Does African Philosophy Exist?
“African philosophy is dominated by the search of the continent for a new identity authentic to Africans and distinct from those imposed by outsiders.” Martin Cohen
Western civilization is based on the philosophy of the West- this philosophy supposedly emanates from Greece specifically Athens: men like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pericles, Cicero, Archimedes and modern ones like Newton, Hobbes etc. have contributed not only to the philosophical thought of the west, but laid the foundation of her science, technology and art. These thinkers provided valuable answers to issues wide ranging from morality, government, politics, religion and war. In universities across Nigeria, students are taught Western Philosophy, but what is fundamentally lacking is an understanding of their own philosophy. Are we Westerners? Even a quote on Wikipedia acknowledges the state of African philosophy by saying and I quote: “Other philosophical traditions, such as African philosophy, are rarely considered by foreign academia. Since emphasis is mainly placed on western philosophy as a reference point, the study, preservation and dissemination of valuable, but lesser known, non-Western philosophical works face many obstacles.”
Were our forbearers non-thinking creatures? Are we still thinking? Do we have a school of thought that equips our policy makers, guides our scholars and provide guidance for our development? Or are we just living on borrowed thought and precepts? Were the beautiful arts of Africa, especially today’s Nigeria looted by the European aggressors and now in their museums and private collection, shaped by a non-thinking mind? Did our art, traditional medicine and government baseless? Were the enormous empires/kingdoms of Benin, Oyo, Songhai, Mali, Ghana, Dahomey, Borno and Nubia lacking in wise men and philosophers? Is there anything like an indigenous African Philosophy? Did philosophy flourish in what is now the Nigeria of today? What impact did African Philosophy have on the global village? Why has African philosophy not been acknowledged by the world? Is a continuation of a racist tendency to look down on anything Negroid as inferior and the narcissistic view of Thomas Jefferson that the Negro is incapable of understanding mathematics and philosophy? What constitutes the African body of thought? What is African Philosophy?
Before I proceed further, it is prudent to define what African Philosophy is. African for example in this instance refers to sub-Sahara African. Any country below what I call the Nubian Line. South of the line that divided the Sudan into two halves – the halves once rule by the great Nubian Pharaohs of Egypt the saw to the civilization of the Upper and Lower Nile. In short, by African Philosophy, I am purposefully excluding Egypt, Ethiopia, and Carthage but including Nubia. Are Egyptians, Ethiopian and Carthagians less African? Absolutely not – as a matter of fact, I consider their genre of philosophy as the golden child of African thought but considering the fact that either due to their proximity to the Westerners and Arabians, or the invention of the art of writing, which makes their thoughts more accessible, their works have been well explored in the past and in fact constitutes the very foundation of Western Philosophy. Thus, having clarified what part of Africa we intend to discuss- what then is our philosophy?
Philosophy by definition is thinking – to think, man requires a language. Contrary to postulation of early Western sojourners in the great kingdoms that stretched from Timbuktu to Songhai, Ghana, Zimbabwe and those later ones in Oyo, Benin and Dahomey – writing is not a necessary prerequisite for thinking. As in most Western cultures, thinkers in Sub-Sahara Africa constituted a special class of people that sought to preserve their works in various forms and did so mostly through oral tradition. Morality, religion and politics were a major concern. But perhaps due to the imperatives of their environments while the European philosopher was primarily occupied with issues of politics and morality his African counterpart was more concerned with religion and morality. It is possible for my distinction to be wrong but the common thread in this discuss happens to be morality. That in itself strikes at the core of philosophy – morality which is the question of what constitutes good or bad is an essential ingredient of any useable school of thought. Were Africans lacking the commonest idea of what is good or bad? Was the discretion of morality only at the disposal of Europeans? What were Slavery, Colonialism and War to European Conscience? Good or Bad?
