Ada Agada csp
Forum Scientiarum, Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen, Germany
The Conversational School of Philosophy, Calabar, Nigeria
It is easy to forget that African philosophy is still very much at the stage of idea-ferment and system-building. While Western philosophy has passed this stage and is now very comfortable with analysis at the expense of synthesis, modern African philosophy is at the stage Western philosophy found itself in the sixteenth to nineteenth century which marked, in my opinion, the most productive centuries of Western philosophical thinking. That was the age of great syntheses, beginning with Benedict Spinoza and ending with German idealists like Arthur Schopenhauer.
It was an aberration that the march of modern African philosophy was hampered early by undue focus on metaphilosophy which saw the emergence of the great universalism-particularism divide. I have always believed that without the publication of Paulin Hountondji’s influential work African Philosophy: Myth and Reality and the subsequent premature turn to analysis, African philosophy would have progressed faster from ethnophilosophy (which was the first step) to the system-building phase and eventually the analytic phase. As the history of African philosophy reveals, the radical critique of ethnophilosophy delayed the arrival of the system-building phase. Intellectual energy that should have gone into the construction of African philosophical systems by individual thinkers was instead dissipated on arguments about the existence of African philosophy, the perceived primitivity of ethnophilosophy, etc. The metaphilosophical engagement reflected a desire by professional philosophers to find a place for analysis in line with the fashion in Western philosophy even when there was very little substantive philosophy to analyse.
But analysis cannot predate synthesis. Should it forcefully overtake synthesis, we will have an aberration, which was what we had in the beginning. Jennifer Vest has used the term ‘perverse dialogue’ to characterise the aberration in her article “Perverse and Necessary Dialogue in African Philosophy.” Kwasi Wiredu, Kwame Gyekye, Innocent Onyewuenyi, Henry Odera Oruka, Segun Gbadegesin and others clearly realised that the path opened up by Hountondji was leading nowhere. Hence, they set out to enhance the dignity of descriptive ethnophilosophy by ushering in a new kind of engagement: academic ethnophilosophy. Academic ethnophilosophy marked the beginning of the system-building project.
Given the unmistakable achievements of the pioneer philosophers and the tendency to focus disproportionate attention on them – as the hundreds of articles written on Wiredu alone will easily reveal – one will think that the system-building phase of African philosophy has ended and it is time for us to concentrate on analysis. This is not the case because the academic ethnophilosophers have not radically transcended ethnophilosophy, which is the ultimate goal of system-building. The transcending of ethnophilosophy is the invocation of ethnophilosophy as an inspiration for a systematic kind of thinking that surpasses ethnophilosophy by completely leaving the orbit of ethnic worldviews and projecting universalist aspirations.
Since the publication of Mogobe B. Ramose’s intriguing book African Philosophy Through Ubuntu, a number of philosophers have taken up the challenge of building elaborate systems of thought which can at once lay claims to both Africanness and universalism. The emerging systems inhabit thought-structures like complementarism, consolationism, relationalism, and conversationalism. This is a development worth celebrating. I see more system-builders emerging in the near and distant future to sustain and radicalise the projects of contemporary system-builders like Innocent I. Asouzu, Ramose, Thaddeus Metz, Jonathan O. Chimakonam, and Ada Agada, to mention but a few names that readily come to mind. As I suggested earlier, African philosophy is evolving historically and we are going to have our own René Descartes, Spinoza, Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, etc. When posterity will look back a hundred years from now, two hundred years, perhaps even a much shorter period, it will lump L.S. Senghor, Wiredu, Ramose, Asouzu, Metz, Chimakonam, and the near-future stars as founding fathers of African philosophy.
The time gap separating Senghor from Chimakonam is negligible. Senghor was active as an African thinker in the 1940s and 1950s. A thinker like Chimakonam is still active in 2019. The time gap is just 70-80 years. The point I want to make is that from the perspective of posterity all thinkers and scholars active in the field of African philosophy in the 20th and the early 21st century will be grouped together into a single generation given that African philosophy’s uncontroversial history began in the 20th century. They will all be seen as pioneers and their works will be assessed without the kind of generational bias that prevails today. While the scholars will be acknowledged as having contributed to the general discourse, the thinkers, in particular, will be recognised as the iconic figures who defined African philosophical thinking in the beginning.
The possibility, nay certainty, sketched above, to me, seems like a powerful incentive to work very hard today in the face of non-recognition of system-building labour. It seems to me too that those philosophers embarking on system-building will be the thinkers most remembered by posterity. I can hear the eternal cynic sneering and muttering to himself that it does not matter what posterity thinks, that it is enough that one is celebrated in one’s lifetime and enjoys the fame and/or wealth that comes with recognition within a lifetime. After all, death ends all active sensations and thinking.
The pessimistic and cynical perspective is no doubt valid. But I persist in my stubborn hope and ask: is it not true that our lives are extended genetically and memorially in the lives of our children? If not children, then at least relatives who share family genetic resources and possess the capacity to remember and represent the past in the present? Right there! If our lives continue in the lives of our children and relatives – our posterity – and if our labours which are ignored today are remembered tomorrow by posterity, our descendents will surely rejoice. In their rejoicing we ourselves, though long gone, may yet rejoice in some mystical way. The story of Spinoza is a lesson. Not honoured adequately in his lifetime, posterity rehabilitated him and honoured him as one of the iconic thinkers of the world.
