Uniqueness of African Philosophy



  1. Uniqueness as Something Positive (Tempels and Senghor)
  2. Uniqueness as a problem (Paulin Hountondji)
  3. Kwame Appiah’s synthesis of African philosophy
  4. Endnotes

1. Uniqueness as Something Positive (Tempels and Senghor)

Sometimes the question of whether or not there is an African philosophy has a further consideration attached to it: is African philosophy unique? Placide Tempels, as we have noted, attempts to satisfy the European mind’s curiosity about whether or not Africans believe in God. Tempels discovers that Africans have a belief in God, that they have a philosophy which is recuperated from rites, rituals and myths. He believes that in studying Bantu religion, magic and myth we can discern a certain ontology.

Furthermore, Tempels discovers that, instead of ‘being’ or ‘existence’ that is the most general concept in European philosophy, it is ‘force’ that is the major category in Bantu philosophy. Every force is specific, and beings are characterized by different intensities and types of forces: a particular force can be strengthened or weakened; forces influence or act on each other. The Bantu universe is a hierarchical order of forces organized according to the strengths of their forces. High beings in the hierarchical order can influence all beings of the lower rank. Bantu’s hierarchical order of force gives rise to different ontology, ethics and law. It is a great harm to diminish one’s force. These ideas make Bantu philosophy very unique.

But could Tempels raise Bantu philosophy or thinking to the status of European philosophy? In general Tempels does not think that Bantu philosophy stands at the same level with European philosophy. So African philosophy, in Tempels’s assessment, is unique. It is a philosophy that penetrates and informs all the thought of these primitive. He declares:

We do not claim of course, that the Bantu are capable of formulating a philosophical treatise, complete with an adequate vocabulary. It is our job to proceed to such systematic development. It is we who will be able to tell them, in precise terms, what their inmost concept of being is. They will recognize themselves in our words and will acquiesce, saying, ‘You understand us now, know us completely, you ‘know in the way we ‘know.’1

There is no doubt that Tempels’s has a good intention in trying to understand Bantu world view hence he points out that the failure of educationists and missionaries to penetrate African culture was mostly due to European ignorance of the working of African universe, the belief system and thought patterns. Yet Tempels greatly succeeded in portraying Bantu as the junior brothers of Europeans. The Bantu depend on Europe to formulate their philosophy for them:

Without intending to, Tempels succeeds in reinforcing negative stereotypes about Africa by Europe because of the framework within which he works. One detects an uncharitable comparison between unstated European norms and the obviously deficient Bantu system -- all this because the comparison is taking place within parameters not constructed by the Bantu and in terms whose meanings the Bantu do not determine or control.2

Therefore uniqueness, as Imbo, highlights, turns out to be a negative blow in Tempels’s presentation. Yes Tempels’s presentation may make Europe come to realize their impatience in coming to grips with African cultures and so come up with some kind of a ‘colonial goodwill’: but it does not make Africans fare any better than they were in the eyes of Europe before Tempels’s study:

A colonial goodwill is still a colonial goodwill. Since African philosophy, according to Tempels, is unique, it takes a long time for an outsider to penetrate it; once in has been penetrated, it become clear to the outsiders that the philosophy cannot be articulated in its own vocabulary. The colonial goodwill is better placed to articulate it in his or her own more civilized and developed vocabulary. The tragedy in all this is that the European is not entering the world of African philosophy for altruistic reasons or because of any sense of its inherent worth. The lure of uniqueness is merely an enforcement to open up a strange world to the colonial mission. If one follows Tempels, the claim to uniqueness of African philosophy proves to be its undoing.3

Just as in Tempels’s estimation for Leopold Sedar Senghor, uniqueness is a positive value. Unlike the European, the Negro-African does not divide between philosophy and culture, that is, he does not compartmentalize experience. Senghor’s negritude claims that people’s institutions reflect their philosophy – the organization of the family, clan, religious rites and rituals are windows to understanding people’s philosophy. Senghor does not attempt to assimilate African values to European values. In his thinking, soul and emotions principally characterize the Negro-African. Again, he does not dispute the claim of rationality by Europe but he presses that Europe should understand that for the African, emotion and intuitions are values as well. Rationality and emotions are genuine values, and each can meaningfully contribute to human life. And the African particular contributions in music, painting, folklores, wood carving and dance are of equal worth to European logic and science.

