Consolation philosophy & the struggle of reason in Africa


EXCERPT: The ambitious African philosopher finds herself between the devil and the deep blue sea. She has to convince the West that she has something interesting to say about philosophy. She has to insist that African philosophy is not the same as ‘philosophy in Africa’. And by insisting on African philosophy, she stamps her foot hard on the ground and defends the virtue of originality: innovative thinking that’s not subservient to the dominant Western tradition of philosophical thinking and which, at the same time, transcends traditional African thought. The other front of her struggle is Africa. She has to confront a very limited local audience averse to radical creative thinking. Most of her colleagues don’t think that ‘originality’ is possible or even desirable. These are colleagues who studied Western philosophy all through college, and had come to see Western philosophy as the supreme and only universal template of philosophy.

Aristotle held that philosophising begins with wonder. The African philosopher Jonathan Chimakonam suggested that, while wonder might have instigated Western philosophy, it was frustration that spurred African philosophy, with the emergence of radically Afrocentric nationalist philosophers such as Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire and Kwame Nkrumah who saw in philosophy an ideological weapon for attacking those who sought to denigrate and subjugate Africans culturally and politically. What is needed now is a 21st-century African synthesis that can help to resolve this struggle. ‘Consolation philosophy’ – spurred by both wonder and frustration – attempts to do just that.

The idea of ‘consolation’ philosophy does not imply an attempt to comfort philosophers. Rather, it suggests a philosophy of life, a project similar to the human-centred philosophical projects of Western existentialists such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gabriel Marcel, Søren Kierkegaard, Miguel de Unamuno, Emmanuel Levinas and German idealists such as Arthur Schopenhauer. Here I offer a brief presentation of this African philosophical synthesis, which I hope will help to resolve the dilemma eloquently put forward in 1997 by professor of philosophy at Penn State University Robert Bernasconi: ‘Either African philosophy is so similar to Western philosophy that it makes no distinctive contribution and effectively disappears; or it is so different that its credentials to be genuine philosophy will always be in doubt'...

Philosophy instigated as an "ideological weapon" is doomed to the blind spots inherent in its biased motive. This so-called "consolidation philosophy" doesn't seem coherent enough to overcome that huge pitfall.
(Oct 4, 2018 03:00 AM)C C Wrote: The ambitious African philosopher finds herself between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Only if she puts herself there intentionally.

Quote:She has to convince the West that she has something interesting to say about philosophy.

The first step is to actually have something to say of philosophical interest.

Quote:She has to insist that African philosophy is not the same as ‘philosophy in Africa’.

That's where it starts to get interesting.

Nobody ever says these kind of things about science in Africa. Nobody says that Africans need an African physics as opposed to 'physics done in Africa'.

It seems to me that one way for Africans to become of interest to philosophy is to have interesting things to say about philosophical questions that philosophers elsewhere are interested in. To join the international philosophical conversation in other words.

If Africans can shed new light on these issues by drawing upon local traditions or something, so much the better.

We see that with Indian philosophy. There's considerable interest in Indian contributions to the philosophy of language, ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. Of course India actually developed a philosophical tradition that inevitably found itself confronting many of the same issues that people confront everywhere. Their strength is that they addressed these issues from a unique perspective and hence might bring new insights to what seem like old controversies in our Greek-derived philosophical tradition.

I particularly like the approach taken by An Introduction to Indian Philosophy by Roy Perrett, (2016, Cambridge University Press). He addresses Indian philosophy in terms of questions about value, knowledge, logic, language, self, metaphysics and so on. Any Western analytical philosopher interested in these issues couldn't help but be interested in this book. See the table of contents here:

This way of addressing Indian philosophy revolves around the ways that it can shed new light on existing philosophical problems in the Western tradition. Another way of addressing Indian philosophy is by trying to understand it in its own terms. Perhaps the best way to do that is historically, by studying how Indian philosophical concepts evolved over time in their Hindu (and Buddhist and Jain) contexts. Why did these philosophers ask the questions they did about language for example? (What did it have to do with Hindu scripture?) Why did the Buddhists adopt such a strong nominalism in their metaphysical claims? (What did it have to do with how their 'no-self' doctrines had evolved?)

The problem for Africans is that they don't seem to have ever evolved a distinct philosophical tradition. They had elaborate traditions of myth and many traditional tales, not unlike early Greek myth or Mesopotamian, Egyptian or Hebrew traditions. But we can't just start discussing 'African epistemology' the way we can discuss pramana theory in ancient India. Mainly because strictly speaking, there isn't any African epistemology. Many Africans thought that they knew things, but don't seem to have produced any abstract theory of knowing. Certainly not a single one that Africans everywhere acknowledged.

So I'd say that the way forward for African philosophers might be:

1. Join the ongoing worldwide philosophical conversation and try to contribute something of interest.

2. Study the African mythological traditions. They will probably be of interest in their own right, much as the Greek myths are. And just as with Greek, Hebrew or Mesopotamian myth, philosophical ideas can probably be squeezed out of them like water from wet laundry put through a wringer.

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