African Philosophy


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African philosophy is a disputed term, used in different ways by different philosophers. Although African philosophers spend their time doing work in many different areas, such as metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy, and political philosophy, a great deal of the literature is taken up with a debate concerning the nature of African philosophy itself. Though this is often criticised as being sterile and self-absorbed, it can nevertheless provide useful insights into the nature of philosophy in general.


One of the most fundamental loci of disagreement concerns what exactly it is that the term ‘African’ qualifies: the content of the philosophy or the identities of the philosophers. On the former view, philosophy counts as African if it involves African themes (such as distinctively African perceptions of time, personhood, etc.) or uses methods that are distinctively African; on the latter view, African philosophy is any philosophy done by Africans (or sometimes, by people of African descent).

In what follows – for the purposes of an encyclopædia article – it will generally be more useful to take the former view as central, as it is surely the distinctive content and methodology that distinguishes African from other philosophy. (It's perhaps worth pointing out that the vast majority of African philosophy in the former sense will as a matter of fact also count as African philosophy in the latter sense.)

Having said all that, a historical survey is most easily and informatively undertaken by looking at philosophers who were born on the continent of Africa; when we come to the modern era, we shall revert to taking content and methodology as primary. Let us start, however, by looking at ancient African philosophy.

Pre-modern African philosophy

We start with yet another distinction: that between philosophers and philosophy. Paulin J. Hountondji has argued that, without a written language: “thousands of Socrates could never have given birth to Greek philosophy... so thousands of philosophers without written works could never have given birth to an African philosophy” (Hountondji, p.106; quoted in Kwame, Introduction, p.xx). Joseph I. Omoregbe's broad definition of a philosopher as, "one who devotes a good deal of his time reflecting on [ fundamental questions about human life or the physical universe] and who frequently and habitually does this” (Omoregbe, p.4), and though no clearly articulated and documented philosophy exists, there is still a philosophical tradition. Put simply, even if there were no known African philosophers, there was African philosophy.

At least one may say that if we take a philosophy to be a coherent set of beliefs, but not a system explaining the unity of it's understanding of all the world's phenomena phenomenon the nature of the world and the place of human beings in that world, then few if any cultures lack a philosophy. Such a philosophy doesn't depend upon the existence of specific people who philosophise, but even its innate in responding to life.

There is no debate concerning the fact that Africans have always been perfectly capable of philosophical thought. The standard view of the rise of philosophical (and of scientific) thought is that it probably required a certain sort of social structure (one in which, for example, a significant part of society had the leisure to think and debate), but that even given this necessary background condition, there's a further complex set of factors needed. The claim that Africa developed no philosophy, then, is merely the claim that the right conditions happened not to arise there.

There is at least one example of a pre-modern sub-Saharan philosopher in Omoregbe's sense: Anthony William Amo was taken as a slave from Awukenu in what is now Ghana, was brought up and educated in Europe (gaining doctorates in medicine and philosophy), and became a professor at the universities of Halle and Jena.

Philosophy in North Africa has a rich and varied history, dating from pre-dynastic Egypt, and continuing through the birth of both Christianity and Islam. Arguably central to the ancients was the conception of "ma'at", which roughly translated refers to "justice", "truth", or simply "that which is right". One of the earliest works of political philosophy was the Maxims of Ptah-Hotep, which were taught to Egyptian schoolboys for centuries.

More recently, North African philosophers made extremely important contributions to Christian philosophy and Islamic philosophy.

In the Christian tradition, Augustine of Hippo was a cornerstone of Christian philosophy and theology. He lived from 354 to 430 CE, and wrote his best known work, The City of God, in Hippo Regius, (now Annaba, Algeria). He challenged a number of ideas of his age including Arianism, and established the notions of original sin and divine grace in Christian philosophy and theology.

In the Islamic tradition, Ibn Bajjah philosophized along neo-Platonist lines in the 12th century C.E. The purpose of human life, according to Bajja, was to gain true happiness, and true happiness is attained by grasping the universals through reason and philosophy, often outside the framework of organized religion.

