Peter Bodunrin's "The Questions of African Philosophy"



  1. Introduction
  2. Ethno-philosophy
  3. Philosophic Sagacity
  4. Nationalist-Ideological philosophy
  5. Professional philosophy
  6. References

1. Introduction

In this discourse, Bodunrin examines the question of African philosophy with the intent to lay bare the different positions that have been adopted in the process of articulating an African philosophy. He tries to find out whether there is an African philosophy and what different scholars think it to be. He asks “Is there an African philosophy, if there is, what is it?” This is a compound question that needs breaking down. If the question is taken the way it appears, it might elicit the simple answer ‘yes’. And anything could be put together as deserving the name African philosophy. But generally, disputes in the field of African philosophy stem from the merits of the issues that come under discourses on African philosophy.

Bodunrin says that the various specimens of African philosophy presented by scholars do not really qualify as philosophy. He is very critical about the kind of things that should be allowed to pass for philosophy. Philosophy for him is not an illogical enterprise, a free-for-all discipline, but it rather has its methodological stringencies.

In his article, “The Question of African Philosophy” Bodunrin devotes time to analyzing four trends identified by Odera Oruka as the approaches in current African philosophy. The four trends are
4. Ethno-philosophy
5. Philosophic Sagacity
6. Nationalist-Ideological philosophy
7. Professional philosophy

What is today called African philosophy is said to fall under any of the above four headings. However, what is not clear is whether this could be said to constitute their distinct classes or whether they overlap. For example, do those under ‘professional philosophy’ not have anything to do with those under ‘philosophic sagacity’? There does not exist a water-light compartment in the body of knowledge in general and in philosophy in particular. There is also the suggestion that Western compartmentalization of the different areas of philosophy is different from that of Africa. This cannot be the case, rather, we have the African equivalent of Western compartments. We have African epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, ontology, science, history logic, etc. However, what Odera Oruka had probably tried to do was to show that African philosophy was conceived by certain challenges which confronted the African scholars in the middle of this century.

The reactions have been limited to the areas of specificity of these challenges. In the political realm we have the political challenge. On how and what we know as Africans, we have the epistemological challenge. And in the realm of cultural contribution, we have the cultural challenge which has given rise to ethnographic studies. Since these challenges did not come in systemized ways as we have in different areas of western philosophy, we have sporadically grappled with sporadic challenges. It is however only recently that the issues are crystallizing into the watershed of different Western-like compartments. Oruka therefore cannot be blamed for presenting the issue the way he saw it.

2. Ethno-philosophy

Explaining the different approaches, Bodunrin states that the term “ethno-philosophy was a term used by Paulin Hountondji to refer the works of those anthropologists, sociologists, ethnographers and philosophers who present the collective world- views of African people, their myths and folklores and folk-wisdom as philosophy”. For Hountondji, what ethno-philosophers try to do is to describe a world outlook or thought system of a particular African community or the whole of Africa. For this position is opposed to seeing philosophy as a body of logically argued thoughts of individuals. For ethno-philosophers, African philosophy is communal, loaded with emotional appeal. He mentioned scholars like Placid Tempels, Leopold Senghor, John Mbiti and A. Kagame as members of this school. For Oruka, Hountondji and Bodunrin, ethno-philosophy is only philosophy in a debased sense.

3. Philosophic Sagacity

What Oruka calls philosophic sagacity’ belongs to the realm of philosophizing that seriously holds the view that philosophy resides in the breast of individuals. It therefore rejects a holistic approach to African philosophy. What is done here is to find out what individual wise men (sages) say about their customs, folklores and folk-wisdom. How do they present, justify and corroborate their cultural outlook? The aim here is to show that literacy is not a necessary condition for philosophical reflection and ‘exposition’. The argument is that in Africa there are many critical independent thinkers who guide their thoughts and judgements by the power of reason and in-born insight rather than by authority or communal consensus. And that there are, in Africa, men uninfluenced by outside sources who are capable of critical and dialectical inquires. An example is Marcel Griaule’s “conversation with Ogotommeli” published in an introduction to Dogan Religious Ideas.

