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African Philosophies

The Islamic Past, The Beginning Of A Discipline, Major Themes, The Controversy About The Meaning Of Philosophy

Ancient Egypt has been offered as a point of origin of African metaphysical speculation. According to the work of Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop, Egypt is to Africa what the Greco-Latin civilization is to the West, and texts such as The Book of the Dead, written more than 3,500 years ago, could play the role of a founding text for a tradition of philosophical thinking on the African continent. Most of Diop's work has been devoted to demonstrating that the history of ancient Egypt cannot be separated from the history of the rest of the continent. The cosmogony of the Dogon people, for example, described by the sage Ogotemmēli and recorded by French ethnologist Marcel Griaule, is a testimony to the cultural and metaphysical continuity existing between the ancient Egyptians and the people living in the region of the Niger River's loop. Thus, the philosophy behind the practice of male and female circumcision is similar to what is found in ancient Egypt: that is, human beings have inherited from their divine origin an androgynous nature; at puberty, therefore, the right ontological order of things commands that the sexes be radically separated through circumcision and excision. Another important element of continuity is to be found in African languages, which, Diop claims, need to be studied in relation to the Egyptian language. In support of this, he presents in much of his work Egyptian philosophical concepts that survived in his native Wolof. Subsequently, Diop's disciple Theophile Obenga has emphasized the continuous presence in African tongues and cultures of the notion of maat, which is central in Egyptian philosophy and means "reality," "truth," "justice," "righteousness," "evenness," or "perfection." In Coptic and in other African languages spoken in Ethiopia, Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Sudan, or Nigeria, recognizable derivatives from maat are indications of the permanence of this philosophical concept in the peoples' worldview as the expression of an African ideal of harmony in society. African philosophy could be characterized as a philosophy of maat.

Diop's views have provoked heated ideological debate, Egyptology being premised on the notion that ancient Egypt belongs to Asia rather than to the African continent, where it is and was situated. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), in particular, insisted that Egypt and North Africa be culturally detached from Africa, the purpose being to erase any indication that what he called "Africa proper" could produce civilization, let alone philosophy, which for him uniquely represented the spirit of Europe.

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