Dialogics and Contemporary African Philosophy

Ike Odimegwu


  1. Introduction
  2. Dialogics
  3. Applied Dialogics
  4. Historical Dialogics
  5. Dialogics and Contemporary African philosophy
  6. Conclusion
  7. References

1. Introduction

The history of philosophy is itself a philosophy since the way a historian of philosophy presents his history of philosophy is a reflection of his own conception of philosophy. One’s attitude to history either as an uncoordinated and unrevealed collection of events or as an ordered journey towards a purposive end is both an effect and a cause of history and philosophy. The relation of concept and experience is realized in the dialogics of truth and being, of philosophy and history. In this study, we seek to understand history, the history of philosophy, and particularly, the history of African philosophy in contemporary times, as a dialogical process. This understanding requires an inquiry into the meaning of dialogues, and how it applies to human existence in time and space. The paper will be developed in these lines.

2. Dialogics

Dialogicsis a process of evolving a new meaning or reality pout of an existing one by means of rejoining and conjoining. It is both a method of understanding and a way of being. It is ontological in the sense that what is realized is being. It could be epistemological giving rise to a new meaning, bringing new knowledge into being by the open conjunctures of marriage.

Dialogics presents the essential unity of being of the one and the many. It manifests the necessary being of the one-in-the-many. It posits the morphogenetical relationship between the one and many. This is achieved through the consistency of being constituted by the logos. Interestingly, it is in this collecting that the original meaning of logos resides, whereby to reason would mean to bring together, to rejoin, and to hold together (Marias: 1958).

The method may be further understood by a comparative study of dialectics and dialogics. The two terms share a common origin in the root-words: dia and logos. Their differences – if there are any – result, therefore, not from their etymology but from their hermeneutics, from the meaning or interpretations of their roots or further from the attitudes to derivatives may have chosen and adopted.

As a method of philosophizing, dialectics progresses by division and selection, conflict and opposition while dialogics a process of communing comprehension adopting the attitude of involvement and integration. Dialectics adopts the disposition of exclusive inclusion or inclusive exclusion while the perennial orientation of dialogics is inclusive inclusion of all aspects of the matter or discourse. Furthermore, while dialectics progresses in three stages of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, dialogics progresses in four stages of thesis, enthesis, prothesis and synthesis. Dialogics, therefore, presents philosophy not as a dialectical game but as a dialogical involvement that operates by an integrating inter-inclusivity characterized by holistic openness to truth and being (Odimegwu: 2006).

3. Applied Dialogics

What we have described so far is foundational or ontological dialogics. The method has also been developed and applied in other ways and areas of study. In the usage of Mikhail Bakhtin in literary studies, “dialogics is the study of the way meaning is constructed out of the contending languages within any culture”. (Murray: 1987) In whatever area the term is applied, however, dialogics has some basic characteristics. It approaches life and meaning from the perspective and with the attitude of dialogue, that is, a communication and interaction of our current concerns; a conversion of our involvement with life and with the issues in discourse. The conversational character of dialogics makes it inevitably a social activity characterized by sharing. This sharing of meaning of social meaning, is also a sharing of selves and an emergence of solves for the merging of selves to achieve the characteristically fluid unity of being and meaning in social context.

Linda layne (2006) has aptly captured this aspect of dialogics in her study of the tribal and national identities in Jordan where she developed an alternative approach which demonstrates, contrary to the prevailing attitude, that the fluid social identities of Jordan emerge from an ongoing dialogue among tribes people, members of the intelligentsia, Hashemite rulers and western social scientists

4. Historical Dialogics

Historical dialogics refers to the application of dialogics in the understanding of history. In this regard, the four stages of the dialogics are realized as follows:
Thesis - Normal traditional situations;
Enthesis - Birth of new event;
Prothesis - Crisis of consciousness of being;
Synthesis - Questions, answers, resolutions;
Each stage is briefly described below:

Thesis: Normal Traditional Situation
This describes the first stage and starting point of the dialogical journey its principal characteristics are stability and resistance to change. The attitude of people or society in this stage is to act and live their lives according to existing norms. Tradition is perceived and quoted as a final unquestionable guide and law.

