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."



Further Reading

• L.R. Gordon, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought (New York: 2000).

• L.R. Gordon, An Introduction to Africana Philosophy (Cambridge: 2008).

• C. Jeffers, “Do We Need African Canadian Philosophy?” Dialogue 51 (2012), 643-666.

• D.A. Masolo, “African Philosophers in the Greco-Roman Era,” in K. Wiredu (ed.), A Companion to African Philosophy (Malden: 2004), 50-65.

• L.T. Outlaw, “African, African American, Africana Philosophy,” Philosophical Forum 24 (1992), 63-93.

• K. Wiredu, “On Defining African Philosophy” in T. Serequeberhan (ed.), African Philosophy: The Essential Readings (New York: 1991), 87-110.


Emma on 1 April 2018

I was a bit apprehensive

I was a bit apprehensive about this new podcast series, and now that this episode has come out I'm still apprehensive.

Many years ago at University I took a class on Latin American Philosophy. I'm very interested in philosophy that wasn't the standard Analytic stuff that all my other classes were dealing with, but history of western philosophy subjects were the only thing covered other than this Latin American Philosophy course. I signed up hoping for as much information as possible on pre-columbian thought from the area that is now Latin America. And I was tremendously disappointed. We had maybe a single paragraph in a textbook on what the Nahua were doing prior to contact, a very small amount of information on late scholastic philosophy from Spain at the time, and the rest of it was 19th century to contemporary Latin American thinkers that looked exactly like the stuff I was already tired of, just in Spanish. I understand there's an issue with a lack of sources for obvious reasons, but it seemed like this class was misrepresenting itself to me. Even the article on Aztec Philosophy on the IEP had more info on what I wanted than what I got in this class.

And this is kind of my apprehension with this series. I, perhaps wrongly, have become accustomed to the idea of separate philosophical traditions being essentially separated lineages that can't be easily traced to the same foundations. What this means is I have an extremely broad idea of what "Western Philosophy" is, to the point that I always was disappointed you started with Thales and not Egypt or Mesopotamia, which to my mind is clearly "Western Philosophy". Similarly I never questioned the inclusion of the Islamic World section (in fact I hope we will eventually get more of it, because there's still areas of Asia not covered).

So with this section of Africana Philosophy I feel as if I'm getting a repeat of that disappointing Latin American class. I hope for something that's "separate" in the sense I described. It's great to finally get overviews on Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Islamic Sub-Saharan Africa, even greater to get information about Ethiopia. But those former three combined with thinkers of the diaspora sounds less like a separate tradition, and more about stuff we should already have gotten, or will get in the main Western Philosophy podcast given enough time and you had incredible foresight. It's as if you suddenly decided to have a separate section on Feminist Philosophy, instead of rightly including female thinkers in the podcasts. Fundamentally I think, philosophers that fit into this Africana section are philosophers that should have a place in the western pantheon, and giving them a separate section feels like sending the wrong message to me.

But in the end I suppose this is just me. You've made it very clear what "Africana" means in this context and what separates it from Western Philosophy, it's just not what I expected and doesn't fit my personal idea of what a separate podcast series should be. But it's you're podcast, and I don't want to give the impression I'm trying to tell you you've made a mistake or you should have done this or that. I just felt like I had to give my thoughts now that the first episode is out.

In reply to by Emma

Peter Adamson on 1 April 2018

The independence of Africana philosophy

Well, I am learning as I go along writing episodes with Chike, so he may want to add something to the following. But what I would say about your concern is this: in general, when covering "non-Western" traditions, there are two ways to make them interesting: "gosh, look how different this stuff is!" and "gosh, look how familiar it actually is, what a surprise!" The latter might involve pointing to actual historical connections, as with the Islamic world, or just showing that issues arise that we feel we know from other philosophical traditions - like when we covered epistemological theories in India.

There are pitfalls in both of these approaches: people like you come to these other traditions precisely to hear something different, but others (in fact, I guess the majority) will want to be convinced that what we find in these other traditions is familiar enough to seem recognizably philosophical.

In the India series we of course did a lot of both and I would say the same will happen here. As we explain in this episode our criterion for inclusion in this series is neither "familiar" nor "unfamiliar" but "addresses philosophical questions in a way connected to African(a) culture." As we'll see, some of this is intimately bound up with the history of "Western" philosophy, for instance we'll be telling the surprising story of the reception of Greek philosophical texts in pre-modern Ethiopia, which totally amazed me - and I am a professional academic whose main field of interest is non-western reception of Greek thought! That doesn't tick your "independent tradition" box but it is totally worth our knowing about. On the other hand, some of what we'll cover is indeed independent - not just Egypt but also the themes coming from oral traditions, which as you'll see actually takes up the lion's share of the first sub-series.

After colonialization of course "Western" ideas will be constantly relevant, as Africana thinkers respond, reject, and co-opt them for their own purposes. But that is a story in its own right and one that can only be told within a series like this one: learning how Africana thinkers dealt with slavery and its legacy hardly sounds like "same old stuff one learns in philosophy classes all the time" to me.

By contrast, in my opinion a podcast on only women thinkers in the history of philosophy could certainly be a good thing but couldn't be the same kind of narrative series, because as I always try to emphasize when covering women thinkers, they don't form any one philosophical tradition. What one needs to know about a given woman thinker is not only or even primarily that she is a woman, but about the culture she worked in and how she responded to it. So to my mind we understand women thinkers by integrating them into these different cultural strands - medieval, Indian, Africana, etc. - as I like to point out, even within the medieval era Hildegard of Bingen had at least as much in common with her contemporary Bernard of Clairvaux than she did with some other medieval women, like another woman who lived at the same time, Heloise.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Emma on 2 April 2018

I think you may have slightly

I think you may have slightly misunderstood me, but the more I think about it the more difficulty I'm having in trying to get across exactly what I mean. And the more I think maybe I'm just crazy because I definitely see the rationale for this series and I'm not arguing to not cover these people and ideas, but rather that most of it could/should have been covered in the main podcast series. You know, if you were perfect and had a time machine.

But after thinking a lot, I think I have two things I can use to try to clarify what I'm trying to say. You could have made Philosophy in the Islamic World its own separate section. But you included it in the main one, even though say, almost everything in the Eastern Traditions section was separated from what Europe was doing and a lot of it gets no attention even now. The justification for inclusion is that it nevertheless has the same bedrock you might say. It's a continuation of a tradition that is connected to us even if it went its own way.

Secondly, I said "Feminist Philosophy" and not "women thinkers" precisely because I wanted to bring up what is a philosophical tradition, but one that is very much a part of Western Philosophy as a whole.

So what I'm getting at is more like, learning about slavery and its legacy is in reality something we don't hear about often, but I'm saying it should be. I think thinkers that talk about this is part of the western tradition just as much as Plato is. In the regular western philosophy podcast, I would have expected/hoped, if not a separate division, to at least have these thinkers pop up when we get to the time period.

But again, I know the rationale, and in the end I suppose I have to agree with it because you don't have a time machine to go back and make the perfect main series podcast where everything starts in Egypt and Mesopotamia and seamlessly flows into its own sections of Greece and Ethiopia and Sub-Saharan Africa and when we get to the modern era we have a section on slavery. This podcast does cover things I want to be covered, and it does offer a reason to go back and look at things there I think were "missed", and cover topics that on their own would take quite a while to get to if they were part of the main series, all while offering up a reason to put these things together. I don't think the classification of Africana is incoherent, but in a perfect world I think we shouldn't need it.

On a separate topic, if we're covering Martin Luther King, I hope we get episodes on more, some might say, controversial figures. Elijah Muhammad and Malcom X are no-brainers I would think, but Clarence 13X and the Nation of Gods and Earths could form a great episode.

In reply to by Emma

Peter Adamson on 2 April 2018

Separate traditions

Ah, now I see what you mean - is the worry that Africana thought should not be separated off but integrated into the rest of the history of philosophy? If so then to some extent I agree with that - if I were starting the whole podcast again I would have included Babylonia and Egypt before Greece instead of kicking things off with the Presocratics. I had a less expansive idea back then about what I was doing, and really thought I was going to do only "Western" philosophy which to me basically includes Islamic philosophy, since it is such an integral story of the reception of Greek philosophy and then as a direct inspiration for Latin medieval. Only belatedly did I realize that that approach was too narrow so I started trying to include other cultures in the project.And indeed, one worry I've had about doing Africana as its own series is that it means the figures covered here won't necessarily be integrated into the narrative when I get to, say, 19th c. American philosophy - I mean, I can bring up e.g. the abolition debate again there briefly and recontextualize it, but presumably I will just refer listeners back to the Africana episodes for all the details. So I get what you are saying.

But, there are lots of countervaling considerations, some of them practical. Like, it makes sense to do these series where I have a co-author as semi-independent things, and I really need a co-author for this: Africana isn't something I could tackle without Chike, and same with India and Jonardon, simply because of my own ignorance. Then too, in addition to the fact that some Africana stuff was already missed in the chronology of the original series, it's hard to bounce around from one culture to another in that narrative without confusing everyone. And finally, in the short to medium term, only covering Africana as part of the main narrative would mean not covering it at all as regards post-colonial material, because I won't get there in the original series for the better part of a decade - and I didn't want to wait!

Also, I do believe that there is a coherent story to tell here about philosophy in Africana culture, and it is worth telling on its own rather than scattering the parts throughout a larger narrative. Especially because many people are unaware, or even unwilling to accept, that Africana philosophy is a thing.

Looking ahead, I can imagine tackling other cultures where European thought had a huge impact either as part of the original series or as independent series - like Latin American philosophy, which you mentioned, or Russian philosophy, say. China and East Asia, I think, are more like India - more separate historically anyway, so I am sure that if I cover that it will be in the way we've done ancient India and are now doing Africana.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Emma on 3 April 2018

"Is the worry that Africana

"Is the worry that Africana thought should not be separated off but integrated into the rest of the history of philosophy?" Yes, insomuch as precedent and that this podcast is a history of philosophy podcast with specific goals. I was worried that it's as if these thinkers wouldn't have been in the main podcast otherwise. But yeah I mean, I do understand the practical concerns and that there is a separate coherent story to tell, it's just a bit different than what I was expecting and I see that this is much less of a problem than I had initially thought.

In reply to by Emma

Chike Jeffers on 2 April 2018

Some confusion and disagreement

Thank you for your feedback and your attempts to clarify your point. I must admit that the initial tale of the Latin American philosophy course remains quite confusing to me. It is rare that philosophy departments offer courses in that area, so it is great that you got the chance to take one. But you speak of being disappointed by the fact that the focus was on Latin American thought rather than on pre-Columbian thought, i.e., thought from before the Americas included a subset of territory that could usefully be referred to as Latin America. I'm not sure why you thought there was any misrepresentation in this case, unless the syllabus explicitly promised a much greater focus on indigenous antecedents to Latin American philosophy than was delivered.

You spoke also of how broad your conception of Western philosophy is. Does Egyptian and Mesopotamian philosophical thought count just because these traditions can be viewed as having influenced the ancient Greek tradition, which is of course more commonly taken to be the point of origin of the Western tradition? I'd say to call them "Western" is perhaps to correct misunderstandings of their significance in the wrong direction, so to speak. Better to recognize ancient Greece as part of a distinct Mediterranean world along with those older cultures and only in retrospect possibly understood as the birthplace of Western culture than to say we need to subsume everything under the "Western" heading. That's my view, at least.

Then you have the diaspora, which is more credibly viewed as one part of the West among others (especially for present purposes, since there won't be any sustained focus in our series on the diaspora as found in the Middle East, India, etc.). I wouldn't disagree that a podcast series on Western philosophy does right by including Afro-European, Afro-Caribbean, African American, etc. The idea that "Africana" is a designation we shouldn't need, however, strikes me once again as correcting in the wrong direction. To talk that way is to go beyond inclusion to erasure. The West is one cultural-historical frame but should not be privileged to the detriment of all others. I certainly don't accept the kind of sharp severing of the diaspora from the non-Western roots of African traditions that is entailed by wishing diasporic thought would be viewed merely as Western thought and not also as Africana.     

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Emma on 2 April 2018

I really messed up the

I really messed up the anecdote. The course description DID lead me to believe we were going to cover Pre-Columbian thought in much greater detail than we did, which in the end was almost none at all. The description didn't even mention contemporary Latin American thought, which turned out to be most of the course. On the other hand the name of the course was something like, Philosophy in Latin America rather than "Pre-Columbian Philosophy" or something more obviously about what I expected. I say course description, because the syllabus was clear and that was when the game was up, but I wasn't about to drop the course.

