Periodisation of the History of African Philosophy

Marcel S. Onyibor


  1. Introduction
  2. African philosophy defined
  3. Problems of Periodisation of the History of African Philosophy
  4. Arguments Opposed to Great Antiquity of History of African Philosophy
  5. Evaluation
  6. References

1. Introduction

The truth about the existence and nature of African philosophy is no more in doubt. In fact, African philosophy, like all others whether oriental, Indian or Chinese philosophy, is already being taught, researched on and written about in so many universities, institutes and seminaries not only in Africa, but across the world. What is in dispute today among the scholars of African philosophy is when the art of philosophizing started in Africa. What are its historical antecedents?

Historical divisions into periods, namely, ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary periods have been a major area of controversy in African philosophy. Both proponents and opponents to the antiquity and non antiquity of African philosophy have historical arguments for their position. While the proposing side hold a strong view on the historicity of African philosophy, thus advocating that African philosophy had been in existence in various parts of African continent before colonialism, the opposing side argues that the so called ancient African philosophy is not philosophy in the real sense, but ethno-philosophy; and medieval Christian and Islamic philosophy which some Scholars have been making frantic efforts to classify as Africana philosophy, though it took place in Africa with some notable African authors as the proponents, is neither African, in content nor in outlook. Our discussion will be centered on the problems raised by these two schools of thought with the aim of extracting the prospects it has for the development of African philosophy. But before we delve into this let us operationalise the basic concepts employed in our topic of discussion—namely, History, periodisation and African philosophy.

History: It can be defined as a record or account, often chronological, in approach, of past events and development. History has the power to create and recreate events, past and present. It necessarily investigates the past of human beings and events, not merely for the light it throws on the present, but also for the teaching it affords about the past intellectual vistas of people, human behaviour, circumstances and conditions which bear on individuals and the social systems they operate. It solidifies knowledge of the present and is capable of providing guidelines for the future. History improves the standard of man by providing truths about his past and generalizes with the aim of predicting the future. Its essence lies in continuous movement or change. The necessity of history therefore cannot be disputed today, especially if one were to understand its importance and function in any society. The controversy surrounding the history of African philosophy is our declared interest and preoccupation in this work. This is because the history of African philosophy is the history of Africa in a very special way. It is the history of Africanism in its critical expression and articulation. It is a history spanning over a very long time, and as usual with historical time, is broken down into smaller major segments or periods in accord with what and how historians consider their significance.

Periodaisation: By periodisation we mean the historical act or process of dividing history into periods. Therefore, in our own periodisation or dating of the history of African philosophy, we shall follow the existing Western tradition of ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary periods; because it is assumed that within the same period Africans were making their own history whether in the field of philosophy or general history. In this regard, the following periods in the history of African philosophy can be delineated.

Ancient period: This period cuts across the time before the birth of Christ to the time when the Western Roman Empire was destroyed. It contains the cradle of civilization of Egypt (2000BC) which is a major unit of analysis in this discussion and other civilizations of Mesopotamia (1800- 1600BC) Greece 624BC and Rome(50BC)etc.

Medieval Period, which lasted from 476 to 1453, the time of the fall of Constantinople by the Turks. The period also witnessed the history of Christian philosophy which occurred in North Africa, and the later Arabo-Islamic influence in both the North and West Africa popularity referred to as schalsticism.

Modern period: It started with the Enlightenment period. It marked the period of re-awakening in learning, especially in philosophy and science. In Africa, it refers to the period of slavery, colonialism, discoveries and writings of Tempels, Mbiti and a host of others on African philosophy.

Contemporary Period: It is a period of advancement in science and technology. It witnessed the establishment and flourishing of African philosophy in various institutions and writing of scholarly works on the subject.

2. African philosophy defined

Philosophy etymologically defined, comes from two Greek words. “Philein” to love and “Sophia” wisdom. So the derivative meaning of philosophy is the love of wisdom. Even the Latin compound “Philosophia”, from which philosophy is derived, is also translated as “Love of wisdom.” Love here is a desire, a quest or longing for wisdom. Wisdom is a critical activity concerned with appraisal. It goes with the power of reflective perception and discernment that gives understanding and makes possible critical decisions as to what is right or wrong.

Philosophy in its general usage has varied meanings and interpretations, particularly to the lay man and the untrained academic. They often see philosophy as connoting something mysterious and esoteric, reserved for special intellects only, while others think of philosophy as a subject which deals with matters out of this world, in a spiritual realm; others still call it a people’s world view, or one’s moral guide. Philosophy, in the above sense is used in a loose manner. Philosophy, when used in a scientific sense is, however, something much more serious, purposeful, and organized. In this sense, it is generally regarded as a form of critical inquiry into things and their causes. It is the highest form of inquiry, because it carries out a critique of man’s ordinary experience and of man himself in its tireless pursuit of wisdom and truth.

