An Experience of Epistemological Change


The purpose of this paper is firstly to elucidate some epistemological aspects of the African heritage; secondly, to examine some epistemological changes that have occurred in the African experience through the passage of time, from the classical to the contemporary; and thirdly, to suggest tentatively though, how some of the aspects of this epistemological African heritage may be nurtured for fusion with other contributions of non-African heritages. This fusion of philosophical traditions is envisaged in light of acculturation and enculturation in sociological conditions of diversities. The paper sees such a philosophic synthesis as necessary for liberating some of the modern minds from the contemporary philosophy of ethnocentrism.

In fact most of the contemporary problems of human, inter-state, inter-racial and inter-national relations arise due to either ignorance of or unsympathetic regard for the views of the "Other." Ofelia Schuttle puts the point in its right perspective by asserting:

If philosophy is the love of wisdom, then its function cannot be merely to reproduce the discourse and assumptions of the established powers. On the contrary, its function is to penetrate through to. the other side and to create favorable conditions for the Other to come forward and express concerns, cares, disquietudes, and aspirations. In this process of recognizing and respecting the oppressed Other, the legitimacy of the Other's discourse must first be established.1

Classical Background

Archaeological (particularly paleontological) studies have suggested that the origin of man may have been in Africa. While these conclusions are not absolute assertions, Africa may, in the light of the available evidence, be regarded as the mother habitat of the humans. Africa may be the paleontologist's (earthly) "Garden of Eden." Though this "Garden of Eden is in disrepair, much of the natural beauty is still there . . . but the scars of the original sin are in evidence."2

On this continent, the humans have gone through a long history of evolution. The march through the several millennia of its existence has been characterized by a lot of thinking, a lot of doing, hence a lot of reflection and self-reflection. Consequently much experience has been transmitted from one generation to another. Generally many achievements and failures "have, however, been preserved through the remains of bones, tools, weapons, and later customs, languages, oral tradition, rock-paintings, the art of writing and so on."3

These material and non-material achievements and failures have constituted the heritage of Africa. This is a heritage that has always defied mental abstraction and so as a concrete reality, it ". . . forms a long line which links African forefathers with their descendants . . ."4 The link has been more than just a chronological continuity. Apart from being a historical cord, the heritage as in the traditional past, was an intra-societal connective along both the horizontal and vertical dimensions. It was the media-culture in which members of the same society related to one another. It was the social medium in which various societies interacted either peacefully in agriculture and trade, hunting and gathering, marriage and divorce, birth and death ceremonies, or violently in executing collective policies of the armed kinsmen. These were policies for nation-building but at times they were policies for military aggrandizement, plunder and raid.

These different and sometimes contradictory forms of interaction produced a heritage expressing all dimensions of human existence. The heritage is Africa's grand contribution to the contemporary sea of humanity's existence and his struggle for survival and perfection. The variegated aspects of this contribution (heritage) range 1) from art's aesthetic to its value as information brochure, 2) from political experiences of evolution and revolution to economic stability and problems of resource allocation, 3) from the historical tension between social philosophers' demand for collectivity to the retreating self of the artist, and 4) from reason's perennial stubbornness to seek explanation to the heart's deep-seated trust for the stable. Put together, all these contributions elicited an explanation and further inquiry from the African.

Explanation and inquiry presuppose knowing or assuming certain preliminary premises. Hence some of the fundamental questions that confronted the contemporary student of African heritage are: How did the African know? What did he think he could know? How did he think he could know? Strictly, these questions really belong to the domain of epistemology.5


In the introduction, an allusion was made to the sociological diversities and therefore cultural pluralism in Africa. Nevertheless a multiplicity of the phenomenal does not inhibit an epistemology. We still can speak of "African epistemology." Such a univocal term draws from the ontological unity beneath the phenomenal. Therefore a cultural thematic approach, rather than phenomenological approach may elucidate relatively similar epistemological experiences in traditional Africa. This relative similarity arises from the metaphysical oneness of the classical African past.

The discussion in this paper may appear rather contradictory, namely an ontological unity in spite of diversities. As a matter of fact resolution of such a philosophical conflict in African heritage does not call for a resort to "reductio ad absurdum," for it is not a logical contradiction. The issue is really one of different stages.