I can definitely see the idea of subsuming everything under "western" can look a bit silly, because as you say, a lot ends up absorbed into "Western." On one hand I would however point to the context of where we're commenting to each other, on a philosophy podcast series called "The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps." On the other hand, even outside of a podcast trying to cover as much as possible, I would still stick by my categories in this context. But only in a way that I think doesn't really disagree with you on this point. In a general educational context it's probably not the greatest idea to start in Egypt, because the connections between Egypt and Greece are complicated and subtle, and Egypt and Greece are very different culturally. But those connections are still real. When I absorb these two areas under "Western", the idea isn't to say these things are only significant because they are connected to us, but rather to point out that they are indeed connected to us in a way that for example, Chinese Philosophy isn't or at least wouldn't be until much later. To me, the idea of "significance" almost doesn't enter into it. Obviously it's significant, it's all significant I think. It's just that in a History of Philosophy context, we should be very cognisant of these genealogies so to speak.

As to the idea of erasure, I think I have to once again try to clarify. What I was trying to say was more along the lines of, the podcast and the greater contemporary western philosophical tradition shouldn't need the Africana category before it is willing to cover these thinkers in any aspect, not that we shouldn't need Africana as a cultural-historical frame at all. I was trying to say that it seems that in the normal everyday series of events the only time you would encounter these thinkers is within Africana, despite that they have a place in a separate broader History of Philosophy context. I guess put another way, I was trying to say we shouldn't need Africana Philosophy to do all of the heavy lifting in getting these thinkers recognition. As an analogy, let's say in a world where the only way any woman philosopher got attention was within the context of Feminist Philosophy, I would say that we shouldn't need Feminist Philosophy to be the only reason any women thinkers are given attention, because women have a place within an overall historical context.

I think the overall crux of my comments is that I have this very specific "History of Philosophy" idea of how in a broad narrative history like this podcast is attempting, things should be done, and this idea is not the same as what Africana Philosophy as its own discipline is accomplishing. I was just really confused and apprehensive about this given the previous categories of the podcast, and am clearly bad at trying to explain why.

In reply to by Emma

Gabriel on 4 November 2019


I agree with the general sentiment expressed by Emma and I think she expressed well the sentiments I've had. But, nonetheless I also understand the rationale behind this series and I think it's much needed. I think it's probably a function of our historical placement, we must first affirm the existence of an african tradition that was so deeply denied before, and with time, assimilate it to the broad universalist philosophy. I'm new to this amazing podcast wich is everything I was looking for in a long time, a comprehensive and historical deep guide to all philosophy. Since I'm new, I've taken the freedom to watch the episodes out of order, starting here, and watching the episodes on pre-history, mesopotamia, egipt and oral traditions before jumping to the pre-socratics and asian philosophy.

Howard Romaine on 3 April 2018

Good addition

Good addition

mehmet on 6 April 2018

I must confess that I have

I must confess that I have some doubts about the validity of the so-called "africana" philosophy on par with Greek, Medieval, Islamic etc. Philosophies..

Firstly, I think that classifying philosophy according to continents may not be the best idea. Why dont we abolish islamic philosophy, and group the islamic philosophers of Khorasan and iran with indian and chinese philosophers, and call them "asiana philosophers", and group those in al-andalus with "africana philosophers" (as most of them were migrants from north africa, hence members of the african diaspora)? Because the islamic philosophy has an organic unity in itself, which transcends the boundaries of continents...

But even if we decide to classify according to continents, it is hard to arrive at an "african(a) philosophy". Two parts of africa, ie, subsaharan africa and Mediterranean africa, are totally unrelated. One is a part of the mediterranean world, the other is a world onto itself..

As far as I can see, the equation in the mind of Mr. Jeffers is as follows:

precolonial africana philosophy=egypt+ethiopia+subsaharan africa

None of these parts is sufficiently related to any other to form a coherent whole. Three hostile brothers, ie, the islamic, jewish and christian philosophies, form a much more harmonious unity than the above three "africana" philosophies.

Ancient egypt is not part and parcel of africa. Ancient egyptians spoke a language very closely related to the semitic languages, and their culture is recognizably similar to the semitic cultures of the middle east. There are no indications that they were influenced by the subsaharan africans to any significant degree (except for a nubian dynasty that came towards the very end of the egyptian civilization). And, in return, ancient egypt did not have any demonstrable impact on sub-saharan africa..

Same with ethiopia. Both geez and amharic are semitic languages. In its history, Ethiopia is more closely related to Egypt and Yemen then to subsaharan africa. Religious culture of Ethiopia is Miaphysite, which is shared by coptic, syriac and armenian churches.. Or, in other words, their closest relations are in middle east, not in Subsaharan africa.

This bring us to subsaharan africa. And I very strongly doubt that subsaharan africa had any Philosophical tradition at all. This is not to say that subsaharan africa does not have any "thought". It of course has. But this is "mythological" and "religious" thought, not "philosophical" thought. Methodology of philosophy is recognizably different from the methodology of myth, and when philosophy proper first started in Greece, the greek philosophers cosciously put what they are doing, ie, "logos", against "mythos".. A simple comparison of Aristotle's universe with polynesian creation myths will illustrate the point.

But the problem with subsaharan africa goes even deeper than that. Going by the textbook definitions, subsaharan africa does not even have a "history", let alone a "philosophy". The science of history assumes the existence of written sources. If there is no written sources, the investigation is usually conducted by a separate science called "pre-history". The methodology of pre-historians is totally differen (mostly archeology based). To my knowledge pre-colonial subsaharan Africa did not have a written tradition.

All these forced me to conclude that:

there is no "pre-colonial subsaharan africana philosophy" worthy of 20+ episodes.. Again: yes to subsaharan myth and religion, no to subsaharan philosophy..

Ethiopia could best be investigated under the "Ancient christianity" or "byzantine" headings.. By the way, why ethiopian thought is covered, but coptic, armenian and syriac thought is excluded is a puzzle to me.. They are very closely related.

And my heart's desire is, ancient eastern mediterranean thought got its own separate episode series,  and ancient egypt is covered there. Admittedly, ancient eastern mediterranean thought is not exactly philosophy, but I think it can be best explained by a philosopher. And if this philosopher have an admiration for giraffes, that is an added bonus.

In reply to by mehmet

Peter Adamson on 6 April 2018


It's interesting that you raise the point about Ethiopia belonging to the Eastern Christian world, because on this very day I am hoping to write the second episode of the Byzantium series, and one point I am going to make is that we have a diffusion of Greek thought into many languages, so not only Arabic and Latin but also Syriac, Armenian, and, yes, Ge'ez. So I kind of agree with you there - I mean, that it also makes sense to see early (though not later, like Heywat and Yacob) Ethiopian thought within an Eastern mediterranean Christian context. On the other hand I don't particularly see why there can only be one valid way of approaching a given textual tradition. Surely early Ge'ez philosophy is both part of the history of philosophy in Africa AND part of the history of Eastern Christian philosophy.

That brings me to another point, which also relates to the Byzantium series: I am much less convinced than you that we should be drawing distinctions between "religious" and "philosophical" thought. If we did that, we could arguably forget a lot of what you and I just said about the eastern Mediterannean anyway since the texts in question are almost all theologically motivated, done in monasteries, etc. In fact in the first episode on Byzantium I am going to give an argument for why we should even bother with that tradition at all, and it really comes down to arguing that it makes sense to look for philosophically interesting ideas in religious contexts. This is also covered in my so-called "rules" - see the Links below.

Then there is your point about written vs non-written philosophy. While as you'll see in this series, it is not true that there is no written philosophy from Africa before colonialism, there is a long-running and fascinating debate about oral traditions and whether they should be studied by philosophers. We are going to give you a look at the debate and present both sides; so without denying that there is controversy, there is certainly something to discuss.

I have more sympathy with your point that there is arguably a better cultural divide between Mediterranean (including northern Africa) and sub-saharan, than between Africa and not Africa. This would be a trickier issue for us if it wasn't for the fact that I already covered the north African stuff in other series anyway (Augustine, other church fathers, and then in the Islamic world). Whether e.g. Ibn Khaldun is "Africana" is a tricky question, and here again I'd be tempted to say yes, but that he can also be approached as a thinker of the Islamic world - both perspectives are valid. But we can afford to be agnostic on this since all these thinkers were already dealt with.

So in general my answer would be that you are raising good points in that there are indeed other perspectives one can take on some Africana thinkers, and that will continue to be the case, but the Africana perspective is also valid. E.g. you could treat some 20th c Africana thinkers as primarily socialists or feminists, but that doesn't mean it is _wrong_ to put them in a series on Africana thought, only that one has a choice about how to approach things. In general I find the political sphere/culture/geography approach very useful, for instance it allowed us to see the relevance of dealing with Arabic Christian and Jewish philosophy within the Islamic world series. So to me talking of Africana philosophy is pretty much like that, or like talking of European philosophy, which also overlaps with other cultures, is internally very varied, etc: no one is skeptical about European philosophy but I think that is just because it's a more familiar concept.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thomas Mirus on 15 April 2018

Peter, it's interesting to

Peter, it's interesting to observe this discussion because it seems that you are now operating under an even broader concept of what ought to be included in a history of philosophy than you were at the beginning of the podcast (though your concept has always been admirably broad). I think if you had applied the same standard at the beginning of the podcast you certainly would have included more about the Hebrew Bible, which you mainly discussed only in terms of later intepretation by philosophers. There is some material in the Hebrew Bible that I think is pretty much philosophy in itself, as opposed to containing just implicit ideas to be mined or textual problems to be debated by philosophers later. That really is my only major disappointment with the scope of the original podcast though it may be too late to rectify. Anyway, looking forward to everything you have cooking on both feeds! Thanks for your labors.

In reply to by Thomas Mirus

Peter Adamson on 15 April 2018

Broader approach

Yes, it's definitely true that my approach has become broader (many would no doubt say, too broad, but I guess I am happy to err on that side if I am going to err). If I were doing the series from scratch now I might well have done Babylonia and Egypt already at the very start. And I did miss some other things, I think. But I am not sure I would do things like the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Quran. After all we covered these texts indirectly quite a lot anyway, e.g. with the episode from the Andalusia section on readings of the Book of Job, and I think treating revealed literature as philosophical literature raises a lot of distinctive issues, not least risks of causing great offence. Then again we talked about the Vedas, Upanisads, and early Buddhist texts in the India series so perhaps that is just a case of being inconsistent. At any rate, I wouldn't say I am opposed to treating the Bible, or figures like Jesus or Mohammed, directly as a historian of philosophy but I wouldn't say I regret not doing it (as I regret not having covered the ancient Greek historians, say, which I should definitely have done).

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Peter Silverman on 17 April 2018

Hebrew scripture as philosophy

The general field of philosophy does seem comfortable dealing with early Hindu and Buddhist texts as philosophy, and certainly western philosophers engaged with these ideas philosophically.  It also is very comfortable with treating Socrates' divine visions as philosophical.  Likewise, Greek and Roman religion is not revealed in th sense of the 5 books of moses, but it is based on clear stories regarding creation of the world, fate, etc. and occupies a major place in the philosophical works of Greek and Roman thinkers.  The general field of philosophy seems very comfortable treating those ideas as philosophical.

The five books of Moses are presented as revelation, but the rest of the Hebrew Bible is not.  Let's start with the most philosophical works - Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.  Those seem to me to easily fit into any sense of what constitutes early philosophy, dealing with evil, fate, the purpose of live, and practical ethics.

Then we can go to the prophets, which portray a relatively consistent view of ethics, virtue, community, free speech, and criticizing kings based on an objective ethical system.

Then we can go to the histories.  The story of Samuel, Saul is political philosophy in terms of how a community should be ruled, and the role of the ruler.  It is a very limited notion of kingship as a a second-best choice and one that will likely violate the ethical norms.  The stories of David and Solomon deal with the issue of successorship, what is the proper grounds, and how fragile the choices are.  This part of the Bible spurred wide commentary in the political thinkers addressing kingship and democracy from Selden through the social contract thinkers.

