Archives For Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Author Information: Anke Graness, University of Hildesheim, anke.graness@atunivie.ac.at.

Graness, Anke. “What Is ‘Genuine’ African Philosophy? An Answer to John Lamola.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 4 (2019): 6-13.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47Q

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This article responds to Lamola, John. “Will We Ever Have a Genuine African Philosophy?Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 39-45.

In his review of the The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy, edited by Adeshina Afolayan and Toyin Falola (2017), South African philosopher John Lamola regrets that the volume does not contribute to the task of developing a ‘genuine African philosophy’. But what is a ‘genuine’ philosophy, whether it be African, European, Asian, or any other? Or to put it in a different way, what makes a philosophy ‘genuine’?

Conditions of Original Genuineness

According to Lamola, the precondition for a ‘genuine African philosophy’ is ‘an epistm that is crafted and articulated in an African language by persons whose lived-experience is embedded in Africa, and/or what Africa represents to the world’. On the basis of this tentative definition and Lamola’s critique of the volume, I would first like to discuss some of the achievements and shortcomings of The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy, then return to the question of ‘genuine’ philosophy.

The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy tries to cover a wide range of topics. The first part, ‘Preliminaries and Reappraisals’, includes essays which discuss such fundamental subjects as the issues that confront historians of African philosophy (‘Rethinking the History of African Philosophy’, by Safro Kwame); the difficulties posed by the use of indigenous and colonial languages in intellectual life (‘Revisiting the Language Question in African Philosophy’, by Godfrey Tangwa); and the diverse concepts of logic in African cultures (‘The Question of African Logic: Beyond Apologia and Polemics’, by Jonathan O. Chimakonam).

It also traces major trends in twentieth-century African philosophy in essays that discuss influential philosophers and their works, including ‘A Philosophical Re-reading of Fanon, Nkrumah, and Cabral in the Age of Globalization and Postmodernity’, by Teodros Kiros; ‘Africanizing Philosophy: Wiredu, Hountondji, and Mudimbe’, by Dismas Masolo; and ‘Oruka and Sage Philosophy: New Insights in Sagacious Reasoning’, by Gail Presbey.

Part II of the handbook, ‘Philosophical Traditions and African Philosophy’, introduces specific philosophical traditions of the continent, including essays on classical Ethiopian philosophy (by Teodros Kiros, 181–206) and Islamic philosophy (by A.G.A. Bello, 223–230), and discusses ideas developed in the diaspora, including Afrocentricity (by Molefi K. Asante, 231–244), Africana philosophy (by Lucius T. Outlaw, 245–268), or presents examples of comparative philosophy, for example Confucianism and African philosophy (by Thaddeus Metz, 207–222).

Part III is topic-centred and includes articles on African Feminism (by Louise du Toit and Azille Coetzee, 333-348, and Olayinka Oyeleye, 349–370), philosophy and sexuality (by Workineh Kelbessa, 371–390), nationalism (by Pieter Boele van Hensbroek, 405–416), communitarianism (by Ifeanyi Menkiti, 461–474), Ubuntu (by Leonhard Praeg, 493–506), African cinema (by Adeshina Afolayan, 525–538) and the philosophy of science (Helen Lauer, 539–553).

Part IV, entitled ‘African Development and African Philosophy’, presents essays on such urgent issues of our time as good leadership (‘Supporting African Renaissance: Afrocentric Leadership and the Imperative of Strong Institutions’, by Lesiba Teffo, 557–570), democratic governance (‘Africa and the Philosophy of Democratic Governance’, by Polycarp Ikuenobe, 571–584) and the environment (Humanitatis-Eco (Eco-Humanism): An African Environmental Theory’, by Michael O. Eze, 621–632, and ‘Ubuntu and the Environment’, by Edwin Etieyebo, 633–658), as well as terrorism (‘African Philosophy in a World of Terror’, by Leonhard Praeg, 659–670) and peace (‘Yorùbá Conception of Peace’, by Adebola B. Ekanola, 671–680).

The last part of the book is entirely dedicated to essays on the challenges of including African philosophy in the curricula of our universities and schools (for example, ‘Teaching African Philosophy and a Postmodern Dis-Position’, by Philip Higgs, 765–778, and ‘An African Philosophy for Children: Towards a Situated Paradigm’, by Amasa P. Ndofirepi, 779–794). The book closes with a ‘Bibliographical Report on African Philosophy’ (by Anthony O. Chukwu, 813–826). Including the index, there are more than 850 pages on African philosophy, but, apparently (for Lamola), there is no ‘genuine’ African philosophy in sight.

