By Kwasi Wiredu

Kwasi Wiredu, University of South Florida

I would like to mention that Professor Masolo is the author of the first full-length history of contemporary African philosophy1and Professor Hallen has just recently written A Short History of African Philosophy2 that brings us right up to today. So we have two historians and one layman on this panel. In my capacity as a layman, I would like to make one or two comments about contemporary African philosophy.

Contemporary African philosophy has a certain richness that derives from the comparative character of the discipline. This is due to the interesting fact that contemporary African philosophers belong to two traditions, the African and the Western. This can be an advantage because working in more than one tradition can broaden your mind by providing you with alternative conceptual options. But this also is a problem because African philosophers came to be situated in the Western tradition through the historical adversity of colonialism. In colonial times, African philosophy, at least in the British colonies, was not investigated in philosophy departments in Africa–-it was left to departments of religion and anthropology to study African thought as best they could. Not surprisingly, the resulting literature often reflected the uncritical employment of foreign categories of thought. In talking of the uncritical use of foreign categories, I am thinking of concepts that are embedded in distinctions like the that between the spiritual and the physical, the natural and the supernatural, the religious and the secular, the mystical and the non-mystical, or, if you want substantives, the distinction between substance and attribute, mind and matter, truth and fact, and so on.

I have noted in various places3that it is questionable whether the distinctions and concepts mentioned have any role whatever in African thought, at any rate, in the African thought I know from the inside. An interesting fact, then, about the colonial accounts written about African thought is that although the writers believed that they were giving accounts of African thought and showing how different it was from their own, in fact, there were lots of difficulties with those accounts, because they routinely formulated them in terms of their own conceptual frameworks, assuming serenely that those frameworks were universal to human thought. If one has been used to thinking exclusively in the languages in which the concepts just mentioned operate, it is likely to sound strange to be told that there are people in whose thought these concepts have no application. But I think it is exactly this that brings out the value of being exposed to fundamentally different ways of conceptualizing human experience and the world. This challenges one to rethink the fundamental categories of one’s own ways of thinking. This remark, of course, assumes that it is possible to evaluate categories of thought across cultures, and this means that we are assuming here that relativism is false. Relativism, in this sense, is the view that the soundness or the intelligibility of any sort of categories of thought is relative to its time, place, or context of origin. And this relativity is supposed to exclude the possibility of critical evaluation from the context of another time, place, or context.

Relativism is of great interest in itself. In contemporary African philosophy, it is an unavoidable issue. I think the most obvious argument against relativism is based on the empirically verifiable biological unity of the human species. A subsidiary premise is to be found in the actual fact of cross-cultural communication among the different peoples of the world, notwithstanding any difficulties of translation that might be brought out.4 The notion of the cross-cultural evaluation of thought implies the universality, at some levels, of at least some canons of thought. Such an idea is regarded as quite provocative among those African philosophers I will call “traditionalists.” Among such philosophers, the term “universalist” is a term of disapprobation. On the other hand, it is not very clear that they would like to embrace relativism in an unlimited manner. Certainly, they do talk in a way that suggests relativism, and I think that in this they have had some foreign aid. You may recall Peter Winch’s article, “Understanding a Primitive Society”5 in which he criticizes E. E. Evans- Pritchard for saying in his Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande,6 that the Zande belief that such forces can influence rainfall is not in accord with objective reality. And this is Winch’s comment on this: He says that Pritchard is wrong, because “what is real and what is unreal shows itself in the use that language has.”7 So, in Winch’s opinion, Pritchard was trying to work with a conception of reality that is not determined by its actual use in language. I wish that rain-making was something that we could make effective through linguistic usage—then we could call upon it during times of drought in Africa.

But seriously, one might question what is wrong with relativism. One might answer: “Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘relative to’.” Suppose, for example, that one gets this answer: “What is intelligible or true or valid simply is, by definition, what is accepted in a given culture on the basis of the criteria that are operative in that culture.” The problem that I see with this concept of relativity to culture would be that there will not be any intercultural communication, therefore there will not be any dialogue, and perhaps the only way open to us to interact might be by way of war. However, I think that relativity to culture can have another connotation. It might mean simply that the received ways in which certain aspects of life and reality are conceptualized, as a matter of fact, differ from culture to culture. You might call this “descriptive relativism,” and I think that it is certainly correct. I suspect that this is the “relativism” that some of my friends espouse. Recognition of this kind of “relativism” is very important for intercultural relations, for inattention to it can encourage some cultures to try to impose their modes of conceptualization on other cultures. As a result of colonialism, Africa has been at the receiving end of this conceptual malpractice, particularly, though not only, in the spheres of religion, morality and politics.

