Why Don’t We Study African Philosophy?


Over 100 billion people, it is estimated, have lived on earth. About one-seventh of the world’s population lives in Africa now. So, by way of a simplistic and historically irresponsible calculation, we could very roughly (and probably under-) estimate that 15 billion people have lived in Africa. 15 billion. Compare that with this estimate of the number of African philosophers whose work you probably studied as an undergraduate: 0.

What explains the ignorance and exclusion of African philosophy, both historically and today?

In a post at Philosop-her, Anke Graness (Vienna) offers some answers.

One is path-dependence from initial ignorance:

In case of Africa, we are confronted with a fatal circle: Since scholars and concepts from Africa are rarely included in surveys and debates, there is little knowledge about African contributions to philosophy—what leads to an ignorance in curricula’s (outside Africa, but inside Africa as well!), and, thus, to a perpetuated ignorance in teaching and research.

Her other proffered explanations include: the lack of access African philosophers have to Western academic publishers, and the lack of international reach of African academic publishers; the fact that poverty pushes many academics in Africa to take up second jobs, rather than focus on publishing; and linguistic barriers.

What can be done? Graness writes:

It will be a long process to change the unequal epistemological and political-economic terms, under which academic work is done today, a process which can be influenced only partially by philosophers. However, equally important, is our will to change the ways academics work and how academic debates are conducted today. As long as the Euro-American dominated philosophical discourses are not even aware of concepts and arguments beyond its narrow discursive boundaries, nothing will change. Thus, it is time to open the debates in philosophy to perspectives from all regions of the world. This might lead to fundamental changes in our debates and research priorities.

The whole post is here.

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Will Behun
Will Behun
5 years ago

Does St Augustine count? He is clearly from Africa, but very much a product of Roman culture. Is “African philosophy” purely geographical or does it mean something else?Report

Matt
Matt
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

Or Averroes? I’m guessing the issue is not of continents, but cultures. In the West, we study philosophy that has been formative of Western traditions and power structures (Including Islamic sources sometimes). And the canon forms what we know. I’m void on sub-Saharan philosophy (unless Kwame Appiah counts- why not?). In bigger departments, courses on philosophy from diverse origins can be and are developed (Chinese, Indian). I discovered an old prof of mine writes on Aztec philosophy (Maffie). An a-geographical bias is at work too- philosophy is good (or bad) regardless of its provenance. We then assume if something worth studying is from S-Saharan Africa, we’d hear about it. Of course this assumption might not be true, and I’m glad to see below sources to look for contributions from African philosophers. I’m being asked to develop a World Philosophy course, and this should be helpful.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Matt
5 years ago

I believe Averroes was born in Cordoba, so he’s certainly an Islamic source, but not really an African one.Report

Michael Smith
Michael Smith
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

i.e. Are ethnic Egyptians who are American citizens “African Americans”?Report

prime
prime
Reply to  Michael Smith
5 years ago

No, they are not. Neither, for example, are naturalized American citizens from Burundi. There is nothing puzzling about this. “African American” names something closer to an ethnic group rooted in the United States.Report

Michael
Michael
Reply to  prime
5 years ago

Not sure what you mean. You told me what doesn’t qualify one ethnic group, “being naturalized Americans”. So why doesn’t your qualifier apply to Burundi’s? It would seem they can be “rooted” as well.Report

some person or other
some person or other
5 years ago

I think this is interesting and that all these explanations probably contribute. But I am sure that straight racism is a huge contributing factor here as well.

