INTRODUCTION


THE GHANAIAN TRADITION

OF PHILOSOPHY


KWASI WIREDU


Ghanaian culture is a highly philosophical culture. This is seen in the fact that `traditional life in our country is guided at many points by conceptions that might broadly be called philosophical.'(1) Thus customs relating to procreation, work, leisure, death and sundry circumstances of life are based on or reflect doctrines about God, mind, goodness, destiny and human personality that most adult Ghanaians will articulate at the slightest prompting. And if one were to come in contact with the genuine philosophers among our traditional folk, one would hear not only articulations but also explanations, elaborations, and critiques of these doctrines and much else besides. Readers of W. E. Abraham's The Mind of Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) or Kwame Gyekye's An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987) will get a good idea of the contours of that public philosophy.

Given that Ghanaian life is suffused with speculative thought, it is not surprising that many of our eminent contemporary public leaders have attached the greatest importance to philosophy by both word and work. J. B. Danquah wrote The Akan Doctrine of God (London: Frank Cass & co. Ltd, 1944, second edition with an introduction by Kwesi Dickson 1968) in a busy life of legal practice, public service, political agitation and variegated literary productivity. He was to the last given to philosophical meditation and writing and produced, at the close of his life, a voluminous manuscript on The Akan Philosophy of Man, which, unfortunately appears to be missing.(2) He prepared himself for his life work with a training in Law and History, but most of all, in Philosophy in which he took a Ph.D in 1927 as John Stuart Mill Scholar in the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at London University with a thesis on The Moral End as Moral Excellence.

Kwame Nkrumah, the man who led the final phase of Ghana's struggle for independence and became her first president, disagreed with Danquah on many things, but one thing he did not disagree with him about was the practical importance of philosophy. Nkrumah lived in the United States of America for many years and studied Philosophy, Theology and other subjects in American universities, including Lincoln University and the University of Pennsylvania before moving to England in the mid-forties. But his interest in philosophy was not something he acquired from abroad; his mind was already impregnated with a philosophic curiosity and, to be sure, also with a nationalistic passion before he left our shores. While in the U.S he wrote an M.A. thesis on ethnophilosophy. He, of course, did not use the word `ethnophilosophy' with the pejorative significance which it now has acquired among many current African philosophers. In Britain he completed a doctoral dissertation on Knowledge and Logical Positivism at the London School of Economics under the supervision of A. J. Ayer--an odd combination, since Nkrumah was a convinced Marxist while Ayer, the leading advocate at that time of sanguine positivism in English speaking-philosophy, was not known for either a sympathy for, or an expertise on, Marxism. Be that as it may, history stood between Nkrumah and the oral defence of his dissertation, for in 1947, just before that was scheduled to take place there came the historic call from the United Gold Coast Convention. The nationalist organization in Ghana (then known as The Gold Coast) which had just begun demanding self-government from Britain, called him home to become its General Secretary. Nkrumah immediately obliged--to the doom of colonialism in Ghana and Africa at large.

The interplay, in Nkrumah's mind, between philosophy and practice, more specifically, the practice of radical nationalism, was, in any case, already evident in his Towards Colonial Freedom (3)which he published in London in 1947 before returning to Ghana. In that work he adopted Marxist-Leninist philosophy and adapted it to the purposes of the anti-colonial struggle. There is no reason why a Ghanaian philosopher may not make a creative use of a foreign philosophy in the service of Ghana, whether or not that philosophy has any affinity with Ghanaian traditional philosophy. But later, as President of Ghana, Nkrumah published Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization and Development with Particular Reference to the African Revolution in which it was argued that Marxism was, in fact, in harmony with African Traditional thought. Ghanaian traditional thought was not explored in any detail in that work, but that did not necessarily detract from its possible relevance to Ghana or to Africa, in general.