Ogotimmeli, an indigenous African, is seen displaying great philosophic sagacity in the exposition of the secret doctrines of his community. The difference between ethno-philosophy and philosophic sagacity is that while the former is holistic, the later is particularistic. In any case, their focus is the same, that is on African folklore and folk-wisdom. It may be said that philosophic sagacity provides the raw material with which ethno-philosophy builds. The ethno-philosophers possibly synthesize, aggregate and uniformize African world-views by sifting the different outlooks with a view to settling with the less amorphous configuration of the different ideas.

4. Nationalist-Ideological philosophy

“Nationalist-Ideological philosophy” is seen as the world-view derived from the political reactions of the nouveau African intellectuals to the imperialistic domination of the African peoples. These include the works of people like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Leopold Senghor and others. Their purpose is to show that Africans had their forms of government before the European conquest. They agree that though these forms of government may not have been well organized, they argue that out of them could be formulated a distinct, unique political theory that will better suit the African people instead of the ad-hoc Western government system on Africa. Reformed traditional African socialism and familyhood is presented as the most appropriate forms of government for Africa. Their main agitation is to achieve freedom in all spheres of existence for the African people – mental, political, cultural, religious, economic, social, administrative and psychological.

5. Professional – Philosophy

“Professional – Philosophy” is described as the work of those philosophers of African origin who have received requisite training in Western philosophy and are now looking at philosophy as a universal discipline with no cultural boundary. Most scholars in this school reject ethno-philosophy. For them, “philosophy must have the same meaning in all cultures although the subjects that receive priority and perhaps the method of dealing with them may be dictated by cultural biases and the existential situation in the society within which the philosophers operate.”

The members of this school hold that African philosophy is the philosophy done by African philosophers whether it be in the area of logic, metaphysics, ethics or history of philosophy. They go on to say that it is desirable that the works be set in some African context, but is not necessary that they be so. This means that what makes a philosophy African is the medium through which such ideas or discourse emanate. An African mind-set is what is needed. If an African is analyzing Platonic Dialogues, he is doing African philosophy in so far as he is bringing into the discourse his Africanness. That is, he is understanding it within the milieu of his existential experience which is likely to be preponderantly African in quality. There exist a problem here. Most of these African professional philosophers, having been brought up in the West, have to some extent imbibed Western culture and ways of life. And it will be unacceptable to describe their philosophy as African if the prerequisite for African philosophy becomes the origin by birth of the philosopher. What happens to an African born in, and cultured in the West all his life? Where do we place foreigners who have lived in Africa all their lives and have, so to say, become Africanized and are working on African thought like Professor Horton of the University of Port-Harcourt in Nigeria?

It is strangely uneasy to adopt an irrational categorization in a matter like this. Our view is that while origin by virtue of birth may be important, this parameter must not be rigidly followed. It is the substance of the work (which must be distinctively African) that must guide our classification of any philosophical thought as African philosophy. This will mean that if a Western or an Eastern idea is periscoped from the African background, ipso facto it becomes African philosophy. What is needed is an African input in mindset, material, and focus. When these are met then African philosophy becomes the necessary concomitant.

Bodunrin in trying to find an answer to the question what is African philosophy, detours by first addressing the issue of the origin of philosophy. He says that all philosophy begins in wonder, Philosophy also stems from the need to provide answers to the fundamental issues of life like the ubiquity of evil, death, the presence of birth, growth, sickness and poverty. For Bodunrin the pressures for African philosophy were both external and internal. External because the Western scholars wished to know more about the people whom they had the divine mandate to civilize. The internal pressure came from the need to correct the erroneous impression of the Western scholars arising from over-zealousness and imperialistic candour. The African became motivated to stem the tide of the wrong paintings that Africa’s image was being subjected to. The talk about Africans as pre-logical, irrational, unscientific or primitive people aroused enough odium in the breast of African scholars and provided impetus for a programme by Africans to “civilize the civilizers”. The political exigencies have already been mentioned as one of the propelling reasons for the call for an African political system. Again, Africans found themselves in the era of ‘African this’ and African that’ like African history, African literature, etc, and to join the fashion in vogue there was need to begin to think in terms of an autonomous African thought that will match its Western counterpart. Because of this prevailing order, Bodunrin says that at this time “to fail to teach African philosophy is almost tantamount to crime and an unpatriotic omission.”

