Tag Archives: African Philosophy

“How ‘to talk religion’? Of religion? Singularly of religion today? How dare we speak of it in the singular without fear and trembling, this very day?”

Derrida 2002. Acts of Religion, p. 42.

This Derrida quote was above the abstract I sent in for the 23rd ISAPS conference, recently held in Vienna. My paper was titled “Bantu Philosophy” and the problem of religion in intercultural philosophy today. Going by the comments and questions after presenting my paper, I think I succeeded to bring some fresh questions to the debates on Bantu Philosophy, the 1945 publication by Placide Tempels, a Franciscan missionary in what then was called the Belgian Congo. Tempels’ book, which first appeared in Dutch and was later translated to French and English, kicked off the many debates on the existence and nature of African philosophy. Is philosophy localized, or universal? Was his presentation of a culturalized ontology a well-meant first attempt at intercultural dialogue, or can it not be taken outside of the colonial context in which Tempels worked? Or could both be true? In my presentation I wanted to go into another matter: Tempels’ attempt to sketch a solution to the loss of religiosity in what he called the age of industrialization – in the colonialized part of Africa where he lived as well as in Europe.

Although he culturalized ontology, Tempels still spoke of religion in the singular – a thing which we nowadays find hard to do, according to Derrida. Now there is much talk of religions, in the plural: we speak of the dialogue of religions, or their confrontation. To talk of religion, in the singular – to ask whether there is any meaning in religion as such, seems an obsolete question. Especially in philosophy. This would imply, namely, to discuss religious anthropology in a transcultural manner: to ask what human beings share in terms of religious desire. Tempels now, did exactly that. For him, ‘Christian doctrine’ was about receiving as a reality ‘the strengthening of life’. For him religion was all about

‘the aspiration towards the strengthening of life, the raising of it, the taking of it into the supernatural, its participation in the constant intensification and internal growth of our life through union, living union, with God.’ (80)

This rather unusual wording of what he saw as the essence of Christian religiosity he derived from his construction of what he saw as ‘Bantu ontology’ – which would be an ontology of ‘vital force’. In his view the people he had come to live amongst in the Congo had understood life, human life, and life in general, as a continuous possibility of intensification or decrease in vital force. Cursing another is meant to decrease his vitality, blessing her or him does the oppositie. Tempels’ initial motive to investigate and describe what he saw as original Bantu culture had sprung from his observation that all missionary work in Africa had actually failed, as European culture was brought over to African peoples in its new, materialistic and spiritually empty version, while religious teachers had never tried to understand the soul of those they aimed to convert, and therefore had not really conversed with them.

In the end however Tempels made an unusual double hermeneutical move – to first interpret what his African interlocutors taught him in terms of a metaphysics of life force, and to secondly reinterpret in its terms the languishing catholic metaphysics of salvation. This made him take Christ as the enhancer of life force per se, and as the counterforce in an age which, he feared, was about to empty the human person (African and European alike) of its soul, seeing progress solely in terms of industrialization and economic expansion. This was not just a hermeneutical circular movement avant Gadamer, as it simultaneously upheld the neo-scholastic claim to metaphysical knowledge of ultimate divine reality. Thus Tempels culturalized and contextualized what was supposed to sustain and transcend the contingent phenomenal world.

In my presentation I asked whether we should see this in the light of his confused non-professional philosophy (Tempels just took the two years of philosophy required in the study for the priesthood), or whether in the end his work contains elements for an answer to Derrida’s question: how to speak of religion without fear and trembling. If it does, perhaps some light can be shed in the discourse which only speaks of religious difference, without seeing how religion should be analyzed in a contextualized manner – as intrinsically related to the political and economic struggles that disturb our present times.

If we follow that road we could see that any philosophical search for truth (post – cultural relativism) has to move through analyses of the political and the economical. In Tempels work we see the beginnings of such a move – where he relates religion (in the singular: be it Christianity or traditional African religiosity) to the historical situation of industrialization and colonization – a situation that advertizes itself as civilization, but Tempels doubts this. He tries the idea whether it might not be better in a sense for Europeans to let themselves be taught by those they allegedly came to civilize.

