By D.A. Masolo

D.A. Masolo, University of Louisville

The point of this symposium is to address some of the features of contemporary African philosophy. Sometimes it is quite difficult determining precisely what time period terms like “recent” or “present” actually mean. So I want to assume some freedom here in defining for the purposes of this meeting what I will mean by “recent” African philosophy. My understanding will be that for a movement or theme so poorly known anywhere and still in growth, anything that may have happened within the last one thousand years could easily qualify as “recent,” so long as it is a factor in the memorable debates in the history of the movement. In actual fact, however, much of what I will talk about is what lies within almost everyone’s vivid memory.

Many of the themes discussed by African philosophers, at the professional level, over the past six or so decades have been influenced by and address issues that emanate from Africa’s own socio-cultural contexts, but in some ways also from Africa’s more recent history since the nineteenth century, during which time Africa’s societies have undergone tremendous transformations. In the first scenario, the application of customary standards and principles to the determination of the nature and solution of specific cases, of different kinds, point to or explicitly evoke matters of great theoretical concern which the contemporary academics have seen the interest to return to for more public debate and systematic understanding. For example, in the part of East Africa I come from it is not unusual to hear someone disapprovingly referred to as a “jajuok,” an attribution of character usually strongly objected to by those to whom it is given. In other contexts, variations of the term are used uncontestedly, and there are formal gatherings at which the circumstances to which those terms apply are put under great scrutiny to determine where and how they should apply to specific cases. Yet, neither at these fora nor in any other contextual uses of such terms is there great effort to determine the theoretical nature or conceptual contents of the terms themselves. In other words, everyday language, and the everyday practice of life generally, press on with other priorities in focus. Yet, upon a more deciphering attention to these everyday life practices and performances one notices unclarified assumptions, say, about the kind of entities things called “juok” are, or whether there are any connections between those assumptions, call them metaphysical assumptions, and the social uses to which varied forms of the same term are put. I think that African philosophers have tried to bring these discussions before greater audiences by exposing them to analytical scrutiny in the classroom. As Okot p’Bitek tells us,1 it is not just that in any given system many people overlook the importance of such conceptual clarification of the ideas of their everyday world, but that also,
in many cases in African history, the mishandling, misconception or arbitrary misrepresentation of some of these crucial terms and concepts at the hands of sojourners of different interest groups like missionaries, and their influence on the perpetuation of those misrepresentations, make a focused and systematic scrutiny of these terms an even more interesting and worthy enterprise.

Another example is what one observes in local council processes to determine the propriety of claims brought to it by different claimants and in regard to different issues that may range from land use claims to the determination of rightful heirs to hereditary positions and roles. Again, such processes may reveal interesting elements of the understanding not only of the nature and value of the process itself, but also of the determination of what kind of things rights are, who can have or claim them, and how distinctions between rights of ownership and rights of use are made in different cases. This is especially an interesting area, and has been a focus of interest to many observers who have witnessed, with different views, the modern state apparatus defer matters of right claims to the authority of indigenous wisdom. Again, such cases, and their conclusions in non- classroom settings of institutional public arenas, like the courts, offer themselves to poignant classroom scrutiny of some of the basic assumptions underlying the arguments across different disciplines. For example, in a situation where p1, and her deceased male spouse, p2, are both members of the group pn, the determination of who, between p1 and the collectivity pn, have rights over the body p2 may depend on many factors, some of which may be so basic and axiomatic to the parties involved in the dispute that no commonly agreeable solution may easily or quickly come to mind, with each party claiming that the matter is “obviously” in their favor. Whichever way the disputation goes, it is important to note that questions about how the individual relates to her group, and the recognitions they owe each other, feature prominently in African social and political theory. A good example of this contrast and competition between the communal and a more libertarian considerations of axiomatic principles applicable to the judgment of what people can or cannot do is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s now famous epilogue on the confrontation between individual good judgment and the one determined by the authority of the matriclan.2 The obvious fact of the individual’s social location on her being in the world is not the problem. But whether public ethical judgments should be based on the disproportional benefits which accrue to the individual or community vis-a-vis the other is what makes the difference between normative or axiomatic bases on or from which the structures of traditions differ from each other in varying degrees3 to which they blend the two. The social, moral and political landscape of much of the Africa that I know suggest a strong coexistence of the two models of public ethics, hence the continuous debate between people who from time to time argue for either one as the more appropriate norm to apply in making judgment in different circumstances and situations.