I am one of the lucky few who got some exposure to African philosophy as an undergraduate. One constructive recommendation (I’m no expert, at all, so there are probably lots and lots of other authors who should be included here): Gyekye and Wiredu both have a bunch of stuff that is fairly accessible to undergrads (which can be included in e.g. an intro class while talking about personal identity, or about political philosophy, and could be given a much more in depth treatment in a course solely devoted to either of those topics or many others). I haven’t had the chance to teach my own courses on any of these topics yet, but when I’ve suggested some of their stuff (especially about personhood) to students interested in these issues, it has really resonated with them. While it would be great if we had more philosophers in the US and Europe engaging with African philosophy in their own work, a first step is to just start teaching it.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  some person or other
5 years ago

Why are you sure that racism is a huge contributing factor?Report

Helen Daly
Helen Daly
5 years ago

If you’re interested, my colleague Jonathan Lee is currently working on a new edition of his classic anthology on the subject: http://www.amazon.com/Am-Because-We-Are-Philosophy/dp/1625341768/Report

Nathan
Nathan
5 years ago

Barry Hallen is a philosopher from the US who has lived in Africa for a very long time and has many books and other writings about African philosophy that interested people should check out: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Barry+Hallen&search-alias=books&field-author=Barry+Hallen&sort=relevancerankReport

Patrick S. O'Donnell
5 years ago

And in case you missed it in the “heap of links” here, I have a basic bibliography on Africana and African American Philosophy (you can download the PDF if the preview function has yet to format the list): https://www.academia.edu/22312940/Africana_and_African_American_Philosophy_bibliography
Readers may also want to look at the bibliography on “philosophy and racism”: https://www.academia.edu/22599634/Philosophy_and_Racism_A_Basic_Bibliography
And I have a forthcoming compilation on “Pan-Africanism, Black Internationalism, & Black Cosmopolitanism,” that may also interest some folks (should be posted later today or tomorrow).Report

UG
UG
5 years ago

I don’t study it because I don’t have an interest in it and have never been given reason to think that there are interesting aspects. This is the exact same reason I don’t study philosophy of mathematics: if it’s boring I don’t care about it. What’s the big deal?Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  UG
5 years ago

I can’t speak to African philosophy, but you don’t think philosophy of mathematics even has interesting aspects? I don’t specialize in the area or anything, but it’s hard for me to understand that attitude! What does float your boat?Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  UG
5 years ago

You know that you don’t have an interest in something that you also admit you know nothing about. How is that possible?Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  ejrd
5 years ago

I know this is a nit-picky point, but if you know nothing about something then it follows straightaway that you don’t have an interest in it. But of course UG is saying that he’s uninterested in the topic, not merely that he doesn’t have an interest in it. But even here I don’t think you’re being quite fair. UG didn’t say that he/she doesn’t know anything about it, only that hr/she doesn’t study it and has been given no reasons to think that there are interesting aspects. Probably each of us is in the same position with respect to some philosophical subject. I know a little about mereology but dont study it and have never been give reasons to think I ought (I could be wrong, of course, but that by itself doesn’t mean I should start reading more mereology literature—at least I hope it doesn’t!).Report

prime
prime
Reply to  UG
5 years ago

Since apparently it’s not obvious, the discussion wasn’t about why some individuals aren’t interested in African philosophy. The discussion was about why “Euro-American dominated philosophical discourses” have been uninterested in and unaware of “African contributions to philosophy.” To go to the trouble of pointing out that some or even many individuals believe there is nothing of interest to them in African philosophy is an obtuse, diversionary response to the issue that was under discussion.Report

WP
WP
Reply to  UG
5 years ago

Yikes. “I’m not interested in what African philosophers have to say, and I’ve never been given reason to think they might say anything interesting” is different from “I’m not interested in what philosophers have to say about mathematics,” because the latter is based on topic, and the former is based on continent of origin. Come on.Report

Michael Bench-Capon
5 years ago

Peter Adamson is planning to do a series on African philosophy in his History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast, which I’m sure we’re all avidly listening to, once he’s done with philosophy in India. So that’ll be good.

