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Lee Brown, ed. African Philosophy: New and Traditional Perspectives.

Lee Brown, ed. African Philosophy: New and Traditional Perspectives. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 194 pp. $19.95.

This anthology is one of a kind in the growing literature in African philosophy: it is a breath of fresh air in two different ways. First, this book sidesteps the metaphilosophical issue of the existence and nature of African philosophy. People were tired of this issue, and called on African philosophers to move away from it to the "doing" of African philosophy by addressing substantive philosophical issues in African traditions. This book meets this challenge head on. The editor appropriately limits a discussion of this issue to the preface, only to use it as a basis for introducing the articles in the book. He indicates that this collection seeks to answer, in a substantive way, that African traditions have thought systems that address metaphysical and epistemological issues. He undercuts one basis for doubt about the existence of African philosophy and meets one criticism of the philosophical nature of African thought. Those who question the existence of African philosophy argue that philosophy is rooted in epistemology and metaphysics. Critics charge that traditional African cultures have not shown that they can address conceptual and theoretical issues in epistemology and metaphysics.

Second, African Philosophy is the first collection of articles that focuses on overarching themes in a specific area of philosophy. Many other books of African philosophy are omnibus in nature in that they cover a variety of issues. In this regard, it appears that the title African Philosophy does not do justice to the contents beneath it. If any book cannot be assessed by its cover, or more precisely, its title, then African Philosophy cannot. With the exception of Wiredu's study of the epistemological issue of truth, all of the other articles in African Philosophy focus on related issues in metaphysics. Indeed, there is no obvious basis for the inclusion of Wiredu's work except that, given Wiredu's place in African philosophy, any book without his contribution may appear incomplete. Wiredu insists that his account of truth in Akan tradition is epistemological and not ontological. Without raising the philosophical issues regarding the nature of epistemology and metaphysics, their differences and plausible connections, suffice it to say that epistemological issues do have metaphysical implications and vice versa.

African Philosophy focuses on an exciting set of interrelated metaphysical issues: the nature of ontological commitments in African thought systems, whether these commitments are rooted in the supernatural or empirical, and whether they have implications for human values. It also focuses on the implications of ontological commitments for the conception of a person and the nature of personal identity, the implication of the conceptions of a person for the idea of a chosen destiny, human agency, causation, and responsibility. However, these issues are addressed from the perspectives of different African traditions, such as Akan, Azande, Bokis, Igbo, Luo, and Yoruba. Underlying discussions of these issues is the pervasive question regarding proper methods of comparative analysis, and the problems of comparing views from African traditions with western philosophical ideas and stances. One such problem arises from efforts to analyze African views from a eurocentric or western conceptual framework. This problem is accentuated not only by efforts to use foreign language to capture African ideas or concepts but also the effect of colonialism, which involved the imposition of eurocentric languages and conceptual schemes on Africans.

The editor provides a comprehensive introduction to the book, a road map that suggests the terrain of the book. It summarizes the content of each article by indicating how the arguments and issues discussed dovetail into one another. Since the overarching issue in the book is the nature of ontological commitments in African thought system, Brown might have used his own article to introduce and foreground the other articles. Brown's discussion of the nature of ontological commitments in African thought system would have provided an effective backdrop for others to address the conceptions of a person and personal identity. He compares and contrasts the ontological commitments in western and African thought systems, and indicates that the theoretical posits in the two systems of thought are similar to one another. As such, ontological commitments in African thought system are not more problematic than those in western thought.

These discussions dovetail into Appiah's discussion, which provides a comparative analysis of Akan and Euro-American concepts of a person, and the problems involved in doing such comparative analysis. Adeofe provides an account of a person within the context of a Yoruba metaphysical worldview, and examines the role that such an account of a person plays in the efforts to identify a person or to see the same person as persisting across time. He argues that Yorubas have a three-part view of a person. He compares and contrasts this view with western views, and he indicates that the Yoruba view avoids the problems in many western views. Masolo continues this theme by discussing the conceptions of a person and personal identity in Luo thought system. He focuses on the concept of jouk (spirit or soul), the debate regarding its meaning in Luo culture, and the role it plays in understanding the concept of a person, human agency, morality, and responsibility. He criticizes efforts to impose western concepts on African ideas as well as efforts to understand African notions from western conceptual frameworks. He argues that in discussing the concept of a person, there are similarities in many African cultures, in that people usually go beyond the dualistic Cartesian categories of mind and body.

Gbadegesin, Menkiti, and Mosley address the issue of ontological commitments from fairly divergent perspectives by also using the issue of the conception of a person as a backdrop. Mosley criticizes the commonplace view that western metaphysical views make ontological commitments about natural facts, which can be investigated by science, while Africans' ontology involves metaphysical fantasies. He examines the phenomenon of witchcraft and the nature of ontological commitments involved in characterizing a person as a witch: Is a witch a material or an immaterial entity? Are its activities empirical in nature? Can they be expressed in scientific terms in the form of generalizations and law-like statements? Are these activities supernatural, magical, or paranormal? Mosley argues that African beliefs in witchcraft and spiritual entities cannot be empirically tested and confirmed. He insists that there are other non-empirical ways of establishing the truth and plausibility of statements involving witchcraft and spirits.

Along the same lines, Menkiti argues that the ontological commitments and metaphysical posits in many African traditions cannot be construed in supernatural terms. He indicates that westerners do not properly understand the nature of such ontological commitments because of the difficulty of language and the use of idioms. As such, there is insufficient understanding of some statements of causation and human agency in African traditions. Such statements are usually understood in supernatural terms, when in fact, they do not make any commitments to an ontology of supernatural entities. Such statements must be understood as making ontological commitments about the empirical, which have implications for the nature of values.

Gbadegesin's discussion of destiny seems to complement Menkiti's discussion of causation. Menkiti and Gbadegesin provide the ontological basis for human agency, causation, and the value underlying the ascription of responsibility. Gbadegesin examines the notion of destiny and whether the Yoruba's conception of a person as one with a chosen destiny implies fatalism, in that the idea of destiny suggests that one's life experiences are fixed. He discusses the implication of this view of destiny for our understanding of human agency and responsibility. If a person is conceived as having a chosen destiny, a choice that was made in utero when one did not have sufficient knowledge and rationality to make proper choices, then it is unclear whether a person's action that results from such destiny is one to which we can ascribe responsibility.

This book is a compilation of interesting and informative articles. Some of the articles are "old" views, and others are "new" views, never before published. Fortunately, Brown has brought them together, along with a "selected bibliography" that initially seemed to offer rich breadth for the exploration of epistemological and metaphysical issues in African philosophy. Ultimately, however, the "selection" of the bibliography is disappointing. It includes a number of books and articles that have nothing to do with epistemology and metaphysics. And it omits many articles in epistemology and metaphysics that have been published in reputable journals and that ought to be readily available to the author. One would have expected their inclusion in the bibliography.

Polycarp Ikuenobe

Kent State University
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Author:Ikuenobe, Polycarp
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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