Can African philosophy liberate Africa, really?

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By Dr Ng’ang’a Gĩcũmbi

It was the great philosopher David Hume who penned these memorable words: “If you are upset by abstract arguments, then you should get out a bit more and engage with ‘common life’ …” And engagement with common life is what exactly Wanjohi’s 2017 publication of Philosophy and Liberation of Africa has done.

Wanjohi’s book raises more questions than answers on whether or not African philosophy can actually liberate Africa. How can one discern the presence of African philosophy? His answer is specific: via its rich repertoire of sayings and proverbs. As an academic philosopher, Wanjohi (chairman of the Department of Philosophy at University of Nairobi 1990-93), has taken proverbs as his pet philosophy project, arguing they are seeds from which his Agikuyu people and other Africans found answers to the philosophical questions: “Who are we?” (as a people) and “Who am I” (as an individual)?

Although Wanjohi does not address the question of the extent to which proverbs are still relevant as a liberation tool to modern Kikuyus, other Kenyans and Africans as well, he has nevertheless made a significant contribution to African philosophy as is evident from The Wisdom and Philosophy of African Proverbs: The Gikuyu World-view (1997) and Under one Roof: Gikuyu Proverbs Consolidated (2001).

Wanjohi has been persistent in arguing his case for an African philosophy, a challenge he first encountered in Canada as a young graduate student in the 1960s when he was asked whether there was indeed an African philosophy. His work draws a lot of inspiration from the works of T.G. Benson, Kikuyu-English Dictionary (1964), and English-Kikuyu (1975). Benson produced these two dictionaries in collaboration with A. Ruffell Barlow, a lay missionary with the Church of Scotland who was, in turn, largely influenced by Rev. Leonard J. Beecher and Gladys Beecher’s 1938 “Kikuyu-English Dictionary”.

Philosophy and Liberation of Africa attempts to answer the question; do Africans really have a philosophy? It attempts to answer this conundrum within the wider context of philosophy as a vehicle for the liberation of Africa and Africans. It argues that African philosophies, because they reflected different cultural milieus, were disseminated orally rather than in writing, which does not in any way deprive their inherent value.

This little book (150 pages) is replete with meaning and brims with proverbs, arguments and evidence, which are designed to appeal to a broad range of constituencies – from the ordinary person in the street and village to ivory tower professionals.

In a country that is badly divided along tribal lines, one could easily dismiss the book as being merely about a specific tribe, its philosophy and cosmology. To think so, however, would be to incredibly miss the point. To do philosophy in an original way – otherwise known as first-order philosophizing, as opposed to engaging with it in a derived manner, also called second-order philosophizing – is to persist in the art of personal observation through a rigorous application of the crucial tools of reasoning.

And there is no richer observational matter than a person’s cultural environment because it is what they know best. Derived, second-order philosophizing tends to come forth as something akin to “used merchandise”, however persuasive its presentation, since it cannot realistically add or take away the originality of a particular philosophy.

The enduring quality of all philosophical innovations cannot thus be denied, whether it is Plato’s idea of the inseparability of truth, happiness and virtue, Aristotle’s thoughts on nature, art, society; the ideal world of Socrates, the rationalism of Renė Descartes, or the professional philosophy of Immanuel Kant, to name just a few.

This enduring quality is the particularity of their philosophies, that is, the time, geography, language, and prevailing cultural atmosphere under which they were developed. For instance, the presumed universalism of many of these Western philosophies precluded the black race. While their universal theoretical systems seemed not to discriminate on the basis of race, their practical applications were fundamentally exclusionary as the following two examples reveal.

In his “The People of America”, Francois-Marie Arouet (known by his nom de plume as Voltaire, says the following of the Negro: “…They are not capable of any great application or association of ideas…” And David Hume, in a famous footnote to his “Of National Character”, rejected monogenism by insisting that blacks are congenitally inferior to whites. This racism became apparent during the Enlightenment period where it was widely believed that a person’s skin colour determined his/her rationality, and this inspired writings of many eminent thinkers.

Wanjohi has done a good job to outline the debate between philosophical universalism and philosophical particularism, which has dominated philosophy, especially after it, became evident that non-western cultures boast of a philosophy. He proceeds to cite the 1945 publication of the Placide Tempels, La philosophie bantoue (Bantu Philosophy) as the beginning of a serious discourse on the existence of African philosophy.

The book does well to highlight the criticism of Placide Tempels approach by so-called African “neo-positivist” philosophers as Paulin Hountondji, Kwesi Wiredu and Peter Bodunrin, who accuse ethno-philosophers of settling for an inferior and idiosyncratic conception of philosophy which lacks the intellectual rigour of philosophy and only serves to marginalise African philosophy by consigning it to the concrete, symbolic and intuitive spheres rather than to the Western preferred opposites of the abstract, conceptual and rational domains.

Perhaps two outstanding gems of the book are its delimitation of the argument, and its interrogation of the different schools of Indigenous African philosophies; bantu/ethno-philosophy (Placide Tempels, Alexis Kagame); negritude/nationalist/ideological (Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Julius Nyerere); Sage/philosophic sagacity (Odera Oruka, Gail Presbey, Anke Graness, Pius Mosima); Comparative (Alexis Kagame), and Philosophy of Proverbs (Gerald Wanjohi).

It is in the philosophy of proverbs that Wanjohi makes perhaps his major contribution to African philosophy by demonstrating that indeed kihooto (reason) was a major ingredient in the daily discourse of the Agikuyu people. A major drawback of the book is that it sets these arguments at the tail-end of the book and does not give them adequate coverage considering they are an important support for his argument for the liberation of Africa.

An additional downside is that no mention is made of such eminent philosophical schools as the hermeneutical (Theophilus Okere, Okonda Okolo, Tsenay Serequeberhan and Ademola Fayemi Kazeem); literary (Chinua Achebe, Cheik Anta Diop, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka); professional school (Kwasi Wiredu, Paulin Hountondji, Peter Bodunrin); and conversational school (Pantaleon Iroegbu, Innocent Asouzu, Bruce Janz, Jennifer Vest, Jonathan Chimakonam, Ada Agada).

In a fast paced world, where the forces of cultural globalisation especially by the dominant cultures of the West are systematically gobbling up whole cultures of native tribes, it is upon the work of cultural philosophers to remind Africans that their proverbs are the substance of their consciousness which they need to help illumine and enlighten their path to self-determination in a world badly divided along racial and other dividing lines.

This is the point that Wanjohi appears to make in his unique contribution to African philosophy. Since the role of African sayings and proverbs (and as they pertain to their liberation potential) is still a largely unexplored arena and open to further exploration, the so-called Nietzschean maxim can offer encouragement to seekers of African wisdom: “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”

Writer is a scholar and author

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