Philosophy 43 - 3.1.2 Indigenous African Philosophy

If the transition from mythos to logos is predicated on the development of written language, then this transition may have first occurred in Africa. Africa was home to the development of many ancient writing systems, including the system of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics that developed during the fourth millennium BCE. The modern Western understanding of the deep history of philosophy is severely hampered by the lack of scholarship in English and other European languages, the loss of collective cultural knowledge exacerbated by colonialism, and the sometimes deliberate destruction of historical records, such as the burning of the Library of Alexandria. As a result, research has relied heavily on oral traditions or the rediscovery and translation of written evidence. The philosophical legacy of ancient Egypt is discussed in the chapter on classical philosophy. This chapter will examine research into ethnophilosophy from other regions of Africa.

The seizure of the city of Ceuta, bordering present-day Morocco, by the Portuguese in 1415 marks the first attempts by Europeans to colonize Africa. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European nations were engaging in what is called the “scramble for Africa.” Prior to this period, European settlement in Africa had been limited by the mosquito-borne disease malaria, the inappropriateness of African terrain to equine (horse-based) conquest, and the power of strong coastal states. European nations now gained access to the interior of Africa with the help of the discovery of quinine to treat malaria and the development of mechanized vehicles and advanced weaponry. During the colonial era, young Africans identified as having intellectual promise were sent to study at European universities, where they read Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and other Western philosophers. Whether the intent was to help these communities enter the modern age or to create local administrations that would further the interests of Western parties—or both—the result was the failure to preserve knowledge about the history and thought of localities and regions.

In later decades, some Western-educated Africans began to engage directly with African philosophies. In 1910, Congolese philosopher Stefano Kaoze (c. 1885–1951) described the thought of the Bantu people pertaining to moral values, knowledge, and God in an essay entitled “The Psychology of the Bantus” (Dübgen and Skupien, 2019). Bantu is a blanket term for hundreds of different ethnic groups in Central and Southern African that speak what are referred to as Bantu languages and share many cultural features (see Figure 3.2). In later writings, Kaoze explored other African thought systems, arguing that these systems had much to teach Western thought systems grounded in Christianity (Nkulu Kabamba and Mpala Mbabula 2017).

Map of Africa, with the territory of the Bantu peoples highlighted. Highlighting appears in most of the lower half of the continent, with the exception of a sizeable portion on the lower southwestern edge.
Figure 3.2 Approximate territory of Bantu peoples. Bantu is a blanket term for hundreds of different ethnic groups that speak what are referred to as Bantu languages and share many cultural features. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

It was not until 1945, when Belgian missionary Placide Tempels (1906–1977) published Bantu Philosophy, that the topic of African philosophy gained significant attention in the West. Tempels rejected the characterization of African philosophy and theology as consisting of magic, animism, and ancestor worship, instead exploring the richness of Bantu thought pertaining to individuals, society, and the divine. Tempels described Bantu peoples as believing in a “vital force,” the source of which is God. He observed that what Western thinkers envisioned as a divine being, the Bantu understood as various forces, including human forces, animal forces, and mineral forces. They viewed the universe as comprising all of these forces, and these forces could directly impact the “life force” of an individual (Okafor 1982, 84).

Later African scholars and theologians, such John Mbiti (1931–2019) and Alexis Kagame (1912–1981), indicated that Tempels was somewhat inventive in his descriptions and interpretations. They engaged in a more authentic study of Bantu philosophy, recording and analyzing African proverbs, stories, art, and music to illuminate what they presented as a shared worldview. One example of this shared worldview is the Zulu term ubuntu, which can be translated as “humanity.” Variations on the term appear in many other Bantu languages, all referring to a similar concept, expressed through maxims such as “I am because we are.” The concept of ubuntu holds that human beings have a deep natural interdependence, to the point that we are mutually dependent on one another even for our existence. The notion of ubuntu has inspired a uniquely African approach to communitarian philosophy, which refers to ideas about politics and society that privilege the community over the individual.

