What is African Philosophy? Let’s Talk About an Unpopular, Most Times Misunderstood Idea

Is it History? Literature? Traditional customs? What exactly makes philosophic thought African? Geography or identity? Academics cannot seem to decide. 

Defining philosophy has proven to be a difficult task generally. Aside this difficulty, there is the task of defining labeled philosophies—Eastern, Western, African, etc. First, we want to know What is Philosophy? Then we further delve into the discourse of what to name [a] philosophy done by a particular people. This is Philosophy we are talking about, so there arguably should not be a wrong or right answer to the question—since thinking is an integral part of philosophy. And in thinking it is sort of hard to determine which thoughts are right or wrong; considering the possible antithesis of thinking and dogma. The field dubbed African Philosophy has caught the attention of many and defining it has been an intriguing exercise. Another interesting thing in all this is how that the process of defining an African Philosophy, is at its core a matter of forming an identity for Africa (and Africans). Defining African Philosophy is not simply a matter of academic elitism, but its results connect to how a Craftsperson (in Africa) gets her/his hands dirty. It is a question of how Africans (ought to) think and live. Nonetheless, it is also a highly intellectual business and needs such attention.  

Identifying/qualifying Philosophy with the adjective African [invariably constructing what is known as ‘African Philosophy’] has been a matter of contention in both African and non-African academic circles for over five decades now—although, the African voices have been the loudest. The debate has ranged from questioning the core of both terms and enquiring what such expression [that is, African Philosophy] means, to probing the canon of this philosophy, in fact, asking if there is a canon at all. Other questions often asked include; does African Philosophy live up to the ‘modern’ practice of philosophy as found in Western (and even non-Western) universities (and academic discourse)? Are oral traditions qualified to be categorized with modern written philosophical traditions? Who were the ‘philosophers’ that developed these African Philosophies and while developing these ideas, did they confirm themselves as doing philosophy or refer to the ideas as philosophical? If the answers to these questions were in black-and-white yes or no patterns, I would have simply responded in that fashion, depending on the side of the debate I stand with and simply let you move on to the next essay you need to read (actually, attempts at responding to these questions have successfully raised more questions!). But as the case often is with debates, there is much to be said. From that much, let’s explore a little here. 

Historically, it is not new to qualify philosophy with specific [regional] labels. As it’s almost a consensus within the broader field of African philosophy, philosophers’ philosophizing is always the process of contending with the realities of the various regions that each philosopher philosophizes within. On qualifying philosophy with specific labels, Eritrean philosopher, Tsenay Serequeberhan, writes; ‘In the history of philosophy and presently, ethnic qualifiers have been and are still operative with regard to designating specific philosophical perspectives.’ Serequeberhan goes further to mention some examples, ‘…Jewish, Arabic/Islamic, Medieval/Christian, European, German, Greek, Oriental, American…’ [Philosophies]; he goes further to explain what these qualifiers do, stating that: ‘…all these ethnic, religious, continental qualifiers designate the specificity of a philosophical perspective in terms of the background culture or tradition within which and out of which a particular philosophical discourse is articulated.’ Serequeberhan’s point is presumably clear: the point of qualifying a philosophy with a specific label, is not some kind of fancy naming, but a matter of functionality and, to use his word, ‘specificity’. This general practice, it appears, immediately bails Africa from the accusations of ‘being reactionary’ (to particularly, Western Philosophy[ers]) by labelling its philosophy as African. But this barely pinches the real matter within the debate—naming is tertiary in the order of importance within this discourse. Most, (if not all) groups in the debate are agreed on what philosophy in Africa (by Africans) should be called—African. The main contention arises at the juncture of meaning—what does African Philosophy mean? What ‘is’ African Philosophy? As commonly expressed in Nigerian Pidgin English, ‘na here everybody eye go red!’—which loosely translates as, ‘this is where rubber hits the road’.  


