The Concept of African Philosophies and Africanisms

The Concept of African Philosophies and Africanisms

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The aim of this work is to debunk the question looming at the horizon is „Is there an African philosophy? ‟, the answer is, „Yes, there is an African philosophy‟. It is an established fact. However, granted that philosophy is philosophy everywhere, there are important areas that have to grapple with the problem of society.

Like every other rational group of people in the world, Africans have a philosophy which tries to explain reality from an African perspective. It arises from the special problem and unique experience of the African people.


African philosophy is the philosophical discourse produced by indigenous Africans and their descendants, including African Americans. African philosophers may be found in the various academic fields of philosophy, such as metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy, and political philosophy. One particular subject that many African philosophers have written about is that on the subject of freedom and what it means to be free or to experience wholeness.

Philosophy in Africa has a rich and varied history, some of which has been lost over time. One of the earliest known African philosophers was Ptahhotep, an ancient Egyptian philosopher. In the early and mid-twentieth century, anti-colonial movements had a tremendous effect on the development of a distinct African political philosophy that had resonance on both the continent and in the African Diaspora.

One well-known example of the economic philosophical works emerging from this period was the African socialist philosophy of Ujamaa propounded in Tanzania and other parts of Southeast Africa. These African political and economic philosophical developments also had a notable impact on the anti-colonial movements of many non-African peoples around the world.

For the past three decades or so African philosophy has been much occupied with a concern for authenticity. We are talking here of authenticity in a commonsensical rather than a technical philosophical sense. The reference is to the idea of being true to oneself in a given sphere of activity.

The underlying question has been “When is a philosophy authentically African?” Even though this question has been a real motivating force, it has often been only implicit. Worse, it has sometimes been confused with the question whether there is such a thing as African philosophy in African traditional culture.

The affirmative answer to this later question is so obvious as to put the wisdom of any African who poses it into question. The same is not true, however, of the question whether a piece of work by a contemporary African philosopher qualifies as an instance of African philosophy

The Concept of African Philosophies and Africanisms

Africana philosophy is the work of philosophers of African descent and others whose work deals with the subject matter of the African diaspora. This is a relatively new (since the 1980s) and developing name given to African thought, and it is given credible attention by professional organizations, including the American Philosophical Association.

Africana philosophy includes the philosophical ideas, arguments and theories of particular concern to people of African descent. Some of the topics explored by Africana philosophy include: pre-Socratic African philosophy and modern day debates discussing the early history of Western philosophy, post-colonial writing in Africa and the Americas, black resistance to oppression, black existentialism in the United States, and the meaning of “blackness” in the modern world.

There is some debate in defining the ethnophilosophical parameters of African philosophy and identifying what differentiates it from other philosophical traditions. One of the implicit assumptions of ethnophilosophy is that a specific culture can have a philosophy that is not applicable and accessible to all peoples and cultures in the world.

In A Discourse on African Philosophy: A New Perspective on Ubuntu and Transitional Justice in South Africa, Christian B. N. Gade argues that the ethnophilosophical approach to African philosophy as a static group property is highly problematic. His research on ubuntu presents an alternative collective discourse on African philosophy that takes differences, historical developments, and social contexts seriously.

According to Edwin Etieyibo and Jonathon O. Chimakonam in their article “African Philosophy: Past, Present, and Future”, historical context plays an important role in African philosophy. History provides the framework in which we can inspect philosophical problems. In terms of African philosophy, one must look at the whole picture through the lens of African history.  “There are no facts without history.”


African philosophy can be formally defined as a critical thinking by Africans on their experiences of reality. Nigerian born Philosopher K.C. Anyanwu defined African philosophy as “that which concerns itself with the way in which African people of the past and present make sense of their destiny and of the world in which they live.

Nigerian philosopher Joseph I. Omoregbe broadly defines a philosopher as one who attempts to understand the world’s phenomena, the purpose of human existence, the nature of the world, and the place of human beings in that world.

This form of natural philosophy is identifiable in Africa even before individual African philosophers can be distinguished in the sources. Like Western philosophy, African philosophy contemplates the perceptions of time, personhood, space and other subjects.


The concept of Authenticity has remained a reoccurring term or concept in the field of philosophy. The importance of this concept in philosophical history cannot be overemphasized as it is one of those that suggest pragmatism, given the erroneous conception of philosophy as one filled with theories, however Authenticity suggests pragmatism-it is action oriented.

For example, Socrates‟s dictums, such as, “Unexamined life is not worth living,” or “Know yourself,” can be seen as his attempts to investigate the self as an entity by subjecting it to scrutiny and in the end to lead others to the discovery of the authentic self and way of life. Kierkegaard examined the loss of the genuine self in the mass, in society, and tried to present the process of recovering the authentic self within a theistic context.

