African Epistemology

Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha. Encyclopedia of Black Studies. Editor: Molefi Kete Asante & Ama Mazama, Sage Reference, 2005.

African epistemology is the African theory of knowledge, which includes the African conception of the nature of knowledge, the means used to gain knowledge, the criteria for the assessment of the validity of knowledge, the purpose of the pursuit of knowledge, and the role that knowledge plays in human existence. The adjective African applied to a people implies that that people, given the specificity of their location in the world and their experience in human history, have as African people a specific way of understanding and explaining the world and the complexity of the human condition. At the same time, given that Africans are members of the unique human family of Homo sapiens, African epistemology naturally exhibits similarities with and differences from epistemologies developed by people living in other parts of the world. In Africa, as elsewhere, the philosophizing process begins with an epistemological quest, that is, the quest for a solid foundation of human knowledge. This epistemology or theory of knowledge deals with ways of knowing and criteria for the evaluation of the validity of knowledge. In so doing, it raises the fundamental questions of how and why knowledge is created.

Confronted with the thorniest questions about human destiny in the midst of a mysterious universe, Africans have developed since time immemorial a complex epistemology that enabled them to find satisfactory answers to the numerous questions pertaining to the human condition. Their creation myths articulated an answer to the enigma of the origin of humankind and the meaning of life in this world and the hereafter.

Thus the first questions to be addressed are how Africans articulate and evaluate knowledge and what constitute the specific characteristics of Africans’ cognitive modes and their general conception of the nature and role of knowledge in human existence. The African approach to knowledge can be grasped from the wisdom of oral tradition, especially the various creation myths, folktales, and proverbs; the way of seeking truth in social, political, and religious institutions; the work of healers; the avenues for finding guilty parties in traditional justice systems; and the ways of solving family disputes and other social conflicts. However, the earliest written documents that give us a hint about African epistemology are from Kemet, especially in the definition of the philosopher from the Antef inscription (12th Dynasty, 2000-1768 B.C.E.), the Instruction of Ptahhotep (25th century B.C.E.), the Instruction of Nebmare-Nakt (Papyrus Lansing, 12th century B.C.E.), the anonymous Instruction recorded on papyrus by Chester Beatty IV (12th century B.C.E.), and the ethical teaching of Amenemope. These texts articulate the fundamental African path to knowledge that is also expressed in Zera Yacob’s Hatata, the current Bwino epistemology of Bantu philosophy, and the Ofamfa-Matemasie epistemology of the Akan, to name but a few examples.

But what exactly is this African theory of knowledge? How do Africans access and process knowledge? Why do Africans conduct this quest for knowledge? By which means do people gain knowledge, and how are people expected to use knowledge? As these questions indicate, African epistemology deals with the faculties by which people gain knowledge, and the debate over the credibility of such means. Hence, it addresses the critical issue of truth. How can people be sure that they know the truth and that they can adequately express it in their languages?

Africans’ unique history of enslavement, colonialism, neocolonialism, and racism has created an African epistemology with a specific focus on the relationship between knowledge and political and economic power. In a world where for centuries Africans have been studied and defined by their colonial or slave masters, African epistemology has come to challenge this invention of Africa by deconstructing knowledge about African people built especially by anthropologists and other social scientists. In other words, the critique of Western and Westernized epistemologies constitutes an important part of African epistemology. Moreover, in the postcolonial era world, where the limitations of the dominant Western concepts, theories, and paradigms have become obvious, it is imperative, especially with the development of Black Studies in the United States, to decolonize knowledge by exploring different ways of knowing. Naturally, Africans have turned toward their ancestral intellectual heritage to articulate the new vision of African epistemology. In the United States, Afrocentricity emerged in the 1980s as the most influential epistemological paradigm inspired by the African tradition.

African Ways of Knowing and Cognitive Faculties

For the sake of clarity, it may be argued that African epistemology comprises four basic African ways of knowing that can be separated into three categories, the supernatural, the natural, and the paranormal paths to knowledge. First, there is a supernatural path of knowledge in which human beings gain knowledge through the help of supernatural powers. This cognitive mode includes divination (lubuko, in the Kiluba language of the Congo) and revelation (i.e., messages revealed in dreams and visions). These two cognitive modes are characterized by the intervention of supernatural beings—spirits, ancestors, dead relatives, gods, goddesses—who impart knowledge to humans directly through a dream or vision or indirectly through mediums, diviners, animals, extraordinary life events, or natural phenomena that require a special kind of interpretation.

