* African Philosophy *

Internet Resources

This page started life as a resource centre for a course I ran in 2000, but is now intended to be a general resource for those interested in African Philosophy


The Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka distinguishes what he calls four trends in African philosophy: ethnophilosophy, philosophic sagacity, nationalistic-ideological philosophy, and professional philosophy. In fact it would be more realistic to call them candidates for the position of African philosophy, with the understanding that more than one of them might fit the bill.

Ethnophilosophy involves the recording of the beliefs found in African cultures. Such an approach treats African philosophy as consisting in a set of shared beliefs, a shared world-view -- an item of communal property rather than an activity for the individual.

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

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

The problem with both ethnophilosophy and philosophical sagacity is that there is surely an important distinction between philosophy and the history of ideas. No matter how interesting the beliefs of a people such as the Akan or the Yoruba may be to the philosopher, they remain beliefs, not philosophy. To call them philosophy is to use a secondary sense of that term, as in 'my philosophy is live and let live'.

Professional philosophy is the view that philosophy is a particular way of thinking, reflecting, and reasoning, that such a way is relatively new to (most of) Africa, and that African philosophy must grow in terms of the philosophical work carried out by Africans and applied to (perhaps not exclusively) African concerns. This sort of view would be the intuitive answer of most Western philos­ophers (whether of continental or analytic persuasion) to the question 'what is African philosophy?'

Nationalist-ideological philosophy might be seen as a special case of philosophic sagacity, in which not sages but ideologues are the subjects. Alternatively, we might see it as a case of profes­sional political philosophy. In either case, the same sort of problem arises: we have to retain a distinction between ideology and philosophy, between sets of ideas and a special way of reasoning.

Ethnophilosophers attempt to show that African philosophy is distinctive by treading heavily on the 'African' and almost losing the 'philosophy'. Their main rivals, the professional philosophers, adopt the view that philosophy is a particular way of thinking, reflecting, reasoning, that such a way is relatively new to (most of) Africa, and that African philosophy must grow in terms of the philosophical work carried out by Africans and applied to (perhaps not exclusively) African concerns. Thus they tread heavily on the 'philosophy', but risk losing the 'African'; this risk, however, is by no means unavoidable, and many African philosophers have successfully avoided it, including Kwame Anthony Appiah, Kwame Gyekye, Kwasi Wiredu, Oshita O. Oshita, Lansana Keita, Peter Bodunrin, and Chukwudum B. Okolo.

Some suggested reading

[See also the various Web resources listed below, and Bruce Janz's Selected Important Texts in African PhilosophySelected Important Texts in African Philosophy, and the Africa Resource Centre's Philosophy listing.]

* Lee. M. Brown [ed.]
African Philosophy: New and Traditional Perspectives (2004; Oxford University Press)
* Parker English & Kibujjo M. Kalumba [edd]
African Philosophy: A Classical Approach (1996; Prentice Hall)
* Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze [ed.]
African Philosophy: An Anthology (1997; Blackwell)
  [Not very useful, I'm afraid. There's a lot of (not very philosophical) political writing, papers by or about black American philosophers (and musicians!), a lot of more-or-less political stuff on slavery, colonialism, and race. That doesn't leave much room for what you might have been expecting (African philosophy), especially when some of the apparently relevant sections contain little or nothing of genuine philosophical interest (for example, Part One is called "What is African Philosophy?", but nothing included in it goes any way towards answering that question; Part Eleven, "Philosophy of Religion", contains little philosophical apart from an extract from Kwame Gyeke's book (see below) -- which in fact provides a large proportion of the genuinely philosophical material in Eze's collection.]
* Guttorm Floistad [ed.]
Contemporary Philosophy: African Philosophy (1987; Martinus Nijhoff)
* Kwame Gyekye
An Essay of African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (1995; Temple University Press) [publisher's blurb, etc.]
* Samuel Oluoch Imbo
An Introduction to African Philosophy (1998; Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-8476-8841-0)
  [In fact this is almost solely an introduction to the discussions concerning what African philosophy is or should be. It's very useful on that count, and generally well worth reading, but its limited scope is somewhat disappointing. Personally I'd have ditched the last part (and especially Chapter Five, on connections between African philosophy, "African American" philosophy, and "feminist philosophy") in favour of a couple of chapters on areas such as metaphysics, epistemology, or the like. In other words, I'd have liked to have seen more philosophy and less talk about philosophy.]
* Safro Kwame
Reading in African Philosophy: An Akan Collection (1995; University Press of America. ISBN 0-8191-9911-7)
* John S. Mbiti
African Religions and Philosophy 2nd edition (1990; Heinemann. ISBN 0-435-89591-5)
* Albert G. Mosley [ed.]
African Philosophy: Selected Readings (1995; Prentice Hall)
* H. Odera Oruka [ed.]
Sage Philosophy [Volume 4 in Philosophy of History and Culture] (1990; E.J. Brill. ISBN 90-04-09283-8; ISSN 0922-6001)
  [This book is divided into three parts: Part One is made up of five pieces by Oruka, Part Two of source materials in the form of interviews with "Folk sages" and "Philosophic sages", and Part Three of six papers by various philosophers.
Part One is somewhat uneven; a couple of the pieces are genuine philosophical papers, but they're accompanied by a couple of rather scrappy collections of observations, debates, and introductions. The final piece and most puzzling inclusion is the transcript of part of a trial in Nairobi at which Oruka gave evidence as an expert witness.
Part Two is of some interest, though to most philosophers the interest is largely anthropological or enthnological rather than philosophical.
Part Three contains some useful papers, though I don't see the point of the inclusion of Christian Neugebauer's "The Racism of Hegel and Kant".
* Tsenay Serequeberhan [ed.]
African Philosophy: The Essential Readings (1991; Paragon House. ISBN 1-55778-309-8)
* Kwasi Wiredu
Philosophy and an African (1980; Cambridge University Press)
* Kwasi Wiredu [ed.]
A Companion to African Philosophy (2004; Blackwell)
* Richard Wright [ed.]
African Philosophy: An Introduction (1984; University Press of America)


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