17. Event Horizon: African Philosophy of Time

Posted on 9 December 2018

John Mbiti’s influential and controversial claim that traditional Africans experience time as having “a long past, a present, and virtually no future.”

Themes:

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Further Reading

• J.A.A. Ayoade, “Time in Yoruba Thought,” in R.A. Wright (ed) African Philosophy, An Introduction (Washington DC: 1997), 93-111.

• E. Beyaraza, The African Concept of Time: a Comparative Study of Various Theories (Kampala: 2000).

• N.S. Booth Jr, “Time and Change in African Traditional Thought,” Journal of Religion in Africa 7 (1975), 81-91.

• S.B. Diagne, "On Prospective: Development and a Political Culture of Time," Africa Development 29 (2004): 55-70.

• A. Kagame, “Empirical Apperception of Time and the Conception of History in Bantu Thought,” in ed. L. Gardet (ed.), Cultures and Time (Paris: 1976), 89-116.

• K.M. Kalumba, “A New Analysis of Mbiti’s ‘The Concept of Time,’” Philosophia Africana 8 (2005), 11-20.

• J.S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (London: 1969).

• D. Tiemersma and H.A.F. Oosterling (eds), Time and Temporality in Intercultural Perspective (Amsterdam: 1996).

Comments

Alexander Johnson 11 February 2020

A:  Are we sure the 12 hour or 24 hour system was invented by Egypt?  It would be very unusual for Egypt to run a base 12 or base 24 system, where as the Mesopotamians using a base 12 system would not be unusual at all.  Likewise, I though there was good evidence suggesting Babylonian water clocks were in common use that dates back before the Egyptians even had reference to it being introduced.

B:  On the cyclical nature of time being African, and continuous being European.  Cycles seems to be more universal, with Indian, African, and even Aztec refering to a cyclical nature of time.  But not just these, but there also seems to be a more static/declining view of time that competes/coexists with it.  We see Greeks refering back to a golden age of Troy, Romans refering to a golden age of the republic, Hewbrews refering to a golden age when people lived hundreds of years, likewise for the Chinese and Mesopotamians.  This suggests that what we label as the modern "European" notion of time is less cultural, and more the inability to believe there was a far past better than the present (aka, scientific and technological discovery that far surprassed what we can plausibly ascribe to the far past).  How plausible is this?

C:  I know they were claimed by different people, but just checking if you agree.  It seems the Ethiopean cyclical time suggestion, that it is more egalitarian, requires a far past to look forwards to.  Afterall, if you are taking the notion that your family will be in charge in the far future, you have to have a conception of far future.  So this seems incompatible with John Mbiti's notion of time, and therefore a rejection of it as a notion extending to Ethiopia.

Thanks very much for this detailed response! On B and C, yes I agree on both points. The Stoics, famously, also had a cyclical view of time and this seems to be quite a widespread notion (maybe because the seasons and heavenly motions are cyclical, so nature actually presents itself as temporally circular, not linear?). And re. C, yes absolutely, this illustrates that Mbiti was at best painting with too broad a brush.

Re. Egyptian time schemes, I am traveling and can't check now but I can tell you my source for that tidbit was G.J. Whitrow, Time in History: The Evolution of Our General Awareness of Time and Temporal Perspective, page 26-7, because I footnoted it in the script for the book version. Of course there may be influence of Babylonian culture on Eygptian here, I don't know.

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