‘We get the impression that these masses want to rise from their alleged lowliness, clothing themselves in the knowledge of their own lore and in their conception of the world; and thus standing before and looking down upon the small group of Westerners […]” (73).

To state, as Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha does in his article in the Encyclopedia Brittanica , that Tempels remained bound to a colonial outlook because he saw Christianity as superior to traditonal African religion is too fast a conclusion to my view. His Christianity did not speak (as traditionally was done in European religious discourse) of salvation of the eternal soul, but of a continuous intensification and internal growth of life through union with God – which to my view is a Christianity which had been transformed through its contact and dialogue with ‘Bantu philosophy’ – with his observation that ‘there is to be found in the depths of the Bantu soul an aspiration, an irresistable allurement towards an infinite strengthening of life.’ (81) This is not just a reformulation of traditional Christian ‘talk of religion’ – it is quite another talk. Of religion, across cultural and theological difference, positioned over against what Tempels saw as the false progress of industrialization and the only materialistic ‘development’ through colonialism.



I guess that was my longest ‘silence’ ever between two blog posts. And even while there was so much happening in my philosophical life… Now I have to try to catch up a bit, before things will be too far in the past. In Momentum I wrote about experiencing new opportunities of collaboration and exchange on what matters to me in philosophy – and I mentioned one of them: an invitation to the philosophy department of the University of Essex. There, by mid-May me and Tübinger colleague Philipp Thomas, who has great experIMG_4297tise in teaching how to teach philosophy, were welcomed to spend some days for exchange with our Colchester colleagues in what our host, Matt Burch, had named a ‘pedagogy workshop’. A very apt title, as we gathered in different formats around pedagogy -explicitly on our common field: philosophy. We were kindly invited to observe teaching approaches in the newly formed summer program for bachelors students, to participate in a research activity on ‘race and gender’ theory, and to present our own views on philosophy pedagogy amidst an engaged group of Essex-colleagues.

I was invited to speak about ‘teaching philosophy interculturally’,  and my experiences with my new course on intercultural and African philosophy – designed for students in arts, communication and literature at my own university. I started by telling about ‘how I got here’. About my long standing interest in a dialogical approach in teaching, which I first used in the early nineties with the seminary students I taught for four years, being convinced that they should not just acquire knowledge of philosophy, but do so while also practising the art of exchange of ideas with each other and with me, their teacher. On top of that, I was not interested in promoting intellectual discussions only, but more so to create a safe space in which they could express personal commitments to values – so that these could be articulated, scrutinized, affirmed or critiqued – to be prepared, so to speak, for our present day situation of interculturality and pluralism. On the basis of this experience I was assigned the task, at the Free University Amsterdam, to transform service teaching (philosophy for non-philosophy students) from one-directional classical introductions into philosophy – into courses that were tailored to the programs in which they had to function, with more stress on active participation of the students. The actual transformation was of course coming from the teachers who designed and taught the courses – for earth sciences, biomedical sciences, and all the other fields. We involved pedagogy professionals from our teaching expertise center, who were developing a value-dialogue based method of academic teaching. The idea of this approach was that philosophy courses, more than before, would help students from all fields to develop their critical skills, not just intellectually, but alIMG_4310so concerning societal, personal and cultural matters. That was twenty years ago. And over the years, developing several dialogical approaches as a service teacher myself (as well as in the philosophy bachelor and master programs), I introduced more and more content into the courses from other places than the obvious European and American ones – teaching, for instance, on the links between diverse African philosophies of communality and individuality and American theories of the social self, or on Foucault’s work on the prison in comparison with that of Angela Davis, using Rwanda’s gacaca courts as an example of new experiments of doing justice in cases of violence on an extreme scale. I was finding my way experimentally, as I didn’t want to close myself in in new – alternative – schools that were already emerging here and there. I showed, in my presentation, how I always make a point of including photos of the philosophers from different continents on my powerpoints, to create an – also visually – inclusive space for the students to learn together.

