African Philosophy as the Love of Wisdom

Adeshina Afolayan


  1. Introduction
  2. The Debate in African Philosophy and Development: Are We any Wiser?
  3. Which Wisdom? What Philosophy?
  4. Development and the Task for an African Philosopher
  5. References
  1. Introduction

Philosophy originates from wonder. This is in spite of any cultural arguments for its provincial essence. According to Aristotle, “all men by nature have a desire to know”2 This primal curiosity is captured in the etymology of philosophy as philosophia: the love of wisdom. However, and may be due to what we can call the academic or professional moment in the history of philosophy, this description has become an obfuscation rather than a significant reference to the essence of the philosophical enterprise. In other words, professional philosophers, hard pressed to define their discipline, escape into etymology. Yet, the wisdom which philosophy is supposed to pursue disappears in the theoretical haze created by the critical and perennial altercations that became the stock in trade of philosophers. Here exactly is the locus of the frustration which the study of philosophy holds for students and laymen alike. Philosophy yields little of what it promised.3

The neglect of wisdom by the professional philosophers has a historical trajectory. For the ancients, the chief end of philosophy is wisdom which translates to the achievement of a good and happy life for the people. According to a commentator,

…philosophy is the reflective life, the examined life, the assumption being that the unexamined life is not worth living. Philosophy should form human beings and not just inform them. But it should not be forgotten that although the unexamined life is not worth living, the unlived life is not worth examining and philosophy for the ancients was not divorced from the practical to and fro of everyday social life. Rather, philosophy as a reflective practice of examining what passes for truth in the name of truth is something that took place in …the polis, the public realm of political life.4

Thus, philosophy was the love of wisdom until the separation of philosophy from science when the role of the former changed dramatically from the queen of the sciences (in, say, Plato) that of the under-labourer of science (in Locke). There is no doubt that since the revolutionary 17th century, we have been living in a scientific world; or precisely, a world dedicated to scientia, that is, to the growth and accumulation of knowledge as an inquiry into how things are the way they are. Put in other words, the progress of science in this sense is supposed to lead to the resolution of the problem of knowledge characterized as approximating the truth about “man’s conception of himself, of the world, and of God.” However, Curnow remarks, “With a massive helping hand from Newton, a mechanical outlook was developed which had no place for God, along with a fairly inconspicuous one for man”5

Descartes’ contribution to the scientific revolution of the 17th century gives us an insight into how philosophy came to acquire its under-labourer toga and philosophers became infatuated with the scientific quest for knowledge. Descartes’ intervention, that is, made possible the metamorphosis of philosophy into epistemology (i.e. the theory of knowledge). Knowledge in this sense plays on the Greek episteme which is similar to the Latin scientia. Cartesian philosophical framework therefore becomes “overwhelmingly concerned with logical and methodological questions as to how we know what we know, and in virtue of what such knowledge is valid. Philosophy becomes a theoretical enquiry into the conditions under which scientific knowledge is possible”6 This framework has remained the mould for “universal,” Western philosophy to date.

The fundamental question that follows this construction of “philosophy” is simple: Does scientia/episteme require the “appendectomy of wisdom”? Specifically, how does this negligence of philosophia manifest in contemporary African philosophy and thus affect the African philosophical project? We have a clue in Wirendu’s diagnosis of what he considers to be Africa’s problem of development. This problem precisely is that “much of the knowledge we need in Africa now is in the hands and sometimes in the heads of non-Africans.” This dilemma therefore gives rise to “a certain ambivalence” in the attitude of African intellectuals to scientific and technological achievements. This is more so that scientific and technological advancement, especially in the West, has not led to the attainment of a humane society. Wirendu concludes that we can,

….reformulate our problem as being concerned with how to exploit all the resources of the modern world for the benefit of our society without jeopardizing the strong points of our culture. But this is also our problem of development. It is probably uncontroversial to suggest that a very significant proportion of the terrible reverse that Africa has suffered in the decades after independence has been due to ill-conceived programmes of modernization. Our principal problem of development, then, is, by and large, a problem of knowledge, which is, perhaps a bottom, also a problem of wisdom.7