Hence, whereas, ontologically we admit of unity, both phenomenologically and by cultural thematics, it is admissible, as John S. Pobee has observed:

that homo Africanus is a multi-headed hydra, displaying varieties not only vis-a-vis the non-African but also vis-a-vis other species of homo Africanus.6

Consequently, the same author goes ahead to state:

The number of distinct languages is well above eight hundred . . . There are at least four major stocks of languages in Africa: Afroasiatic, Niger-Congo (formerly known as West Sudanic), Sudanic and Click. There are at least three cultural groups: Caucasoids, Negroids and Hamites.7

These diverse cultural linguistic features have evolved through time, greatly conditioned by the "shrinking of the world" due to improved communication. since the change of a heritage is a slow process, some relics of the traditional epistemology still persist. But what characterizes this traditional aspect of thought? And from where does it (African epistemology) start?

The Starting-point

The starting-point of an epistemology is a controversial issue in the history of philosophy. Without digressing too much, we wish to briefly point out that in the contemporary European philosophy epistemology is said to have started from the rationalist Descartes' postulate, "cogito ergo sum" - "I think, therefore I am." Later European epistemologists took up their arguments from this dictum, either by affirmation (in the case of rationalists) or by denial (in the case of empiricists). Most recently we have philosophers of Western existentialist tradition. For them epistemology starts from the postulate, "I rebel, therefore I am."8 But according to Senghor, Negro-African epistemology starts from the premise, "I feel, therefore I am."9 The poet-philosopher holds the view that the African "does not realize that he thinks; he feels that he feels, he feels his existence, he feels himself."10 Regrettably Senghor's views are really a reflection of his European scholarship. His philosophy of the emotive self is typical of French romanticism that has for long not only dominated French art, literature and philosophy but also captured the heart of the colonized African intellectuals.11

The starting-point of African epistemology, traditionally speaking should be the premise, "We are, therefore I am." The African philosophy is a collective mind and for the African, "I" pre-supposes a "We," in fact "I" is contingent upon "We." This starting-point of African epistemology is rooted in the ontology. The link between epistemology and ontology in the African heritage is not unique. Such a link is not only essential to the subject but also necessary in so far as

metaphysics is necessary for art, morality, religion, economics, sociology; for the abstract sciences, as well as for every branch of human endeavor considered from one practical angle. It is the foundation upon which one builds one's career consciously and unconsciously; it is the guide; the author of the human's interests; upon its truth or falsity depends what type of man you may develop into.12

In the words of an African philosopher can he found "the singular and unique importance of African ontology in the overall treatment and understanding of African philosophy."13

Therefore the epistemological view of the traditional African is consonant with his metaphysics. Whereas for the western thinker "being" is "that which is" or "the thing insofar as it is," for the African "being" is "that which is force" or "the thing insofar as it is force." Hence being is inconceivable without it being force or inherently endowed with force. There is thus in-built motion. Of course the Supreme Force, the Supreme Agent of motion here is God.

Therefore the view adopted by African epistemology is that knowledge is (the) understanding of the nature of forces and their (cosmic) interaction. True wisdom, hence knowledge, "lies in ontological knowledge; it is the intelligence of forces, of their hierarchy, their cohesion and their interaction."14 Just as we had noted that God is the Supreme Force, the Supreme Agent of motion, He

is also wisdom in that He knows all forces, their ordering, their dependence, their potential and their mutual interaction. A person is said to know or have wisdom in as much as he approaches divine wisdom. One approaches divine knowledge when one's flesh becomes less fleshy . . . i.e., the older a person gets, the more wisdom he has.15

This is the metaphysical rationale for the authority of the aged in African epistemology. It may serve to explain what Kwasi Wiredu has charged as "authoritarianism." Authoritarianism may be anachronistic in political and broad cultural sense. In the case of epistemology it is a feature that seems to predominate even the contemporary institutions of learning. In the modern parlance, it is often rationalized by the term "experience" in its stead. Otherwise, traditionally the authoritarianism of the old or the aged provided the solidity, which solidity today comes about as a result of having seen more than one has read.16

To justify the case for epistemological authoritarianism, we may ironically revert to Kwasi Wiredu. He has rightly observed the concept in its historical perspective, bearing in mind the contemporaneous nature of the term:

