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Africa Realism

Realism In African Philosophy

In African philosophy, the very existence of such a discipline forms an important topic of discussion, as aptly captured in titles like Paulin Hountondji's African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (1983) and D. A. Masolo's African Philosophy in Search of Identity (1994). The central problem is whether there exists a separate discourse of philosophical reasoning that is specifically African. If at all it exists, what are its procedures? Can they be elaborated in a way that is distinctly African? Given that the term philosophy itself is a product of African cultural and historical contact with the West, does its adoption indicate the impossibility of such a discipline existing outside the symbolic order bequeathed to Africa by its colonial heritage? Various authors have taken different positions in the debate, with significant overlaps at times.

Some have challenged the very distinction between African and Western philosophy, contending that, since Egypt contributed substantially to the rise of Greek philosophy and, since Egypt—whatever the debate about the racial identity of its ancient inhabitants—is an African country, Africans should not be apologetic about the existence of an African philosophy—there has been an African philosophy for millennia. Others argue, that even without regard to the African origins of Western African philosophy, it can be amply demonstrated that there is a distinct African philosophy that is based on the elaboration of the traditional cosmology and belief systems of Africa. This is the position developed by John Mbiti, Alexis Kagame, and Placide Temple, for example. For V. Y Mudimbe in The Invention of Africa (1988), it is impossible to speak of Africa as if it were an unproblematic concept, since, as an idea it has been produced within the historical encounter with the West. Thus the very reality of Africa as a formation itself, let alone that of its philosophy, is under question or at least perceived as in need of clarification before being used as a secure ground for a pure and autonomous African reason.

Paulin Hountondji (b. 1942) considers Mbiti and others as practicing "ethnophilosophy" rather than professional philosophy. Hountondji argues that ethnophilosophy is characterized by the presupposition that the worldviews of African ethnic groups can be uncritically transposed into philosophical discourse. That is seen as a return to the colonial paternalistic view of African culture as separate and prelogical. He also maintains that such a transposition would be equivalent to Greek philosophers abstracting their philosophy from Greek cosmology, which is the very thing that the founding Greek philosophers deliberately refrained from in order to launch philosophy as a distinct secular, and for Hountondji, scientific discipline. (It should be noted that Louis Althusser [1918–1990] heavily influenced Hountondji's notion of science.) Henry Odera Oruka concedes that the kind of philosophy practiced by Mbiti and similar scholars is indeed a form of ethno-philosophy. Oruka agrees with Hountondji and Kwasi Wiredu that African philosophy is what professional post-colonial African philosophers, or in his view, rationalist philosophers, who have been exposed to Western philosophy (such as they themselves) do, but he allows for the possibility of the existence of unlettered African sages in traditional society in the manner of Socrates in ancient Greece. In his view, ethnophilosophy presents traditional African society as one where individuality of outlook and thought is not only disallowed, but impossible, making the formation appear static rather than as dynamic and open to change as revealed by historical research. African society is shown as providing for the emergence and sustained presence of individual and critical consciousness rather as singularly engaged in promoting adherence to a consensual and collective view of reality. The African sage is thus capable of reflecting on the fundamental problems of philosophy such as the nature of reality. More radically, Oruka believes that philosophy does not need to be written down—it can be produced orally as in the case of the sages of Kenya he and his colleagues studied. Nevertheless, philosophical sagacity does not necessarily imply that African sages are the same breed as their Western-trained counterparts, but neither does it suggest that they are an utterly distinct species—they elaborate the first order of concepts whereas their university-trained counterparts grapple with both first and second order conceptualization. Like Oruka, Kwasi Wiredu accepts the validity of a traditional African philosophy, but he regards it is as markedly distinct from postcolonial African philosophy. Wiredu observes, "There is a traditional African philosophy, and there is an emerging modern philosophy. A modern philosophy will appropriate whatever there is of value in [Western philosophy] and domesticate them and it will seek also to make contributions to them" (p. xi). Thus, Western problems of philosophy can still form the basis of African philosophical practice without compromising its capacity to promote the modernization of the continent as well as the advancement of philosophy as a global discipline, contributing simultaneously to the particular and the universal.

