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Review of A Short History of African Philosophy


By Paul Davies

A Short History of African Philosophy by Barry Hallen. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 2002. 133pp. ISBN 0-253-31531-5. $14.95 (pb).


Condensed from a much longer work, this book offers a survey of the many perspectives from which we may construct a knowledge base of African philosophy. While avowedly a short conspectus, the book as a whole it is dynamized by a number of recurring debates which make their appearance in most of the chapters, giving the work an internal coherence belying its brevity and simplicity. And it is more than just a history of its subject; on more than two occasions there is brief, but precise, demonstrational argument.


Perhaps the prime recurrent feature is, not surprisingly, African reaction to the involvement of colonial history in Africa's formulation of philosophy: the term philosophy itself carries inevitable accretions of Western and Eurocentric criteria. There is an ever-present tension between having the intellectual tools imposed by Western culture on the milieu of African thinkers even when a non-western culture is the subject of enquiry, and in the other direction the mission of some African intellectuals to refuse colonial legacies and form a revolutionary self-definition of African thought within a context of global diversity, for which Western paradigms are incidental rather than defining features.


Inextricably linked, then, to the colonial issue is the inevitable fact that in Africa debate cannot but arise from the situation of racist oppression and the resulting struggle for liberation. In this area African Marxism and socialist philosophy has its own distinctly urgent character and imparts this to its own manifestos (dealt with in chapter 7). Another of these debates centres on the opposition between claiming validity for universalism as against relativism. On the one hand universal principles such as rationalism, ethical and moral universals, analytic investigation, etc., have found expression in African philosophy; a powerful argument comes from Sogolo, to the effect that 'The mind of the African is not structurally different from that of the Westerner. Also the contextual contrast between Western and traditional African thought, which considers only the former as a suitable material for philosophical reflection, rests on false premises. The truth is that both are similarly marked by the same basic features of the human species.' (p. 42). On the other hand is a cultural relativism which localizes analysis within a specific cultural context and eschews as flawed the search for any universals.


In African academia there appears to have been a repetition of the gulf between hermeneutics and the empirical/analytic tradition that has eventuated in Europe as well. African relativists have employed hermeneutics, phenomenology and ethnophilosophy in pursuit of a description of African thought based in 'subsuming the whole of the Western tradition as just one other cultural anomaly thanks to the broader, 'revisionist' view of philosophy' (p. 71).


The third area of recurring interest throughout the book is the relevance of indigenous tradition and cultural production to the formulation of an African philosophy; this was probably facilitated in the beginning by the invention of cultural anthropology in the nineteenth century, despite its now compromised standards of investigation whereby cultural assumptions were smuggled into the process by the Western-centric bent of the antiquarians and historians who began the discipline; and later it continued in a more eclectic way with the cultural theories described as post-modern; according to Appiah, for instance, 'Modernism saw the economization of the world as the triumph of reason; post-modernism rejects that claim, allowing in the realm of theory the same multiplication of distinctions we see in the cultures it seeks to understand' (46).


While this book is inevitably deeply engaged with such binary contrasts as are evident within huge areas of debate about philosophy, it also raises a couple of principles which seek to undercut or override the binary nature of a discourse conflicted by imperialism; one is the criterion of ‘sagacity’ (chapter 5) to encapsulate a key aspect of African thought; the other is ‘gnosis’ (chapter 4). The final chapter also raises an intriguing theory of gender indeterminacy amongst the Yoruba, which does not subscribe to Western cultural influences at all. Overall, while he resists the temptation to substitute evaluation for description, Hallen seems finally to regard as most promising such arguments as that of Bernasconi, for example: 'Powerful critiques of Western philosophy by African and African-American philosophers exceed Western philosophy and cannot simply be reinscribed within it, even when they rely on the idiom of Western philosophy for their presentation.' (p. 70) And Hallen draws special attention to Lewis Gordon’s rhetorical question, 'Why is western philosophy hegemonic when it excludes other philosophies, yet African philosophy, which includes Western philosophy, lacks such influence?' (p. 69). Throughout the book Hallen has implicitly provided the reader with the tools and signposts to explore this important question.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 66 (2004), pp. 65-66]

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