The State of the Tradition: African Philosophy

In my opinion, the The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy offers a comprehensive survey of the state of and debates in African philosophy by summarizing basic issues of doing African philosophy (particularly in Part I), presenting particular traditions of philosophy in Africa and the African diaspora (Part II), and discussing recent issues of philosophical interest in the twenty-first century from different angles (Parts III–V).

It is a valuable and timely contribution to a task which started back in the 1980s with African Philosophy: An Introduction, edited by Richard A. Wright (1984), and continued with African Philosophy: An Anthology, edited by Emmanuel C. Eze (1998), and the well-known Blackwell Companion to African Philosophy, edited by Kwasi Wiredu (2004). A similar project is the lesser-known but extremely rich two-volume Reclaiming the Human Sciences and Humanities through African Perspectives, edited by Helen Lauer and Kofi Anyidoho (2012), which although it transcends the discipline of philosophy, includes a majority of articles on philosophical topics, many of them written by influential African and non-African philosophers of our time.

Anthologies on African philosophy are designed to provide the academic community with ‘an up-to-date go-to source on African philosophy in the global age’—as Lamola puts it (Lamola, 39). Lamola’s comment is intended to be rather critical, but I think it is a good description and even a compliment for a volume which is meant to serve as a tool for teaching and research in African philosophy. Teaching and research depend on such ‘up-to-date go-to’ sources.

The new volume differs from previous collections in that questions which dominated the discourse for decades—Is there an African philosophy? What is ‘African’ in African philosophy? What are the traits that distinguish a philosophy as ‘African’?—have been set aside completely or are mentioned only in summaries of closed debates (see the introduction by Afolayan and Falola, 1-16; ‘African Philosophy: Appraisal of a Recurrent Problematic’, 19-33, and ‘Revisiting the Language Question in African Philosophy’, 129-40, both by Godfrey Tangwa; and ‘Rethinking the History of African Philosophy’, 97-104, by Safro Kwame). The focus is definitely on recent work in African philosophy.

A View of Lamola’s Critiques

But it is not the thematic range of the content that Lamola criticises. At the centre of his concerns are ‘issues relating to the epistemic sovereignty of Africa’ (39). Lamola asserts that ‘the reconstruction of African thought is carried out in The Handbook through the prism of Euro-American globalism’, and thus, that global economic power dynamics continue to determine the prospects of Africa’s epistemic sovereignty (40). Among the anthology’s faults he includes not only the lack of ‘a formal article that problematises globalisation as it affects Africa’, but also the choice of topics and authors, which seems to him to reflect a dependency on Euro-American epistemes (42).

Lamola concurs with the editors that there is a need for African philosophers to be deeply entangled in the realities on the African continent, but he asks, ‘But how can this be achieved when those who are Afrophilosophising are sitting in Florida, Austria and the Europeanised enclaves of South African life? Has this African discipline made any progress when approximately twelve out of forty-three of the contributors to this important reference guide on contemporary African thought are non-indigenous Africans?’ (42)

I completely agree with Lamola that this is indeed a problem–even though in an ideal world it shouldn’t be, since the study of philosophical topics should be guided by interests and not dependent on the origin of the philosopher. I think limiting each philosopher to the study of the traditions of his or her own cultural context is not really helpful, and to do so would destroy the philosophical enterprise of wondering and seeking the roots of knowledge about our world.

I also wonder if Lamola would raise the same objections about an anthology on classical German philosophy authored by a group of mostly non-German, anglophone writers—which is actually the case with any given handbook on Kant. Would Lamola suggest that, for example, Kant’s philosophy is part of the universal heritage of humanity, accessible to anyone who would like to deal with it, but African philosophy is not? Should we measure European and African philosophy with different scales? Such an approach would relegate African philosophy to the curio cabinet once again.

An Intersectional Parry

As I mentioned above, I agree with Lamola’s concerns about the (cultural, politico-economic) background of the handbook’s authors. As long as we are not living in an ideal world and colonial structures persist in the academic landscape, we must pay attention to them, even in respect of the contributors to a volume. However, what Lamola does not notice and therefore does not criticise—but should—is the fact that the author list is dominated by men.

