Debate and the desire to get our concepts properly understood are two vehicles of intellectual inquiry that have helped in the establishment of philosophy as a special intellectual activity, and we have no reason to exempt African philosophy from them. Such intellectual inquiry is, however, possible only where we will all be open to the historical processes affecting and conditioning our needs, experiences, and general historical choices. This move towards a new culture is inevitable, and many African intellectuals, especially in philosophy, need to shed the antiquarian complex that is suffocating progress in many aspects of their thinking (Masolo 1994: 251).
The above view underscores the significance of debates, disputes and controversies in the growth of African philosophy. Not only do such debates encourage the growth of traditions, systems of thought and view points, they also encourage the flowering of an entirely new vision of reality and a new culture of thought. There are major and outstanding controversies in African philosophy. For four decades of African philosophy, they are, really about the only ones. These debates deal with two foremost areas: (a) the nature of African philosophy, and (b) the problems, difficulties and prospects of the history of African philosophy. We shall discuss these two outstanding controversies that appear in Nigerian Journals of Philosophy (NJOP) and also examine the level of literary scholarship as well as the state of these journals.
If there are Jewish, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim philosophies, Greek philosophy, European, Oriental and American philosophies, why did early thinkers in African philosophy need to justify the label, “African philosophy”? Where there are variegated cultures on the basis of which individual philosophers articulate, critically, their standpoints about reality, the world, life and meaning: where a philosophical discourse arises out of various traditions, why should some thinkers argue the view that African cultures are unlike others and are unable to serve as background and media for the evolution of a philosophy – African philosophy? If Descombes understands contemporary French philosophy as “coincident with the sum of discourses elaborated in France and considered by the public of today as philosophical,” for what reason must thinkers dispute the designation “African philosophy?” Much like other continental and regional philosophies, African philosophy, needs no justification, some African thinkers maintain. Against those who hold a contrary view, there developed, in African philosophy, an attempt not only to prove that Africans could philosophize, but also to determine the nature, scope, and methodology of African philosophy. And there is tremendous literature to show for it.
The preoccupation has been perceived as the “politico-philosophic” task of African philosophy. (Okere: 1983). Questioning the legitimacy of African philosophy is meaning-laden, especially in the context of the politics of world knowledge and the European supremacist ideology. Some African thinkers also saw the debate as an unwholesome attempt to limit the impact of African philosophy solely to the geographical continent, much unlike its European counterpart. These thinkers argue that, although African philosophy entails a philosophical reflection on African culture and tradition, its impact is not limited to the geographical continent Africa. Rather its influence reaches beyond Africa onto the West, since it challenges the European paradigm prevalent in the West. Given the hermeneutical, the deconstructionist and other context-based methods of philosophizing, African thinkers have demonstrated not only the existence of African philosophy, but also its significance. In this sense, African philosophy addresses the politico-philosophical questions of its origin and importance. Okere, amongst others, privileges this view of African philosophy.
From the 1970s until 1990s, issues of Nigerian Philosophical journals, like Second Order, Uche and African Philosophical Inquiry, dwelt largely on disputes over the nature of African philosophy. Particularly, early thinkers in African philosophy sought to answer the question, “Can there be an African Philosophy?” (Okere: 1983), “Is there an African Philosophy?” (Onyewuenyi: 1991). Much as the debate over the nature of African philosophy was a reaction to Tempels’s work (Tempels: 1950), African thinkers sought to disprove Levy-Bruhl’s articulation of the reigning European obnoxious image of Africa. The controversy became a fertile ground for the development of many perspectives in African philosophy. Such is the case with the various perspectives like the traditionalist approach, the nationalist-ideological, the analytical-professional, the hermeneutical, the historical, and the sage schools of thought.
