Schools/Trends of African Philosophy

A. F. Iduigwomen


  1. Introduction
  2. The Universalist School
  3. The Particularist School
  4. The Ecclectic School
  5. Conclusion
  6. Notes
  7. Academic Tools
  1. Introduction

The debate or controversy on whether or not there is an African philosophy is dead and buried. At best it is a matter of mere historical interest. When the history of African philosophy shall be properly articulated, a chapter or two will do justice to it, since there is now an established tradition of African philosophy. The subject ‘African philosophy’ is presently being taught either as a self-subsisting course or as part of comparative philosophy in many African universities. A number of theses have been written on it by both undergraduate and postgraduate students. In addition, a good number of journal articles and textbooks have been or are being published on it. We acknowledge the pioneering efforts of such African scholars as P. O. Bodunrin, J. O. Sodipo,J. J. Omoregbe, K. Wirendu, K. C. Anyanwu, Odera Oruka, P. Hountondji, C. S. Momoh, B. C. Okolo, I. Onyewuenyi, Sophie Oluwole, and a host of others. These scholars have done a lot to promote African philosophy.

However, a major area of disagreement among African philosophers is - what really is the nature of African philosophy? What constitutes African philosophy? This work provides an answer to these questions. In considering the nature of African philosophy, we shall proffer three schools of African philosophy, namely, the universalist school, the particularist school and the eclectic school.

  1. The Universalist School

The universalist or professional school, ably represented by P. O. Bodunrin, Kwasi Wirendu, Odera Oruka and Paul Hountondji, is of the view that philosophy is the same everywhere, using the same methodology. The main features or tenets of this school are as follows:

  1. A philosophical problem is one that has a universal relevance to all men. This is to say that philosophy deals with abstract, general and fundamental questions and problems that cut across geographical boundaries and cultures. In the words of Bodunrin, “philosophical systems are built up by systematic examination of specific features of the world out of the relationship that are perceived to obtain between them.” 1 Bodunrin refers to Sodipo’s ‘Notes on the concept of cause and chance in Yoruba traditional thought,’2 where Sodipo’s analysis shows that the Yoruba concept of cause and effect is different from the scientific account. In his work, Sodipo shows that “the gods take over where the scientists would have recoursed to chance.”3 Sodipo argues that this mode of explanation satisfies the emotional and aesthetic needs of the people.

    Bodunrin rejects this position of Sodipo on the grounds that the scientific account comes nearer to the truth than the emotionally and aesthetically satisfying one. For Bodunrin, the only merit of Sodipo’s account is that it has enabled us to see that the Yoruba concept of cause and chance fits very well into the Yoruba traditional system of belief4, and not into the general or universal corpus of knowledge called philosophy. In other words, since it is confined only to the Yoruba society and is not applicable to other societies, it cannot be called philosophy.

  2. For anything to pass as philosophy at all, it must essentially be characterized by criticism and argument. This is to say that criticism and argument are the hallmarks of philosophy and anybody of thought that cannot withstand the sledge-hammer of criticism and argument is not worth its salt. For Bodunrin, “rationality us judged by the standards of logic and science and what both science and logic demand are self-consistent procedures for the formation of belief.”5 He argues that philosophy is a body of logically argued thoughts of individuals in any area of philosophy. Consequently, “African philosophy is the philosophy done by African philosophers in the areas of logic, metaphysics, ethics or history of philosophy.”6
  3. The analytic (specifically, dialectical) method of inquiry is the ideal method of doing philosophy. Following this method, “when one is putting forward a philosophical thesis, we expect him to state his case clearly, to state the issues at stake as clearly as possible so that we can know what we are being invited to accept.”7 One must be able to show that his theory solves the problem being dealt with than rival theories. In arguing for the thesis and showing that it solves the problem than rival theories, one is carrying out a synthesis which may result in an entirely new view of the world. This method rules out the traditional method of doing philosophy which sees philosophy as essential speculative or reflective. And of course, it rules out much of African philosophy, especially much of the cultural dimension of African philosophy. But we know that African philosophy is both analytic and reflective. We shall now consider the school of thought which considers African philosophy to be reflective.
  1. The Particularist School

This school holds that for philosophy to be worth its self, it must have logical relevance. This is to say, it must not be divorced from culture. It is in this important sense that African philosophy will have relevance to the average traditional African who is yet to be persuaded on the distinction between philosophy, religion, mysticism and telepathy.

