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Safro Kwame

Reflecting African Political Theories

On Teodros Kiros (ed.): Explorations in African Political Thought:
Identity, Community, Ethics

 Preface and Introduction

Teodros Kiros (ed.):
Explorations in African Political Thought: Identity, Community, Ethics.
New York – London: Routledge,
(New Political Science Reader Series)
214 pages
ISBN 0-415-92767-6

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  Teodros Kiros' book contains ten interesting essays on African philosophy with a preface by Kwame Anthony Appiah. In this preface, Appiah traces the history of African philosophy from the time he started teaching philosophy at the University of Ghana to his current teaching appointment at Harvard University and marvels at the proliferation in African philosophical texts. »I could not have imagined, as I read Wiredu's book for the first time,« he admits, »that within twenty years, at the turn of the new millennium, a book such as this would have been possible.« His pessimism contrasts with the optimism of his first students, of whom I am one.


  Probably in our naivety or outright ignorance we, the students in Appiah's class at the time, thought such an anthology already existed or, if it did not, it was bound to exist in a matter of time. Now, with hindsight and in the light of my reading of the preface, I think the difference in optimism or, rather, pessimism reflected a difference in definitions and perceptions of African philosophy. Part of that difference is captured in the difference between the introduction, written by Teodros Kiros, and the preface by Anthony Appiah.


  »By African philosophy,« Kiros begins his introduction, »I understand a set of written texts, when available, as well as orally transmitted texts, that deal with the human condition in Africa on which Africans and non-Africans reflect.« This conception of African philosophy is more inclusive and in contrast with the conception that is reflected in Appiah's preface and the texts Appiah refers to, namely Paulin Hountondji's African Philosophy: Myth and Reality and Kwasi Wiredu's Philosophy and an African Culture. Indeed, it seems to have been constructed as an extended version of Hountondji's classic definition.


  While Appiah's conception of African philosophy relies more on books and other published texts, Kiros' is more or too inclusive as to rob it of much use. Starting from Hountondji's definition of African philosophy as a set of written materials, Kiros includes oral or non-written materials and calls them "orally transmitted texts" which sounds contradictory in terms. Normally one contrasts text as something written or printed with what is orally transmitted without written records. Further, his definition, in terms of written as well as orally transmitted texts that deal with the human condition, does not distinguish philosophy from psychology, sociology or medicine which also deal with texts about the human condition. An adequate definition would have to make a distinction between different but related concepts or terms. Hence an adequate definition of a dog, however it is worded by whomever, would have to include necessary as well as sufficient characteristics or criteria to make it easy to distinguish between a dog and, say, a cat or a fox. Kiros' definition does not easily and adequately distinguish philosophy from all forms of psychology, sociology or medicine. This requirement to provide necessary and sufficient characteristics is one that can, at least in theory, be met by anyone who attempts to provide a full and illuminating definition regardless of whether one is attempting to formulate a Hountondji-type of definition or not.

E.J. Alagoa:
An African Philosophy of History in the Oral Tradition.
external linkArticle

F. Ochieng-Odhiambo:
Explicating African Philosophy.
external linkArticle

Niels Weidtmann:
"Kann Schriftlichkeit fehlen? Afrikanische Weisheitslehren im interkulturellen Dialog".
In this issue.


  On page 2 of his introduction, Kiros suggests a narrower definition of African philosophy as the values and norms that withstand and pass the severe scrutiny of reason. One can always subject a philosophical, sociological, psychological or medical belief or theory to the severe scrutiny of reason. Whether it passes or fails such scrutiny has very little bearing on its standing as a philosophical, sociological, psychological or medical belief or theory. French or Cartesian philosophy would remain philosophy even if we thought it did not withstand and pass the severe scrutiny of reason. Like any other discipline, philosophy admits of bad and good varieties.