Traditional society was founded on a community of shared beliefs in the wisdom of age, the sanctity of chieftaincy and the binding force of the customs and usages of our ancestor. It cannot be assumed, therefore, that traditional systems of authority, both formal and informal, must have been felt to be authoritarian within the traditional milieu itself.17

Change in the contemporary milieu calls for a reassessment of the epistemological status of this authoritarianism. After all, for the traditional and modern African the knowledge-process has undergone tremendous changes through history, while some relics of traditional experience have survived. Old and the new modes of thought have influenced one another both in method and value. The interconnectedness of the new and old requires a logical and rational scrutiny of the evermore complex problems of the contemporary man. This task requires what I will call "interthinking."

Here we should clarify two key terms: "interconnectedness" and "interthinking." The former is the relation between ontology and epistemology (and in the case of this paper it is especially in philosophy); the latter is the conscious realization of this relation in time and space.

The former is a prerequisite for understanding a people's philosophy by transcending the phenomenal limits of the ethnologist. Cultural thematics attempts just this and it even goes beyond the limits set by the phenomenologist. It is in the light of this nexus that we understand a people's (African's) philosophy. As K.C. Anyanwu lucidly puts it:

We must know the basic assumptions, concepts, theories and world-view in terms of which the owners of the culture interpret the facts of experience. Without the knowledge of the African mind process and the world-view into which the facts of experience are to be fitted both the African and European researchers would merely impute emotive appeals to cultural forms and behavior suggested by some unknown mind.18

Interthinking provides the medium by which interdisciplinary intercourse and human interaction across accidental boundaries can be realized. A student of logic at Makerere University once observed that interthinking corrects the imbalance that has been perpetuated by the separation of the traditional epistemology and logic from the modern mode of rational, or critical, epistemology. It will also correct the imbalance by recasting the traditional authority that hitherto had held together the society. This is really where interthinking will give a modern solution to what otherwise would appear to be anachronistic. A reference to Kwasi Wiredu may elucidate this point. He observes that the influence of authoritarianism as a traditional feature has waned in the urban areas, (hence in the contemporary cultural condition). "It is in these changed circumstances that the traditional culture is increasingly felt to be authoritarian. lt may be said, thus* that the particular phenomenon of authoritarianism touched upon in :he foregoing remarks is also an instance of an anachronism."19 The author proceeds thus:

Paradoxically the authoritarianism mentioned above is closely connected with one of the strongest points of our culture, namely, the great value it places on what we might call communal belonging.20

ln the African epistemology, interthinking is germane to the (philosophical) inquiry. Its importance ranges from interdisciplinary discourse to its definitive role in the paradigmatic horizon. As K.C. Anyanwu once again reminds us:

. . . it is impossible within the African cultural reality and experience to speak of art as if it were detached from religion; religion as if it were detached from mythology and speculative thought; speculative thought as if it were detached from mythical feelings and these feelings as if they were detached from moral principles and political ideas.21

In the African situation, it is important that interthinking assume, inter alia, a temporal character; viz., there is need to undertake a temporal voyage from the classical past to the present. An allusion was made to the vicissitudes of history. The historical changes distorted much of the fabric of African society, along with its pattern of knowledge and search for knowledge. Thus the required interthinking takes into consideration the choice of pattern.


The search for knowledge is inherent in man. What separates or identifies man from other animals who also are believed to have intelligence is self-reflection which includes curiosity to discover both the self and that beyond the self. This must occur in a definite paradigm--most specifically an epistemological paradigm. Since epistemology as a specialized discipline is really a result of the Western academic tradition, there is the danger of stating the Western view as if it were the African one. As we deal with African epistemology, it is pertinent to realize:

We are therefore entering into a cultural world whose philosophy of integration, whose principles of understanding and of aesthetic continuum differ completely from the Western ideas of what constitutes the trustworthy knowledge and reality.22

In view of this, an elucidation of paradigm is essential. The classical African philosophy postulates a concrete existence of "man and nature." In African tradition there are "two entities" only by "conceptual numericality," not by separate ontological existence; their bifurcation is impossible. Therefore neither man nor nature could be desecrated. Moreover, in this sacred unity man and nature participate in the same locus without being opposites. So, like ethics among most traditional societies, epistemology really is inseparable from religious cosmology; there is neither a cosmology of a conventional type nor a cosmogony of a single source.

