African Philosophy as a Universal Venture



  1. Introduction
  2. Kwasi Wirendu
  3. Paulin Hountondji
  4. Odera Oruka’s Sage Philosophy
  5. Endnotes

1. Introduction

We have noted the ethno-philosophical bent in the views of some African philosophers. For them philosophy is cultural because it takes off from the values of African tradition. There are however, some who generally conceive philosophy in universalist terms Kwasi Wirendu, Paulin Hountondji and Henry Odera Oruka are representatives of some others who opt for the stand that philosophy is universal. Although there are certain features that pitch them differently, all of them are of the view that philosophy does neither depend on culture nor is its iniquity conditioned by geographical application.

2. Kwasi Wirendu

Wirendu is from Ghana; a professor of philosophy whose most famous Work is Philosophy and African Culture. For Wirendu, truth, is not black or white: so there are no African truths; there are some truths about Africa:

It is of importance to try to understand how each mode of thought, and especially the traditional, functions in the total context of its society. Since African societies are among the closest approximations in the modern world to societies in the pre-scientific state of development, the interest which anthropologists have shown in African thought is largely understandable. However, instead of seeing the basic non-scientific characteristics of African traditional thought as typifying traditional thought in general, Western anthropologists and others besides have mistakenly tended to take them as defining a peculiar African way of thinking, with unfortunate effects.1
It must be remembered that Wirendu’s major work is a collection of essays titled Philosophy and an African Culture; in which he insists that we can reconstruct African traditions to unearth the philosophical thinking behind them.

What Wirendu refers to as ‘unfortunate effects’ are the anachronistic characteristics which are seen in the habit of holding on to values that have become outmoded. People cling to them, not because these values and habits are effective in solving problems in the changing world, but rather because things have been this way. In the face of modernity, traditional thinking strives to remould the present in the image of the past, stifling social growth. So there is no need for Senghor’s compartmentalization of intellectual structure in which he assigns reason and logic to the West, and emotion and intuition to Africans. The African has no exclusive claim to emotion any more than the European’s claim to logic, Africa should take its position alongside others. Here is one of Wirendu’s declaration:

It should be noted, conversely, that the principle of national evidence is not entirely absent from the thinking of the traditional African. Indeed, no society could survive for any length of time without basing a large part of its daily activities on beliefs derived from the evidence. You cannot farm without some rationally based knowledge of the soils, seeds and climate; and no society can achieve any reasonable degree of harmony in human relations without the basic ability to assess claims and allegations by the method of objective investigating. The truth then is that rational knowledge is not the preserve of the modern West, nor is superstition a peculiarity of the African.2
Philosophy does not lose its universality by the sheer fact that Africans engage in it. African philosophical questions can arise out of their particular experience in their culture; but such questions do not arise out of a predetermined, pre-scientific mentality. Thus we should insist that “philosophical thinking is exemplified not in the mere recording of traditions and cultures, “but in the reconstruction of contemporary Africa culture as it has been influenced by Christian and Islamic customs and ideas.”3 Certainly, Wirendu would endorse Kwame Nkrumah, who first made the point in his Philosophical Consciencism.

Both Nyerere and Nkrumah sought to work out a synthesis in the syncretic elements woven into the African culture because of Christian and Islamic elements.
However, Wirendu falls prey to a syncretistic borrowing from his Akan culture, as evidenced from these lines:

African philosophers are active today, trying (in some cases, at any rate) to achieve a synthesis of the philosophical insights of their ancestors with whatever they can extract of philosophical worth from the intellectual resources of the modern world. In truths, this is only one of their tasks, they are also reflecting on their languages and cultures in an effort to exploit their philosophical intimations. Besides all these, they are trying to grapple with some questions in such areas as logic, epistemology, and philosophy of science, which were not raised in their traditional culture . . . . It is in this way, and I think only in this way, that a tradition of modern philosophy can blossom in Africa.4

The point is that elements of Wirendu’s Akan culture constitute a platform for a “discussion of universal theories such as human communications, religion, custom and morality, language, truth, and human rights.”5 So university of approach discusses questions arising from the culture without being conditioned by such questions in its understanding of the methodology and mission or definition of philosophy.