Defended by their proponents, the controversy involved not just the “conditions of the possibility of African philosophy” (Okere 1983); but also investigated the definition, the nature, scope, and methodology of African philosophy. Other controversial issues include, how the term, “philosophy” is applied to African thought and beliefs; whether Africans can and do philosophize. Indeed, African thinkers found, in this controversy, ready subjects of discussion. Although the controversy, pitched one school of thought against another, the traditionalist trend against the analytic, Tempels and Kagame against such critics as Hountondji, Bodunrin vis-à-vis Odera Oruka, it also exposed the notable concerns of African philosophers over the persistent appeal of ethno-philosophy.
Thus, NJOP, at the time, devoted quite a long period to the dispute over the nature of African philosophy. Incidentally, this debate eclipsed all other concerns in African philosophy. Viewing the course of the controversy with hindsight, some African thinkers lament the enormous period of time spent on the debate alone. Ramose (2000: 1-18) views the endless dispute over African philosophy suspiciously, since already “strong arguments have been advanced to demonstrate actual existence.” For Wirendu (1980: 14-15), at issue was the problem of the identity or the African. He becomes the enormity of time accorded to “talking about African philosophy as distinct from doing it.” Preferring to “balance this concern with Meta-African philosophy with a readiness to get along with the task itself of modern philosophical thinking.” Like others, Ogunmodede (2000: 27 -44) expresses reservations about “so much energy dissipated on the debate over the existence of African philosophy.” For these and other thinkers, long-lasting controversy preoccupied African thinkers unnecessarily, and further obstructed the attention of these thinkers from considering other thematic issues and creative philosophizing.
If one argues, as these thinkers do, that the reasoned defense of African philosophy lasted a long time, such thinkers reasoned the progress of African philosophy with that of Western philosophy. And also, those thinkers tend to entertain the view that Africans need no person’s permission to be Africans. Good as these views are the comparison loses sight of the long drawn-out issues that exercised philosophers of the western tradition for ages, some of which remain unresolved to this day. Moreover, it is inappropriate to allot duration to a philosophical discourse, a tendency that betrays some ignorance of the nature of philosophy. It is important to underline the fact that meta-philosophical issues, questions and problems form an integral part of philosophy. Moreover, one is not more a philosopher for attending to thematic issues in philosophy than meta-philosophical ones. Against some thinker, who criticize the “obsession” of early thinkers in African philosophy with the nature of African philosophy, it is worthwhile to understand that some philosophers sometimes devote their lifetime to reflecting on a particular problem. Dealing with meta-philosophical problems, the debate is worth the attention accorded it.
All things considered, the debate has succeeded in reversing the marginal status of African philosophy in international academia. If, in a supplementary volume, the Encyclopedia of Philosophy found it even handed to integrate an article, which summarizes the different developments in African philosophy, decades after the publication of its eight-volumes, the more recent Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy feature a sizeable number of articles on African philosophy. These indications are, certainly, not outstanding. Yet, “(t)he message is that o matter how African philosophy is understood, no matter how it is disparaged or praise, it can no longer be neglected in the academic world unless one chooses to be deliberately uninformed” (Oguejiofor 2000: 12). Early NJOP devoted space to this controversy for as long as it lasted.
The second controversy in NJOP is quite current. It is an emergent and urgent problem in African philosophy. Also it seems to be a spill over of the first controversy.
If the furore that raged over the controversy about the nature of African philosophy appears to have settled, it is, perhaps, because a good number of contemporary African philosophers have found other interesting areas of preoccupation, than the fact that the contentious issue is already resolved. Problems like the relation between African philosophy and development (Opafola: 1994), African Predicment (Oguejiofor: 2000). Problems of Modernity (Ekennia 1994), Justice (Ekei 2000), the Method and Principles of Contemporary Reflection (Asouzu 2004) and a multitude of others constitute new areas of interest. Just as the controversy over the first dispute seems to cool off, clouds are already gathering around another contentious issue; the writing of the history of African philosophy. Where the first controversy lasted for a long period of time, the question of the writing of a history of African philosophy promotes to be a long drawn out battlefield, both controversies deal with meta-philosophical issues. All things considered, the second area of controversy is a spill over from the first one. If the dispute over the nature of African philosophy engaged the attention of early thinkers, the problem of writing the history of African philosophy has become the growing concern of quite a good number of contemporary African philosophers. The issue of a history of African philosophy harbours a multitude of problems. Some of these include: the proof that available works hardly meet the demands of any history in this area; the issue of peiodisation—the demarcation of the various epochs, figures and movements that belong to a particular age; the contention over the position of Ancient Egypt vis-à-vis African philosophy, on the one hand, and vis-à-vis Greece as the cradle of philosophy; the problem of the language divide and the influence of the various anthologies on the history of African philosophy. We shall briefly touch upon two of these issues.
