Philosophy in Africa, or Africa in Philosophy? Mary Carman reviews Debating African Philosophy: Perspectives on Identity, Decolonial Ethics and Comparative Philosophy

Mary Carman reviews Debating African Philosophy, a new collection of essays that originated during student protests and demands for the decolonisation of universities at the University of Cape Town in 2016.

Debating African Philosophy: Perspectives on Identity, Decolonial Ethics and Comparative Philosophy
Edited by George Hull
Routledge, 2018

Debating African Philosophy. A three-word title that covers so much. What exactly is it that we are debating? Perhaps we are debating about African philosophy: for instance, what it is, what defines it or who can do it. Or perhaps we are debating within African philosophy, arguing about the interpretations or implications of key concepts, such as whether core commitments regarding moral status entail a worrying form of anthropocentrism. Perhaps we are just debating philosophy, and it so happens that we, the debaters, bring some African insights into a more general philosophical discussion, such as the boundaries imposed by language. Each of these three possibilities is represented in the wide-ranging scope of the essays in this collection, edited by George Hull, with its ambiguous three-word title. So much is covered. But the underlying ambiguity about what it is that we are debating also makes the purpose of the collection opaque: so much is covered.

As Hull explains in the Introduction, all but one of the essays in the book began as a paper for the seminar series ‘Philosophy in Africa, Africa in Philosophy’, held at the University of Cape Town in 2016, during student protests and demands for the decolonisation of universities. Such demands are not new within postcolonial African scholarship, but what was new, for the academic discipline of philosophy at least, was the way the demands were picked up outside Africa, prompting soul-searching within the wider philosophical community.

Given this book’s context of origin, we may expect the ‘debating philosophy’ of the title to refer to debates about African philosophy or perhaps to the general debates that form part of international conversations, rather than to specific debates within African philosophy. Indeed, these first two interpretations do come across in most of the essays, where a stated aim of the volume ‘is to show that much African philosophy [on a range of topics] can and should be debated not only by African philosophy specialists, but by any philosophers working on the relevant topics’. As Hull describes the two-way exchange, the essays ‘contribute to contemporary debates particularly relevant to philosophical reflection in African contexts, and to reflection worldwide on the place of Africa in philosophy’.

This is apparent, for instance, in Dorothea Gädeke’s essay ‘Relational Normative Thought in Ubuntu and Neo-republicanism’. Gädeke focuses on a relational approach to ethics, in which relationships between people are argued to be the central concern governing normative thought and ethical theorising, as opposed to units like the individual or a community. In this way, she presents an international conversation in action, contrasting an African form of relational ethics with a form found in Western philosophy. In another chapter, Sergio Alloggio and Mbongisi Dyantyi engage in a dialogue about the theories of Black Consciousness theorist and activist Steve Biko and the French theorist Jean-François Lyotard, exploring the politics of language and the implications of the ways in which language is used. 

In turn, the closely related strand of debates about African philosophy is picked up in a number of other chapters, which pay critical attention to the question of how African philosophy, and philosophy in Africa, should be understood and conducted, with the occasional extension of self-reflective considerations about the nature of philosophy more generally. 

The importance of place, for example, is explored across various essays. As Bruce Janz suggests in a compelling contribution titled ‘The Edges of (African) Philosophy’, we shouldn’t think of African philosophy as a ‘regional variation’ of philosophy, where we ask the question of whether it is philosophy at all. Instead, we should interrogate the very way in which the ‘tradition’ of philosophy is understood, frequently as theorising about and defending claims that are abstracted away from the questions that drove our initial inquiries. ‘It is as if [the questions] are elided once we reach a desired conclusion,’ Janz notes, when instead those conclusions should be ‘moments on the way to new and better questions’. For Janz, we need to question the questions, which allows us to engage creatively with discussions that arise outside of our own backgrounds. If we think of philosophy as a mode of questioning like this, we can see that it ‘always exists in places’ where the questioning arises, ‘but is not reducible to or determined by those places’ because it still strives towards defining truths that could have universal applicability.

While we might think of place as a spatial location, we can also think about it as a temporal location. Robert Bernasconi, in a piece on Ottobah Cugoano, a Ghanaian antislavery activist and philosopher active in England in the second half of the eighteenth century, interrogates the lack of attention paid to examining how the pro-slavery stances of important figures in the history of Western philosophy could have influenced their writings. Against this backdrop of canonical philosophers, Bernasconi shows just how radical the work of Cugoano, a freed slave, would have been. Cugoano denounced not only slavery but also the silence of bystanders. With this in mind, Bernasconi turns to current practice, advocating that, ‘We must not only investigate the failures of past philosophers but also question why academic philosophy is pursued today in such a fashion that it is considered acceptable to ignore the failure of academic philosophy, both past and present, in the face of slavery.’ In a similar vein, Mogobe Ramose, in ‘A Philosophy Without Memory Cannot Abolish Slavery: On Epistemic Justice in South Africa’, argues that those engaging in philosophical practice in South Africa must keep in mind injustices of the past if philosophy is to be a discipline committed to truth and justice. As Ramose writes, an African philosophy ‘of and with memory’ both ‘re-members pre-colonial Africa as a significant dimension of the contemporary community of the peoples of Africa and the peoples of Africa in the diaspora’ but also uses historical injustices as a means to recognise and respect those who fought for freedom and ‘to interrogate the meaning of that freedom in the present existential conditions of the other’.

