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Review of A Short History of African Philosophy


By Mikel Burley

A Short History of African Philosophy (Second Edition). Barry Hallen. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 2009. Pp. 194. ISBN. 978 0 253 22123 0 (hb). $19.95.

This second edition has been enlarged by approximately sixty pages and the new material is well integrated into the text in such a way as to complement and enhance the previous discussions. No new chapters have been added, but the existing chapters have been expanded at several places to incorporate developments that have occurred since the book’s first edition in 2002. One indication of the book’s increased scope is the growth of its bibliography, from sixteen pages in the first edition to thirty-six in the new one.

Hallen’s writing is consistently clear and accessible to a general reader, and his knowledge of the subject is wide-ranging, making this an excellent introduction to the vibrant and complex mélange that falls within the category of African philosophy. In fact, the book’s purview extends beyond African philosophy itself, to encompass what has come to be called ‘Africana philosophy’, a term which includes African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and other diasporic domains as well as work carried out within the continent of Africa itself. The construal of ‘philosophy’ is also broad here, as Hallen discusses sociologists such as Paget Henry and social anthropologists such as Ifi Amadiume alongside scholars whose pursuits are more intrinsically philosophical.

Despite its breadth, the book retains a high degree of coherence, owing in large part to Hallen’s knack of bringing out the robust interactions between the variety of philosophers and activists under discussion. For example, having shown in Chapter 2 how African mentality has often been stereotyped by non-Africans as emphatically mythopoetic as opposed to rational and logical, Hallen then goes on, in Chapter 3, to describe how certain African philosophers – such as Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye – have responded critically to this characterization by arguing for a conception of universal rationality. These same two Ghanaian philosophers subsequently reappear in Chapter 8’s discussion of how communitarian views of social engagement have tended to override more individualistic views within the context of African socio-political thought. The overall effect for the reader is a sense of being eased into a lively and conceptually rich philosophical environment without ever feeling dropped straight in at the deep end.

Inevitably the treatments of specific topics remain at a rudimentary level, but as an overview of the state of a number of debates within or about African philosophy, the book is exemplary. Of particular interest to me was Chapter 5, which focuses on the work of Paulin Hountondji (National University of Benin) and Henry Odera Oruka (formerly of the University of Nairobi). Hallen concisely summarizes Hountondji’s critique of ‘ethnophilosophy’, this being the sort of study that attributes a philosophical worldview to some cultural group on the basis of selections from its oral story-telling tradition. Among the dangers of such studies, as Hountondji points out, is that of suggesting that African philosophy is limited to a timeless, implicit and collective enterprise as opposed to involving the explicit search for truth and meaning on the part of named individuals. While neither Hountondji nor Oruka advocates the ignoring of traditional beliefs and customs, they each contend that these must be subjected to rigorous scrutiny if they are to inform genuinely philosophical activity. For Oruka, this shift is described as one from ‘culture philosophy’ to ‘sage philosophy’, the latter deriving its name from the role that Oruka sees for ‘sages’, these being thinkers who, though embedded within traditional cultures, are able to reflect critically upon those cultures. Hallen outlines the African viewpoints fairly and informatively, even if at times he is prone to contrast them with a rather narrowly conceived model of ‘Western analytic philosophy’, which he equates with linguistic analysis.

The aptness of the book’s title is questionable. As noted above, the book is not exclusively concerned with African philosophy in the strict sense, and neither is it much concerned with the history of its subject. Following a short first chapter which picks out a few highlights from four-and-a-half millennia of philosophical thought in Africa, we then jump decisively into the post-nineteenth century milieu. The bulk of the book deals with scholars born in the twentieth century, many of whom are still academically active. Chapters 3–9 are thematic, configured around different methodologies such as ‘Phenomenology and Hermeneutics’ (Chapter 6), or political orientations such as ‘Socialism and Marxism’ (Chapter 7), rather than historical periods. And most of the chapters are structured around synopses of significant works by the scholars under consideration, with only glancing references to broader historical factors. None of this is to the book’s detriment, yet it does suggest that a more appropriate title would have been ‘An introduction to contemporary African (or Africana) philosophy’.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 72-73]

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