Wirendu has pointed out how not to compare African thought with Western thought. He is convinced that non-scientificity characterizes traditional thought in general. Western anthropologists and some armchair writers have not paid attention to this fact. Hence it is unfair to make anthropological and cultural comparisons that claim that pre-scientific stage of intellectual development, which all traditional cultures passed, specifically characterize African societies. It is in this regard that Wirendu writes: “Unfortunately instead of seeing the basic non-scientific characteristics of African traditional thought as typifying traditional thought in general, western anthropologists and others besides have tended to take them as defining a peculiarly African way of thinking.”6 Traditional cultures have always appealed to cosmological categories, in terms of activities of the gods and kindred spirits in explaining their world views. If one then were to compare, it should be traditional African thought compared with traditional western thought. Unfortunately, the comparison has not taken this dimension,

What has generally happened is that not only the genuine distinguishing features of African traditional thought but also its basic non-scientific, spiritistic, tendencies have been taken as a basis for contrasting Africans from western peoples. One consequence is that many westerners have gone about with an exaggerated notion of the differences in nature between Africans and the peoples of the west. I do not imply that this has necessarily led to anti-African racism. Nevertheless, since in some obvious and important respects, traditional thought is inferior to modern science-oriented thought, some western liberals have apparently had to think hard in order to protect themselves against conception of the intellectual inferiority of Africans as a people.7

In any case, Africans should identity and discard those backward aspects of their culture and keep those aspects that are worth keeping: Africa cannot stop at the first levels of development which every culture passed. Primitive and conventional mentality and superstition are not prerogatives of Africans any more is scientific thinking or rational evidence a peculiarity of West. Wirendu adds:
Nevertheless, it is a fact that Africa lags behind the west in the cultivation of rational inquiry. One illuminating (because fundamental) was of approaching the concept of ‘development’ is to measure it by the degree to which rational methods have penetrated thought habits. In this sense, of course, one cannot compare the development of peoples in absolute terms. The western world is ‘developed,’ but only an aspect, and that is not the core, of development. The conquest of the religious, moral and political spheres by the spirit of rational inquiry remains, . . . a thing of the future even in the west. From this point of view the west may be said to be still underdeveloped. The quest for development, then, should be viewed as a continuing world-historical process in which all peoples, western and non-western alike, are engaged.8

To be described as developed, Africans need not unthinkingly jettison their own heritage of thought in the pursuit of western ways of life. The understanding of development in the sense of solely modernization is restrictive. Development against the backdrop of modernization should be seen as “one in which Africans in common with other peoples seek to attain a specifically human destiny.9 But development is not totally reducible to modernization -- “the application of the results of modern science for the improvement of the condition of human life.” This is only one visible side of development. Human perspective on development is wider. Wirendu insists that:

Man should link the modernization of the conditions of his life with the modernization of all aspects of his thinking. It is just the failure to do this that is responsible for the more unlovable features of life in the West. Moreover, the same failure bedevils attempts at development in Africa. Rulers and leaders of opinion in Africa have tended to think of development in terms of the visible aspects of modernization – in terms of large buildings and complex machines, to the relative neglect of the more intellectual foundations of modernity. It is true that African nations spend every year huge sums of money on institutional education. But it has not been appreciated that education ought to lead to the cultivation of a rational outlook on the world on the part of the educated and, through them, in the traditional fold at large. Thus it is that even while calling for modernization, influential Africans can still be seen to encourage superstitious practices such as the pouring of libation to spirits in the belief that in this kind of way they can achieve development without losing their Africanness. The second advantage of seeing development in this way suggested above is that the futility of any such approach becomes evident. To develop in any serious sense, we in Africa must break with our old uncritical habits of thought; that is we must advance past the stage of traditional thinking.10

To relegate African philosophy to traditional thought, according to Wirendu, gives the impression that modern Africans have not been trying, or worse still, ought not to try to philosophize in a manner that takes account of the present day development in various aspects of human knowledge. Wirendu recognizes the handicap of an African philosopher writing today: unlike his counterpart in Europe or India, he has no tradition of written philosophy in his continent. The African philosopher has a folk philosophy, which is only one level of philosophy, for Wirendu underlines three levels of philosophy: folk philosophy, a written traditional philosophy and a modern philosophy:

Where long-standing written sources are available folk philosophy tends not to be made much of. It remains in the background as a sort of diffused, immanent, component of a community thought habits whose effects on the thinking of the working philosopher is largely unconscious. Such a fund of community thought is not the creation of any specifiable set of philosophers: it is the common property of all and sundry, thinker and non thinker alike, and it is called a Philosophy at all only by a quite liberal acceptance of the term. Folk thought, as a rule, consists of bald assertions without argumentative justification, but philosophy in the narrower sense must contain not just these. Without argumentation and clarification, there is, strictly speaking, no philosophy.11
The bad news for the African philosopher writing today is that he has not written traditional philosophy, and this vacuum is wrongly misjudged by anthropologists who elevate folk world views and compare it, unfortunately, at the same level with continental written philosophy. Hence Wirendu rather insists that,

African traditional thought should in the first place only be compared with western folk thought. For this purpose, of course, western anthropologists will first have to learn in detail about the folk thought of their own peoples. African folk thought may be compared with western philosophy only in the same spirit in which western folk thought may be compared also with philosophy, that is, only in order to find out the marks which distinguish folk thought in general from individualized philosophizing. Then, if there be any who are anxious to compare African philosophy with western philosophy, they will have to look at the philosophy that Africans are producing today.12
There is no doubt that some problems hang around African philosophers. For example, they are largely trained in western philosophy, hence some end up presenting. African realities in western conceptual schemes, that is, in the tradition of erstwhile colonial oppressors. Why this persistent handicap of the African?

Wirendu answers:

The African philosopher has no choice but to conduct his philosophical inquiries in relation to the philosophical writings of other peoples, for his own ancestors left him no heritage of philosophical writings. He need not – to be sure, he must – restrict himself to the philosophical works of his particular colonial oppressors, but he must of necessity study the written philosophies of other lands, because it would be extremely injudicious for him to try to philosophize in self-imposed isolation from all modern currents of thought, not to talk of longer standing nourishment for the mind. In the ideal, he must acquaint himself with the philosophies of all the peoples of the world, compare, contrast, critically assess them and make use of whatever of value he may find in them.13
In other words, the African philosopher has other sources besides the impoverished legacy left him by his own ancestors.

3. Paulin Hountondji

Paulin Hountondji was born in Abidjan (Ivory Coast)in 1942. He attended his elementary, primary and secondary school at Dahomey – the present day Benin. He also studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Rue d’Ulm, Paris. Till date, Hountondji teaches philosophy at the University of Benin.
Hountondji is one of the fiercest critics of ethno-philosophy. He accuses ethno-philosophers of perpetrating a colonial neo-colonial thinking that continues to brand Africa as a vast continent of primitive clan societies and peoples. Hountondji concurs with the view that philosophy has a universal method, and that what makes African philosophy is not that it is about some unique truth, concepts or problems but it exists as a “literature produced by Africans and dealing with philosophical problems.”14 Just as we cannot meaningfully talk about African science or technology, so also we cannot talk about African philosophy. Ethno-philosophy, according to Hountondji, is a discourse carried in Western categories, which claims a uniqueness in reaction and relation to Europe. It is a product of a reactionary stimuli: the more it attempts to say how it is different, the more it established it inferiority complex. For Hountondji, therefore, there are no truths or philosophical issues that are termed specifically African, community held beliefs cannot be taken as philosophy. But what position shall we adopt towards a common African heritage?