By virtue of some very meticulous research into Yoruba thinking Hallen and the late Sodipo showed that certain universalisms just do not hold. For example, they demonstrated that the notion of belief doesn’t translate unproblematically across cultures.8 Similarly, I have suggested that some logical concepts do not translate unproblematically, or not at all, across cultures.9

Let me rapidly just mention, more concretely, a few concepts that do not translate across English and my own language. And, if I can take about two minutes to do this, perhaps, we can cover some considerable ground in the limited time at our disposal. They are, reality, being, existence, object, entity, substance, quality, attribute, truth, fact, opinion, belief, knowledge, faith, doubt, sentence, statement, proposition, idea, mind, soul, spirit, thought, sensation, matter, ego, self, person, subjectivity, objectivity, individuality, community, cause, chance, freedom, responsibility, punishment, democracy, justice, God, space, time, nothingness, creation, afterlife, morality. It is so easy to think that that all these concepts are right there in any conceptual framework. What’s more, the accounts that were written of African thought by colonial scholars and even by some of us, African scholars, are generally based on the uncritical assumption that all these concepts apply across cultures.

It is worth noting that the conceptual issues in question are not just verbal issues, matters of “mere semantics,” as some might be tempted to think. Our fundamental concepts are bound up with our fundamental ways of existing and interacting with our environment and our kind. These issues can therefore sometimes be intertwined with matters of life and death.

I think, therefore, that right now in African philosophy, one of the great tasks is what I have called “conceptual decolonization.” This means scrutinizing fundamental Western concepts, such as those mentioned above, that have been used or implied in the characterization of African thought to see if they do, in fact, apply across the cultures involved. That is the first step, of course. If they don’t apply, we are still in the same world together, and we will have to have a dialogue. Thus, we will have to see how these concepts can be evaluated inter-culturally because we need to communicate on all kinds of levels. And, perhaps, we can learn from each other. Some of the concepts, even though not home grown, may have to be appropriated for Africa’s intellectual wellbeing, while others might need to be jettisoned for want of coherence. And the latter circumstance might run so deep as to cause the demise of the relevant ways of thinking in their Western place of origin itself. Accordingly, we might even say that conceptual decolonization is not just for the benefit of Africans, but also for the benefit of everybody. Wherever you may be from, if you are stimulated by that conceptual process to review your own fundamental modes of conceptualization, then, even if at the end of the day you come back to reaffirm them, you can be satisfied that you have not lived an unexamined life.
Thank you!


Works Cited

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1937.

Hallen, Barry. A Short History ofAfrican Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002.

Hallen, Barry and J. Olubi Sodipo. Knowledge, Belief and Witchraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophy, rev. ed. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.

Masolo, D.A. African Philosophy in Search ofIdentity. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.
Winch, Peter. “Understanding a Primitive Society.” American Philosophical Quarterly 1 (1964): 307-324.

Reprinted in B. Wilson, ed. Rationality. Oxford: Blackwell, 1974. 78-111.

Wiredu, Kwasi. “Canons of Conceptualization.” The Monist 76.4 (1993): 450-476.

_____. “Knowledge, Truth and Fallibility.” The Concept of Knowledge. Eds. I Kucuradi and R.S. Cohen. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995. 127-148.

_____. Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.

  1. D.A. Masolo, African Philosophy in Search ofIdentity (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994).
  2. Barry Hallen, A Short History ofAfrican Philosophy (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002).
  3.  See, for example, Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996), Ch.7: “Formulating Modern Thought in African Languages: Some Theoretical Considerations.”
  4. I have offered criticisms of relativism in Wiredu 1996, Ch. 3: “Are there Cultural Universals?” More criticisms may be found in Kwasi Wiredu, “Canons of Conceptualization,” The Monist 76.4 (1993): 450-476 and Kwasi Wiredu, “Knowledge, Truth and Fallibility,” The Concept of Knowledge, eds. I. Kucuradi and R.S. Cohen (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995) 172-148.
  5. Peter Winch, “Understanding a Primitive Society,” American Philosophical Quarterly 1 (1964): 307-324. Reprinted in B. Wilson, ed., Rationality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974) 78-111. See page 82 of the reprint.
  6. E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1937).
  7. Winch in Wilson 82.
  8. Barry Hallen and J. Olubi Sodipo, Knowledge, Belief and Witchraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophy, rev. ed. (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997).
  9. See Wiredu 1996, Ch. 8: “The Concept of Truth in the Akan Language” and passim.

Kwasi Wiredu

Kwasi Wiredu has been Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida since 1987. He was born in Ghana and educated at the University of Ghana and at Oxford and was for many years Professor and Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ghana. His publications include Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective (Indiana UP, 1996). He has interests in, among other things, African Philosophy, Philosophy of Logic, Epistemology and Metaphysics. He has been Visiting Professor at a number of universities including Ibadan (Nigeria), UCLA and Duke.