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F. Ochieng'-Odhiambo

View from the fence?

On Samuel Oluoch Imbo: An Introduction to African Philosophy


 An expansive panoramic view



Samuel Oluoch Imbo:
An Introduction to African Philosophy.
Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield,
1998.
175 pages
ISBN 0-8476-8840-2 (hardback)
ISBN 0-8476-8841-0 (paperback)



Rowman & Littlefield:
external linkWebsite

1

  Evidently, Samuel Oluoch Imbo's book is similar to other written texts, D.A. Masolo's African Philosophy in search of identity (Bloomington 1994, also Nairobi 1995) and F. Ochieng'-Odhiambo's African Philosophy: an introduction (Nairobi 1995, new edition 1997). The three books bring together and connections between the ideas of several African and Africanist scholars spread out in journals, anthologies and books. This makes the books encyclopedic. They offer an expansive panoramic view of what has been going on in the subject of African philosophy. However, an implicit weakness of this style of writing is that the books serve well only as introductory texts, while for experts in the field they assist only to refresh one's thoughts of the ideas and topics concerned.

2

  As an introductory text to African philosophy, Imbo's book is commendable for two reasons. First, for its simplicity, clarity and elegance. Second, for the manner in which it panoramically explores, analyses and synthesises several key issues. Most texts in the area of African or African American philosophy which treat this second aspect can hardly be called "introduction". They employ heavy philosophical terminology and jargon, and are usually not easy to follow which puts initiates of the discipline in trouble. Imbo's introduction combines the one with the other. Consequently, it should not only give students a smooth introduction to the study of African philosophy but also supply them with food for thought.



 Structure and topics


Imbo's book is commendable for two reasons. First, for its simplicity, clarity and elegance. Second, for the manner in which it panoramically explores, analyses and synthesises several key issues.

3

  The book is divided into three parts, with five chapters and a brief conclusion at the end. The first part focuses on the question of defining African philosophy. It shows that pinning down a simple and straightforward definition of philsophy is difficult and problematic. This, Imbo argues, is largely because of the richness and variety of the subject matter of philosophy. Nevertheless the author presents five characteristics that should be fulfilled for any thought to pass as philosophical. These are »open-mindedness, skepticism, a systematic approach, a basis of justifying reasons, and universality« (7).

4

  The author is emphatic that philosophy even in its varied manifestations must exhibit these features. Within the literature on African philosophy, three approaches are discerned. These are a) ethnophilosphy, best exhibited in the writings of Placide Tempels, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Alexis Kagame; b) universalism, portrayed in the works of Kwasi Wiredu, Paulin Hountondji and Henry Odera Oruka; c) the hermeneutical tradition, exemplified in the works of Tsenay Serequeberhan, Marcien Towa and Okonda Okolo. To the conventional representatives of the ethnophilsophical approach the author makes what he rightfully calls controversial additions. The additions are Cheikh Anta Diop, Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah.



 Nkrumah as ethnophilosopher?


It is pointed out that the disagreements on the question of defining African philosophy are not purely academic, but also ideological and political. According to Imbo this is an inescapable fact linked to the African experience where philosophy (explicitly or implicitly) served European interests.

5

  One is bound to have problem with the inclusion of Kwame Nkrumah on the list. If one peruses through the collection of Nkrumah's works, one would be inclined to place him in the hermeneutical category. Nkrumah's political thought can be split into two stages: the pre-independence period characterised by the struggle for political independence, and the period after his overthrow in 1966.

6

  Before 1966, Nkrumah thought that due to the communalistic attitude in traditional Africa, the introduction of socialism in postcolonial Africa did not require a revolution. He argued that since the basic principles of communalism and socialism were the same, all that was needed was an adjustment, modification and reformation of some details of communalism in order to suit socialism. The first edition of his book Consciencism (1964) belongs to this period during which Nkrumah's thought would easily fit into the scheme of ethnophilosophy.

7

  After his overthrow in February 1966 – which constituted an important overthrow in Nkrumah's life and political thought – he started analysing the often subtle methods and mechanisms that the ex-colonial powers employed in order to subdue and exploit African countries. He saw the need to change strategies and thus switched to the more radical Fanonian doctrine of revolution by violence. Thus, his language became revolutionary while he focused mainly on issues of class and armed struggle as opposed to his earlier position of positive action based on the principles of non-violence as taught by Gandhi. Only during this second period it dawned on Nkrumah that even though traditional African societies were somehow communalistic and had aspects of egalitarianism, they had also practiced slavery, feudalism, and other exploitative practices. Nkrumah's thought in this period is alien to ethnophilosophy.

8

  The chapter on ethnophilosophy is concluded by a reference to the Bernal-Lefkowitz debate. It is pointed out that the disagreements on the question of defining African philosophy are not purely academic, but also ideological and political. According to Imbo this is an inescapable fact linked to the African experience where philosophy (explicitly or implicitly) served European interests; he even calls it »the handmaiden of ideology in colonial Africa« (45). Within such a scenario, Imbo says, »any view one takes about philosophy has far-reaching hegemonic implications« (45). This observation by the author is not far-fetched, as one can see in the severe discussions on this topic at conferences or seminars.



