Category Archives: Philosophy

Throwing Away the Ladder: How to Read African Philosophy

“My journey into African Philosophy was prompted by my training and experience in Western Philosophy. … I was taught, in the classroom of Western oriented African universities and textbooks that Africans never originated any cogent tradition of philosophy. My first Ph.D. proposal to the University of Ibadan in 1977 was rejected because the title The Rational Basis of Yoruba Ethical Thinking was declared a myth and not philosophy. I was forced to write on a Western (British) philosopher. At my doctoral graduation party in 1984, the then Head of Department of Philosophy at Ibadan congratulated me for my attainment of the license to talk all the nonsense I had been talking before. Since then, I have tried to strengthen my intellectual capacity to make the adversaries see the sense in what, by their own perceived standard, is absolute nonsense.” (Sophie Oluwole, “For Africans, Philosophy Is In Languages.”)

A Feminist African Philosophy Syllabus

Propaedeutic bookmarks toward a feminist African Philosophy Syllabus:

Oyeronke Oyewumi, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses

Gail M. Presbey, “Should Women Love “Wisdom”? Evaluating the Ethiopian Wisdom Tradition.”

Nkiru Uwechia Nzegwu, Family Matters: Feminist Concepts in African Philosophy of Culture

Betty Wambui, “Women, Children, Goats, Land.”

Sophie Oluwole, Socrates and Orunmila: Two Patron Saints of Classical Philosophy

Sylvia Tamale, African Sexualities: A Reader

Pumla Dineo Gqola, Rape: A South African Nightmare

Lahoucine Ouzgane and Robert Morrell (eds.), African Masculinities: Men in Africa from the late Nineteenth Century to the Present.

Yaba Badoe, The Witches of Gambaga

Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject

Olufemi Taiwo, “Theory and the Future of Women’s Studies in Nigeria.”

Amina Mama, “The Power of Feminist Pan-African Intellect.”

Jean Allman, Susan Geiger and Nakanyiki Musisi, eds. Women in African Colonial Histories

Louise du Toit and Azille Coetzee, “Gendering African Philosophy, or: African Feminism as Decolonizing Force”

Sandra Harding,”The curious coincidence of feminine and African moralities”

Philosophy at the University of Nairobi

Odera Oruka on the beginnings of the philosophy department at the University of Nairobi:

“By 1969 University of Nairobi launched a new department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. Both at Makerere and Nairobi the majority and dominant staff of the departments were priests and lay theologians. At Nairobi the department was headed by the late Rt. Rev. Prof. Bishop Stephen C. Neill, an Anglican British scholar of much rhetorical persuasions. He often claimed to have been born on the same day and hour as King George the Sixth — midnight Dec. 31st 1899.

Neill had me recruited in the department as a temporary lecturer in October, 1970. With me was a Kenyan colleague, Dr. J. Nyasani, recruited as a tutorial assistant. Neill himself used to refer to both of us as “our two assistant African tutorial assistants.” There was no such rank in the university hierarchy, but it pleased the boss to lower us to such levels.

Neill had little time for ‘African Philosophy,’ and harbored doubt about the ability of Africans to think logically. Once in 1971 he inquired to know about the number of students I had in my ‘Introduction to Logic’ class.

“Not so many…only about ten or so,” I answered and added, “there is a belief among the students here that logic is a difficult subject, so quite a number steer off it.”

Neill responded with vigor: “The belief is well-founded and I completely agree with the students! I do not think that logic is really a subject for the African mind. We in the West are familiar with it right from the days of Aristotle. The African mind, I believe, is intuitive, not logical.”

There is no space here for going into details about the experience and conflict we had with persons of this frame of mind in the department. The long term solution I took was to work towards isolating the teaching of philosophy from the dominance by scholars of this type of attitude. But I had two to three main problems. First, I was too junior and temporary for this sort of task. Secondly, the theologians in the department were making sure that no more staff would be recruited for the sub-discipline of philosophy. And lastly, the majority of the relevant university authorities who could effect changes conceived of real distinction between philosophy and religion.”