Another epistemological path is that of natural cognitive modes. In this way of knowing, human beings gain knowledge by using their natural faculties or abilities, including intuition (mucima in Kiluba), which consists of the work of the human heart (i.e., feeling and insight), and reason, which consists of a natural investigation of reality through the human intellect and logical thought process. Given that in Africa, intuition and reason are not mutually exclusive, the phrase African rationality has its peculiarity. Between these two poles of African epistemology, the natural and supernatural ways of knowing, stands a third category of paranormal cognition or extrasensory perception (ESP), which includes such modes as clairvoyance and telepathy. The focus here is limited to divination and African rationality, which play a crucial role in African people’s everyday life.

Divination

Because of the nature of its success, divination plays a crucial role in African life as a trusted means of decision making and a basic source of vital knowledge. It also plays a role in the enactment and validation of legal and political decisions in various parts of Africa. Intellectuals and peasants, politicians and technicians, professors and students, even Christians and Muslims, consult the diviner, especially when they face critical existential problems and have to make tough decisions. Long regarded as primitive hocus-pocus, divination has come to be acknowledged by more careful scholarship as an important cognitive mode not only in Africa but also elsewhere in the world, including in the intellectual heritage of the West. Through a healthy decolonization of knowledge, postcolonial scholarship has shown that divination is not an irrational practice by some charlatan or obtuse superstitious mystificators, but rather, a powerful epistemological approach by men and women of exceptional wisdom and high personal character.

Divination stands at the core of African epistemology as a valid cognitive mode. It exemplifies well the way African epistemology integrates scientific and religious knowledge, natural cognitive faculties and supernatural powers. Divination emerges as a dynamic, complex, and sophisticated cognitive method that skillfully combines logical-analytical and intuitive-synthetical modes of thinking that in Western tradition are rigidly separated. Moreover, divination is not solely a belief grounded in religious revelation. What appears to the uninitiated as mere superstitious paraphernalia hides the diviner’s profound knowledge, which is obtained through difficult techniques and a long and hard training of intellect and character. Divination is not mere faith. It is a learned discipline based on an extensive body of knowledge, which involves at once natural and supernatural phenomena, the material and immaterial, and visible and invisible dimensions of reality. As such, divination constitutes an important component of African epistemology.

African Rationality

The concept of African rationality has been distorted, obscured, and discarded by centuries of epistemic violence produced by colonial and neocolonial scholarship. In countless scholarly works shaped by Darwinian evolutionism, Hegel’s philosophy of world history, and Lévy-Bruhl’s grand dichotomy, the African mind has been defined in binary terms as the opposite not only of the Western mind but also of the mind of the rest of humankind. According to these philosophies, the African mind is irrational, emotional, and superstitious, and by nature antithetical to philosophical and scientific rationality. However, as postcolonial scholarship, especially the Afrocentric paradigm in the United States, has shown, African epistemology is far from the hocus-pocus of witch doctors promoted by outside scholars during the last 5 centuries.

For thousands of years Africans have domesticated cattle, developed agriculture, created astronomical calendars, mastered medicinal plants, educated their children, and survived various mortal dangers because they gained an efficient knowledge that opened the secrets of nature and unlocked the enigma of human existence. The science and architecture of Egypt, astronomy of the Dogon, architecture of Zimbabwe, art of Benin, and many other religious, philosophical, and scientific achievements still visible today bear witness to Africans’ passion for genuine knowledge.

African languages indicate that Africans have used the power of reason to carefully analyze nature and the human condition in the world. The Shona language, for instance, has more than 200 different words to describe the action of walking. The adjective big is rendered by 183 words in the Nupe language and 311 words in Hausa. Many languages have 10 or 20 words to describe an object according to changes in its form, weight, volume, or color, and as many words to characterize an action depending on whether it is single or multiple, weak or strong, beginning or ending.

This African epistemology is based on careful observation of natural phenomena, an analytical assessment of the understanding of the phenomena, and a logical explanation of reality, and it is well articulated in the Ofamfa-Matemasie epistemology expressed in the Adinkra symbols of Ghana, Ofamfa and Matemasie. The Adinkra symbol Ofamfa, which is also called Pempan Hwemu Dua, literally means “search rod” or “measuring rod” and is the symbol for critical examination and excellence. It defines the African concept of critical thinking. Matemasie is the symbol of wisdom and insight. It adds an ethical dimension to the epistemology by establishing the connection of knowledge and goodness, harmony, and balance. Thus the purpose of knowledge is to ensure a good life for oneself and the community.