Since the nineteenth century, two transitions, first from the earlier indigenous systems to those imposed by colonial domination, and the second one back to sort of local conditions, albeit crucially different from the pre-colonial one, have resulted in experiences on which Africans in general, not just philosophers, have had the burden of having to reflect hard and critically. Among themes at the top of the list are those which address issues of national reconstitution, consolidation of new nations, definitions and pursuit of political and other values, and the design of workable political models capable of managing consensually identified public programs that could bring about, sustain, protect and help advance values and goods in the private and public domains.

As one can quickly and easily suspect, these were years of great expectations in Africa. It made some but also sank many, as intellectuals and politicians—at least those ideally positioned— debated the merits and demerits of concepts and their application to the fledgling nations yearning for liberation from long years of cruel colonial domination by a capitalist Europe. I say “ideally positioned” because, in evident departure from known indigenous norms, not everywhere in Africa did free public intellectual or strictly political debate happen or was allowed as part of the nation- building process. In fact, in many early, and in some cases even later postcolonial political processes, rule by the decree of the dictator became the way of life, and objections of any form were severely punished, sometimes even by summary execution. Paradoxically, the justification for these atrociously uncommunal and inhuman approaches to social and political order was the consolidation and preservation of the national community.4

In the East Africa where I grew up, the political idea of community as the basis of public ethics took a different and practical course. A radical group of intellectuals was formed and became manifest in the early years of independence in the region, led by people who later became notable African writers like Ali Mazrui, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ahmed Mohiddin among others. They found alliances among equally radical politicians in the region like Julius Nyerere, and together formed a quasi-school of thought in opposition to the non-progressive groups whose main position was the rationalization of the project to consolidate and build on what the colonial systems had left behind. These were the years when politicians became public intellectuals, or philosopher kings as Plato long ago envisaged their possibility, engaging, not in writing autobiographies and memoirs, but monographs of their conceptions of a world that would be ideal politically, socially, economically and morally for their people and others. For the conceptual merits that they may be worth, the works of such leaders like Leopold Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Agostinho Neto and Amilcar Cabral, among others, fall into this category.

There is another reason why I have dwelt for a while on this formation of African thought, and that is that it was within its execution that the idea of an alternative and distinctively African framework was hatched. This was the idea of African communitarianism as the distinguishing basis for a different definition of values and evaluation of their worth. Best known from its use by Julius Nyerere, who used it only sparingly in preference for the term “African socialism,” communitarianism was associated with the brand of politics that was considered by its critics to be somehow decadent and inattentive to the organizational rigors of modern economies. It was finally abandoned even by one of its chief proponents in the public discourse.

The question about how important the principle of sociality is to an African reflection about the world can be answered by an examination of how central it is to how people view matters such as the nature of the person, or how it helps frame basic requirements in dealing with the world like knowledge, and so on. But the term can be, and I believe it is, detectable in some of the more visible and crucial writings in African philosophy today. But let me call it by another name so I don’t invoke the idea of communitarianism as a political morality that is usually understood to abide on the other side from liberalism. That is not quite what I have in mind right now although I will refer to it a little later as well.

The name I propose as an alternative to “communitarianism” is “relationism” or, as coined in French, le principe relationnel, a normative assumption on the basis of which several matters can be explained or justified. A clear indication of the importance and use of this principle can be seen in reference to some metaphysical, epistemological and moral discussions by African philosophers. However, I must confess that although I am about to make reference to the work of my esteemed senior colleague, Professor Kwasi Wiredu, what I say here is, indeed, only a partial reading or rendering of the fine points in his intricate arguments, in other words, only an opinion.

By contrast to the idea of a person as a metaphysically pre-endowed and autonomous individual whose characteristics and capacities are considered to be revealed in rather than occasioned by their relational conditioning in society, Wiredu conceives a person to be intricately connected with others and to depend on them for what accounts as her basic and specific distinction from other species. This dependency, he argues, is dictated by the organically (that is, biologically) specific being that humans are: their dependency on each other for the all the needs of their organic type from physical nourishment to the needs for and provision of all those furnishments that we identify to be specifically human. It is this sociality that provides the channels that lead to the flourishing of personhood, understood as the state in which humans have attained at least the minimal level of ability to respond actively to stimuli around them, not only in the neurophysical sense (such as in the capacity to respond to differences or changes in atmospheric temperatures, especially now with travel from the frigid wintry North to the temperate South, or in the capacity to feel pain), but in the cognitive and moral senses as well, that is, responses to (conceptual) meaning and to situations of moral directives or guidance. I assume here that more morally competent performance, like the ability to deal with more complex concepts, sets on later in life.5 A person, then, is what we become after we have developed and are able to utilize the capacity to respond to all specifically human stimuli. These are established and gradually sharpen and grow more complex with degrees of communication through which we interact with others.