How does this suggestion serve as a critical diagnosis of the contemporary African philosophical landscape? More significantly, how does it provide a pathway for the attainment of an African philosophy of wisdom geared towards a wholesome African development? In the succeeding section, I will firstly analyze the African philosophical debate, then I will confront the question of wisdom. Finally, I will suggest a new direction for African philosophers within the framework of Wirendu’s African philosophical project. My hypothesis is that the consideration of philosophia in the practice of African philosophy has a crucial advantage against the background of a methodological image of contemporary philosophy in Africa. Wirendu’s project i will argue eventually serves as a juncture for a reconnection with the fundamental essence of philosophy as philosophia which will serve as the fulcrum for initiating a beneficial conversation between local culture, and global scientific expertise.

  1. The Debate in African Philosophy and Development: Are We any Wiser?

Professional philosophy in Africa, it seems to me, rode to a spurious triumph over ethno-philosophy in the very attempt to validate “universal” philosophy as, in Nelsen’s words, “the analysis of concepts and the attempt to spot, articulate, analyze and, in some instances, criticize the underlying presuppositions of our belief-ssssystems”8. It would soon be obvious why the pursuit of wisdom is conspicuously absent in such a rigorous conception of philosophy in Africa. Hountondji and Bodunrin are significant as representatives of the professional school in African philosophy. Hountondji’s argument is very simple. The attempt by ethno-philosophers to project philosophy on orature is a categorical mistake because orature (fables, dynastic poems, epics, proverbs, myths, and so on) is extra-philosophical; philosophy itself for him, is a discursiveness in its confrontation with itself.9 Orature, therefore, becomes a pre-text of culture in that it predates the formulation of universal philosophy.

Hountondji’s absolutism about the theoretical circumference of the universe of philosophy derives from his conception of philosophy as a rigorous science which is methodologically different from, say anthropology and ethnology. For instance, Hountondji will not be unduly alarmed with the descriptive analysis of human cultural ideas and institutions as long as this social science method best depict the scholarship effort in ethnology and cultural anthropology. What constitutes a problem is the attempt by social scientists, anthropologists and ethnologists to proceed “to the study of beliefs and values and draw conclusions about the mode of thought that are imputed to their formulation and observance…”10. Bodudnrin agrees with this methodological or theoretical reading of the template of universal philosophy. Essentially, for him, philosophy is Western philosophy. It is also as discursive as Hountondji construes it11. Bodunrin is also in agreement with the philosophers’ obsession with the scientific quest for knowledge with is Descartes’ legacy for modern philosophy. The philosophers’ episteme therefore matches the scientists’ scientia as means of dictating the trends for modern existence.

To further the point of this theoretical or methodological convergence between Western philosophy and African philosophy, Owolabi draws a critical conclusion which for him is one of the essential challenges facing African philosophers. According to him, the basic question to which the African philosopher must find an answer is “Do we have in pre-colonial Africa a tradition of philosophy on which contemporary efforts can be established?”12 It is a short step to the methodological consequence that such a challenge was bound to generate. And this has to do with the establishment of “an appropriate means of extracting the indigenous philosophical tradition from the culture of African people.” Here, again we confront the pervasive influence of Descartes’ Discourse on Method as the defining moment in Western, and consequently African philosophy.

In taking up this methodological challenge, African philosophers have gone on to adumbrate several methods as the appropriate means of doing Africa philosophy. We can therefore say that apart from the issue of the existence or non-existence of African philosophy on which the practitioners wasted much intellectual efforts, the history of contemporary African philosophy has been largely determined by the methodological challenge (or what Janz considers to be metaphilosophical questions13). There have been several methodological orientations since Oruka’s famous typology. An unsophisticated classification simply distinguishes between the traditionalists and the modernists (or its variants: the traditionalist and the analytic philosophers: the universalist and the culturalist: the ethno-philosophers and the professional philosophers: and so on)14. This basic distinction can also be elaborated into four: the ethno-philosophical or descriptive school, the sagacious (or sage-ethnological) school, the nationalist (or nationalist-ideological-political) school, and the professional (or linguistic-analytic) school. In recent times however, there had been critical occasions that justify the proliferation of more methodological schools; the hermeneutical (or phenomenological) approach, the narrative approach (or the narrative-hermeneutic approach15), literary artistic approach, and so on.

