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On the History of African Philosophy

History of African Philosophy


    In the history of African Philosophy, we have the record of Ethiopian Philosophy which, according to F. Ogunmodede, is divided into two great periods:

The first which began in the 4th century and ended in the 7th century is known as the Aksum Period, since it witnessed the flourishing of literature in the northern kingdom of Aksum. The second great period appeared towards the end of the 13th century with the restoration of the Solomonian Dynasty whose first king is Yakuna Amlak, the son of Solomon and Sheba. This ended in the 18th century.

Some Ethiopian Philosophers are Zero Yacob and Walda Heywat.

    Furthermore, this period also witnessed the influence of Islamic Scholars in African thought systems (7-13AD). The language of study was Arabic. Centers of Intellectual Studies were established in Central and West African States. Among Sudanic African Scholars of this period were Baba Ahmed of the University of Timbuctu and Ibn Khaldun, the Philosopher of History and a founding father of Sociology.

    In addition, there was a systematized form of trade and commerce in sub-Sahara Africa. There was a trade between kingdoms, and the trans-Sahara trade facilitated the exchange of ideas and mobility of people within the length and breadth of the Sudanese territory.

    However, early contact with Europe (13th-17th) brought about the destruction of the rich culture and civilization of Sub-Sahara Africa. This explains why the views of European travellers and historians like Samuel Baker and Levy Bruhl that Africans are primitive, uncivilized and incapable of rational enquiry are not tenable.


    The conference of Berlin in 1885 formalized European occupation and rule of Africa with the consequent imposition of European language. With these, says F. Ogunmodede, the African lost not just his land and resources, but also his soul and personality. This marked the beginning of the rewriting of history to favour the Europeans in such a way that serious philosophical discourse, theological reflections were denied Africans, and, unfortunately, some Europeans trained African Philosophers of the last century were caught up in this brain-washing. Instead of continuous African Philosophy, European trained African Philosophers started debating on the possibility of African Philosophy. For some, African Philosophy is just beginning. For instance, C. Okolo is of the view that the very ‘raw’ useful efforts to philosophize in the African context in some more systematic coherent manner, appeared in modern times in Placid Temples’ Bantu Philosophy in late fifties. For others like Oruka, K. Wiredu, P.O. Bodunrin, P. Hountondji, it began with contemporary Western European trained African Philosophers. Sogolo (1993:1) puts it thus:

Systematized philosophy is relatively new in Africa and its pioneers are intellectual products of alien cultures, who out of necessity, have to philosophize in alien languages, using alien conceptual frameworks (more specifically English, French, and allied European languages).

   The debate on whether or not there is African Philosophy is uncalled for because Africans are humans and they have a culture. Apart from these, some wise men in Africa developed the inner capabilities, which made them philosophers in their own merit. We have some written works recorded in history right from ancient Egypt, (as shown in the history of African Philosophy we have attempted in this work) and some works are yet to be fully harnessed from oral tradition. These works are built on the African experience, African in content, and engaged upon by some Africans who took time out to reflect on the puzzles of life. It is on this basis I share the views of Nkeonye Otakpor that only African, among all races in the World, argue about whether or not they have a Philosophy. He further added that this kind of debate undermines the dignity of Africans as humans.


   F. Ogunmodede is of the view that Contemporary African Philosophy started in 1939 with Aime Cesaire’s poem, Cahier D’um Retour au Pays Natal (Return to My Native land). Casaire stressed the whole idea of negritude as a movement to counter westernism’s arrogant and aggressive Eurocentric culture as well as provide the key to a future discourse on African identity.

    However, many Schools of thought emerged during this period like the analytico-logical, universalist, naturalist, traditionalist, modernist, sage philosophy, purist school. Egyptological school, Marxist school etc. At this juncture, let us examine the Traditionalist and the Modernist schools of thought concerning the debate over African philosophy.

(a) The Traditionalist School of Thought

    The Traditionalists were reacting to the Colonial Masters belief that the African race is primitive, uncivilized and has nothing to contribute to the world. The whole idea of African personality and negritude were a counter reaction to these European beliefs. Though we may be different from Europeans in colour, continent, and worldview, all human beings are ontologically or essentially the same. K. Nkrumah saw African personality as the freedom of the African to express himself and decide for himself his way of life without intimidation or oppression from the west. Aime Casaire and S. Senghor championed Negritude. Negritude is essentially a shift from the western mode of life and worldview to that of the African. It also involved a retrospective look in the African cultural past as solutions to contemporary problems and the way forward for the African. In addition, Negritude suggests a distinctive form of rationality for the African and promotes intuition and emotion as alternative sources of knowledge.

    However, two major dangers of Negritude can be highlighted. First, it makes it appear that reason is for the western European while Africans are basically emotional. This idea, if not corrected, can promote the false impression that Africans are entirely different from other people of the world and further strengthen the view that Africans are not rational. Second, it does not take into cognizance the fact that the contemporary African is a mixture of cultures (African, Western and Middle-Eastern cultures aided by Christianity and Islam), and the need for the acquisition of technology in this whole process of globalization. Oladipo, summarizing the limitations of Negritude said that it presents the African as a unique being different from other human beings, and it undermines those things which establish our identity with others as human beings, namely, the Universals of culture.

(b) The modernist School of Thought

    The Modernists are advocating a strong orientation towards the Western European. They want the African to absolve the cultural way of life of the Western European as well as its Science and Technology so as not to be left behind in the Globalization process. The whole idea, as highlighted by P.O Bodunrin, is that Europe did not make rapid scientific and technological progress until the rise of humanism and until the spiritual and secular spheres become less confusedly fused. In addition, Bodunrin is of the view that he and those in his group are overimpressed by the achievements of a scientific and technological age. Apart from Bodunrin, Wiredu and Hountondji are also of the view that African Philosophy should orient itself in the direction of Western Europe. In other words, African Philosophers should do philosophy in the style and manner of any school of thought which is predominant in western philosophy at any point in time.

    The question that the Modernist School of Thought brings to mind is what is the contribution of Africa to globalization? If the contribution the African Philosopher can make to Philosophy is nothing more than to develop the thoughts of western philosophers and domesticating Western ideas and problems in Africa, then Africa, a people with a unique culture and worldview, would have been reduced to parasites intellectually, culturally, technologically and ethically. This cannot be the case. We surely need technology. Must it be western? If yes, must it be adopted in such a way that all our values are thrown into the dustbin? Can we not develop a technology that is African-based and inbuilt with African values especially the values of the dignity of the human person and the environment? So, what is the relevance of African Philosophy globally? What is the relevance of the contemporary African Philosopher to the African of today?