I think I studied one African philosopher as an undergraduate, if you count Camus. I can see why you wouldn’t count him, though I’m not sure you shouldn’t. I did only study him because I did joint honours with French, though.Report

Dan Demetriou
Dan Demetriou
5 years ago

It may be worth noting that sometimes African concepts and philosophy (and distinguishing between the two is really important, but I’ll skip that obvious point here) will be dismissed not because they are African, but because they are not liberal or leftist, and are thus subject to the normal biases of philosophers who overwhelming accept liberal and left views. For instance, personhood in some West African traditions is very much contingent on honor-based considerations: that opposed to a mere human, a person has attained face or status, usually through accomplishment or sacrifice (see Wingo’s SEP article on the Akan concept of personhood). This is clearly repellent to those with liberal or leftist views. Ubuntu is another example, which superficially seems at odds with liberal values (as Metz acknowledges in his apology for it, see “Ubuntu as a moral theory and human rights in South Africa”). Although my experience is limited, widely-held concepts/ideologies/philosophies(?) of gender, for instance, would generate a certain . . . stir in professional philosophy. But by all means, let’s have those conversations. Too bad it has to come by way of identity politics, though.

On that last point, let me say I’m one of those who wish we’d decouple ideas and peoples as much as possible (in analytic philosophy at least, maybe not for intellectual historians). It was handy to call it “Greek” or “Roman” philosophy, but that carried little political weight because the Greeks and Romans were irrelevant to the NW Europeans who were talking about Plato’s or Cicero’s ideas. There was no sense that Greeks or Romans were owed any share of intellectual honor—“Greek” philosophy was just a handy moniker. This is very much not the case when talking of “African philosophy,” which is a politically loaded category. How much better things would be IMO if we spoke of ubuntu, etc., not as African but just a concept or (in versions where it is) a worked-up philosophical position, no different from contractarianism or hylomorphism, which belong to no one. To my ears, doing so better expresses the idea that Africa is a source of philosophy, too.Report

Devin
Devin
Reply to  Dan Demetriou
5 years ago

The idea that stripping philosophy of its political aspects will thereby render it more properly philosophical is precisely what is challenged by the inclusion of other philosophical traditions. It is not that Western philosophy is “just” philosophy and “African philosophy” is a political notion; it is that the political aspects of Western philosophy are invisible to many philosophers. More profoundly, this very invisibility is a political construct, as current work in epistemology of ignorance would attest. We can certainly contest the bounds of what constitutes “African” or “Greek” or “Roman,” or argue about the usefulness of such labels, but you are assuming that the greater inclusion and emphasis on non-canonical philosophy must meet your anti-pluralistic standards, rather than imagining that those standards would be challenged by this inclusion.

I certainly don’t agree that contratarianism or hylomorphism “belong to no one.” For one, that is empirically false; any survey of those conversant with such terms would attest to that. But of course, you are referring not to the facts but to an ideal of universally accessible knowledge. An essential argument for pluralism is that the ideal of universally accessible knowledge is so misguided about the human condition that it is actively oppressive rather than inclusive. It is oppressive because it renders oppression invisible: for how could these “universal” ideas belong to anyone? And thus our convenient ignorance, where we just happen to have defined philosophy in such terms that “African philosophy” does not count, and where it just so happens that we occupy a neutral political position and everyone else is politicized, continues.Report

Dan Demetriou
Dan Demetriou
Reply to  Devin
5 years ago

Devin, you convinced me. As a Greek man, I hereby claim ownership of hylomorphism, social contract theory, democracy, and a few hundred other ideas. Barbarians from the North need to stop appropriating the philosophy of my people!

(And if my non-ownership point is so obviously falsified by any survey of those conversant with philosophical terms, why is my post one of the most up-voted ones on this thread?)

Seriously though, there is a lot I wish I could say in reply. But let me just note that my point was just the opposite of identifying philosophy with Western philosophy, and African philosophy something different.Report

Devin
Devin
Reply to  Dan Demetriou
5 years ago

You’re welcome to say anything you wish in reply. I’m not sure what you mean by your retort about your non-ownership point: this is a blog frequented by those who are conversant with philosophical terms, so appealing to the popularity of your universalizing view isn’t very persuasive (and is fallacious even in the best of cases). The anti-pluralistic claim that there is such a thing as a pure, apolitical philosophy is very popular among philosophers; it is also, I think, harmful and wrong.