In “Not a House Divided,” Barry Hallen is worried about the implication of a methodological alteration or a “divided philosophical house” on the practice of an African philosophy that is germane to African existence. His basic concern is that south methodological division does not enhance mutual understanding that can move the African philosophical project forward. In most cases, he argues, these methodological taxonomies are perceived as inherently incommensurable.16 Wamba dia Wamba shows a similar perplexity with this methodological fixation. From Hallen’s disturbing diagnosis of the theoretical implication of philosophizing in Africa, it seems obvious to Wamba that “African philosophy a name for a multiplicity of ‘possitions’ and perhaps a multiple of multiples.” Consequently, he argues, one can ask “From which position {one should} characterize African philosophy?17 The significant issue, for him, is that within the multiplicity of methodological orientations emanating from the theoretical polemics that are threatening to become perennial in the best tradition of Western philosophy. African philosophers have devoted little thought, ’to the search and explication of the conditions for an African philosophy.18

However, the diagnosis of Hallen goes beyond the perceived hostility that prevents mutual understanding among the plethora of positions that constitute African philosophy. For one, a distressing implication of such a divided house is that the theoretical dividends of such polemics (if there is any at all) would definitely be over the head of the African people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the African philosophical enterprise. In other words, the enterprise of philosophy becomes dissociated from public life and ceases to be a “public phenomenon.” Consider for instance the analytic philosophers’ preoccupation with language as the context from which to get a “better” understanding of philosophical problems. Given the background of the analytic tradition in British empiricism, Hallen contends that the philosophers relate to the concepts and problems “as if they were stable and static ‘things’ existing in a (culturally and historically) neutral environment that makes sit possible to perform various definite experiments and tests with and upon them,” and that makes them verifiable for other sand hence of universal applicability.19

Furthermore, both analytic philosophy with its concern with language or the hermeneutical philosophy and its obsession with “experience”, are polarized along the methodological fault-lines emanating from Western philosophy. They therefore share the crippling shortcomings of the historical frameworks or world-views that give rise to them. Thus, British empiricism is taken to suffer from “the worst excesses of Anglo-Saxon empiricist small-mindedness.”20 It is constrained, that is, by its scientistic or positivistic trimmings. On its own, the hermeneutical tradition is simply the “contemporary manifestations of (European) Continental philosophy’s long time obsession with introspection, supposed methodologically sanitized by various cognitive measures that are designed to promoted inter subjectivity (sharing via dialogue, etc).”21 It is therefore also constrained by its subjectivity contrasted to the supposed objectivity of British empiricism.

Either way, the significance of both methodologies for the furtherance of the cause of a genuine African philosophical project becomes suspect. Messay Kebede has carried out the analysis of these orientations and the disturbing methodological confusions in a context where it would seem to matter most to the African people: African development. One of the underlying assumptions of Kebede’s analysis is that the African philosophical debate between ethno-philosophy and professional philosophy results from the failure of African development. This is because, for him, “discordance between human aspirations and the objective world has always provoked philosophical reflections.”23 Specifically, the underdevelopment of Africa has often been ascribed to the incidence of colonialism and neo-colonialism. However, colonialism provoked a deep philosophical thought that possesses serious implications for African identity and being.

This philosophical debate centres round the concept of humanity and its essential feature of rationality, and Africa’s (non-) participation in it. In development terms, this debate was couched in terms of the tradition-modernity dichotomy: Africa’s traditionality was juxtaposed to the West’s challenge including to re-examine their legacy and culture.” Summing up the philosophical orientations that coalesced around the debate, Kebede argues:

Should Africans feel that a major reason for inadequacy is the loss of identity, we see them engaged in the tasks of restoring pre-colonial links. Should they decide that the pre-colonial heritage obstructs advancement, they feel compelled to adopt a critical attitude with the view of strengthening universalist leanings to the detriment of particularism. In either case, they are at variance with themselves so that …African philosophy draws it breath from “the experience of tear.”24

