African Philosophy and Development

Suleimmon Olayinka Opafola


  1. Introduction
  2. The Meaning and Nature of African Metaphysics
  3. Dimensions of African Metaphysics
  1. Being
  2. The Human Person and Immortality
  3. The Word
  4. Witchcraft
  5. Magic
  6. Causality
  1. Conclusion
  2. References
  1. Introduction

One of the fundamental areas in philosophy is metaphysics. It is very fundamental that virtually every philosopher in the history of philosophy gave some time to metaphysical discourses. It is, therefore, not surprising that Anah (2005) avers that it is a field of inquiry that has remained evergreen right from the Pre-Socratic period to the Contemporary Era of the development of philosophy. According to Omoregbe (2002) the metaphysical question of being was set in an articulated motion by Parmenides when he argued that whatever is, is being. He further said that being is one, eternal and unchanging, meaning that whatever changes is not being. This notwithstanding, Russell (1975) observes that Heraclitus of Ephesus was chiefly famous in antiquity for his doctrine that everything is in a state of flux, as such, being is characterized by flux. Plato, while disagreeing with Heraclitus on his doctrine of flux, agrees with Parmenides that reality is eternal and unchanging, however differs from Parmenides in arguing that being is multiple rather than one; and these are the forms in the Platonic World of Forms. Aristotle who defines Metaphysics as the study of ‘being qua being’ identifies being with God, it is therefore not surprising that in Aristotle, Metaphysics becomes theology.

The emergence of the Medieval Epoch, in the Contention of Izu (2009), did not alter the centre-piece of metaphysical enquiry. St Thomas Aquinas followed Aristotle in identifying being with God, an argument which Duns Scotus rejects and proposes that creatures are beings in the real sense of the word and not in an analogical sense as Aquinas had taught. During the Modern Period, the problem of being did not feature prominently as philosophers were more concerned with the problem of substance. The problem however emerged in Hegel, Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriel Marcel, in whom being became a mystery.

These notwithstanding, in recent times, African thinkers have tried to define metaphysics in terms of the African ontology. Focusing on being, which is the fundamental concern of metaphysics, they have tried to move away from the elusive and unsubstantive concepts employed by their Western predecessors and counterparts. They have tried to define being using the categories common to the experience of the African. For African scholars like Edeh (1985), he moved through the onye hypothesis and arrives at the ife hypothesis of being. For Njoku (2011), being is chi. However, for Iroegbu (1995 & 2004), to be is to belong, thus Being is Belongingness. This piece would focus on structuring African metaphysics. It is a study that would build on previous literatures on African metaphysics and inspire further writings in this regard.

  1. Meaning of African Metaphysics

The word metaphysics was first used by Andronicus of Rhodes, who was then the editor of Aristotle’s work, around 70 BC. It is derived from two Greek words, Meta which means after, and physika which means physics. Brought together, it would literally mean that which is after physics. While Andronicus was editing Aristotle’s works, he realized that some were on physics, that is, on physical issues, and so he named them Physics. He also realized that some were on non-physical matters, but without a title. Since they were given no title by Aristotle, Omoregbe (2002) posits that he placed them after the work physics, and since he did not know what to call them, he named them “after physics” (meta physika), that is, the treatises that come after those dealing with physics. This was how the word metaphysics emerged.

Eventually, it came to be understood as beyond the physical world, and thus, a discipline dealing with realities that lie beyond the physical world. This concept can again be misleading because metaphysics as a branch of philosophy studies the totality of being, in its nature and structure. It is in this regard that Omoregbe (2002) argues that what metaphysicians have been trying to do down through the ages is to give a comprehensive account of the whole of reality, its nature, its structure, and the place of the human person in the universe as well as in the totality of reality. It is an endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted (Whitehead, 1929). In the study of metaphysics, a couple of problems have emerged: the problem of being, the problem of essence and existence, universals, appearance and reality, change and permanence, causality, freedom and determinism, unity and diversity and the problem of substance.

While some African philosophers have denied the possibility of such a thing as African metaphysics or in fact, African philosophy, philosophers like Houtoundji (1995). Some others have attempted at proving the possibility of not just African philosophy but African metaphysics. Edeh (1985) in his Towards an Igbo Metahysics, Ozumba (2004) in his Towards an African Traditional Metaphysics, Adeofe (2004) in his Personal Identity in African Metaphysics, Ekanola (2006) in his Metaphysical Issues in African Philosophy, Nwachukwu-Agbada (2008) in his The Influence of Igbo Metaphysics on the Writings of Chinua Achebe. made very concrete effort in this regard. However, his perspective on African metaphysics does not adequately capture what may be satisfactorily referred to as African metaphysics. Defining African metaphysics, Ozumba (2004) writes:

African metaphysics should be seen as the African way of perceiving, interpreting and making meaning out of interactions, among beings, and reality in general. It is the totality of the African’s perception of reality. African metaphysics will therefore include systematization of as African perspective as it relation to being and existence. This will embrace the holistic conception of reality with its appurtenance of relations, qualities, characterizations, being and its subtleties universals, particular, ideas, minds, culture, logic, moral, theories and presuppositions. (p. 1).

