African philosophy is a disputed term, used in different ways by different philosophers. In attributing philosophical ideas to philosophers of African origin, a distinction must be made between Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, which was the home of Egyptian culture and of prominent Christian, Jewish, and Islamic philosophers such as Augustine of Hippo, Ibn Sab'in, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Ibn Bajjah. Sub-Saharan Africa had no written language or sacred writings, so it is necessary to examine the religious beliefs and oral traditions of African peoples in order to understand their thought. This is complicated by the fact that approximately three thousand different tribal groups exist in Sub-Saharan Africa, each with its own language and religious and cultural traditions.
Surveys of the beliefs of hundreds of African peoples have shown that their religion is inseparable from their daily lives and cultural traditions. God is generally regarded as one Supreme Being, often at the top of a hierarchy of lesser divinities and spiritual beings. The African concept of time is not linear and focuses on the immediate present and the past; the future is not considered to exist because future events have not yet taken place. African religions do not include the concept of a future salvation or a restoration to a higher state. The afterlife is considered to be a continuation of earthly life, and death as a departure into a new stage of existence.
The study of African philosophy was taken up by West African universities during the 1940s and 1950s, and by East African universities during the 1960s and 1970s. There are a number of prominent modern African philosophers.
Much of the literature about African philosophy is taken up with a debate concerning the nature of African philosophy itself. The African continent has two major divisions, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, with very different political and cultural histories. North African philosophers made significant contributions to Greek, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian thought, and left written works in several languages. Sub-Saharan Africa did not have a written language or sacred writings to preserve any kind of philosophical tradition. There are approximately three thousand different tribal groups in Sub-Saharan Africa, each with its own belief system, language and cultural traditions; many groups share similar concepts and traditions, but there is no single belief or idea which can be considered universally “African.”
One disagreement concerns whether the term "African" should be used to describe the content of the philosophy or the identities of the philosophers. If it describes the content, philosophy can be considered to be African if it involves African themes (such as distinctively African notions of time or personhood) or uses methods that are distinctively African; if it refers to the philosophers’ identities, African philosophy is any philosophy done by Africans (or sometimes, by people of African descent). Another issue is the definition of philosophy; is “philosophy” a scholarly methodology for examining logical truth, or is it a coherent set of beliefs about the nature of the world and the place of human beings in that world?
In the absence of written texts, one can gain an understanding of such a set of beliefs in two ways: by studying the religious and cultural beliefs of various peoples, and by examining their oral history and the proverbs which are repeated from generation to generation and regarded as being true.
Early Western scholars of Africa advanced the idea that the beliefs, culture, and foods found there had come from or been influenced somehow by outside sources. They also promoted a theory of “religious evolution,” that religious beliefs evolved from a primitive form of animism or ancestor worship to progressively higher levels of relationship with the divine. Later scholars became more sympathetic to the idea that something of philosophical value existed in Africa, but it was only during the second half of the twentieth century that African philosophy began to be studied seriously.
The first group of European writers who tried to explain African philosophy concluded that it could best be understood by examining the fundamental assumptions about reality reflected in the languages of Africa. Placide Tempels argued in Bantu Philosophy (French 1945, English 1959) that the metaphysical categories of the Bantu people are reflected in their linguistic categories. J. Jahn, in Muntu (1958), defined four categories of being based on the linguistic stem –ntu which is supposed to encompass all categories of being: Muntu (god, spirits, departed, humans and certain trees); Kintu (all forces that do not act on their own but only under the command of muntu; plants, animals, minerals); Hantu (time and space); and Kuntu (“modality,” beauty, laughter, etc.).
A second group of writers attempted a systematic treatment of African religions by compiling the beliefs of different groups. A third group resorted to anthropological studies for a deeper understanding of African thought. Recently, African Americans have approached the study of African religious concepts in the context of Afro-American religions. Some African scholars have conducted studies of individual groups in depth. During the 1940s and 1950s, universities in West Africa took up the study of African philosophy and religion, followed by the East African universities during the 1960s and 1970s.
