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Heavenly spheres African Philosophy in Search of Identity

The Philosopher's verdict: at best, it is mystical

African Philosophy in Search of Identity, 
By D.A. Masolo Indiana University Press, Edinburgh University Press (August 1994) £14.95 pb 
pp 251 + notes ISBN 0-7486-0496-0

African philosophy is dominated by the search of the continent for a new identity authentic to Africans and distinct from those imposed by outsiders. The Kenyan philosopher, Masolo, claims that this search offers a significant contribution to the discussion of reason, or what Hegel called 'the Spirit', part of what is sometimes known as the rationality debate.

Masolo traces the foundation of the African contribution to this debate back to a poem by Aime Cesaire translated as Return to My Native Land (1939) which introduced the concept of negritude, which captures the "dignity, the personhood or humanity, of black people". Cesaire's poem also uses the notion of the return to introduce the element of historicity, to turn negritude into a movement involving consciousness and awareness. Today, Masolo writes, "this 'return' is a deconstructivist term which symbolizes many aspects of the struggle of the peoples of African origin to control their own identity."

Masolo adds that the work of African philosophers, such as V. Y. Mudimbe, in his book The Invention of Africa (1988), shows that Western culture has succeeded in objectifying Africans as 'the other'. He quotes the "celebrated paragraph" of Langston Hughes in the journal The Nation back in June 1926:

 We, the creators of the new black generation,/ want to express our black personality/ without shame or fear/ If this will please the whites, much the better/ If not, it does not matter/ We know ourselves to be beautiful/ And also ugly/ The drums cry/ The drums laugh/ If this will please the whites, much the better/ If not, it does not matter/ It is for tomorrow that we are building our temples/ Solid temples we will ourselves know how to/ construct them/ And we will keep ourselves straight/ On top of the mountain/ Free in ourselves.

This was in response to the overt 'Western white attitude' that aimed to annihilate black culture and black civilisation. Kant, for example, had argued that the "original human species was white, appearing as dark brown" only as a result of oppressive climatic conditions, whilst Hegel wrote similarly that "the characteristic feature of the Negroes is that their consciousness has not yet reached an awareness of any substantial objectivity". In Africa, life was not a manifestation of dialectical reason but rather, as Hegel put it, "a succession of contingent happenings and surprises."

Since Hegel's exclusion of Africans from history, anthropologists and others have stressed that because the reasoning capacity of all humans is the same, it is the sociological rather than the epistemological differences in societies that are important. Michael Polyani described the implications by writing that our "formally held beliefs can be held true in the last resort only because of the our logically anterior acceptance of a particular set of terms, from which all our references to reality are constructed."

But Lucien Levy-Bruhl used his own thirty-nine year study of African society to postulate a value-laden division between 'primitive' and 'civilised'. His point was that whilst "modern man makes his judgments by means of the principles of identity, the primitive man is dominated by collective representations and realises a mystic participation or relationship with his object. He is prelogical." Instead of saying, 

If p then q 
But p 
Therefore q

 ... the African reasoning process will give

p and q if x 
But p and q 
Therefore x

... "where x is indeterminable, arbitrary and alterable at will." Not subject, certainly, to observation. At best, it is mystical.

However, in his later works, even Levy-Bruhl realised he had oversimplified things. His last posthumous book, published in 1949, talks of two co-existing mentalities - the naturalistic and the mystical.

The post-war Continental philosophies have continued this process of academic rehabilitation. The strength of post-modernism is that it gives Africans, feminists and others a voice. Its weakness is that it leaves scientism undisturbed, being little more than "a temporary fashion or exoticism".

In any case, there is much evidence, even if often neglected, of the debt, that the ancient Greeks were happy to acknowledge, to Egypt, for many centuries the intellectual centre of the world. One of the ancient African texts, the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (1650 B.C.) is claimed as the source of the geometrical maxims and theorems that the Greeks later used as their model of logic and rationality.

At the same time, others, such as the Sengalese philosopher, Leopold Sedar Senghor sustain the conventional history. Senghor takes negritude further into the political domain following the Second World War, with his famous saying "Emotion is black as much as reason is Greek." For Senghor, the African is characterised by the emotional faculty, devalued in racist eyes, but for him another way of knowing the essence of things. Masolo quotes Senghor, on the nature of being a black man:

Water moves him, not because it washes, but because it purifies; fire not because of its heat or colour, but because of its destructive power. The bushes, which dry up and become green again, are symbols of life and death. This is because the exterior aspect of objects, in order to be grasped in its particular singularity (or peculiarity) is but as sign of symbol of the ESSENCE of the object... 
In 1948, Jean-Paul Sartre adopted Senghor's analysis in large part, whilst adding that if the struggle of all oppressed peoples is to be successful, racial differences must one day be abolished. Negritude is a stage in discovering and becoming what the black person authentically is. Negritude has two dimensions: objective and subjective. The first is expressed through customs, art, song and dances, the second through passion and personal beliefs. Negritude leads Africans through the barrier of superficial logical reasoning, toward the realm of the instincts and the unconscious, of presence and belonging - of "being-in-the-world".

Sartre wrote:

Negritude, born out of evil, yet saturated with a future good, is as lively as a woman who gives birth so as to die, and who feels her own death even in the richest moments of her life, it is an unstable equilibrium, an explosive establishment; a pride that renounces itself, an absolute that is at the same time transitory or finite; for at the same time that it is the annunciator of its own birth and agony, it also captures the existential attitude chosen by free people and lived absolutely even to the dregs. Because it is this tension between a nostalgic past into which the African no longer wholly fits and a future which he will give away to new values, Negritude defends itself with a tragic beauty which will find expression only in poetry.

As Masolo puts it, the history of African philosophy is also the history of Africa in a very special way. His book, African Philosophy in Search of Identity, is an important contribution to understanding that process.

Reviewed by Martin Cohen

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