Then the 5 books itself.  They take a position, otherwise considered a topic of philosphy, of how the world was created, man's equal dignity in all of us stemming from the man formed by God's own breath, man's relationship with nature, the duties of family and tribe, the obligation to care for the orphan, widow, and the poor, the notion of communal obligation to the poor, to love your neighbor and the stranger, etc.

It's also worth considering the inconsistency.  I think that a historian of philosophy pre-enlightenment would naturally spend a great deal  of time on the Hebrew Bible as did most philosophers through the enlightenment.  The enlightenment set the dividing line between revelation (or tradition) that chains us and reason, which sets us free.  That, it seems to me, is an argument, and not a persuasive one, though that is a long topic.

In reply to by Peter Silverman

Peter Adamson on 18 April 2018

Hebrew scripture

Right, you are (if you'll pardon the expression) kind of preaching to the choir with me, here, see question 14 under FAQ below. Like I say above, I think that one could certainly include a discussion of the Hebrew Bible in a history of philosophy podcast, and one could also approach Jesus or Mohammed as philosophical figures, perhaps while just bracketing the question of whether they were what their religious followers say they were. For me it was more a pragmatic decision, like, did I really want to get into those texts directly or instead deal with them as I go along, since they come up as context and background for later developments - so as I say I had the episode on readings of Job, and also talked in some detail about the Talmud and Mishnah, and obviously the Bible and its interpretation came up a lot in the medieval section. One thing to consider here is that a lot of listeners could be offended by treating these texts as ("mere") philosophy while the non-religious could be put off too; so for me the best solution was to draw out the philosophical importance of these texts by showing how they were used in the traditions, rather than giving them their own episodes. But I wouldn't say that that was the only way to do it.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Peter Silverman on 20 April 2018

Hebrew scripture

I can't find the FAQ so am handicapped a bit in understanding your answer.  If i may, though, I'd like to press a bit more.

The notion of treating Hebrew scriptures as philosophy is to take the prescripts as putting forth views of physics, the purpose of life, ethics, justice, politics, just as other philosophical schools did.   This approach is different from examining how those ideas developed within the tradition, say by examining Maimonides.  

Pre-enlightenment, philosophers treated Hebrew scriptures as advancing direct philosophical ideas.  And even through modern times, it's common to hear our current worldviews or philosophies described as the marriage between Athens and Jerusalem.

So it seems to me that more than pragmatics is at stake.  The strongest distinction might be that the Hebrew Scriptures are asserted, not argued (other than, say, Job), but that is an argument that is difficult to sustain consistently as the canon (and your canon without gaps) does contain asserted works and fragments.

You might be touching on something potent by saying that some listeners may be offended by treating the Hebrew Scriptures as mere philosophy, which would be a pragmatic reason for avoiding treating them as such.  I don't think you'd give offense to anyone who considers the text revealed.  But I do think that many be offended who don't consider the texts revealed, and also may consider them to be folk tales, superstition, and a force for many things wrong. 

But then we'd need to ask why would a group of listeners be offended by treating the Hebrew Scriptures as philosophy, but they likely wouldn't blink an eye at treating Vedhic or Buddhist ideas that way.  And if you chose not to address those ideas until, say, Schopenauer, that likely would be considered some sort of cultural imperialism - not treating the ideas seriously until a Western philosopher addressed them as argument the way we logical Westerners do.

Part of the issue may be that a number of enlightenment philosophers criticized jewish ideas, sometimes with harsh and ugly arguments.  And then there is the effort in modern philosophy, perhaps most developed by Rawls, to exclude any religious-based idea from acceptable public argument.

This is certainly a side-issue to your project, but one you may consider as you do get to sessions where do you treat Hebrew scriptures.   I think that sometime around the era of Socrates they introduced many ideas that became essential to philosophical argument.

In reply to by Peter Silverman

Peter Adamson on 21 April 2018


Hm, you are doing a pretty good job convincing me. I am especially moved by your point that if one covers, say, the Upanisads or early Buddhist texts, why not cover the Bible and Quran? I guess I will not do this simply because the time for it has already passed (even squeezing it into the Africana series as more context alongside Babylonia is something we would have needed to start work on a few months back, just because of the time schedule). Still, I tend to think that even if this is something I ideally should have done, not much has been lost because listening to all the medieval episodes would definitely have conveyed the range of philosophical issues that can be drawn out of the Scriptures - perhaps what one misses is a discussion of how those ideas emerged from their ancient context, though of course this is precisely where we get into potentially offensive territory. I'm reminded of attending a big conference on the Quran once and watching non-Muslim speakers dance around the fact that they wanted to discuss, say, the influence of pre-Quranic Arabic poetry on the Quran - obviously, not a straightforward question if one believes that the Quran was sent down by God! This is the kind of thing I wanted to steer clear of, but you are probably right that it could have been done with sufficient sensitivity.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thomas Mirus on 1 May 2018

A parallel

As a side note, I haven't observed that a ton of religious folks are offended by Jordan Peterson's lectures looking at the Old Testament through a purely psychological lens. Many would disagree with the inevitably reductionist aspect of that venture, even strongly, but I don't observe a lot of offense being taken. To a large degree they're just happy that these books are being taken seriously at all, in this age of vulgar internet atheism. (I'm fairly certain the authors of this podcast are not Peterson fans, but that's not the point.)

In reply to by Thomas Mirus

Chike Jeffers on 15 April 2018

Job again

As I'm extremely sympathetic to your view of how much sense it makes to see the Hebrew Bible as containing philosophy - indeed, I always teach Ecclesiastes in my Intro to Philosophy course! - I thought I'd mention something to look forward to in episode 3 of this current series. We will take a quick detour out of Africa to discuss ancient Mesopotamian thought (partly as context for our discussion of ancient Egyptian thought) and we will spend a bit of time on works that have been thought to have influenced the Book of Job. I think of this as nicely connecting to the episode from the Andalusia series that Peter mentions above. While that episode treats the Book of Job as an influence on later Jewish philosophy, we will raise the question of how Babylonian philosophy may have influenced the Book of Job, understood as an early piece of Jewish philosophy.   

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Oliver on 23 April 2018

I would't say that people are

I would't say that people are less skeptical about 'European' philosophy simply because it is a more familiar concept. I would say that Eurpoean philosophy is unified by the expereience of Catholicism which went a long way towards mediateing the reception of earlier thought and creating a common intellectual tradition, even after the reformation. It is a similar story for philosophy in the Islamic world and Indian philosohy, which is why people are not skeptical of those either. Europe, Islam and India are distinct cultural spheres - with a great deal of overlap and internal variety, certainly, but distinct nevertheless.

In Europe the 'cartographic' and civilisational spheres coincide. If China and India are 'civilisations pretending to be states' Europe is a 'civilisation pretending to be a continent'. Hence the fact that this 'continent' is not a naturally separate landmass, but an artificially severed appeandage of the Eurasian continent precisely on account of its distinctively different evolution under the influence of an institution which guided the boundaries and primary questions of philosophical enquiry (and a Roam heritage that survived in a different form than it did in North Africa).

But this is not the case with Africa. 'Africa' is a purely cartographic/geaographic term. If all that links disparate native African traditions, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Atlas mountains, is that it is unwritten, I would say this link is not sufficient for them to be discussed as a coherent whole. Why not have a podcast series on global oral traditions instead, if this is the unifying thread?

Think of the province of Aceh in Indonesia. It is nown as the 'Veranda of Mecca' because the Indian Ocean currents link it so closely to the Arabian peninsula, resulting in a convergence of cultures. The Acehnese probably share much more of a philosphical heritage with Somalis that the Somalis do with the Congolese. Ibn Khaldun would certainly be closer to the Acehnese of Southeast Asia that to the Herero of Namibia - therefore his identity, as a thinker, is not primarily 'African'. I don't think anyone would raise an eyebrow at a podcast series titled 'Philosophy in the Indian Ocean Basin', even if it is a concept they are not accustomed to, because it is clear that an ocean is a highway of ideas that links disperse peoples.


In reply to by Oliver

Peter Adamson on 23 April 2018


Sorry, I'm still not buying this. I notice that in your response to Chike you wind up by all but admitting that European philosophy is not that coherent a concept either, and I am with you there: as I've often pointed out, if there were such a thing it would partially overlap with philosophy in the Islamic world. You seem to be holding us to a standard something like this: when you do history of philosophy, organize the material into strongly unified traditions, ideally ones that have no significant degree of penetration or overlap with other traditions. I just don't think that that, in general, exists; there are different ways of cutting it up, like by political realm (Islamic world), geography (Africa, India, Europe), or more fine-grained by intellectual tradition (Buddhism, Presocratics, Empicirism). All of these have something to be said for them, and I would say it is a pragmatic question how one should proceed. I probably agree with your underlying worry which is that we should avoid essentializing, and admit that within almost any large scale "chunk" there is going to be a huge amount of diversity, but I anticipate that if anything is the overall upshot of our Africana series then it will be to demonstrate the diversity of thought that has been produced by Africans and members of the Africana diaspora.

Obviously in the case of covering philosophy from Africa or Africana philosophy there are also special reasons to want to do it, namely that there is widespread ignorance and skepticism about most or all the philosophy we're going to be covering. But it is not just a convenient way of throwing together a bunch of stuff people don't know about. There will be, as you'll see, many connections between the things we are covering, it's not like it will be a random list of stuff that happened to occur in Africa. Often these connections are not obvious. So for instance you have coverage of traditional oral culture, and coverage of Islam in Africa, the story of which was in part that it supplanted the traditional oral culture and even fought wars to eliminate it (I'm writing an episode about this right now). Or you have modern day African and diaspora thinkers who themselves claim some kind of link to Egyptian philosophy - something we cannot even assess without covering both. And the diaspora is even less in danger of being a chaotic mess, since diaspora thinkers were broadly speaking facing a connected set of issues in terms of political challenges and so on; and they look back to intellectual traditions of geographical Africa.

So, diversity yes, but random assortment of unrelated stuff with only geography as a tenuous link holding it together, not even close. Perhaps you should just reserve judgment and listen to the series, actually. Even just from the work I've done on the series so far (we're a good dozen episodes ahead of you in terms of planning and writing) I can't really imagine that, once you have seen what we cover and how we covered it, you will look back on your comments here and think that your point has been borne out. And even after 70 episodes or whatever you still think it was a bit of a grab bag, fine, but even then I suspect you will find that it was a grab bag full of awesome and fascinating individual topics and at least smaller sub-series on well-defined topics, so it will still be worthwhile!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Oliver on 24 April 2018


Hi Peter,

Thank you for your response. I am looking forward to the coming episodes and I am 100% for including oral traditions, mythology and religion, and for the study of philosophy on the African continent in general. I am also curious if there will be an episode on ancient Carthage?

I don’t think I expressed my point about European philosophy clearly enough earlier. I argue that philosophy in Europe in the middle ages was done, in its vast majority, by professionally trained religious personnel. These personnel belonged to the same religious institution, worked with the same set of canonical texts, were trained in the same methods, and all worked in Latin. They also worked in Universities with relatively standardized practices, and enough homogenization for each institution to acknowledge each other’s degrees and for disputes to transcend national boundaries. Furthermore, they were constrained by the same doctrinal and legal framework (many were lawyers themselves), and where possible sought harmonisation between their opinions and earlier ones (even if it meant totally inverting the sense of what the earlier thinker said - I think that is a point you made in one of the interviews). If that isn’t a coherent intellectual culture (regimented even), then I don’t know what is! Even after the reformation, Francisco Suarez’s thoroughly scholastic writing was the standard philosophy text-book across Europe until the end of the 18th century. On this basis there are grounds to divide European and Islamic experience of philosophy, even if both drew from people like Plotinus, and even if European philosophers did occasionally study in Islamic institutions as well. To say there is a coherent, unitary European philosophical culture is a truism. Just as it is a truism to say that this unity can be exaggerated to the point of caricature, and to the detriment of appreciating the individuality of each thinker – that was the point I was trying to make. The Islamic and Indian worlds also had their respective universities, canonical texts, shared concepts, and academic languages. They also had notions of heterodoxy and orthodoxy. That is why it would not be misleading or ‘essentialist’ to discuss them as a whole.

Obviously no tradition is hermetically sealed, and there is plenty of overlap especially in peripheral regions. Surely this is a case of one tradition engaging with another and evolving, rather than proof there are no traditions at all? A Muslim and a Christian approaching Plotinus, or an ethical question on how to treat newly encountered native Americans, are not blank slates. Each will draw from their tradition and will try to fit the new into their existing framework.