The detailed exploration of Ghanaian traditional thought has, however, been a notable concern among contemporary Ghanaian philosophers, a fact to which the above mentioned books by Danquah, Abraham and Gyekye bear eloquent testimony. This demonstrates that however deeply the Ghanaian mind has gone into Western philosophy or the philosophy of any other culture, it has never been in danger of becoming oblivious to its own indigenous tradition of philosophy. The concern with this tradition is also unmistakable in the work of K. A. Busia, Prime Minister of Ghana from 1969 to 1972, who though a sociologist by academic profession, wrote works of considerable significance for Ghanaian philosophy. Busia had a degree in History before he went to Oxford to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He afterwards specialized in Sociology in graduate study and earned his doctorate at Oxford with a dissertation on The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of Ashanti, which was subsequently published by Frank Cass and Company Ltd., in 1951. The book has now become a classic in the descriptive and analytical study of the Ashanti system of government. In virtue also of its treatment of the principles underlying that system of government, it has proved invaluable in the study of traditional political philosophy. Busia's book has a proud place in a time-honored series of studies of traditional politics and jurisprudence by Ghanaian thinkers dating back to J. E. Casely Hayford's Gold Coast Native Institutions (London: 1903), John Mensah Sarbah's Fanti National Constitution (London, 1906) and J. B. Danquah's Akan Laws and Customs (London, 1928). Kwame Gyekye's "Traditional Political Ideas: Their Relevance to Development in Contemporary Africa", which forms the last chapter of this work, is a contemporary continuation of this line of work which is fully conscious of its intellectual antecedents in the tradition.

Of even more extensive philosophical relevance than his work on Ashanti government was Busia's essay on "The Ashanti" which was included in Daryll Forde's anthology, African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954). In this piece Busia provided a perspicuous account of the main features of the world view of the Ashantis and of their conceptions of human personality and social organization. Two other works of Busia deserve special mention, though that does not exhaust philosophically oriented contributions. The Challenge of Africa (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1962) and Africa in Search of Democracy (New York: Praeger, 1967) were mainly political, but Busia was deeply of the persuasion that an appreciation of African traditional philosophy was requisite for a true understanding of Africa's contemporary situation and its desiderata. Accordingly, he provided elegant expositions of elements of traditional philosophy in the first two chapters of each book, entitled, in the first case, (compositely) "The Challenge of Culture" and, in the second case, "The Religious Heritage" (Chapter 1) and "The Political Heritage" (chapter 2).

All the essayists in the present work explicitly or implicitly engage the legacy of indigenous philosophical thought available to them through the works of the statesman philosophers noted above and also through the oral tradition with which they are acquainted by way of both upbringing and scholarly research. But they also engage, in these essays as in other parts of their work, the rich accumulation of organized information about their traditional culture preserved in the writings of the first European scholars who made dedicated and prolonged--indeed in some cases life-long-- researches into our culture and its intellectual foundations.

Probably, the best known now, certainly the most productive, of these early European students of our traditional culture was the English anthropologist R. S. Rattray. In a number of goodly-sized volumes, the most important of which were Ashanti (Oxford University Press, 1923, second edition 1956), Religion and Art in Ashanti (Oxford, 1927, second edition 1958) and Ashanti Law and Constitution (Oxford, 1929) he gave well-researched accounts of various aspects of our culture, including the philosophical. Rattray focussed particularly on the culture of the Ashantis. He learnt their language, socialized with Ashantis of both sexes, and wrote about them with an insight born of both a keenness of observation and a genuine fondness for the people he studied.

In their own day, however, Diedrich Westermann was more famous internationally than Rattray. He also had some substantial insights into our traditional worldview and ethical thinking. Unfortunately, these were often vitiated, in the expression, by a certain attitude of superiority not uncharacteristic of the European anthropology of the period.(4) Indeed, even the excellent Rattray was not completely untouched by vestiges of that frame of mind--witness the sub-title of another of his otherwise deservedly famous works: Ashanti Proverbs: The Primitive Ethics of a Savage People (Oxford, 1916, reprinted 1969). In fact, in this book Rattray did a very useful job in translating a selection of Ashanti proverbs into English and providing them with explanatory annotations. The selection was made from a larger set of untranslated Akan proverbs published by the German scholar J. G. Christaller, entitled A Collection of 3,600 Tshi Proverbs (Basel: Evangelical Mission Society, 1879). To this German scholar is owed also the first major dictionary of the Akan language viz. Dictionary of the Asante and Fante Language called Tshi (Chwee, Twi) (Basel: Evangelical Missionary Society, 1881, second edition 1933.) He wrote also the first major grammar of the language (A Grammar of the Asante and Fante Language Called Tshi (Chwee, Twi), Based on the Akuapem Dialect with Reference to the other (Akan and Fante) Dialects (Basel: 1875))

The philosophical importance of these works is hard to overemphasize. The grammar of a language is not, indeed, a blueprint of its logic; but it is, most assuredly, a propaedeutic to it. In the formalization of the natural logic of our vernaculars--a task which still lies ahead of contemporary Ghanaian philosophy although there are some interesting hints in Gyekye's Essay(5)--the syntactic and semantical distinctions and classifications established in Christaller's work, along with subsequent efforts, will offer extremely convenient materials for critical evaluation and reconstruction. The dictionary also, which still remains to be supplanted by work from indigenous hands, is a great source of incentives for the study of the conceptual problems that arise in translations of speculative ideas between English and Akan and other Ghanaian vernaculars.

