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

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



Further Reading

• S. Imbo, "The Special Political Responsibilities of African Philosophers," International Studies in Philosophy 29(1997), 55-67.

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

• S. Imbo, Oral Traditions as Philosophy: Okot p'Bitek's Legacy For African Philosophy (2002).

• S. Imbo, "Okot p'Bitek's Critique of Western Scholarship on African Religion," in K. Wiredu (ed.), A Companion to African Philosophy (2004), 364-73.

• S. Imbo, "Two Directions Home: Intercultural Philosophy in Black and White," Canadian Journal of African Studies 40 (2006), 527-35.


Chris Eyre on 8 December 2018


I was amused you used the example of "In the beginning was the word..." as, of course, the original was koine Greek, and I'd argue that there is no adequate way of translating "logos" into English (I set out to talk about it to a group once and carried on for over half an hour...). Arguably, what we should have done is just stolen the word, as we've done with so many others.

In reply to by Chris Eyre

Peter Adamson on 8 December 2018


I used to participate in a Greek reading seminar which had a rule: the presenter who was in charge of translating the text could select one (but only one) Greek word in the passage and not translate it, on the grounds that finding an English equivalent would be too difficult. Logos was a popular choice.

Xaratustrah on 17 December 2018

Second abstract in Papers

I found the discussion about whether one should rather prefer to write philosophy in a native African language or use a more common language for expressing African thoughts, rather interesting. In my opinion, this is something that should be thought of also in all other traditions as well. The choice of language for philosophy in academia is rather narrow. It can happen even to languages with huge tradition in philosophy like German and Arabic, where the philosopher might still need to consider writing in English in order to reach a broader readership.

But wouldn't it be at least useful if journal papers could allow for a second abstract within the same article but in the local language of the philosopher, or let's say any second language the philosopher feels like? I think this way, at least the philosophical keywords could be preserved in the local language so that a continuation of the topic for later works in the future would be definitely easier. It would help preserve the language and the preservation of philosophical language will help the philosophy itself. Another major advantage is that the abstract will always be attached to the paper for ever almost monolithically which is more advantageous compared to providing links to translations on internet etc.

Have you ever seen / are there already publishers that allow a second abstract in another language in the same paper?


In reply to by Xaratustrah

Peter Adamson on 17 December 2018

Second abstract

Actually this is pretty common in journals, for instance French or German journals that accept papers in English will almost always have abstracts in both languages. I agree it's useful and would be nice to see more often!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Xaratustrah on 17 December 2018


Well although a bit admirable, that doesn't really count, because those are the language of the journal/editorial not the language of the philosopher.

The main goal is to protect the French and German language. It is the equivalent of the French government's anti-"Anglo-Saxon cultural invasion” which requires 40 percent quota of French music in France's public broadcasting.

The questions is whether the same journals (or any other journal in the world accepting English manuscripts) allows for Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Chinese etc. abstract in the same paper, the native language of the author. Have you ever seen such a paper?


In reply to by Xaratustrah

Peter Adamson on 18 December 2018

Close but no cigar

Yes, I see what you mean. In that case, I guess I am not aware of anything like that - ultimately of course, an abstract in another language will only get people so far, if they can't read the text of the article itself. Of course in the age of Google Translate it has now become the case that anyone can feed an English abstract into an online translator and at least get a somewhat garbled version of the abstract, so perhaps one could argue this is less urgently needed now than it might once have been?

Evan Hadkins on 23 December 2018

Medium and Content

Is philosophy confined to writing?  I guess it depends how much philosophy is confined to criticism and analysis.  Song lyrics can present a view of life eg Talking Heads's Crosseyed and Painless does this.  In which case perhaps philosophy can be done through painting (through instrumental music I'm not sure).  Would illustrations (like in political pamphlets) possibly add to the philosophy presented.  This gets really interesting I think.  Evan.

Ken on 19 August 2019


After falling a year behind, I'm on the Journey to vcatch-up on all your podcasts Dr. Adamson. I certainly hope to be caught-up on Africana philosophy (especially sinve you are hitting North America just in time for the 400 year anniversary) and afterwards get caught up on 'No Gaps'.


