What Should African Philosophy Be?


“For African philosophy to be taken seriously it has to find some sort of foundation within the African thought-world rather than in the Greek or European thought-world.”

That’s Ada Agada (University of Calabar, Nigeria), in an interview with Richard Marshall at 3:AM Magazine. The interview delves into Agada’s work, but begins with a discussion about what African philosophy is and what it should be, which I excerpt below:

RM: You’ve been credited with reinventing a thoroughly African episteme, one that makes a complete break with European epistemology. The history of African philosophy has been contentious and full of fascinating controversies since the 1920s so perhaps we should start by asking you to say where you situate your work and thinking. Kwasi Wiredu and Hountondji argued that pre-20s philosophy wasn’t real philosophy and others defended traditional ethnophilosophy against the ‘professional philosophy’ of Wiredu.You argue that if African philosophy is going to be a tradition in its own right it has to move away from foundations in Greece but at the same time has to be universal in a way that ethno-philosophy isn’t. Am I right in saying this? What is African philosophy now,  where does it come from and is it progressing?

AA:  Hountondji and Wiredu are among the founding fathers of modern African philosophy. They launched the tradition as an academic discipline. You are right about my view of African philosophy. My colleagues at the Conversational School of Philosophy (CSP), Calabar, share my view that for African philosophy to be taken seriously it has to find some sort of foundation within the African thought-world rather than in the Greek or European thought-world. Not all African philosophers accept this position. Some are so carried away with, and perhaps intimidated by, the success of Western philosophy that they will pooh-pooh the idea of ethnophilosophy supplying an authentic African foundation for African philosophy. Unfortunately, they are faced with the dilemma of doing either African philosophy or merely ‘philosophy in Africa’, the latter being a euphemism for Western philosophy. Again, we at the CSP have realised that if African philosophy is to contribute originally to humanity’s philosophical heritage, African philosophers ought to bring something new to the philosophical roundtable, otherwise whatever the universalists may call ‘philosophy in Africa’ (apology to Hountondji) will go down in history as a mere footnote to Western philosophy.

At the same time, ethnophilosophy obviously is not conceptually rich enough and systematic enough to take African philosophy where it ought to be. I sympathise with the position of the particularists who see in ethnophilosophy a wellspring of authentic philosophical ideas. The devastating critique of universalists or modernists like Hountondji and Marcien Towa has left many African philosophers shying away from even using the term ‘ethnophilosophy’. They think that it connotes primitive thinking, prescientific thinking. I think these philosophers miss the point. Ethnophilosophy can remain relevant to African philosophy as a wellspring of ideas even as it is transformed through individual innovative thinking to a truly universal philosophy. This is what I tried to do with consolationism in my book Existence and Consolation. Ethnophilosophy is important, as the Zimbabwean philosopher Fainos Mangena has noted, but it cannot be the terminus of African philosophy as Mangena seems to think. It is rather a wellspring of ideas, as Bruce Janz has suggested.

On the matter of progress, African philosophy has undoubtedly made serious progress. Since the publication of my book in 2015, I have counted more than twenty major publications that are pace-setting in magnitude. Some of these works are edited volumes. South Africa and Nigeria have emerged as focal points of African philosophy. South Africa has the added advantage of a well-developed educational sector and well-funded philosophy departments. The CSP scholars are overcoming the research impediments in Nigeria and continue to be pathfinders. We have very bright stars like Jonathan Chimakonam and upcoming ones like Victor Nweke and Aribiah Attoe. Interestingly, we have developed a method of philosophizing dubbed conversationalism which we hope will help push African philosophy towards greater rigour, innovation, and systematicity. We have noted the urgent need for system-building. Unlike Western philosophy whose great systems were constructed long ago, African philosophy is starting from scratch. We must build our own systems regardless of contemporary developments in Western philosophy. We may borrow from the Western analytic and continental traditions, but we must not be beholden to Western philosophical methods.

The whole interview is here.

Peju Alatise, “High Horses”

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