If Oguejiofor (2007:4) adjudges Smet’s (1979) oversight of Jahn’s book. Muntu (1958) erroneous, then he must pronounce Okolo’s view about the beginning of African philosophy grossly mistaken. Working away, at his bibliography of African philosophy, Smet’s failure to lay hands on any work on African philosophy, led him to claim that none of such works existed; and this, in spite of Jahn’s book, Muntu. Okolo’s assertion about the inception of African philosophy fails to take into consideration Sumner’s tomes. Sumner’s edited volumes (1974; 1976; 1978; 1981a; 1981b), which includes works spanning from 15th to 18th Centuries, including works on Ethiopian philosophy among others, cast doubt on the thesis that Tempels’ s La philosophie bantoue(1958) originated African philosophy. By according prominence to Ethiopian philosophy, Sumner highlights an area that some African philosophers have carefully avoided: (ancient) epochs that predate the contemporary period of African philosophy. Ethiopian and Egyptian philosophies, Nubian philosophy, amongst others, make up such areas. While giving pride of place to the controversy over the nature and meaning of African philosophy, Kinyongo’s work (1989) emphasizes the need for investigating ancient epochs of African philosophy. Neugebauer’s (1989) devotion of a few pages to Ethiopian philosophy validates Kinyongo’s concern. Nonetheless, where Kinyongo accords greater space to African philosophers of the French expression, Negebauer privileges Anglophone African philosophers. In this way, both thinkers signal another disquieting area in the history of African philosophy: the problem of language divide.
The concern of thinkers with the ancient epoch in African philosophy engenders yet another area of controversy: the issue of the beginning of African philosophy. Where did African philosophy make its debut? The thesis, which privileges ancient Egypt as the cradle of not only African but also Western philosophy, has repercussions for and questions, another age long thesis; that Greece is the origin of Western philosophy. Some thinkers, who champion the primacy of Egyptian over Greek philosophy, propose this argument. Egyptian philosophy predated Greek philosophy; many outstanding early Greek thinkers and philosophers schooled in ancient Egypt. And so, since Greek civilization is greatly indebted to ancient Egypt, then ancient Egypt is the cradle of all philosophy – both African and Western.
Besides thinkers who concede to Greece being the beginning of African philosophy, it appears to me that there is still a third, but not clearly defined, group of African philosophers. These reject the thesis about the Egyptian origin of Western philosophy. By this stance, they indirectly attribute the origin of Western philosophy to Greek philosophy; though they hold no view about the origin of western philosophy: Egyptian vis-à-vis- Greek philosophy. For these thinkers, ancient Egyptian philosophy, of necessity, must be separated from African philosophy, since the content ancient Egyptian philosophy has nothing in common with African philosophy. This ssview is largely Hegelian: Egypt is nsot African! Where thinkers like Olele, Obenga, Keita, Diop (1974) Osuagwu (1992a/b), James (1954) and Onyewuenyi (1994: 96) and others defend the Egyptian origin of African philosophy, Okafor (1997). Coplerston, Okoro (2007: 12) and others argue the view dissociating Egyptian from African philosophy.
