African Philosophy I

The time has come to take ourselves seriously

There was a time when European philosophers were convinced that the way in which they perceived the reality was the only true one. When the first travellers and explorers came to Africa, they noticed that the people were different from the Europeans in many ways. Not only in their skin colour, but also in the way they dealt with life. This led European philosophers like G. F. Hegel to believe that Africans were not able to think logically.

How did he come to this conclusion? He argued that culture was a manifestation of ther human mind. European explorers, who returned from Africa, maintained that Africans had no culture, because what they saw in africa, did not correspond to European culture. Basing himself on this wrong information, the philosopher Hegel, who never went to Africa, argued that, as a consequence, Africans had no reason, no religion and no history. He thought that they lived in a state of natural innocence, unconscious of themselves. Hegel lived in Germany from 1770 to 1831, and therefore might be forgiven for his views on Africa, because he did not have much information about the continent.

At the beginning of last century, a strong defender of Hegel’s ideas with regards to Africa was the French anthropologist L. Levi-Bruhl. He spoke of the ‘pre-logical’ mind of the Africans, similar to the mind of small children. He divided human societies into two types: the civilised [Europe] and the primitive [Africa]; or the healthy on one side, and the sick, savage and inferior on the other. Later on, the alleged cultural superiority of Europe and the West served as justification for colonialism. Europe considered it as its moral duty to raise Africa and the Africans to the level of the West.

African Philosophy

Now let us turn to African philosophy. How old is it? What time span does it cover? We cannot give exact dates. There has always been an oral tradition of popular myths and proverbs, which express the collective wisdom of an ethnic group. African philosophy, however, is more than a critical understanding of popular myths, proverbs and customs: it is, in fact, a product of the modern age.

The introduction of writing played an important role, because writing helps us to pin down ideas, and makes them thus available for later use. The first one to write a book on Bantu Philosophy was not an African, but a Belgian missionary working in the Congo: the Franciscan Fr. Placid Tempels. Basing himself on his own observation, he wrote around 1930: “To declare that primitive peoples are completely lacking in logic, is simply to turn one’s back on reality. Every day we are able to note that primitive peoples are by no means just children afflicted with a bizarre imagination”. Full of sympathy for the Bantu, but in a somewhat patronising way, Tempels wrote for European readers and missionaries. His famous book, Bantu Philosophy, was a kind of guide to understand the Bantu soul. He explained that for the Bantu, all beings – human, animal, vegetable, and inanimate – have their ‘vital force’. Among the created beings, the human being stands in the centre. Human beings include the dead with whom the living maintain a constant relationship. God has created the inferior forces in order to help the humans to increase their force, for example by eating the meat of animals.

Tempels wanted to show that it was wrong to think of Africans as uncivilised and primitive, that their behaviour was guided not by the absence of logic, but by the use of a complex logic, which differed from Western logic. Who, after all, has the right to believe that one’s own way of thinking is the only right way? Unfortunately, this was the attitude of the West for centuries.

African philosophers today make great efforts to liberate Africa intellectually from the West and to stand on her own feet. Gone are the days when African philosophy was seen just as an inferior form of European philosophy. The Kenyan philosopher D. A. Masolo, who taught at the University of Nairobi, writes in his recent book, African Philosophy in Search of Identity, that the debate on African philosophy today is the African response to the Western discourse on Africa, which means the distorted image that the West has created of Africa. Unfortunately, even many educated Africans have adopted this view of Africa as a primitive and uncivilised continent. They often look at their African mother tongue as inferior, and prefer to speak English or French.

African philosophers of today, like D.A. Masolo and P. Hountondji, from Benin, K. Appiah from Ghana, T. Serequeberhan from Ethiopia, and especially V.Y. Mudimbe from the Congo, to name but a few, are united in their struggle for a search of a true identity, which will of course vary according to the different cultures and traditions. It is a struggle quite similar to the struggle for political independence of Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Senghor and Julius Nyerere. African philosophy, which originated as a response to the distorted Western representation of Africa, no longer feels the need to try to assert itself in the face of the powerful European system of thought. As Hountondji says, “the time has come to take ourselves seriously”. Indeed! This struggle of ideas will hopefully put to rest the idea of Africa as one of the ‘primitive sisters’ of Europe.

Fritz Stenger, M.Afr.

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