Philosophers differ not only in their geographical and socio-political backgrounds, but also in gender. Altogether, there are only seven women whose work is included in this publication: three white philosophers from the US and Europe, two white philosophers from South Africa, and only ONE black African, a doctoral philosophy student from Nigeria.[1] My apologies for referring to skin colours here, but unfortunately, skin colour, like gender, still matters—even in academe.

Interestingly, the list of female contributors seems to reflect quite well the global asymmetries of academe. Moreover, the three African women’s essays were about African feminism—of course! What else would women philosophers write about? Many of our male colleagues still seem unable to imagine that women deal with a wide range of philosophical issues. Where are all the distinguished black African women philosophers one would expect to appear in such an important work?

Sophie Oluwole (unfortunately passed away in Dec. 2018), Nkiru Nzegwu, Betty Wambui, Tanella Boni, to mention only a few, all ‘genuine’ philosophers with ‘genuine’ philosophy PhDs—none of them contributed to the handbook. Editors should make more of an effort to include their female African colleagues in such important publications! I can practically repeat here my sentence above: as long as we are not living in an ideal world and patriarchal structures persist in the academic landscape, we must pay attention to gender, even in respect of the contributors to a book.

Definitions of African

But back to Lamola: For Lamola, the definition of ‘African philosopher’ remains crucial; the validity of the knowledge depends upon the background (or even ethnicity) of the person who produces it. Lamola disagrees with my statement (Graness 2018) that a definition of the term ‘African philosophy’ is crucial because the continental affiliation of those who practise philosophy in Africa is less important than the definition and demarcation of the content.

I base my argument on—among other things—the question of the distribution of financial resources, arguing that an African Wittgenstein specialist would certainly have plenty of funding possibilities available via various kinds of funding foundations and research programmes in such things as analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, and continental philosophy, whereas an African philosopher dealing with marginalised and formerly excluded African philosophical traditions would have hardly any funding prospects at all.

Lamola asks: ‘Is this all that it comes down to? Is it a fact that until African scholarship and institutions have their own African financial fountains, we will forever have to have themes, books and conferences whose leitmotif will be dictated from the “developed North”?’ Now, in a tentative attempt to answer Lamola’s intriguing questions: No, of course not, funding is not all it comes down to. Nevertheless, knowledge production always emerges in specific economic and political power relations, as well as in a situation of epistemic hegemonies.

Knowledge never emerged in a vacuum, but always under very concrete historical, political, and economic conditions, as well as under historically shaped conditions of cultural and epistemic domination.[2] It would be fatal to ignore this and to assume that one could produce knowledge independently and autonomously, that is, free from these conditions. Only a critical distance from the conditions of knowledge production frees us to a certain degree and enables us to criticise or change those conditions. Once the canonizing power of certain factors is recognised, such factors can be changed. (Graness 2015)

Does Definition Create a One-Dimensional Human?

Moreover, I do not reject the importance of the origin of an author, but I do think that origin or background means far more than geography. Class, race, and gender are aspects with the same relevance which, moreover, point to power hierarchies within a certain geographical or social context like the academe.

Indeed, what I criticise is the one-dimensionality of attempts to define who an African philosopher is or might be that are based on a question which ignores other determinants of a speaker’s positioning and discounts the mobility of human beings and the personal and intellectual exchange between humans. Such attempts also ignore the existence of a large number of multicultural people who grew up at the intersection of bordering cultures, countries, or even religions and are at home in more than one.

Furthermore, Lamola strongly criticises the criteria for measuring progress in philosophy that were suggested by the editors Afolayan and Falola in their introduction. He objects to the fact that the editors uphold ‘relevance to and in the global age […] as the litmus test of the contemporary efficacy of African philosophy’ (42). I think Lamola’s critique does not do justice to the editors’ rather extensive discussion of the question of the possibility of progress in philosophy, a discipline where Plato and Aristotle are as current and influential as they were 2000 years ago.

The authors suggest that progress in philosophy cannot be measured by the same criteria as in science, where the accumulation of knowledge is one decisive criterion of progress. Like John Kekes, they suggest considering philosophy a ‘problem-solving enterprise’ for generating solutions to perennial problems (10), specifically problems of the human condition.

