literature · synopses
Richard H. Bell:
Understanding African Philosophy. A Cross-Cultural Approach to Classical and Contemporary Issues.
New York – London: Routledge, 2002.
Website It is imperative that those who want to understand other cultures realize their own limitations and the lacunae in their lives. Only this recognition will enable them to truly appreciate the values and contributions of other cultures and philosophies.
According to Peter Winch
But to understand another cultures is not an easy task, whether it is for a non-African to understand African culture, or for an Indian to understand European philosophy. Richard H. Bell's book under review is a commendable work towards making such understanding possible. Cross-cultural understanding is itself a kind of interdisciplinary philosophy – a philosophy that draws on different disciplines in order to enable the reader »to see« and thus be in a position to understand the other's world. As Wittgenstein tells us, the central aim of philosophy is to see
To see Africa as it is and understand it in the postcolonial era, is not easy for the former colonialists, present neocolonialists and those who cherish and are nostalgic about imperialism. In their arrogance they have overlooked and are blind to what is human in others – a characteristic of all former imperialism virtually built into all forms of colonialism and neocolonialism. So it is imperative that those who want to understand other cultures realize their own limitations and the lacunae in their lives. Only this recognition will enable them to truly appreciate the values and contributions of other cultures and philosophies.
The first chapter of the book deals with the implications and problems of understanding another culture. It is a very useful because it cautions us against an uncritical acceptance of the other or over-critical rejection of what is in others. In the chapter »Foundations of Modern African Philosophy« we are given an opportunity to listen to the voices of Africa, ancient and modern. The encounter between African and Western modernity and its ramifications in the political, philosophical and cultural life of Africa is treated in the chapter »Liberation and Postcolonial African Philosophy.« Throughout the liberation movements the most important problem to be dealt with was racism. It remains a problem even today.
A major contribution of African philosophy is the delimitation of the problem of race. In dialogue with the problems such as poverty, inequality, corruption, and anarchy that postcolonial Africa faces today, African philosophy is currently in the process of formation. Suffering has become endemic to Africa. In colonial times and in the era of apartheid it was inflicted by outsiders; but today it is inflicted by the Africans themselves on their fellow human beings. This calls for a philosophical discourse on suffering and justice in the African context. If justice is not conceived as a matter of mere individual rights, it requires a public forum to hear the voices of injustice. From these voices of suffering there may arise a condition for truth. Such a forum is the »Truth and Reconciliation Commission« which sought to provide South Africans an opportunity to know, reconcile and live together in peace and harmony. Its working and achievements hold lessons for many nations trying to come to terms with its tortuous past in the world today.
A fundamental and persistent problem in understanding the affliction of the Africans, or their sense of reconciliation in the face of that affliction is the lack of experience of being afflicted by such problems. Because of this bereft capacity to understand directly, one must seek some imaginative transfers in experience. Here is where the »narrative« aspects come into play within philosophical reflection. Among these are the oral traditions, the discourses of African sages, the village palaver that forms a foundation stone of African civil society, African »iconic« tradition and recent literature and art.
Bell's book is very helpful to know not only about some of the basic tenants of African philosophy, but also about the difficulties that a non-African encounters in trying to understand African culture and philosophy. Like the Africans, Indians too share in the colonial past and have to confront postcolonial situations. But African reality is not the same as Indian reality. So, even for the Indians to understand African culture and philosophy is no easy task. In the academic circles of India, in spite of the shared colonial past, there had been little effort to understand African reality. Bell's book makes useful contribution to extend our minds and widen our horizons.