Enthesis: Birth of New Event
The second stage of the dialogics is marked by the issuing forth of a new and apparently strange event in the life of the people. It is the stepping out of history. The traditional life of the people, with its regularity and common place occurrences, witnesses, after a time, the occurrence of an event that is now, and whose novelty questions the untrammeled calm of the traditional situation. This new event could be internal, resulting from the natural inventiveness and ingenuity of the human person. Many a time, however, it results from the interaction of the culture of the people with a foreign culture. And even the dynamics of culture and the natural resourcefulness of nature could throw up realities that seem unconnected to the regular tradition of the society. The principal characteristic of this stage is novelty, strangeness or uniqueness. It engenders wonder and enthusiasm or apprehension and aversion in the people.

Prothensis: Crisis of Consciousness of Being
The human being is basically possessed of reflective consciousness of the self-containment, self-involvement and relatedness of being. The reflexivity of consciousness takes off from the unity of being which defines the identity or individuality of human personhood. Necessary for this consciousness also is the relatedness of being of the human being whose individuality is discovered and realized in his communality of existence. The reflexivity of consciousness which is further conceptualized as the capacity of the human person to effect the presence of being, maintains the unity and stability of being of the human person in the relation of individuality and communality.
The entry of a new event in the life of the human person or society vibrates this stable equilibrium. The consciousness of being off the person or the society experiences crisis. This stage is characterized by crisis and instability, feeling of insecurity and uncertainty.

Synthesis: Questions, Answers and Resolutions
Following the feeling of insecurity and uncertainty and varied reactions; some adopt the skeptical attitude and begin to doubt everything old and new. Some hold tenaciously and unquestioningly to the old traditions while some others sell-over completely to the new uncritically hankering after its every donation. In this whole scenario, however, the reflective consciousness seeks an understanding of the situation of itself and of its circumstance. The search goes in the form of questioning and the critical examination of all, beginning with itself. The questions flow: What is the old? Of what is the old? Of what value is the old? What is the new? What is it made of? What is the value of it? What is the relation between the old and the new? How is one to choose between the old and the new? What is the difference and what is the similarity between the two?

Beyond this level or category of questions that interrogate the situations and events, there are also the questions that concern the individual who questions. They are questions of self recovery in the midst of disintegrating influences and despoliating forces? What is happening to my stable life? What is this new phenomenon? And why is the old not holding out to sustain our lives as before? And what is the force in the new that seems to have an overwhelming power over me?

And then there are the social questions too. Why are people forsaking the old with ease and abandon? Why is the society changing so fast? What are these changes sweeping through the society like a hurricane? Has the old no resistance or power to stop or check the new?

These questions are usually followed by attempts at answering them. And like the questions, these answers also come in various categories. In themselves, the questions and answers provide some form of resolution to the crisis. And yet they are essentially a search for the resolution.

5. Dialogics and Contemporary African philosophy

The Great Debate is over but another debate has re-appeared in its place: The debate on the history of African philosophy. This debate, like one before it, is tied to the question of African identity and it is gradually developing into ramified trajectories and encompassing diverse issues in tis controversial embrace. When did African philosophy begin? What qualifies to be included in a history of African philosophy? Whose works constitute African philosophy?

The affiliation of the question of the history of African philosophy to African identity attaches to it the passion and emotion that attended the Great Debate. The foregoing controversies have implications for the conceptual framework we are developing for the understanding of the emergence of contemporary African philosophy even as the delineation of our scope indicates our acknowledgement of the existence of regions beyond our present compass. But when did contemporary African philosophy begin? And how did it begin? Such are issues of concern for the paper. An yet we are really concerned with the how than with the when, for whenever it may have started, the contention of this paper is that it began in a way and that the dialogics of history provided that way or how of the beginning. Let us now investigate how the dialogics applied in the evolution of contemporary African philosophy.