When the science of thinking (which is philosophy) is painted with a broad brush it will yield three core attributes in a society: Culture, Civilization and Language. Did Africa have a language? Did we have a civilization? Did we have culture? Were there any reasons behind our culture? What was the definite departure point for the thinking African? Is there a uniform body of thought called African Philosophy? It is the last question that always sends anyone that has tried to justify the existence of African Philosophy in a tailspin. For in the belabored insistence on tying all African school of thoughts together, most critics end up revealing the very underbelly of both ancient and contemporary Africans i.e. the multiplicity of religion, languages, cultures, civilizations and as such philosophy. Hence, even within my country Nigeria one can make a case for at the minimum 100 different philosophical schools of thoughts. Some are similar, some are distinctly opposed (the Ekitis idolized their twins and regarded them as uncommon blessing, while the Calabarians killed them). But does this variety in any way make African philosophy non-existent? Does the departure between Hobbes postulation on mankind and Locke essentially disrobe their unity under the doctrine of western philosophy? Why should African philosophies be held in contempt differently simply because of their varied ethnic origin less so than the Greek, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Franco-German and then American philosophers are universally regarded as one?
Bearing this in mind, I have postulated that to have a better understanding of African Philosophy one must explore the philosophy closest to home. Examining my own philosophy well documented in the Ifa Oracle orally and now referred to as Ifa Canon, as well as various other Yoruba body of thoughts transmitted down the ages for the enlightenment of every son and daughter of Oodua thus became an imperative. This journey has revealed the various themes of Yoruba Philosophy including incantations, mysticism, exorcism and verbology, practical superstition (e.g. If you seat at the door to each your meal you will never be satisfied), monarchial federalism (as practiced in Oyo, Ekiti and Egba land), blessing of the twin, divine kingship, reincarnation (Abiku), after-life, communal ownership etc. This philosophy though limited in production, can rightly be referred to as part and parcel of the philosophy of the western people of Nigeria popularly known as the Yoruba People. Other groups below the Nubia line including the Igbos (coming of age, personal Chi) and the Kalabari (Matrilineal Superiority) have well established philosophies that are yet to be completely documented or studied for the consumption of contemporary African students.
At the heart of most African Philosophy is the concept of communalism which is not socialism, communism, capitalism nor the other “isms” of the West. It is high time we market this unique brand of economic system: if capitalism legalized lobbying (bribery) of legislators in America, communalism should legalize gift-giving (bribery) in Nigeria. Is it not high time that educated “modernized” Africans espoused useful concepts of their philosophy that espouse philanthropy, morality in public office and provide answers to many problems of modern African societies including crisis and corruption? Indeed, most of African philosophies even though not written are encoded in wise sayings, proverbs which in the words of our fathers are the yam with which words are eaten. Take for instance the wise words of the people to the east of the Nigeria: that “if a child washes his hands, he shall eat with kings”. This word epitomizes the fundamental philosophy of the Igbo people to the east of the Niger. Indeed, it shows the republican and egalitarian nature of that society that believes in absolute meritocracy: if the same saying were postulated in the Yoruba land it will be utter rubbish. In the traditional Yoruba land, royalty then age and then merit (wealth and accomplishment) is the order of precedence. I can cite thousands and thousands of such proverbs that epitomizes the beauty of the traditionalist approach to African thoughts.
Of course, a key sore point to African Philosophy has always been two questions: How far has it got us? And how can it be correctly called philosophy if it was not recorded? My answer to both has always been: have we stopped being African? What prevents you and I being good stewards of our philosophy if we start recording African thought today and now. What stops us from using them to advance our society and justifying their existence? Imagine a world in a thousand years time with the timeless works of Africans recorded a thousand years before exists- will it matter then if we recorded those thoughts today in the year 2006? Yoruba lettering was developed by Ajayi Crowther in the 1800s, if he recorded Yoruba Philosophy they will be nearly two hundred years old today – as old as most American Philosophy: think about that. Indeed, since we have not stopped being African we should not be ashamed to shamelessly adapt, twist, plagiarize, reword, rethink, question or tweak western philosophy as part of the New African Philosophy. If the Europeans shamelessly looted Alexandria, we should shamelessly loot Harvard, Imperial College and the Polytechnic: I mean knowledge wise. This will not make our philosophy less African- it will just make it progressive, forward looking, refined and adaptable for the ever changing world retrofit for the oncoming African renaissance. Watch your step: the quickest way to shed your colonial mentality is to restore African Philosophy to the pedestal it deserves not just in your books but in your minds. May the bones of our forefathers remain unbroken and their flesh remains fresh. Amen.