I understood your main point, besides your allegation that identifying personal identity with social status unsettles liberals, to be that if African philosophical concepts such as Ubuntu could be treated like any other philosophical concept rather than being indelibly associated with some imagined African-ness, then we would not neglect them so much. I am disagreeing with what I perceive to be your naive humanism. I am saying that we only imagine ourselves to be able to strip concepts of their cultural context, and that the very ambiguity of what counts as the culture behind the concept is part of the complexity of inquiry and translation. That is to say, this sort of humanism which I am calling anti-pluralistic defeats its own purpose. So I am well aware you were trying to make the opposite point. I hope that at least I now appear to be taking you as seriously as I am, and that you will take me a little more seriously in return.Report

paolo
paolo
5 years ago

Just a sidenote – Africa is a VERY big and varied continent and to assume that there is “African” philosophy as some sort of unified thing one could study is not the best way of thinking about it. But one could ask – why don’t we study Iranian, Afghani, Polish, Albanian, Nigerian, Georgian, or Tajik philosophy?Report

William C Roberts
William C Roberts
5 years ago

A former colleague, who will remain nameless, used to claim to have brought philosophy TO Africa. Unsurprisingly, this is an older, white male. I think this attitude was quite prevalent a generation ago, and probably still is: that philosophy — as opposed to mysticism or ideology or religion or whatever — was a European invention, and that it had to be imported into Africa, Asia, and the Americas. So, yes, I think out-and-out racism — and the colonialist mindset — are a major factor.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  William C Roberts
5 years ago

Philosophy gets defined in so many different ways that depending on the definition, it was and was not independently invented in Africa and the Americas. The boundaries of a discipline can be defined in arbitrary racist ways to exclude people, but the mere fact that a boundary is exclusive doesn’t show that it is racist.Report

paolo
paolo
5 years ago

I think it is worth thinking about what we should count as philosophy – having a concept or a view seems not to be enough, at least to me. In other words, the fact that, say, Ancient Egyptians had a certain conception of gods, does not mean that they engaged in philosophical thinking about religion or divinity. Every community has, I take it, such world-view or ways of conceptualizing their lives, experiences, and so on. But a bit more is needed to do philosophy or to have a philosophical tradition. Just like a bit more is needed to do physics than to have an explanation of lighting and thunder (Zeus being angry or Venus coming to be aligned with Jupiter does not count, I take it). In fact, if anything, philosophy started from questioning such traditional, societal views and concepts by a specific method which involved arguments conducted under certain rules, use of definitions and counterexamples, and thinking about how to best conduct such thinking. We do not study as Greek philosophy the Greek “popular” views on morality or personhood but the very specific and often ( to ordinary Greeks) rather outrageous claims which they, however, supported by arguments. And we study them for those arguments. This is not to say that there is no such thing in Africa – I am pretty sure there is although I have no knowledge of it (it just would be surprising). But often what I see in trying to make something into philosophy is simply exposition of “views” of certain people. That is not philosophy but anthropology. These views can be extremely complex – but that does not make it into philosophical enterprise. I would also like to caution about taking Africa so as to include, say, Augustine or Camus. We could then include Benacerraf too. I assume the idea must be to include people from cultures that we have failed to not just appreciate but even to know about at all because we assumed there is nothing there to learn. However, for people who take this interest, they should do it properly – we should engange and read something not because it is from Africa, but because it is worth studying. I hope people do not read German Idealistic phil. because it is German, but becuse it is interesting.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  paolo
5 years ago

