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Sage Philosophy

Historical Origins

Conceived, defined, advanced, and defended by the late Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka (1944–1995), the idea of sage philosophy has its historical origins in two separate but related colonial factors: first, the general disparaging colonial attitude that Africans were incapable of abstract thinking; and second, a vicious rivalry between different European religious denominations for control over Africans' minds and souls. On the one hand was a Protestant skepticism about Africans' capacity to philosophize, and on the other was the guarded Catholic belief, formed out of long years of training young Africans in ecclesiastic philosophy as part of their priestly education, that Africans could grasp some philosophy if it was appropriately tailored to have some resonance with their indigenous worldviews. Needless to say, Africans pursuing the study of philosophy as a secular and purely academic goal were rare in the colonial education system.

At the University of Nairobi, the Department of Religion and Philosophy (founded in 1970) was headed by Stephen Niell, an ultraconservative retired Anglican bishop. His deputy was Joseph Donders, a younger Catholic priest who doubled as a professor of philosophy at a local National Seminary. Convinced that Africans were not gifted for abstract or logical thinking, Niell had reluctantly offered Oruka employment as a special assistant, to ensure Oruka did not get a regular appointment despite his possession of a doctoral degree in philosophy from the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Specifically, Niell instructed Donders not to assign Oruka any logic classes—as Africans had no idea what that was, let alone being able to explain or teach it.

By the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, anglophone Africa was still basking in the positive reception of John Mbiti's African Religions and Philosophy (1969) and of the slightly older translations of Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmêli (1965) and Placide Tempels's Bantu Philosophy (1959). But as much as they were popular for a variety of reasons, these texts also clearly stated just what people like Niell would have liked to hear and to show in support of their skepticism regarding Africans' tuning to academic philosophy: that African modes of thought were deeply grounded in their mythical representations of reality. With this background, Oruka's project, simultaneously personal and professional, was defined—to erase the two levels of myth surrounding and possibly even blocking the practice and growth of African philosophy. One level was established by the previously mentioned texts, by virtue of leaving many complex African myths and other representational forms unexamined and unexplained but presenting them intact as philosophical knowledge. The other, made possible by the first and created by people like Niell and their followers (both local and otherwise), was that Africans could not think philosophically.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Revaluation of values: to Sarin Gas - History And Global Production Of SarinSage Philosophy - Historical Origins, Relation Between Sage Philosophy And Popular Myths, Conclusion, Bibliography