Methodology and African Philosophy



  1. Introduction
  2. Free Stylist
  3. Logical Analysis,
  4. Conceptual Analysis
  5. Integrative School
  6. References

1. Introduction

The controversy that clouds the question of the existence of a corpus of work that can rightly be called African philosophy suggests a focus on “methodology and African philosophy”. The idea here is to highlight the issues that have been raised in the extant materials that are classified as African philosophy. The main problem had been methodological and it is because of this that one intends to disperse the cloud that has made the visibility of African philosophy a far cry. The methodology aspect deals with what the argument to support its existence.

We start as such because there is a need to establish a methodology before talking about whether African philosophy exists. It is only when this has been successfully dispersed with that we can locate such areas as African ethics, etc, that is, granted within the limits of what could be called the original legacy of the Africans.

The question of African philosophy has in this century assumed an important place in the works of philosophers-both Euro-American and African philosophers. To talk about ethno-philosophy has more than before brought in Africa a new awakening as African philosophers have been awakened from their nonchalant slumber which has left the vast spectrum of African system of thought largely in the limbo. Today, like wounded lions, an appreciable number of philosophers of African origin have demonstrated a new zest which has been manifested in the outburst for the show of not only patriotism but a display of the intellectual excellence that characterizes the scholarship that obtains in African universities, especially in their faculties of philosophy. In recent times we have witnessed a plethora of articles and books that could rightly be said to fall into the area of African philosophy. Is it that Africans have only of late realized that the unwritten nature of African world-view is causing the existence of a lacuna in the chain of world philosophy? Africans must have realized the need to show as other continents have done that she has her own system of thought and perception about life.

There has been this argument that the world is politically, ethnically, economically, socially, culturally, and religiously homogenous and that men are imbued with the same capacity for reasoning and hence can equally think about their problems and offer solutions. This is true on the surface. Every human being in the globe has the need to either lead or to be led; this is the political need. He has the need to have his feelings respected by others to whom he gives respect, he desires harmony and fair-play: this falls into the area of morality. He has the need to exchange what he has for what he does not have and to transcend the level of subsistence, this is the economic need. He needs a certain measure of acceptability in his society, he cares for society and expects society to care for him. This falls under the social need. He requires to have a language, to have a mode of dressing that will be acceptable in his environment, he desires music, he desires to know the accepted mode of relating with people –the young and the old: this comes under the heading of aesthetic and cultural sphere. He also desires due to his glaring limitations, the seeking of the help of superior being(s) in the running of his day to day affairs; this is the religious need.

It is clear that all men, no matter where they come from have the needs in commn. But the question is whether they solve these problems or satisfy these needs in similar ways. There is no doubt that they do not because ‘opportunities’ are varied. The gift of nature varies from person to person, from locality to locality and from continent to continent. This being so, people can only use their naturally endowed gifts to meet their needs. To the extent that these gifts differ, the approach to the provision of solutions to these problems or needs will differ as well. In essence, the argument is that our thoughts are fashioned along certain lines depending not only on our needs, but on our abilities. As time goes on, depending on the path we have charted and followed, the divergence in terms of approach to meeting our needs will continue to widen.

There is also the argument that since all human beings are the same, they approach their problems in the same way. This, in principle, is what should be the case, but it may not actually be so. We must not loose sight of the fact that a lot has happened in the world. Ranging from cross-cultural borrowing, wars, slavery, colonization involving deprivations, subjugation and necessarily the charge of the destiny of peoples of different localities. All these are very important in knowing why all areas in practice cannot do things alike. The circumstances of birth and the area one belongs to has much to do in terms of the world-view of people.

This then lead us to cultural differences. There is no doubt that following the biblical account that men came from a common stock, but famines, search for greener pastures and wars have brought about the diaspora, and men have different problems and prospects that attend them. His clothing, his language, his social values, his economic activity, etc will be tailored in line with what exists in his domain. This has brought about cultural differences. As Wirendu rightly observes, “Culture is a people’s total way of life which is seen in their work and recreation as in their way of investigating nature and utilizing its possibilities and in their ways of viewing themselves and interpreting their place in nature. With this, it becomes clear that there exists cultural differences and this is basically out starting point.

