Kwasi Wirendu's "How Not to Compare African Thought with Western Thought"



  1. Introduction
  2. Incisive Analysis of Content
  3. The Aim Evaluated
  4. Examination of Wirendu’s Style
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

1. Introduction

As the topic aptly suggests, the attempt here is to look at the work of Kwasi Wirendu on “How not to compare African thought with Western thought” to see in the first place what he has busied himself to achieve and to see whether the corpus of his works evinces sufficient grasp of what should come under the topic. Though this work is primarily a critique of Wirendu’s work, care must be taken in appraising what we shall eventually witness in the work’s body. It is in the light of envisaged confusion and misunderstanding of the tenor and purpose of this work that the framework ought to be understood to forestall any untoward insinuations that are likely to arise. That a piece of work is a critique does not mean that it must smack of complete animad version of the work that has come under the critic’s sledge hammer. It is principally geared towards achieving a systematic and critical analysis of the style, content and aim of Wirendu’s work. Another important task is that Wirendu’s article would be put in proper perspective with an assiduous attempt made to see whether his work could be said to have lived up to the fulfillment of its consequential expectations.

To systematically cover this task, there is need to carry out a fairly incisive clarification of some of the key terms he used and simultaneously to point out if any, other terms that he uses which he has failed to transfix within his own cognitive scheme. It is particularly in this sphere that a dogged effort would be made to illuminate the sense in which Wirendu uses these terms. If there are sensed inconsistencies and inadequacies, these would be pinpointed. On a less serious note, areas where there exist congruency of ideas between us would however be highlighted. The crescendo would be more detectable when we will be looking at areas of disagreement.

2. Incisive Analysis of Content

Here attempt would be made to look at the body of Wirendu’s work with searching eyes and alert mind to see how he has presented the issues involved and how he has used certain concepts. Terms that have been used without proper classification would be highlighted. What would be done shall mainly be to critically analyze his ideas and to show approval or disapproval of what he says. Throughout the gamut of Wirendu’s work on “How not to compare African thought with Western thought”, one witnesses the use of a plethora of terms or phrases which were carefully selected to aid him in explaining or driving home his point. The problem here is that while in a scholarly fashion he delineated the meaning of certain terms, he carelessly skipped assigning his ‘working meanings’ to others. In yet other terms their usage have brought in more confusion than clarity. Some of these phrases and terms are, traditional philosophy, traditional thought, folk thought, African philosophy, African personality, Superstition, Witchcraft, Culture, Modernization, Technological sophistication, Developed, Developing, Underdeveloped, Rational, Critical thinking, Science, and Coherent World-view, etc.

Wirendu is seen using traditional philosophy, traditional thought, folk thought and African philosophy interchangeably and this is not very clarifying. Traditional philosophy is seen as the mythical stage of the development of philosophy in Africa. It is that era wherein the thoughts of the Africans were still immersed in superstitious beliefs. According to Wirendu, traditional philosophies mean “the accumulated wisdom of what might be called the collective mind of our societies, handed down through traditions both verbal and behavioural, including aspects of art, ritual and ceremonial.” He also goes further to say that African philosophies as they are available today are folk philosophies. Another relevant portion here is where he says that “every traditional philosophy is essentially prescientific and that every people has its own traditional philosophy; a stock of originally unwritten proverbs, maxim’s, usages, etc, passed on through successive generation.”

Wirendu’s usage of these terms, as if they are not one and the same thing, is very confusing. It is not our view that traditional thought and traditional philosophy, for instance, could go as one and the same thing. Traditional thought may or may not qualify as philosophy. For traditional philosophy to merit the tag name ‘philosophy’ it has to qualify as philosophy. A better way of looking at these terms would simply be to reduce them to two terms, viz: African traditional thought and African philosophy. The African traditional thought should correspond to the Western age of mythology which does not qualify as philosophy. It should be seen as the background out of which philosophy emanates. Popper’s position is very germane here. He states “what we call science is different from the older myths not by being something distinct from a myth but by being accompanied by a second-order tradition, that of critically discussing the myth”. This quotation does not apply to science alone but to philosophy. We must know that philosophy and science were intricately entwined at their initial stages of development.