African philosophy in the strict academic sense is essentially an explicit work of reason that carries out a critique of African experience kin general and on what this entails for the African subject. Okolo CB (1992) asserts that “most scholars would view African philosophy essentially as an ethical and systematic reflection on African experience, the African himself, his prospects and mode of being in the world”. For him, African philosophy distinguishes itself from other systems of philosophy. He went further to say that, in its deepest inquiry, African philosophy deals with the African subject, that is to say, African precisely as an African. It reflects actually on ways the African perceive reality. African philosophy thus places special emphasis on the African, his world, history, values, etc. It explores the particular way or ways the African experiences and interprets nature, society, religion, man, God, human conduct, etc., (Anyanwu & Ruch 1981). We must note that what differentiates philosophy from other fields of African studies is the fact that African philosophy is the fruit of rational discourse, logical and systematic in its inquiry. In other words, African philosophy, in its critical role, seeks to understand, clarify and explain every aspect of the African experience, and through these processes, seeks to articulate the world-view of the African, in terms of who the African is and his role and place in his environment.

3. Problems of Periodisation of the History of African Philosophy

There are two major schools of thought when it comes to the question of periodisation of the history of African philosophy, namely, those who attribute great antiquity to African philosophy and those who oppose the idea on the ground that man’s first encounter with the world is not at the philosophical level but at the level of myths, magic, superstition and religion, which is not philosophy in the strict academic sense of the term. We shall now delve into the discussion, first with those that attribute great antiquity to African philosophy.

Scholars who affirm great antiquity to the history of African philosophy, differ considerably as to the number and designation of periods. While Obenga T. (1990) and Osuagwu M. I. (2001) have for chronological periods, Keita I (1984) Omoregbe J. (1990) have three periods. Both have an ancient and a medieval period. The third period is modern or contemporary, for Keita and, but for Omoregbe, it is contemporary, Keita asserts that “a genuine African philosophy…should constitute the periods of African’s most articulate efforts throughout its history. Viewed in this way, the African philosophical tradition can be easily divided into three distinct phases (1). Classical (2). Medieval and (3). Modern”. Thus Keita’s classical period corresponds to African philosophy in ancient Egyptian period, from 3000 to 300BC., while, his Medieval Period identifies only later Medieval times in Arabo – Islamized North African countries. He excludes the earlier classification – medieval African history of philosophy – made up notably of Christian thinkers in North African countries of Alexandria and Carthage.

Keita also differs considerably from Omoregbe on the issue of periodisation, of dating, constitution, authorship, location and context. Omoregbe omitted entirely in his classification the ancient Egyptian philosophy of about 3000BC. In addition, there is a great disparity between what he recognizes as the ancient period of the centuries Ante Christus (Before Christ) and what other African philosophers, like Keita, Osuagwu, Bilolo, Obenga, Olela and Onyewuenyi recongnise. Thus Omoregbe’s ancient period, which consists of the time of Ammonious Saccas, Clement of Alexandria, Tertulian, Origen, Hypartia and St Augustine, differs markedly from Keita’s and other ancient period that predates it. In other words, Omoregbe’s ancient period is what is usually classified as medieval by Osuagwu and others. The content of Omoregbe’s medieval period of the history of African philosophy is the history of informal, unwritten or oral philosophy or what some scholars have called ethno-philosophy of unidentified African ancestors. Another outstanding issue in Omoregbe concerns the absence of a modern period in his classification. Keita and Osuagwu have it in their respective periodisations but differ in their dating and content. Keita’s modern period omitted completely what others classified as modern period from about 15th to the 19t centuries.

Let us at this juncture look at Obenga and Osuagwu’s four period classification of the history of African philosophy.

Ancient Period: This period for them should include the North African Egyptian civilization from about 3000 to 300BC; they entirely agreed with Onyewuenyi, G.C.M. James, etc., on the stolen legacy of ancient African philosophy by early Greek philosophers.

Medieval period: They divided it into an earlier and later period. The early period covers the history of Christian philosophy which occurred in North Africa during the first seven centuries of AD, from the second to the seventh. The later Medieval period also happened in parts of North and West Africa and was dominantly Arabo-Islamic. It dated from about the 10th to the 15thcentury. Osuagwu has written extensively to defend the Africanity of medieval history of philosophy. We agree with him that there was philosophical activity in Africa at the period but whether what was going on then was African philosophy is a different matter which we shall discuss later.

Modern period: The include the philosophies that developed in Africa between 15th and 19th century AD, including of the Ghanaian Wilhelm Anton Amo, even though he philosophized in Europe.