(Odera Oruka, “African Philosophy: A Brief Personal History and Current Debate”).

What it is like to be an African in U.S. Philosophy

In the acknowledgments page for his book, Philosophical Perspectives on Communalism and Morality in African Traditions, Professor Polycarp Ikuenobe writes:

“I acknowledge the help, support, and encouragement of some of my professors at Wayne State University, especially Bob Yanal, my dissertation advisor, Mike McKinsey, Bill Stine, Brad Angell, and the late Barbara Humphries. I also wish to thank those professors at the Department of Philosophy at Wayne State University, who, for reasons best known to them, thought I was not good enough to get a Ph.D. or get a teaching job in philosophy, and then made efforts to frustrate me. Their doubts about my abilities, their lack of encouragement and support, and their efforts to frustrate me and make sure I did not succeed in my graduate work have been part of my motivation to excel or not to fail — at least, so that I can prove them wrong.

Thanks to the professor who told me that nothing good can come from me. It seems to have turned out — if my humble accomplishments are any indication — that something good can indeed come from me. Thanks to the other professor who said he would not waste his time helping me with my job application because it took him fifteen years to get tenure and that I was not good enough to get a job. However, other people who were more perceptive than he thought otherwise and gave me the opportunity by offering me jobs. Thanks to the professors, who, out of pure ignorance and prejudice, said that I got jobs because I was black. I have worked hard to try to show them that being black alone cannot guarantee one a job in academia…. My achievements thus far have been the only or perhaps the best payback for these people. It is possible that if they had not doubted my abilities or made efforts to make sure I did not succeed, I would not have been as hardworking and motivated as I have been in my efforts to succeed or not to fail. I acknowledge their negative efforts, which have turned out to be positive for me.”

(Polycarp Ikuenobe, Philosophical Perspectives on Communalism and Morality in African Traditions)

African Philosophy: Beyond the Usual Suspects

Olúfémi Táíwò on the narrow canon of establishment African philosophy:

“Only the foolhardy now deny the existence of African Philosophy or its philosophical pedigree. But if one were to peruse some of the recent works, textbooks and anthologies, published in the discipline, especially in the United States, one would be ill-served by the narrowness of the focus and the limited works that are marked as foundational. Indeed the thrust of my discussion in this paper came from reflections about a few recent books in African philosophy; African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry edited by Ivan Karp and Dismas Masolo and Richard Bell’s Understanding African Philosophy, to be specific. In perusing those books one is likely to come away with the impression that the discipline is a conversation among Kwasi Wiredu, Paulin Hountondji, Kwame Gyekye, Odera Oruka, and Anthony Appiah, in the first book, with Barry Hallen and J. Olubi Sodipo, and Wole Soyinka thrown in.” (Olúfémi Táíwò, “Beyond the Usual Suspects: Towards Renewing the Foundations of African Philosophy.”)

How Not to Read Black Intellectuals

Lewis Gordon on how not to read black intellectuals:

The aim of What Fanon Said is to offer a study of Fanon and his ideas in their own right. “What Fanon said,” then, pertains not only to the black letter words in his writings but also to their spirit, their meaning. This task also involves stepping outside of a tendency that often emerges in the study of intellectuals of African descent—namely, the reduction of their thought to the thinkers they study. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre was able to comment on black intellectuals such as Aimé Césaire, Fanon, and Léopold Sédar Senghor without becoming “Césairian,” “Fanonian,” or “Senghorian”; Simone de Beauvoir could comment on the thought of Richard Wright without becoming “Wrightian”; the German sociologist Max Weber could comment on the African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois without becoming “Du Boisian.” Why, then, is there a different story when black authors comment on their (white) European counterparts? “Standard” scholarship has explored whether Du Bois is Herderian, Hegelian, Marxian, or Weberian; whether Senghor is Heideggerian; and whether Fanon is every one of the Europeans on whom he has commented Adlerian, Bergsonian, Freudian, Hegelian, Husserlian, Lacanian, Marxian,Merleau-Pontian, and Sartrean, to name several.