What can we begin to deduce from the preceding analysis? It seems to me that the concept of African development, like that of African philosophy, is equally embroiled in the problem of authenticity, identity and legitimation. And this is clear from the context of the tradition-modernity debate in which Kebede argues rightly that the issue of African development (and philosophy, by association) can be situated. Modernity, in current thinking, is supposedly validated by the theoretical weight given to the scientific revolution by Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, and Newton. But science did not only validate modernity, it also became the paradigmatic badge of universal knowledge and of knowing. It is undeniable, as Foucault and Said have pointed out, that power and knowledge reciprocally legitimate each other. If it is essentially correct that the nature of science as a universal epistemic discourse is crucially legitimated by the Eurocentric structure of power, then Kom is right to ask how the powerless are to gain access to legitimate knowledge on their own terms. According to Kom:

…the stake here is no longer even one of trying to go into reverse but rather of knowing whether there exist in African not only the conditions but also, and more especially, the desire on the part of Africans themselves to create an autonomous framework for the validation and appropriation of local knowledge, which could help them better to perceive their environment and construct a context for living which is suited to their own aspirations.25


Kom is here confronted, like any other Afrocentric scholars, with the dilemma of ensuring the integrity of local knowledge which faced with the brute necessity of utilizing global (and dominant) scientific and technological know-how, however legitimated. In other words, how ought we to construct the framework for hybridized knowledge? Or, as Ashcroft puts kit: “How then, does the postcolonial subject negotiate power while producing knowledge?”26 For Wirendu, the dilemma of preserving our indigenous culture while at the same time utilizing global scientific knowledge must ultimately be read as a problem of wisdom. Thus, in Wirendu’s African philosophical project, we turn full circle to confront the concept philosophia. Thus, given their predilection for methodological alterations, we can seriously ask whether African philosophers really love wisdom. But, first, what does wisdom entail?

  1. Which Wisdom? What Philosophy?

We should begin by noting three undeniable things about the concept of wisdom that should guide our discussion. The first is that, in spite of its universal esteem, there is no univocal and universal agreement on the concept of wisdom. Secondly, and especially for the ancient Greeks, it is usually regarded as the property of the gods rather than humans. As such it becomes an ideal, “the highest knowledge men were capable of and the most desirable patterns of human behaviour.” Finally, for Curnow, “those who allow it a place within the human frame of reference often saw it as embodied in concrete individuals rather than in written texts.”27

The most dramatic means of illustrating the ideal nature of wisdom is given by Plato in the Apology. At his trial, Socrates alluded to the proclamation of the Delphic oracle that he was the wisest of all men. In an attempt to “find out the meaning of the oracle,” Socrates took up his lifelong task of interrogating those who by common reckoning are wise politicians, poets, artisans and many others. After carrying out the task for most of his life, he came away disappointed but with an idea of what the oracle really meant about his ‘wisdom”:

When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself…. So I left him, saying to myself…Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really fine and good, I am better off than he is ----for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows, I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another who had still higher pretensions to wisdom, and my conclusions was exactly the same…--- because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters…28

Given Socrates’s conclusion, we are only further perplexed as to what makes a person a lover of wisdom? There have been two theoretical responses to this perplexity: Nielsen’s and Mckee’s.

Nielsen’s basic objective in “Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom” is to demonstrate, through critical analysis, the ideality of wisdom. He aims to show that there is no answer to the question of what wisdom is, that is not illusory and unsatisfactory. He begins with a rebuttal of Mckee’s definition of philosophy solely in terms of the search for wisdom. This is because, for him, philosophy solely in terms of the search for wisdom. This is because, for him, philosophy is also: the analysis of concepts and the attempt to spotarticulate, analyze and in some instances, criticize the underlying presuppositions of our belief-systems. It is argument for or against certain fundamental propositions of thought and action. It is an attempt to see how things hand together and much else besides,”29 The application of this critical function to the analysis of “wisdom” therefore leave us short of a definition or characterization. He considers for instance a definition of wisdom in terms of “the truth about life” or “a deep understanding of life together with an understanding into the living of our lives”. This appears for him to be the crucial link which the “wisdom-philosophers” (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Montaigne, Spinoza, and Schopenhauer) hold between the attainment of the knowledge of the good and the capacity to live a good and happy life.30 His conclusion:

But puzzled as we are about wisdom, we will be just about as puzzled about, and perhaps very skeptical of talk of “the truth about live.” What are we talking about here? Is there any such thing? Do we have any idea of what we should have to gain to gain it? How would we know or come plausibly to believe that we had attained something of the “truth about life?” Is this anything much than an emotive label? Similar things would be said about ‘a deep understanding of life.”31

This conscious goes for all the other possible definitions and descriptions he considers, including Mckee’s. To suppose that wisdom is susceptible to a univocal definition is to read too much into the nature of an ideal. In other words, there are several perspectives on the ideal. Beyond this point, philosophy dissolves into banal polemics that serve no purpose.