This notion of critical thinking expressed by the Ofamfa symbol also is articulated in the Hatata epistemology of the Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob (1592-1685), a contemporary of René Descartes. Zera began his journey toward knowledge by identifying the obstacles that hinder the effort to know the truth. Zera observed that because the knowing process is a difficult labor, people “shy from any critical examination” and “hastily accept what they have heard from their fathers.” Thus Zera adopted criticism as the initial step toward knowledge and included other steps such as analysis (Hatata in Kiluba), inquiry, and the light of reason and the goodness of the created things as the basis of the cognitive method. The Baluba tradition in the Congo agrees with this Hatata epistemology.

The Bwino epistemology of the Baluba is grounded in the proverb Mwana wihangula ye unvwaâ, meaning “the child who raises questions is the one who will gain knowledge,” which stipulates the centrality of the question in the path toward knowledge. For the Bantu, knowledge does not stem from a blind repetition of ancestral ways. The Baluba state that in order to know, one has to begin with the “art of unknowing,” being carefully aware that everything that shines may not be a “genuine knowledge” (Bwino ke bwino). This means that knowledge is not knowledge until it is critically examined and its validity enshrined. It is precisely this power of critical thinking that has made African tradition so dynamic, vibrant, and flexible, constantly adapting to new challenges. The very survival of African people throughout history is due to this kind of epistemology, which allowed people to assess the meaning of new realities in the light of old canons and to assess ancestral wisdom and customs in the light of new circumstances and wisdom.

It should be emphasized here that the specificity of African rationality is to be found in the concept of the thinking heart. In most Bantu languages, the word heart (Mucima in Kiluba, for example) also stands for thought. A Muntu wa mucima muyampe is not only a person with a good heart in the sense of being kind, compassionate, and generous but also a person of good thought. The African thinks not only with the head but also with the heart. This means that African people reject the cold Cartesian dualistic logic. African reason dialogues with intuition and other cognitive faculties. Moreover, this relationship between head and heart introduces a human factor into African epistemology. Knowledge has to be humane. Such is the fundamental characteristic of African epistemology.

The Main Characteristics of African Epistemology

Every epistemology is shaped by its theorists’ conception of the object of study. African ontology involves the interconnectedness of all reality, thus African epistemology is grounded in a holistic vision. African epistemology has eight major characteristics: (1) the principle of intellectual humility and non-dogmatism; (2) cosmotheandricity (i.e., the interconnectedness of the human realm with the cosmic and the spiritual worlds); (3) an ethical dimension with a focus on wisdom; (4) rejection of the notions of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” and “art for art’s sake”; (5) a holistic perspective focused on the interconnectedness and balance of reality; (6) rejection of the compartmentalization of knowledge, an integration of various disciplines, and a rejection of the opposition of reason and other cognitive faculties; (7) rejection of the opposition of the sacred and the profane, religion and science, knowledge and faith; (8) rejection of the opposition of the individual and the community as cognitive agent.

These characteristics of African epistemology are well exemplified by, among others, the Bwino epistemology of the Bantu people of Central Africa and the Ofamfa-Matemasie epistemology of the Akans. The Bwino epistemology is defined by the Luba proverb, Bwino bonso ke bwino, bwino I kwikala biya ne Bantu, “knowledge is not knowledge, true knowledge is to know how to live in harmony with our fellow human beings.” The fundamental point made by this proverb is that, in African epistemology, genuine knowledge is not divorced from wisdom. Indeed, for the Baluba, the superior level of knowledge is the Bwino, that is, “knowledge-wisdom.” This type of knowledge can be generated only by a person who has mucima muyampe, “good or pure heart.” Goodness of heart produces knowledge-wisdom, which in turn enables the character development of the knower. Thus, harmonious and peaceful coexistence with all human beings (Bantu) and all things (Bintu) stands as the fundamental characteristic and criterion of the credibility of knowledge. In this African scheme of things, epistemology (Bwino) and ontology (Bumuntu) are inseparable. To know is to foster the victory of goodness over bad character; it is to foster human flourishing and respect for nature. This is possible only through an act of modesty.