Ibn Rushd philosophised along more Aristotelian lines, establishing the philosophical school of Averroism. Notably, he argued that there was no conflict between religion and philosophy, and instead that there are a variety of routes to God, all equally valid, and that the philosopher was free to take the route of reason while the commoners were unable to take that route, and only able to take the route of teachings passed on to them.

Ibn Sab'in challenged the above view, arguing that Aristotelian methods of philosophy were useless in attempting to understand the universe, because those ideas failed to mirror the basic unity of the universe with itself and with God, so that true understanding required a different method of reasoning.

Modern African philosophy

Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka has distinguished what he calls four trends in modern African philosophy: ethnophilosophy, philosophical 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. (Oruka later added two additional categories: literary/artistic philosophy, the work of literary figures such as Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Okot p’Bitek, and Taban lo Liyong, and hermeneutic philosophy the analysis of African languages in order to find philosophical content.) Maulana Karenga is one of the key philosophers in African-American circles, he produced a 803 page book titled Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt.

Ethnophilosophy & philosophical sagacity

Ethnophilosophy has been used to record the beliefs found in African cultures. Such an approach treats African philosophy as consisting in a set of shared beliefs, values, categories, and assumptions that are implicit in the language, practices, and beliefs of African cultures; in short, the uniquely African world view. As such, it is seen as an item of communal property rather than an activity for the individual.

One proponent of this form, Placide Tempels, argued in Bantu Philosophy that the metaphysical categories of the Bantu people are reflected in their linguistic categories. According to this view, African philosophy can be best understood as springing from the fundamental assumptions about reality reflected in the languages of Africa.

An example of this sort of approach is the work of E. J. Alagoa of the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, who argues for the existence of an African philosophy of history stemming from traditional proverbs from the Niger Delta in his paper "An African Philosophy of History in the Oral Tradition". Algoa argues that in African philosophy, age is seen as an important factor in gaining wisdom and interpreting the past. In support of this view, he cites proverbs such as "More days, more wisdom", and "What an old man sees seated, a youth does not see standing". Truth is seen as eternal and unchanging ("Truth never rots"), but people are subject to error ("Even a four-legged horse stumbles and falls"). It is dangerous to judge by appearances ("A large eye does not mean keen vision"), but first-hand observation can be trusted ("He who sees does not err"). The past is not seen as fundamentally different from the present, but all history is contemporary history ("A storyteller does not tell of a different season"). The future remains beyond knowledge ("Even a bird with a long neck cannot see the future"). Nevertheless, it is said, "God will outlive eternity". History is seen as vitally important ("One ignorant of his origin is nonhuman"), and historians (known as "sons of the soil") are highly revered ("The son of the soil has the python's keen eyes").

Another more controversial application of this approach is embodied in the concept of Negritude. Leopold Senghor, a proponent of negritude, argued that the distinctly African approach to reality is based on emotion rather than logic, works itself out in participation rather than analysis, and manifests itself through the arts rather than the sciences. Cheikh Anta Diop and Mubabinge Bilolo, on the other hand, while agreeing that African culture is unique, challenged the view of Africans as essentially emotional and artistic, pointing out that Egypt was an African culture whose achievements in science, mathematics, architecture, and philosophy provided a basis for Greek civilization.

Critics of this approach argue that the actual philosophical work in producing a coherent philosophical position is being done by the academic philosopher (such as Algoa), and that the sayings of the same culture can be selected from and organised in many different ways in order to produce very different, often contradictory systems of thought. One can imagine trying to develop an English theory of mind by collecting proverbs and idioms such as "I'm in two minds about that", "He's out of his mind with worry", "She has a mind like a sieve", etc.

Philosophical 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 philosophical sagacity.

Critics of this approach note 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.

Critics argue further that 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

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 view would be the most common answer of most Western philos­ophers (whether of continental or analytic persuasion) to the question ‘what is African philosophy?’