I am not saying philosophy should only be studied from the perspective of unified traditions. I think the Indian Ocean is a fascinating potential area of study because of the connectivity between vastly cultures. The Atlantic Basin is also a geographic area where Africana can be coherently nestled - Felipe Fernandez-Armesto describes the presence Africans as the only consistent feature of the New World, and ‘Africana’ clearly has a strong transatlantic character. I would also be happy for it to be done by continent, on the understanding that there is no further link than geography. My gripe is with the notion of ‘Africana’ specifically, because the term really does imply a ‘tradition’ and I think it will result in philosophers with no links being drawn into a category where they don’t belong. The difficulty I have with, for example, Khaldun or Augustine as Africana philosophers is this: Augustine is a Christian, a Latin, and an African, none of which is mutually exclusive. He can be studied from different perspectives – as a Christian, as a Latin philosopher, as a Neoplatonist… But what do we learn by examining him as an African? What does his Africanicity contribute? If it contributes nothing, which I think is definitely the case with Augustine or Khaldun, then the category of ‘Africana’ is being used to separate these thinkers from their proper context and used as building blocks for an artificial tradition (based on the assumption that the European model is a universal standard). Either way, to suggest he can be studied as an Africana thinker, as much as a Christian or Latin, is to reify Africanicity as some kind of substantial additional dimension, presumably one shared by other Africana thinkers.

Having said that, I do think Africana Philosophy makes sense in the post-colonial context, because colonialism is the only time Africa as a whole had a defining experience comparable to the European experience of Medieval Catholicism and its aftermath. Even the experience slavery is not a unifying factor in African history, since the Islamic north was the other side of the fence in its practice. That is not to say some Africana postcolonial philosophers aren’t guilty of essentialism, by creating the cultural sense of the term ‘Africa’ and then equivocating it with the geographic meaning. I guess that sums up my objection to the notion of Africana philosophy, as the creation of a non-existent cultural category.


In reply to by mehmet

Chike Jeffers on 7 April 2018

The minds of Mr. Adamson and Mr. Jeffers

Among the reasons that I am glad Peter replied to this comment before me is that what you said concerning equations in my mind fails to recognize that this is a collaborative project, not one in which Peter simply reports to listeners what I think. The script for each episode of the series is a product of collaborative revision and it is not always the case that the first draft is mine, even if it is true that I had, for obvious reasons, significant influence over the broad vision of what we will cover.

Peter's response also covers why there is no reason for us to be engaging in thought experiments about "abolishing" Islamic philosophy. To do so would be to pretend that someone like Ibn Khaldun must be either North African or Muslim, but of course he is both.

Let's move now to the idea of sub-Saharan Africa as a "world unto itself." There are a number of problems with the arguments through which you attempt to show this.

Ancient Egypt was an indigenous African culture, so there is no reason to deny that it is "part and parcel" of Africa. Your linguistic point leads in directions that hurt your argument. You are right that Egyptian was an Afroasiatic language and thus related to the group of Semitic languages, which fall within the Afroasiatic language family. Hausa, one of the most widely spoken languages in Nigeria, is also an Afroasiatic language. The idea that Egypt can be separated from sub-Saharan Africa on linguistic grounds is simply false.

When you mention the time of Nubian rule in Egypt, you treat it as an exception to your claim about sub-Saharan Africa's lack of influence. This is curious, first of all, because Nubia is not in sub-Saharan Africa. Insofar as you are willing to recognize Nubia as "part and parcel" of Africa, though, this is yet another reason to recognize Egypt as being so as well. Egypt was indeed part of a Mediterranean world and they were acquainted through most of their history with peoples outside of Africa, such as those of the Levant. Their acquaintance with peoples in that northeastern direction was not, however, somehow distinct and more extensive or important than their acquaintance with peoples to the south of them in Nubia. I imagine that especially at times when the seat of power was in Upper Egypt (to the south, whereas Lower Egypt is to the north), this idea of Nubia as more foreign than the Levant would be viewed by Egyptians themselves as preposterous. Also, at all times in its history, the Nile was of course central to Egyptian self-understanding and the Nile connected them, of course, with Nubia and with places further south.

Indeed, our best guesses as to the location of Punt, a land with which the Egyptians were in contact, place it in the Horn of Africa, which means that it was sub-Saharan. Speaking of the Horn brings me to the topic of Ethiopia. Ethiopia, contrary to what you suggest, is in sub-Saharan Africa. Thus the idea that it was not related to sub-Saharan Africa is doubly confused.

It is very odd, by the way, that you would think it makes sense to treat sub-Saharan Africa as a "world unto itself" when you started by affirming the organic unity of Islamic philosophy and its transcendence of geographical distinctions. We mention in this first episode that we will be continuing, in this series, to tell the story of philosophy in the Islamic world by discussing Islamic philosophy in sub-Saharan Africa. If you define sub-Saharan Africa as culturally unrelated to North Africa and you take religion to be a significant feature of culture, then much, perhaps most of West Africa, is no longer sub-Saharan, and that's even before we get to talking about the importance of Islam on Africa's east coast.

I will close by making a correction with regard to what you said about the historical study of cultures without writing. As you will see, we will speak of "prehistoric Africa" in episode 2 , but we will mean by that the time before written records, which means that with the advent of writing in ancient Egypt, prehistory comes to an end. It is not the case that those who study the histories of the various peoples of the continent generally refer to periods during which there was no writing in the relevant languages as "prehistoric." Archaeology is among the tools of these historians, as is the study of oral histories. The significance of oral history is just one reason why it would be generally seen as inappropriate to refer to the precolonial history of a living culture as "prehistoric."                 

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Oliver on 23 April 2018

Response to Chike

Hi Chike

I disagree with the other commenter who said that sub-Saharan Africa is a world in itself. There was plenty of contact within Africa. Just as, via the Silk Road, there was plenty of contact within Eurasia, without committing us to speak of a ‘Eurasiana’ culture or philosophical tradition. You also pointed out that it was inconsistent for the other commenter to argue for the separateness of sub-Saharan Africa while affirming the organic unity of the Islamic sphere. Perhaps what he meant is that sub-Saharan Africa was separate until Islamisation, after which it ceased to be culturally African and became Islamic. It isn’t problematic to think about Scandinavian countries experiencing a full cultural ‘transfusion’ after Christianization. Is the African situation not, potentially at least, analogous to Scandinavia?

There is an equivocation in the use of the word ‘Africa’, between geography and culture, when we speak of Africana philosophy, which does not occur when we speak of European philosophy.

Regarding whether Ibn Khaldun was either an African or a Muslim – of course he was both. The question is whether the fact he was born in the continental landmass we call Africa was somehow relevant to his thought. The fact he was Muslim definitely was, since it is an intellectual tradition to which he belonged. Is being African an intellectual tradition? No. As I explained in my comment to Peter, there is a reason why we can speak of Europe as a civilization with a unified intellectual tradition, and it is an accident of history that the physical continent (which is a cartographic fabrication) and the civilization coincide. This means we can speak of G. E. Moore and Anaximander as European philosophers, in the sense that Moore is obviously culturally European, educated in an institution founded by the defining European institution (the Church), and that Anaximander exists as a figure in the distinctively European reception of classical thought (I am sure there are other Anaximanders in the Islamic or Byzantine worlds. There are also several Platos and Aristotles, depending on which tradition you are looking at them from). In contrast, it makes no sense to speak of ‘African’ culture because we are casting the net too wide. Yes, Ibn Khaldun was African, but this fact is not relevant to his thought in the way the Europeaness of Moore is, because Africa in the middle ages was not a civilization or an interpretive community. Khaldun’s Africaness is no more relevant than, say, the potential baldness he may have shared with people living in parts of Africa he did not even know existed.

You are also right to point out that it would be false to assume, on linguistic grounds alone, that Egypt was not part and parcel of Africa. It would also be wrong to argue that Egypt is part and parcel of Africa on linguistic grounds alone. Finnish, Mongolian and Turkish also share links, like Egyptian and Hausa, but this tells us nothing of the cultural links between Finland and Turkey, nor can we assume there are deep cultural links (the assumed racial and cultural links within language families was prominent in the 19th century, hence the concepts of ‘Aryan’ and ‘Semitic’ races and misappropriation of the swastika; but it has now been abandoned, thankfully). We also cannot claim a civilization to be ‘indigenously African’, in a cultural sense, on geographic grounds alone, without a further justification for why that civilization is linked to the continent as a whole and/or in a more meaningful way that other empires with African trade links. It is interesting that your examples of Egypt’s contact with Africa all revolve around other cultures on the banks of the Nile or the shores of the Red Sea. What of Egypt’s relation with the interior of Africa? In what way was Egypt part of the broader African milieu, beyond the banks of the Nile and regions accessible by boat? The region of sub-Saharan Africa is not exhausted by the Horn – which is unique in its connectivity compared to the rest of the continent (the other 85% of sub-Saharan Africa), and therefore not indicative of ‘African’ culture. These are all maritime regions with their back to the continent. You might be able to argue that Egypt had substantial links with the interior of Africa. The question is whether these were actually stronger than Egypt’s maritime links with India or Rome.

A final note,

‘Africa’ is not Europe, nor should it have to be. Africa is the name of a landmass, like ‘America’ or ‘Eurasia’, but it is not a unitary civilization or culture. The specific character of Europe’s relation to its respective landmass, mediated via the institution of the Catholic Church and its experience of the inheritance of Rome, should not have to provide a normative model for people born in the African landmass to understand their relation to their continent. That is, Africans should not have to copy the ‘Europe (Continent) = Europe (Civilization)’ model, because their case is historically different and this coincidence simply does not apply. Nor did Africa have the same uniformity impressed upon it which Europe had. To proceed on the assumption that we can talk about ‘Africa’ in the same way as Europe displays the misguided tendency Fanon warned about, of assuming the superiority of the colonist’s culture and emulating their model. If anything, it is the Europeans who are wrong to assume the unity of their culture, rather than the trend towards homogenization being a good example for Africans to follow.

In reply to by Oliver

Chike Jeffers on 24 April 2018

Hello. I find it preposterous

Hello. I find it preposterous to say that sub-Saharan Africans "ceased to be culturally African" once they became Muslim. Would the same would go for Christians? Note that the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africans are Christian or Muslim, so does this mean only a minority of people in sub-Saharan Africa count as culturally African? I also don't understand the Scandinavian analogy. Is the idea that Scandinavia wasn't part of Europe until Christianization? That it ceased to be non-European at that point? I can't imagine many Scandinavians agreeing with this.

When it comes to treating presence on the continent of Africa as irrelevant to the thought of Muslim North Africans, Ibn Khaldun strikes me as a very strange example, since he is someone who writes about sub-Saharan Africa!

I don't understand what you said about when it makes sense to treat a culture as indigenously African. Nothing you said clarified for me why we should hesitate in calling ancient Egypt an indigenous African culture.

Your final paragraph is about assumptions of uniformity and homogenization as a problem. I don't see how we have assumed uniformity or how we are engaged in homogenizing Africa or Africans. 

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Oliver on 25 April 2018



Sorry, I can see that what I wrote is a bit unclear.

I guess by “culturally African” I meant “the non-Islamic culture they were before, which had origins in Africa.” Of course you can be Muslim and African, and being Muslim makes you no less African. It does make you different from non-Muslim Africans in terms of your beliefs about God – not a trivial difference, especially for a faith which is a comprehensive way of life and legal system, and occasionally accompanied by state-imposed cultural Arabianisation. I don’t think it is an unreasonable stretch to say that, with Islamisation, those sub-Saharan societies did become part of a different cultural sphere. But primarily I was referring specifically to the character of their philosophy, not to their culture in general. My main point was that becoming monotheistic, adopting new canonical texts, and engaging with a new, highly professionalised way of doing philosophy and receiving Greek texts, in alignment with the rest of the Islamic world, is a huge shift in philosophical culture. Not to mention the importance of the Arabic language. Perhaps “ceasing to be culturally African” is not quite how it should be worded, but rather that “the experience of belonging to those specific sub-Saharan African cultures was profoundly changed with the conversion of Islam.” Especially so for philosophy. What I deny is that there is some sort of static ‘African-ness’ which underlies all cultural transformations.