I think we cannot neglect the fact that globalization, climate change, and other vast, all-encompassing challenges are the basic human issues of our time – of our human condition – for which philosophers worldwide must seek solutions. African philosophers cannot and should not ignore those challenges.

Moreover, Afolayan and Falola’s admonition that African philosophy, if it is to be relevant, must face Africa’s problems instead of losing itself in sophisticated argumentation or indulging in ‘the joy of internal philosophical squabbles’ (13) could be directed to present-day European and North American analytic philosophers as well. Even though I do not agree with Lamola’s critique of Afolayan and Falola, I think that his quest for an independent African episteme raises important questions, namely, has African philosophy really progressed, or can it ever progress if anthologies that canonise its developmental stages can only be undertaken by publishing interests that are based in the colonial metropolises?

Following the Markets to Uncomfortable Places

And why are these collections being published by global entities like Blackwell and Palgrave Macmillan? The Handbook was published, as Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2014) would say, ‘on this side of the line’, that is, in the global North, whereas the content, the thinking, comes from ‘the other side of the line’, the global South.[3]

It is indeed an interesting question: why have publishing houses like Palgrave, Routledge, and Oxford University Press recently shown a growing interest in publishing Handbooks and Encyclopaedias of African philosophy and African thought?

A positive explanation for this would be that there is a growing consciousness that students and researchers of the intercultural dimension of philosophy require appropriate resources in order to make their discipline bear fruit. A rather negative view would be that there is a new awakening of interest in the exotic Other, accompanied by renewed efforts to subject the thinking of the Other to a neocolonial episteme. This latter seems to be Lamola’s fear.

At this point let me return to the question of a ‘genuine African philosophy’. What makes a philosophy genuinely African? That it is ‘crafted and articulated in an African language by persons whose lived-experience is embedded in Africa’? (44) At first glance, Lamola’s definition seems to be plausible. A ‘genuine European philosophy’ would be in this case something that is crafted and articulated in a European language by persons whose lived experience is embedded in Europe. Does this definition describe traditions of European philosophy?

While it is correct that European philosophy is articulated in European languages—more often now in English than in the philosopher’s mother tongue—however, historically and at present philosophers neither referred solely to their European lived experience nor reflected only on the significance of Europe to the rest of the world; they sought universally valid knowledge. In doing this, they often forget the contextuality of their thinking, but this is another problem which cannot be explored here.

That philosophers in Africa are extremely conscious about their own context and conditions of knowledge production, is certainly an advantage that can be fruitfully explored. But to reduce philosophy in Africa to lived experiences embedded in Africa alone, means to clip the wings of philosophy in Africa–and presumably this is not John Lamola’s aim.

Conclusions

Lamola’s suggested definition of ‘genuine African philosophy’ seems very restrictive to me. Concerning the language question: Even though a lingua franca in academe is not a new phenomenon, for example, Greek, Latin, and Arabic were linguae francae in previous centuries, I would repeat here that the language question is not a trivial one in philosophy. (Graness 2015, 136) And it is surely not a problem only for African philosophers.

Since English has become the predominant academic language of our day, philosophers with different language backgrounds are increasingly forced to formulate and publish their ideas in English if they want to pursue an academic career. What Tangwa calls ‘linguistic pragmatism’ (Tangwa, ‘Revisiting the Language Question’, 135), that is, submission to the English language, is already an undeniable fact in academe worldwide.

For example, a considerable percentage of early-career German and Austrian philosophers who are under the age of 30 no longer publish in German. Even though a postcolonial situation like Africa’s is completely different from the situation in former colonising countries like Germany, France, and Italy, submission to English will have similarly serious consequences for philosophy in them, too, consequences of which many European philosophers are not yet conscious.

They can learn a lot from African debates on the language question in philosophy. With Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o I strongly support the idea that it is necessary to use one’s mother tongue for artistic or scientific knowledge production; however, we cannot ignore that it is of equal importance to work and publish in the scientific language of our time in order to be part of the international discourse and not remain imprisoned in our language enclaves. The basis of fruitful scientific work is exchange; what is really needed is the investment of appropriate financial and human resources for translation work.