If culturally we are not homogenous, then it will be impractical to expect that we should all do things in the same way. And if we do things differently though we may get at the same result, namely, that of solving our social problems, our outlook will be different. To clearly depict this, we should consider this analogy – A tourist may decide to go to Zaria through Jos or through Kaduna route (for those who know the map of Nigeria). Although the tourist will reach his destination, the type of vegetation, topography and people he would see for instance will vary depending on the root he takes. He is bound to have different impressions about the hinterland of Nigeria depending on what he sees as par two different routes. In the same way, two culturally diversified sets of people are bound to have their own different world-views.

In the foregoing, we have tried to establish a difference in culture among different localities and have seen that by accident of history, people have found themselves where they are. Consequently, they have taken up the challenges that characterize their living abode. Therefore, different locations of the globe have been carefully located (partitioned) into different cultures, and cognizance taken in terms of their peculiarities of problems, prospects and orientations. We no longer doubt that we have Euro-Community, Asia, America, Australia, and Africa. Although to some extent these demarcations are arbitrary, but the sharing of similar circumstances has to a large extent brought about a more homogenous outlook in their domains. Such that a Nigerian of a certain age and exposure, who is uncorrupted by Western civilization is likely to have more in common with a Ghanaian of the same age and exposure who have also not been corrupted by Western influence. But both will differ remarkably from a European of the same age and exposure. So the question of arbitrariness in categorization is limited to the fact that those in the same category share more in common than they do with those in another category. This question of cultural diversity is not settled.

The next question is what is philosophy? What is the accepted methodology for doing philosophy? No doubt, any attempt to define philosophy in a given way will mean delimiting its scope. But this does not mean that a good definition cannot be given. And the definition we shall adopt is the etymological definition of philosophy as the love of wisdom, i.e. the capacity for profound knowledge, experience, providence and good judgment. It is only in this definition that we can have a controversy-free conception of philosophy. This means that philosophy has no bounds – we have the philosophy of anything provided the subject-matter will give us knowledge and in effect make us wiser. But there exist a problem in trying to determine what the methodology of philosophy will consist in as a professional discipline. There is no doubt that a lot of people have actually discussed the issue of methodology in African philosophy. People like Odera Oruka, P. O. Bodunrin, Kwasi Wirendu, Richard Wright, E. A. Ruch, Paulin Hountondji, J. Mbiti, C. C. Momoh, S. B. Oluwolke, Maurier, Onyenwueyi, K. C. Anyanwu, P. K. Roy, J. O. Sodipo, etc have in different ways suggested what the methodology of philosophy should be. The methods they have proffered have fallen into what we shall classify into the following four broad headings:

(1) The Free Style Methodology,
(2) The Methodology of Logical Analysis,
(3) The Methodology of Conceptual Analysis, and
(4) Integrative Methodology

2. Free Stylists

The Free Stylists opine that philosophy simply means ability to put our thoughts down without any standard methodological commitment. To them what is important is that our thoughts be lucidly expressed and found to be the true picture of the world-view we are expressing – There is no need for rigorosity. There is no need for holding steadfastly to any set of criteria for determining what course philosophical writings should take.

3. Logical Analysis

The next are those who hold to the methodology of Logical Analysis. These people believe that philosophy, if it must be practiced at all, must be done with rigour, clarity, precision and logically. They hold that philosophy has to be scienticized and made more accurate. Philosophy, for the logical analysis should become less speculative more realistic and practical. The task of philosophy should be taken for granted, both the simples and the complexes are to be carefully analyzed and only ‘the clear’ about them accepted.

4. Conceptual Analysis

Following logical analysis are those who believe that philosophy is Conceptual Analysis. These people have much in common with those in the logical analytic school because both emphasize the need for analysis. The conceptual analyst deviates by seeing philosophy as consisting of many concepts which are confusing and which are in need of clarification. This school believe that the clarification of concepts should be the predominant task of philosophy. The idea is that as soon as our concepts are made clear, the task of philosophy would have been made easy, since what will be left will be collating of ideas and the systematic putting together of these ideas.

