African Philosophy and doing philosophy from a place

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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In this discussion, Bruce Janz (Central Florida) talks about his interest in African philosophy, and the importance of recognizing that all philosophy is affected by — and done from — a “place.” We talk about what that means for how African philosophy can differ from philosophy in “the West” and the challenges this poses for Western philosophy.

5:29 – Why and How a White Canadian Became Taken with African Philosophy 18:53 – How and why African philosophy has had to prove that it has a valid place in philosophy 26:31 – How African philosophy can help us highlight the importance of place/location to a philosophy’s shape. 36:45 – The underrated importance of audience to how philosophy is done 49:07 – What does it mean to do philosophy from an African (and often colonized) place? 1:00:02 – Does the importance of place and “positionality” in philosophy mean the Genetic fallacy isn’t a fallacy?

9 comments

  1. Sinister Lives Matter. African American naïveté on drums. Funny.

    I enjoyed the shop talk and the generalities about time and place but I seemed to have missed the section on African philosophy.

    1. Azin,
      but I seemed to have missed the section on African philosophy.

      there was none, except in the title.

  2. This frustratingly vague discussion traded in generalities that threw no light on African philosophy other than saying it came from a place. I have lived in Kenya and South Africa and was looking for fresh, sharp insights that might challenge or inform my own observations. None were forthcoming. This was a chummy commonroom discussion between two fellow philosophers and was vaguely interesting on that account.

  3. Although, in an ironic sense, I do think something useful came out of the discussion. The repeated emphasis on philosophy coming from a ‘place’ brought home to me the real strength of Western philosophy. This strength is that it was able to abstract itself and free itself from the bounds of place to an extent that no other philosophy was able to achieve. For this reason Western philosophy has become dominant worldwide.

      1. Ahttps://theelectricagora.com/2020/10/07/social-justice-discourse-and-the-question-of-standpoints/n

        An absolutely comprehensive, eloquent and persuasive exposition. Couldn’t agree more.

  4. These two articles from Wikipedia and SEP make a good introduction to the subject.

    1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_philosophy
    2) https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/africana/

    From the Wikipedia article
    historical context plays an important role in African philosophy. History provides the framework in which we can inspect philosophical problems. In terms of African philosophy, one must look at the whole picture through the lens of African history. “There are no facts without history.”
    and
    African philosophy can be formally defined as a critical thinking by Africans on their experiences of reality.

    From these two articles it appears that what is called ‘African philosophy’ is primarily concerned with modes of being, as perceived from an African point of view, while Western philosophy is more concerned with modes of understanding that transcend cultures.

    I would go further to claim that what is called ‘African philosophy’ is in reality African cultural studies that is making a claim to elevated intellectual standing(see the SEP quote below). Now I do think African cultural studies are useful and even important but we should be clear in our mind about what it really is. Once we make this clarification then it becomes obvious that African cultural studies are rooted in ‘place’. Once we accept that it is primarily about their understanding of their modes of being then we can accept that it must be seen through the lens of their experience.

    But this is not philosophy, it is culture.

    From the conclusion to the SEP article

    The expansion of academic Philosophy to include Africana philosophy is indicative of efforts to achieve greater intellectual democracy in multi-ethnic, multi-racial societies. These developments should be continued, aided by philosophizing persons who are neither African nor of African descent, nor, even, professional academic philosophers, and continued as part of a larger, ongoing effort to appreciate and learn from the many life-enriching creations of all peoples as contributions to the treasure-houses of human civilization.

    This is a problematic claim. Instead of achieving “greater intellectual democracy” we should be acieving greater intellectual clarity and insights. Democracy has nothing to do with it.

    Where he says
    …part of a larger, ongoing effort to appreciate and learn from the many life-enriching creations of all peoples as contributions to the treasure-houses of human civilization.

    I agree. However this is the goal of cultural studies and not the goal of philosophy.

  5. Despite our differences elsewhere, I must agree with Peter Smith here, and also thank him for linking to explanatory sources for us.

