Overview of African-American Philosophy
"African-American philosophy is largely represented by a body of social and political thought related to the advancement of African Americans as a group.Cornel West takes up the question of whether European and European-American philosophy can contribute to our understanding of the African-American experience.He combines the orientations of Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and JohnDewey to offer a definition of African-American philosophy as “the interpretation ofAfro-American history, highlighting the cultural heritage and political struggles, whichprovides desirable norms that should regulate responses to particular challenge spresently confronting African Americans.” His critical examination of four distinct historical traditions of black thought – vitalist, existentialist, rationalist, and humanist –all of which he finds problematic, leads him to endorse the humanist view because of its emphasis on the “universal human content of African-American cultural forms.”According to West, ideal types represent distinct conceptions of black people as either passive objects of history, or as active subjects; the former implying a pervasive denigration of African Americans and the latter suggesting their striving for self-respect. There are strong and weak versions of the doctrine associated with each tradition. Vitalists laud the uniqueness of African-American culture, making – in the stronger case ontological, in the weaker one sociological – claims for African-American superiority. The rationalists view African-American culture as pathological, while the third tradition, existentialist thought, is a derivitive of these two, viewing African-American culture as restrictive, constraining, and confining. West rejects the existentialist emphasis on eccentricity and nonconformity in favor of the fourth, humanist, tradition, which affirms the humanity, while emphasizing the distinctiveness, of African-American culture.West’s focus on a narrow strand of African-American existentialist thought is in stark contrast with Lewis Gordon’s claim that existential questions permeate the whole range of black thought. Gordon distinguishes between existentialism as a fundamentally European historical phenomenon and the questions concerning freedom, anguish, responsibility, and embodied existence as “the lived-context of concern.” He cites DuBois’s interrogation of the meaning of black suffering and compares Toni Morrison’s exploration of tragedy and ethical paradox with Kierkegaard’s call for keeping faith.Because the question of race is “a source of anxiety pervading the New World,” Gordon believes the appeal of Christian, Marxist, Feminist, and Pragmatic thought derives from what each contributes to “theorizing the existential realities of blackness."
1. Lott, T. L., & Pittman, J. P. (Eds.). (2006). Introduction. In A companion to African-American philosophy (pp. 3–4). essay, Blackwell.
The United States of America is one of several New World diasporic contexts of focus for these recovery and study efforts that are being conducted under the heading of “African American philosophy.” What follows is a historically contextualized discussion of several instances of the emergence of philosophizings born of struggles. However, it would be an ethical travesty and a case of epistemological presentist imperialism to require that thoughtful, critically reflective articulations by African Americans considered as instances of philosophizing worthy of the critical attention of professional philosophers first meet rigorous, formal standards for “right reasoning” settled on by professionals in the discipline during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. For the contexts in which folks of African descent were compelled to reflect on and reason about their first-order lived experiences were substantially conditioned by the agendas and social logics of projects of White Racial Supremacy and constitutive invidious anthropologies of raciality, ethnicity, and gender, not agendas governed by the academic logics of abstract formal reasoning. The pressing exigencies of daily, cross-generation life under racialized enslavement and oppression were what compelled reflective thoughtfulness, not leisured, abstractive speculation. Again, what has to be witnessed and appreciated across the historical and hermeneutical distances of centuries of history and life-world experiences structured by contemporary personal and social freedoms are the natures of the lived experiences and situations of those whose articulations, whose philosophizings, are considered as having been born of struggles.
Much psychic energy had to be expended by New World African and African-descended peoples contending with the institutionalization of their enslavement and oppression otherwise that was racialized, thereby naturalized, and thoroughly sanctioned and justified by every enterprise of deliberate, normative thought and aesthetic expression—law, science, theology, religion, philosophy, aesthetics, and secular “common sense.” (For a historical account of African-American life in the United States see Franklin and Moss, Jr. 2000.) In each case a primary resource was the foundational metaphysical and ontological “unit idea” of a hierarchical Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy 1964) on which each race was believed to have a fixed and determining place. Accordingly, as living property it was encumbered on enslaved Africans and their descendants to live so as to make good on the investments in their purchase and maintenance by engaging in productive labor, without compensation, and to endure and reproduce as ontological slaves in order to sustain and justify the institution of their imprisonment. According to this supposedly divinely sanctioned philosophical anthropology, African and African-descended children, women, and men were defined as constituting a category of being to which none of the normative moral and ethical notions and principles governing civilized life applied. Pressed into an ethically null category, they were compelled to live lives of social death stripped of defining webs of ennobling meaning constituted by narratives of previous histories, renewing presents, and imagined and anticipated futures of flourishing, cross-generational continuation.
On the whole, they did not succumb to the requirement to become socially dead, certainly not completely, though many thousands did. Always there were those who cultivated strengths of body, mind, soul, and spirit and exerted these in defense of the preservation of senses of themselves and of their peoples, of their “race,” as having worth beyond the definitions and valuations set on them by rationalizations of institutionalized enslavement and oppression. Always there were those who, in the cracks, crevices, and severely limited spaces of slave life and constricted freedom, preserved and shared fading memories of lives of beauty and integrity before the holocaust; who found, created, and renewed nurturings of imaginings of better life to come through music-making, dancing, and creative expression in the artful fashioning and use of items of material culture, and in the communal and personal relations, secular and spiritual, that the slaves formed, sustained, and passed on.
Nurtured by these efforts, they resisted the imposition of ontological death and nurtured others in resisting. They reflected on their existence and the conditions thereof; conceived of and put into practice ways to endure without succumbing, ways to struggle against enslavement and the curtailment otherwise of their lives and aspirations; and conceived and acted on ways to escape. They studied carefully their enslavers and oppressors and assessed the moral significance of all aspects of the lives enslavers and oppressors led and determined how they, though enslaved and despised, must live differently so as not to follow their oppressors and enslavers on paths to moral depravity. They conceived of other matters, including the terms and conditions of freedom and justice; of better terms and conditions of existence and of personal and social identities; of how to resist and endure while creating things of beauty; how to love in spite of their situations; conceived of their very nature as living beings.
For a full historical breakdown from the 1600s to the 2000s, see Stanford Encyclopedia's "Africana Philosophy" article, specifically sections 6-10: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/africana/#AfriAmerPhil
1. Outlaw Jr., L. T. (2017). Africana philosophy. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/africana/#AfriAmerPhil
7900 West Division Street
River Forest, IL 60305
T: (708) 524-6876