  There are other questionable claims in the introduction apart from those noted above. Here are three additional ones:
a. »Unless the teachers themselves practice philosophy as a moral activity, those whom they teach cannot be expected to believe it.« (4)
b. »Philosophy becomes a material reality, as Marx taught us, only when it becomes a force – a moral force, I would like to stress.« (4)
c. »The first principle of justice commands categorically that food, shelter, and clothing must be available to all human beings in Africa, and the second principle defends freedom as a right to be extended to all Africans.« (5)

»Unless the teachers themselves practice philosophy as a moral activity, those whom they teach cannot be expected to believe it.«

Teodros Kiros


  Laudable as these principles are, they remain ungrounded assumptions that seems to conflict with Kiros' belief, expressed on the very first page of his introduction, that »given the range of subdisciplines, the variety of its practitioners, and the disparate theoretical vantage points, it seems unnecessary to locate a single static essence that might define a unique kind of philosophy«. The three claims at issue and quoted above, seem to make ethics the essence of philosophy. Once one acknowledges that there are other forms or branches of philosophy, one realizes that philosophy need not be (just) a moral activity or a moral force to make an impact in the human community. Philosophy may, justifiably, be a metaphysical, logical or epistemological activity or force however impractical or irrelevant that may seem. One needs to focus on that issue and debate it. While I want to see that all Africans have freedom, food, shelter and clothing, I do not know whose duty it is to provide them under the prevailing conditions of drought, famine, AIDS and civil war in Africa.


  Further, neither Kiros nor the contributors to his anthology settle or even debate any of these issues raised above. It is admirable to insist that philosophy, particularly African philosophy, be practical and relevant; however, relevance and practicality are not synonymous with morality. It is probably because of that that Karl Marx's critique of capitalism was not expressed primarily in terms of morality or ethics but in terms of science and economics. Philosophy need not be seen as a moral force or activity for it to be practical or useful. If all that Kiros is trying to do is to emphasize the primary need for philosophy to be practically relevant and for philosophers to be examples of people with moral concerns, then it may be better expressed differently and, further, argued-for in much of the text as well as the introduction. This is not a criticism of the goal, but a criticism of the means and expression.

 Topics and Contributors

Gail M. Presbey:
Who Counts as a Sage? Problems in the Further Implementation of Sage Philosophy.
Paidea World Philosophy Conference paper.
external linkArticle

Teodoros Kiros:
The Meditations of Zara Yaquob.
Paidea World Philosophy Conference paper.
external linkArticle


  In spite of the problems inherent in the introduction and the lack of notes on all but four of the contributors, Explorations in African Political Thought provides a stimulating collection of readings starting with Gail Presbey's essay on African sages and ending with Kwasi Wiredu's comment on democracy in Africa. The range of topics is varied and the analyses are detailed. The contributors, who come from various parts of Africa particularly West and East Africa as well as America, are as follows in the order in which they appear in the text.


  Gail M. Presbey explores the relationship between philosophy and wisdom and argues that there are many sages in Africa who are worthy of philosophical study. Claude Sumner provides analyses of the proverb and the society in which it operates as a mode of knowledge and communication. Anthony Appiah argues that allegiance to a traditional monarchy is not inconsistent with a belief in a modern African republic and may even reinforce one's self-respect in the republic. George Katsiaficas compares Ibn Khaldun with Westerners such as Charles Darwin and Karl Marx and makes a case for reviewing Khaldun's philosophy in the new millennium. Teodros Kiros focuses on Zara Yacob as a seventeenth century Ethiopian philosopher who had insights that are comparable to Rene Descartes' and Immanuel Kant's. D.A. Masolo compares the Kenyan educator Onyango Ayany with Ernest Gellner and cautions against a simplistic analytic and scientific assault on the traditional society. These constitute the first six chapters of the text. They are interesting and insightful. However, there is not much about these six chapters that could be said to be very political except perhaps Appiah's general thesis about chieftaincy and ethnic identity.

Kwasi Wiredu:
"Democracy and Consensus in African Traditional Politics. A Plea for a Non-party Polity".
In: polylog 2 (2000).

"Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion".
In: African Studies Quarterly 1.4 (1998).
external linkArticle


  In the seventh chapter, Ali Mazrui laments the neglect of cultural factors in planning political and economic projects in Africa. He calls for an understanding of the cultural preconditions and a feasibility study of proposed economic and political goals in Africa. These projects and goals, include stability and democracy in Africa. In chapter eight, I.A. Menkiti looks at the values debate in Africa and concludes that the problem in Africa is, among other things, one of social justice. According to Menkiti, the popular approach to issues about economic development and political stability in Africa has been developmental. This approach explains the problem in terms of the absence of wealth and infrastructure as a result of slavery, colonialism and, in many cases, fraud over the centuries. The normative approach, on the other hand, sees the problem in terms of the lack of values; for example, the erosion of traditional African values or the absence of modern Western values to support Westernization. While not dismissing the other approaches, Menkiti's essay argues for the value of social justice as a precondition for territorial integrity. Without social justice, he suggests, African States will disintegrate.


  Both Mazrui and Menkiti generate a debate about the cause of Africa's political problems, and Wingo and Wiredu contribute to that debate in the ninth and tenth chapters respectively. Ajume Wingo cautions against the blind adherence to partisan politics and the neocolonial disregard for African traditions and emphasizes accountability in government. A good government, for Wingo, is an accountable one. Unfortunately, Wingo acknowledges, in many African countries it is almost impossible to hold officials, from the police to the head of State, accountable for their actions. In view of the ethnic and other divisions in African countries, which have frustrated many an attempt to duplicate Western multi-party majoritarianism, Kwasi Wiredu goes much further than Wingo or any of the other contributors to urge us to embrace a traditional African nonparty form of representation with a consensus type of decision-making. Accordingly, he implores African scholars to explore the historical, conceptual and constitutional basis for nonparty politics based on consensus building. A nonparty system, he cautions, is not the same as a one-party system.

 A Political Philosophy of Africa

»Every major and worthy political system I know of, including capitalism and socialism or, if you prefer, Western and Eastern forms of democracy, is utopian.«


  Wiredu adduces several considerations in an attempt to persuade the reader that a nonparty polity based on consensus is not utopian. Even if it were utopian, it would not constitute a sufficient reason to reject it. Every major and worthy political system I know of, including capitalism and socialism or, if you prefer, Western and Eastern forms of democracy, is utopian. Ideologies as recommendations about the ends, goals or objectives of government and the means of achieving them are, of necessity, ideals that we strive to achieve even if we never really achieve them. Socialism of various kinds, including anarchism or libertarian socialism as well as Marxist socialism, strives – as a goal or ideal expressed in its theory and classic documents – to achieve a stateless society or a society with no government. Many capitalists aim at the least government which, in theory, is no government at all. Yet, in our present political state or condition which is twice or thrice removed from the acephalous ones of the traditional societies (i.e. the pre-colonial societies described by both European and African anthropologists), very few people believe that a completely free and stateless egalitarian society with no government can be achieved. No one, however, believes such utopianism invalidates capitalism or socialism as a practical or realistic ideology. Neither should the utopianism of a nonparty polity based on consensus, if any, invalidate it as an African ideology.

Safro Kwame
is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.


  Overall, Explorations in African Political Thought: Identity, Community, Ethics is well-organized and thought-provoking. That is a sufficient reason for recommending it, in spite of the deficiencies in its introduction. The best essays, worthy of consideration as political philosophy of Africa, are, in my opinion, the last ones; particularly those by Mazrui, Menkiti, Wingo and Wiredu. This is not to suggest that the first half of the text is not interesting or has nothing to offer. There is much to be said for Appiah's insightful preface and Presbey's passionate introductory essay as well as Masolo's well-written and intricate comparisons, for example. It may be a good idea to divide the text into two or three sections on the basis of subject matter. The omissions in notes on contributors would also have to be addressed. Personally, I would like to see the text lead to an actual debate about the ideas expressed by Mazrui, Menkiti, Wingo and Wiredu about the primary cause of Africa's main political problem and the solution to it.

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