Therefore the Negro-African is unique. Senghor is not saying that the Negro-African has no reason, but that he has “a different kind of reason – a reason of participation. Participation is knowledge of cultural, economic and religious values by intuition.”4 But the question arises: if the Negro-African is unique, why do others care? What do we make of this uniqueness? If the Negro-African is unique, are there chances that he could be comprehended by one who does not belong to the Negro-African environment? Senghor’s insistence on uniqueness would imply that strangers – Europe or the West – cannot truly comprehend or posses African culture. Following Senghor’s logic one would mean, “to understand the Negro-African philosophy of life (negritude), one needs certain principles of interpretation that are acquired only by being stepped in the world view of a particular black or African culture.”5 What is the way out? Imbo responds:

The only requirement is a sensitivity to one peculiar characteristics of that culture. Carried to its extreme conclusion, though, negritude would demand that a substantially meaningful knowledge of culture requires full participation in that culture. Human existence, nature, and the supernatural world cannot be Understood in isolation, apart from the cycle of living and celebration. So too do cultural artifacts such as sculptures and masks fail to make sense outside the context of cultural life.6

The bottom line is that cultural artifacts and symbols immersed outside of their context breed different emotion. When one reflects over the many European museums where African artefacts are scattered one realizes that they lose their cultural rituality; divested of their symbolic unity and dignity, they stare at their visitors in foreign land as dummies. Seeing Buganda royal funeral drum in an Oxford museum Okot p’Bitek – a Uganda poet – writes:
The funeral drums and the rattle gounds grow tired for lack of proper care – for which curator can by heating, tune the drum for a dance? The spirits of these drums must die because of the everlasting silence. ‘Don’t Touch!’ screams the NOTICE! But drums are for drumming not more gazing at, for dancing: for celebrating life in festivals. A saint drum, an unplayed flute . . . What are they for?7

When cultural artefacts are removed from their environment they make no much sense.
However, if we insist so much on Senghor’s uniqueness of African values, we will be led to affirm that negritude is an exclusively African thing: understood exclusively by Blacks, thus it excludes Europeans, just as Euro-centrism excludes Blacks, Euro-centrism “is the view that Europe alone accounts for the origins of cultivated society and is the seat of wisdom, science and reason.” Euro-centrism posits the European culture as the culture. According to its own point of view, Blacks have a different philosophy and culture. They have to learn the culture and philosophy of Europe if they want to be redeemed or join the mainstream of world culture.
Certainly Senghor’s negritude is a way of negotiation at the table of world culture that for long despised Afro-Black values: it is an accommodationist position which insists that uniqueness is a positive value. If Europe is kind enough to listen, negritude spells no harm; it rather extends hands for mutual complementation and embrace in the need for a new brotherhood; but whether a European can penetrate the thought pattern of the African is a different matter. Senghor’s negritude can still be rejected by the outside as an African thing, imprisoned in its peculiarity.

2. Uniqueness as a problem (Paulin Hountondji)

Paulin Hountondji thinks that there is a problem with the claim of uniqueness on the part of African philosophy. He challenges the paradigms of ethno-philosophy by claiming that philosophy has a universal appeal:

I start from the assumption that values are no one’s property, that no intrinsic necessity lies behind their distribution across various civilizations or their changing relative importance, for instance, if science is today more spectacularly developed in Europe than in Africa, this is not due to the specific and unique qualities of the whole race but to a particularly favourable set of circumstances. . . . but this purely historical accident cannot justify any claim to ownership . . . 8

Unlike the proponents of ethno-philosophy, Hountondji’s starting point is to avoid the assumption that blackness is a distinctive racial category. Hountondji lists the dangers of claiming that African philosophy is unique:

i) It is dangerous for one group to wait for another to validate its humanity. By adopting European paradigms as Senghor had done, the Negro African has a humanity dependent on the European acceptance of uniqueness. Acceptance of that uniqueness by others becomes the condition of respect and dignity. Such a conditional respect and dignity makes a mockery of the idea of the inherent worth of all persons.