On the other hand, African philosophy would embrace the work of professional philosophers who are working not only within the African framework, i. e. making meaning out of our own reality, but who are doing this in line with the expectations of the methodology of philosophy in general. This philosophical excogitations of the sages would as well come under African philosophy in so far as they are rational, reflective, systematic, critical, coherent and problem solving in terms of depicting reality in one way or another. The work done in the realms of politics by the nationalists could as well come under African philosophy if they satisfy the criteria for being philosophical. They must be devoid of unnecessary emotional trappings or foolish tenacity to unwholesome African traditional beliefs. As Wirendu rightly pointed out, such habits can be counter productive. The use of the other terms like folk thought, traditional thought, folk philosophy, etc, are redundant. From the foregoing, it becomes clear that African philosophy should not be used interchangeably with African traditional thought because they are not same. By traditional thought Wirendu means, “pre-scientific thought of the type that tends to construct explanations of natural phenomena in terms of the activities of gods and spirit”. From this definition it becomes clear that African traditional thought is different from African philosophy.

African philosophy, according to Wirendu can be seen from two stand points. Either as varieties of folk world-view or seen as the work of individual African using the intellectual resources of the modern world to grapple with philosophical problems. He however, identifies a third sense of perceiving African philosophy. Here he talks of the thought of a class of individuals in traditional African societies who though unaffected by modern intellectual influences are capable of critical and original philosophical reflections as distinct from repetitions of the folk ideas of their peoples. He says that when one is talking about African philosophy, that one should bear in mind the first sense as is defined above, i.e. in terms of fold world-view. The question here is whether every traditional thought based on folklore qualifies as philosophy. There is a confusing usage or application of the term philosophy. We must recall that the era of mythology as I pointed out earlier is not accepted as deserving the tag name philosophy. Why should African age of mythology seek to appropriate the title ‘philosophy’?

Wirendu is again seen to be changing his ground from moment to moment and this, in a long way presents him in a bad light. At another point, he is seen counseling that we ought to adopt a better way of perceiving African philosophy. To him, when interpreting the term African philosophy one should take cognizance of contemporary philosophical efforts in this continent. In his use of the term ‘African personality’, he failed to delineate the sense in which he is using the term. Is it every African person that has the ‘African personality’ or those that are ready to defend all things that are African whether rational or not. Phrases like this are very significant and lack of proper clarification of what they mean can have far-reaching consequences.

Wirendu uses another term ‘superstition’ which he defined as a rationally unsupported belief in entities of any sort. Here they did a good job by pointing out that superstitious beliefs are not confined to the society but pervasive. He identified superstition as one of the anachronistic elements that still haunts the African’s stride to the achievement of high measure of rationality. He sees witchcraft as one of these frivolous beliefs held by the Africans, he did not concern himself with this to an extensive degree. This may be borne out of a feeling of insignificance.

In his article on “Philosophy and an African Culture” he provided a good definition of what culture is. He sees the culture of a people “as their total way of life, and this is seen as well in their work and recreation as in their worship and courtship. It is seen also in their ways of investigating nature and utilizing its possibilities and in their place in nature”. Wirendu actually expounded the concept of culture but he did not, in clear comparative terms, state how African culture could be seen to be different from Western culture. Not being born into that he has not the stature nor the capacity to compare them. For any person to make such comparisons, he has to be versed in the cultures that he is comparing. This is a fundamental limitation as far as the topic how not to compare African thought with Western thought is concerned. Wirendu being an outsider as far as Western culture is concerned, cannot rightly show how the comparison between Western thought and African thought should progress which is the implication of his topic. We share with Wirendu the view that culture is very basic in this kind of comparative analysis.

Wirendu uses a term like modernization which he defined as the application of the results of modern science for the improvement of the conditions of human life. He saw modernization as the more visible side of development. He goes on again to blame African leaders for seeing development in terms of visible aspects of modernization. It is not clear here whether he is saying that modernization is no longer the visible aspect of development. If it embraces every aspect of human life, then he has to state this very clearly. Another misplacement in Wirendu’s write up is that he has not been systematic enough. He appears not to keep in focus the title of his work. He at certain points leave off what is supposed to be a comparative study to dwell on issues like modernization, colonialism, the process of underdevelopment without showing their relevance to the issue under discussion. The work should have been concerned with comparing African thought with Western thought at least to show that they are comparable or not comparable or to correct whatever baseless comparison that might have been done by showing how not to compare African thought with Western thought. He uses terms like technological sophistication ‘developed’, ‘developing’. ‘underdeveloped’, ‘rational’. ‘critical thinking’, without clearly stating what they mean or how they are to be conceived: thereby providing room for arbitrary conception of these terms. He sees the term science as being a modern development and he buttresses his argument by saying that science cannot function without a culture that thrives on written records of measurements and scientific innovations. This position is actually plausible. But one should be hesitant here. What do we say about the scientific discoveries or ideas of say the traditional Awka people of Anambra State of which traces still survive today. Every period and age must have their scientific procedures which guide them in achieving a measure of comfort in their environment. So when viewed critically we find that ‘science’ can exist in traditional societies but might not thrive as it would in modern society with a culture that takes seriously the art of writing.