I meant a similar thing about Scandinavia, which is obviously always a physical part of Europe. I meant to say that there would have been a brake in continuity between the concerns and beliefs of philosophers in the Viking age compared to the activity of Scandinavian scholastic philosophers later on. Also, I am not saying that Viking culture is not European (that would depend on the context). I am saying that Scandinavia was not part of the Res Publica Christiana during the Viking age, and that it was later incorporated into this specific, constructed idea of Europe, which has also institutionally given shape to “European” philosophy. Viking culture originated on the European continent, but it didn’t originate within the notion of “Europe” we have inherited from the middle ages, and which was normative places like Italy or France at the time.

I am not thinking of “Europe” purely as a geographic entity or static set of cultures, features and ideas. I am also not assuming that the meaning of the word ‘Europe’ has always been the same. That would be taking too much for granted, and my complaint is that this is what the label “Africana” runs the risk of. Scandinavia can be European and non-European, in different sense and at different times. It wouldn’t be controversial if I said Spain was at times not part of Europe. For example, during the Muslim period or during Franco’s dictatorship. Here Spain is non-European, in different ways of course, but that is exactly my point about the instability of these labels. Incidentally, it has been said that “Europe ends at the Pyrenees”, which has been repeated with varying degrees of seriousness.

Hence my reticence to describe Egypt (or Mali, for that matter) as an African civilisation, apart from in a geographic sense. I do see unity among Nile and Red Sea civilisations, and a separate unity among West African ones, but not some sort of pan-African equivalent to Res Publica Christiana in medieval Europe. I am also not comfortable cleaving Yemen away from Ethiopia and Egypt solely on cartographic grounds, while insinuating some closer link between Egypt and Senegal because they are African. I suppose I am saying that, like “Europe” Africa is also a theoretical construct, and that Egypt was never part of some unitary theoretical construct of Africa until much later times. The ‘genealogy’ of our current notion of Africa dates from the 19th century when, during the Scramble for Africa, European colonial powers reconceived the continent as single, defined entity and as the object of scientific study and political partition, ignoring all internal differences. This same notion was inherited and transformed by post-colonial thinkers, but they retained the artificial unity assumed by the term ‘Africa’ by the Europeans. Some appear also to have retained the European’s romanticization of Africa, and added a dose of nostalgia to this construct as well. The Scramble did not partition Africa, it unified it, and generated a notion of the continent we nowadays take for granted, though in actual fact is no older than Coca-Cola. In that respect, I get the need to cover the general history of philosophy in Africa in order to understand the postcolonial ‘Africana’ philosophers, as Peter says. Fine, as long as we are aware we are retroactively applying the anachronistic label ‘Africa’ and not treating the notion as an eternal truth.

OK, Khaldun wrote about Africa. I’m just not so sure that he wrote about Africa because he was Tunisian, or that he wrote about it in a relevantly different way than an Italian might have. He was not ‘determined’ to take an interest in the African Interior. Anybody can develop and Interest in Africa, can they not? Furthermore, did he write about the African interior as familiar territory, or as a distant and exotic land? Would you say Khaldun had the same concept of Africa you, me, or modern-day Tunisians have? I personally do not think so. And I am worried that such static definitions, whether about Europe or Africa, are what essentialism and homogenising thought consist in.

Incidentally, I think Ibn Khaldun would be sympathetic to the point I am trying to make about Scandinavia, ‘Africa’ as social constructs, and that he would find it preposterous that there is some shared Asabiyyah among the entire African continent.


In reply to by Oliver

Chike Jeffers on 25 April 2018

Overlapping spheres

There is surely something right in denying static Africanness and static Europeanness. What we deny is that looking at Africana philosophy requires any assumption of static Africanness. Your attempt to restate the point about Islam in sub-Saharan Africa is potentially helpful, as there can be no denying that conversion to Islam represents, as you say, profound change. And if (profound change + important connection to Islam outside sub-Saharan Africa) is all you mean by "becoming part of a different cultural sphere," then there is no problem with what you're saying, although also no criticism of our project either. If what you are saying, on the other hand, is that the peoples in question ceased to be in an African cultural sphere because of entry into an Islamic cultural sphere, then I think you're just clearly anthropologically and historically mistaken. The fact is that any sensible look at the history and culture of sub-Saharan African peoples will show that those who became Muslim are part of both African (or we can also say more regionally specific things like West African and East African) cultural spheres as well as the cultural spheres of the Muslim world, the Abrahamic religious world more generally, the world of literacy, etc.

A point that Peter and I keep making is that there are overlapping spheres and there is nothing illegitimate about structuring a series of episodes of the podcast around a look at Africa, with our focus being the continent as a whole in the time before the Greco-Roman period (particularly given the coverage of North Africa in the Greco-Roman period and subsequently the Islamic period lasting til today in other parts of the podcast) and then sub-Saharan Africa in the time after that.

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Oliver on 26 April 2018

African spheres

I see where we differ. For me, positing the African continent as a natural area to survey philosophical traditions does assume the 19th century notion that Africa is composed of a series of cultural spheres that all fit neatly within the boundaries of that continent. Take the Khaldun example again. Intellectually he was a Muslim, but if we want to describe his cultural sphere surely it is more correct to say he was an Arab, and that the world he belonged to straddled Spain, North Africa and the Middle East? He took his cultural bearings from an Arab identity (especially as an aristocrat belonging to the prestige culture of its day), and his intellectual ones from a world centered on Damascus or Baghdad, or even Andalusia. The fact he was born in the African region of the Arab sphere might have lent particularities to his work, but is not even close to being equal to the fact he was an Arab. So I argue that Khaldun or Augustine, and many other North African philosophers (Plotinus, for example), cannot legitimately be catalogued equally as Africans or as Arabs/Latins, because clearly in their cases there is no overlap in spheres – their sphere was never African to begin with. To assign equal importance to Khaldun’s Africanness as we do to his Arab identity would be to magnify the importance of his African identity to an unwarranted degree, and that is where an a-historical static category can emerge. I have similar views on Egypt and Ethiopia belonging to regional spaces that go beyond Africa and exclude much of Africa.

However I agree with you that it would be utterly false to suggest that Western sub-Saharan Africa ceased to exist in an African context after Islamisation. But I think this proves the point I am trying to make about the distinctiveness between neighboring African regions, which are not as ‘part and parcel’ as the term Africana would suggest. Whereas we can argue for the relative cultural continuity of the Malian region, the north coast has suffered these sorts of complete changes - take the complete Arabization of Egypt (Coptic pockets notwithstanding), or the Roman efforts to completely eliminate the memory of Carthage and Latinize the province (Spain provides several examples of shifting cultural spheres of the kind you quite rightfully argue did not take place in West Africa). In contrast the Western sub-Saharan region has not been subject to the same transformations. Such divergent trajectories imply regions in contact but with very different experiences of history, and without the overlap justifying a shared ‘African’ category. I’m all for classing the Islamic Malian region as a distinct area of the Islamic sphere, like Muslim India for example. But this must include separating it from the Arab north.

In reply to by Oliver

Chike Jeffers on 27 April 2018

So no objection to our series?

Let me say first that I don't know which 19th century thinkers you believe you are rejecting, given that your strong desire to keep discussion of North Africa completely separate from sub-Saharan Africa reminds me precisely of Hegel's insistence that sub-Saharan Africa be recognized as "Africa proper" and strongly distinguished from North Africa when talking about history. I also find your objection to the overlapping spheres idea unclear, if that's what you were attempting to continue pursuing by speaking again of Ibn Khaldun, because unless you want to object that being African gave no particularities whatsoever to his work - and it is wise that you are mostly no longer trying to do so, as I've already explained why he would be a particularly bad example in this regard - then whether or not it is reasonable to say that being Arab was more important to him is irrelevant. Recognizing overlapping spheres is not about saying a thinker's multiple spaces of belonging must be seen as somehow completely equal in his or her identity. No ahistorical static category is thus formed.

Now, it is true that, in one sentence, you go beyond the simply irrelevant point of assigning different weight to different spheres to the drastic claim that there are no overlapping spheres: "their sphere was never African to begin with." But this is of course completely untenable, as North Africa is evidently a part of Africa. Indeed, North Africa is the part of the continent that gave the rest of the continent its name! How could it be that Ibn Khaldun would have recognized himself as hailing from a place called Ifriqiya, a name that would not have meant anything to most sub-Saharan Africans, but his sphere was in no way African? And when you insist on his ethnicity as mattering most, note that your claim about Augustine thereby fails, given Augustine's apparent Berber descent. The only way you could insist that their sphere was in no way African, as far as I can see, is to take two extreme steps: (1) saying geography must not only be denied the status of most important factor but rather rejected as absolutely meaningless, which I would already see as too extreme, and (2) claiming there is a cultural sphere usefully described as African, despite geography's banished status, that can be discerned and discussed but from which North Africa must be entirely excluded. I can't see how the second step could be accomplished without constructing the kind of ahistorical static category that you say you want to resist. 

But reading your last paragraph, I'm struck by how little reason we have to keep arguing given that we mention Ibn Khaldun and Augustine in our episode precisely as figures who we have no plan to feature in our series. As I said in my previous comment, subsequent to the Greco-Roman period - which, again, should be noted as ironically the period that gave the continent its name! - North Africa does not play a major role in our story  This means we could accept your claim that Hellenization, Latinization, and Arabization do so much to change North Africa that whatever remaining overlap does not justify treatment within the same category without thereby needing to make any change to the series as it is currently planned. So would you say that ultimately you have no objection to the series?

I should note that it's not as if North Africa won't come up at all. It is funny that you yourself invoked in another comment one of the main reasons why it absolutely has to come up in the third part of the series, the one on the 20th century: Frantz Fanon. Can't discuss Fanon without talking about Algeria.

Finally, you talk of Egypt and Ethiopia as belonging to regional spaces that go beyond Africa. I have to emphasize one last time how that is no objection at all to the idea of Africana philosophy. Note that to discuss any thinker from Africa in the present is to discuss someone from a place that belongs to a cultural world that exceeds Africa, with perhaps the most obvious example being whether the thinker is from anglophone Africa, francophone Africa, lusophone Africa, etc. When you add that you are talking of regional spaces that "exclude much of Africa," this is superfluous and uninformative, for what are the regional spaces that do not exclude much of Africa? Any regional space you could be talking about, even if wholly contained within the continent, will exclude much of the rest of it. Ancient Egypt and Ethiopia through the ages are indeed both part and parcel of Africa, as previously stated, and we hope listeners enjoy learning a bit about their philosophical traditions in this first of the three parts of our series.      

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Oliver on 27 April 2018

Final thoughts

“Let me say first that I don't know which 19th century thinkers you believe you are rejecting, given that your strong desire to keep discussion of North Africa completely separate from sub-Saharan Africa reminds me precisely of Hegel's insistence that sub-Saharan Africa be recognized as "Africa proper" and strongly distinguished from North Africa when talking about history.”

I have consistently rejected any monolithic notion of ‘Africa proper’ or ‘Europe proper’ throughout this exchange, and insisted on the distinctiveness of Africa’s many regions. Not a simplistic north-south divide.

“I also find your objection to the overlapping spheres idea unclear”

I think this is because talk philosophical/cultural/ethnic/political spheres is inherently confusing, and hard to use consistently in this discussion because we sort of started using the term without prior clarification. I want to talk primarily about philosophical traditions, but the conversation seems to gravitate to the broader meaning of the world culture. I would note that cultural changes do not affect a society uniformly, and conversion to Islam might bring a significant change in intellectual culture (e.g. suppression of oral traditions, puritanical Almoravid reform, or chaining children until they have memorized the Qur’an, as Battuta describes in Mali) but not changes in dress or cuisine. For that reason, I also reject monolithic understandings of ‘culture’.

“if that's what you were attempting to continue pursuing by speaking again of Ibn Khaldun, because unless you want to object that being African gave no particularities whatsoever to his work - and it is wise that you are mostly no longer trying to do so, as I've already explained why he would be a particularly bad example in this regard - then whether or not it is reasonable to say that being Arab was more important to him is irrelevant.”

I remember you saying Khaldun was a bad example because he wrote about sub-Saharan Africa. So did Spanish Arabs, so did Hegel. Being an Arab aristocrat in the middle-ages is not merely a matter of race or place of origin. It has a huge impact on the style of his education and the network of influences and thinkers he engaged with. I question whether his being African lent him any relevant and significant particularities that somehow set him apart dramatically enough from his fellow Arabs in Spain or Sicily. If I say that being African lent particularities to Khaldun’s thought I am talking about things such as, when using examples or drawing analogies from nature to illustrate a point, he would have to hand examples from his province.