Nigerian philosopher Sophie Olúwọlé (1935–2018) was a practitioner and scholar of Yoruba philosophy. The Yoruba are a prominent ethnic group in Nigeria and other locations in sub-Saharan Africa. Among other accomplishments, Olúwọlé translated the Odu Ifá, the oral history concerning the pantheon and divination system of Ifá, the religion of the Yoruba peoples. Olúwọlé proposed that Ọ̀rúnmìlà, the high priest featured in the Odu Ifá, was a historical figure and the first Yoruba philosopher. She argued that Ọ̀rúnmìlà had an equal claim to that of Socrates as the founder of philosophy. In Socrates and Ọ̀rúnmìlà: Two Patron Saints of Classical Philosophy (2015), Olúwọlé compares the two philosophers and finds many similarities. Both are considered founders of philosophical traditions. Neither wrote anything down during their lifetimes. They both placed a primacy on the concepts of virtue and learning to live in keeping with virtue. Surprisingly, they shared cosmological views, such as a belief in reincarnation and predestination. Olúwọlé compiled quotes from each philosopher on specific topics, some of which are listed in Table 3.1. Olúwọlé argues that Yoruba ideas as conveyed through the Odu Ifá should be given full standing as a philosophy.

Topic Socrates’s Quote Ọ̀rúnmìlà’s Quote
The nature of truth “But the highest truth is that which is eternal and unchangeable.” “Truth is what the Great Invisible God uses in organizing the world. . . . Truth is the Word that can never be corrupted.”
The limits of human knowledge “And I am called wise for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others. But the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise. . . . And so I go about the world, obedient to the God.” “When they turned to me and said: ‘Bàbá, we now accept that you are the only one who knows the end of everything,’ I retorted, ‘I myself do not know these things.’ For instruction on this matter, you have to go to God through divination, for He alone is the possessor of that sort of wisdom.”
Good and bad “And are not all things either good or evil, or intermediate and indifferent?” “Tribulation does not come without its good aspects. The positive and the negative constitute an inseparable pair.”
Human nature “No man voluntarily pursues evil, or that which he thinks to be evil. To prefer evil to good is not in human nature.” “No one who knows that the result of honesty is always positive would choose wickedness when s/he is aware that it has a negative reward.”
Table 3.1 - Olúwọlé’s Comparison of Socrates’s and Ọ̀rúnmìlà’s Ideas. (source: Olúwọlé 2015)

Olúwọlé does identify one important distinction between the ideas of Socrates and Ọ̀rúnmìlà. Socrates held a binary metaphysical theory of matter and ideas, contrasting the unchanging eternal with the forms in which the eternal manifests itself in the physical world. By contrast, Ọ̀rúnmìlà taught that matter and ideas are inseparable. Similarly, while Socrates distinguished the concepts of good and bad, Ọ̀rúnmìlà held that they are “an inseparable pair” (Olúwọlé 2015, 64). The strict binary of the Greeks and of the West, Olúwọlé concludes, leads to an either-or perspective on truth and debate. The Yoruba, she contends, maintain a complementary dualist view of reality.


Watch Professor Olúwọlé discuss what Socrates and Ọ̀rúnmìlà have in common.

Write Like a Philosopher

Review the contents of Table 3.1. Translate each of the quotes into everyday language and compare your translations of the sayings of Ọ̀rúnmìlà and Socrates. Where do they agree, and how do they differ?

In the 1970s, Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka (1944–1995) launched a field study to record the philosophical thoughts of sages in modern-day Kenya. Researchers interviewed individual thinkers from various ethnic groups and questioned them about their views on central concepts in Western philosophy and issues related to applied ethics. Among other aims, this project was intended to demonstrate that philosophy is not an undertaking that is unique to the literate world. Odera Oruka’s findings were published in 1990, but no systematic attempt has been made to analyze them (Presbey 2017).

As these philosophers and their work demonstrate, African philosophy has emerged as a body of thought that stands on its own. The philosophy of African peoples, both those living on the African continent and those elsewhere in the world, is rooted in and developed out of concepts that both complement and challenge the Western tradition.


The chapter on classical philosophy discusses Egyptian and Ethiopian philosophers who contributed to the development of classical philosophy in the ancient and early modern worlds.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax