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Philosophical History


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Companion to African Philosophy edited by Kwasi Wiredu (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: Blackwell Publishers) This volume, comprised of 42 newly commissioned and 5 adapted essays, provides comprehensive coverage of African philosophy, ranging across disciplines and throughout the ages. 

The essays encompass all the main branches of philosophy – logic, epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, religion, and politics, among others – as these have occupied the African mind in both communal and individual conceptions. A special feature of the volume is its historical dimension, including a substantial treatment of ancient African philosophy as encountered in ancient Egypt, an extended study of medieval North African thinkers, an enlightening discussion of pre-colonial African philosophy, and a history of African political thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A Companion to African Philosophy is unique in its depth and breadth of coverage. It is an invaluable resource for anyone wishing to learn about African philosophy and its rich history.

This volume is intended to be a comprehensive anthology of essays on the history of African philosophy, ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary, and on all the main branches of the discipline, including logic, epistemology, metaphysics, aesthet­ics, ethics, and politics. The chapters are nearly all new. They have been written in such a way as to be reflective, enlightening, and useful to both students and scholars. Methodological concerns as manifested in contemporary controversies among African philosophers on the proper relations between the traditional and the modern in their discipline have been addressed. But pride of place belongs to substantive issues of philosophy as these have occupied the African mind in communal conceptions and individualized cogitations.

Accordingly, this text will not only serve as a companion to a main text in a course in African philosophy; it can also serve as the principal text at the graduate as well as the undergraduate level. The reader will therefore find ample bibliographies appended to most chapters. But this is not their only rationale. The discipline itself, of contem­porary African philosophy, is in a phase of intense postcolonial reconstruction, which manifests itself in print in many different ways. The availability of relevant literature must therefore be a welcome aid to the curious. But even to the incurious outside of Africa, who are still often frankly taken by surprise by the mention of African philoso­phy, such notification of availability might well occasion the beginning of curiosity. Teachers newly embarked upon courses in African philosophy will also be empowered by the same circumstance. They will find that the Introduction to this volume was designed with their basic needs, though not only that, in mind.

Oral Traditions As Philosophy: Okot P'Bitek's Legacy for African Philosophy by Samuel Oluoch Imbo (Rowman & Littlefield) p'Bitek remains one of Africa's best-known authors, although the full influence of his legacy has not been appreciated. Though widely studied, his views on Important philosophical issues remain unexplored. p'Bitek's importance was in linking poetry and everyday living to philosophy and his insistence on the inseparability of any genuine philosophy from a specific context of socially constructed meaning. Much contemporary discussion in African philosophy would benefit from further exploring this linkage. Although the focus of this book remains throughout on p'Bitek's work, there are strands of p'Bitek's themes that are echoed in contemporary philosophical writing in Africa that merit examination.

Chapter 1 explores the question of the ever changing idea of Africa. From the multiplicity of visions of Africanity, we can begin to build consensus regarding the enduring elements. p'Bitek's songs preview V Y. Mudimbe's lament about European inventions of Africa. The coming together of European and African cultures raises crucial questions for Africanity. Four visions are compared to explore the multiple meanings of African identity. To explore the complexity posed by the diversity in Africa and the African experience, p'Bitek's assumption about the importance of blackness and African origin to Africanity is examined. I find p'Bitek's vision somewhat impoverished and suggest an alternative that is more flexible and that allows the telling of a multilevel story of Africa.

Chapter 2 explores the differing assumptions of what constitutes the philosophical and the religious and indeed whether such a dichotomy is appropriate in the African context. The abstract orientation in Western philosophy is contrasted with the narrative African bent. One of the themes of discussion is the different set of assumptions adopted by, on the one hand, African theologians such as John S. Mbiti and Bolaji Idowu and, on the other, by philosophers such as Paulin Hountondj i, Kwasi Wiredu, and Tsenay Serequeberhan. The history of Western philosophy is sketched with a view to finding openings for cross‑disciplinary dialogue.

A characteristic of p'Bitek's songs is that they are composed primarily to be sung out loud and performed, and only later did he translate and write them. This characteristic frames the discussion for chapter 3. Are the songs suitable vehicles for transmitting rigorous, intellectual discourse? How does one resolve issues of author(ity) and ownership of oral traditions? A discussion of the imagined benefits of written over oral texts provides an opening for rethinking the notion of what constitutes a text.

Chapter 4 examines the issue of whether depictions of women, strangers, and "others" within oral traditions marginalize these groups. Are oral traditions misogynistic? This question of whether the assumptions that marginalize women are deeply rooted in oral traditions is a crucial one in light of the underrepresentation of women in academic African philosophy and the political mainstream.

p'Bitek's passion, Africans religions, forms the theme of chapter 5. If religion is the most important aspects of a people's culture, it is crucial that this aspect be understood as the people themselves practice it. One of the key areas of interaction between Europe and Africa was religion and the work of missionaries and their African accomplices. The discussion in this chapter is mainly about the interaction of Christian missionaries with African religions. The chapter ends with a criticism of p'Bitek for failing to grasp the centrality of Islam to the lives of many Africans.

Whenever different cultures interact, a familiar problem arises. Chapter 6 poses the problem of the search for equivalent concepts across cultures and languages. If languages are not comparable in terms of their vocabulary and concepts, how do interested parties transmit important concepts across the languages? The discussion is indeed one about whether the determination of "important" concepts is culturally or linguistically dependent. The implications of this problem are explored. What are the cultural universals and particulars? The possibility of understanding other cultures and other societies lies at the heart of the question. The implications for positions that extol uniqueness, such as negritude and Afrocentrism, are also discussed.

Chapter 7 takes up again an aspect of the discussion of African understandings of the self. The discussion here is about the place of the individual in society. The body of work that shows Africans to privilege community over individual is examined. In particular, Julius Nyerere's Ujamaa, Kwame Nkrumah's "African personality," and Leopold Sedar Senghor's negritude are contrasted with the work of philosophers such as Ifeanyi Menkiti and Kwame Gyekye.

"What ought I to do?" is the guiding question of chapter 8. The task ahead is seen differently by African scholars. p'Bitek's view is discussed side by side with Frantz Fanon's call for revolution. Africa, despite its current problems, is indeed full of possibilities. There are many paths open to her future. Taking seriously the need to articulate African solutions to African problems, this chapter compares scholars who exhibit a creative resourcefulness in synthesizing and understanding African history with those that expertly ape Western theories and solutions. p'Bitek's challenge that the African scholar and philosopher must engage with African ideas and experiences forms the basis of the discussion.

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