With the foregoing, Bodunrin accuses African philosophers of being too hasty in facing up these challenges and this has brought about the twin dangers of sub-standard philosophy and irrational romanticism. He sees ethno-philosophy and philosophic sagacity as extension of the preconceptions of individuals, clothed with the garb of universality. What is depreciated is not the preconceptions but the hypocrisy involved. For example, what Griaule says Ogotommeli says may be what Griaule wants or expects or understands Ogotommeli to mean. This problem is also present in the intellectual relationship between Plato and Socrates.

The point Bodunrin tries to make is that his critique of ethno-philosophy is not on the grounds of its being irrational or not deserving the philosopher’s attention. He says that he does not “deny the existence of a respectable and in many ways complex and in some sense rational and logical conceptual systems in Africa”, but his point is at the ground level, critical of ethno-philosophy, while African thought becomes philosophical as it becomes more abstract.

A note of caution: one must not be seen as a fraudulent intellectual trickster who is interested in smuggling. African thought into the cabin of philosophy no matter what its credentials are, but one’s concern stems from how convinced we have come to believe the Protagorean dictum that “man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are and of things that are not that they are not”. This is only as far as what we may call “humanistic, epistemological enterprise” goes. This is the enterprise that operated only within the frequency of man’s limited knowledge claims. If we allow man to say that African philosophy is not philosophy and we all accept it, it becomes so, but if we all accept it as philosophy, it becomes philosophy, QED. Philosophy is a tool of persuasion, and as we are persuading scholars to bend their ear to African philosophy, no doubt what we are engaged in is philosophy practicalized.

As African philosophy is continually being discussed even so is it continually being refurbished and at the end of the day, Bodunrin’s statement that we need not to have originated on idea, but only to have appropriated and internalized it, would have been a worthy perspective in developing African philosophy. The chief enemies of African philosophy would have been those who wanted to truly strangulate its ethnological roots. No matter how well we talk about an adult, if it does not include love for his childhood days, the love is not complete. The question remains that the question of African philosophy is not resolved yet. The debate continues. It is important to note that it is not very rational, coherent and complicated conceptual system that is philosophy. Bodunrin says that science and mathematics are eminently rational, logical, and are to a large extent, consistent/conceptual systems, but are not philosophical systems.

However, what Bodunrin fails to understand is that the higher science, mathematics or any other field of study goes, the more philosophical it becomes. He also fails to understand the subtle political and imperialist undertones that may inform the painting of African philosophy as irrational and pre-logical. The point is that African philosophy needs to scale through the first hurdle of being rational, logical, coherent and what have you. It is only when this is done that the second issue of whether it is philosophical will arise. If African philosophy is admitted to have rationality, then it is easier to show that African philosophy like every other rational body of knowledge that may not be philosophical, could be philosophy after all.


Bodunrin, P. O., “The Question of African Philosophy” in Philosophy Vol. 56

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

Bodunrin, P. O., Philosophy Meaning and Method. Ibadan Journal Of Humanistic Studies, No. 1, April.

Hellen B. and Sodipo J. O., Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African philosophy. London: Ethnographica.

Omoregbe, J. I., “African Philosophy: Yesterday and Today” in Bodunrin P. O., Philosophy in Africa: Trends and Perspectives. (Ife: University of Ife Press, Nigeria, 1985)

Oladipo, O., The Idea of African Philosophy, (Ibadan, Molecular Publishers, 1992)

Marcel Griaule, Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. International African Institute, London, 1948.

Hountondji, P., African philosophy: Myth and reality. Paris: Francois Maspero, 1995.

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