Like communalism, personhood also has been a key topic of discussion in African philosophical texts for several decades. In comparison to the earlier writings on personhood, however, Kwasi Wiredu’s position provides a theoretical articulation that the earlier and largely descriptive writings did not. Written largely from a theological perspective reflective of the post Vatican II cultural Ecclesiology, the latter aimed at asserting the African preparedness for the idea of the Church as community, thus reversing the expected flow of influence in the evangelizational enterprise. The Church had much to learn from Africa, they argued, and so had the task of adapting itself to the African “personality.”6For similar reasons, Wiredu’s position differs from the political communalism of the sixties and seventies because, again, the latter failed to theorize the relational basis of human nature as a foundational principle and prelude to asserting the superiority of a properly conceived and applied relational approach to public ethics (that is, as underlying an envisaged political, social and moral order). Yet, despite the different styles, Wiredu shares with the African theologians and some political communalists, especially Nyerere, a crucial statement about the role of the community on the shaping of personhood. The role of community and the responsibility of the individual within it, are intricately intertwined. This sociality of personhood, says the theologian Francois-Marie Lufuluabo, for example, is at the very foundation of being human, part of the human ideal.7 Language and the logical structure in which communication takes place are all tools in service of this human ideal as expressed in Bantu language.8 At this point Wiredu and Lufuluabo perhaps would part ways in pursuit of opposing constitutive explanations of personhood.

While Lufuluabo will pursue a dualist constitution of the person, Wiredu stays put with communication and with the individual’s responsiveness to her social world as the basis of her constitutive growth. The human mind develops in response to communication, a specific (i.e. of the species) capacity to process signs received from others and, by use of adequate conditions (i.e. functional or organizational capability) provided by the nature of her being, as homines sapientes, to convert such signs into meanings,9 and in turn to use them in effective communication to others. These conditions include “reflective perception, abstraction, deduction, and induction. They are sort of the laws by which the mind competently operates in cognition. According to Wiredu, “[m]ind presupposes communication . . . being a human person implies having the capacity of reflective perception, abstraction, and inference.”10

Communication, a function of sociality, occasions our ability to cognize the world. But communication presupposes that our intentions, our meanings, are passed on to our interlocutors with some precision, but even more importantly, that they get precisely what we wanted to communicate to them. Hence communication flows and serves its purpose only if our cognition of the world and our communication of it to others have the same content, that is, when the statements in our communication are true.

So, does truth refer to anything outside and independent of the statements by which we communicate with others? Perhaps this has been the most provocative among the many issues Professor Wiredu has written on over the years. My aim is not to discuss it here, because I have misunderstood it before, but to indicate how, in my opinion, it is part of the wider principe relationnel inside which he locates the emergence of personhood. Now, the saying that “there is nothing called Truth as distinct from opinion” is an assertion that has kept Professor Wiredu’s readers uneasy, for one need not be a philosopher to note, quickly and prima facie, that the dictum goes against what our common sense tends to dictate to us: that while opinion is disputable on the basis of its diverse whims, Truth is that which imposes its authority on us. The common sense school tells us that we do not invent reality, but that it is right there, whether we like it or not, so all we need to do is to make statements about reality which say how or what it really is. There is no doubt that the correspondence theory of truth borrows heavily from this common sense teaching. But, since truth is a property of propositions, the distinction between true and false propositions lies in their warrantability. He says: “ . . . of those actual and potential propositions, a large number, if studied, will be found to be warranted, and others not. This is what can be meant by the remark that there are truths that are not known to me.”[/note]Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and An African Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1980): 191. [/note]The knowledge we have is a set of (both affirmative and negative) propositions we believe in, such that to say “I believe that p,” Wiredu argues, is not to claim that p is a fact, but that “it is a fact that I believe that p.”11 And attempts to check the truth value of these beliefs end only with other propositions, opinions or beliefs. We say a proposition or an opinion is true when we identify it with our own, and it is false when we dissociate our own point of view from it. Knowledge, then, appears to be a social enterprise, a function of communication, made of sets of concordant and discordant opinions.