An alternative explanation is to see the concept of wisdom more like the Wittgensteinian “game” – good definitions always come in a particular context of a family resemblance. Nielsen seems to concede this crucial point when he notes that “Socrates showed no more wisdom to concede this crucial point when he notes that “Socrates showed no more wisdom than Meno in seeing Meno’s error but he does show more wisdom than Scientisticus in freeing himself from temptation to overestimate the reach of technical expertise.”32 This concession eventually serves as the turning point in his analysis at he finally comes around to considering “a viable conception of wisdom” that emanates from something about the content of the latter case of Socrates and Scientisticus. This has to do with a particular relation to band truisms and their meanings in our lives that is, “the good sense to take seriously one unquestionable truth of the truisms.” He again cities Godlovitch to express the sense of what wisdom means here:

Godlovitch puts the matter well, I believe, when he remarks that the knowledge we need in the attainment of wisdom “is…universal, unchanging, and whatever else one may need to characterize its necessity. Where the wise emerge amidst this apparent banality of context is in taking such knowledge seriously, recognizing how very stably true it is in the midst of passing, deception so easily winning its victms.33

It is really not clear how this conclusion is fundamentally different from that of Mckee which it is supposed to supplant. Mckee’s analysis of wisdom takes off from Socrates’ experience with interrogating those who have the reputation for wisdom. For Socrates, the validation of the oracle’s proclamation of his wisdom consists in his knowing that he really does snot know. What makes this a case of wisdom? Mckee uses the idea of illusion, a basic idea in Plato, as a means of teasing out what Socrates’ idea of wisdom is. This is especially so if we are mindful of the fact that Socrates attributed error to those he interviewed who all have a tendency to overrate their technical proficiency. Thus, Mckee argues, if technical expertise possess a seduction that tempts us to overrate its utility, then, in Socrates’ case, this tendency to overestimate technical expertise becomes an illusion and wisdom must have something to do with overcoming this illusion.

Though what he calls the experience of “seeing through illusion”, Mckee contends that we arrive at the core of what constitute wisdom. This experience contains two levels:

First, there is empathetic awareness of an error’s attraction. I can understand, for example, the pull toward Meno’s idea of doubling the length of the side {of a square in order to double its area}. It is not alien to me. Second, I see the error so clear for the error that it is that I experience freedom from it, an immunity to its appeal. Though I can empathize with the temptation, appreciate its power, I am not tempted. I can see where Meno is coming from, but I have no inclination myself, seeing the issue in the way I now do, to seriously embrace “double the side” as a solution to the given problem. I don’t resist the temptation. I don’t have to. I see it too clearly for the fallacy it is.34

That given this characterization, Socrates’ wisdom does not consist in having some item of further information over those he interrogated, rather, it consists in his seeing through the illusion of overestimating technical proficiency. However, assume that Socrates can empathize with the temptation, and also avoids falling into it but all the while he suffers from the temptations by wishing to yield to it. For Mckee, this case only gives us the opportunity to further clarify the point that “to qualify as being ‘wise’ in some respect we must not only do or believe what is wise but do so from wisdom, or on the basis of having seen through an illusion”35

Where does this analysis of what wisdom means take us, especially in our consideration of the proper function of African philosophy? Or, put in culture and global scientific and technological expertise? And how ought African philosophers participate in such mediation?

  1. Development and the Task for an African Philosopher

Before we go on, we should be reminded of our earlier diagnosis of the emergence of science as scientia and the quest for knowledge which it engenders. The fascination, we saw, of the professional philosopher with the project consequently led to the pursuit of episteme and the resulting methodological agenda. We also argued that African philosophers share in this methodological distraction which pursue logical and epistemic questions, especially about how African philosophy ought to be done. Such a methodological agenda is not different from what, Maxwell calls “knowledge-inquiry.” Contrasted to “wisdom-inquiry.”

