What are the advantages of the African philosophy

African philosophy or philosophy in Africa?

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2. The ethnophilosophical approach
2.1 Placide temples: Bantu philosophy
2.1.1 General information about the work
2.1.2 Life force as a central value of the Bantu philosophy
2.1.3 The ontology of the Bantu
2.2 Reception of the ethnophilosophical approach according to Temple

3. The universalistic approach
3.1 Paulin J. Hountondi: African Philosophy. Myth and Reality
3.1.1 General information about the work
3.1.2 The question of the existence of African philosophy
3.1.3 The role of the African philosophers
3.1.4 Philosophy as history
3.2 Kwasi Wiredu: Philosophy and an African Culture
3.2.1 General information about the work
3.2.2 Traditional philosophy vs. modern philosophy
3.3 Reception of the universalistic approach according to Hountondji and Wiredu ..

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1 Introduction

African philosophy or philosophy in Africa? There is probably no question that has shaped the discussion about contemporary African philosophy as decisively as this one. At the center of this question is the concept of philosophy itself. This can be understood either as culturally bound or as culturally independent, i.e. universal. The African philosopher Paulin Jidenu Hountdonji sums up the problem as follows:

What is philosophy or, more precisely, what is African philosophy? The problem is whether adding the word “African” preserves the habitual meaning of the term “philosophy” or whether simply adding an adjective necessarily changes the meaning of the noun. What is up for grabs is the universality of the term “philosophy” beyond its possible geographical applications.1

The culture-relatedness and universality of the concept of philosophy seem to be irreconcilable - at least when it comes to the African continent.

The task of this scientific work should be to illustrate the conflict between the two competing basic positions and to compare them with one another. First of all, the Belgian missionary Placide Tempels should be dealt with, who laid the foundation for what is known as ethnophilosophy with his work Bantu Philosophy, published in 1946, and can therefore be seen as a representative of the culture-bound approach. This is followed by an analysis of the universalistic approach, represented by what is arguably the sharpest critic of ethnophilosophy: Paulin J. Hountondji. As an additional representative of the universalist approach, the African philosopher Kwasi Wiredu will be presented with his work Philosophy and an African Culture. The final part of the thesis is a critical comparison of the two approaches.

2. The ethnophilosophical approach

2.1 Placide temples: Bantu philosophy

2.1.1 General information about the work

The first systematic attempt to look at traditional thinking in Africa from a philosophical point of view was made by what is known as ethnophilosophy. Gerd-Rüdiger Hoffmann and Christian Neugebauer define this term as follows:

We call ethnophilosophy all those idealistic currents that deal with the reconstruction of a so-called traditional African philosophy from proverbs, grammars and / or social institutions and that adopt a collective and unchangeable "philosophy" among Africans [...]. The essential point of reference and result are traditional African values ​​and traditional African society, both of which can hardly be verified empirically.2

The Bantu philosophy published in 1946 by the Belgian Franciscan priest Placide Tempels is generally regarded as the basic work of ethnophilosophy3. Tempels, born on February 18, 1906, went as a missionary to the colony of the Belgian Congo, more precisely to Lake Mweru, in order to convert the Bantu who lived there to the Catholic faith. Between 1933 and 1940 he then tried to reconstruct the thinking of the Bantu as philosophy based on their language, proverbs and customs.4 This philosophy will be defined in more detail below.

The starting point of Tempel's work is the recognition that the various traditional customs and practices of Bantu, which for a long time have been referred to as manism (cult of the dead), animism (belief in spirits and souls in people), mythology or totemism (human relationship to animals and plants), "logically connected and justified by one and the same philosophy: namely by the Bantu ontology"5. Tempels is therefore certain that there is a traditional Bantu philosophy, whereby this takes the form of an ontology, i.e. a general doctrine of being. Before going into more detail on this doctrine of being, the central value of the Bantu philosophy should be explained: the life force.

2.1.2 Life force as a central value of the Bantu philosophy

By studying the language of the Bantu, Tempels found that many words and phrases mean 'power', 'live vigorously' or 'life force'. This does not always mean physical strength, but rather a "completely human"6. The Bantu speak of the power of all of being, of all of life. So all customs and life practices of the Bantu are geared towards gaining vitality and vitality. To clarify this view of life, a short example should be given: the bwanga is a magical remedy for the healing of injuries among the Bantu. However, it does not necessarily have to be applied to the wound itself, because it has no direct therapeutic effect. Instead, bwanga heals the sick by strengthening the life force and being itself.7 This example clearly shows that “the highest, the only happiness for the Bantu is to have a great life force, to be strong. The greatest and only misfortune is to be weakened in one's vitality, one's vitality ”8.