Critics of this view note the ethnocentricity within this statement. The question to them is "What is philosophy?" Those who hold the viewpoint of the Professional Philosopher would likely answer, "European, American and Asian philosophy alone shall be called philosophy". Professional Philosophers therefore must either provide more detail regarding their views or accept that their views are simply ethnocentric.

The professional philosopher would likely point out that, aside from academic journals, philosophy primarily consists of book-length treatises on philosophical topics written in an open, philosophical mindset by a uniquely gifted individual. Not just any work will suffice of course, the work must be brilliant and unique. However, there doesn't seem to be anything necessarily Euro-centric or ethnocentric about the production of such works. The historical lack of such works in sub-saharan Africa therefore says something about the culture and peoples of Africa.


Created by Maulana Karenga the philosophy of Kawaida is an ongoing synthesis of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world. One of its central tenets is that culture is the fundamental source of a people's identity, purpose and direction. Thus, Kawaida is, in fact, a continuous dialog with African culture, asking questions and seeking answers to central and enduring concerns of the African and human community. At the heart of this project is the continuing quest to define and become the best of what it means to be both African and human in the fullest sense. This involves an ongoing search for models of excellence and paradigms of possibilities in every area of human life, but especially in the seven core areas of culture: history; spirituality and ethics; social organization; political organization; economic organization; creative production (art, music, literature, dance, etc.) and ethos. It also involves creating a language and logic of liberation, one of opposition and affirmation, and a corresponding liberational practice to create a just and good society and pose an effective paradigm of mutually beneficial human relations and human possibility. "Principles of Us"

Nationalist–ideological 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.

(part of this article is based upon Peter J. King's introduction to African philosophy (see link below),used with permission)

See also

Further reading

  • Mubabinge Bilolo, Contribution à l’histoire de la reconnaissance de Philosophie en Afrique Noire Traditionnelle, (1978: Kinshasa, Facultés Catholiques de Kinshasa, Licence en Philosophie et Religions Africaines)
  • Mubabinge Bilolo, Les cosmo-théologies philosophiques de l'Égypte Antique. Problématiques, Prémisses herméneutiques et problèmes majeurs. Academy of Afrian Thought, Sect. I, vol. 1,(1986: Kinshasa-Munich-Libreville, African University Studies)
  • Peter O. Bodunrin Philosophy in Africa: Trends and Perspectives (1985: University of Ife Press)
  • Kwame Gyekye An Essay of African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (1995: Temple University Press) ISBN 1-56639-380-9
  • Paulin J. Hountondji African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (1983: Bloomington, Indiana University Press)
  • Samuel Oluoch Imbo An Introduction to African Philosophy (1998: Rowman & Littlefield) ISBN 0-8476-8841-0
  • Bruce B. Janz "African Philosophy" PDF
  • Safro Kwame Reading in African Philosophy: An Akan Collection (1995: University Press of America) ISBN 0-8191-9911-7
  • Joseph I. Omoregbe “African philosophy: yesterday and today” (in Bodunrin; references to reprint in [E. C. Eze] [ed.] African Philosophy: An Anthology (1998: Oxford, Blackwell))
  • 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
  • Tsenay Serequeberhan [ed.] African Philosophy: The Essential Readings (1991: Paragon House) ISBN 1-55778-309-8
  • Placide Tempels, La philosophie bantoue (Bantu Philosophy), Elisabethville, 1945, Full text in French here.
  • Kwasi Wiredu Philosophy and an African (1980: Cambridge University Press)
  • Kwasi Wiredu [ed.] A Companion to African Philosophy (2004: Blackwell)
  • Kwasi Wiredu Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy And Religion In: African Studies Quarterly, The Online Journal for African Studies, Volume 1, Issue 4, 1998
  • Olabiyi Babalola Yai, Guest Editor: African Studies Quarterly, Volume 1, Issue 4 (1998): Religion and Philosophy in Africa


External links