|Home | Current Issue | Previous Issues | Submission Guidelines | Books for Review|
Understanding African Philosophy: A Cross Cultural Approach to Classical and Contemporary Issues. Richard Bell. New York: Routledge, 2002. 189 pp.
Understanding African Philosophy reflects on the pain and pleasure of understanding an “other culture”. In this effort, we see strands of history; anthropology, traditional sociology, literature and governance weaved together on a solid platform of philosophy. It is a reflective endeavor, which focuses on the problematic and the not-so-problematic aspects of African thought.
Using a contention-conclusion style, Bell presents key positions, arguments, authorities and temperaments concerning various issues in African philosophy. At the end of each issue, Bell draws his own conclusion. Consistently throughout the book, all contentions and conclusions point at one direction: understanding. Clearly, the entire publication is driven by the philosophy of understanding with an African slant.
With a Wittgenstenian instrument and phenomenological methodology, Bell argues that the African milieu must be seen as it is. He therefore asserts the need for an understanding of the African philosophical environment using five “reminder” parameters of aesthetics, universality, conversation, cross-culturalism and historical experientialism. According to Bell, African philosophy, which has a history, remains a subject of major modern concern for philosophers all over the world because it is an enterprise with untapped potentials and a plural content requiring attention, study and analysis, which cannot be left for African philosophers alone.
The first chapter deals with the socio-epistemological problems encountered by an outsider, who sets out to comprehend another culture. The chapter takes the position that seeing something as it is is the backbone of philosophy. All analyses and arguments for the understanding of another culture sit on this position. It is on that premise that Bell raises the issue of relativist and indeterminate nature of understanding itself, implying that understanding is a basic necessity of existence. Bell also examines Peter Winch’s postulation of ‘being in tune with others’ and uses it to debunk the argument that only Africans should write about African philosophy. He therefore calls for all to pay attention to others – to open ourselves and accommodate the categories in other things, which we seek to understand. In relation to that, Bell contends that after a thorough understanding of the nature of understanding itself, what must follow (in an attempt to understand another culture), is an aesthetic evaluation and acceptance of the peoples’ metaphysical thinking and the logic of their language. Therefore, in understanding African culture, an outsider must know the type of questions the people ask and the sort of answers they provide for such questions. It is only by this method that we can open up the ‘other culture’.
Chapter two examines the disputation between the old and younger generations of African philosophers. It argues that this disagreement is unnecessary because both generations draw from the same source, at least partly. Representing the older generation, ethnophilosophers (Placide Tempels and others) are presented as pluralistic and universal in their enterprise and lacking in reference to an African literary background. But Bell says that ethnophilosophy (like sage philosophy) is relevant in contemporary African philosophy because it provides written account of a hitherto oral tradition, thereby creating an identity pattern in African philosophy. On the other hand, Bell tells us that the younger generation of African philosophers are mainly concerned with scientific criticism and surgical thinking – a temperament rooted in western tradition in philosophy. However, Bell merges all the generational characters in African philosophy with one word: dialogue. Whether old or new, Bell posits, African philosophers have a “voice” and all are in one conversation or the other. That is one thing that makes African philosophy universal without the generational bar.
Chapter three dissects African political philosophy, starting off with the concept of negritude. It exposes the role of the concept in creating and motivating the ideas of ‘African Humanism’ and ‘African Socialism’ especially during the period of colonial struggles. With recourse to history, this chapter explains the philosophical tendencies of Leopold Senghor and Kwame Nkrumah and presents them as the leading light in the assertion of African-ness. Bell’s presentation of post-colonial African thought shows a turning point in African political philosophy where the past is jettisoned and a new future sought to be carved out by a crop of philosophers. Their radical position views the colonial experience with contempt and therefore seeks to obliterate it altogether. However, Bell says that the African colonial experience speaks for itself whether we articulate it or not: “The post-colonial African reality is speaking, writing and artistically expressing a philosophy out of its encounters with European modernity. It is also speaking out its poverty, suffering, and affliction, and from its own rich heritage of humanistic dignity”.
In a medley, chapters four and five present and analyze the contributions of African philosophy to universal moral issues, the various ethical arguments in the African context and the significance of such arguments. In this endeavor, moral concepts such as justice, rights, truth, self respect, reconciliation, responsibility, etc are examined. Also, African values such as generosity, compassion, reciprocity, mutual sympathy, cooperation, solidarity, confession, and communal punishment are explained as powerful instruments in African thinking. In spite of all these, Bell noted that certain questions couldn’t be left unanswered. These are questions concerning the reality of poverty, disagreements, and afflictions. Bell says that the combination of these problems and the existence of African ethical values make the continent quite distinct and experientially difficult to comprehend. Once again, he calls for a two-way understanding of this fact by non-Africans who should feel the pulse and help heal the wound of the African condition.
Chapter six deals with the role played by oral narratives in African philosophy especially in ‘interface’ with western thinking. With reference to the village life, Bell says that African art, literature, music, dance, mode of governance (‘African democracy’) and philosophy take their roots in oral proverbs and stories about forebears. African oral narratives should not surprise any non-African because they stand for the engaging thoughts of the people while symbolizing the instrument of consultation, participation and reciprocation in traditional relationships.
Bell concludes that the African oral tradition, system of governance, values and experience have consummate philosophical significance for the human race and therefore, cannot be ignored.
No doubt, Richard Bell is quite contemporary in this book. In doing so however, he avoided some essential elements in the foundation of African philosophy: African myths and religions. Myths and religions are in the heart of the African; and they actually provided the background for ethnophilosophy, which Bell referred to in the first chapter of his book. For this reason, it would be useful to read alongside Bells’ book, Newell Booth’s African Religions: A Symposium, and African Philosophy by E. A. Ruch and K. C. Anyanwu. Also, Bell raises new questions in African philosophy: whether understanding itself can be perfectly understood, whether seeing something as it is, is truly the backbone of philosophy, whether it is possible to transfer a cultural experience from an insider to an outsider without losing something, whether a non-African can be as well-positioned as the African in understanding and presenting the problems of African philosophy.
Understanding African Philosophy is a fluid, scholarly work with postmodern appeal to young researchers in African philosophy. It is one philosopher’s clarion call for an understanding of a philosophy outside his own state of affairs. The appreciations for Bell’s effort will linger for a long time.
Muyiwa Falaiye and Oscar Odiboh
|Home | Current Issue | Previous Issues | Submission Guidelines | Books for Review|