This debate on oral vs written when applied to Africa is definitly colored by how you view Africans and how you view colonialism. I would say that it is obvious that wherever a society develops a philosophical tradition (usually through religious practice) develops. It is certainly easier to do this written-down, but any griot can be said to be a "lover of wisdom." Just my two cents. Is there away to see a bibliography of the works you guys mentioned? The 'further reading' section is ok, but I like to read some of the primary sources mentioned.

In reply to by Ken

Peter Adamson on 21 August 2019

Primary texts

Great, thanks for following both series! Re. primary texts we often do put those in the "further reading" as well, when there is a fairly accessible English language translation (often that is not really relevant for these early Africana episodes since of course the whole point is there is no "primary text"). If you want to have a reference for a specific text and can't find it online easily, you can always leave a comment and I'll try to dig it out for you.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ken on 22 August 2019

Appreciate the reply Doctor.

Appreciate the reply Doctor. Also heads-up, I sent you and Dr. Jeffers an email inquiry about a certain thinker and if she would be included in part 3 of Africana philosophy.

Too Vain on 28 October 2019


Hello Peter

Similar to some of the other comments, I'm curious about your view on language. At about 31:00 you say this:

" ... the ideas you can express in one language, may differ from the ideas you can express in another language, that's actually very plausible".

I'm hoping you might expand on that.

If you said that some ideas might be "easier" to express in one language than another, I would agree. In French the word for "story" and "history", seems to be the same word "histoire". It might be more readily understandable to a French speaker that history has strong similarities with other stories: written by people, with agendas and perspectives, written in a specific context, not necessarily representing objective facts and truth. In English, with two different words for "story" and "history", it might not be so obvious that those two words might have a lot of overlap; with "history" being separately and discretely understood as something more objective and factual.

In poetry I would say some things can't be translated. Some words just don't have equivalents in other languages. "Logos" in Greek. "Love" in English. Those are big words, with lots of connotations and secondary meanings that do a lot of work. It's said poetry is lost in translation. The poetry might be lost, but the ideas wouldn't be. It might not be possible to express the poetry of "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" in another language, but I don't see why someone could not get the idea across. Even something more ambiguous like line 2 of Ecclesiastes: Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. Or however that was written in the original language. It may take a several sentences to set out the possible meanings, maybe even an essay, but do you really want to say that the original idea, or some other idea, is inexpressable in some other languages?

My understanding of the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis is that the weak version holds at the periphery. As Russian speakers have two words for blue, they are a fraction of a second quicker at differentiating between shades of blues. Or because some languages have gender, when making up cartoon characters that are lamps or tables, they are more likely to make cartoon characters that fit with the gender of the langauge. So la chaise would be a female character. A further question might be how big is this periphery? If people talk about a "chairman" of a meeting, that might not make it impossible to think of a woman chairing a meeting, as might be the case under the strong version of Sapir/Whorf, but it may make it harder.

I agree with the position that some words in philosophy shouldn't be translated. Words like "eudaimonia" or "duhkha". If people are interested they just have to pick up what they mean. It can be hard enough to get your head around a different way of looking at the world. If people then try to do that using English words, like "happiness" or "suffering", but all while trying to remember that "happiness" and "suffering" have a different, specific meaning, that just makes it harder in my view. Though I will say that with a podcast, using the original non-English words makes it a more challenging listen ;)

If I could choose my superpower, being able to speak five langauges would be near the top of the list. I asked you how many you spoke and I think you said you were working on a sixth, Farsi. As a practical matter you would know more about this than me. Much more. Have you found that there are things that are impossible to express in one of the languages you know?

As ever, thanks for the podcasts, you and Chike both.

(Assuming, you speak Greek and the original was in Greek, how would you translate line 2 of Ecclesiastes? It seems to me like the idea in the original langage may not have been clear. In which case, translating it accurately to express what it really means, might not be possible. There is no, "what it really means".)