So, is it an expression of Africa’s epistemic sovereignty to produce philosophical thought in African languages and to make the African experience and its issues the focus of that thought? Yes! But this is not all. Another expression of Africa’s epistemic sovereignty – which is of equal importance – is the discussion between intellectuals from Africa and elsewhere about issues of global interest, from their own diverse perspectives, in the language of their choice.

From its beginnings to the present, in all the different regions of the world, philosophy has been the result of intercultural interaction, and it will continue to be even more so in a world in which interdependence in everything—history, economy, politics, ecology, and all other aspects of life—will only increase, making regions no longer able to exist in isolation—or able to do so only artificially. We cannot ignore our world’s new level of interconnectedness.

Even though Lamola criticises ‘The representation of African philosophy as a centreless, open-ended, free-to-all enterprise, as in The Palgrave Handbook‘, (44) I think that philosophy should be exactly that: a centreless, open-ended, free-to-all enterprise, wherever people in this world philosophise.

Contact details: anke.graness@univie.ac.at

References

Afolayan, Adeshina, and Toyin Falola, eds. The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Graness, Anke. ‘Is the debate on “global justice” a global one? Some considerations in view of modern philosophy in Africa’. Journal of Global Ethics 11, No. 1 (2015): 126–140. DOI: 10.1080/17449626.2015.1010014

Graness, Anke. ‘African Philosophy and History’. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, No. 10 (2018): 45–54.

De Sousa Santos, Boaventura. Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. London: Routledge 2016.

Lamola, John. “Will We Ever Have a Genuine African Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 39-45.

Wiredu, Kwasi, ed. A Companion to African Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

[2] As much as I personally like the film Black Panther, Lamola’s reference to a Hollywood blockbuster in the midst of his complaints about hegemonies and the control of knowledge consumption is not without irony. The African country ‘Wakanda’ was invented in part to serve strong commercial interests operating in a matrix of profound asymmetries of power. The film earned $1.35 billion worldwide, becoming the ninth highest-grossing film of all time, precisely because its story reverses these power asymmetries.

[3] Or at least partly, since some of the authors live and work in the global North.

Author Information: Bruce Janz, University of Central Florida, bruce.janz@ucf.edu

Janz, Bruce. “The Problem of Method in African Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 1-7.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3ZC

Image by Global Partnership for Education via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Edwin Etieyibo’s recent collection of papers raises the question of the nature and use of method in African philosophy. Method is difficult to thematize as a concept in this context; the four chapters in the section on method in this book address different aspects of the concept. They come to no unified conclusion (nor would we expect that), but they do open the door to several aspects of this complex concept.

Why is it complex? Method, in the context of philosophy, is often difficult to pin down. Classically in the West, of course, it referred to the tools of reasoning, usually logic. But using the term “method” suggests a means to an end. The point of method is not at all clear. Is it to reach truth? Is it to properly represent experience, or thought, or worldviews? Is it to create concepts? Is it to ground theory?

What Is Method and What Is It For?

In most other disciplines, method is separable from theory – one can have a theory about childhood development in psychology, or the nature of crime in sociology, and use a range of methods to support that theory. Similar method can be used in different theoretical contexts – specific methods in a discipline such as sociology (e.g., surveys, database research, interviews) or more general methodological approaches (e.g., quantitative, qualitative) are theory-agnostic, although they might be tailored by theory. In philosophy, thought, theory and method are generally not so easily separated.  If our method centers on clear reasoning, this seems universal.

Of course, there are philosophical approaches that have a more clear application of reason. Phenomenology, for instance, especially that of Husserl, employs a method of reduction and bracketing in order to isolate metaphysical assumptions and allow for a focus on experience. Descartes wrote his Discourse on Method which modelled philosophy on scientific inquiry, while Gadamer’s Truth and Method seeks to place philosophy a step beyond method. And, Socrates’ dialectical method used dialogue to approach a true vision of the forms.

These versions of method, and others we could include, assume that reason is capable but for one reason or another obscured. All these versions of method aim to clear away that which stands in the way of reason operating properly. Not all versions of philosophy start from this assumption (for instance, some Christian philosophy starts from the assumption that reason is at its core systematically corrupted, and so no amount of clearing will allow it to operate properly; hence, method focusses on the transcendental underpinnings for thought), but most do.

