Religious and philosophical thought in Africa


School for Oriental and African Studies

Lecturer: Kai Kresse
(room 482)

Lecture programme

This course is designed to introduce students to selected aspects of philosophical thought in Africa. Understanding ‘philosophy' and philosophical issues in relation to ‘Africa' is the major aim of the course, and for this, links to and overlappings with perspectives of other disciplines will be utilized and investigated: literature, history, anthropology, and religious studies. The course is topic-orientated, moving from general and introductory sessions on the concepts of philosophy and Africa to specific African cultural contexts of intellectual and philosophical discourse. Finally, selected themes within the field of such discourse, such as aesthetics, political theory, feminism, and others will be treated. Also, major methodological approaches to the field, i.e. hermeneutical philosophy, sage philosophy, and others shall be introduced and discussed.
The aim is to a) provide a general overview on the history of research and debate on African philosophy from a systematic angle (i.e. tracing and understanding the main conceptual problems), and b) to discuss a number of prominent textual and ethnographic examples in their contexts, so that in the end the students can follow recent and current discussions in this field independently. This, they will be able to show in their final essays based on case studies.

Essays and examinations.

The course is assessed by:
- one 5000-word essay which counts for 50% of the final mark. The essay is based on a case study of the student's choice, as described below.
- a two-hour final written examination.
Note: The 5000-word essay must be submitted to the Africa Department office (Room 477) by the first day of the third term.

Case studies.

A case study consists of research into a specific topic selected by each student based on his or her own interests. Such research may be related to any period, historical or modern, any region of Africa, or any aspect of philosophical thought in Africa. The case study must, however, be based upon primary source material (that is, material either spoken or written by Africans) which can be analysed in its social and political context. Listed below is a selection of case studies which have been researched by students in recent years - in order to give you an idea of the variety of topics that have been chosen.
Note: case study topic proposals must be submitted to me, in writing, before the end of the first term. This submission must include a brief description of the topic (no more than one page, normally) and a preliminary bibliography (with short comments on every text mentioned). Feel free to seek advice on the selection of your case study as often as you wish.

Examples of case studies completed in past years:

General readings:

D.A. Masolo's African philosophy in search of identity (1994), an historical overview of the central issues of the modern debate, and P.J. Hountondji's African philosophy. Myth and reality (2nd edition, 1996), a systematic critique of simplistic approaches to philosophy in Africa, are the most important general readings for the course. I strongly recommend to read at least the two in whole (large parts of both are compulsory reading anyway). For this reason, buying these two books is a worthwhile investment. Furthermore, a good and easy introductory read is S.O. Imbo's An introduction to African philosophy (1998).

* signifies the required central readings that will be discussed in detail.
^ signifies additional readings for a specific aspect or sub-topic.
Thus *texts MUST be read, ^texts indicate a choice (one of these MUST be prepared).

Topic 1: Introduction, overview

In this session, various approaches of how to define African philosophy and how to order the field of philosophy in Africa are presented. Paradigms of orientation are discussed, in relation to a sketched overview of the debate, highlighting some initial conceptual tools that can be of help throughout the course when referring to various different trends, schools, camps within the wider debate.

2. Understanding the key concepts: a) ‘philosophy', ‘philosophical discourse'

As the concept of philosophy is of central concern for the course, this lecture has a closer look a various competing definitions of and approaches to philosophy within the history of Western philosophy, which are presented in brief. An awareness of the internal pluralism of Western intellectual history should help identifying and contextualizing a plurality of positions in the African debate - also, academic African philosophers often situate themselves in relation to such thinkers. Furthermore, the relation between ‘philosophy' and ‘culture' is thematized (following Cassirer). An attempt to formulate an acceptable common denominator of ‘philosophy' is undertook, with a view to the problem of how to apply it to intellectual discourse in other cultures, while taking into account the derogatory perspective on Africans by some prominent European thinkers.