Thesis: Normal Traditional Situation
African traditional society prior to the 15th century contact with the European world was relatively stable, operating on communally recognized routine regularity. The social hierarchy developing from the metaphysical hierarchy and worldview, was generally taken for granted. The regularity of the seasons and the predictability of socio-religious structures and relations contributed to the stability and almost motionless state of the traditional society. Even when evil befell the society, the remedial strategies and routes were already prescribed and known. This situation engendered strong faith and abiding confidence in the system such that the traditional society believed that had got its acts all neatly tied together under control. The confident assurance and calmness with which the traditional person approached life can be seen in such Igbo saying as: Achoba afu adi ako na akpa dibia (That which can be found anywhere, cannot lack in the bag of the dibia): Nkudi na mba na eghere mba nri (The firewood available in a community is enough to cook its food). Ihe aja ama ka esi eme, ka esi eme ya di (That which one does not know how it is done, has the way it is done or the solution that is not known exists all the same). Virtually every traditional society had its own sayings that encode its deposit of unquestioning confidence in the reliability of fits system. And that was the normal traditional situation. This situation is well captured in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as in many other novels in the African Writers Series, and not less in the travelogues of the first European visitors to African. Even where some of the latter tried to interpret the situation negatively, they yet presented it.

Enthesis: Birth of new Event
Such was the calm and routine peace of many African communities that gave birth to the despoliations of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and European colonization. (Onwubike: 1967) And yet in this haven of peace, there were pockets of war and aggression that facilitated the birth of conflict and loss. The situation of stability make agriculture and trade to flourish. The following trade was the first point of contact, attraction and motivation for the Europeans. The flourishing trade and the desire to secure and advance the economic and commercial interests are significant factors in the consideration of the origins of European colonization of Africa. And yet this process could not be secured on the field of battle. In virtually all instances, the realization of the paper partitioning of Africa by means of war was followed by negotiations and dialogues between the invaders and the various factions of the native communities (Iliffe: 1999). Such dialogues took place on the grounds of common interests or coalescing motivations. And further, these events, like the stave trade, were born of events in the traditional African community of similar bearing.

Prothesis: Crisis of Consciousness of Being
The new reality of living under foreign domination created a crisis of consciousness of being for many Africans. (Omoregbe: 1990). The accustomed ways of living of the traditional society were being challenged and questioned by the new order. Indeed, the imposition of the new way of life on the political, social, cultural and religious spheres meant a subjugation or outright rejection of the traditional culture. On the various levels off thinking, believing and acting, the life of the African was experiencing crisis. The various areas of crisis ultimately boiled down to a crisis of identity in which the African found himself wondering about his humanity and personhood. This wonder was to serve as a prosthesis, a forerunner and a tendency to the final stage of the dialogics of contemporary African philosophy.

The articulation of the wonder in Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy, to a very large extent, marked the birth of contemporary African philosophy. It was a birth occasioned by the interaction and dialogue of traditional African life and the activities of European traders, missionaries, enslavers and colonialists. The Great Debate captures vividly the crisis of consciousness of being occasioned by his new happening. As is usual in such critical situations, reactions were quick, varied and intemperate. Many scholars rejected the new event without delay, and one may add, without proper scrutiny. E. Posso (1959) who wrote the preface to the book set the pace for this rejection when he criticized it as reducing African philosophy to mere ethno-philosophy. Crahay (1965) called it Bantu worldview. Luc De Heusch (1971) declared it as fallacious as popular Towa (1971) reads more of ethnology than philosophy from the book. Hountondji’s (1983) position seems to have summarized the expression of the critical consciousness. He rejects the work as collective worldview, and mere rehash of oral tradition lacking in the critical, individualist and universalist attributes of philosophy.

