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Narrative in African Philosophy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

Richard H. Bell
The College of Wooster


P. O. Bodunrin, in his 1981 essay, asks: ‘Is there an African Philosophy, and if there is, what is it?’ This question has occupied centre stage among younger African intellectuals for about a decade now. The most articulate among these intellectuals, who are themselves philosophers, are Bodunrin (Nigeria), Kwasi Wiredu (Ghana), H. Odera Oruka (Kenya), Marcien Towa and Eboussi Boulaga (Cameroon), and Paulin Hountondji (Benin). These philosophers among others are in dialogue with one another and currently are seen to be the principal architects of a new orientation in African thought.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1989

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1 Bodunrin, P. O., ‘The Question of African Philosophy’, Philosophy 56 (1981), 161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 An earlier and briefer version of this essay was presented to ‘The Philosophy Club’ at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in March 1985.I am grateful to Professor Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba of the history faculty in Dar es Salaam for providing the occasion for these remarks and for the useful discussion which followed them. He also read and criticized a draft of this paper. The notion of the African Palaver as a piece of narrative philosophy is an idea he first suggested to me.

3 A book of importance is Kagamé, Alexis, La Philosophie bantou-rwandaise de l'être (Brussels, 1956).Google Scholar For an interesting discussion of the role that this book along with Tempels' book played in the development of African philosophy see Hountondji, Paulin, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (London: Hutcheson University Library for Africa, 1983), 3444.Google Scholar Also see the introduction to Hountondji's book by Irele, 15–20.

4 Two paradigmatic ethnographic studies which underlay the pluralistic view are E. E. Evans-Pritchard's work among the Azande and the Nuer, and Marcel Griaule's French team working on the Dogon of Mali and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). A seminal article that has led to much discussion on these issues is Winch, Peter, ‘Understanding a Primitive Society’, collected in Rationality, Wilson, Brian (ed.) (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970).Google Scholar See also Hollis, M. and Lukes, S. (eds), Rationality and Relativism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982).Google Scholar

5 Houndontji, , op. cit., note 3, 34.Google Scholar

6 Senghor's works on negritude include Liberté I. Négritude et humanisme (Paris: Sueil, 1964).Google Scholar According to Hountondji, Paulin, op. cit., 215Google Scholar, as early as 1939, Aimé Césaire, in his poem Cahier d'n retour au pays natal, had used the term ‘negritude’ with similar value implications.

7 Senghor, as translated by Wole Soyinka and found in Soyinka, , Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge University Press, 1976), 129.Google Scholar

8 Soyinka, ibid. Soyinka's entire critique of ‘negritude’ is brilliantly analytical. See his pp. 125–136.

9 Especially Nkrumah, , Consciencism (London: Heinemann, 1964)Google Scholar, and Nyerere, , Ujaama, Essays in Socialism (Oxford University Press, 1968).Google Scholar Among important philosophical and social concepts are ‘consciencism’, ‘negative and positive action’ (Nkrumah) and ‘villagization’, ‘familyhood’, and ‘education for self-reliance’ (Nyerere).

10 Irele, in Hountondji, , op. cit., 23.Google Scholar Julius Nyerere expressed this tension in his recent address to the Royal Commonwealth Society, 20 March 1985, in London. Text found in Daily News, Tanzania, 23 03 1985.Google Scholar

11 This was clearly apparent to me during a recent visit to Tanzania (March 1985 ). Both university students and educated young people working in areas of economic and social development echoed this theme that their reality was one of ‘struggle’ from both external economic and political pressures and with their own will to prevail against great odds. Their philosophy was, simply, that of ‘liberation’. This was not, however, the considered view of many of the ‘professional’ academics—philosophers and social scientists I met in Dar es Salaam and earlier in Nairobi (at the Institute of African Studies, winter 1980).

12 Cf. Bodunrin, , op. cit.Google Scholar, Wiredu, Kwasi, Philosophy and an African Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1980)Google Scholar, and Oruka, Odera, ‘Mythologies in African Philosophy’, East African Journal IX, No. 10 (10 1972)Google Scholar, and ‘Four Trends in African Philosophy’ in Philosophy in the Present Situation of Africa, (Alwin, Diemer ed.) (Weisbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner Erlagh GmBH, 1981).Google Scholar Many of the essays in Wright's, Richard A. collection, African Philosophy: An Introduction, 3rd edn (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984)Google Scholar, reflect this universalistic outlook.