Focusing on its nature, Ozumba (2004) continues:

African Metaphysics is holistic and interrelated. The logic of their metaphysics underpins their standard and expectations. This is not to go with the impression that all African communities share the same standard even though the standard is community based. Borrowing from Quine, each community operates from a background theory that penetrates its perception and metaphysics of reality. If you see thing other than the way the community sees them, they will demean your understanding and systematize with your “alienness.” What we intend to do is to abstract the general orientation of the African in their metaphysics and general views about certain aspects of reality. Here, we adumbrate the African’s perception of the following aspect of reality, viz: personality, Being, Substance, Causality, immorality of the soul, witchcraft, Appearance and Reality. (p. 1).

  1. Dimensions of African Metaphysics
  2. Being

In African ontology, being is that which is; however, considered in terms of concreteness rather than unsubstantiveness. Being can will be subsumed into the following categories:

Muo (Spirit): Muo as a force has categories of forces. It includes God, the divinities and spirits. God is at the apex of the Muo category as the source of all forces, Tempels (1959) wrote, “Above all force is God... It is he who has force, power, in himself. He gives existence, power of survival and of increase, to other forces. In relation to other forces, he is he who increases force” (p. 29). He wrote further, “He knows all forces, their orderings, their dependence, their potential and their mutual interactions” (p. 34). His existential cause is within himself and sustains resultant forces. The subsistence and annihilation of other forces are within his power alone. While other creatures can paralyse, diminish or stop the operation of another being’s vital force, they cannot stop it to exist entirely, only God can. After the Supreme Being are divinities. They are intermediaries and share aspects of the divine status. Awolalu and Dopamu (1978) refer to them as the executive heads of various divine departments in the Supreme Being’s monarchical government. There are also myriads of spirits, benevolent and malevolent spirits that occupy the African universe. After death, two groups of spirits emerge: the benevolent spirits, known as the ancestors. They are a greater force than human beings.

Mmadu (Human Being): The human person (Muntu) is a vital force endowed with intelligence and will. Although God is the source of vital force, man according to Tempels (1959) is the sovereign vital force in the world, ruling the land and all that abides in it, however, “his fullness of being consist in his participation to a greater or lesser extent in the force of God” (p. 47) who possesses the supreme force. He also shares an ontological relationship with his patrimony, relations and land. He has a will to choose between good and evil, which might be life giving or life destroying. Man is the centre of the universe, including the world of the dead. Tempels wrote that “man is the supreme force, the most powerful among created beings” (p. 46). He can renew his vital force by tapping the strength of other creatures. He wrote further, “Each being has been endowed by God with a certain force, capable of strengthening the vital energy of the strongest being of all creation: man” (p. 22).

Anu (Animal, tame and wild): This category of being comprises forces not endowed with reason. They are ruled by instincts. They are all under the force of man and exist for man. According to Tempels, “In fact even inferior beings, such as inanimate beings and minerals, are forces which by reason of their nature have been put at the disposal of men, of living human forces, or of men’s vital forces” (p. 31). In another text, he wrote, “These lower beings exist, by Divine decree, only for the assistance of the higher created being” (p. 46). They are used to feed human beings and also for offering sacrifices to God, divinities and the ancestors.

Ife (things): Edeh (1985) avers that “the Igbo word ife primarily means thing, anything material or immaterial. It is used to refer to a happening, an event, an occurrence. Ife can also be affixed to any adjective to mean specific things” (p. 95). For instance, ife obuna (anything), ife ebube (thing of wonder), ife ojoo (bad thing), ife oma (good thing). Ife as a force cannot act for itself, and thus can only become active when a greater force like God, divinities, spirits and man act on them. They have no will of their own and thus depend on the will of a greater force.

Ebe (Space): Space talks about place. It is the relation of distance between any two bodies or points. It responds to the question of where. For instance, where did you see Emeka? Where did you pick-up Nnamdi? Where was the sacrifice offered? According to Ijiomah (2005) space in Igbo ontology consists of three levels: they are the sky, the earth and the underworld: “the sky is where God Chukwu or Chineke and angels reside; the earth where man, animals, natural resources, some devils and some physical observable realities abide; and the underworld where ancestors and some bad spirits live” (p. 84). Ekwealor (1990), corroborated Ijiomah’s perspective when he categorized the Igbo-African universe into three spheres: Elu-Igwe or sky, Alammadu or the world of the living and Alammuo or the land of the spirits. The idea of space is known through sight, touch and supra-sensory insight.