The all-inclusive role of the traditional religious cosmology provides room for the transcendental being in the epistemic experience and in the making of the cognitive content and structure of the African mind. In traditional African cosmology the divine partakes in the process of informing man either directly (through the `dreams' of the sages) or by signs such as happenings in man's life.

Since the African cosmology postulates "a unitary as opposed to analytical world,"23 the traditional epistemology does not approach the problem of knowledge by dividing its domain into the rational, empirical and mystical. In both the intellectual and the concrete divisions of reality, the three traits of thought-- rational, empirical and mystical--constitute a single mode of knowing. Unlike the western science paradigm that is over-laden with methodological and mathematical formulations, the traditional African paradigm transcends the outer reaches of formal logic. This supralogical feature of the African tradition has the strength of acknowledging the irreducible mystery of the transcendent, which, however incongruent, plays a role in African traditional epistemology rather akin or analogous to that of revelation in Islamic epistemology. It also plays a role similar to that played by the transcendental in modern Kantian and post-Kantian European philosophy. (Of course, revelation did play quite a significant a role in European philosophy until recently when through scientific revolution Newtonian physics captured the mood of philosophical speculation.)

Insofar as the traditional epistemology is not a rigorous philosophical endeavor, the supremacy of the transcendental has a disadvantage. Such an epistemology has the inherent weakness of surrendering easily to the divine wish the arduous task of logically unraveling the complex and difficult human problem.

The fallacy of appealing to authority is common in such an epistemology.24 Perhaps this is the root of the epistemological authoritarianism to which we have frequently alluded. Although the elder could not be questioned in matters of knowledge, he was not a tyrant. The constraint on questioning was imposed by the degree of certainty essential in all religiously determined systems of thought. Moreover, at a socio-philosophical level, the elder was responsive to the societal demand for collective responsibility. Therefore, authoritarianism played a significant role in mitigating the harshness of the metaphysical dialectics regarding the axiological stability of society. The dialectical interplay between the "flux of ontological dialectics" and the "demand for axiological peace" perpetuated the sense of inquiry.

Epistemology in the tradition of African thought was neither a rigorous nor a deliberately pursued academic discipline (Even in the European or Western tradition epistemology did not become popular and increasingly specialized until the "collapse" of the major metaphysical systems in the face of philosophical scienticism and Hume's thorough empiricist anticipation of logical positivism. Therefore in the former (African tradition), the urge for a continuous assessment and re-assessment of the known or that to be known called for the participation of the subject. The subject was hardly in contradistinction to the object. In fact there was no veil between the two. It is a feature of contemporary man rigidly to delineate the cognitive process in the subject as distinct from the object known.

Does this therefore mean that in traditional epistemology the subject and the object were so fused in their existential predication as to correspond to the pantheism of the contemporary mystic? If not, what was the subject-object relationship in traditional African epistemology?

The Subject and the Object

The immediate and mediate experiences of the African is characterized by a set of contradictions: "one and many, individuality and universality, time and eternity, freedom and necessity, reason and sentiment." These are contradictions not peculiar to the African experience. But in the West they have been bypassed (not resolved) by admitting a duality of experience: the subject and the object are conceived as two separate and independent entities. This dualist ontology has given rise to an epistemology split into rationalism and empiricism, subjectivism and objectivism. Man is not only separated from nature, but also subordinated to it.

We had already said that in the African traditional thought man and nature are not ontologically independent. For African epistemology "man and nature are not two separate independent and opposing realities but the one inseparable continuum of a hierarchical order."25 Ontologically therefore, dualism simply could not be postulated in the African philosophic tradition. Whereas the rise of the same philosophic postulate in the Western tradition owes a lot to the dogma of intellectualism, and the Indian has to escape the dilemma by denying the reality of the material world, the African seeks for the ego a centrality in the cosmic scheme in order to avoid the embarrassment of dualism and monism--be it idealist or materialist. As such, the notions of subjectivism and objectivism do not constitute any problem in African epistemology. The possibility of their emergence is subsumed under the unity of existence. The subject cannot know the object if it is detached.