13 Cf. Hountondji, , op. cit.Google Scholar, Boulaga, Eboussi, La Crise du Muntu (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1977)Google Scholar, Towa, Marcien, Essai sur la Problematique Philosophique dans l'Afrique Actuelle. Point de Vue no. 8, 2nd edn (Yaounde: Editions Clé, 1979)Google Scholar; and the excellent critique of the dialectical outlook found Wamba-dia-Wamba, E., ‘Philosophy in Africa: Challenges of the African Philosopher’, Mawazo 5, No. 2 (12 1983)Google Scholar, originally in French, ‘La philosophie en Afrique ou les defis de l'africaine philosophie’, published in Canadian Journal of African Studies 13, Nos. 1–2 (1979).Google Scholar

14 Bodunrin, , op. cit., 173.Google Scholar

15 This view is developed most effectively by Wiredu, op. cit.

16 Hountondji, , op. cit., 105.Google Scholar

17 Ibid., 33.

18 Ibid., 81. Hountondji's argument here is very interesting and I will quote a lengthy passage. The pros and cons of this point, I believe, could be the subject of a separate essay. He writes: ‘Oral tradition favours the consolidation of knowledge into dogmatic, intangible systems, whereas archival transmission promotes better the possibility of a critique of knowledge between individuals and from one generation to another. Oral tradition is dominated by the fear of forgetting, of lapses of memory, since memory is here left to its own resources, bereft of external or material support. This forces people to hoard their memories jealously, to recall them constantly, to repeat them continually, accumulating and heaping them up in a global wisdom, simultaneously present, always ready to be applied, perpetually available. In these conditions the mind is too preoccupied with preserving knowledge to find freedom to criticize it. Written tradition, on the contrary, providing a material support, liberates the memory, and permits it to forget its acquisitions, provisionally to reject or question them, because it knows that it can at any moment recapture them if need be. By guaranteeing a permanent record, archives make actual memory superfluous and give full rein to the boldness of the mind’ (Hountondji, , 1983, 103f.).Google Scholar

19 Ibid., 105f.

20 Ibid., 82f.

21 Ibid., 83.

22 Ibid., 83f. Hountondji's distinction between ‘artistic’ and ‘scientific’ literature is highly problematic as a way of dividing philosophy from other literary/cultural forms of expression, as we shall see shortly.

23 Ibid., 98ff., also see p. 168. If such problems cannot be included as philosophy, then we have made a radical shift in the meaning of the term ‘philosophy’ altogether.

24 Ibid., 105.

25 See Hountondji's selected bibliography of the kinds of literature by Africans that qualify as ‘philosophy’, ibid., 185–186.

26 Ibid., 67.

28 Ibid., 69.

29 Ibid., 73.

30 Ibid., 106. I owe a debt to Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba who suggested to me that Hountondji's position could embrace a more thoroughly Socratic view. I would disagree that this is implicit in Hountondji's book African Philosophy, but Wamba-dia-Wamba made a number of interesting suggestions of his own as to how we might see the oral village tradition to be an example of Socratic philosophical reflection. This latter point will be developed in the next section.

31 Wamba-dia-Wamba, E., ‘Experience of Democracy in Africa: Reflections on Practices of Communalist Palaver as a Social Method of Resolving Contradictions among the People’.Google Scholar A paper discussed in a Seminar in the Department of Theory and History of State Law, Faculty of Law, University of Dar es Salaam, 17 May 1985, p. 5. Unpublished.

32 Ibid., 24f.

33 Ibid., 30.

34 Ibid., 31, my emphasis.

35 Ibid., 32f.

36 Wamba-dia-Wamba has some very telling comparisons between Socrates and the palavering community in his concluding pages, ibid., 45–49.

37 Soyinka's essays in Myth, Literature and the African World, op. cit., are philosophical in the best sense of being critical, but they also point beyond criticism to what he calls ‘quintessential’ to an African self-understanding or an authentic African self-apprehension.

38 The idea of an ‘Iconic tradition’ within African culture was developed by Soyinka in a lecture ‘Icons for Self Retrieval: The African Experience’, given at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, 14 November 1985.

39 Soyinka, , Oberlin lecture, 1985.Google Scholar

40 Soyinka, , op. cit., 98.Google Scholar

41 Ibid., 125f.

42 Ibid., 117.

43 Ibid., 118.

44 Ibid., 119, my emphasis.

45 Ibid., 117.

46 Ibid., 105.

47 Ibid., viii.

48 Cf. Goody, Jack, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge University Press, 1977)Google Scholar; see especially chapters two and three, and Horton, Robin, ‘African Traditional Thought and Western Science’Google Scholar, collected in Wilson, , Rationality, op. cit. note 4.Google Scholar A much greater ‘divide’ would be apparent in a culture where literacy was the norm and then where segments of the culture lose their literacy and thus lose the capacity to function freely within the culture. In the latter case there is no oral-traditional background for a person's self-expression—there is only cultural disenfranchisement. This is a growing phenomenon in the United States where increasing illiteracy is contributing to a heightened class division.