Oge (Time): Time responds to questions such as: when did you see Emeka? When did you pick-up Nnamdi? When was the sacrifice offered? Mbiti (1970) defined the African concept of time as “the composition of events which have occurred, those that are taking place now and those which are immediately to occur” (p. 17). Thus, the African concept of time is concrete and substantive. It is epochal, as it is wrapped around events and activities. Iroegbu (1995) avers that it is in time the Africans perform or fails to perform, and that his future and destiny are based on his use of time.

  1. The Human Person and Immortality

According to Oduwole (2010), Yoruba scholars agree that the human person is made up of three basic elements: Ara (body), Emi (breath) and Ori (soul). This is also true of the constituents of man in Igbo ontology: Obi heart or breath, Chi destiny, Eke or Agu ancestral guardian. Idowu (1962) describes the body as the concrete, tangible thing of flesh and bones which can be known through the senses. As regards the Emi, he describes it as spirit, and this is invisible. It is that which gives life to the whole body and thus could be described through its causal functions: Its presence in the body of a person determines if the person still lives or is dead. According to Oduwole (2010), the body is the creation of Orisha nla (Arch-divinity). He was assigned by Olodumare (the Supreme Being) to mould the body of human beings. It is only the Supreme Being that puts the spirit into the body so as to give it life. Yoruba philosophy on the human person does not end with the body and spirit, there is a third element called the soul. The soul affirms that the human person already has individuality in the spiritual world before birth. From this understanding, life does not begin with birth, it begins as soon as one acquires the soul which defines a person’s individuality. The soul of the human person begins to live even before there is a body for its abode.

  1. The Word

Jahn (1958) observes that the Word occupies a significant place in African philosophy. He avers that “All the activities of men, and all the movement in nature, rest on the word, on the productive power of the word” (p. 126). As such, Jahn (1958) avers that:

If there were no word, all forces would be frozen, there would be no procreation, no change, no life... For the word holds the course of things in train and changes and transforms them. And since the word has this power, every word is an effective word, every word is binding. There is no ‘harmless’, noncommittal word. Every word has consequences. Therefore the word binds the muntu. And the muntu is responsible for his word. (p. 133).

African medicine, talisman, magic, poison etc are only effective through the word. Thus, all African medicines are ineffective without the genuine power of the word. A man is not just cured by the medicine but by the words that issue forth from the mouth of the medicine man. Thus, the stronger a medicine man, the stronger his word and the stronger will his medicine be. Generally, the African has more faith in the power of the word than in the power of the substance given to him by the medicine man. Blessing, curse, magic, incantation, exorcism, etc are based on the power of the word. The word was with God at creation, for all things were created through the word, but with the creation of man, God has given the word to man, who unceasingly creates and procreates through the word. As God was able to say, “Let there be light and there was light”, the African man is also capable of such utterance. Relying on Bantu philosophy, Jahn (1958) wrote, “The word force of one muntu is different from the word force of another: the nommo of Amma or Olorun or Bon Dieu is more powerful than the word of a living individual, or the nommo of an Orisha more powerful than that of one’s death father. The hierarchy of the Bantu (men both living and dead), is ordered according to the force of each one’s word. The word itself is force” (p. 133). As such, man can say ‘let the moon fall down’ and it would fall, unless a more powerful being by the force of its word had placed the moon there.

  1. Witchcraft

Withcraft according to Okpalike (2012) is both a religion and a craft. It consists in magic, sorcery, augury, divination, necromancy, fortune-telling, clairvoyance, etc. Offiong (1991) avers that “It is a psychic act through which socially disapproved supernatural techniques influence events” (p. 78). It is described as psychic and supernatural because, as Nadel (1952) observes, their activities take place in a fantasy realm, which is intangible and beyond empirical verification. How does a person become a witch? Arazu (2003) insinuates that a person becomes a witch by eating a witchcraft substance, and once it is eaten, the witch compulsively engages in a kind of astral travel with the mission to destroy. One can also be a witch by marrying from a family of witches, or when a person is given birth to by a witch. They have the sole mission of propagating evil, and when they die, they become evil spirits.