Here is Houtondji’s response:

The problem, therefore, as regards our attitude towards our collective heritage is how to respond to the challenge of cultural imperialism without imprisoning ourselves in an imaginary dialogue with Europe, how to re-evaluate our cultures without enslaving ourselves to them, how to restore the dignity of our past without giving room to a passeistic attitude. Instead of blindly condemning our traditions on behalf of reason, or rejecting the later on behalf of the former, or making an absolute of the internal rationality of these traditions, it seems more reasonable to me to try and know our traditions as they were, beyond any mythology and distortion, not merely for the purpose of self-identification or justification, but in order to help us meet the challenges and problems of today.15
There is need to recover past traditions but they should not be paraded as philosophy: philosophy as championed by ethno-philosophers is, according to Hountondji , incapable of leading the crusade to meaningful African philosophy. He thinks that Ethno-philosophy falsifies African reality in interpreting texts that do not exist, and doing a science without an object. Hountondji convinced that ethno-philosophy spreads falsehood about the African mind and black consciousness because it posits all members they share legends, myths and proverbs. Philosophy therefore does not lie where ethno-philosophers are seeking. What then is Hountondji’s definition of philosophy? He writes:
If we now return to our question, namely, whether philosophy resides in the world-view described or in the description itself, we can now assert that if it resides in either, it must be the second, the description of that vision, even if this is, in fact a self-deluding invention that hides behind its own problems. African Philosophy does exist therefore, but in a new sense, as a literature produced by Africans and dealing with philosophical problems.16

He insists that African philosophy consists of the written literature by Africans: evidently Hountondji rules out oral traditions as source of African philosophy. He presupposes literacy in the doing of philosophy; therefore philosophical thought in his framework solely exhibits critical reflections. Imbo summarizes Hountondji thus:

For Hountondji, African philosophy is addressed to Africans. Even as ethno-philosophy served the purposes of Europe in its colonization of Africa, so should an African philosophy which is both critical and reconstructive serve the purposes of a contemporary Africa. The geographical origin of the writers and its audience for whom these writers write become essential points in defining African philosophy. Under this definition, the works of the ethno-philosophers and the negritude poets and philosophers must be excluded from consideration as African philosophy because their audience was the European public. By the same token, literature by Africans that is not even directly engaged in ‘African philosophy’ counts as African despite its content.17

All this is understood against the conviction of Hountondji that philosophy should bescientific; science is known for its objectivity and neutrality. But the point of accommodation remains addressed to Hountondji that he “does not seem to sufficiently appreciate a point made in much contemporary feminine writing about how oppressive this unselfconscious adoption of a supposedly objective scientific perspective may be”18 Furthermore, Hountondji’s paradigin for defining philosophy is European.

4. Odera Oruka’s Sage Philosophy

Henry Odera Oruka is of Kenyan origin. He undertook to research in 1974 on the nature of African philosophy. It was a research project in Kenya he captioned. “Thoughts of Traditional Kenyan Sages.’ His aim was to identify individuals of traditional Kenyan origin who are wise in the philosophical didactic sense, so that he could be able to write their thoughts down. Then he would use their thought as proof that there is a genuine African philosophy in the technical sense. In this way, scholars will be able to put in perspective the charge leveled against ethno-philosophers that they are masquerading African folklores as African philosophy.

