Is there such a thing as an African philosophy? For many, this is a shocking question. But the underlying doubt is whether the black mind—pre-logical or, in any case, strange to the conceptual and the abstract—will ever attain to philosophy. The realm of philosophy itself, of thought in its higher form, has remained forbidden to Africans. In the domain of art and literature, the talents and even the genius of black Africans have been recognized. But where are the Cesaires and Chinua Achebes of philosophy? Rooted in this line of thinking is the prejudice whereby the African who wants to speak about philosophy and science is seen as getting involved in something that is not his concern.
Most of the attempts at a modern African philosophy are, above all, reactions against this racist prejudice. With the exception of Nkruma’s concept of consciencism, the debate on African philosophy has until now revolved around its existence and possibility and the capacity of African culture and Africans for philosophical thinking.
Experience has shown this approach to be a trap, a dead end, so that today the question of African philosophy must be fundamentally regrasped and European philosophy examined and judged in itself, rigorously and calmly, without trying to extend it to include our cultures or to caricature it with the ulterior motive of opposing it triumphantly to our own modes of thought.
— Marcen Towa, “Introduction,” Essai sur la Problematique Philosophique dan L’Afrique Actuelle
A Bit of Context:
From the 1960s through the 80s, many African thinkers living in Cameroon and Congo wondered what it meant to speak of an African philosophy. Tons of good work came out of this effort. However, most of the material produced during the period are not available in English.
Marcien Towa, a Cameroonian philosopher, was quite an item in African philosophical circles during the 70s and 80s. He is considered an iconoclast of sorts partly because of his pretty harsh criticism of Negritude, which he thought was misguided in its attempt to articulate the being of blackness. Towa not only found absurd the idea that there was such a thing as a “transcendent black being” but also that it was the task of philosophy to reveal it.
But what’s up with philosophy in Africa today? Shouldn’t we reopen the question of an African philosophy? There is no doubt that we are currently living some kind of African renaissance. In terms of politics and art—literature, music, film—there are more Africans doing interesting things than there’s ever been. But it doesn’t look like anyone is interested in philosophy. How might we begin to reopen the question: “what is African philosophy?”
Image by Nigerian painter, B. C. Okah. Check out more of his stunning images HERE.