Contemporary period: This is dated from the 19th century till today. It includes all the philosophical works done by Africans, whether in Africa, Europe or America. In as much as we agree with Osuagwu on the antiquity of African philosophy, which stretched to the ancient Egypt of about 3000BC, we disagree with him on the classification of history of medieval Christian philosophy as belonging to the history of African philosophy. We agree with him that the philosophy that took place in Africa with prominent Africa scholars like Augustine, Anselem, Origen, Tertulian, etc, are important, but the content of philosophy of that period was not based on African experience. It was a philosophy based on the Greeco-Roman and Jewish Christian tradition that dominated that period of world history, North Africa inclusive. In fact, the philosophies of that period could be grouped as belonging to the period of “philosophy in Africa” and not African philosophy, for scholars are yet to discover the influence of African culture and experience on the philosophy of that period. At best the works of African scholars of that period could be classified as contributions of Africans to Greek-European philosophy. The same thing applies to the works of the Ghanaian, Wilhelm Amo, for it was not based on African experience and culture.

4. Arguments Opposed to Great Antiquity of History of African Philosophy

Among the scholars who are opposed to the idea of the great antiquity as part of African philosophy, Okolo C. B. (1987) stands out, because his definition of philosophy in general and African philosophy in particular does not give room for it. He said that: “in my own understanding of philosophy in its formal sense it is a conscious personal critical reflection on human experience and man’s place and prospect in it. It is the fruit of trained reflection with reason as the main tool”. Thus Okolo agrees with Sheptulin A. P. (1978) that philosophy is a creative enterprese of a reflection for people who have attained a certain level of literacy. It has not always existed and is not automatic (as opposed to natural) with man, but emerges in time and place during the course of human development when people have attained a certain level of maturity. And also there are social conditions favouring its growth. The two scholars agree with Aristotle that these prior conditions are comfort, leisure etc or what they called necessities of life. Literacy, Okolo reiterate, certainly contributes to man’s mental maturity and development. It helps them reflect on his own thought and to articulate them clearly. Philosophizing therefore, is a special sort of intellectual activity.

Apparently for all peoples (whether African or non-Africans) there is a level of consciousness dominated by myth, superstition, magic and religion etc. The beginning of connecting effects to their causes by means of rational inquiry is in all cultures a later development. Okolo, in his bid to clear the ground for what he has to say on the possible periodisation of African philosophy, insist that although man in all cultures has the capacity of innate power to philosophize, he has not always philosophized. The exact time or period he explicitly engaged in formal philosophy reflection and the levels and conditions under which he philosophized, and different matters altogether. These vary from people to people, culture to culture, since social, psychological, political, economic etc., conditions usually vary among peoples and cultures. Okolo also notes that understanding and interpretation of philosophy are different from people’s world views, their wisdom, folklore, proverbs, etc. These are philosophies of a people only in the loose sense of the word even though they indispensable materials for the emergence of formal philosophy.

On the issue periodisation of history of African philosophy, Okolo (1990) argues that we can and should trace the historical origin of African philosophy to the period of literate tradition, the period of journal education or scientific thought. He states that, in modern times, in Anglo-phone African for example, it is certainly after the Second World War. In other parts of Africa, the historical origins of African philosophy, if any are traceable to the same period of literate tradition after people had attained some degree of leisure and material satisfaction.

The above passage reveals that even though Okolo recognizes the existence of African philosophy unlike Blocker (1987) who denied it completely, he disagrees with the idea of stretching the periodisation to great antiquity as espoused by Onyewuenyi, Olela, Keita, Momoh, Osuagwu and Omoregbe, etc. He however agrees with the above scholars that Africa was once a cradle of ancient or classical wisdom, with literate civilization and universities of fame and substance in Cairo, Alexandria and Carthage, etc., to her credit. Many European scholars, philosophers inclusive, sojourned to those places for learning and culture. There were surely great philosophical and theological minds from Africa such as St. Augustine, Tertulian, Cyprain, even the great neo-Platonist philosopher Potinus. Okolo maintains, however, that the claim of existence of African philosophy based in this line of argument or thought can be answered by distinguishing between “Philosophy in Africa” and “African philosophy”. So, although philosophical reflections were carried out by Africans in the period of literate African past, these reflections were not on the African and his world. African philosophy in the sense of critical reflection on African experience is a different sort of intellectual commitment.
Okolo (1990) therefore, concludes his argument on the periodisation of history of the African philosophy by stating that:

With my distinction of philosophy in Africa and African philosophy one can conveniently speak of two periods of formal philosophy in Africa namely, in literate African past and present. The mental transition of the African or his formal commitment to philosophy can be said to be from philosophy then, (other systems to Africa philosophy now but of course not exclusively) we thus come back to our position on African philosophy which spear headed this inquiry, then it did not exist, now it does. That there cannot be as Omoregbe has it. African philosophy; yesterday and today” but only “today and of course tomorrow” there can be yesterday only in the loose sense of African philosophy, as it were, the preparatory ground for the emergence of formal philosophy. Those scholars who have a tripartite periodisation, of African philosophy have to prove their case. (p. 50).