Thus, the African journey to knowledge begins with an epistemological humility, which is the fundamental belief in the inability of a single individual to know the whole truth. As an Akan proverb puts it, “wisdom is like a baobab tree, a single person’s hand cannot embrace it.” More explicitly, an Akan proverb, Nyansa nni onipa baako ti mu, states that “wisdom is not in the head of one person.” This same attitude is found in Kemet, where the definition of the philosopher, the Antef Inscription, recalled that the philosopher is not a philosopher merely because he is clear-sighted, but also because he constantly seeks advice from others. More specifically, Ptahhotep taught in the 25th century B.C.E. that the sage must consult not only the wise but also the ignorant and the maids at the grindstones, for no one reaches the limits of every art and no one should be proud of his or her knowledge. This profession of ignorance that is the beginning of wisdom stems from the acknowledgement of the immensity of the cosmos and the limitations of the human mind.

As Birago Diop’s classical poem “Souffles” captures well, the essence of African ontology, the African view of reality, is cosmotheandric—it expresses the interconnectedness of the human and spiritual worlds. To paraphrase the 16th-century Abyssinian philosopher Walda Heywat, the idea is that the distortion of any part automatically affects the other parts of the whole since the whole universe is interconnected. Likewise, the Yoruba Ifa divination is based on the assumption that human beings are part of the cosmic body, which includes every life form and energy in the universe, the balance and harmony of which is indispensable for the health and happiness of every human being. This is why African epistemology rejects the opposition of the sacred and the profane, as well as the related opposition of spiritual and empirical methods in the acquisition of knowledge. For Africans, there is no duality of matter and spirit or of faith and knowledge, and no opposition of science and religion. This is well illustrated by the African healer, who always combines various cognitive modes to achieve a successful result.

The healer uses intellect in the selection of adequate medicinal plants and in the diagnosis of disease. In addition, the healer relies on divination, intuitive psychological skills, and a religious worldview that considers disease the result of a combination of factors, including unbalanced ethical conduct and broken relationships with nature, the ancestors, spirits, and fellow human beings. African epistemology is grounded in the fundamental belief that reality is one, that is, everything is interconnected in a web of relationships. There is a fundamental connection between the male and female, the living and dead, the visible and invisible realms, the spiritual and material spheres, the human and divine realms, humanity and the natural world, and so on. In this worldview, to understand or to know is to grasp the interconnectedness of all things.

Thus African epistemology rejects all forms of dualism, with the primary dualism being that of the subject and object of study. Rather than separating themselves from the object of study, Africans communicate with what they wish to know. The African becomes tree with the tree, rock with rock, water with water, and wind with wind. It is a major article of African epistemological faith that compartmentalization of knowledge and methods generates intellectual schizophrenia and obscurity—albeit docta ignorantia. Africans believe that such compartmentalization generates partial and disconnected knowledge rather that sound knowledge. Thus they hold that the best way to know is to use a variety of tools or human faculties and a variety of methods. Interdisciplinarity or epistemological dialogue stands at the core of the African holistic approach.

In African societies, the sage is not a person of one wisdom or one knowledge. The sage is sage precisely because of his or her ability to be a psychologist, a teacher, a spiritual master, an artist, an architect, a thinker, and a good practitioner at the same time. The wise person is a whole person because of his or her holistic knowledge and holistic approach to knowledge. The ontological and cosmological dimensions of African knowledge imply also that knowledge is not a mere language game or a pure dialectical entertainment. Knowledge is active. Indeed, it is action! Because knowledge has an impact on the knower and on reality around the knower, all knowledge is potentially dangerous and needs to be handled with extreme care and precaution. Hence, African epistemology involves an ethical requirement. The pursuit of knowledge is inseparable from the pursuit of wisdom, for in the African understanding of things, a genuine knowledge necessarily involves wisdom. The unwise knower is referred to as a witch.

For Africans, the focus is on not knowledge for knowledge’s sake but knowledge for humanity’s sake. The purpose of knowledge is to enhance human flourishing and preserve and promote all other forms of life in the universe. This is why initiation is fundamental. It is critical to train human character so that people can handle knowledge for the benefit of humankind. In the African worldview, knowledge is not merely a right. With knowledge comes responsibility. The one who knows more has more responsibility to care for others and for the world. Knowledge, in African epistemology, is the path to becoming fully human and humane. It is a sine qua non of Bumuntu, “authentic personhood.” A person without knowledge-wisdom is referred to as Mufu unanga, “dead man walking.” The act of knowing is a process of becoming humane. Where knowledge leads to violence, oppression, and destruction, Africans speak of Butchi, “witchcraft,” rather than Bwino, “knowledge-wisdom.”