African Philosophy and the 2020 UNESCO World Philosophy Day Celebration: A Conversation with JO Chimakonam
By Chukwueloka Uduagwu
To mark the 2020 UNESCO World Philosophy Day Celebration, I interviewed one of the leading African Philosophers of this century, JO Chimakonam of the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
CU: The Third Thursday of November every year is set aside by UNESCO as World Philosophy Day. What is it all about and of what relevance is it to the development of African philosophy in particular?
JC: The World Philosophy Day is not exactly like most days earmarked for the celebration of one important thing or another; it is special in a sense. This special sense needs to be explained. Philosophy or the act of philosophising is the most sublime of human intellectual activities. It is the finest expression of human freedom. Freedom is not just about the motion of the body; it involves to an important degree, the allowance of the mind to reflect on issues of interest and express ideas it generates unhindered. To be free to do this is what it means to live. No one is truly living if they had no right to reflect and express their views. In the past years, The Conversational School of Philosophy (CSP), a society I belong to has organised philosophical outdoor events to mark the importance of the freedom of thought which usually culminates in a public lecture on a relevant topic. This year is not going to be different.
But I guess what I should talk more on is the importance of the UNESCO World Philosophy Day in the development of philosophy as both a discipline and culture. I would like to address this from the perspective of African philosophy. You are well away of the irresponsibility of some Western racists and sociopaths who discounted Africans who look like you and I from the sphere of reason. They say that we cannot think, thereby making philosophy a preserve of folks in the West. Now, we all know these despicable claims to be false, but how many people in the West are reflecting that knowledge in their behaviours towards the African today? I will save you the headache of tabulating the figures so as to avoid the danger of understating it. In August of 2019, I was travelling with a European colleague through some airports in Europe. The racial profiling against me by airport securities made this colleague sick, or so it seemed. In one occasion, I was put through the scanning machine twice, then asked to take off my shoes for some special scanning. My bag was also scanned twice. Then I was asked to take a seat and wait for further screening. All this time, my travelling colleague looked on helplessly at my ordeal. But such is the problem. Losing one’s cultural and intellectual heritage to the hegemony of the Western global systems does not only subsume and assimilate; it inspires racism and all forms of othering in the mind of the oppressor.
Now, UNESCO comes along as an agency of such a lopsided global system to recognise the epistemic resources of our people as having equal value with those of other peoples. It may not be everything, but it is definitely something we can reference as we bid to recover and restore the dignity of man from our corner of the world. As much as some folks in some places strive to deny the viability of the African episteme or seek to invalidate its propositions, part of what they would have to contend with is the apparent contradiction that such produces in light of UNESCO’s stance. I am not saying that UNESCO’s recognition of the African philosophical tradition as one of the traditions in world philosophy to be celebrated every third Thursday of November is everything. No, but it is definitely something we can tuck away in our goatskin bags as we develop and formulate modern systems of African philosophy. The job of developing and promoting African philosophy must still be done by the African philosopher, and the elements of the CSP are doing that excellently.
CU: Talking of the Conversational Society of Philosophy, which has emerged in the last decade as the most vocal African philosophical front, what does philosophy mean for you and for this group?
JC: Well, most people see philosophy as a critical activity. I would like to extend that a bit more by highlighting the importance of context. No philosophy is worth its name if it does not aim to attempt solving any problem for anyone. The interesting thing is that most problems or questions arise in specific places determined by method and logic. I think this is why there is talk about philosophy of this or that tradition. In the conversational tradition, we amplify method and logic as paraphernalia that shape thought from context to context. In the conversational tradition, that method would be conversational thinking, and Ezumezu, which is a strand of trivalent logic would be its logic. We may have the generic meaning of philosophy, but we cannot avoid talking about its nuances from culture to culture. Reason as the tool of philosophy manifests in different places and is shaped by the conditions of life in such places. What philosophy means for me as an African and as an advocate of the conversational approach is a critical and creative programme that aims at addressing the questions that arise in the African place but which can be universalised nonetheless.
CU: How do you describe the commitment to philosophy education in African countries, and what that portends for the role of the philosopher in nation-building?
JC: Very poor in some places, skewed in some other places and only fair in a few places. Perhaps, we should begin by asking how many countries in Africa meet the UNESCO budgetary recommendation for education? I don’t have the statistics, but when you consider the deplorable state of education and poor funding in many African nations, then you would imagine that the answer cannot be encouraging. Is there a country in Africa where philosophy is taught at pre-tertiary levels? I don’t think there is. I am aware that the new leadership of the Philosophers Association of Nigeria (PAN) are taking steps to woo the Nigeria law-makers to integrate philosophy in the pre-tertiary education curricula. I can also give an insider’s information that the Conversational Society of Philosophy is working on a project to develop classroom materials for pre-tertiary philosophy education, but these two efforts are independent of any governments and look to face tough challenges in securing government approvals and support.
