Locating and Debating Precolonial African Philosophy

The first group of episodes on Africana philosophy really does begin at the very beginning, as we consider the hypothesis that philosophy is a universal human activity and was already present in prehistoric Africa. From there we move on to the philosophical texts of ancient Egypt, focusing on works of ethical instruction and dialogue, and then to precolonial philosophical texts from Ethiopia and Islamic intellectual traditions in sub-Saharan Africa. Our focus turns after that to attempts to delineate philosophical ideas in African oral traditions and the debate sparked by these attempts. What can we learn and what should we say about traditional African ideas concerning time, God, or the human person?

Look out for interviews with Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Samuel Imbo, Teodros Kiros, Kai Kresse, Nkiru Nzegwu, Richard Parkinson, and co-host Chike Jeffers!

Further Reading

• L. Apostel, African Philosophy: Myth or Reality? (Gent: 1981).

• M.K. Asante, The Egyptian Philosophers: Ancient African Voices from Imhotep to Akhenaten (Chicago: 2000).

• P.O. Bodunrin (ed.), Philosophy in Africa: Trends and Perspectives (Ife: 1995).

• L.M. Brown, African Philosophy. New and Traditional Perspectives (New York: 2004).

• G. Floistad (ed.), African Philosophy (Dordrecht: 1987).

• R. Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa (Oxford: 1970).

• D. Forde (ed.), African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples (Oxford: 1954).

• S. Gbadegesin, African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities (New York: 1991).

• K. Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (Cambridge: 1987).

• B. Hallen, A Short History of African Philosophy (Bloomington: 2002).

• C.B. Hilliard (ed.), Intellectual Traditions of Pre-Colonial Africa (Boston: 1998).

• P.J. Hountondji, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (London: 1983).

• S.O. Imbo, An Introduction to African Philosophy (Lanham: 1998).

• J. Jahn, Muntu: African Culture and the Western World, trans. M. Grene (New York: 1961).

• B.B. Janz, Philosophy in an African Place (Lanham: 2009).

• C. Jeffers (ed.), Listening to Ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy (Albany: 2013).

• M. Kebede, Africa's Quest for a Philosophy of Decolonization (Amsterdam: 2004).

• S. Kwame (ed.), Readings in African Philosophy: An Akan Collection (Lanham: 1995).

• D.A. Masolo, African Philosophy in Search of Identity (Bloomington: 1994).

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

• D.A. Masolo and I. Carp (eds), African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry (Bloomington: 2000).

• F. Ochieng'-Odhiambo, Trends and Issues in African Philosophy (New York: 2010).

• H.O. Oruka, Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy (Leiden: 1990).

• T. Serequeberhan (ed.), African Philosophy: The Essential Readings (New York: 1991).

• T. Serequeberhan, The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy: Horizon and Discourse (London: 1994).

• C. Sumner, Classical Ethiopian Philosophy (Los Angeles: 1994).

• R.F. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: 1983).

• K. Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture (Cambridge: 1980).

• K. Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective (Bloomington: 1997).

• K. Wiredu (ed.) A Companion to African Philosophy (Malden: 2004).

• K. Wiredu and K. Gyekye, Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies I (Washington DC: 1992).

• R.A. Wright (ed.), African Philosophy. An Introduction (Washington: 1977).

1. Something Old, Something New: Introducing Africana Philosophy

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We kick off the new series by explaining the scope and meaning of "Africana philosophy."

2. It’s Only Human: Philosophy in Prehistoric Africa

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Might philosophy be as old as humankind as we know it? We investigate the implications of findings concerning the origins of humankind in Africa.

3. Fertile Ground: Philosophy in Ancient Mesopotamia

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Do the cuneiform writings of Babylonian culture show that it had its own philosophy?

4. Pyramid Schemes: Philosophy in Ancient Egypt

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Ancient Egyptian figures and writings including the Pyramid Texts, Imhotep, and the "first monotheist" Akhenaten reflect on the nature of things and questions of morality.

5. Father Knows Best: Moral and Political Philosophy in the Instructions

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Ethical reflection in ancient Egyptian grave inscriptions and in works of moral advice, such as the Maxims of Ptahhotep and the Instructions named for Amenemope, Ani, and Merikare.