This is relevant to African philosophy because when method comes up, it has often been against the backdrop of reason’s inability to exercise itself due to external barriers. Some discussions of method have started from the assumption that African philosophy has to demonstrate that it is truly African and truly philosophical, and that that means finding a unique method. So, sage philosophy attempts to do just that, for example. Method has also been a process of clearing colonial structures, “decolonizing the mind” as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o put it, so that a truly African philosophy can commence.

Decolonization: Forward! to Return!

There is another sense of method, and we see this in Simon Mathias Makwinja’s contribution (Makwinja 2018). He surveys some prominent anthologies and introductory readers in African philosophy, and finds most of them wanting. The issue of method here has less to do with the proper use of reason and more to do with how questions are chosen. African philosophy must “give direction to specific substantive problems” (99), something which he thinks has rarely been done.

Makwinja is concerned that focusing on establishing African philosophy’s place within the larger world of philosophy “continues to eat so much into meager resources that could have been used for examining substantive issues” (107). He is right about this, but it is worth asking why this nevertheless continues.

Philosophy in general has a tendency to return to its roots, however it conceives of those, and the justification of African philosophy’s place just seems like a mis-directed version of that. So, the question would be, what would it mean to do substantive philosophy while following this impulse of returning to roots?

What are those roots – are they excavated in a quasi-anthropological manner by attending to the patterns of culture, or do they exist elsewhere? And, is there a distinction between formal roots such as Aristotle’s first principles or Husserl’s experience and substantive roots such as African culture, or do these in the end amount to the same thing?

Thinking With Harmonious Monism

Lucky Uchenna Ogbonnaya, in his contribution, addresses his questions about method to Jonathan Chimakonam and the “logic criterion” of African philosophy. The question is, does logic come before ontology or not? Ogbonnaya’s central question (114) concerns whether a discourse or text is African philosophy or not. Note that this is a demarcation issue first – the decision about order is to answer the question of the nature of philosophy.

Method, for Ogbonnaya, is the determination of what counts as African philosophy, not the way of doing African philosophy. Also, he generalizes about Western and African philosophy – “African philosophy is not like Western philosophy, which is built on a reductionist or absolutist ontology. It is a philosophy that is built on African ontology, which Ijiomah christens “harmonious monism.”” (125)

Leaving to the side the question of whether this is an accurate portrayal of either tradition, it suggests how method is meant to work for Ogbonnaya. It is both a process of demarcation, and a way of establishing identity. “Method”, here, is probably best understood as the order of priority for thinking in African philosophy. Ogbonnaya argues against Chimakonam’s idea that logic must come first, and in so doing, maintains that there is a cultural basis for thought. Ontology, for him, is held at a cultural level rather than an individual one, and is in fact seen as a cultural artifact outside of Africa as well (he also refers to Eastern philosophies as engaging with their ontology as well).

The assumption that ontology grounds cultural philosophies means that these ontologies stand beyond the reach of method. It does not mean that one cannot work from some other ontology; presumably one can work from other ontologies (“a text/work is African philosophy if it is done from the purview of African ontology”, 127), but the ontologies, in this view, seem to be beyond philosophical reflection. This view would be similar to some religious philosophies as mentioned earlier, in which philosophy is subordinated to something else such as theology or religious belief.

Having to Look European

Jonathan Chimakonam’s contribution to the section on method takes on philosophical universalism by advocating conversational philosophy. This is a collective project that he and others at the University of Calabar in Nigeria and elsewhere have been advocating for some time, which has its roots in, among other places, phenomenological and hermeneutical method. Philosophical universalism has, in his account, held African philosophy back by always implicitly requiring that it look to European models of thought.

The alternative is not particularism, which has its own set of problems, but conversational philosophy. He conceives conversation as a quasi-dialectical process which includes both critique and creation as part of its movement. The thinking that this affords is rooted in revisions of questions and answers, as each is exposed to new conditions and new information.

The entire structure is schematized, although it is unclear whether the schematization is descriptive or prescriptive, in other words, whether it is a representation of how successful philosophy happens or whether it is a map for how African philosophy might successfully avoid universalism and particularism to create something new. In either case, there would likely be a host of exceptions or variations within the schema.

More interesting than the schema are the themes he identifies as ways of moving forward. They all bear traces of the method already described.

