Anton Wilhelm Amo, Arius Didymus, Augustine, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Hebrew Bible, ibn Khaldun, ibn Rushd, ibn Ṭufayl, John McDowell, Juli McGruder, Kwasi Wiredu, Maimonides, Morocco, Philo of Alexandria, Placide Tempels, Plotinus, René Descartes, Tertullian, Tunisia, 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.
Carl Johnson said:
I recently began listening to the History of Africana Philosophy podcast. If you like podcasts, you may want to give it a try as well.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Carl, and welcome. The topic is interesting to me; I’m just not much of a podcast person (though my wife is). When I’m in a situation that calls for listening to something I prefer music. I suppose I may need to start making exceptions, though…
Ricardo Bastardo said:
Unless Bantu philosophy and that of Augustine (just two examples…) have much in common, I don’t see the point of “african” philosophy. Or at least it should be better circumscribed.
I don’t think “African” philosophy has anything in common beyond the fact of its taking place on a particular physical landmass. But I think the same holds true for “Asian” philosophy. We still talk about the latter, for reasons of intellectual politics: carving out an intellectual space for multiple significant philosophical traditions that have been neglected. Here, the goal is to carve out an intellectual space for other traditions that have, in some respects and parts, been even more neglected.
“Supernaturalism,” which is here taken as warrant for seemingly shrugging the vast majority of indigenous African philosophies, is an intra-philosophical problematic — not evidence of an absence of philosophy.
Make what one will of “supernatural” claims (of course, a term that is itself entirely endogenous to very specific types of monotheistic cosmological schematic), there is nothing intrinsically unphilosophical about them. This kind of ideological provincialism not only obfuscates that methodollgical naturalism, however one defines the term, is an idea and ideal that emerges from *within* Christian metaphysical categories and concepts (e.g. seculariks which is always provincial and localized), it is way too dogmatic as to what kinds of claims could theoretically be permitted to enter the public space of giving and asking for reasons.
Brushing away the extremely nuanced and complex oral cosmological traditions across the African subcontinent precisely overlooks the possibility that members of these traditions were doing metaphysics and ontology in ways that constitute genuine alternatives in the proverbial “history of being.”
To wave off philosophies that are not easily amendable to contemporary naturalism as merely “implicit” philosophy, and so insufficiently philosophical, is to equivocate ontical content with methodological form vis-à-vis defining what philosophy is, which is, I believe, can be helpfully defined as the exercise in interfacing with the posited absolute limits of thoughts. To a priori delimit the bands of that exercise in terms of some rules of some local epistemic form of naturalism seems woefully inadequate, and not just ethnocentric but dull!
Hope philosophers can have more courage to look into forms of rationality that are unfamiliar to them!
John, these are important points. But what is at issue is exactly what counts as a “genuine alternative”. The fact that groups of human beings happen to hold a particular viewpoint does not make it a genuine alternative in the sense that it is one other beings should consider adopting.
For example, I would not count the viewpoints that vaccines cause autism or that Trump actually won the election as genuine alternative approaches within the fields of medicine or political science. Do you? If not, why not? And what is it about your rejecting them as alternatives in these fields that does not apply to the African oral traditions you wish to consider as genuine alternatives within the fields of metaphysics and ontology? These are not necessarily rhetorical questions.
Certainly, epistemic pluralism does not dictate pure relativism (though I admit I am still partial to Feyerabend’s dictum of “anything goes” methodologically on the level of pragmatism vis-à-vis the generation of potentially valuable discoveries, interesting mistakes, etc.). An alternative research program does not demand respect simply by virtue of its mere existence, even on the level of group-collectives.
A certain kind of anti-imperialist epistemological reactionarism wants to shield/conserve all forms of collective research programs from moral and/or epistemological criticism. One can, e.g., see this in terms of post-colonial has been weaponized, e.g., in Hindu right-wing movements against western critics or scholars of Hinduism and Indian history.
So, no, I don’t think mere cultural difference is sufficient criterion for epistemic esteem. But I do think western scholars are very quick to shoot from the hip about things they’ve not even studied; e.g., if one actually begins unpacking Yoruban or Igbo metaphysics, they are not just reducible to mere superstition, or whatever patronizing appellations might be supplied.
This goes, too, for contemporary analytic revisionist accounts of Buddhism. Whether one or not is open to the possibility of, say, OBE’s, PCE’s, reincarnation, or whatever posited paranormal, parapsychological, or mystical phenomena in these traditions due to one’s methodological naturalism (which is often no more interesting or epistemologically complex than others’ metaphysical assumptions), the reasons why people have modeled the world in terms of these posited phenomena are not just able to waved off, or so easily separated from the cluster of research traditions that have taken on the name “Buddhism.”
I have no issue, to be clear, with revision, correction, or abandonment of certain concepts or beliefs inside a research tradition, but a lot of modern research into Buddhist philosophy often seems to me like really shallow receptions of the source material that they study, completely separated from the lived experimental dimensions of Buddhism as a phenomenological/subjectively empirical enterprise.
So my point was not to so much to do apologetics for “supernaturalism” (however one defines the term exactly), but to challenge the idea that supernaturalistically informed philosophies amount to mere “implicit” philosophies. Whether we think a supernatural claim constitutes a *good* or *bad* philosophical claim, it cannot be a priori barred from entry into the public space of giving and asking for reasons. To basically argue all pre-colonial cosmological speculation and experimental research into the nature of reality, consciousness, in Africa is merely an implicit or failed form of modern philosophizing is a way to deny pre-colonial African agents *rationality*, in the broadest sense of the term (an all too familiar move in the history of Occidental receptions of Africa). Again, we may decide that, e.g., traditional Yoruban metaphysics supplies good or bad reasons for its model of reality (and same goes for Buddhists who predicate arguments on certain kinds of purported ineffable states or posited transpersonal forms of consciousness), but actually making the case for why such approaches constitute bad philosophy is a massive, epochal undertaking.
Easy to simply say an entire research tradition is epistemologically off-base from within a line of reasoning anterior to the tradition than it is to pull an inside job from inside the tradition — the latter of which presupposes some form of rationality that is properly transcultural.
Thank you. This is a helpful response that makes it clearer what’s at stake in your comments. We may agree on more than either of us had previously thought. In that light let me point to specifics of what I said above: that indigenous oral tradition “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.” That is, it is really foreign to outside modern observers, much more than, say, Confucianism or Aristotelianism are to each other; supernaturalism is only one obvious manifestation of that foreignness. So it is hard to draw lessons from it – but not impossible, as I also say above, citing Wiredu. I don’t think there’s anything in the post to imply that the entirety of Igbo or Bantu oral tradition is “epistemologically off-base”. Indeed, I’ve posted thoughts before that such traditions “have a great deal to teach us about psychology and sociology”, with reference to the work of Robin Horton and Juli McGruder on those topics.
Regarding the supernatural specifically, yes, it is generally something I reject, though I can speak more precisely of what I reject as the unscientific. That, in turn, is because I believe at least some of the normative weight Western culture gives to natural science is deserved. Why do I say it’s deserved? That would be a longer discussion, but the most obvious answer has to do with the technologies that it has made possible: any Bambuti or Sentinelese tribesperson can recognize that fixing a broken leg, or flying through the air in a metal contraption, is something that they are not capable of accomplishing without the aid of that knowledge-system – and fixing the leg, at least, is something that I think they would acknowledge as a desirable goal. That said, again, I’ve never ruled out whole systems in their entirety on the grounds of their supernaturalism; that is why I take the project of naturalizing Buddhism to be an important one, in a way I went over at length in my debate with Evan Thompson.