While I perceived the philosophy department at the University of Essex to be very open to connecting the field to ‘real world issues’, and as having a much more diverse student population than my own department has – my experience teaching students from so different fields as dentistry, cultural anthropology and development studies, theology as well as organization and governance studies – fields which include much more diverse student populations (in many respects) than the discipline of philosophy -, had brought me to this point in time where I could share from what I learned. And I got so many helpful and stimulating questions and responses. It was a great learning experience, and has nourished my hopes to develop further plans for interculturalizing and decolonizing philosophy teaching, together with colleagues from different parts of the globe. I think it is time for philosophy departments to get into this – to think through in a critical manner the efforts for inclusivity and diversity other fields in academia also have made, and also to re-think philosophy’s own role in history – often too close for comfort to the racisms and colonialisms in which European politicians, kings and entrepreneurs, do-gooders as well as researchers, entangled themselves.

Postscript: this was only the first of at least three or four other subjects for blogposts that were waiting too long!

Francesca Bordogna begins her 2008 book on William James ‘at the Boundaries’ discussing how the pragmatist philosopher created confusion with his 1906 address of the APA, on ‘the Energies of Men’. According to the closed-in minds of the professional philosophers, Bordogna writes, he only showed his own failure at good philosophy, by mentioning not only psychological and physiological insights, but also unscientific sources from popular spiritual healers and thinkers – in search for what could bring human beings to higher levels of mental and physical energy. An approach like that of James would probably still get the same kind of reaction at most gatherings of professional philosophers. Philosophy is, they hold, about conceptually clear analysis of theoretical and practical problems, or, if one is into continental philosophy, about rich hermeneutic descriptions of structures and ideas. It is not about ideas of what James called “common, practical men”. Philosophers can speak about their beliefs, of course, but not take these beliefs into the philosophical discourse itself – thus works the discipline’s exclusion of voices from ‘ordinary’ life. As Peter Park has shown in his historiography of the modern canon in philosophy, the gradual exclusion of religious and spiritual texts from philosophy, and the rewriting of its history to legitimize this move, has served the racist effects (if not motives) of the modernist, professionalized field. The issue of racism in modern philosophy had earlier already been outlined by Emmanuel Eze. His work and that of Park, implicitly also serve to bring philosophy, in post-Enlightenment times, again beyond the modernist boundaries that were challenged by James.

Pius Mosima’s recent book, which aims to provide a critical discussion of the concept of sagacity, as introduced by Henry Odera Oruka, now adds the case of African philosophy to this growing movement to bring philosophy beyond the boundaries. And it does so in a new, deconstructive, way, not trying to write a ‘grand narrative’ of what’s African (like e.g. John Mbiti attempted almost fifty years ago), but by including (in between the lines of his discussion of the past seventy years of the African philosophy debate, and of the philosophy of Oruka) practical and narrative approaches to problems of life that root in African traditions into the field of philosophy. Thus his book, titled Philosophic sagacity and intercultural philosophy, simultaneously criticizes the Euro-American hegemony in philosophy, as well as the strict policing of its disciplinary boundaries that goes along with it, and does so more by showing how things can be done otherwise, rather than by highlighting once more what’s wrong with modernist thought. At some points in his book Mosima is outspoken about his aim, as well with regard to its critical aspects, as to its constructive contribution to what he names ‘global wisdom traditions’. Below I want to highlight these outspoken moments, that add to a better view of what African philosophy could bring to the dialogical table of philosophy, as well as to a deconstruction of the modernist identification of philosophy with professional disciplinarity. What the book offers beyond that I will leave aside here. But one can also find in it also a well-researched (and much needed) overview and discussion of the different positions in the debate about African philosophy since the publication of Bantu Philosophy by the Belgian missionary Tempels, shortly after WW II. And of course a critical analysis of its main subject: Oruka’s philosophy of sagacity. Besides these two, very clear, main expositions, I was most intrigued by the general approach present in the book – which shows directions for a globalized philosophy beyond what Lewis Gordon has called disciplinary decadence.