Since, to say the least, it cannot be assumed that the conceptual frameworks embedded in English and the other metropolitan languages in which our traditional thought has been expounded have any close fit with that system of thought, it is not unreasonable to fear that our indigenous thought may have suffered philosophically significant distortions in the process of exposition. Even more alarming is the consideration that the conceptual errors responsible for such distortions cannot always be laid at foreign doors; for, in truth, we and our statesman forerunners of old have been so strongly influenced by foreign conceptual models through religious and other forms of instruction that we have become unwitting foreigners to the conceptual infra-structure of our own indigenous thought, in spite of our unquestionable love for our culture. Thus conceptual dichotomies emanating from foreign philosophical vocabularies, such as the physical and the spiritual, the material and the immaterial, the natural and the supernatural, the secular and the religious, the immanent and the transcendent, and metaphysical notions like dependent and independent existence, creation out of nothing, absolute reality etc., are often used in the characterization of our traditional thought without a prior scrutiny of their applicability.

However, such influences upon the mind are never deterministic beyond repair, and we can justifiably hope that the task of conceptual self-exorcism, though difficult and possibly endless, is one in which we can make progress. This consideration is never far from my concerns in my own contributions to this volume, especially in chapter 2: "Problems in Africa's Self-Definition in the Contemporary World."

Perhaps, the one foreign example that we can follow unqualifiedly without danger to our cultural authenticity is that provided by the pioneering scholarly involvement of Christaller and Rattray with the proverbs of our culture. Actually, the example has already been taken to heart by our scholars. And this was inevitable, seeing the overwhelming importance of proverbs in our indigenous rhetoric. There are now quite a few collections of proverbs by Ghanaians. Among these the volumes of Ewe proverbs reproduced in the original language and translated, classified and interpreted by N. K. Dzobo are particularly noteworthy for their ethical interest.(6) These are proverbs that express Ewe moral teachings in dramatic imagery of arresting terseness. But our indigenous proverbs also frequently encapsulate abstract insights of a philosophical character, and Dzobo's discussion of "Symbols and Proverbs as Source Materials for Understanding African Culture" (chapter 4 below) is a particularly apt illustration of this fact.

Indeed, the use of proverbs in the portrayal and highlighting of doctrine in the exposition of traditional thought is a well established practice in the Ghanaian tradition of philosophy. Danquah (The Akan Doctrine of God) uses it to good effect. Abraham makes a sparkling use of proverbs in The Mind of Africa (chapter 2), and Gyekye not only makes use of proverbs in An Essay on African Philosophical Thought (passim) but also vigorously argues their philosophical relevance (chapter 2.1). This proverbial dimension to Ghanaian philosophical discourse is palpably present in almost all the essays in this volume. The day will come when this will not be so prominent a feature of Ghanaian philosophy, but that will not be until the proverbial and other sources of philosophical insight in our traditional culture have been well exploited in providing an accurate and adequate picture of our traditional philosophical thought. That will be a necessary phase of our effort at constructing philosophies that are also cognizant of the rich variety of sources of philosophical insight in the modern world.

At present, accounts of traditional thought, having emerged from the work and influence of Western scholars, not infrequently suffer from crass errors of interpretation and even of description. One of the inescapable duties of contemporary Ghanaian (and generally African) philosophy is to correct them. A quite common error is the supposition that because of the well-known communalism of African societies, African traditional thought lacks a non-trivial conception of the value of individuality. Gyekye lays this misapprehension to rest in his "Person and Community in Akan Thought". (See chapter 5 below.)