According to this school, we should not deny African philosophy because of the absence of the tradition of writing (i.e. literacy) in ancient African society. After all, many of the early Greek philosophers including Socrates left no writing, yet their philosophical reflections were later articulated and preserved by others. Philosophical reflections are not only preserved through a ‘writing’ tradition. Although writing is the best and most effective means of transmitting information, there are other effective means. Without a tradition of documentation in ancient African society, information was preserved and transmitted through religion, proverbs, wise-sayings, songs, folklores, mythologies, oral media, and so on. Although it may be difficult to identify the individual African philosophers who carried out philosophical reflections, those reflections have been preserved and transmitted to us through these channels. They have also become part of the cultural heritage of the people. We can make the impact of African philosophy felt among Africans by collating materials that are philosophically relevant to Africa, critically analyzing them and disseminating them to the people. This would not of course, make every African philosopher. What it would do would be to inculcate in Africans the habit of critical reflection on issues of everyday life, thus putting them on their guard against dubious assumption and superstitions.

The particularist school (explicitly stated and articulated), which is my brain-child incorporates ethno-philosophy, philosophic sagacity and rationalistic ideological philosophy. I, therefore, differ from Bodunrin and Oruka who see these three facets of philosophy as separate and different trends of African philosophy. My supporting argument is that they are all culture-oriented. Ethno-philosophy stresses that the corpus of African philosophy consists of proverbs, folktales, wise-sayings, myths and other materials of philosophical relevance. Thus, African philosophy consists of the collective world-views of African peoples. Philosophic sagacity is the attempt to articulate thoughts, ideas and reflections of individuals in the society (e.g. sages and mytho poets) reputed for the wisdom they possess. Nationalist ideological philosophy emerged from the attempt by African nationalists of freedom fighters to develop a new, and possibly, unique political theory (social and political philosophy) based on African traditional socialism and familyhood. A synoptic or synthetic view of these ‘philosophers’ give rise to the subject–matter of African philosophy. African philosophy consists of the collective world-views of African peoples, the philosophical reflections of gifted individual African thinkers who could be regarded as African philosophers of the past and the ideological formulations of African rationalists.

That the three trends articulated by Bodunrin and Oruka exist side by side is indubitable. But the fact remains that they all have one aim, and that is to produce a philosophy that is distinctly and uniquely African. Since the three trends are culture-bound, they are ipso facto one. Particularist philosophy is the all-embracing name given to this culture-oriented philosophy. It is the philosophy of a particular culture or society. The inevitable questions we must answer are: What is the relationship between universalist and particularist conceptions of African philosophy? What important place does African philosophy occupy in the broad spectrum of philosophy? These somewhat related questions find their answers in the eclectic conception of African philosophy which is also my submission.

  1. The Ecclectic School

The school holds that the best approach to an understanding of philosophy is a combination of the universalist and particularist approaches. This school holds that an intellectual romance between the universalist conception and the particularist conception will give rise to an authentic African philosophy. The universalist approach will provide the necessary analytic and conceptual framework for the particularist school. Since this framework cannot thrive in a vacuum, the particularist approach will supply the raw materials or data needed by the universalist approach. Thus, it will deliver the universalist approach from mere logic-chopping and abstractness. There will be a fruitful exchange of categories and concepts. Consequently, African philosophy can make use of relevant Western categories and concepts and the most scientific Western philosophy can also borrow some relevant African categories and concepts.

What this approach boils down to is that both advocates of universalist and of particularist philosophy are equally doing philosophy, and it will be better done if both groups harmonize their views or strike a compromise. The totality of what they are doing constitutes the real African philosophy. Therefore, it would be sheer intellectual arrogance for any group of trained African philosophers to disqualify the works of other trained African philosophers.