I think your points are well taken, though your concerns about taking Augustine as African might need more exploration in themselves. I think you want to suggest that when we talk about African philosophy we are restricting this to perspectives that are marginalised by dominant Western models. By this standard, Augustine doesn’t belong because his perspective is well represented in Western philosophy. On the other hand, this seems to me to run the risk of suggesting that Augustine isn’t African because he’s not exotic enough; there is a kind of Orientalism at play here that I think is as dangerous as exclusion.Report

paolo
paolo
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

Hippo was in today’s Algeria, at that time Roman Africa. It was the world of the Western Roman Empire, a very much Latin world connected by the Mediterranean sea as the main transportation means of the Ancient times (in this sense, hippo was closer to Rome than places in today’s Greece, Spain, Hungary, Germany or France. The Saharan and Sub-saharan Africa were as distant from this world as India, if not more. I have no objection to thinking of Augustine as African – he was, definitely. But I think what we speak of as African philosophy that is neglected is not philosophy of Augustine or Tertullian or Plotinus (who was Egyptian) or even earlier that of all the Greeks living in Alexandria. The Ancient mediterranean world is not organizes into Europe and Africa, as distinct entities – it’s the world around the sea and the world beyond that “circle” around the sea. I do not know what the charge of orientalism is supposed to mean. Hippo was not part of the Eastern world.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  paolo
5 years ago

Building on these points: the works in O’Donnell’s bibliography (which is a super useful resource, btw) are divided overwhelmingly (perhaps not entirely) into the categories: ethnographic studies telling us about the folk theories of a given African population, very recent philosophy, and 20th C African American philosophy.

So why don’t I assign any African philosophy to my students? For one thing, I don’t assign any ethnography–African, Greek, or whatever. We could talk about whether I’m right to do so, but for now, we’re trying to explain.

Why is there so much ethnography in O’Donnell’s bibliography? We would find none in a bibliography of, e.g., ancient Greek or enlightenment philosophy. The thing is, few sub-Saharan African cultures have a substantial ancient written tradition. So if you ask for African philosophy, you’re almost always pointed to someone like Wiredu, rather than a classical text. I was recently recommended a textbook in world philosophy and, despite the editors’ best efforts to represent Africa, it had exactly one classical African source. While O’Donnell’s bibliography has many “anthologies” of African philosophy, I don’t recognize any classics by pre-European authors on the list. This lack of a written tradition is surely part of the explanation of the lack of African philosophy in intro courses. That Graness thinks it not worth considering this fact in her explanation is further proof that political correctness makes simple and straightforward explanations of things seem so much less straightforward than they are (or maybe just unsayable?). (Notice how she criticizes the idea that there was no philosophy in sub-Saharan Africa prior to European intervention–then goes on to cite only 20th and 21st century African philosophers!

Here’s an analogy: Russia doesn’t have a significant tradition of written philosophy, at least not compared to the UK, Germany, Italy, etc. And Russian philosophy, in spite of the relatively large number of Russians, is accordingly mostly absent from intro syllabi.

For another thing, I assign recent philosophy only if it’s very accessible, well written, stakes out an important position, and fits into the sequence of debates discussed in the course. There are very, very few papers that meet these conditions. And since there are still relatively few works of African philosophy (O’Donnell’s bibliography is six pages!) the pool is simply too small to yield a large number of papers that will would work. For example, I’ve never seen anything with ‘postcolonial’ in its title that’s appropriate for intro courses.