In general, Oruka’s research has come to be called ‘sage philosophy.’ Sage philosophy is a horizon of insight and judgment belonging to community as a whole, in its understanding of life as represented by some persons within the group. According to Oruka, sagacity of sage philosophy is the thought of wise men and women within the group or community: thus,
It is a way of thinking and explaining the world that fluctuates between popular wisdom (well-known communal maxims, aphorisms and general common sense truths) and didactic wisdom (an expounded wisdom and rational thought of some given individuals within the community). While popular wisdom is often conformist, didactic wisdom is at times critical of the communal set up and popular wisdom.19

As F. Ochieng-Odhiambo writes, “Sagacity consists of thoughts having or showing insights and good judgment. It is therefore thoughts of persons acknowledged as wise by their respective communities. In another sense, sagacity is a body of basic principles and tenets that underlie and justify the beliefs, customs and practices of a given culture.”20

Saga philosophy is a horizon of insights and good judgment. Such good judgment can be expressed in two ways: popular or folk sagacity and philosophic sagacity. Where popular sagacity consists in popular maxims, philosophic finds expression in the expounded wisdom and rational thought of some given individuals in the community. It is the sphere of “critical independent thinkers who guide their thought and judgment by the power of reason and inborn insight Rather than by the authority of communal consensus.”21 The point is that a sage person, as F. Ochieng-Odhiambo comments, is well versed in the wisdom and traditions of his community. He reflects the wisdom and traditions of the community: but a philosophic sage goes beyond folk or mere sagacity. His stand before the inherited beliefs and wisdom of his people is that of a critical reflective attitude. He is not a mere reporter of the traditions but a critical participant, a thinker.


  1. Kwasi Wirendu, Philosophy and an African Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980) 39
  2. Kwasi Wirendu, Philosophy and an African Culture, 42-43
  3. Samuel Oluchi Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy (Maryland: Rowman & Little field Publishers, Inc, 1998), 81., 20
  4. Kwasi Wirendu, ‘On Defining African Philosophy,’ in African Philosophy: The Essential Readings, ed Tsenay Serequeberhan (New York: Paragon House, 1991), 118-119
  5. Samuel Oluchi Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy, 21
  6. Kwasi Wirendu, ‘How Not to Compare African Thought with Western Thought’ in African Philosophy: An Anthology, ed Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, 193
  7. Kwasi Wirendu, ‘How Not to Compare African Thought with Western Thought’, 194
  8. Kwasi Wirendu, ‘How Not to Compare African Thought with Western Thought’, 195
  9. Kwasi Wirendu, ‘How Not to Compare African Thought with Western Thought’, 195
  10. Kwasi Wirendu, ‘How Not to Compare African Thought with Western Thought’, 195 – 196
  11. Kwasi Wirendu, ‘How Not to Compare African Thought with Western Thought’, 197
  12. Kwasi Wirendu, ‘How Not to Compare African Thought with Western Thought’, 197
  13. Kwasi Wirendu, ‘How Not to Compare African Thought with Western Thought’, 198
  14. Paul J. Hountondji, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, 2d. (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), 63
  15. Paul J. Hountondji, ‘Reason and Tradition.’ In Philosophy and Cultures: Proceedings of the Second Afro-Asian Philosophy Conference, Nairobi, October/November, 1981. Ed H. Odera Oruka and D. A. Masola (NairobiBookwise, 1983), 135 -137
  16. Paul Hountondji, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality(Indianapolis Indiana University Press, 1983), 63. See also Paul Hountondji, ‘African Philosophy: Myth and Reality,’ in African Philosophy. The Essential Readings, ed Tsenay Serequeberhan(New York : Paragon House, 1991), 120
  17. Samuel Oluchi Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy, 24.
  18. Samuel Oluchi Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy, 24
  19. H. Odera Oruka, ‘Sage Philosophy: The Questions of Methodology’ in Sage Philosophy ed. H. Odera Oruka (Nairobi: African Centre for Technology Studies Press, 1991), 33
  20. F. Ochieng-Odhiambo, African Philosophy: An Introduction 2d. (Nairobi: Consolata Institute of Philosophy Press, 1997), 98
  21. H. Odera Oruka, ‘Four Trends in Current African Philosophy’ in Alwin Deimer, ed. Philosophy in the Present Situation of Africa (Wiesbuden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1978), 3-4

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