Other existential thinkers such as Sartre, Nietzsche, Paschal, Heidegger and karl Jasper equally discussed the issue of authenticity and developed various ways to deal with the issue.

The German term eigentlich (authentic) contains the element of Eigen (“one’s own”). Authenticity, thus, includes the element of “one’s own unique self.”

Accordingly, recovery of authenticity implies the recovery of one’s own unique identity. This particular concept is of paramount importance to our work. When existential thinkers speak of authenticity, they often include this element and contrast the unique self against the concept of mass, in which the individual is no more than just a number.

Existential philosophers build the element of authenticity into their own philosophical thought and configure it according to central themes of their works.

Accordingly, the way each philosopher deal with authenticity is different and expositions of their views of authenticity are not straightforward. Our concept use of the term authenticity boarders around Kierkegaard, though not limited to him.


Africa provides the locus or locale for doing the philosophy called African. It is in this regard that the analysis of the concept Africa is of great importance. Achen (1913) argues that the origin of the concept Africa depicts its geographical setting.

Africa is of Phoenician origin and it was first used by the Romans to refer to the territory about the city of Carthage. However, Ki-zerbo (1981) states that Africa is used to denote the land of sunshine, of black race and mostly refers to the subSaharan regions of Negroes.

Its etymology can be traced to the Latin adjective “aprica”, which means sunny. This notwithstanding, in this piece, the idea of Africa encompasses the territory about the city of Cartage and the sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa is the second largest of the Earth‟s seven continents, covering 30,244,000 sq km (11,677,000 sq mi), including its adjacent islands with 54 countries. Robert (2003) observes that it encompasses 23 percent of the world‟s total land area.

In 2000 some 13 percent of the world’s population, an estimated 797 million people, lived in Africa, making it the world‟s second most populous continent, after Asia. Knappert and Pearson (1976), state that its peoples are divided into more than 1,000 ethnic groups, with different languages, social customs, religions and way of life. Onyeocha (1997), articulated the geo-numerical identity of Africa thus,

 Africa is the world second largest continent. It covers an area of 11, 617, 000 square miles. It is three times the size of Europe (10, 400, 000 square kilometres and 4,000, 000 square miles) and contains about four hundred million inhabitants.

Africa is divided into twenty five major ethnic groups speaking about seven hundred languages. It contains within it every known type of topography and climatic condition, except the Arctic cold. There are in the North the Sahara, and in the South the Kalahari Desert, with permanent snow in the Kilmanjaro.

Also found in Africa are jungle areas, temperate zones, swamps and Savannah. Finally, some of the highest falls and longest rivers in the world- the Nile, Niger, Zaire (now Congo), and Zambesi rives- are also found in Africa. (p. 16).

 From the geo-numerical designation of Africa, one can point to a place, or even on a map and say that this is Africa. With this, one can call someone from this area an African. However, Njoku (2002) argues that the question of who is an African goes beyond mere geographical location or designation.

This is because, there are so many people in the African continent who are not Africans, as there are many people from African in Diaspora who do not accept that they are Africans. As such, a single characteristic such as colour, ancestry or geography does not settle the question of who or what is an African? Be that as it may, it does provide an insight into what or who an African is, but still makes difficult the question of which ideas are to be regarded as African philosophy.


The authenticity of African Philosophy was an attempt, among so many other attempts, to reaffirm our heritage and personality collapsing before Western bias. Africans wanted to accept and define their responsibility to assess the riches and promise of their culture and also to open dialogue with the West.

As part of the process of self-affirmation and identification, a college of intellectuals created images to project the African identity. And a cursory glance at the thought system of Africans, reveal that they can and do have a philosophy. According to Uduigwomen (1995), the debate or controversy on whether or not there is an African philosophy is dead and buried. At best, it is only as a matter of historical interest that it is considered.

This is obvious, taking from the fact that the subject „African philosophy‟ is presently being taught either as a self-subsisting course or part of comparative philosophy in many African universities, and even overseas. A number of thesis and articles have been written on this subject by a retinue of both graduate and post-graduate students, conferences are organized all over the world on African philosophy, having their inspiration sparked off by scholars who stand at the base of the history of African Philosophy.

Makumba (2007) argues that if one were to look closely at the generally acceptable definitions of philosophy, even the purely etymological one as love of wisdom, it is very clear that philosophy is an all-inclusive enterprise. It is not cultural or time bound. Philosophy rather targets and points to the human person as a rational entity. As a universal experience, it is not limited to whites or blacks. What may be called into question is the level of systematized thoughts, which certainly cannot be the same everywhere.