Knowing-inquiry, all too often fails to nourish “the holy curiosity of inquiry”, and may even crush it out altogether knowledge-inquiry gives no rational role to emotion and desire, passionate curiosity, a sense of mystery of wonder have, officially, no place within the rational pursuit of knowledge…. Knowledge –inquiry hardly encourages the view that inquiry at its most fundamental is thinking that goes on as a part of life: on the contrary, kit upholds the idea that fundamental research is highly esoteric, conducted by in contexts remote from ordinary life. Even though the aim of inquiry may, officially, be human knowledge, the personal and social dimension of this is all too easily lost sight of, and progress in knowledge is conceived of in impersonal terms, stored lifeless in books and journals.36

In Maxwell’s view, this is an unfortunate consequence of a hitherto brilliant idea conceived by the Enlightenment, philosopher-Diderot, Voltaire, d’Alembert. Condorcet, etc-of translating scientific progress into social progress. However, brilliant this idea was, the philosophes failed to carry it through. Their blunder, according to Maxwell, was three-fold. The most crucial of the blunders for academic inquiry is that, having failed to generalize the nationality of science to other areas of human endeavour, the philosophes went on to develop social inquiry as social science rather than as social methodology or social philosophy. The traditional Enlightenment, that is “generalized scientific method, not to social life, but merely to social science! Instead of helping humanity learn how to create a wiser, more enlightened, civilized world… the traditional Enlightenment has sought merely to help social scientists improve knowledge of social phenomena.37 The implication is that, for Maxwell, scientific and technological expertise became critically dissociated from “a more fundamental concern with how we can tackle our conflicts and problems of living in more just, humane, cooperatively rational ways…”38

In Socrates’ reckoning, science would be bereft of wisdom because what counts as progress is simply an unrelenting onslaught motivated by scientia on almost every aspect of the human. The paradox however is that science and technology are opening up the boundaries of the human without at the same time being humane. Thus, given the exponential increase in the human power to act and the accompanying crisis initiated by the power to destroy, wisdom becomes necessary. But wisdom in terms of what?

It should no longer be difficult to understand how we can begin to extend Wirendu’s cursory but tantalizing suggestion that Africa’s problem of development is really a problem of knowledge. While in agreement with the analysis of Socrates and Maxwell, Wirendu however extends the terms of the critique. He distinguishes between humane and technical rationality. Scientific and technological know-how, as we have seen only possess the latter rationality which crucially does not really ensure the promotion of human well-being. By contrast, humane rationality, to which the expertise of science and technology should be bent, according to Wirendu, ought to create “conditions under which individuals will have the chance of realizing their own interests, conceived as being intrinsically bound up with the interest of others in society.”39 Thus, since Africans cannot afford any kind of ambivalence to technical development. Wirendu argues that the real dilemma is how to couple humane rationality into the fabric of technical development.

Without doubt, we can only agree with Wiredu that philosophy has “conceptual concerns” with both kinds of rationality. It however takes little reflection to note which of the two constitutes the requisite thinking “dedicated not only to securing a clear and coherent picture of the first principles of social existence but also to venturing concrete suggestions on social action.”40 It is only in this sense, Wirendu opines, that (African) philosophy can really be an ethical enterprise, and therefore existentially meaningful for the ordinary Africans who have no aptitude for philosophical wrangling.

Given the preceding analysis, therefore, we shave the basis for now suggesting three plausible conditions for an authentic African philosophy of wisdom that will be the first step towards the genuine resolution of Africa’s problem of development.

