First published in Philosophical Books

African Philosophy: The Essential Readings
edited by Tsenay Serequeberhan
(Paragon House, 1991)

The title African Philosophy: The Essential Readings immediately suggests four possibilities to me. The term `African philosophy' might refer to philosophical work carried out by Africans, with the implication that there is an African philosophical tradition characterised by preoccupations with certain methods or subject matter (this is what one expects from volumes dedicated, for instance, to American philosophy). Or it might refer to a peculiarly African approach to philosophy (and this is what one expects from volumes dedicated to `Anglo-American' or analytic philosophy). In each case, the phrase `the essential readings' seems to promise either a survey of the historical development of such work, or a collection of its best or most typical recent examples. This book turned out to be none of these things.

The papers presented here are almost entirely devoted to a single debate: is there such a thing as African philosophy, and if so, what is it? That is, these are not `The essential readings in' but `The essential readings on African philosophy.' This, of course, means that the collection offers an introduction to African philosophy in rather a limited sense, for we are shown little philosophy as practised by African philosophers. Moreover, as most of the papers offer introductions to or overviews of the debate before taking sides in it, there is a tremendous amount of repetition. One or two of the papers here would have fulfilled the purposes of the collection; indeed, a single introductory paper would have been enough.

In saying all this, I am neither denying that the collection in general has interest, nor that most of the papers are well-written, well-presented, and well-argued. Before going into the general and individual merits which I have found, I shall sketch the shape of the debate as analysed by one of the contributors to the collection, Henry Odera Oruka. This analysis is used by more than one of his fellow contributors, including the editor in his introductory paper, and though it is doubtless over-simple, it will serve my purposes.

Oruka distinguishes what he calls four trends in African philosophy: ethnophilosophy, philosophic sagacity, nationalistic-ideological philosophy, and professional philosophy. Calling these trends seems to me to beg an important question, for many of the authors here (including Oruka) deny one or more of them the status of philosophy. It might be better, there fore, to think of them as candidates for the position of African philosophy, with the understanding that more than one of them might need to be appointed.

Ethnophilosophy This 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 worldview - an item of communal property rather than an activity for the individual. It seems fairly clear to me that whatever the value of the work of the recorders of such beliefs (and it is surely both valuable and interesting), it can only count as philosophy in a Pickwickian, not to say Humpty Dumptian sense of the word.

Philosophic sagacity This is a sort of individualise 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, certain (very few) of those members reach a particularly high level of knowledge and understanding of their cultures' worldview - 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 here is that not all reflection and questioning is philosophical; indeed, if African philosophy is to be defined purely in terms of philosophic sagacity, then the thoughts of the sages can't be African philosophy, for they didn't record them from other sages.

A further, more practical problem affects both ethnophilosophy and philosophical sagacity. There is surely an important distinction between philosophy and the history of ideas, even if the history is of philosophical ideas. No matter how interesting the beliefs of a people such as the Yor—b  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". This objection is made in a number of the papers here, but rejected or ignored in a surprising number of others. Note also that the only difference between non-African anthropology or ethnology and African philosophy seems to become the nationality of the researcher.

Professional philosophy This is, more or less, 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. Marcien Towa sums this position up particularly clearly in his paper:

African philosophy is the exercise by Africans of a specific type of intellectual activity (the critical examination of fundamental problems) applied to the African reality. The type of intellectual activity in question is, as such, neither African, European, Greek, nor German; it is philosophy in general. What is African are the men of flesh and bones who are and who evoke the problems of supreme importance and on whom these same problems are applicable immediately. (p.195)

I take it that this sort of view would be the intuitive answer of most Western philosophers to the question `what is African philosophy?' - whether of continental or analytic persuasion.

Nationalist-ideological philosophy This 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, I think: mustn't we retain a distinction between ideology and philosophy, between sets of ideas and a special way of reasoning?

What seems to be behind much of the argument against `professional philosophy', I feel, is some idea that `philosophy' denotes the highest or most important form of (purely) intellectual activity, and that whatever form of intellectual activity the writer deems highest or most important is therefore philosophy. There is even the clear claim on the part of one or two of the writers that, as philosophy is held to be culturally and intellectually important in the West (would that it were!), to deny it to Africans is no more than racism or cultural imperialism. Against those who argue that to deny the existence of an African philosophical tradition is not to say that Africans can't do but only that they generally haven't done philosophy, rather uncomfortably racist quotations from philosophers of the past are mustered - Hume, Kant, Hegel, and so on. Uncomfortable such quotations may be, but relevant to the modern debate within African philosophy, surely not. And the various attempts to show that ancient Greek philosophy was somehow not European (either because the Greeks weren't European, or because they were influenced by the Egyptians) are neither very impressive from a factual point of view nor, again, relevant to the debate.

What of the individual papers to be found in the collection? I've already said that the main problem is lack of variety. This isn't helped by Serequeberhan's introductory paper, which covers much the same ground as many of the following contributions, often in much the same way. The best of the papers here, though (such as those by Bodunrin, Towa, Wiredu, and Oruka), have much to offer; apart from the debate itself, which is not without some philosophical interest, especially in the way that it stimulates reflection on the nature, purpose, and direction of philosophy in general, there is also information to be found concerning the history of philosophical work carried out by Africans, and the sort of work being done now. With the exception, in fact, of the superfluous introductory paper and the paper by Innocent Onyewuenyi, which is little more than polemic, often inaccurate and never philosophical, the interested reader should reap rewards from all of the papers in the collection.

There remains, however, a place for a genuine reader in African philosophy - indeed, for more than one. Both an historical anthology and a collection of the best of contemporary work from African philosophical journals would be welcome. Perhaps Paragon House would be prepared to supplement the volume under review with one or more companions.


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