5. Integrative School

The fourth methodological school is the Integrative School. These people hold that the task of philosophy is multi-faceted and that since philosophy by definition embraces a wide spectrum of things, its methodology cannot be limited in scope. This school holds that there are different methodologies which are all important in philosophy because a given philosophical material might requires a given methodology. In essence, this school accepts that the aforementioned methodologies, Free Stylism, Logical Analysis, and Conceptual Analysis are all inclusive methodologies in doing philosophy. What should be uppermost in the mind of the philosopher is the nature of his material, it is this that will determine his methodology. In some cases it might be necessary to blend the whole methodologies in a given philosophical work. The question of methodology is important because it is only by delineating what the methodology of philosophy is that we can examine what has currently been branded African philosophy to know whether it qualifies as philosophy.

By and large, the most important thing is that any philosophical piece that should deserve intellectual acceptance has to be mindful of the need to contain the following ingredients: systemacity, coherence, logicality, consistency, clarity and critically. This means that whatever methodology one adopts, the ingredients mentioned must constitute its basis. But the fear here is that if we allow people to decide for themselves the methodology to adopt, there are bound to be flagrant abuses which will culminate in arbitrariness. This fear has heightened the call for a streamlined and clearly articulated methodology. But what is important is that in doing philosophy one must bear in mind that it is a highly intellectual exercise which is expected to have direct bearing on the existence of mankind. Its goal must be to further the gains of our earthly existence and consequently diminish the problems that act as impediments in our quest to shoot up into the lovely world of El Dorado.

The only suggestion that can be made here is that philosophy must be critical and philosophers must act as the watch dogs of other philosophers. If a philosopher puts forward a piece of philosophy without the adequate methodology then he has to be made aware of the inadequacy of the methodology he is applying. Other ingenious philosophers should be able to use their ingenuity to correct the mistake(s) and put the work in proper philosophical order. In this way, our frontiers of knowledge will continue to be extended. Methodology of philosophy should therefore be critical and should involve logical analysis of concepts because every thought falls under a concept and every problem is both conceptual and practical. We cannot achieve much without conceptualization because the most profound achievements in science, philosophy and other realms of knowledge owe a lot to conceptualization.

In practice, we find that we start at times from facts to concepts or from concepts to facts. There is in fact an unbroken link in this interplay of concepts and facts. But the chief concern of philosophers should be the widening of our intellectual horizons as that will definitely better our understanding of life and hence equip us better in facing the challenges that attend our earthly existence. “The integrativists” would therefore expect that philosophy be done in line with not the “free-stylist” approach in the sense of anything goes, but in the “free stylist” approach that one should be able to know what blend of methodologies would be appropriate for a problem of philosophy. But then the constant gaze on the ingredients aforementioned is important.

The above delineated methodologies have been seen as being the categories into which philosophers currently writing articles and other works on African philosophy fall. The works of most of these philosophers have been described as being anthropological. This is no doubt true to a certain extent. However, one thing that has to be borne in mind is that these works, considering the fact that the African philosophy cannot be completely reconstructed without first prying into the past, have a written version of the traditional thought out of which the contemporary African philosophies emanate. Any other approach than this will mean attempting to build a house from the roof to the floor.

At the level of traditional thought, which is akin to the Greek age of methodology, what should be done is to get down to the root of our cultural existence to find out symbolisms and behavioural patterns that have given birth to the emergence of the contemporary African personality. Though the anthropological account of our past, like the Greek age of mythology, cannot count as philosophy, it however serves as a philosophical need by providing the solid foundation on which African philosophy will hinge. It has to be noted that African philosophy should continue pari passu with this reconstruction of the African past.