I do assign philosophical work by African Americans, as there’s a good deal of recent stuff that meets the conditions I mentioned above. Furthermore, the topics that are likely to be covered by African American philosophers (the nature of race, racism, political struggle) fit into standard intro courses. I may be in the minority in this regard, but I suspect that this minority is growing.Report

AC
AC
5 years ago

A prerequisite is Mircea Eliade’s Treatise on the History of Religions and The Myth of Eternal Recurrence.Report

Duran Grad
Duran Grad
5 years ago

This is an interesting question, but do people think it is more interesting or important than these questions: Why don’t we study Armenian, Bulgarian, Danish, Georgian, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Swiss, or Vietnamese philosophy? — just to mention a few that could plausibly be on par with “African philosophy.” (Relatedly, do people think Africa is a place that has a unified intellectual tradition we could call “African philosophy”? If not from the perspective of geography, isn’t that a gerrymandered category?)Report

Shabaka Tecumseh
Shabaka Tecumseh
5 years ago

When you look at all the indigenous peoples around the world, their deep philsophical views are similar in basic structure. All except the indigenous European and this is why they control the planet. I call it the Donald Trump world view.. deny, bully, misdirect, and embrace.Report

ejrd
ejrd
5 years ago

This is an excerpt from an article on the Chronicle (behind a paywall at the moment):

“Among the humanities, philosophy is the field in which provincialism has most successfully disguised itself as a universal and timeless form of inquiry. It’s not at all uncommon to hear philosophy professors demur, when the subject of, say, classical Indian logic comes up, that they “regrettably don’t know anything about that.” What they really mean is: “My professional identity is wrapped up with my not knowing anything about that.” This is something we learn as graduate students: not only how to display our knowledge of, and commitment to, a given circumscribed domain, but also how to scoff, subtly, at whatever falls even slightly beyond that domain. This is an acquired syndrome, transmitted from faculty to graduate students in the course of their own professional reproduction. – See more at: http://chronicle.com.libproxy.scu.edu/article/A-Forgotten-Field-Could-Save/235635#sthash.zwzXagpa.dpuf

Like it or not, this is the perception of our field. We have the power to change this.Report

Sarah Shanti
Sarah Shanti
5 years ago

…Great discussion — intelligent, informed, respectful — thank you all!!Report

Ben Levi
Ben Levi
5 years ago

As a teacher of philosophy who is also of African descent in the United States it is troubling to me that we, Black peoples , are not even thought of as being capable of analytical or speculative thought. Foucault made this argument but he is merely parroting the views of the Enlightenment philosophers like Kant, Hume, Hobbes, de Gobineau, Locke, Hegel, Rousseau, etc. Their views are at the root of many contemporary views on racism and white supremacy yet very few people, in the academy particularly and outside of it specifically; are aware of this nor acknowledge it. In fact, most EuroAmerican philosophy department don’t even teach their real views on this subject preferring to stay within the soft canon established by the academy.
This is unfortunate since it is well established that the very word “philosophy” did not exist until Pythagoras returned from study in Egypt as Imblicus states. Not to mention the other philosophers of Hellenic origin, we know that some were actually Ionians from “Asia Minor”. There was to much infighting on the mainland and Aegean for Philisophical speculation to take place since they were mainly “poets”.
Furthermore, without the preservation of many of those ideas from the Nile Valley by the Islamic scholars in the House of Wisdom, many of them were indeed Africans, this philosophical knowledge would have never made it to the Western world.
It is a shame that this is essentially not taught out of, in my view; not only fear that the whole edifices of Western academic philosophy would fall on its head but Rousseau’s notion of “cogito ergo sum” as applied to only European humanity would fall on its face and the reality that people of African and African descent are not only thinkers but also exist as humanity, an idea that was/is antithetical in some circles of thought, would be an intellectually life changing paradigm shift.
Finally, isn’t it strange that her are no classes in philosophy taught in so-called “urban” schools while suburban school have philosophy classes? Is this because the higher order curriculum perceives certain students as capable of higher order thinking while “others” are viewed as lower order thinkers?
Finally, isn’t the fundamental problem with the denial of any form of African philosophy due to a failure of most Euro Americans to engage the languages and texts of the cultures of Africa on their own terms? Or is this just too arrogantly complex to do while if we, African and African descended scholars of philosophy in its Western context are vie tall obligated to have a working knowledge of Greek, Latin, German, French, etc.? Give me a break!Report