  1. African philosophy must constitute itself into a wise and critical avenue for confronting the technical rationality embedded in scientific and technological know-how. For Russell, this requires a sense of proportion that will eventually assist the African philosopher in seeing through the illusion of technical rationality and its supposed explanation for every aspect of human life. Critchley gives us an insight into the tempting allures of scientific thinking:

As we are all acutely aware, we live in a scientific world, a world where we are expected to provide empirical evidence for our claims or find those claims rightly rejected. The scientific conception of the world…dominates the way we see things and perhaps even more importantly, the way we expect to see things. We expect to see things somewhat like spectators in a theatre where we can inspect them theoretically….Things are present as objects that are empirically and immediately given in the form of sensations or representations. Science gives us the knowledge of the nature of such things.41

A comprehensive vision, which is a prerequisite of wisdom, will not encourage any methodological compartmentalization into divisive “orientations”. Methodologies, which no doubt have their own utility, will only be relevant to the extent that they contribute to the meaningful conception of a good and happy life in Africa. An African philosopher of wisdom will therefore possess an “empathetic awareness” of the dangerous attraction of technical rationality, but his comprehensive vision of the practical mission of philosophy takes him beyond the temptation of succumbing to the dangers.

  1. Wirendu, as we have seen, is in fundamental agreement with Dewey’s observation that “any inquiry into what is deeply and inclusively human enters perforce into the specific area of morals.”42 African philosophy must, therefore, of necessity, transcend its methodological disputations into an ethical confrontation with the problem of constructing a good and happy life for Africans. In other words, ethics becomes instrumental to the understanding of the universe of the human. The first problem of any philosophy thus becomes the understanding of the meaning of live (which hitherto has no place in academic philosophy). Maxwell rightly construes this as the proper aim of academic inquiry:

…granted that academic inquiry has as its fundamental aim, to help promote human welfare, then the problems that academic inquiry fundamentally ought to try to solve are problems of living problems of action. It is what we do, or refrain from doing, that ultimately matters…Thus, problems of living—problems of poverty, ill-health, injustice, deprivation—are solved by what we do, or refrain from doing, they are not solved by the mere provision of some item of knowledge.43

  1. The final condition for the possibility of an authentic African philosophy of wisdom is what we can call the condition of multi-disciplinarity. This is a critical necessity given the profound arrogance of (professional)philosophers especially to non-philosophical disciplines. This is one of the unfortunate consequences of the epistemic professional turn in the history of philosophy (philosophers being the sole keepers of episteme). However, it seems that the word “philosopher” carries an iota of humility. This is because the love of wisdom is not tantamount to its possession. Given, therefore, the vastness of the universe which defines the human, the African philosopher necessarily requires a multidisciplinary matrix within which to adequately elaborate the meaning of life alongside the non-philosophical disciplines like literature, sociology, etc. Without such a relaxing of academic borders, we should not be surprised that the ordinary African will continually find solace in, say, Shyinka, Achebe, Sembene, or Ngugi srather than in a Bodunrin, Hountondji, Appiah or Gyekye.