“Recognizing overlapping spheres is not about saying a thinker's multiple spaces of belonging must be seen as somehow completely equal in his or her identity. No ahistorical static category is thus formed.”

Not all categories are equal in importance or relevance to philosophical background, and therefore to make more than is warranted about a less relevant category, for the purpose of historiographical classification, does distort reality. If you think it is wrong to frame this as the creation of a static category, fine. But my point remains.

“Now, it is true that, in one sentence, you go beyond the simply irrelevant point of assigning different weight to different spheres to the drastic claim that there are no overlapping spheres: "their sphere was never African to begin with." But this is of course completely untenable, as North Africa is evidently a part of Africa.”

I can’t see how my point is irrelevant, as I have explained above. Khaldun may have been a competent fisherman, and thus falls into the sphere of competent fishermen. But this is clearly of less relevance to him as a thinker that the fact he was a Muslim. Secondly, Khaldun’s ‘sphere’ was one without overlap: the culturally Arab area of Africa (part of the main cultural sphere to which he belonged, stretching horizontally from Spain to central Asia, via North of Africa); and I prioritize culture over mere geography, because we are talking about a human being. Therefore any other aspects of this geographic sphere, (e.g. the terrain, cuisine, local dialects he did not speak, the type of slave he might have owned, etc.) are much further down the line in terms of importance to his intellectual profile. Or are you saying that there must be, purely as a matter of geographically imposed necessity, similarities between Seneca and Averroes on account of their birth and residence in Cordoba? Such a claim would be surprising.

Furthermore, there was a level of prestige associated with being an Arab at that time, and it was not unknown for Berebers to fabricate Arab ancestries. Even Sicilian Normans admired and imitated the Arabs. That is the culture Khaldun lived in.

“Indeed, North Africa is the part of the continent that gave the rest of the continent its name! How could it be that Ibn Khaldun would have recognized himself as hailing from a place called Ifriqiya, a name that would not have meant anything to most sub-Saharan Africans, but his sphere was in no way African?”

So sub-Saharan Africans did not think of themselves as belonging to the same space as Khaldun? I agree. I don’t see the point you are making about the province name ‘Ifriqiya’. If anything this just shows the contingency of the term and concept ‘Africa’, which could have just as easily come to be known today by other Roman-era province names, like Libya or Mauretania. As I say above, Khaldun was from the province of Ifriqiya, and his cultural and intellectual sphere was the Arab world.

“And when you insist on his ethnicity as mattering most, note that your claim about Augustine thereby fails, given Augustine's apparent Berber descent.”

I would never make such an appalling to appeal to ethnic determinism. Otherwise I would have pointed of Khaldun’s Yemeni descent. I am very much in favor of the ‘nurture’ explanation over ‘nature’. Note that in my discussion about Khaldun I have spoken explicitly of culture and not ethnicity, specifically mentioning the historical period and social class Khaldun belonged to, as well as the cultural space and institutions which informed his thinking (I see the confusion though, as ‘Arab’ can be used in both senses). An Arab can be Muslim, Christian, Pagan, Vegan or anything you like, and this will change how they think and thus how we should understand them. Similarly, a Bereber is not biologically determined to think a certain way and, throwing all other considerations aside, to be classed as a Bereber of ‘African’ philosopher. Augustine had one Bereber parent – I am fully aware of that. But what interests me more is the world he lived in (a thoroughly Romanized province) and the style of education he received, and even his intended audience, and in that respect he was a Latin. Perhaps the first purely Latin philosopher. And if that isn’t a good enough reason, consider the impact Augustine had on Latin and subsequent ‘European’ philosophy (of which he is perhaps the cornerstone, not Plato and Aristotle), compared to the impact he had in Africa.

“The only way you could insist that their sphere was in no way African, as far as I can see, is to take two extreme steps: (1) saying geography must not only be denied the status of most important factor but rather rejected as absolutely meaningless, which I would already see as too extreme, and (2) claiming there is a cultural sphere usefully described as African, despite geography's banished status, that can be discerned and discussed but from which North Africa must be entirely excluded. I can't see how the second step could be accomplished without constructing the kind of ahistorical static category that you say you want to resist.”

Again, I am not arguing for a North-Africa/sub-Saharan divide. I see the Niger River Basin as a coherent space where the local cultures have been in closer contact and do display greater cultural affinity. I have made a similar case for the ‘Nile-Red Sea-Arabian Peninsula Area’ (this is what I had in mind by cultural spaces that go beyond Africa, or which are in Africa but do not encompass all of it). So I reject only the artificiality of ‘Africa’ as a monolithic cultural space. I am actually saying geography is very meaningful in the world of ideas because it can make it easier or harder for regions to come in to contact, separating some (like north Africa from the Niger basin), and joining others (like Somalia and Aceh in Indonesia, or Oman and the Swahili Coast). But human beings live in cultural spaces, not geographic ones, even if geography will often establish cultural patterns.

But reading your last paragraph, I'm struck by how little reason we have to keep arguing ... So would you say that ultimately you have no objection to the series?

“I should note that it's not as if North Africa won't come up at all. It is funny that you yourself invoked in another comment one of the main reasons why it absolutely has to come up in the third part of the series, the one on the 20th century: Frantz Fanon. Can't discuss Fanon without talking about Algeria.”

OK, you rightly point out that Africana philosophy in the 20th century, which is bound up with postcolonial thought, builds on a narrative about prior African philosophy (linking to ancient Egyptian philosophy in one case, according to Peter). This is where I object. It has not been mentioned until now, but the reality is that discourse about Africa is not like discourse about other continents, especially when dealing with postcolonial thinkers and with a tradition, as I understand ‘Africana’ to be, that is actively concerned with the task of liberation. As well as a geographic term, since decolonization ‘Africa’ exists as a politically charged concept comparable to ‘The West’ (perhaps discourse about Europe is equally politically charged, in a way that ‘the Americas’ or Australasia clearly aren’t). This is fair enough since Africa did, as a whole, experience colonialism.

What I object to are postcolonial perspectives which do assume a static African concept, inherited from the Scramble, and where Egyptian, Hellenistic or Arab thinkers are weighted completely out of proportion as representative of a romanticized ‘pan-African’ history and philosophy. This does fall into the trap of taking the 19thc European concept of Africa, and the European ‘continent=civilization’ model, and allows the diaspora community to absorb a tradition unrelated to that of their ancestors, simply because of ‘continental coincidence’ (‘part and parcel’ fallacy). I see any podcast series that feeds this essentialist narrative – as postcolonial thinkers can also be guilty of essentialism – by including ancient Egypt and giving credence to these links, to be antithetical to any genuine task of liberation and to contributing to a politically charged falsification of history.

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Naomi Odigbo on 7 July 2018

North Africa part of Africa


Also some of the debate has been on the grounds of the self-professed identities of philosophers living during certain eras of African history whereby the greeks, romans and arabs had conquered much of north africa, including egypt. but, North Africas philosophical and cultural history is so much older than that, is profoundly linked with the rest of africa and middle eastern cutlure is really an overlapping of african, greek and asiatic culture. 


1) Please read the African origin of Civilization by Cheick Anta Diop, it earned him the authorship of an introductory chapter of UNESCOs African History Manual and he's been called one of the greatest historians of the 20th century for a reason. So much of west african cutlure and language carries egyptian thought and culture and so much of southern european and middle eastern culture carries african culture in it via Egypt. please. lets stay up to date with hard research and re-think our notions of cultural unity and connections between africa, the mediteranean and the middle east that are often based on 19th-century epistemologies and even though they have been revised today, still ignore Africa because of 19th century myths. 

2) Ancient egyptians were intermarrying and had considerable influence over the area known as Palestine long before there was a Pheonician or a Palestinian or a hebrew.  The middle east has so many deep roots in africa. read When Egypt Ruled the East by George Steindorff (https://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs…) and do research on human migrations BC. 

3) Judaism and Christianity are essentially based on appropriations of Egyptian texts and folkstories by inhabitants of the levant that sought refuge in egypt. Islam is a largely composite religion of these religions and Zoroastrianism that appeared in the political vacuum left by the romans. and so much of its philosophy was formulated in Africa, in Mali and Morocco, the two of which share so much history before arab slavery. This doesnt I'm ignoring the influence of greek philosophy on Islam though.

4) The empire of Mali had so much cultural influence on Morrocco and Spain, even Spanish guitar music is actually based on Malian kora music via Morocco. 

5) The Sahara is not some sort of wall, it was a more like highway between the resources and universities western african empires and meditteranean ones. Islam was a major link ensuring friendly relations. to this day the whole of the Sahel's (and east africa's from Uganda to Kenya for that matter) traditional food is what you would think is middle eastern food, but when you research the origins of the ingredients, many are actually grown in Africa. 

6) the people, hausa people speak an afroasiatic languge and wolof shares so many words with egyptian. most of the afro-asiatic languages and speakers are on the African continent! Also the whole of the sahel, the swahili coast and (I know this might sting) the middle-east have mulatto people.  There is no wall between these areas, cultures are not monolothic, people have been migrating and intermarrying for millennia, and the cultural boundaries noted by the Arabs and Greeks do not necessarily reflect those professed by the peoples that had lived in the region for thousands of years before there was a Greek. 


All this is to say, not only are there historical and cultural links between both sides of the sahara and both sides of the red sea that are visible today but more importantly that It is essential to understand africas history before the settlement of Europeans on the continent  BC before discussing what is Africa.  

In reply to by Naomi Odigbo

Peter Adamson on 8 July 2018

African geography

Thanks for those points. It's interesting that you mention the Sahara being as much a connecting region as a barrier: we make the same point in an upcoming episode about Islam in Africa, which is already recorded and will air this autumn!

Zinda Rud on 9 April 2018

Myth-history of philosophy?

It might seem intuitive and almost self-evident to refer to an African diaspora, but a holistic identity linking together black people from subsaharan Africa arguably did not exist until the mid 20th century. Even now to suggest that there is some underlying kind of ‘Africaness’ that reverberates in the work of everyone from W. E. B Dubois to Greco-Roman philosophers from North Africa, seems ridiculous. It’s almost like throwing together Nader El-Bizri, Confucius, Patanjali, Zoroaster and Rumi under the rubric of ‘Asiatic philosophy’ and justifying this by the argument that all speak to or articulate some underlying Asiatic consciousness and the experiences of Asian people at home and abroad. None of the above philosophers were working in a single intellectual ecology, they were responding to different figures, had often different and sometimes similar concerns, they were thinking in different terms and moving in divergent directions. A term like ‘Asiatic philosophy’, today at least, would get your branded with the iron of ‘essentialist’ or ‘orientalist’. And the way you’ve defined ‘Africana philosophy’ does whiff of a cheap essentialism. 

While it may be possible to speak of a trans-national ‘Africana’ meta-identity today in the present, it would render Africana philosophy a very recent development. Even then, while we can say that Frantz Fanon or W. E. B Dubois might now be read together as canonical texts of activists and post-colonial academics throughout Europe and North America, they might as well be discussed in future episodes in Western philosophy since it’s this discursive tradition that both were working in. I’d note here that Fanon himself looked down on African religions. Another commenter has already made this point. 

While I’m looking foreword to discussions on philosophy among communities on the African continent and I’m pleased to discover some of my favourite writers, like Fanon and Dubois, will be covered. I do feel quite apprehensive, this series, and I know we’re only one episode in yet, does give me the feeling that it’s going to be somewhat disjointed and irregular, hopefully not in a bad way.

In reply to by Zinda Rud

Peter Adamson on 9 April 2018

Essentializing etc

Chike will be able to respond to this with deeper knowledge, but I have to say I have been surprised at several people (here and on Facebook) saying "Africana philosophy? That makes no sense, because that is not just one thing." Obviously we will cover a huge range of very varied topics, and cover thinkers who would vehemently disagree with one another, over the course of this series. And we'll cover things that are hard to bring into immediate historical relation, like, say, ancient Egyptian ethics and (what I am just reading up on now) Islamic intellectual history in the 17-19th centuries. But this to me is just business as usual. I mean, consider Anaximander and G.E. Moore. They are as remote in thought and chronology as any two things we'll be covering here, but that doesn't make anyone say that it is incoherent to cover "European philosophy" (this phrase does get criticized sometimes, including by me, but not for that reason). If Africana philsosophy were just one thing, or an expression of an Africana "essence" or single "consciousness" it would be a lot less interesting and covering it for 60+ episodes would get mighty boring. On the other hand there are going to be many interconnections between the various things we are covering, so I don't think it will feel all that disjointed: you'll get a picture of how history developed in Africa and in the diaspora and how philosophy responded to that and to other influences and contexts. So Africana philosophy is indeed varied, involves many different historical contexts that change over time, and so on... but that just makes it like European, Indian, Islamic, and Chinese philosophy.