 Sub-classifications of African philosophy



  Oruka's classification
  of African philosophy:

- ethnophilosophy
- philosophic sagacity
- nationalist-ideological philosophy
- professional philosophy
- hermeneutic philosophy
- artistic or literary philosophy

9

  In classifying African philosophy Imbo comes up with a tripartite schema but he notes that the most widely cited one is that of Odera Oruka which identifies four trends, namely ethnophilosophy, philosophic sagacity, nationalist-ideological philosophy and professional philosophy. Much later however, Oruka extended these trends to six to include hermeneutic and artistic or literary philosophy. At this juncture, one would exspect and wish that besides just explaining these four trends, the author should have rationalised why he favoured his tripartite schema. He should have explained, for example, the weakness(es), if any, of Oruka's classification. But here one is bound to be sympathetic to the author given his desire »to keep out of the debates as much as possible« (xv) lest he prejudices the reader's mind.

10

  Part two of the book deals with ethnophilosophy and its implications. Here there are two questions that get to the heart of the philosophical problems at hand: Is ethnophilosophy really philosophy? (chapter two) and Is African philosophy unique? (chapter three). The author (given his earlier stated desire) does not give direct clear-cut "yes" or "no" answers to the questions, though the reader cannot fail to see where his sympathies lie.


»Care should [...] be taken not to fall prey to anachronistic traditionalism or to become infatuated with Western definitions of philosophy.«

Samuel Oluoch Imbo (73)

11

  In answering the questions, the book revisits the ethnophilosophical works. What comes out clearly is that there are many brands of ethnophilosophy. Cheikh Anta Diop's turning the tables on Europe is explicated, John S. Mbiti's religious ethnography and African concept of time are explained, and Ogotemmeli's enunciation of the Dogon cosmology is presented. Thereafter views of some critics of ethnophilosophy are discussed. These include feminist critiques, critiques that ethnophilosophy is bad scholarship, and hermeneutical critiques. On the whole the author warns that »it is dangerous to adopt views whose ultimate implication is a 'one use fits all' outlook« (73) and further cautions that »care should therefore be taken not to fall prey to anachronistic traditionalism or to become infatuated with Western definitions of philosophy« (73).



 Is African philosophy unique?


There is the irresistible inclination to criticise the author for sitting too much and too long on the fence.

12

  Chapter three titled Is African Philosophy Unique? revolves on the thoughts of Tempels, Senghor, Hountondji and Kwame Anthony Appiah. The view of the first two are presented as portraying African philosophy to be unique. However, the difference between them is that whereas Tempels' position portrays the uniqueness as negative that of Senghor considers it to be positive. Hountondji being a universalist challenges the ethnophilosophical paradigms and exhibits the dangers of conceiving African philosophy as unique.

13

  The author however observes that Hountondji's view being too extreme is problematic »because of its uncritical bowing at the feet of Europe« (88). Hence the way out, closely following the footsteps of Appiah, is that uncritical claims of uniqueness are dangerous and that the African debate about uniqueness should take a critical turn. Africans should »mold for themselves a transcultural, transnational and transracial identity« (92). Once again, at the end of this part of the book there is the irresistible inclination to criticise the author for sitting too much and too long on the fence.

14

  However again, such a criticism may not be discrete in view of the introductory nature of the text. A good introductory text in philosophy should always thrive to present, as objectively as possible, boths sides of the coin. At the same time, the author should desist from domineering and forcefully presenting one's views. This would enable the initiate see both sides and offer one a level playing groung upon which one would make one's assessment. To offer an initiate an imbalanced exposition or a reasoned view in support of only one side is to jump the gun.



 Global contexts: tasks and comparisons


Imbo suggests that the possible directions to take with regard to the question of language should be: (a) »to follow Odera Oruka's method of research of interviewing sages in their vernacular tongues« (120) and, (b) engaging in »serious debate about the solutions already presented« (120).

15

  The last part of the book makes connections that place African philosophy in a global context. Two questions are grappled with. These are: What should be the language(s) of African philosophy? (chapter four) and Are there connections among African, African American, and feminist philosophies? (chapter five).

16

  Regarding the first question, the author regrets that African philosophers have hardly discussed the issue in a serious manner, the way African literary figures like Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Chinua Achebe have. The author then suggests that the possible directions to take with regard to the question of language should be: (a) »to follow Odera Oruka's method of research of interviewing sages in their vernacular tongues« (120) and, (b) engaging in »serious debate about the solutions already presented« (120).

17

  Imbo answers the second question with an emphatic "yes", but observes that the present practice within scholarship does not reflect this. According to Imbo the connections among the three philosophies lies on the fact that »they are engaged in a reevaluation of traditional philosophy that denied those at the margins equal opportunity to express their rationality and further denied them autonomy and agency« (139).



F. Ochieng'-Odhiambo is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Nairobi.

18

  One value of Imbo's book is that, unlike most introductory texts to African philosophy, it goes beyond the limited framework of merely addressing itself to the question of the definition of African philosophy. Rather unfortunately, several scholars have preoccupied themselves with this restricted aspect, an aspect that does not transcend the level of semantics. This has been an expensive price which the development of African philosophy has had to pay for.

19

  The parallels of the discussions on African philosophy and feminism is a meritorious addition to the tremendous amount of literature in the two philosophies. Imbo's An introduction to African Philosophy will definitely be an indispensable companion to initiates of the study of African philosophy, and a useful addition to the libraries of those already involved in the debates and discourses on African philosophy, or those interested in monitoring these discourses.



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