In the absence of written documents, the thought and beliefs of African peoples can only be studied through oral tradition, such as legends and proverbs, and through an examination of religious beliefs. Although there are several large collections of African proverbs, these cannot be regarded as a serious expression of a philosophical system. A more reliable understanding of African belief systems can be achieved by studying the general concepts which underlie the religious beliefs of many African peoples.
John S. Mbiti, in his book African Religions and Philosophy, constructed an overview of African religious concepts, based on a study of three hundred African tribal groups. African religions have no founders or reformers; they are an integral part of the daily life and customs of each tribe. Religion is not an individual matter, but is practiced as a community. African belief systems are homocentric; God is the origin of man and provides for man’s needs: immortality, rejuvenation, food, knowledge, doctors, medicines, animals, fire and light. Man is at the center, and everything else supports and sustains man. There are five categories of being: God; spirits (both non-human and people who died a long time ago); men who are alive or about to be born; animals, plants and the remainder of biological life; and phenomena and objects without physical life.
African concepts of God have arisen from a very close relationship with nature and a dependence on the land. Though perceptions of God vary widely among different peoples, God is generally recognized as one Supreme Being, at the top of a hierarchy of lesser deities and ancestors who are also thought to play a role in guiding and protecting men. In traditional African societies the representation of God is nature and the universe, and creation is believed to be the best evidence of God’s supremacy. God is associated with the sky or heaven, and sometimes with the sun. God is not conceived of as anthropomorphic, but is believed to transcend all boundaries. God’s essential nature is unknown and beyond human understanding, but He is thought to have a personality and a will. His power is often perceived through nature, and in phenomena that are beyond human control.
God is thought to be omniscient and omnipresent, to see and hear everything. God can be met everywhere. He is generally perceived as being merciful and providing for the needs of His creatures. God is also seen as an ultimate Judge who executes justice with impartiality. Most African religions include a belief that at some time in the distant past, man dwelt happily with God, but that a separation took place resulting in death, disease, and the loss of peace and a free supply of food. Different peoples explain the cause of this rift as the severing of the link between heaven and earth, an accident, or the disobedience of man to certain commandments given by God. There is no suggestion that this loss can ever be reversed, or that man will return to dwell closely with God again in the future.
Man is responsible to maintain unity and balance between God, man, and nature; failure to do this results in misfortune. Among many African groups there are certain people who are believed to have special power to affect this balance, such as rainmakers, mediums, medicine men, witch doctors, and tribal chiefs, who are sometimes regarded as symbols of divinity or prophets. Medicine men represent hope, since they have the power to reverse misfortune by curing disease.
There are several views of evil among African peoples. Most groups believe that God did not create evil, but there are some who think that God created evil and gave man the responsibility to choose between good and evil. Some peoples believe that evil is associated with spiritual beings other than God, or that evil is a divinity in itself. Spirits are often regarded as sources or agents of evil. Power in itself is not considered evil, until its use results in a bad consequence. Most groups believe that God punishes an evildoer during his earthly life, and many believe that a person can also place a curse on an someone who is evil. Every event, including natural phenomena, is thought to have a cause centered on man’s activity. There are two types of evil: "natural evil" such as accidents, disease, pain and famine; and "moral evil" which is an activity deliberately carried out by one man against another.
The Western concept of linear time is foreign to Sub-Saharan Africa, where time is a composition of events from past, present and immediate future. Since the events that will constitute the future have not yet taken place, the future does not exist. Events that are expected to occur in the near future, such as the coming of the rainy season, are regarded as a sort of “potential time.” Time is measured in retrospect and the focus is on events that have already taken place.
John S. Mbiti describes the African perception of time as being divided into Zamani (past) and Sasa (now). Events taking place in the immediate present gradually move into Zamani as those who experienced them pass away and the memory of the events is sustained only by oral tradition. When Christianity introduced the concept of the future and salvation, the result was a strong and immediate Messianic expectation and the appearance of many small religions focusing on messianic figures. (John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, pp. 15–28)
African philosophy is concerned with the here and now. There is no distinction between the physical world and the spiritual world; the afterlife is regarded as simply a continuation of life on earth. With a few exceptions, most African religions do not posit judgment or punishment in the hereafter. There is no heaven or hell, and no desire for a closer contact or union with God. Belief in life after death is not associated with the hope for a better future or the idea of “salvation.” Death is regarded as part of man’s destiny, a departure in which the physical body decays but the spirit moves on to another state of existence.