African philosophy occupies a unique place in the broader spectrum of philosophy. While it is true that a philosophical problem must have universal relevance, it is also true that a philosophical problem will remain in the abstract plane except it is made to have local or concrete relevance. For instance, the mind-body problem will not make much sense to the traditional African except it is discussed within the context of his cultural or existential situation. In discussing this problem, local examples and illustrations will make it meaningful and appreciative to the African. Of course, such a discussion must include African construal of the nature of the body and soul, after-life, etc. So while it is true that there can be a scientific philosophy which by its nature is universal, it is equally true that there can be a traditional or even personal philosophy which by its nature is cultural, artistic or humanistic in outlook. Following this, the ethno-philosopher who does a critical reflection on African world-views is indeed a philosopher; the individual thinker who uses his ingenuity to reflect on philosophical problems as they affect his society is doing philosophy; the nationalist ideological thinker who has produced an original work on African socio-political thinker is truly a philosopher. Although the works of these philosophers are (mainly) locally relevant, they (by extension) contain much that can be of universal theoretical value.

Granted that philosophy is philosophy everywhere. But since there are important areas which have to grapple with the problems of society, philosophy has a cultural dimension. This does not make African philosophy synonymous with African culture. It simply means that African philosophy has its roots or ramifications in culture. Again, it does not mean that we have to carve out some portion of reality and label it ‘African’, but that like any other cultural philosophy (e.g. Indian philosophy), African philosophy is adapted to explain reality from an African perspective. According to Professor Sodipo, “when you say ‘African philosophy’, you are drawing attention to that aspect of philosophy which arises from a special problem and the unique experience of African people.”8 Wittgenstein on his part questioned the use of philosophy if all what it does is to enable us talk with some plausibility about some obtrusive questions of everyday life.

For one, any attempt to detach philosophy from the very issues that are supposed to be of philosophical relevance to a particular society will make philosophy a rarefied thing. I think this is the mistake that advocates this point, let me quote part of Bodunrin’s reply to me when I, in a paper (1985), criticized his position on African philosophy. It reads: “I think there must be an intellectual elite. I think that if a society is to progress, the sort of discussion that goes on among this group and the level at which the discussion is carried out must be rarefied.”9

My response to this is, if philosophy is a rarefied thing done by a privileged caste, how can it for example, be a weapon in the hands of the masses to fight oppression, alienation, injustice, degradation and man’s-inhumanity-to-man? I think the absence of the teaching of philosophy in tertiary institutions in the Muslim -dominated states of Northern Nigeria has partly contributed to the prevalence of feudalism and its attendant evils in that part of the country. It is on record that all attempts in the past by some African philosophers (including Bodunrin) to introduce the teaching of philosophy in some of the Northern universities (e.g. Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria) have met with resistance. I quite agree with Bodunrin that for a society to progress, there should be an intellectual elite who constitute the ‘think tank’ of the society. But my argument is that the ideas and thoughts of this elite must not be confined to the ivory tower. There must be some channels or fora through which such ideas and thoughts are properly disseminated to the masses. Enlightenment will go a long way to redress ignorance and thus help the people to be aware of their rights, and when and how to redress a violation of their rights by those in the corridors of power. Ignorance is a serious bane to progress and development.

  1. Conclusion

Here, I advocate the via-media approach (i.e. the way of compromise) to the study of African Philosophy. I have therefore tried to resolve the discrepancies between the universalist approach and the particularist approach. Instead of quarreling over what constitutes African philosophy, African philosophers should henceforth direct their efforts towards producing what they can, and present same for others to appraise. Ideas survive, or not, according as they are able to withstand or not withstand criticisms.


  1. P. O. Bodunrin, The Questions of African Philosophy. Presented paper, pp.2-3.
  2. P. O. Bodunrin, The Questions of African Philosophy, p. 14
  3. P. O. Bodunrin, The Questions of African Philosophy, p. 14
  4. P. O. Bodunrin, The Questions of African Philosophy, p. 15
  5. P. O. Bodunrin, “Witchcraft, Magic and E.S.P.: A Defense of Scientific and Philosophical Skepticism”. Second Order: An African Journal of Philosophy. Volume 7. Number 1 and 2, January and July 1978, p. 44.
  6. P. O. Bodunrin, The Questions of African Philosophy, p. 14
  7. P. O. Bodunrin, The Questions of African Philosophy, p. 12
  8. Interview with J. I. Sodipo, in “The Philosopher,” An Annual Magazine of the Nigerian Association of Philosophy Students, UNIFE Branch, vol. 1, No 1, December, 1983, p. 6.
  9. This excerpt is from Bodunrin’s response to my criticism of his position on African Philosophy.

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