What makes African philosophy a special case for doing so, lies in the fact that because “European imperialism and colonialism violently and profoundly disrupted Africa’s social, cultural, and political continuity and integrity” (17) it has had to find it’s voice, as Mosima shows, through and beyond debates about the status of traditional and modern knowledge systems, about whether to adopt an essentializing identity as ‘African’ at all, and, finally, about how philosophy can deal with its universalizing urges and its always localized commitments. This brings the author to adopt the view that “Place and belonging become what we make of them through constructs of meaning and through the construction of community.” This view sheds new light on the now globally so urgent matter of identity in a world that is increasingly interconnected through economical, political and even military processes. What’s more, it allows us (as I understand it) to take the achievements of African philosophy as a model for philosophizing in other places too. Philosophy is then allowed to move beyond a fixed geography of space, and beyond the idea of contained ‘continents’ to a continuous hermeneutical negotiation of the places where we think from. Thus marrying traditional structures of understanding that we commit to, to nonlocal reflections. This movement makes it no accident that a deconstructive (dislocating) approach is pervasive in the book. According to its author “intercultural philosophy enables us to go beyond the particularism of the ethnophilosophers and the universalism of the professional philosophers […] and helps us deconstruct the hegemonic imposition of the North Atlantic model.” (25)

Now the reader becomes intrigued to know what actual insights then, beyond the idea of an essentialized African tradition, African philosophy will bring to the global discussion. Here Mosima is not very explicit, but we can find many indications of where he would want to go to find such a contribution. We find remarks such as “We cannot interpret reality and search for wisdom just as abstract reality.” (70) Or, in a rather harsh criticism of those thinkers rejecting ethnophilosophy (like Hountondji, Towa and Oruka), we read that they are “overrated and promoted merely for the sake of the triumph of the Western, individual, text-based philosophy that they project.” (72) Alternatively, philosophy should take seriously, even include, ‘collectively managed and owned worldviews’ – to put it in James’ words: the ideas and practices of dealing with life of ‘common practical men’. Towards the end of the book, building from and critically dialoguing with Dutch intercultural philosopher Wim van Binsbergen, it becomes more clear what these ideas and practices in the case of the African heritage could be: besides traditional “wisdom of the body, expressed and mobilized in every ritual act of therapy” (120), “there are African local-level practices of conflict resolution and reconciliation”. (121) Thirdly, ‘comparative mythology’ is mentioned, as a source of symbolic knowledge of life available to human beings.

In the end, in the promotion of his radically dialogical version of intercultural philosophy (which differs from the more static approach of comparative philosophy), Mosima proposes to “look for an African sagacity that does not limit itself just to a ‘culture’ but goes beyond borders [taking into account] the oneness and interconnectedness of humanity.” He also clarifies the importance of this move – “to enable us to deal with common problems [for humankind, AR] across borders.” Thus, if we follow this proposal, philosophy will go beyond many boundaries simultaneously: first, it will leave behind the Western normative idea that ‘real’ philosophy consists of abstract thought and should be practiced only by professional philosophers; second, it will move beyond the idea that local wisdom is contained within fixed cultures (but rather is all the time anew performed, while cultures develop and interact with their context); and third it will move towards the most uncommon idea that philosophy can not just be detected or unearthed in human practices (e.g. of justice, of mythological storytelling, or of healing) – but that these practices themselves are philosophical. Philosophy cannot be identified with reason, but is love of wisdom, be it present in abstract thought, in healing practices, or in therapeutic storytelling. Interestingly enough, all this is motivated by a commitment which reminds one of the pragmatism of William James, understanding philosophy as a way of dealing with shared human challenges of survival, and inviting into it therefore practical wisdom from all kinds of venues.

A long time ago I wrote in a Dutch magazine a short article about the philosophy that could be found in the sayings of world famous and now mourned soccer player Johan Cruyff. Some readers found that I had went to far in translating the intriguing words of Cruyff into philosophical language. I might have. Cruyff’s exressions should perhaps be taken to be philosophy already. I am not sure about it. To the practical question of how to include the voices of ‘common men’ into philosophy William James did not yet produce clear answers. Pius Mosima does not provide us with them either. His book is more like a program, a guide of where he thinks a globalized philosophy should go. But with this already quite radical program in hand – to let the case of African philosophy deconstruct and reform the North Atlantic hegemonic idea of philosophy as abstract reason – one is now expecting the next, even more radical step: to include the actual practical wisdom, the actual voices, rituals, institutions and stories from ‘daily life’ into philosophy and bring them into dialogue with each other as well as with those of – now recognized to be local in origin too – Western-style disciplinary philosophy.