And also I'd repeat the point I made above, namely that the things we're covering here could legitimately be covered from a different perspective. Actually reading up on the Islamic African tradition in Africa, as I am, I am quite chagrined at having left it out of the Islamic world series - I really did leave a "gap" there! But that doesn't mean that the topic does not belong in this series; rather, that it could go in either. And same for e.g. ancient Egypt, because it could be thought of as the start of Africana or part of a more culturally varied look at the ancient world than I offered in the series originally.

In reply to by Zinda Rud

Chike Jeffers on 10 April 2018

Fanon and Africa

Let's take for granted the claim you make about Fanon looking down on African religions. He is not always easy to interpret so I don't know that I fully agree but I want to grant it for the sake of argument. What does this mean to you? Does this somehow raise a question about including him in a series on Africana philosophy?

Fanon, who joined the Algerian revolution? (and how relevant it is that he is inextricably linked with Algeria, given all the suggestions that we are wrong to make reference to North Africa...) Fanon, who goes to represent the provisional government of Algeria in Ghana? Fanon, who, shortly after his death, thoroughly inspires and shapes the thinking of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale as they found the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California? Fanon, who is today claimed as an ideological founding father of the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), an political party represented in the legislature of South Africa?

It seems to me that Fanon is a fine example of a philosopher whose thought and influence is best understood and contextualized precisely through an Africana frame of reference. Why should his position on African religions be taken to suggest otherwise? Why shouldn't it instead be taken to strengthen the point, given that having something to say - negative or positive - about religion in Africa is a sign of the importance of Africa as a reference point in one's thought?

I am not sure what you think came into being in the mid-20th century that did not exist before then, as there is nothing I can think of that fits the bill. I say this even though we ourselves note that "African philosophy" is not a term that precolonial African thinkers would have used. But of course, neither would have any ancient Greek thinkers been able to make any sense of the term "Western philosophy." To study them as part of the history of Western philosophy does not require the idea of some kind of unified consciousness and we have no intentions of trying to sell listeners on the idea of a unified African consciousness.

We do, however, think that the idea of Africa and its diaspora as context for a set of distinctive and interesting traditions of philosophical thought makes sense. We hope listeners like yourself, as apprehensive as you may be, will find the tour through these traditions that we are providing interesting and informative.   

marcus on 11 April 2018


Peter and Chike - thanks for doing this series and for braving the critics. I for one am looking forward to your presentation on Africana philosophy as it's a topic I haven't had exposure to and have not seen covered in a deep yet accessible way which I believe you guys will do.

At the end of the day producing this podcast isn't your guys' day job and I'm really grateful that you've decided to spend some of your free time putting this great content online (for free no less!) and educating the rest of us. It's a great service you're doing and I was surprised by how negative some of these comments were so just wanted to say there are many of us who are excited about what you guys are doing and are looking forward to the next episodes on Africana philosophy. Please keep fighting the good fight!

In reply to by marcus

Peter Adamson on 11 April 2018

And thanks to you!

Thanks for the encouragement! I was also slightly surprised that comments have been on the negative side, though a lot of them have been of the form "this should be covered, but not the way you are doing it" which seems like constructive criticism, which is always welcome.

In reply to by marcus

Chike Jeffers on 11 April 2018

Much appreciated

We hope you find the episodes to come enjoyable and enlightening!

Taxi on 29 April 2018

Really amazed at the amount

Really amazed at the amount of pushback on this series here.  I have my thoughts on the objections raised but I'm not really informed enough to make a useful contribution to that dialogue.  All I can say is I'm really looking forward to the podcasts, and sure I'm going to learn a whole lot from them.

(wow was that an elaborate captcha process!  Ten screens of things to click on!)

Eating Dead Camel on 24 October 2018

Thank you both

So good to have a new series to listen to. Thank you both. A few points:


I listened to a podcast about Jewish comics recently. The graphic novel kind, not the stand up kind. They asked what is a Jewish comic? It could be a comic by a Jewish person. It could be a comic that deals with Jewish themes: diaspora, being a persecuted minority, legalistic argument, a certain kind of humour and so on. It could be something that tells an explicitly Jewish story, say of a Bar Mitzvah, even if told by a non-Jewish person. I thought that was interesting. Many have said that Superman is a Jewish character. His creators were Jewish and a super strong character can be seen as a response to perceived Jewish weakness, socially and politically, as well as pysically.

Is the film The Colour Purple "black"? It has a black story and black actors, but it's directed by Steven Speilberg and presumably had white producers. Some might say yes. Some might say no. Is Henrik Ibsen's, A Doll's House, a "woman's" story? I think so. By today's standards, Alexandre Dumas was black. Does that make the Three Musketeers "black"? Not for me. I agree with you where you say everything should be judged on a case by case basis.


You seem to include an African-American piece like, Letter From Birmingham Jail, as Africana. There may be consequences to that. In past wars, Italian-Americans, German-Americans and Japanese-Americans, were not thought to be truly American. Not one of us. Other. Not to be trusted. They were not simply Americans they were something else. Many people had doubts about voting for JFK who was a Catholic American. They worried about whether his ultimate loyalty, as a good Catholic, would be to America, or the Pope. You may be doing something similar in positioning MLK as Africana. Making black Americans into something not truly American. You may not intend to, but it seems a consequence to me.

I'm not sure of the rationale for including diaspora figures like MLK as africana. If the popular term was "black American", or simply "black", rather than "African-American, would you be so convinced of making the same move, if that "African" wasn't there? It's not obvious to me that the experience of black Americans in MLK's time, a minority in a rich, educated country; has a strong connection to the experience of black Africans, the majority in poor, largely uneducated countries. If you were talking about Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers, who actually spent time in Africa, and might be informed by and speak to that, his case would be stronger. Someone like Marcus Garvey, who spoke about African concerns and may have preached a return to Africa, would clearly be africana. However, MLK's connection to Africa seems tenuous, except for his skin colour. I presume you would want to reject anything essentialist that comes with his skin colour. As someone who has been told to "go back home to Africa" on numerous occasions, people not considering me properly of the place where I was born and live, is something I'm aware of.

If you do an episode about this, maybe you will make a persuasive case for including MLK. I don't know all that much about him. If MLK is included because he rejected America, spoke widely about African issues or preached a return to Africa, I agree he should be included. If he's included largely because of his skin colour, then I'm going to be hard to persuade. MLK spoke about black American civil rights issues, but so did lots of white people. Are they included as africana too? Or would their skin colour exclude them? Unless he rejected America or spoke widely about African issues, in my view, MLK is better seen as a black American with little connection to Africa. And that's black American, as in Texan American, a subset of the American experience; not as in Italian-American, potentially with strong affinities outside America.

As I see it, 60s Motown music, wouldn't be Africana, it's simply black American.


You make or repeat the claim that: "98% of the ancestors of all modern humans, North of the Sahara, were Africans".

I'm interested to know how you justify that. There are about 1.4 billion people in both China and India. Add in Europe and that's 3 billion non-African people today. Let's say these 3 billion non-Africans, have 500 million immediate non-African ancestors. That is parents now dead. If 2% of the ancestors of all current non-African peoples are non-African, that would mean that the current non-African peoples have 25 billion African ancestors. At least. That's several times more than the total number of people who have ever lived. I suspect that you have taken the fact that 98% of non-African DNA is human, from Africa, with the remaining 2% being Neanderthal, and then mistakenly twisted that to suit what you wanted to say. It's a basic mistake though. You will have forgotten more about how to make an argument than I currently know, so likely there is a better explanation for how you arrived at this figure. Not sure what it is. Maybe you simply took it from someone else without thinking too much about it. Perhaps I need to read your sentence in a different way.


I don't listen to the main show, medieval/Christianity doesn't do it for me, but want to thank you, Peter, again for all the early episodes. Wonderful stuff. The Islamic shows introduced me to one of my favourite quotes, even though I totally disagree with it.

Philosophy is like a dead camel near the top of the mountain: the road is hard and the meat isn't worth the effort ;) Lulz

In reply to by Eating Dead Camel

Peter Adamson on 24 October 2018

Africana questions

Thanks for this thought-provoking set of questions! There's a lot more but a few quick thoughts in response:

Starting with the third point because it is easy, that 98% is a direct quote from B. Gräslund, Early Humans and Their World (London: 2005). The way I understand it, the claim is not that 98% of all humans who have ever existed (including those who exist now) have been Africans, which looks like what you're thinking, but that 98% of _pre-modern_ humans (hence "ancestors of modern humans") were African. Goodness' knows how Graslund got to that exact figure but I guess the basic point is that the population we are talking about predates the dramatic rise in population over the last few millenia.

On MLK: it seems to me you are assuming something I've had occasion to reject in response to other comments, namely that if a given thinker is "Africana" then they are not anything else (e.g. not American). There is no reason that an Africana thinker can't also be an American, French, communist, Christian etc thinker - indeed pretty well every philosopher falls into more than one category. Thus just as Africana includes American and non-American thinkers, if you were telling the whole story of American thought you would want to cover both MLK (Africana) and William James (not Africana).

As for why he does in fact count as Africana, I think that is an easy case to make: MLK was engaging with (among other things) the legacy of slavery, embedded within a tradition that goes back through earlier Africana thinkers who we'll be covering. I think the most powerful rationale for the continuity and coherence of the "Africana philosophy" category in fact turns on this point about continuity: for instance it gives us a rationale for covering Egypt in this series that modern-day African(a) thinkers have explicitly claimed Egyptian ideas as part of their heritage, so that we needed to cover Egypt as background for the modern part of the story. In general my advice to you (and others who have been skeptical along similar lines) is to wait and see what the series looks like when it is done, and by then it should be abundantly clear how it all hangs together.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Dead Camel Eater on 25 October 2018

98% and MLK

Thanks for the reply.

On the 98% figure,

I did consider the interpretation that you make. That 98% of all pre-modern humans were Africans. I didn't think that could be right. My guess is that the missing 2% are the Neanderthals. That would mean that there were about fifty times as many pre-modern humans, or our ape ancestors, in Africa, as there were Neanderthals in Europe and Asia. Given that, (on my limited understanding), at any one time, there were never that many of our ancestors walking about the African plains, that doesn't seem right. I suppose if Gräslund wanted to, he could go back tens of millions of years to the first monkey, which I believe would also be the ancestor of the Neanderthals, but that would seem like some funky near-total-guesswork methodology to me.

More importantly, the claim was that, "98% of the ancestors of all modern humans, North of the Sahara, were Africans". Why include that "North of the Sahara", if he is not referring to the fact that humans today North of the Sahara have 2% Neanderthal DNA, while the humans in Africa today don't? That "North of the Sahara" serves only to be confusing, if as you seem to think, he is talking about "all" pre-modern humans, "all" our ape ancestors.

I'm even more puzzled by that 98% figure now. If it's a simple matter to look up and as you've attached your name to that claim in repeating it, I'd be very interested to see how Gräslund justifies that. However, you're a busy man, so if it's anything like an effort, I'll live with being puzzled. I think I'm being fair in not taking Gräslund's word for it, even if he published it in a book. There are a lot of bad facts in bad books. We live in a climate of false information, fake news and alternative facts. To get an accurate view of the world it helps ask questions and look deeper. A word I picked up from your podcasts: taqlid.


I agree that a person can be more than one thing, say American and Africana. I said in my post that Marcus Garvey would be such a person and that Eldridge Cleaver might be. No argument there. That was not my point. What I was questioning is why do you think MLK is Africana? In my vew, you're positioning MLK as Africana without good reason. Your answer seems to be continuity. I can't see a continuity between MLK and Africa. He was born and raised in America and is part of the American tradition and American continuity. Again, as I said in my earlier post, if you highlight where MLK has spoken about African thinkers being an important part of his outlook, or where he spoke at length about African issues, I will agree he is Africana. I don't know much about MLK, maybe he did.