Thinkers, who insist on the primacy of Egypt as the cradle of philosophy, hold on to their view because the position of Egypt supports their claim. Although a good number of the proponents of this thesis are from sub-Saharan Africa, they fail to realize that the cultures of the sub-region of this view appears, it aims at whittling down the claim of ancient Egyptian philosophy, as the cradle of African, nay Western philosophies. Hallen represents this line of thought. He writes:
African scholars who specialize in Africa South of the Sahara, the so-called black Africa, would be deeply offended by any intimation that the intellectual reclamation of Egypt is an attempt to bolster to upgrade, the cultural sophistication of their indigenous cultures by associating them with ”mighty” and glorious” Egypt. In fact these other cultures have their own integrity and have no need of an Egyptian connection to elevate the status of their civilization (2002: 12).
So engaging are the disputes in this area that Bilolo’s work (1986) and to some extent, Allen’s (1988) standout for their non – polemical stance.
There are four principal epochs in western philosophy: the ancient, the medieval, the modern and the contemporary. Does African philosophy admit of a similar periodisation? A number of thinkers like Osagwu (1999a/b), Ogunmodede (2004), tend to align African philosophy along the ages of western philosophy. There are also others who limit African philosophy to three periods: the medieval, modern and contemporary. Yet also a minor group prefers carving up African philosophy into the modern and the contemporary or only one of them- the contemporary period. Worthy of mention is van Hensbroek’s work (1999) that traces the origins of African political philosophy to the colonial period. His view recalls Mudimbe’s work (1980) that puts down the beginnings of the African episteme to the European creation of the other. These two thinkers proffer different possible criteria for resolving the problem of periodisation, which are different from the set provided by Oguejiofor(2007: 6). Oguejiofor writes,
It is not that we can or should avoid western influences on the history of African philosophy. The point is that in so far as the project of philosophizing harbours an undertone of the question of African identity, unnecessary aping of the West creates ambivalence in so far (as) the designation of period in history involves actual experiences and events. The crucial issue is whether we are also heirs to the experience that created the same period. We cannot for instance talk of renaissance or reformation with regard to African history. An authentic history of African philosophy has thus the imperative of aligning its periodization with the general history of Africa instead of doing so with the neatly cleared roads of the history of western philosophy.
Related to the issue of periodisation is the issue of the philosophers whose thought make up the epoch. Worth mentioning are the patristics and Islamic scholars of North Africa like Clement of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, who are significant figures for a history of African philosophy. The same applies to Africans in the Diaspora- do they form a part and parcel of this history? In all, one discovers that some issues in this area ultimately lead to and even echo meta-philosophical difficulties that defined the controversy over the nature and meaning of African philosophy. This goes constantly questions its roots. In fact, philosophy, according to Rescher (2001: 42), “finds itself in a state of virtually permanent foundfation crisis (Grundlagenkrise).”
Who determines the question- of the problem-agenda of African philosophy? This, in some respects, inspires the objections that contemporary African philosophers raise against the controversy over the nature of African philosophy. Agenda setting in African philosophy deal with the issue of “how the problem-field (African philosophy) is constituted”, how the discipline is mapped, as it were (Rescher, 39). involved is the politics of the control of the terrain of African philosophy; whose doctrines, theories, systems, questions and answers take precedence in African philosophy? Which generation contributes the most in African philosophy – the old or the contemporary generation If contemporary African philosophers are “naturally biased to shape the course of according to their own pet theories and give priority and precedence to those issues they view as doctrinally central” (Rescher, 41- 41), then they are opening up another battle field with the disciples of the first generation of African philosophers. And so, we might be witnessing another prolonged debate in the pages of NJOP over agenda setting in African philosophy.