As the word philosophy in popular Nigerian culture is generally and popularly linked to simply ‘one’s view of life’, the rigour that necessarily describes philosophizing can be (and often is) watered down to simply the word worldview. Now, there are possible instances where this sort of synonymous usage can be allowed, but within, especially the circle of academics and ‘professional’ African philosophers, worldview is only but a topic within larger philosophical discourses—philosophy has a more sophisticated meaning than simply ‘one’s view/opinions about life’. Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, proffers some helpful insights; ‘[P]hilosophy as an academic discipline is relatively young in most parts of Africa south of the Sahara.’ And it is the various meanings that philosophy garners within this context that differs from popular usage—Wiredu further adds 

This is not to say that philosophy as a habit of reflection is similarly new in that part of the world. Any group of human beings will have to have some world outlook, that is, some general conceptions about the world in which they live and about themselves both as individuals and as members of society.  

Here we are faced with a usage of the word [philosophy] that overlaps with the word worldview. Wiredu’s synonymous usage of the phrase ‘world outlook’, suggests a similar usage of worldview to denote philosophy. To further clarify, Wiredu continues; ‘Implied here is a contrast between two senses of the word ‘philosophy,’ one narrow and the other broad.’ The two senses that we began exploring above. He further makes the contrast: 

In the first sense, philosophy is a technical discipline in which our (i.e., the human) world outlook is subjected to systematic scrutiny by rigorous ratiocinative methods (ideally, that is). In the second sense, philosophy is that way of viewing man and the world which results in a world outlook in the first place. 

Here we encounter the more sophisticated [academic] usage and the more mundane, day-to-day usage. In furtherance, Wiredu, explained how each sense of the usage, acts upon the other in certain ways. Then he gives a disclaimer, stating that; ‘The distinction between the two senses of ‘philosophy’ is not to be taken as a rigid one, for they shade into one another by insensible degrees.’ It suffices to say that philosophy can be understood within the confines of academic discourse and also as anyone’s view of life out there in the streets—however, none of the meanings should be isolated, absolutized and tagged, the meaning of philosophy. An oversimplification that refers to philosophy as simply one’s view of life alone, pushes the discipline out of its technical and sophisticated domain, while an exclusively elitist definition that isolates the term only to academic rigour is likely to thwart the practicality of sophisticated discourse that is often intended for transformation in public life! But what then is African Philosophy?  


We have considered (quite briefly) what philosophy is in general. But what is African Philosophy? Nigerian intellectual historian, Toyin Falola responds to this question by saying; ‘Defining African philosophy is more challenging than it seems…’ he then quotes, ‘Mawere and Tubaya’ saying; ‘…the question of what constitutes African philosophy will ‘boggle minds for many more years to come.’ However, it can be easily said that African philosophy is philosophy done by Africans. This view is particularly propounded by the Beninese philosopher, Paulin J. Hountondji. Hountondji contends that content does little to qualify whether a philosophy is African or not, but the location/nationality of the doer of the philosophy [the philosopher] is what counts in qualifying an African Philosophy as distinct from any other. According to Hountondji, ‘A work like Bantu Philosophy’, a pioneering text in the field of [modern] African Philosophy written by the Belgian priest, Father Placide Temples, ‘…does not belong to African philosophy, since its author is not African; but Kagame’s work is an integral part of African philosophical literature.’ For clarity, Hountondji belongs to a school of African philosophy that is called ‘Professional Philosophy’. This group of philosophers, often including names like, ‘…Peter Bodunrin, Kwasi Wiredu and Henry Odera Oruka…’, as interpreted by Serequeberhan, see themselves, though he exempts Oruka on this particular claim, as the earliest pioneers of modern philosophic thought in Africa. This is because they often consider only the current modern trend in African academic circles [and elsewhere] as what can be referred to as philosophy; to them, the documentation of wisdom/myths/folktales from African pasts is not a philosophical, but an anthropological (and ethnographical) enterprise—thus, Hountondji’s popular derogatory coinage, Ethnophilosophy. Back to Hountondji’s idea of African philosophy as philosophy done strictly by Africans, he comments further; ‘Thus Tempels’s work, although it deals with an African subject and has played a decisive role in the development of African ethnophilosophy, belongs to European scientific literature…’—a possible reason for such assertion, I think, is because as a non-African, any author who writes about Africa, writes within the academic tradition s/he belongs to and such research is necessarily Asian/European/American, whichever the case may be. To further solidify his arguments he writes: 

