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African Philosophy – Part I

Philosophy is the systematic examination of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct. African Philosophy is the rational investigation of the facts and laws of being, learning, or conduct from the lens of the African tradition. Does Africa have her philosophy? Join in this discourse as we survey, “African Philosophy – Part I”

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Philosophy is the systematic examination of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct. African Philosophy is the rational investigation of the facts and laws of being, learning, or conduct from the lens of the African tradition. Does Africa have her philosophy? Did she once have systems for organized thought or was her philosophy handed down by the colonialists? At a glance, the answer to these questions tends towards the negative. From the earliest writings and descriptions of our cultures from western explorers, it seemed almost unanimous that the earlier Africans were seen as underdeveloped and primitive.

However, it must be understood that such assessments cannot be made without careful and holistic studies carried out on the native peoples of these ancient tribes. While non-natives may have found it difficult to decipher the behavioral codes of such peoples, it is hasty and unfair to assume that they did not exist. The major drawback of these cultures was that their moral and cultural codes were transmitted verbally, via Storytelling, Proverbs, Idioms, etc., from generation to generation, rather than being documented because there were no fully developed forms of writing. This gave room for erosion and misinterpretation of many cultural practices and made it difficult for non-natives to fully understand the rationale behind the rites, rituals, and customs of ancient African cultures.

African Storyteller giving a speech.

“The philosophy of Africanism holds out the hope of a genuine democracy beyond the stormy sea of struggle.” ― Robert Sobukwe

Even within African intellectual circles, there seems to be no complete consensus on the issue of our African philosophical standing. Our current approaches to rational thought are heavily influenced by the Western Philosophy, mainly because our educational systems were borrowed. Colonial influences have swamped our methods of thinking. It has strongly influenced the rational traditional beliefs, legends, customs, etc., of the African people (i.e., the lore of the African people that make sense). Interestingly, some new schools of thought are emerging, armed with the historical knowledge of the times before Africa faced disruptive external forces. These modern thinkers are driven by the need to re-define the African philosophy with the mission of unearthing the true identity of the African.

From modern studies, it is believed that it was mostly Egyptian philosophers around the seventeenth and eighteenth century that contributed to African philosophy. However, even before that time, in the mid-1500s, at the University of Sankore in Timbuktu, Jurisprudence, History, and the Quran was taught with what they called Quadrivium knowledge (included Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music). The teachers were the Soninke Mahmoud Kati and Peul Ahmed Baba, amongst other philosophers of the time. These walls of higher learning even encompassed the philosophical teachings of the masters such as Aristotle’s ‘formal logic.’ Some of the works used to study the Egyptian (African) philosophy are the works of Ptah-hotep and Yoruba, written by Hallen and Sodipo.  These works include principles bordering on morality and epistemology.

Unearthing Africa’s philosophic past to lay the foundations of our tomorrow

“Unfolding of our past African Philosophy will be an intricate but creative journey into the past, to make sense of our present African lore, and forge the future of our African philosophical heritage.” ― Ogbonnaya Agom-Eze

There was also the Dogon School in Mali during the fifteenth century and the Guede School in Senegal in the twentieth century. There have been other philosophers like Zar’a Yo’aqob in the seventeenth century, who wrote about equality between husbands and wives, celibacy, justice, fasting, and so much more; a Ghanaian, Auton W. Amo who wrote about African Rights in Europe and critiqued Rene Descartes’ work of mind dualism. Placide Tempels came forward with the Bantu philosophy, George James with Stolen Legacy. Other philosophers started coming forward with their views including Ogbodo Edeh (Clergy) with Igbo Metaphysics; Uzodinma T. Nwala with Igbo Philosophy, Anyanwu, Olela, and others. This period set the pace for African philosophy, ushering in a new era and more proponents. 

Then came the arguments and discussions in the middle era among different groups including Traditionalists, Universalists, and the Reconstructionist(s) and gave rise to philosophical schools and movements. There was no questioning if there is an African Philosophy, but the question became ‘what makes a philosophy African?’ This brought forward two criteria, the Racial and Tradition. The Racial criterion asserts that philosophy is African if Africans produce it; while a Tradition criterion agrees that philosophy is African if African cultural system inspires the approach.

African Philosophical Schools of Thought

Research, record all new and arising African Philosophical Schools of Thoughts

New African Philosophical Schools of Thought are quickly emerging. It is essential that these new thoughts unfold so that we do not see the complete erosion of our past African philosophical thought. Effort must be made by various African Philosophers as they continue researching, cudgeling their encephalic bundles, and coming up with different ideas regarding the philosophical heritage of Africa.

First, is the National/Ideologist School of Thought. This school was concerned with fighting colonialism and creating a political ideology from the traditional system as a means of decolonization. Some persons that can be said to be a part of this school will be Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, and Leopold Senghor. Odera Oruka, the Kenyan born philosopher, is known to have championed the course of this sapient thought.

Second, is the Hermeneutical Philosophical School. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. Hence, this is the science of interpreting philosophical principles. It believed that the best method to study and understand African philosophy is by deciphering oral traditions and philosophical ideas that are emerging. However, there was the confusion among proponents of this school. They did not accept ethnophilosophy (i.e., the study of indigenous philosophical systems), but the oral traditions were mainly ethnophilosophical. Some of the advocates of this school are Okonda Okolo, Ademola Tsenay, and Theophilus Okere.

Third, is Philosophic Sagacity. This school is concerned with showing that philosophical discussions had always existed and still do in traditional Africa. They also believe that African philosophy can only be found in intellectual discussions. Some adherents of this school are Odera Oruka, Pius Mosima, Gail Presby.

Fourth, is the Ethnophilosophy School. As earlier stipulated, Ethnophilosophy is the study of indigenous philosophical systems. It is said to be the leading school of African philosophy bounded by culture. Leopold Senghor’s philosophy on negritude seems to be the most prominent. Later, it was considered substandard.

Fifth is the Literary School. This school focuses on showing African values through literary works. The persons in this school include Chinua Achebe, Nguguwa Thiong’o, and Wole Soyinka. This school is also considered substandard as critics consider it ethnophilosophical.

There is no doubt that the African philosophy is vital in our connecting traditions, values, and the people; and it is essential for the sake of posterity. We can also agree that African philosophy is philosophy produced by African people. Beyond the arguments, rooted in positivity and progression, African philosophy can help us gain our rightful place on the universe. 

[NB. This study is in no way exhaustive, any ideas of or further suggestions on African Philosophy, please be sure to suggest to us by commenting on this article].

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Ogbonnaya Agom-Eze is an entrepreneur and the Founder, CEO, Editor-In-Chief of Oaekpost, LLC, a U.S.-based online media company and the parent organization of www.oaekpost.com. He is a multi-niche writer with a wide range of interests in various genres. Agom-Eze is based in the Greater Seattle Area, Washington, and can be reached at ogb@oaekpost.com.

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