The Colonial Background to contemporary African Philosophy

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The Colonial Background to contemporary African Philosophy

The Colonial Background to contemporary African Philosophy

The Colonial Background to contemporary African Philosophy

 In this article, we discuss the colonial background to contemporary African Philosophy. Without any pretense whatsoever, it should be noted that the colonial challenge is  a  major catalyst for the development of contemporary philosophy given the need by African intellectuals to reclaim their humanity in the face of European denigration of their personhood and cultural heritage. The students will be able to evaluate various derogatory and denigrating arguments of  the European scholars with regard to the purported ‘non-rationality’ of the Africans. Such  scholars include but not limited to F. Hegel, Levy- Bruhl, David Hume, Immanuel  Kant, and many other anthropologists and ethnologists.There are several factors responsible for the emergence of contemporary African philosophy such as the challenge of development, identity, socio-economic emancipation, self- definition among others. All these factors are however ancillary to the colonial factor. The colonial factor which was largely responsible has had a vital role to play in the emergence of African philosophy itself. Its importance stems from the fact that the Eurocentric gaze on Africa questioned both the humanity and rationality of Africans. Hence, the various responses  by  African philosophers and non-African philosophers, such as Placid Tempels to reclaim the humanity and rationality of Africans in the face of European denigration. A closer look at the colonial background will reveal succinctly that past and present pre-occupations of African philosophers are directed at proving the European gaze on Africa wrong or incorrect.

The African continent had a long encounter with Europe, starting off from slave trade, to missionary activities and then colonialism. It was during the period of colonization that the Europeans formally took total control over the governance of the Africans. The African continent was divided among European powers such as the British, Spanish, Portuguese and French. The Berlin conference of 1885 saw to the partitioning or balkanization or still the division of the African continent formally among European powers mentioned above.

Armed with the ideology of oppression, suppression, assimilation and association, the Europeans treated the colonized ‘others’ as less than human and thus denied them of their humanity and rationality. These philosophies of oppression find so much expression and justification in the works of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, Max Muller and even Karl Marx, a philosopher known to have developed the historical and  dialectical  materialism to free the oppressed people across the world.

According to Oladipo:

An integral aspect of the colonial enterprise, then, was to  set up European culture as a standard against which  all other cultures and forms of identity should be measured (Oladipo, 2006:10)

It is not surprising then that various African scholars resolved to fight what Oladipo describes as “the invention of Africa by the colonialists” (Oladipo, 2006:10). A major attempt to fight the colonialists can be found in the attempt by early African intellectuals to provide several accounts, even if incoherent, of African beliefs, values and cultural practices which showed that the Africans had a culture and that they were not barbaric.

Further demonstration of Eurocentric attitude of the European is very conspicuous in the position of Lucien Levy – Bruhl and Friedrich Hegel. Levy – Bruhl, for instance, sees the African mind as pre-logical and a mind that does not follow the canons of European logic (Cazeneuve, 1972: 6 -20). Hegel, on his part, excludes the African continent from the movement of the Absolute spirit. He believes that the Absolute spirit is the European mind that is on its way to perfection. In this vein, Hegel justified the subjugation of the African continent by  the  Europeans. The Europeans scholars tended to undermine the validity of other cultures.  This reason constituted the motif force for the propagation of all sorts of beliefs and ideologies as African philosophy. These attempts are glaring in the works of Fr. Placid Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy (1959), John Mbiti’s African Religions and Philosophy (1969), Bolaji Idowu’s Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief (1962) among others (Oyeshile, 1997: 41). There was also the political response through the works of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere,  Leopold  Sedar Senghor and Jomo Kenyatta.

The response to colonial denigration is just one aspect to the colonial background to contemporary African Philosophy. The second aspect to the colonial background has to do with the challenge of development resulting from political freedom or the so-called ‘political independence’ from colonial powers. Given this factor, many African philosophers were concerned whether African Philosophy could respond effectively towards  meeting the challenge of development bequeathed to new African leaders at Independence. It was not so easy a task to fashion out a role for philosophy as many of the early western trained African  philosophers denied the existence of African philosophy, while some others asserted its existence. The major philosophers who believed that there wasn’t African philosophy yet at this time include Paulin Houtondji, Kwasi Wiredu, Odera Oruka and Peter Bodunrin. These philosophers are said to belong to the modernist, Universalist or Analytic school of African philosophy. However, many  of them later asserted that African philosophy existed and could be sifted from the so called ‘ethno-philosophy’.

On the other hand, there was another school of thought that affirmed the existence of African philosophy and believed that traditional world views regarding politics,  morality,  science, social and religious organizations depicted African’s sense of rich philosophy and that appealing to these framework could help us to repair the damages inflicted on  the  African Psyche. Philosophers in this group include Alex Kagame, Joseph Omoregbe, K.C. Anyanwu C.S. Momoh and Sophie Oluwole. It is interesting to note that this group known as traditionalists, particularists and the modernists and Universalists have reconciled their different positions and have been concerned with ways in which African philosophy could be at the service of Africans. In the subsequent chapters, due elaborations will be given to the defining features of  contemporary African philosophy and the problems of defining African philosophy.




Department of Philosophy University of Ibadan Ibadan, Nigeria

Prof .O.A. Oyeshile

Distance learning edition University of Ibadan



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