In reply to by Too Vain

Peter Adamson on 28 October 2019


Thanks for the interesting reaction to this episode! To be honest I am not really committed to the claim that some thoughts can be expressed in only one language, or some and not others; I think it is plausible that that may be the case, but it is not obvious. To some extent of course it's just an empirical question. Certainly shades of meaning and the richness of individual words are often untranslatable, or translatable only with a large amount of explanation, and I think that sometimes in philosophy a train of argument might really only "work" in one language because such a word or phrase plays a key role. So for instance you could have an argument that turns on the Greek word logos and seems to us to be equivocating on its "various meanings", but to the Greek speaker there is no equivocation but just a single word with a rich range of meaning not captured by any word in English.

By the way for the record I only speak two languages, English and German, but I can read about 7 others, with varying degrees of difficulty!

In reply to by Too Vain

Chike Jeffers on 30 October 2019

Thank you for listening

One small note on your final question: Ecclesiastes - or Qoheleth, as it's often called - was not written in Greek but, like almost all of the Old Testament, in Hebrew (and what wasn't written in Hebrew was written in Aramaic). When teaching Ecclesiastes in my Intro to Philosophy course, I point out that the word translated as "vanity" in the King James Version and "meaningless" in the New International Version (the translation I assign) can be found in other translations rendered as "pointless," "futility," "useless," or any other number of abstract terms, but my favourite (in The Message Bible) is "smoke." As I understand it, that last one is etymologically revealing, as the Hebrew term literally means something like "vapour" or "breath." 

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Smoketastic on 1 November 2019


Hello Peter,

Ok, that makes more sense to me.

Wittgenstein says that if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.

I'm not so sure. We share a lot in common with lions. We get hungry, thirsty, some of us have annoying relatives, we get cold, too hot, get horny, need to sleep, can be afraid of being attacked, yawn, feel pain and so on. If lions could speak, I feel say we would have lot in common to talk about.

The idea is that the human lifeworld and the lion lifeworld are different. Our frames of reference, our forms of life are different. I would agree. But then strictly speaking, my lifeworld and your lifeworld are different. We can still communicate. We broadly understand what each other means. It seems to me that someone who shares Wittgenstein's view that we could not understand speaking lions, might need to say that women can never understand men, or that Chinese people can never understand Americans, or that ultimately, no one individual can ever understand another individual. Strictly speaking, I think that might be true. In the sense of understanding them completely.

But the closer someone is to my lifeworld the easier it is for me to understand them. I get them. They get me. I know what they mean. Not believing in God, when it comes to faith I have to work hard to understand intelligent people who do. That makes little sense to me. And they may find it hard to understand non-believers likewise.

Also, lifeworlds are not fixed. Five hundred years ago, Buddhist ideas might have had no place in the lifeworlds of people in the UK. Today lots of people in the UK are familiar with ideas of nirvana, rebirth, suffering, mindfulness and so on. They may not have a full grasp of them, but how many people in the UK have a full grasp of what Easter is supposed to be about? I don't. If we regularly encountered speaking lions, our different lifeworlds, our different forms of life, would begin to blend into one another.

So, to clarify the point about Wittgenstein's lion and language: it's not that we would understand nothing about a speaking lion, it's that we would understand them less well than someone, or some being, that shared a lifeworld more similar to our own. A matter of degree. A matter of understanding better or worse. Not about understanding or not understanding as a matter of on or off. Not about some things being impossible to say or communicate in another language. Perhaps if sentient alien AI were to speak to us we would not understand them, but we should have a lot of common ground with lions.

Somewhat tangential :)

Hello Chike

It was in my head that the Bible was originally written in Greek. After a quick check, it looks like the New Testament was written in Greek. I knew I wasn't sure, so I think I couched what I said with an "if" Ecclesiastes was written in Greek.

Thanks for the reply. "Smoke" is a long way from "vanity". All of those different translations would take my thinking in subtly different directions. Some of them would be personal to my lifeworld. For example, when I hear the word "futile", my brain activates Star Trek. "You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile". Star Trek is part of the meaning of the word "futile", for me.