This work of correction also was started by our statesman forerunners. Danquah, for example, early in The Akan Doctrine of God (chapter 2) criticizes Rattray's suggestion in his Ashanti that the Ashanti worship their ancestors through fear, `pure fear'. Nor does he mince words in his critique of Westermann's somewhat contrary claim that Africans are not so much as moved to have fear of the Supreme Being. Westermann had said of West Africans in his Africa and Christianity (Oxford University Press, 1937) that they "acknowledge [the Supreme Being] but neither fear nor love nor serve him, the feeling towards him being, at the highest, that of dim awe or reverence". Danquah (op. cit.p. 9) quotes this and quickly picks out the inconsistency in denying fear and attributing awe. He then makes short work of the quotation--justly, in most part.(7) Another controversial remark of Westermann in the same book was that although it is "recognized" by the African "that the principles of good and evil are rooted in God, his will is that man should be good, and he hates evil-doings", yet "this is no more than a Platonic acknowledgement, it is not a sanction which guides him in his actions. Moral obligations are rooted in social bonds, not in God." To Westermann this is evidence of defective thinking. This, again, evokes very spirited criticisms from Danquah (op. cit., p 14 f.)

It is not the case, however, that Danquah approaches the works of Rattray and Westermann in a caviling spirit; in fact, he is generously appreciative of what he takes to be their positive insights. Indeed, shorn of the supercilious spirit in which it was made, the content of Westermann's last quoted remark suggests that, perhaps, he dimly espied an important truth about Ghanaian thinking on the foundations of morals. Careful study will reveal that while it is generally held in Ghanaian traditional thought that God is good in the highest, moral goodness is not taken to be definable in terms of his will but rather of considerations about human well-being. This finding is contrary to widespread accounts of the religious foundations of African ethics.

This issue has received quite some attention among Ghanaian philosophers. Danquah himself seems, on the whole, to come down on the side of an interpretation of traditional ethics which sees its foundations in humanistic, rather than religious, factors. This is the main impression one gets from the article "Obligation in Akan Society"(8) which he published in 1952. In his patiently argued paper, "Does Religion Determine Morality in African Societies?--A Viewpoint" (1976),(9) J. N. Kudadjie maintains that morality in African thought is determined in some cases by religion but in other cases by custom and other social factors of a non-religious nature.(10) In 1981 I gave an analysis of the issue in a paper on "Morality and Religion in Akan Thought."(11) It argued that if morality is taken in a strict sense and the concept of determination is interpreted in a logical or conceptual sense, there is no question but that according to Akan moral thinking, morality is determined, not by religion, but by practical considerations regarding human welfare in society. I pointed out that, if on the other hand, the notion of determination, for example, were taken in a psychological sense, different conclusions might be arguable. Gyekye also powerfully argues a basically similar position in his Essay (1987, chapter 8: "Foundations of Ethics"). Both our positions are, I believe, by and large--that is, subject to not necessarily simple conceptual disambiguations and interrelations--compatible with Kudadjie's.

In chapter 5 of the present volume ("Moral Foundations of an African Culture") I return to the issue just adumbrated. I attempt to articulate the outlines of an Akan-oriented definition of morality (in the strict sense) and to link it to the communalism of our society, an ethos that is being severely tested by industrialization (even such as it has been) and its social consequences. The problems of moral disorientation resulting from this clash of culture with historic circumstance are (independently) taken up by both Kudadjie (chapter 10: "Towards Moral Development in Contemporary Africa: Insights from Dangme Traditional Moral Experience") and Dzobo (chapter 11: "Values in a Changing Society: Man, Ancestors and God"). In each case there is a reasoned plea for seeking salvation from the moral resources of our traditional ethic, seen in its proper light. These two papers are thus eminently practical in motivation and orientation. This is true also, in varying degrees, of all the contributions in this work, a fact which prompts the following overdue reflection: Ghanaian philosophy, right from its origins in our traditional culture, has always been a speculative-theoretic effort at the understanding of experience and reality for the betterment of the human condition.

The reader will note also, in all the papers in this book, a comparative approach to philosophical discussion. The reason is obvious. The colonial intervention in our history, still a thing of the recent past, manifests itself at one level of our consciousness as a challenge to self-definition. That definition has necessarily to be by contrast to the colonial legacy. In chapter 2: ("Problems in Africa's Self-Definition in the Contemporary World") I confront a variety of aspects of this project of self-definition. Naturally, comparative considerations loom large in my considerations. An even more explicit exercise in comparative philosophy in our situation, though with a somewhat different motivation, was the Ghanaian philosopher B. E. Oguahs's interesting and lucid essay "African and Western Philosophy: A comparative Study" published in 1977.(12) But whether explicitly or implicitly, our work is going to have to be comparative for a long time to come. This need not--it ought not--overshadow our own direct philosophic contemplation of our culture or of reality. On the evidence of these essays, it has not.