The African maintains that there can be no knowledge of reality if an individual detaches himself from it . . . Knowledge, therefore, comes from the co-operation of all human faculties and experiences. He sees, feels, imagines, reasons or thinks and intuits all at the same time.26

The subject then is perpetually involved. He or she is not only seeing and thinking, but also experiencing and discovering. For him/her no knowledge of an object is possible without the object entering into experience. The cognitive process is not complete without the experiential. The self of the subject and the objective world outside of the self are really one. The former "vivifies or animates" the latter.

Self experience and the experiencing self, being identical, occupy a central position in traditional African epistemology. This is consonant with ontology. It is not due, as Senghor has claimed, to providence having denied to the African the gift of "analytical and discursive reason." As propaedeutic to his ontology the African adheres to a cosmology which determines his epistemology; yet, it is a cosmology in which existence cannot be defined. Like Scotus' absolute nature, it is neither universal nor concretely singular. As a result even the entities of subject and object can only be specified. This specification is due to the experiencing self realizing its own individuating activity in order to perceive and delineate the objects outside of itself.

The active-self is dominant in the scheme of traditional thought in Africa. For the African theoretical and practical philosophy are not autonomous, but logically and metaphysically fused in a single epistemological system. Hence, the ego that theorizes and the world in which this theory assumes practicality participate in a unitary culture-bound world-view. We are reminded that,

The African culture makes no sharp distinction between the ego and the world, subject and object. In the conflict between the self and the world. African culture makes the self the center of the world.27

Nevertheless the self is not absolute and static. Being at the core of the unitary reality, it manifests "a unitary process of matter-mind as a single universal process with diversities of form."28 The life-force of such a matter-mind manifests itself in "politics, economics, religion, art, education, science, morals."29 This integrative character of the life-force perpetuates experience from one period to another. In the epistemic experience, it is a kind of temporal motion, an equivalent of Bergson's élan vital. Here then is the possibility of epistemological change from the classical times to the contemporary. Hence, a consideration of an epistemological continuum is really an endeavor to cope with a fundamental philosophical change, on the one hand, and to contend with a crisis of paradigm on the other.

Change and Crisis of Paradigm

Contemporary times have witnessed a number of changes in the epistemology of traditional African thought. There have been two modes of changes: those due to the internal dynamics of the thought-system and only accentuated by elements of acculturation and changes brought about by the introduction of a paradigm alien to the ontological base of the African world-view. As the latter is an historical exigency, the interconnectedness of the change and the paradigm is germane to our examination of the continuum of heritage in contemporary African thought.

Change and crisis illustrate the problematic nature of the epistemological continuum and call for serious negotiation in the exchange of philosophical ideas between the traditional and the modern minds. Lest the modern mind read its own philosophy into the traditional, scholars eager to retrieve and sustain the creative and philosophic heritage of the African past should take up the task where the factualists have left off without necessarily accepting the latter's conclusions. The state of mind of contemporary scholars makes this task urgent. For the contemporary African, scholarship is characterized inter alia; the following: first, a continuous recession of the traditional into the distant past; second, a present characterized by lack of clarity; third, a future devoid of logical predictability; fourth, absence of the certainty of the mystical; and fifth, the authority of the oracle.

On the other hand, spatial change has involved opening up the traditional thought system to a wider world of learning. This opening itself has activated the epistemological crisis for the movement of new methods of learning from one cultural area to another involved two profound phenomena--psychic violence and literary revolution. The latter affected the cognitive content and structure of the African mind. With literacy the African acquired new spectacles through which he saw not only other worlds, but also his own world. The unfortunate impact upon African epistemology--indeed a characteristic of the continuum--was that the African lost his own subjectivity and objectivity, while acquiring some other person's (namely, the owner of the spectacles) subjectivity. This impact is aggravated by the failure of the dilettante to recognize that he is no longer himself. His universe is no longer a universe, but a "multiverse:" the "multiplicity" of the cosmos for the literate African is consonant with a "mosaic culture" externally adopted and without roots in his own ontological and contingent constitution.