ii) Claims of uniqueness do not question the legitimacy of the colonial situation in which they arise. They therefore become claims for recognition within the same oppressive situation.

iii) The literature in this genre is too oriented toward a son-African audience, trying to convince that audience that Africans too have a philosophy, and dignity that is inherent in humanity.

iv) Those claiming uniqueness act in a manner that is dangerous back-ward-looking, as if the most urgent task were to exhume, reconstitute, and defend a static past.

v) Kagame and Mbiti, who hold the belief that every language is also a complete system of thought, trade dangerously on an absolutely linguistic relativism. If every language were a different system of thought, every system of thought would be as good as any other. The problem with this linguistic relativism would be with explaining the inferences to be drawn from language that do not exhibit similar structures. The danger here is the conclusion that different language present different truths.

vi) Traditionally African thought is presented as promoting a kind of group mind, an unanimity in social and political life.9 It will be recalled that, despite the diversity along cultural and socio-political lines, negritude and its sympathizers see a unified Afro-Black race in contradistinction to European civilization. Hountondji does not posit an African civilization standing in opposition to a European civilization. For him, Africans, and what they do is not specifically African. Against this background, Hountondji claims that there is no African philosophy. What makes the difference is the geography and not the content of what Africans write about. He writes:

We re-learn to think of the success and failures, the dramas and struggles of the other cultures, as being our own drama and struggles. In a word, through the history of our cultures, through their present greatness and misery and through our own sufferings, we rediscover the adventure of a single and same humanity which has forever been seeking itself and which today more than ever must re-learn solidarity.10

Hountondji reasons that humanity’s adventure is the same, the questions Africans ask are part of the same question about man, nature and God in the whole gamut of existence.

However, the bad news for Hountondji, is that his ‘single and same humanity’ is recovered from Western eyes and European civilization! He had argued that there was a difference between oral and literate cultures in the extent to which philosophical inquiry could be fostered. Philosophy is an individual activity as opposed to an unconsciously collective cultural bank of knowledge. Hountondji accepts that science is the highest form of knowledge, whose paradigm is determined by European philosophical discourse.

What do we make of the polemic associated with the problem of uniqueness? On the one hand, we see that when their Western interlocutors deny positive values in African enterprise, Senghor and negritude sympathizers develop an idea of negritude consciousness that celebrates positive values in response to an uncompromising Euro-centrism that denied beauty and intelligence to African culture. The problem is that,

the characteristic way in which Senghor and others respond is by redefining as positive the features that European ethno-centrism attributed to Negro Africans (such as knowing by intuition, participation, and emotion). The weakness of this response is that it does not engage or deny the historical realities responsible for the Euro-centric framework. Attributes that have been defined as negative within that framework cannot simply be redefined by Senghor and others as positive within the same structure of cultural valuation.11

On the other hand, Hountondji is caught in the same mistake, he assumes without criticism that European intellectual history sets the grounds for what should count as scholarship, to which non-Europeans will aspire. Hountondji appropriates the notions of European philosophy, science and writing as universals to which non-Europeans should aspire. One appreciates Hountondji’s bold claim to an equal right to literacy, science and philosophy: but he fails to diagnose the origin of European cultural context, its development and the implications of such a claim without questioning their ownership. Scholars who insist on the African origins of Greek philosophy will part company with Hountondji’s misconceived foundation.

3 Kwame Appiah’s synthesis of African philosophy

Kwame Anthony Appiah makes a great contribution with his book called In My Father’s House African Philosophy in the Philosophy of Culture (1992), He does not advocate that we swallow African culture whole and entire. He is of the view that we save elements in African culture that are worthy of intellectual consideration, while discarding those elements that have become outdated and anachronistic. We have to make a distinction between part of the culture that is outdated (like oppressive elements and mythologies) and the new Africa, albeit is also by dent of historical accident, steeped in literature and history of ideas in the West. Appiah would think that the African philosopher belongs to two intellectual worlds: African and Western. This is a membership that enables him to carve out a theory of an Africanity that is not bounded by the all too common national and racial stereotypes of what constitutes “a real African.”

