A Brief Introduction to the Discourse of African Philosophy

What is African philosophy?

With February being Black History Month in the US, I wanted to take on a philosophical project that would teach me something I didn’t know. Over the past month, I’ve been reading An Introduction to African Philosophy by Samuel Imbo, which provides an excellent primer on the discourse and history surrounding African Philosophy. Since there aren’t many resources – especially beginner-friendly ones – widely available on the subject, I decided to devote this post to talking about the complexities of African philosophy.

What is African philosophy?

The story of African Philosophy is one which illustrates both the difficulties of comparative philosophy as well as the cultural and social forces that shape a society’s values. First and foremost, it is imperative to note that African philosophy, both as an enterprise and as a body of knowledge, cannot be understood without acknowledgment of imperialism and an awareness of the degree to which it altered life on the African continent. A great deal of the so-called formal or systematic African philosophy is dedicated not only to making sense of the horrors of imperialism but to understanding how imperialism influenced African identity and how African progress should look in light of it.

Sadly, and perhaps somewhat ironically, one of biggest issues in African philosophy is constructing a coherent vision of what African philosophy is. This is partly due to a problem I alluded to in this blog’s very first post – the notion of philosophy as a distinct enterprise, detached from all other aspects of culture, is arguably a modern notion that makes comparing bodies of philosophy across cultures very difficult. But assuming this notion is true, how exactly do we identify philosophical content when observing a culture? Being too liberal with the term philosophy would render every aspect of a culture philosophical, which would dilute its meaning. The opposite, however, being too narrow, erases potential philosophical insights that can be learned from taking comparative philosophy seriously. With African philosophy, this dilemma is exacerbated by the effects of imperial conquest which not only divorced Africans from their traditions but also ironically created the notion of a singular Africa. To some extent, this context makes the problem of defining African Philosophy a political issue, and it is here where one of the major struggles to define the concept begins. Precisely what aspects of recoverable African tradition best embody philosophy? And is there even such a thing as a distinctly African philosophy if the notion of Africa is primarily a geographical construct created through imperialism and external influence?

Drawing a map

Western philosophy, devoid of the complications of cultural comparison, is itself something that can be difficult to define. Sometimes it’s defined by what philosophers do, or it’s described as the disposition philosophically minded people have. Regardless of how Western philosophy is defined, though, it’s clear that it contains a lot of moving parts, and these parts often create contention among philosophers as to the exact nature of philosophy. Ancient Western philosophers saw aspects of epistemology and metaphysics as intertwined, whereas contemporary philosophy is more compartmentalized. In the 20th century (and possibly today to some extent), the sharpest analytic philosophers likely considered the concerns of continental philosophy as worthy of attention as astrology, whereas the contemporaries of continental philosophers probably saw these thinkers as foundational to Western thought. These differences don’t necessarily prevent Western philosophy from having a definitive character, but they do cast doubt on the narrative that the subject as a whole has a completely linear progression (as a Google search of “how to define progress in philosophy” will show). This is worth pointing out because formalized African philosophy can on some level be thought as a response to the racist claims of colonizers who often presented Western philosophy as a firmly unified body of knowledge whose progress was readily apparent in contrast to the supposedly fragmented and incoherent nature of African culture and philosophy. Still, some African philosophers took the claims of colonial powers as a challenge to either develop or point to existing aspects of African thought. Unfortunately, this meant that African philosophers had to spend time developing both their notions of what constituted philosophical thought, as well as what it meant for thought to be distinctly African, making their undertaking doubly difficult.

Authentically African

What exactly makes content distinctly African? Is it geographical, as in all materials produced by people living in Africa is part of a shared heritage? Is it ethnographic? Does Africa itself have a broad but distinct character that characterizes all of the cultures inhabiting the continent? Finally, if African philosophy has a definitive character, when and where did it begin? These questions are not at all easy to answer, but different approaches to African philosophy attempt to address them.

Despite the contention surrounding the origins and dimensions of African philosophy, it’s undeniable that the 20th century was the start of the most prolific period of African philosophy. There are several factors, like the education of Africans in Western institutions, which lead African and African-descended individuals to question their social conditions through written and systematic assessment. This type of philosophizing is more readily recognizable to Western audiences, and thus it is considered by many scholars to be the true beginning of philosophy in Africa. There have been many attempts to categorize the literature of 20th century and contemporary African philosophy, but as illustrated with Western philosophy, drawing conceptual maps can be difficult as it’s not always possible to clearly define boundaries. Generally, though, African philosophy is divided into the following schools or approaches:


Ethnophilosophy is a strange term. Because ethnophilosophy is an approach that was primarily identified and defined by its detractors and opponents, it can be challenging to give a substantive articulation of what it is and what specific works fall under its domain. Typically, the term refers to a broad range of approaches which suggest that philosophy can be extracted or deduced from the languages, myths, rituals, and beliefs of a culture. It was initially used as a pejorative to call out works that were seen as more literary, cultural, or anthropological than philosophical. This sentiment is most exemplified by Beninese philosopher Paulin J. Hountondji, one of the fiercest critics of ethnophilosophy. In his own words he considers it to be “…a science without an object, a ‘crazed language’ accountable to nothing, a discourse that has no referent, so that its falsity is never to be demonstrated.”

The critical concern that philosophers like Hountondji express is that ethnophilosophy assumes that philosophy shouldn’t at all be concerned with universal truths. Additionally, in its most common form, ethnophilosophy has been viewed by critics as an uncritical glorification of traditional and non-European aspects of African culture. Furthermore, it’s been pointed out that some types of ethnophilosophy have homogenized Africa by assigning essential features to Africans as a whole. At best, these descriptions were reductive and simplistic, but at worst they were seen as pejorative, affirming the worst assumptions of what Europeans thought of Africans.