The problem of subordinated theoretical identity is a theme against which Fanon argued. It is connected to another problem—the tendency to reduce black intellectuals to their biographies. Critics of this approach ask: How many biographies of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Fanon do we need before it is recognized that they also produced ideas? It is as if to say that white thinkers provide theory and black thinkers provide experience for which all seek explanatory force from the former. As there are many studies of Immanuel Kant without reducing him to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who had the most influence on the former’s moral philosophy), my approach will be to address Fanon’s life and thought as reflections of his own ideals, with the reminder that no thinker produces ideas in a vacuum.

(Lewis R. Gordon, What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought)

Against Originality

“The quest for originality is always bound up with a desire to show off. It has meaning only in relation to the Other, from whom one wishes to distinguish one’s self at all costs. This is an ambiguous relationship, inasmuch as the assertion of one’s difference goes hand in hand with a passionate urge to have it recognized by the Other. As this recognition is usually long in coming, the desire of the subject, caught in his/her own trap, grows increasingly hollow until it is completely alienated in a restless craving for the slightest gesture, the most cursory glance from the Other.” (Paulin J. Hountondji).

Street Smarts

Martin Luther King, Jr. taught a senior seminar in social and political philosophy at Morehouse circa 1962. Below is an exam from his course:

Martin Luther King, Jr-Social and Political Philosophy

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” Gustave Flaubert is reputed to have said. It appears Martin Luther King, Jr. was regular and orderly in his teaching like a bourgeois, so that he could be nonviolent and original on the streets.

Analytic moral philosophy and the anxiety of masculine reason

Claudia Card on the features of North Atlantic philosophy:

Each side of the dualisms of mind/body, reason/feeling, culture/nature, and masculine/feminine has its proponents. However, the lion’s share of power, privilege, and prestige accrues regularly to those identified with the sides of mind, reason, culture, and masculinity. The general point of such dichotomies has been to affirm control structures, which often become oppressive structures of domination and subordination: mind dominating body, reason dominating feeling, culture dominating nature, masculine dominating feminine. The devaluation of what is subordinated is used both to “justify” the domination and to convey the relative undesirability of being in the position of the subordinated. These values even turn up in the profession of philosophy in the dichotomy of so-called “hard philosophy” (logic and philosophy of science) and “soft philosophy” (value inquiry in ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, social and political philosophy). Resistance to the implied “femininity” of “soft philosophy” may be partly responsible for the spectacle of men attempting to express value inquiry in mathematical formulae.

Claudia Card, “Removing Veils of Ignorance”

Analytic moral philosophy and the affect of masculine reason

It is not, of course, purely coincidental that the runaway trolley assumed its place as the quintessential thought experiment in analytic normative philosophy. Like in a B-movie where the hurtling train is a pretext for the aggrandizement of the protagonist (and the audiences that are meant to identify with the hero), so the thought experiment was imagined to be a juggernaut grinding objectors to a grisly pulp, the mise en abyme to the seemingly inevitable moral punchline.

It is thus all the more striking – in light of the claimed inevitability of fatalities from rogue trolleys and the like – the extent to which the analytic philosopher constructs his moral decision-making as a performance of toughness. The ultimate moral test, we are made to understand, comes down to the fortitudo moralis of opting for the unpalatable. “McMahan,” Eva Feder Kittay notes in her critique of the book, The Ethics of Killing, “eventually concludes that we have to bite the bullet and accept that those with the same cognitive functioning and psychological capacities should be given the same moral status regardless of their species.” In the circle of analytic moral philosophy, Stephen Mulhall observes in a critique of the same book, “being a fearless thinker matters more, it seems, than avoiding morally fearful thoughts.”