The cover of In my Father’s House is adorned with a piece of African art. In Chapter 7 of Appiah’s book, one discovers that the piece of art shown on the cover of Appiah’s book piece of art exhibited in 1987 at the Centre for African Culture in New York. In the museum that art was called “Yoruba Man with a Bicycle.” The Yoruba man is the African and his bicycle that bears the mark of Western influence on him. With this art, Appiah captures the new African situation under the burden of Western influence. This piece of art portrays a,

polyglot, speaking Yoruba and English, probably some Hausa and a little French for his trips to Cotonou or Cameroun, someone whose ‘clothes do not fit him too well.’ . . . It matters little who it was made for; what we should learn from it is the imagination that produced it. The Man with a Bicycle is produced by someone who does not care that the bicycle is the white man’s invention -- it is not there to be the Other in the Yoruba Self; it is there because someone cared for its solidity; it is there because it will take us further than our feet will take us, it is there because machines are now as African as novelists….12

The African situation is complex. The bicycle, like the white man’s influence, has come to stay. It is not a piece of commodity solely intended for the West; everyone can discern its usefulness. African arts should not be reduced to objects that are designed to satisfy non-African desires and further reduce Africans to other-machines. They should appeal generally to all intending minds.
The reduction of African arts to other machines is the implication of a view that sees the task at the moment as that of articulating for Western audience, in a language familiar to that of the audience, the tradition, social relationships, and other facts of African cultural life. Ethno-philosophers have tried to use European language to make sense to the Western audience what African values are, as we can see in the works of Janheinz Jahn, Alexie Kagame and Mbiti, although critics say that their works, perpetuate the otherness of Africa.

There are Pan-Africanists on the American scene as represented by W. E. B. DuBois and others such as Model Asante and Maulana Karenga. Their Afro-centrist theories claim that racial differences help us in understanding our common history although their opponents insist that Afro-centric theories are obsessed with race differences. In ‘The Conservation of Races’ (1987), W. E. B. DuBois develops a theory that recognizes eight distinctly differentiated race. He gives the impression that a race shares more than a common history. DuBois claims that each race has a specific message to deliver to humanity: each has to contribute to the common dialogue in the vision of reconciling all the races. The history and achievements of each race in the mainstream of universal dialogue are irreplaceable truths.

DuBois’s theory grew out of realization of the tag placed on his group as ‘coloured.’ ‘different from the Whites.’ It became a class war to be confronted with equal violence to show the equality of all. But later he realizes that the issue of race goes deeper than mere youthful counter-rebuff. Thus racial identity became much more complicated: “Racial identity presented itself as a matter of trammels and impediments, as ‘tightening bonds about my feet.’ As I looked out into my racial world the whole thing verged on tragedy. My ‘way was cloudy’ and the approach to its goals by no means straight and clear. I saw the race problem was not as I conceived, a matter of clear, fair competition, for which I was ready and eager. It was rather a matter of segregation, of hindrance and inhibitions, and my struggles against this and resentment at it began to have serious repercussion upon my inner life.”13 However, if the talk about race or the marginalization of the other in terms of his colour is not given a hearing, it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile experiences and reach out to a mutual comprehension based on common brotherhood.

But Appiah is not comfortable with the race-talk. According to him, it leads to stereotypes and keeps Africans and Afro-Americans where those who invented the race-talk want them to be. Imbo indicates that he understands the gist of Appiah’s argument to be that race-talk, stripped of the elements of common history, common ancestry, biology, and culture, which are often presented as constituting it, reveals itself to be a concept designed to keep people in their place. That people share a history does not put them into the same race because “sharing a common group history cannot be a criterion for being members of the same group, for we would have to be able to identify the group in order to identify its history.”14 Therefore Appiah does not think that language and biology are either necessary or sufficient for race-classification. He declares:

The truth is that there are no races: There is nothing in the world that can do all we ask of race to do for us. As we have seen, even the biologist’s motion has only limited uses, and the notion that DuBois required, and that underlies the more hateful racisms of the modern era, refers to nothing in the world at all. The evil that is done is done by the concept, and by easy – yet impossible – assumption as to its implications.15