Hence literacy, rather than animating the distinctive participatory function of the African artist, introduces a kind of liberalism that reduces collective activity to bare theatrical stage. The "orature" who provides the source of African philosophy and therefore the epistemic medium loses his or her vitality and richness. Only through the oral traditions--music, folk songs, myths--and other oral arts does the African utilize various means of knowing: knowing for the African could be achieved through imagination, intuition and feelings.

Grace A. Ogot reminds us that African legends, folk songs, folk tales and proverbs are "living expressions of oral literacy activity" and that the distinctive feature of this literature is that it represents a form of collective or group activity. Both the performance and the audience participate."30 She proceeds to explain that committing "orature" to writing individualizes the literature. This is a paradoxical feature of the epistemological continuum. Philosophically, we wish to sustain the heritage in our contemporary milieu, yet to do so we must use literacy. And whereas the philosophy we wish to preserve and perpetuate is a collective mind, "the writing and reading of a book are . . . individual acts." Mrs. Ogot poses a series of rhetorical questions:

If traditional oral literature is to be ensured of continuity it has to be given the performance of the printed word. But will these literary transcriptions have the same meaning in what are vastly different contexts? What happens, for example, when a long spoken narrative is translated into writing? What happens to the warmth and richness of the speaking human voice? What happens to the sense of participation of the listener? How is the sustained attention of a reader to be maintained?31

The wisdom in Mrs. Ogot's words sinks deep into the heart when we realize the case of songs. For example, a student of African thought reading Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino either in the privacy of his bedroom or in the silence of the library at Makerere University does not perceive and conceptualize the original message of the song as would an illiterate Acholi boy listening to the natural tune of Okot's mother. Sometimes the student is influenced by non-Acholi concepts; and sometimes he relies outright upon the non-African intellectuals. But Song of Lawino is an Acholi expression of ideas arising out of Acholi cultural heritage, and the written Song of Lawino lacks the philosophic novelty of the oral "Song of Lawino." Similarly, unlike the student at Makerere University who is not an elite of his own society, the illiterate Acholi boys and girls in northern Uganda arc the elite of their traditional society. Under the bright moonlight they participate in the "get-stuck" dance and in the process come to understand the original message of the "Song of Lawino" in its cultural chastity. Then they are able to internalize the values so that epistemology and axiology achieve practically total fusion. Lamentably, this is a feature of African epistemological heritage which the continuum lacks in spite of the power of literacy.

Such inadequacy is perpetuated, though Africa actually exudes two traditions of literacy, the Euro-Christian West and the Islamic. The contemporary failure to harness the two epistemological segments of our present heritage presents us with a challenge of three cultural and ideological segments, namely, "traditional Africa, Islamic Africa and Euro-Christian Africa."32

The Challenge of "The Africans: A Triple Heritage"33

The introduction of Euro-Christian philosophical tradition in Africa brought in its wake Western scientific paradigm and its consequent disintegrative epistemology. The disintegrative tendency in Western epistemology relegates revelation to a position of benign dogma. This exposes all parts of the Western science paradigm to the actual or potential threat of eclectic change through successive determinist scientific revolutions and this creates intellectual uncertainty. The latter consequence benefits the politician outside the objective scientific development, for the scientist accepts a direction, "determined by the politicians' need to deter, wage or win wars, or the need to land on the moon before anybody else."34 Whereas such a development deters man from focusing on the axiological axis of epistemology, it does not really make science "value-free," but only alters the value man should cherish and so doing accentuates epistemological disintegration. Such paradigmatic and axiological disintegrations trace their roots back to the bifurcation of thought (and knowledge) into rationalism and empiricism, the identity of body and mind, and matter and spirit.

The Western trait of analytical, discursive and rigorous logic helped open the African system of thought to a scientific system which hitherto had dominated Western philosophy. However, the opening was betrayed by those practicing science who became exclusive and arrogantly banished revelation as an epistemic medium. When revelation became suspect in the eyes of the Western epistemologist he had either arbitrarily to introduce God in order to save himself from the wrath of the ecclesiastics or to push his philosophy to its logical conclusion by denying God as understood by the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. Contrary to those holding to the science paradigm, the medieval scholastic Islamic thinker would be able to see the parallel to revelation in the African sage-experience. This does not mean that revelation is analogous to the experience and sayings of the sage for the ontology and theology of revelation are different from those of the sage, but traditionally the African sees in the latter a kind of "revelation."