African philosophical literature includes works which make no attempt whatever to broach the problem of ‘African philosophy’, either to assert or to deny its existence. In fact, we must extend the concept to include all the research into Western philosophy carried out by Africans. 

Wiredu provides an alternate definition [though not particularly his’]; ‘…African philosophy is the traditional philosophy that has been inherited by today’s Africans through their oral traditions.’—he adds, ‘According to this view, the duty of a contemporary African philosopher, as far as African philosophy is concerned, is to collect, interpret and disseminate African proverbs, folktales, myths and other traditional material of a philosophical tendency.’ This view is particularly the one that Hountondji critiques so astutely. Wiredu further elaborates on Hountondji’s view: ‘The second school of thought, in opposition to this, maintains that African philosophy, in this day and age, ought to take cognizance of modern developments in knowledge and reflection.’ Also, as Wiredu further puts it—‘According to this line of thought, African philosophy is mainly the result of the thought of African philosophers, traditional as well as modern.’ Those who share this view ‘…do not regard merely interpreting traditional thought as an adequate fulfilment of philosophy’s historic functions. They do not believe, further, that in modern times philosophy can remain a communal body of thought.’ 

As it is already apparent, this view is associated with the school of ‘Professional Philosophers’. Their idea is that philosophy as a discipline, since the inception of the modern world, has been a matter of individual rigorous reflection; in fact, even prior to the modern world, in the tradition of the West (and the East), since the pre-Socratics, philosophical reflections have always been the work of an individual (sometimes for a community); and even when there is a school of philosophy, say, the Sophists, Aristotelians, Gnostics, etc., the reflections are still done by individual philosophers (supposedly for that school of philosophy). But it is a matter of an individual reflecting deeply on; nature, the structures of governance, human relationships, death, living and so forth. So, for them, the idea that folklore, myth and poetry from Africa’s past is regarded as philosophy, developed by a community, does not stand the test of modern philosophy, or more precisely, does not match philosophy as done by the Western (and Eastern) traditions. 


There is another perspective propounded by this school of ‘Professional Philosophy’, or particularly, by Hountondji—this view is that African philosophy does exist and can be called Philosophy within a modern context, though it exists as a Literature. He has this to say; ‘I therefore invert the relation: that which exists, that which is incontrovertibly given is that literature. As for the object it claims to restore, it is at most a way of speaking, a verbal invention, a mythos.’ In speaking of ‘…the object it claims to restore…’, Hountondji is making reference to the idea of an organized system of thought that can be ‘scientifically’ (his word) referred to as a system within African Philosophy. A kind of reference that can be made to, say, Marxism, Poststructuralism, Heideggerianism, etc, within the context of Western Philosophy—it is this object that he thinks cannot be found within African philosophy, for him, it is mythos. Nonetheless, he does not disregard that there is the development of such a thing as African Philosophy, but as Literature—‘When I speak of African philosophy I mean that literature…’—he explains further, ‘… “African philosophy”, in the enormous literature … has so far been the subject only of mythological exploitation and … it is nevertheless possible to retrieve it and apply it to something else: not to the fiction of a collective system of thought, but to a set of philosophical discourses and texts.’ Again, here is the chief critic of ethnophilosophy at work.  

