First published in Canadian Philosophical Review

Readings in African Philosophy
edited by Safro Kwame
(Lanham: University Press of America, 1995)

Some years ago I reviewed a collection of papers called African Philosophy: The Essential Readings, edited by Serequeberhan. My last comment in that review was the expression of the hope for collections of papers that would give an insight into what's going on in African philosophy, rather than into the debate over the existence and nature of African philosophy. My concern is echoed by the last line of a letter printed in the present volume of readings: "Hitherto most of us have been talking about African philosophy, instead of doing African philosophy." (p.xlii) So when I received this book for review, I naturally hoped that it was what I'd been waiting for. I'm afraid that it isn't.

The book is divided into an Introduction and four parts. The introduction contains a correspondence between the editor and some of the contributors; I couldn't see much point in this, but it only takes up 13 pages. Much more disappointing is that most of the papers in part I - the largest part, `Philosophy and Traditional African Societies' - are concerned with the existence and nature of African philosophy (papers by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Safro Kwame, Kobina Oguah, and Kwasi Wiredu). Some of these are interesting, and Appiah's is genuinely philosophical (though Safro Kwame's response contains some odd misreadings of it). However, Oguah's `African and Western Philosophy: A Comparative Study' is more typical of the collection as a whole, following as it does the `ethnophilosophy' line.

This involves little more than 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 worldview -- an item of communal property rather than an activity for the individual philosopher. In order to justify the label `philosophy', attempts may be made to link such beliefs with philosophical concepts and positions. A typical example of this approach is Oguah's discussion of the cosmo logical argument for the existence of god, which he claims is found in "Fanti philosophical theology". The justification for this claim is (in full) as follows:

God is described as Boadze (The creator of the world). A justification for regarding God as the creator of the world in western philosophy is the principle of universal causation, the principle that whatever exists must have a cause. The principle of universal causation is expressed in Fanti in the proverb `se biribi annkeka mpapa a, nkye mpapa annye kredede' (If nothing had touched the palm branch, the palm branch would not have emitted a sound.) If every event has a cause the world also must have a cause. (p.72)

I doubt that many readers will be convinced by this sort of thing. Apart from anything else, the argument seems to have been added by Oguah; all that's even claimed to be present in Fanti are two elements, the notion of god as creator and (somewhat dubiously) the principle of universal causation.

The remaining three parts - `Metaphysics', `Logic and Epistemology', and `Moral and Political Philosophy' - are squeezed into the last two thirds of the book. Unfortunately, many if not most of the papers contain very little philosophy, except again in the curious sense of `ethnophilosophy' (or, in the case of some of the moral and political contributions, what Henry Odera Oruka has called `nationalistic-ideological philosophy' -- essentially political ideology).

We're offered some fascinating, if occasionally somewhat amateurish, anthropology and philology; we're told a good deal about the nature of Akan society, art, and language; after each paper we're presented with questions which might be suitable if the book is to be used as comprehension practice for Teaching English as a Foreign Language, but which are otherwise embarrassing.

On the plus side, are Appiah's `Philosophy and Necessary Questions', Wiredu's `The Concept of Mind', Kwame Gyekye's `The Concept of a Person', and the inclusion of a piece (unfortunately very short) by the eighteenth-century Ghanaian philosopher, Anthony William Amo, `On the [Apatheia] of the Human Mind'. It seems to me, though that these aren't enough to justify the collection's existence, though this might be because of my position in the ethnophilosophy versus professional philosophy debate.

The problem is that a collection of readings in African philosophy only makes sense if there's something distinctive about such philosophy -- otherwise it makes no more sense than a collection of papers written on Tuesdays, or by red-headed philosophers. 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. I've read many papers by African philosophers who manage to take the professional-philosophy line in order to investigate and make philosophical use of distinctively African concepts -- papers by writers like Oshita O. Oshita, Lansana Keita, Chukwudum B. Okolo, and others (as well, of course, as some of the writers included in the present collection). Now, one reason for the absence here of most such writers is Safro Kwame's decision to limit his selections to work by Akan-speaking Ghanaians. In one sense this is reasonable; as he points out in his introduction, to lump together simply as `Africans' over 500 million people of vastly different races and cultures is ridiculous.

If one takes the `ethnophilosophy' line, indeed, his decision is not only reasonable but unavoidable (though I'd still have preferred the book to have been called Readings in Akan Philosophy rather than Readings in African Philosophy with the subtitle `An Akan Collection'). As is probably clear by now, I take the `professional philosophy' line, and this is probably the major reason for my dissatisfaction.


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