    I note that I find such linkage helpful, because the OP dialogue is really quite vague as to the references that, supposedly, it was to have elucidated. It is chummy and not lacking in entertainment, but definitely lacking in the kind of information necessary to learn from or position oneself adequately in relation to its professed subject matter.

    The Stanford Encyclopedia article is informative, but it is revealing. As a field of study, “African Philosophy” or “Africana Philosophy” comes across as a bit of a mess. By the time that article brought itself to American efforts at such study, I found myself in a morass of social history, literary history, politics, ethnology, with occasional nods to something like moral philosophy, which as far as I could tell was the only component I could recognize as inherently philosophical. It is not that I have no sympathy for the politics, or no interest in the historical narratives. But politics is not philosophy, it is not about understanding, and social history may inform the history of philosophy, and does, but it is not itself the history of philosophy.

    I also admit that, for me, I am rather annoyed that the fundamental reference of “African Philosophy” is vague and in some respects exclusive unjustly, and in some ways surprisingly unhistorical. The philosophical tradition of North Africa, for instance, is dominated by Islamic philosophy, which has a rich history both as the foundation of many natural science innovations in math, astronomy, etc., but also in its lively interactions with Jewish philosophy and Christian philosophy, especially in debates concerning interpretations of Aristotle and Plato. This is all buried by “African Philosophy,” which seems to deem Egypt the only North African country with any philosophy of note, under the presumption that the Greeks stole from the Egyptians, a presumption remaining unproven, argued for by way of esoteric interpretations rather than with concrete documentation,

    The reader may suspect that I am simply biased in favor of “Western philosophy,” but I spent considerable amount of time and effort studying philosophy developed by Buddhist thinkers over the centuries; most recently investigating the development of philosophy in Japan. What we might call “Buddhist philosophy” is of course ideologically determined – it has an agenda. So too the philosophies developed out of Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu theologies. All of these religious philosophies effectively reached exhaustion before the development of Modern “Western” philosophy, not because they were wrong (regardless of my personal opinion or commitments here), but simply because they had been explored and expounded to their fullest extent.

    Modern Japanese philosophy is rather interesting because it begins as an effort to find rapprochement between established customs of thought in Japan and Modern customs of thought developing in the West. The early Modern Japanese philosophers certainly wanted to retain the flavor and foundational vision of their way of life, but they also wanted to learn from the innovations they found in European and American philosophy as well.

    One problem here, for me, is that the very idea “African Philosophy” effectively continues by inversion the fundamental mistake of European colonialists who saw sub-Sahara Africa as all one hunk of jungle inhabited by savages differentiated only through barbarous power relationships. They did not see a continent as geographically diverse as Europe; they did not see the many differing cultures of the differing peoples who lived rich, full lives worthy of preservation. When “African Philosophy” is about salvaging such cultures, as a form of anthropological or ethnological history, it has much to contribute; but when it addresses some place called “Africa” as if it were a solid mass inhabited by people all the same, with the same grievances, the same aspirations, it is just inverting the fundamental mistake the colonialists made. The continent of Africa is a land of many nations; many cultures; many differing politics and many differing voices. Each of these nations must find a way to develop their own history, and build their own future. Any effort that would inhibit such development is misguided politically.

    And when philosophy comes, it will be as an understanding; that’s all philosophy can do, and it is a mistake to think or even wish that it could be otherwise.

  6. I don’t think there is any question that when people start talking about “African Philosophy” they are really using a very different definition of the word from the kind of topics discussed in a site like this. It is sort of the difference between Philosophy with a capital P, and philosophy with a lower-case p. The former can be seen as a systematic way of analyzing the nature of reality and our place in it, subdivided into core topics. The latter is simply a general viewpoint of the world often conflated with political/cultural issues or even worse theological/mythological positions. Nor can African philosophy be considered whatever someone like Kwame Anthony Appiah is working on.

    To paraphrase a controversial statement, “Who is the Descartes of the Zulus, I should like to read him.”

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