There are five:

  • re-tracement (a move away from attempting to represent collective African thought and toward asking new questions that can open up new vistas of thought);
  • re-engagement (finding new forms of encounter with otherness);
  • re-leasement (allowing reason to find its many voices);
  • unfoldment (the result of the previous three, a move towards the new rather than simply re-affirming what we already believe);
  • coverance (attending to areas that have not received sufficient attention in African philosophy).

Like the more generalized method, these grow out of the conviction that there are untapped intellectual resources in Africa which, with new questions and new habits of engagement can yield more complex and more applicable models of thought.

No Dogma Is Innocuous, Leave Them All

The final contribution to the method section is by Oritsegbubemi Anthony Oyowe. He focusses on a specific methodological claim, which he calls “Hume’s Law” – there should be no ought from is (“NOFI”), or more directly, we should not infer prescriptive claims from solely descriptive ones. Thaddeus Metz argues that Kwame Gyekye commits this error when he tries to derive a political theory from the metaphysics of selfhood in Africa. Oyowe’s methodological argument is that there are often bridging premises which are unstated, but which legitimate the move from is to ought.

Oyowe’s argument is closely reasoned, although given the scope of Metz’s work it does not do justice to his full ethical theory (and, one would not of course expect it to). But what is interesting here is the question of what implications there would be for method if Oyowe’s reclamation of NOFI is successful. While his specific target is Metz’s position, the general goal of Oyowe’s argument is clearly to be able to deploy descriptions of African culture and society in making a case for how Africans ought to live.

In other words, Oyowe is resisting Metz’s NOFI dictum, in part because of flaws he sees in Metz’s defense of this principle, but more importantly because having this principle available means that theorists who have used it, such as Wiredu and Gyekye among others could continue to use it. Why might this manner? Because a great deal of communitarian thought in African political philosophy and African ethics is founded on what are essentially sociological observations about African past and present.

And this raises the question relevant to method – while Oyowe is not arguing against NOFI only on behalf of Africa (he does, after all, marshall resources from other non-African writers in analytic philosophy), would the ability to reject “no ought from is” enable African philosophers to establish politics or ethics in a manner that they would otherwise not be able to do? Or, is this a kind of particularism, a way of differentiating African thought from other thought by grounding it in the specific nature of African societies?

And, if NOFI is rejected, that is, if it is possible to derive normative statements from existing or historical cultural practice, does this not simply move the question back one step, to asking about whether the descriptions of African societies themselves have been made with a philosophical agenda in mind, and whether exceptions to the rule have been overlooked or ignored in order to establish something that looks like a unified African description of social reality (the “is” part) which can then be used to produce the “ought” part, which would be specific ethical or normative principles?

An Almost-Imperialist Method

What is interesting about this group of chapters is the different approaches they have to method in African philosophy. Since there is no agreed outcome in philosophy akin to what we might find in other disciplines (something like producing theories about the processes of life in biology, or explanations of social formations and processes in sociology, and so forth), there is no agreement on the nature of method. There is, therefore, also no way of assessing the success or failure of method. What is also evident is that method in African philosophy looks over its shoulder to the alienating methods imposed upon it by colonial philosophy in the past.

Method as we see it here is a way of clearing impediments to understanding, and those impediments are largely understood in terms of past regimes of knowledge and earlier practices within African philosophy. It is also, despite the now commonly expressed sentiment that we must move past the project of defining African philosophy and start doing it, still a project of demarcation, that is, showing who’s in and who’s out, or what is in and what is out. Of course, some, notably Makwinja and Chimakonam, clearly try to distance themselves from that project of demarcation.

There is also a thread connecting these papers related to creativity. While there is an element of demarcation, which reflexively looks back on existing candidates for African philosophy, there is also a sense in all the authors of what might be possible if the foundational components of African philosophy are clarified and the barriers to the uses of reason in Africa are removed. The specifics of the results of creativity in African philosophy is, understandably, unclear in all the authors.

And yet, the fact that it is unclear is evidence that the term “method” as used in African philosophy (and perhaps elsewhere in philosophy) is not about reaching any particular goal. One can imagine philosophical method which is tied to a goal – some versions of Christian philosophy, for instance, or philosophies which have specific forms of emancipation as their goal.

This is not to say, of course, that a particular view of the world, or an outcome of emancipation, are not significant projects for philosophy, but that there exists a tension in philosophical method between having a sense of the kind of creation desired and constructing a method which follows reason where it leads. History is littered with philosophical statements on what the good life might look like, or what utopia might be, and in retrospect such visions turn out to have their own forms of domination, their own blind spots, which have no adequate response in the terms their philosophical method and assumptions have set out.