Witches can infest another person with a disease beyond cure, eat the soul of a person; they can send flies or other insects to cause a disease in their victim, once the fly perches on the person, the effect manifests; they can dig holes and bury things which when matched by the victim would be infected by a dangerous disease. They can send hairs, nails, pins etc., into the body of their victims which would bring about ill-health. At night, their spirits can leave them to go and bite their victim or cause him or her harm. At night, some of them can turn into all kinds of animals like lion to visit their enemies. They can turn into goats or pigs to destroy an enemy’s farm. At the heart of all these is jealousy or tension between neighbours and even family members. Witchcraft, thus, becomes a way to revenge or to humiliate the other person who has been tagged the enemy. They spread evil spirits and create disharmony among people, and also the propagate immorality among people.

A witch cannot denounce being a witch. It is not learnt or gained by being possessed by a particular spirit, it is a way of life. This would therefore mean that a witch cannot be exorcized because it is not a case of possession, and they sometimes act even without knowing that they are acting or having control over their actions. According to Arazu (2003), witches observe some rudiments in their daily life like austerity, keeping away from the ordinary life-style and observing the ritual of their cult. They employ the instrument of divination for the carrying out of their purposes. They possess the ability to divine through crystal ball gazing, gazing into the pool, mirror etc. Divination is therefore a very fundamental part of witchcraft.

  1. Magic

Offiong (1991) defined magic as “Those supernatural devices employed by man to achieve his end with the help of spirits and gods... Magic involves an attempt by man, through the aid of the gods or spirits, to tap and control the supernatural resources of the universe for his personal benefit” (p. 33). These powers could be manipulated for both good and bad ends through the rituals of prayers, worship, sacrifices, among others. When it is directed towards a good end, it can be used to cure a sick person, foresee the future etc. However, when it is directed toward a bad end, it can be used to kill a rival, turn a suitor away, crumble a person’s business, to make rain to fall, etc. In whichever case, objects such as charms, amulets, concoctions are used. There is also a great dependence on incantations, deep breathing, fasting, the reliance on prayers, fasting, worship, sacrifices, etc., speaks of a strong connection between magic and religion. However, magic differs from religion in the sense that its instrument of operation is manipulation rather than supplication without any address to the Supreme Being in a spirit of submission and appeal; it is not emotional and operates on a professional-client relationship. Just like in the case of divination, magic is an important practice in witchcraft.

  1. Causality

If the question, ‘Does anything just happen?’ were put to an African, what would be his response? For the African, according to Aja (2001), the world is an ordered universe in which all events are caused and potentially explicable. Thus Gyekye (1987) maintains the doctrine of universal causation in the Akan-African world. The African does not just speak of mechanical, chemical and psychological interactions like his Western counterparts; he also speaks of a metaphysical kind of causality, which binds the creator to the creature. Reacting to the Western concept of chance, which believes that things could happen by chance, Ozumba (2004) argues that what they call chance is their ignorance of the series of actions and reactions that have given rise to a given event.

Although Gyekye (1987) maintains a universal doctrine of causality in African ontology, he emphasizes that in African causality, greater attention is paid to extraordinary events and not natural events or regular occurrences when issues of causality is discussed. Regular or natural events would include, rain during rainy season, drought during dry season, a pregnancy that lasts nine months, the growth of plants, catching of few fish at some particular times of the year etc. Such events do not constitute a problem for the mind of the African, because, as Gyekye argues “such events are held by them to be part of the order established by the omnipotent creator” (p. 77). They are empirical, scientific and non-supernaturalistic. They have been observed by people who now know that there is a necessary connection between such events, for instance, they know that during dry season, the river dries up, or that a child stays in the mother’s womb for nine months before delivery. Extraordinary or contingent are those that engage the minds of Africans, and such events would include, a woman being pregnant for more than nine months, drought during rainy season, a tree falling and killing a man. These events according to Gyekye have particular traits that make them mind disturbing, “They are infrequent and hence are considered abnormal; they are discrete and isolated; they appear to be puzzling, bizarre, and incomprehensible; they are not considered subsumable under any immediate known law of nature” (p. 78). The events are deemed insufficient to explain their causes, thus, the ultimate cause of the event is sought. The interest is not on what has happened but why it happened. Thus, not that the tree has fallen, but why it fell on a particular man and not on the ground or on any other man.

  1. Conclusion

To capture the entirety of African metaphysics just in a work of this kind would be quite difficult to achieve. This is because, the concern of metaphysics which is being- covers the entirety of reality and therefore, very broad. This explains why most African philosophers, rather than deal with African metaphysics as a theme with multiple sub-themes would prefer to deal with only a theme of metaphysics as their subject of inquiry. This also explains why, while there are several books on God, the person, immortality, the soul, etc, there are only a few books on African metaphysics. This work has made, not an exhausted research on African metaphysics, but has rather contributed to the corpus of literature now referred to as African metaphysics, hoping that more writings may be inspired in this direction.


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