Synthesis: Questions, Answers, Resolutions
Questions: The crisis of consciousness of being among the Africans erupted in an avalanche of reactions and questions. These questions may be variously categorized according to the sphere of life, attitude of the questioner or form of answer expected. Broadly, we can talk of particular questions seeking answers with immediate import or relevance, and universal and generalizing questions that seek fundamental answers and solutions to foundational issues and crises. The questions that pertain to the history of contemporary African philosophy followed upon the question of immediate survival and were therefore more remote, universal and fundamental. The hasty reactions of the first shock characterized by resistance and impulsiveness were followed by the more deliberate disposition and attitude of seeking for understanding. It is only natural that he who desires to know shall begin by asking to know. The next stage in the dialogical journey of contemporary African philosophy was the stage of questions: Is there an African philosophy? What is African philosophy? Do we have African philosophy? What are the conditions for its possibility? Is ethno-philosophy, philosophy? And so on.
Answers: The Great Debate was therefore also an exercise in question and answer as African philosophers awoke from their slumber to seek and to find the solutions to the crisis of the consciousness of their being as a people. The elements of crisis and consciousness of identity pervade the entire Debate. The result is that the answers do not always answer exclusively specific questions as rather addressing the question of the how and the why of African existence. Thus, when Okere (1983) posits that philosophy must be hermeneutical, he yet argues that it must receive “its initial impulse and its nourishment, from the African source, from African culture”. Again, when Maurier (1981) perceives philosophy as conceptual analysis, he yet insisted that “for African philosophy to be tuly and authentically African, it must operate within a conceptual framework that is authentically African” When Hountondji proffers his answer to the question of African philosophy, he exposes the problem of analysis in crisis and the confusion off conceptual and existential issues. Or rather, one may interpret his answer as betraying the deep and intricate web of relation between lived experience, crisis of existence and speculations of thought as encapsulated in the crisis of consciousness of being. He is famed to be “the most outstanding figure in the debate” and his criticism of the contemporary African philosophy is described as “severe and uncompromising” (Nnoruka: 2006). His conception of philosophy is of “a conscious and explicit mode of discourse which involves the individual responsibility of whoever engages in such a discourse” (Hountondj:1983). One notes that beyond the individuality of the involvement in this discourse, the specific method that defines the mode of discourse for it to be called philosophy is not given in the conception. The definition of African philosophy as “a collection of texts written by Africans and described as philosophical by their authors themselves” (Hounntondji: 1983) further presents the problem of lack of attention to the method for the strict application of the definition, for it means that whatever an African writes and calls philosophy becomes philosophy.

As stated earlier, such definitions portray both the crisis and the concern for identity which constituted the environment for African philosophy at this stage of its historical development.
Resolutions: “After the period of discussion on whether or not there can be African philosophy. African philosophical thinkers have now settled down to do philosophy proper”. Such is Nnoruka’s (2006) description of the resolution of the crisis of consciousness of being generated by the emergence of African philosophy. The many crises that are resolved their may be broadly categorized in two: the conceptual questions of philosophy. African philosophy, and the ontological questions of identity. African identity. It is significant that these questions arise and/or grow together such that none could be adequately resolved without the other. Couldd there be an African philosophy? That is the concern of the conceptual questions that borders on the universality of philosophy. However, it also asks the question of the humanity of the African. In this context, it is understandable that in the resolutions of the crisis when African philosophers have settled down to do philosophy. Okolo would define African philosophy as “a path to a systematic and coherent discovery and disclosure of the African as an African, that is to say, as a being-in-the-African world” (Okolo: 1981). Nnoruka (2006) caught the vital meaning in this involvement when he summarized Okolo’s position as meaning that the importance of an African philosopher is then in his contribution to the discovery of African personality. This contribution must however be in the form of critical reflection for it to be philosophical and the reflection must be on the African experience for it be African.

6. Discussion and Conclusion

The history of the human race or of any human society is a dialogical process. If the human being is a reasoning being, then the record of his history cannot be consistently unreasonable. The dialogical nature of human history is a development from the dialogical nature of the human person. Even it, at times, it appears not to be so, it cannot not be so for the era that desires to emerge must negotiate its emergence, in one way or another, with the dominant ideas and structures of the era from which it is emerging and through which alone it can emerge. This negotiation is a dialogue between the past and the present and with all involved circumstances of being in the evolving continuity of time. This postulation is seen realized kin the constant demonstration of the superiority of dialogue over violence for the spoils of war are shared in peace and the achievements of the battlefields are only ultimately apprehended on the roundtable of talk-I-talk.

The dialogics therefore posits the superiority of dialogue over conflict and of understanding over overcoming. The dialogics is proffered and preferred to the dialectics because it contends that being and meaning are better apprehended on the portals of mutual giving than on the tussles of violence. Indeed a primordial intuition of the dialogics maintains that even in the heat of crisis where a dialectical reading of the form of being and meaning presents and delivers conflict and violence, a dialogical understanding of the circumstances will open to sight the heart of being and the kernel of meaning where nothing but the unity of diversity abides. The dialogics is further developed on the dialectics because the three stages of the dialectics is seen as insufficient in the realization of being and meaning. The issuing forth as well as the tendency to conceptualize in the enthesis and the prosthesis are not sufficiently accounted for in the conflictual characterization off the antithesis.

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