Wirendu made a good point by putting it clear that ‘coherent world-view’ satisfies, though in a weak sense, the criterion for qualifying as philosophy. This is true because the fact that our traditional thought can be organized into a coherent whole can hardly make it to qualify as philosophy. Many other ingredients must be present before a piece of thought qualifies as philosophy. The view that African traditional thought is different from Western traditional thought is accepted. The former has no body of written records to draw from while the later has. It is chiefly in this that there is need for the reconstruction of the thoughts of that era to fill the lacuna that has been created by a lack of written tradition in the traditional African setting. This must not be misconstrued to mean that African philosophy has to stagnate because of the need to fill up the gap that is currently existing in the evolution of the thoughts of the African peoples. The pursuit of African philosophy and African traditional thought as I have defined them earlier must be carried on pari-passu.

Wirendu tries to show through the Akan folk thought that there exists a comprehensive conception of ‘a person’ which to him is more imaginative than the ‘Western conception’. This is a betrayal of his emotion. He talks of ‘nipadua’ which is the ‘body’, ‘okra’, which is the ‘soul’, sansum as that which gives rise to man’s character, ‘ntoro’ as something that is passed on from the father which is the basis of inherited characteristics and ‘mogya’ which is something passed on from the mother which determines a man’s clan identity which at death becomes the ‘saman’ i.e. ghost. One may want to ask at this juncture whether it is the fact that this view of the human person appears more complex and detailed that makes it more imaginative than the Western conception of a person as consisting of body and mind. This, if it is the basis, is a sweeping assertion, which must be avoided as it could lead to irrational conclusions. Having gone thus far, it is important that we turn to the next important milestone of four critique which is the evaluation of the aim to find out the extent to which Wirendu achieved his aim in his work.

3. The Aim Evaluated

One may ask, ‘having gone through the work of Kwasi Wirendu, what actually did he try to achieve? or put in another way, what are the perceived objectives of Wirendu’s work? This question appears a trifle at face value but it is a very intricate and difficult question to answer. This is so partly because we cannot speak for Kwasi Wirendu and partly because we cannot be sure whether our perceived aim is the same with his. But it is singularly in answering this question, that we would be in a position to judge the success or otherwise of Wirendu’s work. And the pivotal importance of this question would not allow us to treat it with levity. In an issue like this, if the aim is not found in any other thing, it has to be discernible in the topic. Looking at the topic of Wirendu’s work which reads “How not to compare African thought with Western thought”, one with some immediate insight, perceives what the aim should be.

The aim here is firstly to carry out a comparative analysis of African thought and Western thought. Secondly, to find out whether there are bases for comparison. Thirdly, if there are bases for comparison, to delineate the similarities and difference. Fourthly, if there is no basis for comparison, to state this in bold print. The fifth aim would be to forewarn people who carry out comparative analysis of that nature to be on their guard when doing one that concerns African thought and Western thought.

Maurier would say that the most important step here is to ask the fundamental question whether we have African philosophy or African thought. To join, it is only when this has been answered in the affirmative, and the nature of what constitutes African philosophy shown, can we then dabble into a comparative analysis with its counterpart, Western philosophy, whose existence is not in doubt. Wirendu makes a fundamental mistake by merely assuming that since we have Western philosophy, we must have African philosophy. The most important thing would have been to show first that African philosophy is a reality because it is only when it is so that the question of comparing it with Western philosophy can be meaningful. Again another important question here is that asked by Robin Horton which runs thus; ‘is traditional thought philosophical or non-philosophical?’ These are the peripheral questions that must be gotten straight before any talk about aim can be justified. We have seen that Wirendu did not ask such basic questions.

Wirendu has however been able to identify two basic facts which we agree with. The first is that we cannot compare African traditional philosophy with the contemporary Western philosophy. He says that there is no basis for comparison. Secondly, that African traditional philosophy can be compared with Western traditional philosophy and by implication, that contemporary Western philosophy should be compared with contemporary African philosophy. Wirendu has been able to show that in comparing Western traditional philosophy with African traditional philosophy we will see that they have a lot in common. For instance, they are both pre-scientific, they are based on myths, folklores, superstition, unsupported beliefs and lack of critical insight. He however, identified the major difference as coming from the area of African traditional philosophy being unwritten while that of Western traditional philosophy enjoys a written tradition. He buttressed his point by showing that certain traces of the traditional era still persist both in the modern day philosophies of both Africa and the West. Belief in witches is a good example. He was also able to show that even the Indian traditional philosophy though literate was not scientific. This means that there is a platform for comparing all traditional thoughts but not appropriate when we try to compare traditional with modern.

