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Philosophy 2.0

Comprehensive LibGuide for philosophy, covering world philosophy, branches of philosophy, movements, and concepts.

Origins and History of African Philosophy

In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates suggests that philosophy begins with wonder. Aristotle agreed. However, recent research shows that wonder may have different subsets. If that is the case, which specific subset of wonder inspired the beginning of the systematic African philosophy? In the history of Western philosophy, there is the one called thaumazein interpreted as awe and the other called miraculum interpreted as curiosity. History shows that these two subsets manifest in the African place as well, even during the pre-systematic era.

However, there is now an idea appearing in recent African philosophy literature called onuma interpreted as frustration which is regarded as the subset of wonder that jump started the systematic African philosophy. In the 1920s, a host of Africans who went to study in the West were just returning. They had experienced terrible racism and discrimination while in the West. They were referred to as descendants of slaves; as people from the slave colony, as sub-humans, and so on. On return to their native lands, they met the same maltreatment by the colonial officials. ‘Frustrated’ by colonialism and racialism as well as the legacies of slavery, they were jolted onto the path of philosophy—African philosophy—by what can be called onuma. These ugly episodes of slavery, colonialism and racialism not only shaped the world’s perception of Africa; they also instigated a form of intellectual revolt from the African intelligentsias. The frustration with the colonial order eventually led to angry questions and reactions out of which African philosophy emerged, first in the form of nationalisms and thenin the form ideological theorizations. But the frustration was borne out of colonial caricature of Africa as culturally naïve, intellectually docile and rationally inept. This caricature was created by European scholars such as Kant, Hegel and, much later, Levy-Bruhl to name just a few. It was the reaction to this caricature that led some African scholars returning from the West into the type of philosophizing one may describe as systematic beginning with the identity of the African people, their place in history, and their contributions to civilization. To dethrone the colonially-built episteme became a ready attraction for African scholars’ vexed frustrations. Thus began the history of systematic African philosophy with the likes of Aime Cisaire, Leopold Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, William Abraham, John Mbiti and expatriates such as Placid Tempels, Janheinz Jahn and George James, to name a few.

1. Chimakonam, J. O., (n.d.). History of African Philosophy. Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved from

Introductory and In-Depth Material

Historical Information

African philosophy as a systematic study has a very short history. This history is also a very dense one, since actors sought to do in a few decades what would have been better done in many centuries. As a result, they also did in later years what ought to have been done earlier and vice versa, thus making the early and the middle epochs overlap considerably. The reason for this overtime endeavor is not far-fetched. Soon after colonialism, actors realized that Africa had been sucked into the global matrix unprepared. During colonial times, the identity of the African was European, his thought system, standard and even his perception of reality were structured by the colonial shadow which stood towering behind him. It was easy for the African to position himself within these Western cultural appurtenances even though they had no real-time connection with his being.

The vanity of this presupposition and the emptiness of colonial assurances manifested soon after the towering colonial shadow vanished. Now, in the global matrix, it became shameful for the African to continue to identify himself within the European colonialist milieu. For one, he had just rejected colonialism and for another, the deposed European colonialist made it clear that the identity of the African was no longer covered and insured by the European medium. So, actors realized suddenly that they had been disillusioned and had suffered severe self-deceit under colonial temper. The question which trailed every African was, “Who are you?” Of course, the answers from European perspective were savage, primitive, less than human, etc. It was the urgent, sudden need to contradict these European positions that led some post-colonial Africans in search of African identity. So, to discover or rediscover African identity in order to initiate a non-colonial or original history for Africa in the global matrix and start a course of viable economic, political and social progress that is entirely African became one of the focal points of African philosophy.

Placid Tempels, the European missionary, elected to help and in his controversial book, Bantu Philosophy, sought to create Africa’s own philosophy as proof that Africa has its own peculiar identity and thought system. However, it was George James, another concerned European who attempted a much more ambitious project in his work, Stolen Legacy. In this work, there were strong suggestions not only that Africa has philosophy but that the so-called Western philosophy, the very bastion of European identity, was stolen from Africa. This claim was intended to make the proud European colonialists feel indebted to the humiliated Africans, but it was unsuccessful. That Greek philosophy had roots in Egypt does not imply, as some Europeans claim, that Egyptians were dark nor that dark complexioned Africans had philosophy. The use of the term “Africans” in this work is in keeping with George James’ demarcation which precludes the light complexioned people of North Africa and refers to the dark complexioned people of southern Sahara.

After these two Europeans, Africans began to attain maturation. Aime Cesaire, John Mbiti, Odera Oruka, Julius Nyerere, Leopold Senghor, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Kwame Nkrumah, Obafemi Awolowo, Alexis Kegame, Uzodinma Nwala, Emmanuel Edeh, Innocent Onyewuenyi, and Henry Olela, to name just a few, opened the doors of ideas. A few of the works produced sought to prove and establish the philosophical basis of African, unique identity in the history of humankind, while others sought to chart a course of Africa’s true identity through unique political and economic ideologies. It can be stated that much of these endeavors fall under the early period.

For its concerns, the middle period of African philosophy is characterized by the great debate. Those who seek to clarify and justify the position held in the early epoch and those who seek to criticize and deny the viability of such position entangled themselves in a great debate. Some of the actors on this front include, C. S. Momoh, Robin Horton, Henri Maurier, Lacinay Keita, Peter Bodunrin, Kwasi Wiredu, Kwame Gyekye, Richard Wright, Barry Halen, Joseph Omoregbe, C. B. Okolo, Theophilus Okere, Paulin Hountondji, Gordon Hunnings, Odera Oruka and Sophie Oluwole to name a few.

The preceding epoch eventually gave way to the later period which has as its focus the construction of an African episteme. Two camps rivaled each other namely; the Critical Reconstructionists who are the evolved Universalists/Deconstructionists and the Eclectics who are the evolved Traditionalists/Excavators. The former seek to build an African episteme untainted by ethnophilosophy; whereas, the latter seek to do the same by a delicate fusion of relevant ideals of the two camps. In the end, Critical Reconstructionism ran into a brick wall when it became clear that whatever it produced cannot truly be called African philosophy if it is all Western without African marks. The mere claim that it would be African philosophy simply because it was produced by Africans (Hountondji 1996 and Oruka 1975) would collapse like a house of cards under any argument. For this great failure, the influence of Critical Reconstructionism in the later period whittled down and it was latter absorbed by its rival—Eclecticism.

The works of the Eclectics heralded the emergence of the New Era in African philosophy. The focus becomes the Conversational philosophizing, in which the production of philosophically rigorous and original African episteme better than what the Eclectics produced occupied the center stage.

The sum of what historians of African philosophy have done can be presented in the following two broad categorizations to wit; Pre-systematic Era and the Systematic era. The former refers to Africa’s philosophical culture, thoughts of the anonymous African thinkers and may include the problems of Egyptian legacy. The latter refers to the periods marking the return of Africa’s first eleven, Western-tutored philosophers from the 1920’s to date. This latter category could further be delineated into four periods:

  1. Early period 1920s – 1960s
  2. Middle period 1960s – 1980s
  3. Later period 1980s – 1990s
  4. New (Contemporary) Era since 1990s

Note, of course, that this does not commit us to saying that, before the early period, people in Africa never philosophized—they did.  But one fact that must not be denied is that they did not document their thoughts and, as such, scholars cannot attest to their systematicity or sources. In other words, what this periodization shows is that African philosophy as a system first began in the late 1920s.

1. Chimakonam, J. O., (n.d.). History of African Philosophy. Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved from

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