Debates about or international conversations drawing on African philosophy thus prove to be two robust ways of interpreting the volume’s title. And more formally, this is reflected somewhat in three of the five sections into which the volume is divided: ‘Decolonising philosophy’, ‘Meta-philosophy’ and ‘Comparative perspectives’, along with the ‘decolonial ethics and comparative philosophy’ of the subtitle. Also included in the subtitle, however, is the phrase ‘perspectives on identity’, and the other section headers point more towards debates within African philosophy, with sections such as ‘Race, justice, identity’ and ‘Moral debates’. What, then, unifies the volume? 

In his Introduction, Hull does not explain why the volume is divided the way it is, instead introducing another set of themes that cut across the formal sections. With the ambiguity of the main title and at least two sets of distinct themes, it is hard to know how to read the volume as a whole. Perhaps more problematically, the opacity of the aims and reach of the volume extends to a near-silence on an issue that threatens to loom large as an elephant in the room: who exactly are the contributors, and what unifies them?

A major tradition within African philosophy is to critically engage with the questions of what qualifies both a philosophy and a philosopher as ‘African’. It is notable, then, that a large proportion of the contributors would not, from some perspectives, qualify as ‘African’ philosophers by not being Black or ethnically African, or drawing on a lived African culture in their work. Hull notes in the Introduction that the seminar organisers chose to include scholars from around the world in an international conversation. From the perspective of that international conversation, this selection may not be a problem. But from the perspectives of debates about and debates within African philosophy, no further words on this aspect would be a deliberate choice, opening the door for the elephant to enter. And given the context from which the volume arose, one of active demands for decolonisation where attention is frequently drawn to whose voices are given platforms and when, the elephant is not just present but flashing bright pink.

Nevertheless, we may be able to find a way of defending this choice within the volume itself. Take Oritsegbubemi Oyowe’s contribution ‘African Philosophy in the Context of a University’. Oyowe suggests that rather than settling once and for all how we should think about African philosophy, we can look instead at the context in which it is practised to assess how we should conceive of African philosophy within that context. When philosophy is practised within a university the very idea of a university as a place of knowledge production would thus play a regulative role in what African philosophy would look like in that context: as Oyowe writes, how a university ‘might be imagined can significantly illuminate our decision about which conceptions of African philosophy we should teach, research and develop’. Crucially, within the context of a university, activities ‘can be held up to scrutiny and open to rigorous criticism’, and those eligible to practise as African philosophers would be inclusive of a range of qualified thinkers, regardless of their racial, ethnic or other backgrounds. Highlighting the fact that the volume arose out of a seminar series with contributors from universities based in Africa and beyond, then, perhaps helps to banish the elephant, or at least return it to its normal colour.

Is this just petty quibbling about minor editorial choices? Perhaps. The contributions themselves are standalone pieces of critical work, offering thought-provoking perspectives on a range of overlapping topics. But the various interpretations of what ‘Debating African Philosophy’ amounts to, along with an almost complete silence on an issue that is hard to ignore within an African philosophical and decolonial context, makes it difficult to understand why and how the volume has been put together in the way that it has. Debating African philosophy: yes, please—but there is so much rich material that we, the readers, need more guidance in navigating it.

  • Mary Carman is a lecturer in Philosophy at Wits University. Her primary area of research lies in the field of philosophy of emotion, where she is interested in understanding the role that emotion plays in both our personal and social lives. She has published her work on emotion, as well as on topics within African philosophy and bioethics, in both local and international academic journals. For more information, visit her website.
Header image: Patrick Fore on Unsplash/Composite: The JRB

One thought on “Philosophy in Africa, or Africa in Philosophy? Mary Carman reviews Debating African Philosophy: Perspectives on Identity, Decolonial Ethics and Comparative Philosophy”

  1. The book is really aiming to move away from those stale debates about ‘is there such a thing as African philosophy? What is it?’ etc. There are hundreds of texts claiming that territory already. It’s focused on a more unique contribution, imo, and this just doesn’t come through in the review.

    One of the main criticisms by the reviewer is the lack of clarity on ‘why and how the volume has been put together’. They say that ‘the opacity of the aims and reach of the volume extends to a near-silence on an issue that threatens to loom large as an elephant in the room: who exactly are the contributors, and what unifies them?’… Really? Is this a fair criticism? No. I disagree that this volume has not grappled with these issues and feel it distorts the efforts of the whole volume.

    Turn to the Intro section and you will see that this issue has been explicitly and transparently dealt with. A rise in global interest of ‘intellectual decolonisation of the academy, and of the discipline of philosophy in particular’ is carefully documented by the author/editor, identifying a niche. The ‘guiding aim of the volume’, it says, is ‘to show that much African philosophy on these topics can and should be debated, not only by African philosophy specialists, but by any philosophers working on the relevant topics’. It is weird that the reviewer fixates on this point given that it is practically a primary aspect of the volume: e.g., to counter a looming opinion that African philosophy is the exclusive right of one particular demographic, to open routes for African philosophy beyond a localised remit, to allow to work of African philosophy to become available to others in other settings as well. And it is also a shame, that this criticism steals the focus. Some quite original contributions are really neglected or tucked into this hurried ‘international perspective’, which the reviewer only barely grants.

    This volume is not an introductory text and should not have been treated that way. Just a second opinion.

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