Without that, I can't see why MLK would be Africana. Apart from the colour of his skin. Gandhi lived in Africa during his formative adult years, 1893-1914. He also resisted "white oppression". Why wouldn't Gandhi be Africana? On the face of it, as he lived there and wrote about South African issues, some even accuse him of racism towards black South Africans, he has much more of a claim to be Africana than MLK. Perhaps you would include Gandhi.

If you mean that MLK spoke about issues involved in a continuity that encompasses the Atlantic slave trade, why would figures like Wilberforce or Lincoln not count as Africana? They spoke about slavery and the place of the negro in society. It also seems that the views of Wilberforce and Lincoln both had more of an effect on the lives of black people in Africa and America than MLK's ever did. If MLK is part of any continuity, it's the continuity of Wilberforce and Lincoln. Unless you believe in some kind of racial essentialism that comes with someone's skin colour, Wilberforce and Lincoln seem to me almost as African as MLK. If you wouldn't include Wilberforce and Lincoln, why not?

I'll say again, 60s Motown music is not Africana, it's simply black American.

Ultimately, it's your podcast. If your position was that we're going to be loose in what we call "Africana", so that we give ourselves room to talk about whatever we want to, I would totally endorse that position. The impression I have is that you hold "Africana" to be more robust than that and I wanted to challenge where I think it doesn't work. We will probably continue to disagree about this. Perhaps, as you suggest, by the end of the series I will come around to your view. Until then there is plenty of room for agreeable disagreement in the world :)

Thanks for the podcasts.

In reply to by Dead Camel Eater

Peter Adamson on 26 October 2018

98% and MLK

On the 98% figure I think, upon reflection that I don't actually know what the claim exactly means myself so we should at least try to figure that out before publishing it in the book version. I am guessing, after thinking about it more, that it indeed means something like everyone's genetic material is 98% tracable to sub-saharan Africans. Which I can readily believe, because - and this is of course the basic point we were making - humans are pretty much from Africa, as a species. But if that is what he meant it is not phrased very clearly.

On MLK, in the opening episode we said "One obvious way in which a philosophical work can be distinctively Africana is if it is concerned to a significant degree with the experiences, problems, and strivings of people in Africa or the African diaspora" which seems (a) reasonable and (b) to apply obviously to MLK. It seems to me like your objection may be that you are treating "Africana" as a (near) synonym of "African" whereas we are treating it as including the traditions of thought concerned centrally with people of African heritage, so to include diaspora thought (which, again, overlaps with various other ways of slicing up the history of philosophy, like "French", or "communist"). Well actually as we just saw, everyone is ultimately of African heritage, so that would mean all philosophy is Africana! So probably we need to say something like "people who have done philosophy while conscious of their African heritage." While it's true that this would mostly have to do with black people, as we pointed out in that episode it could also include the thought of white people from Africa. Then too, to use your Lincoln example, we will certainly need to be discussing abolitionism when we get to the 19th century, and I suppose we will be talking about the thought of white abolitionists as well as black ones.

With MLK there is also the issue that in his period and in the 20th century in general, black liberation movements often included a "back to Africa" idea such as we see with Malcolm X, and we would be covering MLK and Malcolm X as a comparison and contrast when we get to them. So actually as it happens, in that/those episode(s) there will be an explicit link to the African continent within the intellectual debate we're discussing. Still I don't think that kind of explicit appeal to Africa itself, or Africanness, need be definitive of Africana philosophy.

The reason I was stressing continuity by the way, is that what we're talking about here is not just "you are Africana if you have family members from Africa" - so it is nothing about genetic essentialism. It is about a continuous, though complex, narrative of how philosophical ideas have developed, and with MLK or Malcolm X you can trace their thought back to earlier 20th century thinkers, like Marcus Garvey, say, and their ideas trace further back still. Or think of how fundamentally MLK was grounded in the history of the black church, which was so intimately bound up with post-slavery culture. Actually the more I think about this the more I think MLK is a paradigm example of what it means to talk about Africana philosophy, rather than an awkward case for us (not to deny that there may be more awkward cases, just that I think this one is a slam dunk).

More generally many modern day thinkers in Africa and in the diaspora are explicitly recalling African oral traditions, ancient Egypt, etc. In this respect "Africana philosophy" is, as I've pointed out before, a lot like "philosophy in the Islamic world" where we have multiple trajectories of intersecting thought but all gathered together because you can tell a convincing and coherent story including exactly these strands, albeit that one is using a classification that has blurry edges. In my view all ways of cutting up the history of philosophy are like this, even those that are about time periods, like "medieval" or "ancient" (since they have blurry geographical and temporal edges too).

But perhaps Chike will want to weigh in here too; he's the expert whereas I am just learning as I go along, like you are.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Dead Camel Eater on 26 October 2018


It seems to me that you want to make quite an inclusive account of Africana.

If you show that MLK was someone who did "philosophy while conscious of their African heritage", not his black American heritage, but his African heritage, I'll agree he's Africana. If you're embracing white abolitionists as Africana, such as Wilberforce and Lincoln, I agree that makes the case for MLK much easier. But then you'll also be including a lot of people who may strike many as being about as un-Africana as you can get. Your Malcolm X example may be worse. If Malcolm X had "return to Africa" views and if MLK agreed with them, MLK would be Africana. I don't think it works to say that if MLK engaged with Malcom X's views, that also makes him Africana. It seems to follow from that, that an awful lot of people could be similarly included as Africana. Debt relief is an important issue for many African countries. If someone merely has to engage with an Africana issue to be considered Africana, as with MLK engaging with Malcom X, then a Chinese economist who takes a strong view on the relief of African national debt, appears to become Africana.

Your definition of Africana is good: "One obvious way in which a philosophical work can be distinctively Africana is if it is concerned to a significant degree with the experiences, problems, and strivings of people in Africa or the African diaspora". By that, MLK should be included.

I would disagree about the relevance of the African diaspora. With the Jewish or Muslim diaspora, I think we can say that they are a distinct group. They identify that way and most importantly, they seem to take part in a specific ongoing shared culture, with shared languages, crucial written texts and so on. That commonality holds them together. Not every Jew or Muslim will share that, they're not homogenous, but I think we can talk about those groups that way. Is that true of the African diaspora? It seems to me that Brazilian blacks, West Indian blacks and America blacks share a legacy of slavery. That's a different experience to the one of African blacks who share a legacy of being the majority under minority rule with colonisation. (Though the countries of the West Indies were also colonies, as was the US once). It might be that African blacks have more of a connection with India and the other Asian countries that experienced colonisation than they do with the slave experience of the Americas. I would say the African diaspora is not coherent enough or connected enough to Africa to call it Africana. Those people have become black Brazilians, black West Indians or black Americans. Though they could be those things and Africana too, their connections to Africa seem tenuous. Strictly speaking, French people of Algerian heritage would be part of the African diaspora, but they don't seen to have much connection to black people in the Americas. What holds this African diaspora together? Muslims around the world were angered by the Danish cartoons. When was the last time the Africana diaspora could be spoken about as a coherent and united group? I don't know that it is. You could take the view that the African diaspora doesn't need to be a coherent and unified group. You'll talk about it's unrelated sub-groups separately. Though as I said before, someone could claim 60s Motown music to be a sub-group of Africana if they wanted to, but as with MLK, it strikes me as more appropriate to call it black American.

A good discussion, that's probably the last from me, appreciate your time and thoughts.

In reply to by Eating Dead Camel

Following Up on 27 July 2020


Following up on something I wrote on 24/10/18. In a recent podcast, the linguist John McWhorter, (Black-American), said that he prefers the terms, "Black" and "Black American" to "African-American". (He also talked about capitalising the "B" in black.) For him, Africa was too long ago. Someone's Italian-American grandpa may actually speak Italian. Not so for African-Americans. Also someone who was born and raised for thirty years in Kenya say, then emmigrates to the US, has the same label as someone who was born and raised Black in the US. You could also have a White South-African, born and raised in Africa for thirty years, who comes to the US and finds that most people don't accept them as an African-American. Neither seems right to me. Finally McWhorter says that "African-American" implies that all his personal relatives in between Africa and now don't count for much. To get to what he really is, you need to ignore his immediate older family and go back hundreds of years to Africa. That doesn't sit well with him.

I don't know if he would support the general point I was trying to make about what should be included as Africana, but I found what he said interesting.

Thanks for the series :)

The podcast is Slate, Lexicon Valley, Defund Karen, about 14:30.

In reply to by Following Up

Peter Adamson on 27 July 2020

Black-American vs African-American

Chike may well want to weigh in on this as well but I have to say firstly that I LOVE that podcast, I listen to every episode as soon as it comes out. (I also liked it with the two original hosts but once McWhorter took over it became absolutely subliime. Hasn't really persuaded me about the show tunes to be honest, but that aspect is cute too.) So I was also very interested in that bit where he talked about "African-American." I guess that in the podcast so far it has felt pretty natural to use "African-American" given that some of the issues McWhorter raises are less relevant for that time period, I mean, we are looking at people whose African heritage was much more recent, as you can also tell from the big controvery about whether to emigrate "back" to Africa. If you have a listen to the most recent episode, on T. Thomas Fortune, you'll hear a bit about him being one of the earliest figures to argue for the phrase "Afro-American," and the reasons he gave for it. I think his reasons would all still be relevant now. But anyway we've used "black" and "African-American" in the podcast so far and I'm guessing will keep doing that as we go into the 20th century. (Whether to capitalize "Black" is another issue that we need to think about, for the book version at least.)

Mo on 3 December 2018


I'll just argue that Egypt is not part of Africana, mainly because they weren't "African" ( https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms15694 ). The only reason the Middle East isn't considered a continent, unlike Europe, blessed by that distinction, is Eurocentrism.

I very much doubt anyone in Andalusia would be considered Africana either, most writers from that period spoke about their Arab heritage. Ibn Khaldun certainly did at the very least. 

In reply to by Mo

Peter Adamson on 3 December 2018


Wow, that's quite a bullet to bite - I mean, saying that Egypt isn't part of Africa! Obviously that would not be consistent with how the word "Africa" is understood by all speakers of English, so one wonders what considerations could prompt such a revisionary stance. I guess what you're thinking is that Egypt is part of the cultural sphere of the Middle East and/or Mediterranean and the same may go for North Africa/the Maghreb. (I think you meant "Maghreb" in your last remark, not "Andalusia" i.e. Spain and Portugal? Ibn Khaldun was not from there.) However it can be true both that Egypt is part of the Middle East or Mediterranean, and part of Africa. Indeed we see many cultural links between Egypt and parts of East Africa further south, and even across the Sahara, as documented in the subsequent podcasts. People tend to overestimate how much the desert was a barrier to travel and trade, especially in early antiquity when the Sahara region was not as desertified, or so I gather.

Anyway the point is that we have a both-and situation here, not an either-or.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Alexander Johnson on 17 December 2019


That is a strawman arguement.  Mo never said Egypt isn't part of Africa, so appealing to the lexical definition of Africa is arguing in bad faith.  He argued Egypt wasn't "African."  The understanding of this term is much more hazy.  White Africans, white Africans migrants, black Africans of the slave trade, black Africans of more recent migration, along with Egyptians, all have been rejected as "African" by some and granted by some.  Even legally, the issue isn't well defined in the US.  For example, Egyptian Americans can run into a lot of problems if they call themselves "African American," and at least in many places in the US, they are effectively inelligable for protections as a racial minority in the US (since they are legally white), but are often subject to racial discrimination.  So in this case, I don't think you can reject "African" as understood by all speakers of English in one way.

I also thought some of the other comments were dismissed arbitrarily.  But that is uncharacteristic of your typical replies, so I figure it is more fatigue from answering these types of comments, so i don't want to pile on (sorry!).   I just thought this to be particularly unfair to the original comment, so I wanted to speak up in this one case.


P.S.  Despite my own reservations on the grouping, I look forwards to learning about precolonial African philosophy(s)!

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Peter Adamson on 18 December 2019

Straw man

Ok, I see what you mean. But I did go on to say in my response that one could insist on the cultural separation between northern Africa and subsaharan Africa, which as far as I can see is what would be meant by saying that Egyptian philosophy is not part of "African" philosophy or that in some sense Egypt does not count as "Africa". So, the second part of my response was meant to deal with that idea, and we have of course addressed, both in the comments above and on the podcast itself, the untenability of claiming that there is no reason to connect Egyptian thought to subsaharan African thought.

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