2.1.3 The ontology of the Bantu

Tempel's main thesis about the Bantu philosophy is that the ontology of Bantu is characterized by the principle of 'being = power'. For Tempels, this is where the greatest difference to the Western Christian philosophy lies. According to Temples, western philosophy is based on a static concept of being, i.e. the concept of force is not contained in the concept of being itself. Rather, power can be seen as an element that adds to being. The Bantu concept of being, on the other hand, is dynamic. For the Bantu, force is “inextricably linked with being as such, and therefore these concepts are also inseparable in the determination of being”.9. Power is a necessary element of being, or to put it more sharply: "Being is power"10. According to the Bantu, being or power can increase or decrease. Expressions such as “your life force is diminished” (kufwa) are to be taken literally and actually mean a change in human nature itself. According to the Western conception, on the other hand, being cannot be increased. A person no longer becomes a person by, for example, acquiring knowledge or doing good deeds.

Another principle of the Bantu philosophy is the hierarchy of forces. The powers are graded according to the rank of life and the firstborn. At the top of the hierarchy and thus above all forces stands God, who has the power through himself. It is He who gives the other forces their existence. He is followed by the firstborn among men, i.e. the tribal fathers of the various clans. They form the link between God and humanity. After the deceased of a tribe, finally come the people living on earth, followed by the lower forces of animals, plants and minerals.11

In summary, Tempels notes that the doctrine of being is a general spiritual possession of the Bantu. "It is certain," said Tempels, "that the philosophy of forces is a philosophy of life"12. The transcendental, general concepts about things, their power, their growth and their effects on one another - all of this constitutes Bantu philosophy. That is why, in the opinion of Tempel, "this philosophy can be found in the same form among all primitive peoples]"13.

2.2 Reception of the ethnophilosophical approach according to Temple

The ethnophilosophical approach according to Tempels is often considered paradoxical. By trying to overcome the prejudice of an unphilosophical Africa by working out a Bantu philosophy that is fundamentally different from European philosophy, he comes to the exact opposite result: the Bantu philosophy is not philosophy.14 This is particularly clear from the approach of Tempel:

Nor is it really likely that the Bantu themselves will give us complete philosophical terminology. The presentation of the systematics of a Bantu ontology must be our work. And when we have managed that, we will be able to tell the Bantu clearly what they think about beings in their deepest being.15

The Bantu philosophy does not come up by itself, but has to be addressed by those "who lead or should lead the Bantu"16, i.e. the missionaries are 'gathered' in order to then collect them for their own purposes. Tempel's religious interest in dealing with African philosophy is clearly evident here. According to his own statements, it is Tempel's goal to "Christianize the life force philosophy in him [the black man]"17. Finally, Tempels comes to the conclusion "that the old Bantu paganism and the old Bantu wisdom, that the deepest part of the Bantu soul has longed for the soul of Christianity as the highest, ultimate satisfaction of its homesickness and still longs"18.

Paulin Hountondji pointedly describes the temple as "a guardian of the colonial system"19if the latter characterizes the whites as people who "are probably above them [the blacks] in the ladder of births"20According to Hountondji, the Bantu philosophy is nothing more than a pretext for scholarly discourse among Europeans.


1 Hountdondji, Paulin J .: African Philosophy. Myth and Reality. Edited by Gerd-Rüdiger Hoffmann. Berlin: Dietz Verl. 1993. p. 55.

2 Hoffmann, Gerd-Rüdiger / Neugebauer, Christian: Ethnophilosophie = African philosophy? Comments against the zeitgeist. In: Hountondji, Paulin J.: African Philosophy. Myth and Reality. Edited by Gerd-Rüdiger Hoffmann. Berlin: Dietz Verl. 1993. pp. 219-240. P. 223.

3 Original Belgian version: Bantoe philosophy. Antwerp: de Sikkel 1946.

4 Cf. Hoffmann, Gerd-Rüdiger / Neugebauer, Christian: Ethnophilosophie = African Philosophy? P. 223.

5 Tempels, Placide: Bantu Philosophy. Ontology and ethics. Heidelberg: Wolfgang Rothe Verlag 1956. p. 17.

6 Tempels, Placide: Bantu Philosophy. P. 22.

7 Ibid.

8 Tempels, Placide: Bantu Philosophy. P. 23.

9 Tempels, Placide: Bantu Philosophy. P. 26.

10 Tempels, Placide: Bantu Philosophy. P. 27.

11 See Tempels, Placide: Bantu philosophy. P. 34f.

12 Tempels, Placide: Bantu Philosophy. P. 43.

13 Tempels, Placide: Bantu Philosophy. P. 47.

14 Cf. Kresse, Kai: On the African philosophy debate. http://lit.polylog.org/2/ekk-de.htm. (09/18/09).

15 Tempels, Placide: Bantu Philosophy. P. 18.

16 Tempels, Placide: Bantu Philosophy. P. 13.

17 Ibid.

18 Tempels, Placide: Bantu Philosophy. P. 118.

19 Hountondji, Paulin J .: African Philosophy. P. 28.

20 Tempels, Placide: Bantu Philosophy. P. 38.

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