Certainly, not all will agree with Appiah that there are no races. Albert Mosley in his paper ‘Negritude, Nationalism and Nativism: Racists and Racialists’ argues that Appiah is mistaken in drawing from his analysis the conclusion that there are no races.16 Mosley thinks that race-talk is useful in some of its cultural, pragmatic and historical applications: at least from analogy from the animal kingdom. Lucius Outlaw on his own part thinks that it is fruitful to reconsider the race theory of DuBois as “part of a decidedly (political) project that involves presiding norms for the social constructing of reality and identity for self-appropriation and world-making.”17 In this way, Outlaw indicates that there are some things Appiah misses in DuBois’s conception of race.

However, one still thinks that Appiah’s discussion is instructive. The dangers of accepting stereotypes in race-talks should be watched closely. The African problem is a complex one; hence the disagreement among African scholars themselves is enlightening: it points to the dialectical aspects of the African and African American scholarship in attempting to negotiate a place in world culture. Thus, for all—isolationist Africanists, ethno-philosophers and Pan-Africanists alike – Appiah’s message is that we have to be forward looking:

But the more important lesion to be drawn, I think, is from one significant reaction of African philosophers to their recognition of the limitations of ethno-philosophy: which has been turned to what Odera Oruka, the Kenyian philosopher, has dubbed ‘national-ideological philosophy’: toward, in other words, reflective articulation of the great ethical and political questions raised by the struggle through colonialism and toward post-colonial social and economic development. For African-Americans the great ethical and political questions are raised by the history of racism: and they involve more than political philosophy narrowly conceived, since there are cultural issues centrally raised by the African-American identity.18

Therefore, there is need to look forward to an understanding that embraces all without claiming that every identity is simply just like the other. Although African and African Americans can be said to ‘belong to the same race,’ different experiences have shaped their histories that these histories do legitimately stand apart. However, instead of being detained by race-talks, contemporary Africans and African Americans must go beyond stereotypes and reach out to constructing alliances across states and cultures. Contemporary culture is becoming a patrimony of all. If this is the case, we should then understand why Yoruba Man with a Bicycle is comfortable in a foreign land – in the New York museum. Thus he can make a legitimate claim, and qualify to stand as a leader of the free world.


  1. Tempels, P., Bantu philosophy. Trans. Colin King (Paris: Presence Africaine), 1952, 36.
  2. Samuel Oluchi Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy (Maryland: Rowman & Little field Publishers, Inc, 1998), 81.
  3. Samuel Oluchi Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy, 81
  4. Samuel Oluchi Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy, 83
  5. Samuel Oluchi Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy, 83
  6. Samuel Oluchi Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy, 84
  7. Okot p’Bitek, ‘On Culture, Man and Freedom,’ in Philosophy and Cultures Proceedings of the Second Afro-Asian Philosophy Conference, Nairobi, October/November 1981, ed. Henry Odera Oruka and Dismas A. Masolo (Nairobi: Bookwise, 1981), 111
  8. Paulin Hountondji, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), 177
  9. Samuel Oluchi Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy, 87 - 88
  10. Paulin Hountondji ‘The Pitfalls of Being Different.’ Diogenes International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies, 131 (fall) 1985
  11. Samuel Oluchi Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy, 87
  12. Appiah, In My Father’s House, 157
  13. W. E. B. DuBois, ‘The Concept of Race’ in I am Because We Are’, eds/. Fred Lee Hord and Jonathan Scott Lee, 259
  14. W. E. B. DuBois, ‘The Concept of Race’ in I am Because We Are’, 32
  15. W. E. B. DuBois, ‘The Concept of Race’ in I am Because We Are’, 45
  16. Albert Mosley, ‘Negritudes, Nationalism and Nativism: Racists and Racialists’ in African Philosophy: Selected Readings ed. A Mosley (Eaglewood Cliffs. N. J. Prentice Hall, 1995), 216-235.
  17. Lucius Outlaw, Against the Grain of Modernity: The Politics of Difference and the Conversation of Race, ‘In Man and World 25(1992): 463
  18. Kwame Anthony Appiah, ‘African-American Philosophy?’ in The Philosophical Forum 24 no 1 -3 (1992-1993): 29-30

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