Another imperative of Ghanaian philosophy is that of reconstruction. It would be clear, even on a little a priori reflection, that we cannot base our life and thought in the contemporary world on a wholesale retention of our traditional philosophy. That there are elements in the tradition from which we can profit in our present day existence is a conviction that informs all the contributions to this volume. But this presupposes an evaluative analysis, and it can be expected that such analyses will mount as our reconstructive efforts gain momentum. There are, indeed, hints of critical evaluation here and there in this volume; but that, obviously, is not its direction of emphasis. Apart from the axiomatic consideration that not everything can be done at once, one relevant reason is that the strengths of our culture and its philosophy are comparatively more ubiquitous in the areas of ethical and social thinking, which are the main focus of this anthology, than in the area of, say, the philosophical understanding of the world in the light of modern knowledge.

Philosophy is a dialectic, and a dialectic implies the interplay of opposites. Where two or three or more are gathered in a philosophic enterprise, there opposing points of view shall be found. Although there are lots of points of agreement here, this volume fails to be a counterexample to this generalization, for not all our interpretations of Ghanaian traditional thought coincide. One major point of doctrinal disagreement is, actually, between the two editors of this volume, namely, Gyekye and myself. Gyekye in chapter 5: "Person and Community in Akan Thought" strongly disputes the view, advanced by the Nigerian philosopher Ifeanyi Menkiti,(13) that personhood, as conceived in African thought, is not something that one is born with but rather an ideal that one may or may not attain in life. I happen to have arrived independently at basically the same view as Menkiti's, and, although I do not argue it in detail in any of my contributions to this volume--that belongs elsewhere--I do formulate a view of that sort in chapter 9: "Moral Foundations of an African Culture". Another major disagreement between Gyekye and me relates to another aspect of the traditional concept of a person. Gyekye understands the conception to be dualistic somewhat after the manner of Descartes while I interpret it to be quasi-monistic, featuring not an ontological duality of the material and the immaterial, but only differences in degrees of materiality between the body and the other elements in human personality. Joyce Engmann discusses this latter disagreement, among other things, in her elaborate piece on "Immortality and the Nature of Man in Ga Thought". (See chapter 8 below.)(14)

I perceive such disagreements as a sign of vitality in African philosophy. Our disagreements suggest that we are each struggling to make sense of our tradition. Short of resting content with pure narratives, supposing--what is open to severe debate--that such things were possible,(15) disparities of interpretations and also of reconstructions are inevitable. Gyekye and I do not see this situation as any manner of threat to our spirit of cooperation and mutual goodwill.

Incidentally, all the contributors to this volume are native-born Ghanaians except Joyce Engmann who is Ghanaian by marriage. But her treatment of the Ga concept of a person displays not only accurate knowledge but also real empathy. Moreover, her subject is generically of the most central importance to Ghanaian philosophy, to put it no wider.The concept of a person is certainly the most recurrent topic in this whole volume, and her detailed discussion should help the reader to plot the linkages effortlessly.

A volume on Ghanaian philosophy is a volume in African philosophy. Although there are differences of detail and, possibly in some cases, of principle between Ghanaian conceptions and those entertained in other parts of Africa, there are deep affinities of both thought and feeling across the entirety of ethnic Africa.(16) No doubt, in due course, both the commonalities and the disparities will be explored and mastered to the advantage of our continent. But, meanwhile, it is salutary to note that, as W.E. Abraham points out in the prologue to this book, `it is easy to be unduly impressed by the sheer number of ethnic groups, each endowed with its own ethnic heritage, and overlook, the repetitive elements and manifestations which they contain.' Accordingly, the Prologue provides a concrete continental contextualization, in terms of cultural institutions and mind-set, for the concerns articulated in this book. By a complementary contrast, Abraham's "Sources of African Identity" (chapter 1 below) connects the problem of African identity with an elemental crisis of the human psyche itself.

Finally, it might be well to note that the preoccupation of this volume with Ghanaian traditional thought does not define the limits of the interests of the Ghanaian philosophers represented therein. On the contrary, they all have broad interests and have done work in various other areas of philosophy. They can be expected to apply whatever gains in insight they may derive from that brand of work to the enrichment of the fruits of their traditional preoccupations. That is the surest way of advancing the Ghanaian tradition of philosophy in our day.