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African Philosophies - Major Themes

force philosophy human community

The concept of vital force is considered characteristic of African philosophy. According to Tempels and to Alexis Kagame, it is a fundamental trait of African thought to hold that the force of life is the supreme value and to posit "being" and "force" as equivalent: such ontology is said to be dynamic. Although Tempels and Kagame limited their description of it to the Bantu peoples, this ontology has been considered valid for other African cultures and regions as well. It is central to the philosophy known as Negritude, defined by one of its heralds, Léopold S. Senghor, as the concept of a specific black identity founded on a core set of values shared throughout the black world.

African religion is an area in which the philosophy of vital force is visible. Contemporary African philosophers have established a general structure of religions other than Christianity and Islam and based on the following elements: a supreme being or force who created the world, which depends on him for its continuous existence; divinities or spirits or forces that are active in the world; ancestors who are the departed elders of the community and whose forces are still active (they have reached after their death the status of spirits, and the custom of pouring libation to them is still alive even in Christianized or Islamized groups); living creatures that are mineral, vegetal, animal, or human forces. All these beings or forces form together a field of interaction. This explains the conventional opinion that the Africans' worldview is essentially religious and indicates why this religiosity has been misunderstood as magical thinking (according to which a "force" can act on another "force" to increase or diminish it, apparently without an actual causal relationship).

African conceptions of personhood and community are to be understood within this cosmology. Many African philosophers hold that at the foundation of African socioethical thought is a communitarian philosophy. John Mbiti, in his African Religions and Philosophy, has thus summarized this notion of a priority of the community over the individual: "I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am." Nit, nitay garabam, "the remedy for a human is another human," is a Wolof proverb that expresses this feature of African humanism and communalistic ethics. But a slightly different form of it—nit niteey garabam—is also often offered, meaning: "the remedy for a human is human behavior." This play on words is significant. The emphasis is now on the person and on the goal set for individuals to become what they have to be: accomplished humans. The community is ontologically rich in the individuals who compose it and who must realize through it their potential as accomplished persons. This dialectics of the community and the individual is considered by Kwame Gyekye as the basis for an African notion of human rights.

African cosmologies are also said to convey a specific African philosophical concept of time. One very controversial question is whether the future truly exists in African worldviews. After an examination of a few Bantu languages, John Mbiti has stated that, for African people, time is a composition of events and not a frame that remains when the events are taken out of it. The implication is that the past is the most important temporal dimension, while the future barely exists beyond the tiny span ahead, a mere continuation of today's events. Other African philosophers have brought forward counterexamples from other African cultures to argue that Mbiti's account was mistaken and tantamount to the prejudice against Africans as supposedly culturally unprepared to plan, manage time, or project themselves into the future.

African art is a major domain of investigation for African philosophy, as it is arguably in the arts that the greatest contributions of Africa to world culture in the twentieth century have been acknowledged. The use of stylization, the obvious symbolism of art objects that deliberately use disproportion, geometrical figures, and emphasis on certain parts of the body have exercised influence on contemporary art worldwide and are regarded as expressive of an African metaphysics. This is also said of African music and drumming. The metaphysical significance of African dance as a way of participating in the life of the universe is central to Senghor's philosophy of African arts.

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