African philosophy can be rightly said to have taken off because Africans and non-Africans who are conversant with the peculiar circumstantial existence of the African people have continually been producing works that are based on the African perspective. In politics, ethics, economics, environmental science, food technology, etc, people have been writing and adducing philosophical panacea for these problems. Although these problems are world-wide, they affect the African in a particularly different way; considering their past history as colonized people. After the reconstruction of the African past, the next step will be a systematic collation of works that have evinced African perspective in their approach to issues. These works may then be grouped together as African philosophy. Then, a general trend for what makes a piece an African philosophy will be delineated.

There is no doubt that we live in a global setting and as such things should be seen globally, but the fact remains that such attempt may smack of superficiality. It is better to approach reality from a piece of meal point of view so that every detail will be taken into account. Africans and those interested in the African existence and world –view should be allowed to periscope reality from the African point of view, while others with different dispositions should present the picture of reality from their individual stand points and at the end the whole intellectual effort will reveal reality in a comprehensive fashion and scope.

The clamour for African philosophy should not be seen as being ‘political’ or as a need to show ‘patriotism’ towards an African cause. It should be regarded as part of the holistic endeavour to piece together reality from a multi-dimensional focus. There has therefore been the argument that there is nothing and can be nothing like African philosophy. This view is misguided because it is borne out of a misconception or inability to rationalize why there should be African philosophy if there is non yet (although there is) is for the fact that as reality is massive, only a multi-dimensional shooting of the arrow will enhance the chances of meeting the target which is reality. Secondly, it cannot be gain-said that the current hasslings as to whether there is an African philosophy or not has in the main brought about profane literature on what for now is termed African philosophy. The arguments have brought autonomous thoughts from both African philosophers and philosophers of the West, Asia and America either in support or against the claim that there is African philosophy.

Even if there were nothing like African philosophy, the current debate are encouraging, rewarding, interesting, educating, inspiring and worth the intellectual efforts that are currently being dissipated on the issue of African philosophy. In almost all the continents there is a new awareness that is cutting deep into the mental fabrics of academics who have more than ever before expressed unusual eagerness in reading articles and works that have the caption, African philosophy”. This development is healthy, if we will not dry up the ocean of material of the Western culture and philosophy. The question of whether there is an African philosophy has actually posed a big challenge to African academics and since there is no façade under which they will hide, they have been bestowed with a new responsibility to find out what their philosophy is. The current phenomenon is that they have, in self defence, being putting forward a cascade of materials called philosophy. But the penetrating criticism made against their methodology is bringing a fearful jitter on them. This is bound to motivate them to come up with more acceptable philosophical materials. The literature we now have on African philosophy would not have been given birth to where if not for this new awakening in Africa, and among the Africans in the diaspora and other interested scholars all over the globe. Thanks to those who initiated this question of African Philosophy. The German philosopher, William Amo, who hails from Ghana though did not spear head this, was an African who learned and taught Western philosophy, but being an African, he started the awareness that Africans could philosophize which was not a fashionable belief in the Western circle for a very long time. Other African philosophers like – Dubois, Garren, Nkrumah, Azikiwe, Awolowo and Ogotommeli actually showed that the Africans have the capacity for critical thinking and the capacity to take their intellectual destinies into their own hands. The only plea is that intellectual rivalry should be healthy and should have one end in views that of bettering our level of understanding and ability to solve the problems of mankind in general. It is therefore clear that the current debate on whether there is an African philosophy, and if there is what is it? Is not a sterile investigation. It is paying off! Philosophy as an academic discipline has been diversified, and more intellectual challenges have concomitantly been provided. But nothing short of intelligent philosophical works will be accepted.


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Bodunrin, P. O., (ed). Philosophy in Africa: Trends and Perspectives (Ife, University of Ife, Press Nigeria, 1985)

Bodunrin, P. O., “The Question of African Philosophy” in Philosophy, (A Journal, Vol. 56)

Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy Myth and Reality. (London, Hutchinson and Co. Publishers, 1983).

Wirendu, K. Philosophy and An African Culture. (London, Cambridge University Press, 1980)

Wright, R., African Philosophy: An Introduction. (Washington, University Press of America. 1978)

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

Hallen, B., & Sodipo J. O. Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African philosophy. (London Ethnographica, 1986)

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