  1. Win van Binsbergen, “Editorial: The principle challenge facing the African Philosopher today.” Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy, vol. XVIII,2004, p. 7
  1. Aristotle, On Man in the Universe, edited with introduction by Louise Ropes Loomis (New York: Walter J. Black, 1943). P. 5
  2. Kai Nielsen, “Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom” Teaching Philosophy, vol. 16, No 1, March 1993, p.6
  3. Simon Critchley, “the Gap between Knowledge and Wisdom,” in Critchley,Continental Philosophy: A very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). P. 1 <>
  4. Trevor Curnow, “Wisdom and Philosophy.” Practical Philosophy. Vol. 3, No. 1. March 2000. P. 11 <>
  5. Simon Critchley, “the Gap between Knowledge and Wisdom,” p. 5.
  6. Kwasi Wirendu, “Our Problem of Knowledge: Brief Reflections on Knowledge and Development in Africa,” in Olusegun Oladipo (ed) Remarking Africa Challenges off the Twenty-First Century (Ibadan: Hope Publications, 1998), pp 22-23.
  7. Kai Nielsen, “Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom,” p. 9
  8. Paulin Hountondji, African Philosophy, Myth and Reality, trans. By Henri Evans (Lonndon: Hutchinson Universsity Library for Africa, 1983), pp 72 – 83.
  9. Barry Hallen, “Modes of Thought, Ordinary Language and Cognitive Diversity,” in Claude Sumner and Samuel Wolde Yohannes (eds) Perseptives in African Philosphy: An Athology on “Problematics of an African Philosophy: Twenty Years After (1976 – 1996)” (Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press, 2002), p. 215. Emphasis in original.
  10. P. O. bodudnrin, “Philosophy as Pivot in Economic, Social and Political Re- Orientation.” Imodoye: A Journal of African Philosophy,” vol. 1. No. 1990, p7
  11. Kolawole A. Owolabi, “The Quest for Method inAfrican Philosophy: A Defense of the Hemeneutic – Narrative Approach.” The Philosophical Forum, vol. XXXII, No. 2, Sumner 2001, p. 147.
  12. Bruce Janz, “African Philosophy“. <>
  13. This is the typology Oladipo adopts in The idea of African Philosophy: A Critical Study of the Major Orientations in Contemporary African Philosophy (Ibadan: Hope Publications, 2000).
  14. This is the specific nomenclature which Owolabi prefers for this approach which he also advocated. He included Theophilus Okere, Tsenay Serequeberham, Richard Bell as among the founders of this school with a proviso that they may not agree with his choice of label. Cf. Owolabi, “The Quest for Method in African Philosophy,” pp 152 – 162 n. 22
  15. Barry Hallen, “Not a House Divided,” Journal on African Philosophy, Issue 2, 2003 <http>//>
  16. Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, “On the State of African Philosophy and Development,” Journal on African Philosophy, Issue 2, 2003 and W. L. van der Merwe,”’African Philosophy’ and the Contextualisation of Philosophy in a Multicultural Society,” Polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy, vol. 1. 2000 <>
  17. Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, “On the State of African Philosophy and Development,”
  18. Barry Hallen, “Not a House Divided”.
  19. Sanya Osha, “Kwasi Wirendu and beyond: The Text, Writing and Thought in Africa” (Dakar: CODESRIA, 2005). P. vi
  20. Barry Hallen, “Not a House Divided.”
  21. Chris Uroh (ed) Africa and the Challenge of Development in Africa” Uroh (ed) Africa and the Challenge of Development Essays by Samir Aminu (Ibadan: Hope Publications, 1998) pp 2, 3.
  22. Messay Kebede, “Development and the African Philosophical Debate,” <http://w.w.w.kzoo.eduafrica/afro.html>
  23. Messay Kebede, “Development and the African Philosophical Debate,”
  24. Ambrose Kom, “Knowledge and Legitimation,” Mots Pluriels, No. 14, June 2000
  25. Bill Ashcroft, “’Leggitimate ‘ post-colonial knowledge,” Mosts Pluriels, No. 14 June 2000>.
  26. Trevor Curnow, “Wisdom and Philosophy.” P. 10
  27. Plato, Euthyphro, Crito, Apology and Symosium, the Jowett translation revised and with an Introdution by Moses Hadas (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1967), pp 30-31, 32). Hugh Tredennick gives a more apt translation of Socrates’ conclusion: ”…on the strength of their technical proficiency they claimed a perfect understanding of every other subject,” Cited in Patrick Mckee, “Philosophy and Wisdom, “Teaching Philosophy,” vol. 13, No. 4, December 1990, p. 327.
  28. Kai Nielsen, “Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom.” p. 9
  29. Kai Nielsen, “Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom.”, pp. 6. 13
  30. Kai Nielsen, “Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom.”, p. 6
  31. Kai Nielsen, “Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom.”, p 11
  32. Godlovitch “On Wisdom.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 11, No. 1, March 1981, pp. 137 – 155
  33. Patrick Mckee, “Philosophy and Wisdom,” p. 327
  34. Patrick Mckee, “Philosophy and Wisdom, p. 328.
  35. Nicholas Maxwell, “A Revolution for Science and the Humanities: From Knowledge to Wisdom.” <http://philci_and_Humanities.doc>
  36. Nicholas Maxwell, “A Revolution for Science and the Humanities: From Knowledge to Wisdom.”
  37. Nicholas Maxwell, “In Defence of Wisdom,” Metaphilosophy, vol. 39, 2004, p. 735.
  38. Kwasi Wirendu, “Our Problem of Knowledge,” p. 18
  39. Kwasi Wirendu, “Our Problem of Knowledge,”, p. 20
  40. Simon Critchley, “The Gap between Knowledge and Wisdom,” p. 4
  41. John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p. xxvi.
  42. Nicholas Maxwell, “A Revolution for Science and the Humanities.”

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