Between 1970s and mid-1980s getting published in some notable departmental journals of philosophy or even faculty journals in Nigeria was like publishing in illustrations and leading foreign journals like the Mind, Nature, or even American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. These journals not only proved indispensable to philosophical studies, they have also remained the “pillars and means of dissemination of scientific (and philosophical) discussions and debates” (Hountondji 1983: 146). The sole aim of fthese journals was nothing but to move scientific and philosophical studies forward. For African philosophers, NJOP, especially, provided the common ground for dialogue, debates and peer disputes. From the mid-1990s, however, the life span of NJOP and some faculty journal have become short-lived. Where previously, NJOP facilitated an exchange of views among African philosophers, and afforded students of African philosophy the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the views of leading philosophers kin African and in the Diaspora, its demise hinder the growth of African philosophy. A good number of NJOP are either extinct, ran a number of issues and disappeared eventually, or are occasional. Some of them are listed below.
One needs to face up to the question, why do some journals of philosophy become extinct, barely after a handful of issues? One has lightly scratched the surface of the problem should one attribute the major cause of funding and the government neglect of the universities. Academics are sometimes mean. Refusing to acknowledge the contributions of their peers, some academics deal reprehensibly with the contributions of their colleagues. They obstruct one another’s promotions and ascent to great heights. Where tyhee publications of some colleagues or sworn enemies are not sent to dead or non-existent assessors, they are dumped to gather dust. In a multi-ethnic Nigeria, the tribal gods and goddesses rummage in academic circles as well. The effect of such unethical conduct is evident in literary scholarship in African philosophy. In the next section, we shall answer the question, is there any relationship between NJOP and literary scholarship?
If Greek philosophers like Thales, Pythagoras, Socrates and others preferred to communicate their views and teachings orally, their disciples realized what havoc to humanity the loss of their writings would be. Were philosophy limited to lecture halls, what an uphill task it would be accessing the thoughts of one’s predecessors. Indeed, none knows better than historians of philosophy, what difficulty one encounters in piecing together the fragments of some non-writing philosophers and those others whose works were lost. Where Plato rook delight in writing, one had to rely on doxographical literatures to study some non-writing philosophers or the lost works of some philosophers, like the early writings of Aristotle (Zeller 1883/1980:5). The enormous advancement in printing technology offer greater advantages to percentage, unlike the antiquity. As a result, philosophers come to acquaint themselves with one another’s thoughts through their writings. Such a facility provides a lee way to African philosophers to make themselves known through their writings. “In fact, there is no way a philosopher at Oxford will know his colleagues in Harvard through their teaching, alone ….In short, it is by the activity of writing philosophy that eminent philosophers and reputable departments of philosophy are born and known” (Oguejiofor (2002:7).
In the early 1970s until later 1980, houses of publication in Nigeria were sources of great pride to the academia. At the time, nearly all universities in Nigeria could boast of an effective, standard university publishing press that produced works of great worth. Those presses encouraged serious scientific research and discoveries. Such a congenial atmosphere for academic publications boosted creative works of sterling quality and originality. If, from early 1970s to late 1980s, Nigeria enjoyed internationally reputed publishing houses, at present, the number and the standard of such publishing houses have dwindling tremendously. As a result, distinctive literary works of great repute become sandwiched amidst poor quality publications.
Since Nigerian government pays little attention to education, cash strapped authors, who succeed in obtaining foreign patronages, get their works published by foreign publishing, houses. Such works sell at prohibitive costs when available to Nigerians. Where a thinker fails to secure some patronage for his works, he folds up, or publishes in ‘unknown’ journals and printing houses. The consequences are not far-fetched: African philosophers write for foreign audience. The African audience become secondary. Further, the unfavourable circumstances strongly limit the dialogue between African philosophers in the Diaspora and their counterparts in Africa. And the distance between them widens all the more. Should the foreign published work engender any debate. African philosophers in Africa would belatedly join issues with the author, or learn of the controversy when it was already past.