3. Understanding the key concepts: b) ‘Africa' and ‘African'

What is ‘Africa', and where is it? How is the adjective ‘African' used, and what is meant by it? This lecture intends to raise consciousness and sensitivity about the problematic usage of these terms as labels, especially in regard to intellectual discourse. Various applications are presented and discussed. In this context, the question of ideology is brought in, for it is obvious that coining ‘Africa' in a certain way mostly follows a certain practical interest. Related to that is the issue of historical continuity of discourses on Africa and the question as to whether participants (the African academic, the European student) are always, and even somehow necessarily, part of such continuity.

4-5: The project of ‘Bantu philosophy' and the critics of ‘ethnophilosophy'

What is the project of ‘Bantu philosophy', initiated by the Belgian missionary Placide Tempels, all about? His book, while making a remarkable claim for philosophy in Africa on the one hand, on the other hand still kept up a paternalistic European ‘view from above' on ‘the Africans'. Also his missionary interests had a major impact on the character of the study. Tempels' book is central for an understanding of the debate on African philosophy because it was emphatically praised and severely criticised from both African and European scholars, and all major works in the field make reference to it. It sparked off a tradition of African scholarship (Kagame et al.) which was brandmarked as ‘ethnophilosophy' by its critics (Hountondji et al.). Tempels' descriptive approach and his loose usage of ‘philosophy' have been open to criticism as ‘pseudo-anthropology' and ‘pseudo-philosophy'. Other critics focused mainly on the colonial context (e.g. Cesaire) from a perspective of liberation.

6-8: Qualified fieldwork on philosophy and knowledge in African cultures

If there is something like an ideological deadlock between ‘ethnophilosophy', its critics, and the criticism of the critics, the engagemant in some kind of ‘philosophical fieldwork' seems fertile. In this vein, three lines of research on intellectual and philosophical discourse are explored and related back to ‘ethnophilosophy': a) Oruka, in his sage philosophy project, attempts to prove the existence of philosophical traditions in Kenya;
b) Other African philosophers such as Wiredu and Gyekye produce case studies on philosophical topics within their own languages and cultural contexts. From the angle of analytical philosophy, Hallen and Sodipo investigate Yoruba conceptions of knowledge.
c) In the field of African studies, historical and anthropological documentations and discussions of knowledge, intellectual discourse, and individual thinkers are produced.
N.B. Select ONE of the three sub-groups for readings in order to prepare a presentation. Readings with ** have to be read by ALL students in ALL groups.

6. Sage philosophy

7. Other philosophical works

8. African studies, anthropology, history

Reading week

N.B. Before reading week, the case study topic proposals have to be submitted.
They must include a brief description of the topic and a preliminary bibliography. The bibliography should include some notes (not more than 2-3 sentences) on each reference, giving an overview of its contents and stating why this book or article should be included in the work on the case study.

9. The problem of language

10. The hermeneutical approach

Term 2

In the second term there will be no lectures. The first five sessions will be used to work through the following topics in the form of presentations and discussions. The latter sessions of the term will be used for presentations on the proposed case study projects. Every students will have the chance to present on her/his topic at least once. For those presentations, essays on the respective case study topics MUST be handed in by the first week of the second term, so that I can go over them and organize the sessions for presentation in advance. All students will then receive a copy of every paper to be presented one week in advance. This framework should help to produce fertile discussions in which the presenters gain helpful feedback from the other students, which in the end should have a positive input for the case studies.

11. Various Afrocentrist positions and their critics

a) ‘classical' Afrocentrism and criticisms

b) political nationalist doctrines

N.B. Select ONE of the two groups for readings and presentation.

12. Reconsidering ‘the postcolonial situation'

13-15: Current debates- African aesthetics, feminism, political philosophy

13. African aesthetics

14. African ‘feminism'

15. African political philosophy

Final note: In regard to the 5000-word assessment essay on a case study, any of the above topics, but also individual thinkers or other topics (like moral philosophy, development, or others) can be chosen after consultation with me.