The third element of Professor Wiredu’s social basis of personhood concerns the development of human persons’ moral capability. The development of personhood does not occur solely with respect to cognitive mental capacity such as the ability to make judgments and inference. In fact, the ability to make judgment and inference remain basic to both cognitive and moral development and are both functions of communication. But just as they need the “rules of the mind” to competently construct meaningful propositions as they communicate with others, human persons will need other criteria, developed as they grow and develop in their personhood, by which they will construct the laws of their moral conduct. Above all, Wiredu argues, it becomes pretty clear to humans that the survival of the species depends on the prevalence of tolerable conditions. Hence, to establish such tolerable conditions, a criterion or principle must be sought without which tolerable conditions necessary for survival would not obtain. Wiredu identifies this principle as “sympathetic impartiality,” what others have called the universal principle of practical morality based on mutuality or sympathetic awareness of others by which threats and abuses are contained.12

His view is that morality derives from just such imaginative sensitivity, such as believing that we are better off in a just world than we are in an unjust one, and it is useful to note that the principle works only as long as there is a communal sense that respect and affection are worth keeping and cultivating. In the moral systems of many African communities, the corrective measure that ensues from this is shame, a recognition that other members of a group would not care for someone with mean qualities.

What we have, then, and if our opinion thereon is indeed warranted, is the striking emphasis on the social derivation of the category of personhood, the social sources of person and self, the personne cognitive and personne morale. The individual is not a passive bearer of personhood; she must appropriate the qualities and capacities, and the norms governing its expression to herself.


Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame A. In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

Ela, Marc. “L’Eglise, Ie monde noir et Ie Concile,” Personnalité Africaine et Catholicisme. Ed. Hebga Meinrad. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1962. 19 – 41.

Gyekye, Kwame. Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

Hountondji, Paulin. The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture, and Democracy in Africa. Tr. John Conteh-Morgan. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 2002.

Jackson, Michael. Allegories of the Wilderness. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1982.
Lufuluabo, F. M. “La conception Bantoue face au Christianisme,” Personnalité Africaine et

Christianisme. Ed. Hebga Meinrad. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1962. 57 -72.
p’Bitek, Okot. African Religions in Western Scholarship. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1979.

_____. Religion of the Central Luo. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1971.
Wiredu, Kwasi. Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective. Bloomington, Indiana:

Indiana UP, 1996.
_____. Philosophy and An African Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1980.

  1. See Okot p’Bitek, Religion of the Central Luo (Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1971) and African Religions in Western Scholarship (Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1979).
  2. See Kwame A. Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992): 181-192.
  3. The view which rejects the classification of societies into either individualistic or communitarian as false on the grounds that both aspects are manifested in almost all known societies across the globe is itself flawed because it misses the fine line of separation that the proponents of such classification draw. The Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Gyekye, in Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997), explains clearly that the difference is not in the absolute exclusion of one by the other but in the degrees of their blend, more this than that, or more that than this, what he calls “the relativistic language” (41) of referring to “the status of individuality and community.”
  4. In the recently translated Combats pour le Sens (Struggle for Meaning), readers now will be able to read why, in defense of a libertarian understanding of the practice of philosophy, Paulin Hountondji was so critical of the anonymously authoritarian ethnophilosophy. In his view, it provided a legitimation of the dictator’s claim to speak for the people and to defend, again on their behalf, what was their view of the world. He refers in particular to the extremely murderous regime of Sekou Toure of Guinea as morally indefensible yet sustained for a long time by a submissive chorus of cowered civilian and military citizens under the guise of national unity of vision. See Paulin Hountondji, The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture, and Democracy in Africa, tr. John Conteh-Morgan (Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 2002).
  5. This is the capacity to independently respond to moral situations or the ability to independently evaluate and competently make judgments and take action in regard to a moral situation.
  6. Marc Ela, “L’Eglise, Ie monde noir et Ie Concile,” Personnalité Africaine et Catholicisme (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1962): 19-41.
  7.  F. M. Lufuluabo, “La conception Bantoue face au Christianisme,” Personnalité Africaine et Christianisme, ed. Hebga Meinrad (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1962): 57-72.
  8. Lufuluabo 62.
  9.  Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1996): 22.
  10. Wiredu 1996, 23.
  11. Wiredu 1980, 190.
  12. Michael Jackson, Allegories of the Wilderness (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1982): 27.

D.A. Masolo

D. A. Masolo is Justus Bier Professor of Humanities and Distinguished University Scholar at the University of Louisville. His areas of research are African philosophy and philosophy and society. Dr. Masolo received the Ph.D. from Universita Gregoriana in Rome, Italy. He is the author of numerous articles and books including African Philosophy in Search ofIdentity (Indiana UP, 1994).