African Studies Quarterly
Volume 10, Issue 1
Spring 2008

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Philosophical Perspectives on Communalism and Morality in African Traditions. Polycarp Ikuenobe. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006. 329 pp.

The text is "a logical, systematic, and normative interpretation or analysis of the idea of communalism in African cultures" (p. 2). This, according to the author, is necessitated by the dilettante attitude and misunderstanding of the communal spirit in Africa with the result that at a metaphilosophical level it is criticized as harboring pervasive religious supernaturalism, reckless anachronism, and irrational authoritarianism. The text is therefore an effort to offer a critique of such criticisms, especially the last one, though the three are closely interrelated.

According to the author, moral thought and epistemology in African cultures are, contrary to what some scholars have suggested, not innocent of the critical and analytical mode of inquiry. Though the notion of community and its relationship to individuals in African cultures differ from those in Western worldview, this does not warrant the conclusion that the community in African cultures hinders individuals from independent thinking. The author notes that in African cultures a community is not simply the aggregate sum of individuals (as is the case in the West), but where the aggregated sum is fused. However, for him, the critical point which others have failed to take cognizance of is that the African view of communalism is not one-way, but a two-way affair between community and the individual. It still gives room for individual rationality, creativity, imagination, and inventiveness to adapt various situations. "What the community does as a normative structure, epistemic context, and conceptual scheme is to circumscribe the context of relevant alternatives and counter-evidence, and to provide some basis for one's rationality, imagination, and creativity" (p. 84).

In the Western world, because of its universalist metaphilosophical view of philosophy, ethics is basically conceptualized as systematic, rigorous, and critical theories of right and wrong. The author argues that this is not accurate. According to him, some of the ideas of the past Western thinkers that have today been reconstituted do not in themselves display the so-called essential critical, systematic, and rigorous features of philosophy. On the contrary, it is the process of reconstitution that has infused rigor and systematization to such ideas. He argues that similar reconstitution and analysis of African traditional ideas such as communalism should pass as contemporary Analytic Philosophy. The author sees his text as a contribution in this regard.

In comparing and contrasting moral education in African (traditional) communities and Western (modern) world, the author argues that the informal (communal) methods and processes of moral education in the form of narratives, folklore, proverbs, and oral tradition in African communities are superior to the Western formal, individualistic, and cognitive view or model of moral education and development. "The relevant factors in African communal culture seem to have enhanced efficacy in moral education, while their absence seems to have hindered the efficacy of moral education in modern Western culture and in African cosmopolitan cities where people have adopted the Western ethos and individualistic attitudes" (p. 162).

On the controversial issue of whether the communal structures and informal processes in African traditions necessarily lead to authoritarianism, the author distinguishes between rational and irrational forms of authoritarianism and then argues in favor of a rational form of authoritarianism in African cultures. The error made by critics, in the author's view, is that they fail to see the rational form. The basis of the rational form of authoritarianism is, according to the author, the principle of epistemic deference, and the social, contextual, and pragmatic nature of knowledge and justification. Hence epistemic or rational authoritarianism in African cultures is not something insidious or bad. In fact, "it is pertinent to note that an element of epistemic authoritarianism is accepted in science as a legitimate principle" (p. 210).

The author also challenges the view that epistemic authoritarianism in African cultures leads to indoctrination rather than education. He postulates that indoctrination is not necessarily bad unless the process is extreme enough to involve brainwashing. At the same time, he argues that epistemic authoritarianism in African cultures does not involve brainwashing hence there is nothing bad about it. The author also argues that indoctrination, contrary to popular belief, is a necessary part of or a precondition for any meaningful education and that it does not vitiate rational autonomy. Ironically, the author proceeds on to argue that in all honesty and fairness, it is the Western emphasis on "thinking for oneself" that would actually in some instances constitute extreme indoctrination (brainwashing).

On some libertarian criticisms on communalism in African cultures, the author believes that they are misguided. Such criticisms, he is convinced, emphasize too much on individual autonomy to the extent that they either ignore the limits or exaggerate the power of individual rationality, as well as the value of individual autonomy and freedom. And this is a weakness that communalism in traditional African cultures does not suffer from.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with some of the views expressed by the author, one aspect of the text stands tall: the author has ably and meticulously fulfilled his primary objective of giving a logical, systematic, and normative interpretation and analysis of communalism in African cultures. In this respect he has made reasonable reference to works of some notable West African philosophers namely Wiredu, Gbadegesin, Gyekye, Appiah, Menkiti, Bodunrin, and Nzegwu. However, for the sake of balance, it would have been better had the author included references from works of some renowned scholars from Eastern and Southern Africa besides Nyerere. There are some glaring typographical errors in the text though bearing in mind its voluminous nature some may turn a blind eye. All said and done, given the conscientious and detailed manner in which the text treats the topic of communalism in African cultures, the text should be resourceful and of interest to scholars in African studies regardless of their areas of specialization.

F. Ochieng'-Odhiambo
University of the West Indies