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Barry Hallen

A Short History of African Philosophy

Barry Hallen:
A Short History of African Philosophy.
Indiana University Press,
144 pages
ISBN 0-253-21531-5
book cover
Indiana University Press:
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In polylog:

Barry Hallen / J. Olubi Sodipo:
Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophy.
Stanford 1997.
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D.A. Masolo:
African Philosophy in Search of Identity.
Bloomington – Edinburgh 1994.
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Kwame Anthony Appiah:
In my Father's House. Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York – Oxford 1992.
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In Barry Hallen's A Short History of African Philosophy little is said about how such a history is tied together, even if we are to take it that the history of African philosophy contains no master narrative and, as such, is discontinuous between the various viewpoints, schools, and cultural approaches that Hallen introduces. Indeed, an argument can be made that any history of philosophy, in particular African philosophy, is doomed to fail since such a history will be developed from the contemporary moment in which some trends will be over-emphasized in their import, while others will disappear from the philosophical historian's gaze, given his or her focus elsewhere (especially, as Hallen notes, with philosophers' emphases on written and not oral works). As such, one who approaches a history of African philosophy, albeit a short history, needs to take seriously the question of tradition on the African continent, and when this tradition is said to begin.

Does the tradition of African philosophy date to 3000 BCE in the Nile River Valley, as the beginning chapter of Hallen's recent book suggests? If so, what is the connection between, say, between the moral teachings of Ptah-hotep and thinking currently done on the African continent? If there is no connection at all (given the narrative gap between chapter 1, »The Historical Perspective«, and Chapter 2, »Twentieth Century Origins«, we are left with this deduction), then in what way can the tradition be said to date prior to the 20th century?

Hallen is right to suggest that the historical perspective is important given the need by contemporary African philosophers to combat the colonialists' view that Africans were not philosophical until the imposition of Western values and techniques during the colonial period (11). But this leads us to the paradox that this tradition is mapped out from the present in order to combat a wrong-headed view that Africans can only now, after colonialism, begin to philosophize.

Hallen argues that »the documented reflections of individuals such as Ptah-hotep, Zar'a Ya'aqob, and Anton Wilhelm Amo are impossible to deny or to ignore. And the heritage they … have bequeathed to their continent and the world deserves the recognition it for so long has been denied« (12). The contemporary reclamation of these important figures, blotted out from our historical gaze for far too long, is important to the current project of building this tradition; there is no heritage without this (re)constructive moment. As Hallen puts it while reviewing the work of Congolese philosopher Okonda Okolo, tradition »involve[s] a sense of transmission and reception, but in a context where the meanings of any particular tradition are constantly being interpreted and reinterpreted – and therefore always changing – by different individuals and in different historical contexts over the passage of time« (63).

By reviewing Egyptian and Abyssinian philosophical texts Hallen gives the lie to arguments that Africa does not have a long and deep history of philosophizing (their affect on recent African thought notwithstanding). Despite the controversy research into these areas has caused in philosophical, historical, and anthropological circles, Hallen does an admirable job sidestepping polemics in order to make what should be a non-controversial point: scholars and philosophers of sub-saharan African do not look to Egypt and Abissinian philosophies in order to bolster »their own indigenous cultures by associating them with ›mighty‹ and ›glorious‹ Egypt« (12).

From here, Hallen's chapters read as brief summaries of positions and counter-positions in contemporary African philosophy. The usual job of a reviewer of a book of this type is to point out the important philosophers and/or movements little emphasized of left out altogether. I will refrain from this typical maneuver: none of Hallen's summaries are controversial, and only one philosopher, other than those of the Negritude movement, has been de-emphasized, despite the importance of his work, namely Henry Odera Oruka. What is bothersome, perhaps, about this small work, is its very lack of zeal or controversy: African philosophy is one born of struggle, to paraphrase Leonard Harris, but one hardly gathers from this text the danger and marginalization faced by African philosophers seeking to bring their work to a reading public.

Hallen thus fails on two fronts in his Short History of African Philosophy: on the one hand, he fails to provide a history of the trends of African philosophy; on the other hand, he fails to argue persuasively for why a reader introduced to the topic should continue on in reading texts in the field. These, though, are not fatal failures. Hallen's short book would be useful to introductory classes in the area as an additional source for beginning students. As a reader for laypeople, Hallen's style is unobtrusive, and its bibliography alone should send such readers to their libraries looking for further reading material.

Peter Gratton

polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 4 (2003).
Online: http://lit.polylog.org/4/shbgp-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
Author: Peter Gratton, Chicago (USA)
© 2003 Author & polylog e.V.
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