Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

African philosophy


African philosophy

In order to indicate the range of some of the kinds of material that must be included in a discussion of philosophy in Africa, it is as well to begin by recalling some of the history of Western philosophy. It is something of an irony that Socrates, the first major philosopher in the Western tradition, is known to us entirely for oral arguments imputed to him by his student Plato. For the Western philosophical tradition is, above all else, a tradition of texts. While there are some important ancient philosophers, like Socrates, who are largely known to us through the reports of others, the tradition has developed increasingly as one which pays careful attention to written arguments. However, many of those arguments - in ethics and politics, metaphysics and epistemology, aesthetics and the whole host of other major subdivisions of the subject - concern questions about which many people in many cultures have talked and many, although substantially fewer, have written outside of the broad tradition of Western philosophy. The result is that while those methods of philosophy that have developed in the West through thoughtful analysis of texts are not found everywhere, we are likely to find in every human culture opinions about some of the major questions of Western philosophy. On these important questions there have been discussions in most cultures since the earliest human societies. These constitute what has sometimes been called a 'folk-philosophy'. It is hard to say much about those opinions and discussions in places where they have not been written down. However, we are able to find some evidence of the character of these views in such areas as parts of sub-Saharan Africa where writing was introduced into oral cultures over the last few centuries.

As a result, discussions of African philosophy should include both material on some oral cultures and rather more on the philosophical work that has been done in literate traditions on the African continent, including those that have developed since the introduction of Western philosophical training there.

1 Oral cultures

Two areas of folk-philosophy have been the object of extended scholarly investigation in the late twentieth century: the philosophical psychology of people who speak the Akan languages of the west African littoral (now Ghana) (see Akan philosophical psychology) and the epistemological thought of Yoruba-speaking people of western Nigeria (see Yoruba epistemology). In both cases the folk ideas of the tradition have been addressed by contemporary speakers of the language with Western philosophical training. This is probably the most philosophically sophisticated work that has been carried out in the general field of the philosophical study of folk-philosophy in Africa. It also offers some insight into ways of thinking about both the mind and human cognition that are different from those that are most familiar within the Western tradition.

One can also learn a great deal by looking more generally at ethical and aesthetic thought, since in all parts of the continent, philosophical issues concerning evaluation were discussed and views developed before writing (see Aesthetics, African; Ethical systems, African). Philosophical work on ethics is more developed than in aesthetics and some of the most interesting recent work in African aesthetics also focuses on Yoruba concepts which have been explored in some detail by Western philosophers. The discussion of the status of such work has largely proceeded under the rubric of the debate about ethnophilosophy, a term intended to cover philosophical work that aims to explore folk philosophies in a systematic manner (see Ethnophilosophy, African). Finally, there has also been an important philosophical debate about the character of traditional religious thought in Africa (see African traditional religions).

2 Older literate traditions

Although these oral traditions represent old forms of thought, the actual traditions under discussion are not as old as the remaining African literate traditions. The earliest of these is in the writings associated with the ancient civilizations of Egypt, which substantially predate the pre-Socratic philosophers who inhabit the earliest official history of Western philosophy (see Egyptian cosmology, ancient). The relationship between these Egyptian traditions and the beginnings of Western philosophy have been in some dispute and there is much recent scholarship on the influence of Egyptian on classical Greek thought (see Egyptian philosophy: influence on ancient Greek thought).

Later African philosophy looks more familiar to those who have studied the conventional history of Western philosophy: the literate traditions of Ethiopia, for example, which can be seen in the context of a long (if modest) tradition of philosophical writing in the horn of Africa. The high point of such writing has been the work of the seventeenth-century philosopher, Zar'a Ya'ecob. His work has been compared to that of Descartes (see Ethiopia, philosophy in).

It is also worth observing that many of the traditions of Islamic philosophy were either the product of, or were subject to the influence of scholars born or working in the African continent in centres of learning such as Cairo and Timbuktu (see Islamic philosophy). Similarly, the work of some of the most important philosophers among the Christian Church Fathers, was the product of scholars born in Africa, like St Augustine, and some was written in the African provinces of Rome.

In considering African-born philosophers, there is Anton Wilhelm Amo, who was born in what is now Ghana and received, as the result of an extraordinary sequence of events, philosophical training during the period of German Enlightenment, before returning to the Guinea coast to die in the place he was born. Amo's considerable intellectual achievements played an important part in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century polemics relating to the 'capacity of the negro'. Unfortunately, only a portion of his work has survived.

3 Recent philosophy

Most work in African philosophy in the twentieth century has been carried out by African intellectuals (often interacting with scholars outside Africa) under the influence of philosophical traditions from the European countries that colonized Africa and created her modern system of education. As the colonial systems of education were different, it is helpful to think of this work as belonging to two broadly differentiated traditions, one Francophone and the other Anglophone. While it is true that philosophers in the areas influenced by French (and Francophone Belgian) colonization developed separately from those areas under British colonial control, a comparison of their work reveals that there has been a substantial cross-flow between them (as there generally has been between philosophy in the French- and English-speaking worlds). The other important colonial power in Africa was Portugal whose commitment to colonial education was less developed. The sole Portuguese-speaking African intellectual who made a significant philosophical contribution is Amílcar Cabral, whose leadership in the independence movement of Guinea Bissau and the Cape Verde islands was guided by philosophical training influenced by Portuguese Marxism. Cabral's influence has not been as great as that of Frantz Fanon. He was born in the French Antilles, but later became an Algerian. He was a very important figure in the development of political philosophy in Africa (and much of the Third World).

Among the most important political thinkers influenced by philosophy are Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere (see African philosophy, Anglophone). Out of all the intellectual movements in Africa in this century, the two most important ones of philosophical interest have been négritude and pan-Africanism (see African philosophy, Francophone; Pan-Africanism).

Philosophy in Africa has changed greatly in the decades since the Second World War and, even more, as African states have gained their independence. Given the significance of the colonial legacy in shaping modern philosophical education in Africa it is not surprising that there have been serious debates about the proper understanding of what it is for a philosophy to be African. These lively debates, prevalent in the areas of African epistemology, ethics and aesthetics, are found in both Francophone and Anglophone philosophy (see Aesthetics, African).

How to cite this article:
APPIAH, K. ANTHONY (1998). African philosophy. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved January 16, 2022, from

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