Thus, Temples (1959) avers, “Anyone who claims that primitive people possess no system of thought, excludes them thereby from the category of men” (p. 21). Parrinder (1969), ten years after Temples resonates the same thought: “To say that African peoples have no system of thought is, explicit or assumed, would be to deny their humanity” (p. 25).

Concurring with the above views, Makumba (2007), says that, “a consistent and unitary philosophical anthropology cannot downplay the place of rationality in the definition of the human person” (p. 29). If Africans are agreed to be human persons of a rational nature, it follows that they do and are capable of doing philosophy. The perspective of Gyekye (1995) is worth quoting at this juncture: The denial of the philosophical component of African thought cannot really be accepted.

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The reason is that philosophy, as an intellectual activity, is universal; it cannot be assumed to be confined to the peoples of the West and the East. Philosophy of some kind is involved in the thought and action of every people and constitutes the intellectual sheet anchor of their life in its totality… we cannot but philosophize, that is, pose fundamental questions, and reflect on fundamental aspects of human life, conduct and experience.

 In other words, although the people of the world live in different cultural environments, there is nevertheless a common ground of shared human experiences, and hence there certainly are some basic questions relating to their existence on this planet that might commonly be asked by them, questions that are bound to exercise their minds as humans. Such questions, I believe, may be universal, transcending, cultural and historical frontiers, even though the philosophical doctrines and propositions put forward in answer to them may in fact be very dissimilar and divergent (p. 9).

The universality and authenticity  of philosophy is evident in the presence of philosophical thought diversely but universally named as Akan philosophy, Kikuyu philosophy, Igbo philosophy, Yoruba philosophy, bantu philosophy, Mende philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Japanese philosophy, Indian philosophy, oriental/Eastern philosophy, Western philosophy. While the idea of philosophy attached to it speaks of its universality, while the other speaks of its diversity and contextuality which makes it substantive. Thus African philosophy is universally substantive.


If philosophy is a universal enterprise, what then makes a philosophy African? What makes philosophy African is its „africanity‟. Every culture makes a contribution from its house of experience to the universal themes of philosophy, and this makes philosophy relevant to the reality of life.

Each culture traces the unity of these themes, synthesizes and organizes them into a totality, based on each culture’s concept of life, namely, the relationships between objects and persons and between persons and person themselves. However, much this may sound repulsive, this cultural contribution to philosophizing is what particularizes philosophy as European, Indian, Chinese or African.

The „africanness‟ of African philosophy speaks of the sitz en leben or the Locale within which the philosophy is done. This provides the ingredients that defines it as African, while the „philosophinness‟ of African philosophy speaks of the rational human person involved in the process or enterprise of doing philosophy. This „africanness‟ and „philosophinness‟ speaks of its particularity and universality which are basic ingredients in the philosophical process

In the contention of Makumba (2007), in defining the „africanness‟ and „philosophinness‟ of African philosophy, the culture of the African people and the person doing the philosophy are very important and indispensable elements. When we speak of the culture of the African people, it means that African Philosophy must speak to African problems and situations.

Secondly, the person doing the philosophy must either come from Africa, or an African living in Diaspora or someone not coming from Africa but living in Africa and involved in the life of the African people. Such a person can meaningfully and authentically contribute to the development of African thought. It is in this regard that Osuagwu (1999) speaks of Africans by association, law, enterprise and relevance.


African culture must retain its fundamental ethos while positively interacting with the surrounding economic, social and political landscape each generation finds itself in. The traditions must first be understood in order to be successfully modified to the prevailing challenges of each generation. So as much as cultures are not static there is a moral or ethical thread that must always be preserved.

Cultures cannot change so much that they become useless in preserving and reflecting a rich African heritage in which the sanctity of life is central. And within Pan-Africanism the opportunities are plenty for the best applicable traditions to be practiced, absorbed and continued. And who are better to govern that beautiful cultural journey, than African people?


Jonathon O. Chimakonam (1999). Virtues of Authenticity Essays on Plato and Socrates, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Osuagwu (1999)  African Christian Morality at the Age of Inculturation. Narobi: St Paul.

Makumba (2007). What is Authenticity in Discourse Studies, Switzerland: Princetonvil

Uduigwomen M. (1995). The concept of Morality in African Tradition, Michigan: Grand Rapids Eardans

Gyekye, K. (1998). Person and Community in African thought , South Africa: Halfway House International

Thompson Publishing.

Mr. Harrison

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