Okolo therefore admits of only two periods, namely “today” and “tomorrow” and from the perspective of the present commitment to African philosophy, the present generation of African scholars are only beginning to establish a scientific tradition in African philosophy as in other disciplines.

5. Evaluation

A close analysis of the controversy surrounding the periodisation of the history of African philosophy, reveals that the number of periods a particular philosopher or a group of philosophers ascribe to the historical development of African philosophy depends on his understanding of the beginnings of philosophy. Those scholars who attribute great antiquity to African philosophy, they believe that the act of philosophizing is natural with man; that African philosophy in its ancient period should deal with the substantive doctrines and reflections that can be extracted, according to Momoh C. S. (1985), from the attempt of African elders to ponder on the mysteries of the universe, the hostility of the environment, the difficulties of living with fellow beings, human and non human, the desire to establish and live in a stable society, the necessity to communicate freely with others and to know and master their environment either through cooperation or by conquest. African elders come up with answers to such fundamental questions, and it is these that constitute ancient African philosophy.

Unah (2002) reiterates that the advocates of African philosophy do not say merely that myths, proverbs and wise sayings constitute African philosophy for that matter. What they said is that African myths, proverbs, and wise sayings have far-reaching philosophical impact and therefore, need to be critically examined. Momoh succinctly puts it thus:

Myths for an Uchi elder is not an end in itself. The moral or metaphysical and sometimes logical lesson to be imparted is the end. The myth is just, a means, a sort of objective prop to hold the lesson together to make it coherent, comprehensive and acceptable. (p. 35).

What advocates of African philosophy are saying is that even though propositions of philosophy claim timelessness and universality, they do have roots and these roots are often psychological, cultural, political and experiential.

The above views tally with those of Radin (1972), when he argues that in every human group, there are individuals, who, in the word of American pragmatist William James, are constrained by their individual temperaments and interest to occupy themselves with the basic problems of what we customarily term philosophy. Omoregbe (1985) is of the same view when he argues that wherever there is some reflection on fundamental questions about man or about the universe, whatever form this reflection may take, there is philosophy. Consequently, all civilizations, all peoples have their own philosophers, their own Socrates, their own Plato, their own Descartes, their own Hegel, etc. In this, Africa cannot be an exception. The only difference as far as ancient or traditional African philosophy is concerned, is the absence of records or writing in Africa until recent times. But writing or no writing, according to Omoregbe, the fragment of their views have been preserved and transmitted to us through channels other than writing, such as mythologies, wise sayings, proverbs, folklores and religion.

In conclusion, we opine that the prospects of a history of African Philosophy today and the future of African peoples and cultures may be tenous if they are not founded on the established positive norms, principles and values that guided their ancestors in the past. These principles and norms have been tested in various situations and their suitability for resolving problems have to some reasonable extent been observed and established. Thus, we need to reconnect with them in order to have a firm foundation for development. Unless we are able to do this, our present efforts at establishing the substance of African philosophy would appear like building on a very weak foundation. Strayer and Gatzke (1974) rightly observe that, consciously or unconsciously, we all have our estimation of the future on our knowledge of the past. It is important then that our knowledge of past be as accurate and deep as possible.

Finally, we summarize by saying that the philosophical inquiry of a people emerges in time and develops with time, especially with the growth and development of the people in question. It is therefore my opinion that the history of African philosophy be divided into four periods, namely, ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary period.

The Ancient Period should include the study of the philosophical doctrines of the early Egyptian mystery system from about 3000 to 300BC. As embodied in myths, proverbs, folklores, wise sayings, idioms and reflections of certain traditional Africa sages on man, his cultural experience and is environment.

Medieval Period: We disagree with Osuagwu I. M. (2001) who grouped all the works of early North African Christian thinkers, like clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine, Tertulian, Origen etc., as belonging to medieval history of African philosophy because most of them were Africans by birth and their works was done in Africa. Our disagreement is based on the fact that the content ad doctrine of their philosophy was not based on African culture, experience and tradition of that period. It was rather based on the Greco-Roman tradition of the period that colonized and Christianised the whole of North Africa and even beyond. However, the history of African philosophy ofthis period should be geared towards discovering the influence of African culture and tradition on the Christian and later Islamic philosophy of this period.

Modern Period: The history of this period should comprise the study of the works of Tempels, Mbiti, Marcel Griaule, and other ethno-philosophers that worked between 15th and the early 20th century AD.

Contemporary Period: This will comprise all the works of professional philosophers, both Africans and non-Africans, based on African experience, culture and tradition from 20th century to the present.


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