Given these difficulties, the National University Commission (NUC) has classed publications in accordance with the academic journals in which they appear. At the apex are reputed foreign journals like the Mind and others. There are the Association’s journals like the Mind and others. There are the Association’s journal, like Philosophy and Praxis and then comes departmental journals. This is but a very poor summary of the NUC’s directive on publications. Expectedly, while expert referees of eminent journals of philosophy do select well-written articles, it is, however, the case that some excellent ones get published, on and off. Russell’s (1905: 473-493) seminal article. “On Denoting” made the October issue of the journal, Mind, only as the editor’s afterthought! More hideouts, perhaps, is the case of poorly researched and unoriginal articles that get published on the strength of the author’s academic position, the intervention of the powerful, or the like. Such a case may block out brilliantly written and original contributions.
All things considered, one is, forced to conclude that a relation exists between literacy scholarship in African philosophy and the state of the journals in which articles appear, even though the relation is not hard and fast. What arrangements could ensure regular publications of academic journals, especially in philosophy, and articles of high quality?
To ensure regular publications of journals of philosophy, the practice much in vogue in some departments of philosophy proves highly promising. While the Head of Department (HOD) remains the editor-in-chief of the department journal, some member of the department functions as the editor. In view of the multiple responsibilities of HODs, the arrangement makes it easier to sustain the life-span of the departmental journal.
South Africa espouses yet another model. Each and every department in her universities maintains a financial account with the country’s ministry of education. Accordingly, the Ministry pays a certain sum for any publication that a lecturer of a department makes. One values the payment in accordance with the journal that features the publication. Annually, members of a department, who attain a specified ‘ceiling’ (and many departments do!) are privileged to participate in an international conference outside South Africa at the expense of the ministry of education. The model is appealing since it encourages various departments to enlist the services of bright lecturers. Not only does it promote excellence and team work, it also promotes well-researched, original and creative publications in leading academic journals. Although the arrangement is quite attractive, it favours departments of natural sciences more than those of the humanities. In all, it takes care of both difficulties—the quality of the journals and their publication.
All along, we have been attempting to answer broadly the question, what reason(s) could explain the dearth of controversies in African philosophy across NJOP? More narrowly, one may mention such reasons like the training and education of the present crop of African philosophers. Certainly, it is not the non-availability of burning issues in African philosophy. Weightier, however, is the relationship between Professors and their students, later turned lectures. Although a student of Plato, Aristotle devoted quite a good part of his work to criticizing his predecessors, especially his master, Plato. Not a small number of students succeed their masters in departments of philosophy. Incidentally, the Professor-student relationship continues. Good as the relationship is, some members of the younger generation find it, sometimes, difficult to disagree with their teachers. This is especially the case when one’s ascent to prominence requires the goodwill of the teacher.
In this paper, we have argued the existence of two basic strands in African philosophy. These two strands occasioned serious controversies and debates. No other issue elicited great attention, nor did African Philosophers pursue any with passion as they did these two. While both issues dealt with meta-philosophical issues, the first strand exercised the first university-trained Africans in philosophy (first generation of African philosophers). The second issue, still on-going, preoccupies the present generation of African philosophers. Despite the objections of the younger generation about the unnecessarily long period of time spent on the first controversy, one discovers that the second burning issue promises to last as long. If the second controversy revisits some basic problems of the first debate, then the first controversy is not yet resolved. Further, it casts the objections to the controversy in a bad light and shows that it was a legitimate preoccupation of the first generation of African philosophers.
Between the two generations, it does appear that a new problem arises: the issue of agenda setting in African philosophy – a justifiable part of meta-philosophy. Being a territorial claim, one wonders who controls the philosophical terrain in African philosophy and who makes the most contribution – the old or the younger generation? In some respects, this problem may be at the root of the criticisms leveled against the first generation African philosophers.
In the course of this study, the life-span of journals of philosophy and the quality of their publications called for attention. An important means of disseminating scientific theories, philosophical doctrines, views, positions and philosophical research, Nigerian journals of philosophy (NJOP) remains indispensable both for the growth of philosophy and the dialogue among African philosophers, the world over. Their regular production depends on a number of conditions, which are so much lacking.
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