African philosophers should embrace system-building now more than ever. We cannot continue to argue over unimportant matters. Trifling metaphilosophical engagement cannot for long mask the lacuna in African philosophy, the empty space which systematic thinking should have always filled. Metaphilosophy itself is a desirable engagement, but it can only be meaningful when there is a substantial body of substantive philosophy. Mere intellectual talk-shops cannot constitute a history of thought. If ethnophilosophy is going to be relegated to the background, as it ultimately should, African thought-systems in the various branches of philosophy should come into the foreground and prepare the way for the kind of analysis that dominates contemporary Western philosophy. Attempting a leap from the starting point that marks the beginning of the history of African philosophy to the era of intense analysis without the consummation of the age of synthesis is like trying to ‘eat’ and ‘have’ one’s cake all at once. But this attempt at evading the natural sequence of the birth and growth of a philosophy tradition cannot succeed, which is why Hountondji looms so large in African philosophy as a critic of ethnophilosophy which sought to occupy the great lacuna in African philosophy. From West Africa to South Africa and from Central Africa to East Africa, established, emergent, and upcoming African philosophers must rise to the most urgent challenge they face as makers of a thought-tradition: the challenge of system-building.
By Rejoice Chipuriro and Aribiah Attoe
Between the 27th and the 31st of October 2019, the African Philosophy Society hosted some of the best minds in African philosophy and other related disciplines at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. What was particularly interesting about this conference was the focus on young enterprising African scholars, and this was shown in the fact that most emerging scholars who attended the workshop, did so with all-expense paid for.
On the 27th of October, like many other participants, the Conversational School of Philosophy’s expedition to Tanzania began with members attending in two teams – one travelling from Nigeria (where her base is located), led by Dr John Umezurike, and the second team travelling from Johannesburg, South Africa, led by Ms Rejoice Chipuriro. Dr Pius Mosima, a member from Cameroon had travelled alone from his country. For the first team travelling from Lagos, Nigeria, it was a long flight, having to lay-over for a few hours in Kigali Rwanda before moving on to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. For the second team travelling from Johannesburg, South Africa, it was a less arduous three-hour flight. Arriving at Tanzania’s small but beautiful airport immediately reminded one of the fact that one was close to the equator, as the bright sunshine and searing heat threatened to melt flesh from bone.
Having arrived and settled down in the two designated Hotels for participants at Dar es Salaam, the CSP was ready for the conference. The conference began on the 28th of October 2019 and participants were taken to the beautiful University of Dar es Salaam. It was indeed a serene environment and it was an interesting touch to see a large troop of monkeys running freely on the campus.
Having registered for the conference and set up her book display stand, which drew in curious participants, it was time for members of the CSP to attend the conference activities for the day, which was highlighted by a keynote address by Nigeria’s literary icon, and Nobel laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka. Inundated by various breaks – since the events of the day were long and jam-packed – members of the CSP took advantage of these free times to unwind, give their impressions about the events of the day, and strategize and bond as a team.
After the first day, the second and third days were mainly for individual presentations by participants in the conference. It was thrilling and quite educative to watch and listen to both young and old scholars deliver their various presentations, and members of the CSP were not left out. Apart from the two-panel sessions dedicated to “Conversational thinking” where CSP members like Jonathan Chimakonam, John Umezurike, Greg Nnajiofor, Jerome Alex-Hounnouve and Isaiah Negedu were prominent participants, other members presented their papers in various other panel sessions. While Diana Ofana and Amara Esther were prominent speakers in the panel on “Gender matters”, Rejoice Chipuriro and Edwin Ejesi were prominent in their panel on “International Development Agenda”. Other members like Aribiah Attoe (metaphysics and ontology panel, Mirian Alike (Philosophy in Africa: Critiquing the critique panel), and Pius Mosima (Phenomenology and Intercultural Philosophy), also made their presentations in their respective panels. The CSP members were shown to be quite adept at presenting their papers with their trademark extempore presentation, and they all received great feedback – in terms of questions and comments – after their talk.
In Conclusion, the Tanzania conference was generally a success, both for the organisers/participants and the CSP. This success is captured by the words of Rejoice Chipuriro, who, in describing her own perspective of the conference, writes:
“My journey to the conference began with some drama at the airport and that was when I first experienced the power of the CSP as an indomitable group in practical affairs of life. I was denied the opportunity to board my flight on some technical grounds – another barrier on human movement through border policing and control by our African countries. My team insisted that they were leaving no one behind and I was made the team-two expedition leader. Through the sheer determination of the CSP team travelling from Johannesburg, I was able to get appropriate permission to board my flight. The team stood firmly by me to the time we landed in Dar es Salam, where I was introduced to the rest of the CSP family. I was accommodated with so much acceptance and heartfelt camaraderie that I knew I had found my intellectual home. The CSP team residing at Kebbys hotel immediately took me in and we practised our presentation thoroughly with feedback. When I presented I was confident and I had three CSP members who attended and supported me. I reciprocated by attending and supporting member presentations at the conference. We enjoyed a truly arumaristic experience, and mealtime was team time where coaching took place under the leadership of our convener. My first African Philosophy conference left an impressive mark thanks to the power of the CSP teamwork.”