The page references follow the printed version of Pius Maija Mosima, Philosophica sagacity and intercultural philosophy. Beyond Henry Odera Oruka, published by the African studies Center, 2016. The book can be read online too.


On the 29th of March this year, I got an invitation to attend a conference in Calabar, Nigeria on “Marginalisation in African Philosophy: Women and the Environment”. It was not just an open call for papers, I was invited, together with other delegates from different countries, as “The colloquium is intended to assemble a tight small circle of active scholars in the fieldchairing-olajumokes of women studies and the environment through African philosophy.” Having been reading myself into the field of African philosophy for more than 10 years, supported by my own tight small circle of friends with a similar interest in the Netherlands, I was much honored that my work now paid off, and I was actually invited over!

Now I have been back a week, and still I am only starting to oversee the wealth of thoughts, themes, and contacts I have been put in connection with. The organizer of this event, professor Jonathan Chimakonam, is also the driving force behind the homegrown Conversational School of Philosophy at the University of Calabar. As usual, a good conference cannot be materialized without the help of students – who in this case did more than they would have in a Western-European context, where catering, transport, and such things are more abundantly available. Another common element of conferences is a table for purchasing books. I had up till now seen no more exciting book table as the one here – because the books for sale would be very hard to get in Eimg_3879urope, and their authors are neither very well known over here. At the same time, they contained fresh and intriguing philosophical approaches, that would be able to not just diversify, but challenge, Euro-American curricula. A distinguished American colleague, who clearly was experienced with this aspect, probably had brought an empty suitcase, as I saw her purchase a pile of books. I noted by myself to do the same would I to be able to visit another conference in Africa, but satisfied myself this time with just two titles, by Dr Ada Agada and Prof. Innocent Asouzou. But I will read more than was available in Calabar, as some titles are published this side of the Sahara, for instance by the Dutch African Studies Centre. The writer of one of these books, Dr Pius Mosima, of Cameroon, was also presenting and told me about the series.

My own paper focused on the subtheme of the environment, and presented the importance of a hermeneutical approach to create a dialogue between the different approaches to trees in an African context. The approaches distinguished were those of conservationalists, adherents to monotheistic religions (in this case Christianity and Islam)img_3815 and traditionalists. I showed that the different frameworks of these groups are negotiated regarding questions of conservation or cutting of trees. As negotiation is in essence a play of power, I proposed to move it to dialogue, in order to first understand and discuss the different meanings that are attributed to trees, hoping to promote a better communication, and thereby a more sustainable relation between humans and their environment. In the days before I gave my talk, I was amazed by all the beautiful trees in Calabar, of species mostly unknown to me. The picture shows a very impressive tree at the university campus where we gathered for our sessions. I felt as if the trees welcomed me. And so did those present, giving very stimulating comments and questions to my paper.

Before I decided to go to this very rewarding conference, having never heard of Calabar before in our closed-off European philosophy institutions, and hesitating still, as the trip would take a whole week out of my teaching preparations, I searched for some information. It was a little youtube video of the students (of whom I now count some among my friends) telling about what philosophy meant to them that actually won me over. Philosophy in Calabar, Nigeria is just philosophy, as it can be found all over the globe. But all the same it is more alive than in most places I had beeimg_3821n before. Perhaps because material circumstances of studying and doing research are unimaginably harder than in the rich country where I happened to have been born and raised, African philosophy seems to focus more on real world questions, is more engaged, and therefore, I would say, more relevant. It will take time to process all the new insights I gained, to read up on all the new books and articles I encountered. In the meantime I already enjoy writing and exchanging with so many new philosophical friends I encountered.

As a motto to my own lecture I took a quote from the famous African revolutionary and thinker Amilcar Cabral on the ‘Africanness’ of African thought and culture, and I might as well conclude with it now, as it sums up what I experienced and shared in these encounters:

“The important thing is not to waste time in more or less hair-splitting debates on the specificity or non-specificity of African cultural values, but to look upon these values as a conquest by a part of mankind for the common heritage of all mankind, achieved in one or several phases of its evolution.”

Amilcar Cabral 2007, Unity & Struggle. Speeches and Writings, Unisa Press, Pretoria, p. 180.

Photo credits: Moses Ogah Irem (the paper session) and Angela Roothaan (the other photos)