If these papers were all part of a conference panel, and I was asked to provide a response, I would be interested to see how each writer would respond to what I think is one of the best books on method written in African philosophy. Emmanuel Eze’s final book, On Reason: Rationality in a World of Cultural Conflict and Racism (Eze 2008), suggests a structure for reason which does not root it directly in culture, but rather recognizes a range of different forms of reason which are assembled into rationality differently in different places (see Janz 2008 for a fuller account of this). His focus is less on finding a method of philosophizing in Africa and more on finding a method of thinking able to account for both its universality and particularity.

Contributions to Philosophy

It would be interesting to see each of the contributors here interact with Eze’s argument. Eze seems less concerned about the problem of demarcation in African philosophy than he is about describing the ways in which people in particular places leverage universal aspects of human reason for localized effects. Like the contributors in the book, he is interested in a version of African philosophy which is creative, but I suspect his description of creativity would be different. And, his version of reason is less about clearing the impediments to the true functioning of reason, and more about how different forms of reason might work.

Eze does not explicitly say that he is writing a treatise on method in African philosophy, and in fact he avoids thinking about method at all in terms of looking for something unique in Africa. For him, the goal of method in the context of Africa is not to find a unique approach to Africa, or even to find a new way of clearing the impediments to reason. Nor is it to find something analogous to method in other disciplines, that is, a set of disciplined steps designed to support theories or explanations of phenomena in a particular domain. To that extent, he would agree with the contributors to this book – method in philosophy does not easily lend itself to definition in any rigid sense.

But he would likely have some questions for these contributors. For Makwinja, he might ask whether the question of method really is just a distraction from producing philosophy that is relevant to Africa? Is method only about clearing away the barriers to reasoning in Africa and establishing Africa’s place within the world of philosophy, or does it have a further relevance once those tasks are either completed or not worth engaging anymore?

For Ogbonnaya, he might ask whether the contrast between ontology and logic is really the only one that faces us. Are there not other forms of reasoning available, and the question of which comes first in the ontology/logic binary is overly simplified? For Chimakonam, he might ask how other disciplines and their traditions of reason might fit into the picture he is drawing about conversational philosophy. As Eze indicates, there are a range of forms of reason which assemble into rationality.

Is the conversational method a centrifugal one, expanding the range of reason in the context of Africa, or a centripetal one, tightening and honing rational discourse within the context of philosophy, to the exclusion of discourses in other disciplines? In other words, does conversation as a method broaden the scope of philosophy or narrow it? And for Oyowe, he might ask whether, given his rejection of the “no ought from is” dictum, if it is still possible to, as Eze puts it, “protect what I regard as the relative independence of philosophical reflection from contextual morality and political settlements.” (Eze 2008: 235).

In other words, the arrow on this dictum might go both ways – if “is” constitutes a sufficient basis for “ought”, is it possible that “ought” will influence or even produce what we think of as “is”, which would lead to a kind of relativism at best, or a capture of philosophy for political ends at worst?

Of course, we cannot truly know what Eze would ask, and I am not trying to speak on his behalf. What I am doing is taking the lead he gives us in On Reason to think about the nature of method beyond the contributions to Etieyibo’s volume. These chapters, along with Eze and other writings, are defining a disciplined and extended discussion about the difficult question of method in African philosophy, and I look forward to future conversations around these questions.

Contact details: bruce.janz@ucf.edu

References

Jonathan O. Chimakonam, “The ‘Demise’ of Philosophical Universalism and the Rise of Conversational Thinking in Contemporary African Philosophy” in Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 135-159.

Emmanuel Eze, On Reason: Rationality in a World of Cultural Conflict and Racism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

Bruce Janz, “Reason and Rationality in Eze’s On ReasonSouth African Journal of Philosophy 27:4 (2008): 296-309.

Simon Mathias Makwinja, “Questions of Method and Substance and the Growth of African Philosophy” in Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 93-112.

Lucky Uchenna Ogbonnaya, “Between Ontology and Logic Criteria of African Philosophy” in Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 113-133.

Oritsegbubemi Anthony Oyowe, “Is, Ought, and All: In Defense of a Method” in Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 161-184.