Whether it's "smoke" or "vanity" seems like an academic point. So for you guys. A debate with more consequence is how we should translate the original word that could end up in English as "servant", "bondsman" or "slave". As in:

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. Peter 2:18, New International Version.

If translated as "slave", the Bible seems to sanction or even endorse slavery. Translation can be political.

I imagine that some of the phrases in the Bible have lost much of their meaning, because the things they refer to are no longer part of many people's lifeworlds. If you haven't seen a millstone, a "millstone around your neck", probably doesn't resonate. I've been to an old mill, seen a millstone and that phrase resonates a lot more with me now. I would guess that for most people, it's probably a colourless set expression.

And to Both

It's been an interesting series so far. I find myself asking what actually is philosophy? What truly counts as philosophy? Looking forward to the rest of the series.

(As I've been typing and musing on this, I remembered Robert Heinlein's book, Stranger in a Strange Land. There, much is made of the Martian word, "grok". As in planet Mars. We're told this is impossible to translate and impossible for Earthpeeps to fully understand. I can't remember the details, just enough time to check the word was "grok". Eat, grok and be merry.)

Emily on 31 October 2019

Where Blue Birds Fly

The following philosophical observation is more in the style of Forrest Gump than Socrates, but as I was driving home today I saw the most perfect rainbow. Chike's comment about "vapour" made me think how life is like a rainbow - beautiful, circular, ephemeral, with much of its spectrum imperceptible to us. And that's all I have to say about that.

Hossein on 4 November 2019

I wonder why you insist on

I wonder why you insist on mentioning the nationality of the African philosophers, but you do not mention the nationality of Muslim philosophers?!

In reply to by Hossein

Peter Adamson on 4 November 2019


Um... not sure what you mean there? Most of the Islamic world figures we covered obviously lived before the rise of the modern nation state, but I think I always said where they lived (Iraq, Persia, Afghanistan, Andalusia, Iran). For more recent figures, like Abduh, Iqbal etc I also mentioned which countries they worked in. So I am rather puzzled by your comment. Of course in the context of Africana thought it is important to draw attention to the diversity of Africa and Africana thought, so referring to the different groups and nations is important, but I don't think it is something we've done more for Africana than any other part of the podcast series.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Hossein on 4 November 2019

That's fair. But, first, I

That's fair. But, first, I think the same reason(s) ("it is important to draw attention to the diversity of Africa and Africana thought, so referring to the different groups and nations is important") is true in the case of philosophy in the Islamic world too. Second, for example, in the case of Zera Yacob it is explicitly mentioned that he is Ethiopian (both in the podcast and in the description text). I guess he lived in "modern nation state" as much as Mulla Sadra did. But, it is not mentioned that Mulla Sadra was Persian/Iranian. The same is true about others too: al-Tusi, Suhrawardi, ...

In reply to by Hossein

Peter Adamson on 4 November 2019

Islamic diversity

Now I'm even more puzzled. I must have mentioned numerous times in the coverage of Sadra that he was from Iran - the word "Iran" is actually in the title of the episode about his modern reception, and I know that I even talked about which Iranian cities he and other thinkers worked in (like episode 183 on Shiraz). Are you talking about the podcasts themselves, or maybe only the brief descriptions of each episode at the top of the page? I feel like there must be some miscommunication here because from what you are saying it sounds like you haven't listened to the series about Islamic philosophy at all.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Hossein on 4 November 2019

Also, provoking the notion of

Also, provoking the notion of "modern nation state" seems not relevant. Since no one says "Aristotle lived in areas that are part of today's Greece" rather it is always said, quite justifiably, "Aristotle is Greek"...

In reply to by Hossein

Peter Adamson on 4 November 2019


Well I just said that because you mentioned "nationality" which is misleading for pre-modern thinkers, I think; like for instance there was no such thing as "nationalism" in the strict sense before the 19th century or so. But I knew what you meant.

Andre Greene on 12 March 2023

Well, I think every melanin…

Well, I think every melanin person all over the world should be educated in their African languages in school besides English, more so melanin peoples in Africa. French people speak french and English and so do Spanish-speaking people etc.   

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