One general problem Wiredu investigates is the relationship between language and representation. Focusing on the Akan language group of Ghana, he examines the difference between logical and mystical statements and concludes that the two differ fundamentally in their adherence to the law of consistency. Whereas the former abide by the principle of non-contradiction, the latter follow that of contradiction. Nevertheless, the contrast between the two forms of statements does not correspond to the differences between African and Western society. Both societies have their fair share of the both logical and mystical statements. Wiredu shows how the Akan respect the law of noncontradiction in the domain of knowledge, but will accept its nonobservance in the sphere of mystical articulation. This leads him to conclude that fundamental structures of language are not necessarily a reflection of the culture of a given society, but of universal logical structures. It is with this in mind that Wiredu cautions against the argument for the uniqueness of African philosophy in terms of its focus, for in the end, its distinctiveness is less a matter of its object of knowledge, but more of the cultural and environmental location of the philosopher. Location may inflect the philosopher's view of universal problems of philosophy, but does not thereby consign his or her observations to the status of the mystical utterings of the sage of an ethnic group. Thus, the philosophical study of African languages reveals fundamental universal laws rather than those of a particular language, undermining the perception that language is simply a reflection of a given ethnic cosmology. For him what makes translation possible between languages is the universality of their underlying logical structures, observing, "unless different languages share basically the same logic, it would be impossible to translate one into another" (Oruka, Trends, 1990, pp. 149–148). More research on the general laws of African languages has been conducted by theoretical linguists, some of whom have used Noam Chomsky's (b. 1928) notions of transformational generative grammar and universal language as well as H. P. Grice's pragmatics to study African languages. While this research represents a serious advance on the early studies of African languages, especially in its examination of the general laws of meaning in the languages, its theoretical categories are borrowed from Western linguistics without much concern with the underlying compatibility between African culture and Western knowledge. This lack of concern exhibits the universalism of the rationalist school of African philosophy. Literary and cultural critics such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o (b. 1938), as shall be discussed later, are much more sensitive to the ethnocentricity of what passes off as objective universal philosophical categories and consequently emphasize the political character of language and its use.

The classic problem of appearance and reality has also been examined in African philosophy. Wiredu, for instance, locates it within a commonsense view that is modulated by his dual subject position within the Western philosophical tradition and the contemporary African experience, which is a hybrid of traditional African cosmology, such as the Akan worldview, and Western modernity. From this perspective, in the debate between, on the one hand, the idealists such as George Berkeley (1685–1753) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) who believe that reality is a function of perception, and, on the other, the empiricists or phenomenalists, such as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), who believe that there is a reality that is independent of perception, Wiredu steers a middle course, formulated as "to be is to be apprehended," rather than "to be perceived," as Berkeley had asserted. Wiredu contends "it is the existence of an object not the object itself that consists in being known" (p. 132). He sees his reformulation of the old problem of the argument from illusion as restoring the "cognitive relation to [the perceiver's] relation to reality." That is what underpins Wiredu's theory of knowledge, summarized as "truth is nothing but Opinion" (p. 123). Oruka has criticized its implicit relativism, proposing instead the restatement "Truth is nothing but belief" (Trends, 1990). Nevertheless, according to Wiredu, the principal strength of his theory is that it enables the grounding of the validity of African philosophy in philosophical logic rather than the politics of identity and anti-imperialism, since African philosophical opinion is now a matter of a general law of perception and epistemology.

What is equally noticeable is the proximity of Wiredu's view to the idea that "Existence precedes essence" propounded by existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). Ironically, this also brings Wiredu to the more radical view of African philosophy advanced by the younger generation of African philosophers, especially those of the Marxist-existentialist persuasion who regard the study of "being in the world," the contingent African contemporary world, as the primary object of African philosophical practice. As Tsenay Serequeberhan argues, "African philosophy is a historically engaged and politically committed explorative reflection on the African situation aimed at the political empowerment of the African people" (1990, p. xxi). Here, African reality is transformed into a politicized space, whereby the concerns of philosophy are not only the pursuit of abstract truth, but also the transformation of that reality. African philosophers, as much as literary and cultural critics, have been profoundly influenced by Karl Marx's (1818–1883) view that philosophers have hitherto merely interpreted the world, but the aim must be to change it.

This strand of philosophy is part of a broad Marxist approach to African culture, history, politics, and literature. Its presence within African philosophy has enabled the discipline to extend its object of analysis to the work of politicians such as Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972), Amilcar Cabral (1924–1973), Sekou Toure (1922–1984), and Julius Nyerere (1922–1999); and of cultural and political theorists such as Franz Fanon (1925–1961), as well as that of African writers and artists.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Quantum electronics to ReasoningAfrica Realism - Realism In African Philosophy, Reality In African Aesthetics And Literary Criticism, Bibliography