African philosophy is a critical topic for discussion, especially since indigenous knowledge and intellectual thought in Africa remain undervalued. Pascah Mungwini claims that the theory of Africa’s colonial history comprises nomenclature that has contributed towards the misrepresentation or degrading of indigenous knowledge within institutions to retain colonial authority and control (Mungwini 1). Unsurprisingly, mistrust of indigenous institutions and knowledge has resulted from this unfavorable portrayal of Africans. Thus, Mungwini asserts that it is critical to confront how postcolonial Africa could relate with its past and evaluate discourse about this in ways that do not reinforce colonial preconceptions and inaccurate depictions of indigenous African philosophy and history (Mungwini 1). I agree with Mungwini’s claims while also considering the issue of African philosophy having little space in the curricula of African institutions. Finally, I also discuss Achille Mbembe, an African philosopher, and his claims about postcolonial theory in Africa.
In the journal article, Pascah Mungwini presents the argument that; “The Cartesian tendency to see things in binary opposites was instituted under the so-called civilizing mission to serve as a pretext for the colonial project” (3). This claim is relevant to the contrast between what gets categorized as traditional and what gets categorized as modernity. Colonialism created a dichotomy in which African philosophy or indigenous knowledge was coined as traditional knowledge, while colonialism and its ideals became portrayed as the pinnacle of modernity in contrast.
Regarding the term traditional, Mungwini states, “This term is arguably a relic of Western ethnocentrism, and the need for an analysis of the mentality that popularised its usage remains pertinent” (2). Mungwini’s statement here contends to the notion that, when used incorrectly, the word reinforces the binary idea of tradition against modernity in Africa as representing two fundamentally antithetical and different concepts (2). Brodnicka (qtd. in Mungwini 3) claims that; “the tradition-modernity ideology in Africa was initiated by Europe to portray Africans as primitive and therefore suitable for domination” (3). Mungwini further explains that;
Considering the ideological prejudices of the colonial period, the term ‘traditional’ can be pejorative because of its association with a well-established custom of thinking of Africa as a continent stuck in the past. It harbours colonialist prejudices and racist depictions of African culture and rationality – stereotypes typical of the colonial script (3).
Ultimately, the word demeans African philosophy and indigenous knowledge, portraying it as primitive and of a lower value than Western civilization and science. Evidently, a large amount of African scholarly rhetoric is mired in a slew of tropes rooted in colonial misconceptions and psychological projected insecurities (Mbembe).
African Philosophy and African Institutions
According to Uchenna Okeja, it still can be argued that increasing the amount of space devoted to African philosophy in African universities will result in its growth as a field of study (725). In Africa, there are a plethora of factors that are to blame for the emergence of eurocentric conceptual frameworks that contribute to the perpetuation of inherent biases against indigenous knowledge or institutions (Okeja 725). More specifically, there is still a failure to establish a greater scope for African Philosophy in many of today’s African institutions. Uchenna Okeja is a philosophy professor from Goethe University. He presents an argument that cites some issues that make African institutions hypocritical or illogical in their refusal to confront the task of establishing more space for African philosophy in their institutions (715). These elements include:
1) the obsoleteness of the reasons given for the current trend of focusing on Western philosophy 2) the fact that very few teachers of philosophy in Africa are focused mainly or only on Western philosophy in their academic productivity and 3) the disparity between the premises and the conclusion of the arguments in favour of the current pride of place accorded to Western philosophy (Okeja 715).
In his paper, Okeja claims that; “There is no denying that the current trend in philosophy education in African universities is basically premised on the accident of Africa’s colonial past” (718), adding that; “when the colonialists left, they bequeathed an already established pattern to their African counterparts that took over from them”(718), such indoctrination has had far-reaching consequences, as seen by the trending curricula of present-day African institutions, which frequently fail to provide more room for African philosophy and indigenous teachings in their institutions. Going back to Mungwini, Mungwini’s paper notes that; “The term ‘traditional this’ or ‘traditional that’ was not just a monicker for everything African, but also a fitting epitaph of the supposedly dying African culture lying prostrate at the mercy of Western modernity and science”(Mungwini 3). According to Dennis Masaka, an academic from Great Zimbabwe University, “African philosophy has the potential to grow into a philosophy that could eventually attain a significant place in the philosophy curriculum in Africa”(1). This goal could be accomplished if individuals who are sincerely concerned about its current relegation to a lesser philosophy also actively contribute to its growth and spread (Masaka 1).