One disturbing fact in the caption of Wirendu’s topic is the use of ‘thought’ instead of ‘philosophy’. There is a wide margin of difference between African thought and African philosophy or between Western thought and Western philosophy. It is more reasonable talking about comparing African philosophy with Western philosophy instead of African thought and Western thought. The word ‘thought’ is ambigious because ‘thought’ embraces both the philosophical and the unphilosophical. We can only carry out a comparison when the criteria for determining the things that are to be compared apply to them clearly. If we, for instance, say that we are comparing African thought with Western thought, which part of the thoughts are we comparing? Is it the philosophical or the unphilosophical aspects? Wirendu appears not to have perceived the confusion that is engendered by his selection of terms. If we stick to our guns and say that the problem we have unraveled must hold, then the entire work of Wirendu crumbles because we would need him to restructure the topic before any meaningful discussion can be entertained. In which case the five enumerated aims would have been dashed. But if, on the other hand, we wish to commiserate with him by trying to construe ‘thought’ as ‘philosophy’, I would say that he has succeeded in fulfilling the aim of his paper which basically is to show that traditional philosophies all have a lot in common and could yield to comparative analysis among themselves and that the traditional cannot rightly be compared with the modern.

4. Examination of Wirendu’s Style

Reading through Wirendu’s article on “How not to compare African thought with Western thought”, one is struck by the richness of ideas that characterize the entire piece. He evinces good knowledge of the issues that appertain to traditional thought especially the Ghanaian traditional thought. He displays this very magnificently in his work. But what baffles or should baffle a meticulous reader will be the indecipherability of any systematic pattern of writing. As a philosopher of indisputable repute, one expects to see Wirendu stating in no uncertain terms how he is to progress, and the methodology that he is using. He starts the piece thus: “Many Western anthropologists and even non-anthropologists have often been puzzled by the virtual ubiquity of reference of gods and all sorts of spirits in traditional African explanation of things”. Apparently, he does not show that there is a need to establish a working scheme and put out in clear terms what he seeks to achieve in his work. It is apparently this approach that seems to have left him in the lurch and made his ideas to be at the mercy of ill-arranged order as the faculty of inspiration originally brings them forth. There is no doubt that without a working scheme a systematic direction is often elusive. One does not know where the writer is coming from and consequently will hardly know where he is heading to. This characterizes Wirendu’s article.

A philosophical work is hardly complete or successful if it lacks systematicity. The style of Wirendu’s work, to that extent, lacks the philosophical ingredient of systematicity and stated methodology can be seen to have partly failed. In fact, one might not be wrong to say that Wirendu can be classified among the group of writers that P. K. Roy has called the “Free Stylists”. These people write in a liberal way that pays little or no attention to the methodological needs that inform every professional field. Philosophers have their methodology, the political scientists have theirs and so do others. The dislocations which are brought about by this free style approach are highly damaging. In Wirendu’s work we find incoherent switches from one area to another area with the least care for the harm he is doing to his readers. For example, between pages 171 and 174 he is seen to have switched from the notion of rationality in the African setting to the concept of development, modernization, leadership in the African setting and to the superstitious beliefs that characterize the institution of funerals in Ghana. These unrhythmic and unsystematic shifts can hardly enable one to have a good grasp of what he is seeking to achieve. It is bound to distort if not disorganize one’s train of thought. So, as far as style goes we have many reasons to quarrel with him.

5. Conclusion

This essay is not a sheer cavil at Wirendu’s work, it is a painstaking analysis and critique which hardly claims to be very thorough and as such would be open to what is a critique of a critique. The problem with the entire piece by Wirendu’s lies in its free style which does not portray his work in systematic light. Our view, however, remains that African philosophy embraces all thoughts of Africans that have been carried on along the methods of philosophy be they in ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, politics, science, etc. We share Wirendu’s position that for a philosophy to be seen as African we need not originate it, but need to appropriate, internalize and apply it in the peculiar existential reality that is African.


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Roy, P. K., Philosophical Foundations of Nigerian Traditional Culture, (Ottawa: Canada Sociological Research Centre, 1985).

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