A temporal intellectual reversal may help rehabilitate the over-used epistemology of revelation in Western and Westernized epistemologies. As Europe's intellectual invasion of traditional African thought was preceded by the coming of Islam could not the epistemic status of revelation in the Islamic tradition compensate for the elimination of the sage in the main stream of the African epistemological inquiry? This question presupposes other questions, namely where and when Islam and African traditional philosophy met was there a crisis? The answer to the latter question will determine the former.

For purposes of brevity we shall take two areas in Africa. In the Eastern region, where Islamic scholarship was planted, most scholars were bent on cultivation of simple faith and worship. As a result in the coastal towns of Lamu and Malindi emphasis was placed mainly upon the exoteric dimension of Islam. The inner dimension was represented by the Sufi orders, coming mainly from the Sudan and the North-East Horn of Africa. Exotericism and Sufi wisdom were concerned respectively with Sharia and love for the transcendent. Their emphasis on the absolute unity of Allah (may He be exalted) clashed with the African concept of God. Since the pioneers of Islam in East Africa were not aggressive missionaries, the conflict between Islam and African traditional philosophy was minimized.

The actual philosophical conflict between Islam and African traditional belief was clearer in the Western Sudan. But more than an Islamic-African conflict, it had a!so elements of Greek thought. In the ancient Islamic University of Timbuktu, "Aristotle was commented upon regularly, and the trivium and quadrivium were known as one does not go without the other. Almost all the scholars were completely experienced in the Aristotelian Dialectics and the commentaries of formal logic."35 In such a curriculum the conflict was really threefold: Greek-African, the Islamic-African and the "ageless" Islamic-peripatetic debate.

It follows therefore that, the two questions previously asked can best be answered negatively. The possibility of an Islamic-African resolution of the epistemic crisis is compromised by the divergent concepts of a unitary cosmology. The cosmology of the traditional African mind postulates a divine who can participate with the finite in the same locus. But the cosmology of Islam admits of no common locus for the divine Infinite and the contingent finite. The African mind proposes no single cosmogony, but the Islamic heritage has one single and absolute cosmogony. The latter heritage postulates a grand paradigm constituted of one that is revealed and another that is man-made science.

These conflicting systems of epistemology not only have baffled the University philosophers, but they also have stifled the actualization of the masses as a vital social force. The latter cannot fulfill themselves because they live now in an ideological uncertainty born out of the "Triple Heritage."


Along the epistemological continuum the heritage of the African has experienced profound changes. These occurred, first, with the Islamic intrusion, and, second, with the traumatic dissemination of the Western scientific tradition. In turn, these changes have crystallized a crisis. A reappraisal of this epistemological crisis will instill in the continuum a further philosophical inquiry. It will at the same time mitigate the harshness of the psychic violence resulting from the imposition of philosophical systems.

We see three traits in this philosophy: the rational-illuminative method of Islam, the analytical and discursive procedures of the West, and the culture-bound participatory tradition of Africa. All three should be studied as contributions to the federation of world cultures. This kind of philosophical ecumenism, without diminishing the distinctiveness of each view-point, calls for a sober and rational consideration of the "other's" philosophy in light of O. Reiser's assertion that:

So many human questions have now become world problems, so complex and interconnected that to solve them requires a greater degree of interthinking than the human race has ever known before or is presently prepared to accept.36

To conclude,

It is no distortion to urge that the failure of the modern world is the failure of philosophy to live up to its historic

role of providing synthesis, wisdom and logical guidance to our

increasingly perplexed world.37

Makerere University



1. Ofelia Schuttle, "Overcoming Ethnocentrism in the Philosophy Classroom," Teaching Philosophy, 8 1985. (Cincinnati, Ohio: University of Cincinnati, p. 143.

