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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David Wallace
David Wallace
3 years ago

There are some very odd references to science in this interview. In particular this: ” Scientists believe that physics comprehends just 5% of reality. This 5% is ordinary matter which physics studies. The rest is uncharted universes. If we reject my mind-matter reconciliation project, then even the little we know about reality is mere anthropomorphism”.

I’m not at all sure what’s meant here. My best guess is that Agada is referring to the 5%/25%/70% split of the Universe’s energy density between baryonic matter, dark matter, and the cosmological-constant contribution in modern cosmology – but if so, it really doesn’t support the claims being drawn.Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
3 years ago

“…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.”

I am not familiar with the aforementioned writers and I am excited to look at their work and learn more about this philosophical movement/school. But I do have a question as to how Dr. Agada has framed the impetus for approaching African philosophy in the way he and his colleagues do. I’m not sure how one can be motivated to support or define a tradition merely to be original. For instance, I could say “Nevada Philosophy has x form of epistemology, because otherwise it would be too much like the rest of the Western world’s/United States’ philosophy.”

It doesn’t seem (to me) like originality can be a good criterion for determining what philosophical thought to endorse. But, of course, I am mostly ignorant to this tradition and have great respect for Dr. Agada in making what seem to be landmark contributions. So I would certainly enjoy some edification, if anyone can provide it.Report

Ada Agada
Ada Agada
Reply to  Grad Student4
3 years ago

Certainly, originality cannot be the overriding criterion for determining the philosophical value of a tradition. Yet, it is important. As a critical tradition, African philosophy is just a little over a century old. Imagine Western philosophy in its infancy. Imagine that the Greek philosophers, the founders of Western philosophy, did not philosophize as creatively as they did, transforming insights gained from the Egyptians, Phoenicians and other ancient groups into original philosophical syntheses! Imagine how poor and lacking in identity Western philosophy would be today without the colossal and original contributions of thinkers like Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Abelard, Scotus, Spinoza, Descartes, Liebnitz, Kant and others!

Without the constructive work of these thinkers Western philosophy would almost certainly be different from what it is today.

Without the originality I talked about in my interview, African philosophy will never develop a distinct identity. Hiding in the shadows of the dominant Western philosophical tradition, an African philosophy without a distinctive content and, perhaps, research approach will be just a footnote to Western philosophy when philosophical history is reviewed say 500 years from today.

Given the great success of Western philosophy, African philosophy is in search of an identity in the face of a dilemma imposed on it by its late arrival on the philosophical scene.

A Western continental philosopher Robert Bernasconi has put this dilemma brilliantly, in my opinion:

Either African philosophy is so similar to Western philosophy that it makes no significant contribution to world philosophy and effectively disappears or it is so different from Western philosophy that it is called into question.

African philosophers looking inward and charting an original philosophical path is one laudable way of rising to the challenge posed by Western philosophy. This, of course, does not mean we are rejecting Western methodology. No! We will borrow elements of thought from Western philosophy but this we will do critically, not uncritically.

More so that the future of philosophy is one of interculturality and comparativity. As the developing world stabilizes and bridges the economic gap between it and the developed world, each tradition — Western, African or Oriental — will become increasingly provincial. And what will save philosophy in the end may be dialogue. So the future belongs not to Western, African and Oriental philosophies but rather intercultural and comparative philosophy. In which case African philosophy must prepare itself for the age of intercultural philosophy by ensuring it is bringing something unique and universal to the great philosophical roundtable. I am confident that Western philosophy has already earned its place at the philosophical roundtable.

We African thinkers are working hard to ensure we will be there at the philosophical roundtable bringing our own provincial philosophy and defending its universality before thinkers from the West and the East.Report

Ada Agada
Ada Agada
3 years ago

Some interesting comments here.

David Wallace, I think you have a point here. I’m not really very grounded in physics. My information came from an article on consciousness in the physical world written by a physicist.

The anthropomorphic dimension, however, is speculative metaphysics. I only touched on this matter in passing. The basic idea is that the ubiquity of consciousness in the universe may well make our relation with the physical world one of mind-to-mind rather than one of consciousness transforming inert matter. This relation may well provide the epistemological access to things in themselves, thus dealing a blow to agnosticism about the intrinsic nature of things beyond their dispositional relations which is what physics studies. T.LS. Sprigge, a Western panpsychist idealist, held a view similar to what I just sketched out.

Thanks for reading my interview with Richard Marshall.Report

Ada Agada
Ada Agada
3 years ago

Grad Student4, I’m happy to expantiate.

Certainly, originality cannot be the overriding criterion for determining the philosophical value of a tradition. Yet, it is important. As a critical tradition, African philosophy is just a little over a century old. Imagine Western philosophy in its infancy. Imagine that the Greek philosophers, the founders of Western philosophy, did not philosophize as creatively as they did, transforming insights gained from the Egyptians, Phoenicians and other ancient groups into original philosophical syntheses! Imagine how poor and lacking in identity Western philosophy would be today without the colossal and original contributions of thinkers like Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Abelard, Scotus, Spinoza, Descartes, Liebnitz, Kant and others!

Without the constructive work of these thinkers Western philosophy would almost certainly be different from what it is today.

Without the originality I talked about in my interview, African philosophy will never develop a distinct identity. Hiding in the shadows of the dominant Western philosophical tradition, an African philosophy without a distinctive content and, perhaps, research approach will be just a footnote to Western philosophy when philosophical history is reviewed say 500 years from today.

Given the great success of Western philosophy, African philosophy is in search of an identity in the face of a dilemma imposed on it by its late arrival on the philosophical scene.

A Western continental philosopher Robert Bernasconi has put this dilemma brilliantly, in my opinion:

Either African philosophy is so similar to Western philosophy that it makes no significant contribution to world philosophy and effectively disappears or it is so different from Western philosophy that it is called into question.

African philosophers looking inward and charting an original philosophical path is one laudable way of rising to the challenge posed by Western philosophy. This, of course, does not mean we are rejecting Western methodology. No! We will borrow elements of thought from Western philosophy but this we will do critically, not uncritically.

More so that the future of philosophy is one of interculturality and comparativity. As the developing world stabilizes and bridges the economic gap between it and the developed world, each tradition — Western, African or Oriental — will become increasingly provincial. And what will save philosophy in the end may be dialogue. So the future belongs not to Western, African and Oriental philosophies but rather intercultural and comparative philosophy. In which case African philosophy must prepare itself for the age of intercultural philosophy by ensuring it is bringing something unique and universal to the great philosophical roundtable. I am confident that Western philosophy has already earned its place at the philosophical roundtable.

We African thinkers are working hard to ensure we will be there at the philosophical roundtable bringing our own provincial philosophy and defending its universality before thinkers from the West and the East.Report

Ada Agada
Ada Agada
3 years ago

Justin Weinberg, thanks for posting excerpts from my interview here.Report