The “birth” of a person is regarded as a long process which is not complete until puberty, adolescence, and in some groups, even until marriage and the birth of a first child. Only then is a man or woman considered a “complete” person. Immortality is associated with a person’s name and with the collective memory of their family. As long as there is someone alive who can remember a deceased person, that person is considered as part of the “living dead.” After no living person remembers the name of the deceased, he or she becomes part of a collective, community immortality. For this reason, marriage and children are very desirable, as many descendants ensure the immortality of an individual.
Philosophy in North Africa has a rich and varied history, dating from pre-dynastic Egypt, and continuing through the arrival of both Christianity and Islam. One of the earliest works of political philosophy was the Maxims of Ptah-Hotep, which were taught to Egyptian schoolboys for centuries. Central to ancient philosophy was the conception of "ma'at," which roughly translated refers to "justice," "truth," or simply, "that which is right."
More recently, North African philosophers made important contributions to Christian and Islamic philosophy. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.) wrote his best known work, The City of God, in Hippo Regius, (now Annaba, Algeria), challenging a number of ideas of his age including Arianism, and establishing the notions of original sin and divine grace in Christian philosophy and theology.
In the Islamic tradition, the neo-Platonist Ibn Bajjah (twelfth century C.E.) taught that the purpose of human life was to gain true happiness, and that true happiness was attained by grasping the universals through reason and philosophy, often outside the framework of organized religion. The Aristotelian commentator Ibn Rushd (Averroes) established the philosophical school of Averroism. He taught that there was no conflict between religion and philosophy, and that there are a variety of routes to God, all equally valid; the philosopher was free to take the route of reason, while the commoners who were unable to take that route could instead elevate themselves by following the teachings passed on to them. Ibn Sab'in argued that true understanding required a different method of reasoning, and 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.
The 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. (Oruka added two additional categories: literary/artistic philosophy, as expressed in 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.)
Ethnophilosophy involves the recording of 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; a uniquely African worldview. This is regarded as a communal philosophy rather than the philosophical thought of an individual. 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. Another more controversial application of this approach is embodied in the concept of Negritude promoted by Leopold Senghor, who argued that the distinctly African approach to reality was based on emotion rather than logic, worked itself out in participation rather than analysis, and manifested itself through the arts rather than the sciences.
Philosophical sagacity is an individualist version of ethnophilosophy, in which one records the beliefs of certain special members of a community. The premise is that a certain few of the members of a society, considered “sages,” reach a particularly high level of knowledge and understanding of their cultures' world-view. In some cases, these sages go beyond mere knowledge and understanding to reflection and questioning, and thus become subjects for philosophical sagacity. Critics of this approach note that not all reflection and questioning is philosophical, and that African philosophy can not be defined purely in terms of philosophic sagacity because the sages did not did not record the ideas which they acquired from other sages. This approach is difficult to distinguish from studies of anthropology or ethnology; there is also a distinction between philosophy and the history of ideas. A system of beliefs cannot necessarily be regarded as a philosophical system.
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.
Nationalist–ideological philosophy might be seen as a special case of philosophic sagacity, in which not sages but ideologues are the subjects; or as 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.
One of the first philosophers from Sub-Saharan Africa was Anthony William Amo (1703–c.1759), who was taken as a slave from Awukenu in what is now Ghana, brought up and educated in Europe (gaining doctorates in medicine and philosophy), and became a professor at the universities of Halle and Jena. Significant modern African philosophers include Kwame Anthony Appiah, Kwame Gyekye, Kwasi Wiredu, Oshita O. Oshita, Lansana Keita, Peter Bodunrin, and Chukwudum B. Okolo.
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