2. Ali A. Mazrui, The African Condition. A Political Diagnosis (Nairobi: Heinemann, 1980), p. 22.

3. John S. Mbiti, Introduction to African Philosophy (Nairobi: Heinemann 1986, p. 2.

4. Ibid.

5. Dr. K.C. Anyanwu has summed up the crux of the inquiry as follows: "How do the Africans know what they claim to know? What are their basic assumptions about the nature of things? What methods must the mind follow in order to arrive at what the Africans accept as a trustworthy knowledge of reality? What, in their experience, led to the beliefs they hold? What does experience mean to the African in the African culture? What place does the African occupy in the universe"? "The African World-View and Theory (of) Knowledge" in E.A. Rush and K.C. Anyanwu, African Philosophy (Rome: Catholic Book Agency, 1984), p. 81.

6. John S. Pobee, Toward an African Theology (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon, 1979, p. 43.

7. Ibid. p. 44. Compare this observation with the proverb of the Lugbara of North-West, namely, "Aria a'anga ase a'ale ndo" (The voice of birds in the wilderness is varied). An eminent student of Lugbara philosophy records the traditional comment that "As each bird sings in its own way, so each person thinks and behaves in his own characteristic manner. The proverb testifies to this variety of opinions and character among humans." The same proverb has been recorded with slight variation of local dialects as proverb No. 143 in A.T. Dalfovo, Logbara Proverbs (Rome, 1984), pp. 98-99.

8. This dictum is attributed to Albert Camus. See Ali Shariati, Man and Islam, trans. Ghulam M. Fayez (Mashhad, Iran: University of Mashhad Press, 1982), p. 69.

9. Ali A. Mazrui, Political Values and the Educated Class in Africa (Nairobi: Heinemann, 1978), p. 86.

10. L.S. Senghor, "The spirit of civilization, or the laws of African Negro Culture," Proceedings of the first International Conference of Negro Writers and Artists, Presence Africaine, special issue (June-November 1956), 64, 71.

11. Senghor seems to have been influenced a great deal by Andre Gide. The latter is reported to have asserted: "I feel, therefore I am." See Ali Shariati, op. cit., p. 69.

12. These are the words of David Hume as quoted in Henry Alpern, The March of Philosophy (New York: Dial, 1934), p. 99.

13. Rev. Fr. Innocent Chilaka Onyewuenyi, "Is there an African Philosophy?" African philosophy (La philosophie Africaine), ed. Claude Summer, (Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University, 1980), p. 310.

14. Placide Temple, Bantu Philosophy (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1969), p. 73.

15. Onyewuenyi, p. 312.

16. Compare with the Lugbara proverb: "Dri `bi foro ngotia dria yo" (No grey hair on a child's head). "Grey hair is an indication of age and wisdom. By reminding a person that it is children who have no grey hair, the proverb intends to tell him that he should be wise and reasonable and not childish." Relevant to epistemology, is the proverbial implication here that the greatness or authority of the aged is due to their wisdom. See proverb No. 249 in A.T. Dalfovo, op. cit., p. 144.

17. Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 4.

18. Anyanwu, op. cit., p. 77.

19. Kwasi Wiredu, p. 4.

20. Ibid., p. 5.

21. Anywanwu, op. cit., pp. 77-78.

22. Ibid., p. 78.

23. Ibid., pp. 88-89.

24. Of course the appeal to authority becomes a logical fallacy when and where the authority appealed to is illegitimate.

25. Anyanwu, op. cit., p. 87.

26. Ibid., p. 94.

27. Ibid., pp. 86-87.

28. Ibid., p. 98.

29. Ibid.

30. Grace A. Ogot, "The African Writer," East Africa Journal, 5, (1968), 35.

31. Ibid.

32. Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization and Development with Particular Reference to the African Revolution (Nairobi: Heinemann 1964), p. 70.

33. I have derived the sub-title partly from Ali A. Mazrui The Africans: A Triple Heritage (London: B.B.C., 1986).

34. Kalim Siddiqui, "Integration and disintegration in the politics of Islam and Kufr," Issues in the Islamic Movement: 1982-83 ed. Kalim Siddiqui, London (London: The Open Press, 1984, p. 2.

35. Cited by Erica Simon, "Negritude and Cultural problems of contemporary Africa," Presence Africaine, 18, 1963), 135. Also quoted in Ali A. Nazrui Political Values and the Educated Class in Africa, op. cit., 86.

36. O. Reiser, "World Philosophy and the Integration of Knowledge," International Logic Review ed. Franco Spisani, 3 (1971), 18.

37. Ibid.