You have to understand that like every other aspect of life philosophy is not immune to problems. In some parts of Arab Africa, philosophy is virtually non-existent for religious reasons. Where it does exist at all, it is watered down and restricted from engaging some topics. In other parts of Africa, like the Franco-phone, Lusophone and the Anglo-phone, it is skewed with Western methods which most times present it as a mere commentary on the reflections of Westerners, and alienate its spirit from Africa itself. We do not have to be too pessimistic; there are a few places where there is a burgeoning culture of academic philosophy, Nigeria and South Africa lead the pack nowadays. But there is a danger that much of what folks do even in those places are twisted and distorted by the mainstream application of Western methods instead of home-grown ones.
Worse still is the influence of the past in South Africa and Nigeria. Many philosophers in South Africa avoid discussing, critiquing and theorising on certain topics because they are afraid of reprisals. You are familiar with the history of apartheid, a terrible legacy one must admit, but the fact that some philosophers in that country shy away from engaging issues of concern is a terrible disservice to the nation. The same can be said of Nigeria. The years of military dictatorships seem to have inflicted fear in the minds of some philosophers there. Many evils perturb the Nigeria society of today which the philosophers pay little attention to. Jacques Derrida and some others explain a philosopher’s duties and debts to their society. Socrates demonstrated the importance of a philosopher’s role as a social gadfly. The situations you have in South Africa and Nigeria where the philosopher does not seriously deploy their thought in calling out issues in the society and investigating the same, or, where some give deflated attention to social problems, is appalling. It is a betrayal of philosophy, a silencing of voice and a failure of reason. There is little doubt that the proliferation of such a stock one can describe as ‘commercial philosophers’ has become a problem in the profession.
The philosopher has a sacred role to play in nation-building. It consists, in part, of gadflying the society. In another part, it consists of pathfinding through idea creation and theorising. It is hard to see a country in Africa nowadays where the philosopher’s voice factors into national policy formulation and implementation. There is a complete disconnect. Recently, there was a noise made in some quarters in Nigeria about the Federal Executive Council approving a certain National Ethics and Integrity Policy. This reached the philosophical community with a shock that the government can formulate such policies without consulting any of the philosophical associations in the country. But that is just how bad things have become. No philosopher of note in Nigeria indicated that they were consulted. It is a shame, and these are things that must be corrected urgently.
CU: Concerning some of the contemporary philosophers in Africa who, according to you, are paying deflated attention to social issues, what is your advice to them, and what are some of the contemporary social issues they must learn to engage with?
JC: Well, the most important advice is to have the sincerity to take the first genuine step aimed at practising your profession. A philosopher is not a teacher of documented ideas, or a teacher of the ideas of dead colleagues, ancient and modern. A true philosopher is one who teaches what they believe. I may not agree with everything the South African anti-apartheid fighter Steve Biko said, but he seemed like a true philosopher. He even titled one of his work “I Write What I Like”. Over the years, people treat Biko’s chosen title with some humour. But that was a man who lived and wrote what he believed. When you peruse the history of great philosophers from Confucius, to Socrates, Plato, Siddhartha, Jesus of Nazareth, Hypatia, and to Amadioha, etc., you would understand what it means to be a genuine philosopher. Nowadays, and since the rise of analytic philosophy in the Anglo-American world, it seems convenient to aspire to some glory through a wide range of sophistry. There are many modern philosophers who became popular for espousing theories and ideas they do not believe in. Most of them led lives and continue to lead lives that are clearly in opposition to the theories they propounded. What do you call that if not pretence?
In those days, when philosophy meant something to its practitioner, you could see honour in thought. The ancient philosophers I mentioned above sacrificed personal ambitions, and some of them gave their lives to uphold the integrity of their profession. I guess the LCM is clear enough. Let African philosophers or philosophers in Africa, whichever one individuals are comfortable with, begin to write about what they believe and practice the values they preach. Racists amongst them should write what they believe so that non-racists can respond. We have had enough of hypocritical publications and lectures aimed at making up the number of output required for promotions. Similarly, I have met some African philosophers who would scream ‘brother’ at you, cover you in a warm embrace, yet cease the next available opportunity they get to destroy you. What type of brotherhood is that? If the philosopher cannot be real and true to what they believe, then it is fair to say that the crucible of truth has broken.