Achille Mbembe is often regarded as one of Africa’s most influential postcolonial philosophers. Mbembe was born in 1957 in Otèle, Cameroon, and holds a Ph.D. in history from the Sorbonne in Paris (Bangstad). He worked as an associate professor of history at Columbia University in New York before becoming executive director of CODESRIA in Dakar, Senegal. From 1996 to 2000, he moved to WISER at Wits University in South Africa in the early 2000s (Bangstad). In many of his works, Mbembe engages with; “both the continental African, the Afro-American and the European African archive”(Bangstad). According to Sindre Bangstad, what distinguishes Mbembe’s work is its capacity to transcend and bridge the constraints of the Francophone and Anglo-Saxon academic and public realms in both Africa and Europe, from the perspective of his adoptive country South Africa (Bangstad). Mbembe’s work provides a framework for comprehending today’s fractured contemporary reality (Bangstad). Additionally, Mbembe has well-deserved notoriety as a philosopher who questions modernity’s assumptions.
An article published in Quartz Africa, written by Manosa Nthunya, explains that; “some aspects of modernity Mbembe is known to challenge are characterized by the move towards more capitalistic economies, an increase in social stratifications and the universalization of Western European thought”(Nthunya). In an interview titled “The Invention of Johannesburg,” Mbembe emphasizes his own displeasure with the label of being called a postcolonial theorist. Mbembe claims that he does not consider himself or his work part of the intellectual grouping of postcolonial theory (Mbembe). Mbembe describes wanting to disassociate his projects from what he views as a regression to a peripheral, non-metropolitan homeland. Instead, Mbembe describes his mission as one of acceptance and overcoming diversity(Mbembe). As Sindre Bangstad explains, “For Mbembe, postcolonial theory is far from unitary, and a product of global entanglements” (Bangstad). Mbembe’s “Critique of Black Reason” pushes us to reconsider the present in order to plan a future that will be different from the past and present (Nthunya). Mbembe’s writings generally successfully expose concerns about how postcolonial Africa can utilize and work with its history without replicating colonial exploitation.
To conclude, colonialism ideas and imperialist hypocrisies continue to plague contemporary Africa and its institutions. I have explored and discussed the writings of Pascah Mungwini and agree with Mungwini’s claim that there are colonialized naming systems that degrade indigenous knowledge and African philosophy (1). Most scholarly rhetoric about Africa is mired in a slew of tropes rooted in colonial misconceptions and insecurities (Mbembe). The paper also explored Uchenna Okeja’s findings centered around a call for more space for African philosophy at African institutions. This paper supports Okeja’s claim that increasing the amount of space devoted to African philosophy in African universities could grow as a field of study (725). Finally, the essay also discussed African philosopher Achille Mbembe and highlighted that Mbembe has well-deserved notoriety as a philosopher who questions modernity’s assumptions. Given that intellectual thought in Africa still is overlooked, African philosophy continues to be an important area of inquiry.
Bangstad, Sindre. “Achille Mbembe’s Decolonization.” Africasacountry.Com, 11 Nov. 2020, africasacountry.com/2020/11/achille-mbembes-decolonization.
Bangstad, Sindre. “Achille Mbembe’s Fanonian Meditations.” Africasacountry.Com, 12 Jan. 2018, africasacountry.com/2018/12/achille-mbembes-fanonian-meditations.
Masaka, Dennis. “African Philosophy and the Challenge from Hegemonic Philosophy.” Education as Change, vol. 22, no. 3, 2018. UNISA Press, doi:10.25159/1947-9417/2918.
Mbembe, Achille. “The Invention Of Johannesburg”. Slought Institution, 2009.
Mbembe, Joseph-Achille. On The Postcolony. University Of California Press, 2001.
Mungwini, Pascah. “‘Philosophy and Tradition in Africa’: Critical Reflections on the Power and Vestiges of Colonial Nomenclature.” Thought and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya, vol. 3, no. 1, 2011. African Journals Online (AJOL), doi:10.4314/tp.v3i1.70983.
Nthunya, Manosa. “An African Philosopher Considers How We Restore The Humanity Stolen By Racism.” Quartz, 16 Feb. 2018, qz.com/africa/1197696/african-philosophy-on-racism-achille-mbembe-writes-on-restoring-humanity/.
Okeja, Uchenna. “Space Contestations and the Teaching of African Philosophy in African Universities.” South African Journal of Philosophy, vol. 31, no. 4, 2012, South African Journal of Philosophy= Suid-Afrikaanse Tydskrif vir Wysbegeerte, doi:10.1080/02580136.2012.10751800.
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