The death of Ifeanyi Menkiti (born on the 24th of August 1940) on the 17th of June 2019 came as a shock to the African philosophical community. Before his death, Menkiti was considered an “elder” in African philosophy, having served as a second-generation African philosopher with peers such as Kwasi Wiredu, Kwame Gyekye, John Mbiti, Paulin Hountondji, Peter Bodunrin, to name a few. With an established career spanning at least 40 years, Menkiti was best known for his seminal articles on African metaphysical understanding and as well as those detailing his views about African conceptions of personhood. Those articles still, and will continue to raise debates, and influence African philosophers.
So, it came as no surprise that
recognising the importance of his philosophical legacy, the Department of
Philosophy, University of Johannesburg, decided to host a tribute event for the
late giant of African philosophy, Professor Ifeanyi Menkiti. Organised by one
of her Doctoral candidates, Aribiah Attoe, who is also a member of the
Conversational School of Philosophy,
this event (which held on the 18th of October 2019) brought together experts in African philosophy as well as postgraduate students to discuss the life and philosophy of Ifeanyi Menkiti.
This event also brought together some heavyweights in African philosophy. First, was the keynote speaker, Prof Thaddeus Metz, who is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, who is well-known for his work in developing an African moral theory. Also invited was Prof Edwin Etieyibo, the Head of Philosophy Department at the University of the Witwatersrand and a friend of Prof Menkiti. Dr Oritsegbugbemi Oyowe, a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, whose work on personhood converses with the blueprint laid down by philosophers like Prof Menkiti, was also present as a panellist. Last, but by no means least, of the invited panellists was Dr Motsamai Molefe, a senior researcher at the University of Fort Hare, whose work on African conceptions of personhood directly ties with Menkiti’s view on the subject. Not left out, the event also featured respondents – Ms Sarah Setlaelo and Ms Lindo Gama – who are Postgraduate students from the University of Johannesburg and the University of Pretoria respectively.
The event began around 10:10 am, with a short welcome speech from the Head of Philosophy Department at the University of Johannesburg, Prof. Veli Mitova, which was followed by a keynote talk by Prof. Thaddeus Metz. Beautifully rendered, Prof Metz traced the history and trajectories of Prof Menkiti’s Philosophical legacies, before delving into the various
philosophical controversies, debates
and responses that Prof Menkiti’s philosophy garnered. This was followed by a
brief discussion between Prof Metz and some attendees, featuring various
questions and responses.
Taking an important turn away from philosophical discussions, Prof Edwin Etieyibo delivered a passionate speech about the person Ifeanyi Menkiti, portraying him as a man who imbibed his own philosophy of engaging positively with the community in which he belonged. He began
with a personal story of sacrifice, describing how the late professor Menkiti selflessly decided to be present and support him during his (Prof Etieyibo’s) keynote address in an event in Boston, rather than celebrate his birthday with his family in New York (as was the family tradition). Prof Etieyibo also described Menkiti as a community person. To show that this was a well-deserved moniker, Prof Etieyibo describes two events. First, was Prof Menkiti’s rescue of the Grolier Poetry Book shop. The Grolier poetry book shop stood as a historical melting point for poets and poetry from around the world and it served one of the most important cultural sites in America.
At the time, this important institution was about to go out of existence due to financial problems until Prof Menkiti bought it, not for profit (as he was losing money while running the bookshop) but for the sake of sustaining an important institution that defined the community which he belonged. The second event that Prof Etieyebo mentions is Prof Menkiti’s decision to buy two buildings – a 122-year-old building that formerly held the Performing Arts Center and the
Shack’s Men’s Clothing Store building in Worcester. These buildings were bought
in a bid to establish his Emengini Institute for Comparative Global Studies.
This institute was meant to help establish conversations and dialogues between
African humanities and the global humanities. Prof Etieyibo maintains that this
showed that Prof Menkiti possessed a global sense of community that envisioned
a more interconnected world.
Following Prof Etieyibo’s presentation, Dr Motsamai Molefe and Dr Oritsegbugbemi Oyowe both presented their accounts of personhood, following from Menkiti’s view. Dr Oyowe
understood Menkiti’s account of personhood as mainly a narrative that continues to flow through even after the individual becomes an ancestor, and insofar as that ancestor is remembered. And Dr Motsamai presented his view of normative personhood that is hinged on what he terms “sympathy”. After their presentations, what followed was a series of responses and discussions – with postgraduates Lindo Gama (University of Pretoria) and Sarah Setlaelo (University of Johannesburg) at the forefront.
All in all, the event was greeted positively as a huge success. What this event showcased was the need to emphasise the celebration of African thought and the thinkers who think them. Beyond this, the need to further develop the discipline of African philosophy as the torch is passed to the current generation is of great importance.