Concerning what some of the contemporary issues are, I think this varies from place to place for obvious reasons. As philosophy is a programme that attempts to respond to the questions that arise in a place, it is easy to see that some, if not most burning issues in a particular place might vary from those that yearn for attention in another. For example, in South Africa, the continuing problems such as racism, poverty, Afrophobia, Gender-based violence, rape, femicide, and the new monster of leadership corruption which are gradually destroying that country demands the philosopher’s attention. Who could believe that twenty-six years after apartheid was ended, that most university campuses still look as though they were segregated? But that is the reality. Visit the University of Pretoria, for example, and you would be alarmed to see students move and sit along racial lines. It is an eyesore, but no one seemed perturbed by it. When I arrived to take up my appointment at the University of Pretoria and noticed the pattern, I was sick to my stomach. It is not just an aesthetic problem; it is a sign of a much deeper problem eating away the soul of the nation. South Africa cannot truly be a rainbow nation or yank off its ugly historical past without first addressing the problem of racism decisively. And it is not just a problem out there; it is a problem from homes and families where children and young people are given racist orientations, whether directly or indirectly. What happens in the public spaces is a manifestation of indoctrinations given in the privacy of homes and families. Philosophers have a duty to theorise and expose the root of this problem. In an invited lecture which I presented at the University of Johannesburg on October 30, 2020, I theorised on a form of othering I called Nkali which encapsulates racism in South Africa. Radical as some say it was, it is the sort of thing philosophers should talk about.
In other places like Nigeria, issues such as poverty, ethnicism, religious bigotry, bad governance, corruption, human rights abuses, etc., are some of the troubling issues the philosopher must engage and theorise about. As an African philosopher, I would say that these are some of the issues that confront most African nations, not just South Africa and Nigeria. While some of them can be seen as generational problematiques, others can be viewed as transgenerational; but it is the duty of the philosopher to honour their commitments and obligations to their places no matter the nature of the problematiques.
CU: As we celebrate this year’s philosophy day, and as the convener of the Conversational School (CSP), to what extent can you say that your society is promoting the goals of UNESCO such as intellectual co-operation and mutual understanding of peoples as well as the protection of the cultural heritage of the African peoples?
JC: That is a fascinating question. I will begin by saying that our approach to philosophising in the CSP is one that takes similar traits in African worldviews into account. This enables us to ground our thinking in a type of trivalent logic following the communalistic orientation prevalent in African thought systems. It is from this type of logical background that some home-grown methods such as Innocent Asouzu’s method of complementary Reflection and my method of conversational thinking were developed. These home-grown methods go on to inform theories such as Asouzu’s Ibuanyidanda philosophy, Ada Agada’s consolationism, Even Pantaleon Iroegbu’s Uwa Ontology, and of course, the theory of Conversational philosophy of which I am a major proponent. Elements of the CSP like Victor Nweke are contributing to the theory of Conversational philosophy in the area of political thought and curriculum transformation; L Uchenna Ogbonnaya and Aribiah Attoe are doing the same in the area of methodology; Fainos Mangena in the area of applied philosophy; the same as Maduka Enyimba who is applying the theory in the area of development. Others like Isaiah Negedu are extending the theory through race studies, while Uti Egbai has taken the theory into gender and intercultural fields. Diana Ofana is also doing the same in the field of gender studies. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian, on her part, has also taken it into the field of epistemology. The list is growing, but I guess what is more important to talk about is that our approach encourages the formulation of concepts in African languages, grounding of theories in systems of logic that define the African worldviews, and developing methods that can be regarded as home-grown, even though universally applicable. In these ways, our approach to philosophy preserves the cultural and intellectual heritage of Africa.
One major problem which Western modernity and the intellectual hegemony that it has come to represent causes is that it displaces local epistemic formations wherever it manifests. Africa is not an exception. The disheartening thing is that without cultural and intellectual heritage, people are at the danger of losing their identity in a global system that seeks to subsume and assimilate. Elements of the CSP through the original, yet rigorous approach to philosophy are on track in promoting UNESCO’s agenda for cultural revival and preservation of local intellectual history. For us in the CSP, this year’s celebration of the UNESCO World Philosophy Day will focus on ways of advancing research collaboratively in African philosophy.
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.
Often searching out the graphical symmetry in chaos, while still maintaining the personality and emotion of the subject. The excitement and anticipation as we waited to see the next piece of unpredictable chaos was electric.