Hountondji and his scientifically-minded cohort aren’t the only ones who had problems with ethnophilosophy. Philosophers like Ghanaian Mercy Oduyoye propose similar critiques from a feminist angle, criticizing ethnography for uncritically embracing traditional cultural values, despite these values reflecting inegalitarian gender roles. Whether or not ethnophilosophy deserves these harsh critiques has been debated, although the earliest works in the category have been criticized by a number of African philosophers. In the modern era, ethnophilosophy has fallen out of favor as African philosophy has evolved. It hasn’t been made entirely irrelevant, though, but instead, it’s become integrated with other approaches.


Another popular school of thought within African philosophy is the so-called universalist school of thinking (occasionally sometimes referred to as “modernist” or “professional”). This school tended to be posited by philosophers who formally studied western philosophy, often of the analytic variety, and sought to apply the same systematic rigor to philosophy within an African context. The name universalist refers to the philosophical concept of a universal which is a name given to properties of the world that exist independently of all people, regardless of context. True to their name, the universalists often argued that many of the emerging African philosophies tended to discount the value of a philosophy that sought to understand the broader world and Africa’s place in it, rather than just Africa alone. Philosophers like Hountondji who often critiqued the categorical coherence of ethnophilosophy typically fall under the universalist approach.

A common and more obvious critique of this school is that it tended to be more Eurocentric, sometimes at the expense of tradition. Hountondji, for example, limits African philosophy to “…a literature produced by Africans and dealing with philosophical issues.” Hountondji’s surmising of African philosophy, on the extreme end of the universalist perspective, restricts the definition of philosophy to written content and literacy – a view that for some comes too close to mirroring the overtones of racial superiority expressed by European colonizers. This viewpoint, however, shouldn’t be seen as the prevailing view of the universalists. Most of them, even Hountondji, agreed that there was value in studying older oral and written traditions, but for them, the task of doing so had to be undertaken critically. Rather than simply extrapolating the insights such content provided, universalists challenged their contemporaries to evaluate how useful these materials were in granting insights into broader truths about the world, as doing otherwise risked celebrating anachronisms that would prevent rational discussion about how Africa could engage with the world.


The hermeneutical school or approach represents a sort of middle ground between the universal and ethnographic approaches. On one hand, hermeneutical philosophers reject uncritical acceptance of older traditions and content. However, on the other hand, they also reject what they see as tints of Eurocentrism and detached abstraction from the universalists. Since the hermeneutical approach is a broad category, much like the ethnographic approach, it’s difficult to give it a firm character, but a number of the thinkers represented by this school were first and foremost concerned with a philosophy that sought to free Africa from the physical and mental confines imposed on it by Europe. Eritrean philosopher Tsenay Serequeberhan illustrates this by describing his approach:

It is a reflective and critical effort to rethink the African situation beyond the confines of Eurocentric concepts and categories. In this context … the empowerment of the oppressed can fruitfully be posed and engaged.

What both the ethnographic and universalist approaches lacked, according to the hermeneutical philosophers, is context, specifically the context surrounding the relationship between Africa and Europe. Ethnographic philosophers who fixated on the past effectively failed to engage the problems caused by imperialism. The universalists did the same thing according to hermeneutical philosophers because their philosophy was detached from the everyday concerns of African peoples. By being aware of these pitfalls, hermeneutical hoped to create a more complete philosophy that could actually tackle the conditions Africans faced.

Other schools of African thought

Some might consider other approaches of African philosophy to exist like the Philosophic Sagacity perspective, which can sort of be thought of as a hybrid of the ethnophilosophy and the universalist approaches (but to be fair, such a description does not at all do it justice). In the 1970s, Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka undertook a project that came to be known as “African Sage Philosophy.” The project involved evaluation of the oral traditions of various communities for knowledge that reflected the values of philosophy that the universalists articulated. As Oruka explains:

Philosophic sagacity … is often a product and a reflective reevaluation of the culture philosophy. The few sages who possess the philosophic inclination make a critical assessment of their culture and its underlying beliefs. Using the power of reason rather than the celebrated beliefs of communal consensus and explanation, the sage philosopher produces a system within a system, and an order within an order.

For Oruka, philosophical sages were individuals whose understanding of their culture transcended basic appreciation of any shared values. Sages could critically reflect on the purpose and effects of their culture’s views and practices. Oruka likened sages to the pre-Socratics and early Greek philosophers like Socrates whose views technically don’t come to us directly from their own writings. In the same vein, Oruka argues that a strict definition of literacy, as proposed by philosophers like Hountondji, should not be a requirement for a universal philosophy.

Oruka also has his own four school classification for African philosophy. His classification scheme includes ethnophilosophy (which as a universalist he doesn’t truly consider to be philosophy), philosophic sagacity, national-ideological which included political writings affirming traditional African values, and universal philosophy. Some other philosophers have their own amendments to Oruka’s classifications, but for the sake of this post I’ve chosen to focus on the three Samuel Imbo has highlighted. To some extent, these three schools touch on aspects reflected in some of the other schools not mentioned in this post.

Although it’s easy to see the approaches mentioned in this post as competing with one another, it might be better to view them as being on a continuum. Through a shared dialogue, each school played a role in shaping the discourse of African Philosophy. Ethnophilosophers can be thought of as “excavators” who found the raw materials of African culture – values, traditions, beliefs. The universalists and hermeneutical philosophers can be thought of as “refiners” who sought to take what the ethnophilosophers found and contextualize it, either to modern socio-political and economic problems or to notions of how Africa should approach universal truths about the world. From this dynamic emerged thinkers who later began to combine elements of these different types of approaches in meaningful ways. If possible, future posts on this blog will explore this progression as well as the thoughts and writings of specific African philosophers.