In a chapter contribution to a 2022 publication, which was the result of papers presented at the 2nd World Conference on African Philosophy held at the University of Calabar, in Nigeria, Hountondji reviews and reaffirms his position and conviction concerning the subject matter. He states; ‘…I came to admit that no one could deny the existence of collective systems of thought eventually dominant in a given society.’ Apparently admitting that there are sets of beliefs that certain societies within Africa had and that helped guide their communal life—‘But instead of acclaiming these traditions of thought as our own philosophy or philosophies, I admitted that we start philosophizing precisely through an intellectual effort to objectivize them and put them at a distance.’ Here, he is again suggesting that the process of treating these beliefs intellectually within modern Africa, put in scholarly literatures, is now the production of philosophy—in Africa, by Africans, invariably, an African Philosophy 

These literatures are, however, in need of another qualifier, viz. academic. Though, its quite reasonable to agree with Hountondji on his criteria of what constitutes an African Philosophy, via formal writings and intellectual discourses, it is also necessary to pay attention to the nature of these writings. They are sophisticated and well, hard to read for the so-called layperson. The literature that Hountondji refers to as African Philosophy are often preoccupied with discussing Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Bertrand Russell, Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser and others—an overwhelming majority of whom are not ‘Africans’. Well, Derrida and Althusser could loosely be referred to as ‘Africans’ since they are both French-Algerians. Regardless, their philosophical influence and contributions are typically categorized within the Western canon. Though Hountondji insists that the content does not do much in qualifying a work as African, but the philosopher, it is hard to look away from the fact that these Western philosophers all engage with both Western culturally relevant content as well as their Western predecessors in their works. It seems his cateria does not work fairly for both Western and African philosophers.  


Now, what does all this mean? The fact that it is taking us about a hundred years to determine just what an African philosophy is, in the modern world, is indicative of something very important—and detrimental to us. It is important because it concerns the life and future of our continent, it is detrimental, because we still have not been able to do anything tangible to live above our current postcolonial situation—where defining our reality remains the task of the colonizer. Our thinking is thought according to imperial dictates. We are in a maze, and it is not that we are confused as to how to navigate our way out of it, but we are at the level where we are asking ‘what is a maze?’—so, we do not even know what it is, let alone know that we are to navigate our way out of it. We are in a clueless state. My concern, as I led us through this brief exploration, has been less about disagreeing [or agreeing] with any aforementioned argument/philosopher and more about showing us the struggle that faithful Africans have committed themselves to. They [and many others] are our heroes in the postcolonial era.  

Africa, in my opinion, is not [and should never be for that matter] at the place to simply embrace any ideology, in the sense of a coherent system of thought and apply it. Our task is to explore the worlds of ideas; internally (our indigenous knowledge systems) and externally (ideas from all over the world) and rework, deconstruct and reconstruct until they fit our unique situations and yield results. Then, it seems, we might have coherent thought systems that are ‘originally’ ours’, because they were thought and applied, first on the continent and most importantly, have yielded [and are yielding] results. Besides, the history of ideas has been the history of how people kept [keep] borrowing and customizing ideas for their unique uses.  

The content of philosophy in Africa ought to reflect the concerns of Africans. For instance, there are varieties of traces of certain philosophies that influence political, religious, economic (etc) life in Asian, European and American countries. These all unique to these regions. For instance, Mao Zedong’s Marxist theories (also; Maoism) has been an influential philosophy in China: Adam Smith’s interpretations of Capitalism finds expression in the United States and Canada. David Hume’s skepticism is still very much present in popular life in English Europe. Even within Africa, thinkers like Michel Foucault, Sarah Ahmed, Simone de Beauvoir and [many other Postmoderns] are influential in the writings of academics like; Sylvia Tamale, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Simidele Dosekun, Toyin Falola, Oyeronke Oyewumi among many others. In fact, Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida are particularly very influential on Hountondji. The only issue with the trend of ideological influence in today’s Africa is, these African writers’ writings are yet to hit popular life and make the revolutionary transformation that other continents have experienced. This is particularly the responsibility of a platform like The Republic Journal, since academic journals rarely get popular readership [even in Western countries]. The Republic has been doing a great job: and the healthy growth of—political, religious, economic and social life in Africa depends on how well this platform (and others to come) perform

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