6. Heated Exchanges: Philosophy in Egyptian Narratives and Dialogues

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Demands for ma’at (justice or truth) and a confrontation with the soul, in the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant and Dispute Between a Man and his Ba.

7. Richard Parkinson on Egyptian Poetry

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Egyptologist Richard Parkinson joins us to talk about the context and meaning of the Eloquent Peasant and other literary works of ancient Egypt.

8. Solomon, Socrates, and Other Sages: Early Ethiopian Philosophy

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Translations of religious and philosophical texts into Ge’ez, a national epic called the Kebra Nagast, and other developments in the story of philosophy in Ethiopia.

9. In You I Take Shelter: Zera Yacob

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The 17th century Ethiopian rationalist Zera Yacob, hailed as the first modern Africana philosopher.

10. Think for Yourself: Walda Heywat

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Walda Heywat’s reaction to the thought of his teacher Zera Yacob, and the dispute over the authenticity of these two Ethiopian philosophers.

11. Teodros Kiros on Ethiopian Philosophy

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Teodros Kiros discusses his work in political philosophy and the history of Ethiopian philosophical thought.

12. From Here to Timbuktu: Subsaharan Islamic Philosophy

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The spread of Islamic scholarship in subsaharan Africa, focusing on intellectuals of the Songhay empire around the Niger River in the 15th-17th centuries.

13. Renewing the Faith: the Sokoto Caliphate

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Uthman Dan Fodio and his family were scholars, poets, and warriors whose jihad in 19th century Nigeria created the Sokoto Caliphate.

14. Souleymane Bachir Diagne on Islam in Africa

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Peter speaks to Souleymane Bachir Diagne about Islamic scholars in West Africa.

15. Heard it Through the Grapevine: Oral Philosophy in Africa

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An introduction to the “ethnophilosophy” approach inaugurated by Placide Tempels, its promises and potential pitfalls.

16. Samuel Imbo on Okot p'Bitek and Oral Traditions

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A conversation with Sam Imbo on approaching oral traditions as philosophy and the Ugandan thinker and poet Okot p'Bitek.

17. Event Horizon: African Philosophy of Time

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

18. One to Rule Them All: God in African Philosophy

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Is traditional African religion in some sense monotheist, despite the worship of many divinities?

19. Behind the Mask: African Philosophy of the Person

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Traditional African ideas about personhood, which challenge assumptions about the relation between mind and body, self and other.

20. I Am Because We Are: Communalism in African Ethics and Politics

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Emphasis on the value of community as a major theme in African philosophy.

21. The Doctor Will See You Now: Divination, Witchcraft, and Knowledge

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Special forms of knowledge and the explanation of misfortunes in African tradition.

22. Women Have No Tribe: Gender in African Tradition

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What archeology, ethnography, and philosophical interpretation tell us about the diverse and often ambiguous roles of men and women in traditional African societies.

23. Nkiru Nzegwu on Gender in African Tradition

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An interview with Nkiru Nzegwu on matriarchy, sexuality, and gender fluidity in Africa (with a quick chat at the end about her work on African art).

24. Professionally Speaking: The Reaction Against Ethnophilosophy

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Paulin Hountondji (pictured) and other African philosophers criticize ethnophilosophy and advocate a universalist approach.

25. Wise Guys: Sage Philosophy

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Henry Odera Oruka’s new method for exploring philosophy in Africa, based on interviews with wise individuals.

26. Kai Kresse on the Anthropology of Philosophy

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An interview with Kai Kresse (pictured here with Ustadh Mahmoud Mau) who discusses his efforts to do "anthropology of philosophy" on the Swahili Coast.

27. Beyond the Reaction: The Continuing Relevance of Precolonial Traditions

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As the twentieth century draws to a close, the critique of ethnophilosophy gives way to approaches that continue to privilege the study of precolonial traditions, including the approach promoted by Kwasi Wiredu (pictured). 

Note: we dedicate this episode to the memory of Kwame Gyekye, who passed away earlier this month.

28. Chike Jeffers on Precolonial African Philosophy

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Co-host Chike Jeffers and Peter chat about the themes and questions raised by the podcast so far.