white, but both were born and raised in Africa while spending most of their philosophical careers elsewhere; I will leave it up to the reader how important each of these facts are to whether their respective philosophies are counted as African.) And before modern Western-style universities came to Africa, Africans were doing philosophy in such universities for longer than you might think: the Ghanaian-born Anton Wilhelm Amo taught philosophy at Jena in the 18th century, before Hegel got there.
Second, there is what one might call “implicit philosophy”: longstanding indigenous, typically oral, traditions of thought about the cosmos and humans’ place in it. This is the philosophy studied in works like Placide Tempels’s Bantu Philosophy. The difficulty is that this philosophy (and there can be reasonable debate over whether to call it that) is often so supernatural, and otherwise so removed from the views taken to be true by us who might study it from the outside, that lessons from it can be hard to draw. It’s not impossible, though, and some of the more exciting work in modern academic African philosophy – notably Wiredu’s – draws from these implicit traditions. Works like Wiredu’s help make African academic philosophy more clearly African. (I would argue that psychological works that learn from indigenous traditions, like Juli McGruder’s on Zanzibar, should also count as philosophical.)
The most enduring and famous African philosophies fall in a third category. They are the many centuries’ worth of African philosophical reflection that was itself part and parcel of the Western philosophical tradition. This was especially the case within the Abrahamic monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. No, these monotheistic traditions may not be indigenous to Africa, but they are not any more indigenous to Europe! I know of nobody who suggests that the philosophies of Kierkegaard and Aquinas are not European just because they are Christian. And for that matter: while Moses, the prophet most clearly associated with the birth of monotheism, is a semi-mythical figure, the prevailing myth in the Hebrew Bible does state clearly that his early life was spent in Egypt. That gives Africa some claim to being the birth of the Abrahamic monotheisms – more claim, at any rate, than Europe has!
When we get to philosophy proper, the African monotheistic philosophers include arguably the greatest Jewish and Christian philosophers of them all. Maimonides, the preeminent Jewish theologian, spent most of his life in Morocco and Egypt. (His former apartment in Fez is now a lovely restaurant with delicious food.) So likewise Maimonides’ predecessor, the first to attempt to harmonize Greek philosophy with Judaism, was Philo of Alexandria – the Alexandria in Egypt.
Augustine, whose thought defines both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, was born and raised in what is now Algeria – one of the Berber people who dominate North Africa – and spent most of his life there and in Tunisia. (He and many other African theologians also came to Rome for some of their lives, so it is not the case, as is sometimes claimed, that Anton Wilhelm Amo was “the first African philosopher in Europe”!) Also in Tunisia was Tertullian, who coined the term “trinity”. The minds who did the most to make Christianity and Judaism intellectually sophisticated: these people were Africans.
On the Muslim side, too, while ibn Rushd spent a significant part of his life in what is now Spain, he also spent many years in Morocco, dying in Marrakesh. The philosophical novelist ibn Ṭufayl also spent his last years in Morocco; ibn Khaldun, a major forerunner of sociology, lived in Tunisia.
Africa’s great historical Western thought was not limited to monotheism. Africans were a key part of Roman intellectual life well before the Christians got there. Julia Annas draws much of her account of the interaction between Stoics and Aristotelians from the intriguing works of Arius Didymus – who was from Alexandria, Egypt. Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, was born and raised in Egypt too.
These most famous thinkers, the ones who left a giant mark on philosophy beyond Africa, are all North African. But Christian and Muslim philosophy reached south of the Sahara as well. Of the thinkers there, the figure I personally find most fascinating is Zera Yacob: an Ethiopian Christian thinker who, much like his rough contemporary René Descartes, reacted to the theological conflicts of his time by trying to establish a philosophy from first principles. Yacob not only came up with his ideas entirely independently from Descartes, he is said to have written his main work, the Hatata, in a cave. He wrote that “I have learnt more while living alone in a cave than when I was living with scholars” – lines one can imagine Descartes in sympathy with.
In short: not only is there a great deal of philosophy in Africa, Africa’s contribution to world philosophy is enduring, important, and worth celebrating.