Philosophy and Indigenous Knowledge: An African Perspective

D A Masolo. Africa Today. Volume 50, Issue 2. Fall 2003.


A major dispute in African philosophy has been whether disciplines are defined solely internally, by the theoretical structures of their contents, such as the abstract and universal character of concepts in philosophy, or whether they are equally influenced by external conditions, which account for their acceptability within the schemes they serve. To what extent are theories driven by the dynamics of the social circumstances and contexts within which they are produced? And to what extent are the disciplines universal, rather than ethnodisciplines, such as ethnophilosophy, ethnosciences, and similar fields? While these questions raged in different terms among African philosophers in the 1960s and 1970s, a similar discourse was taking place among philosophers in the West in relation to the social impact on the production of scientific theories. In this paper, I will show how these two traditions of discourse complement and breed into each other. On the one hand, African philosophers debating ethnophilosophy contributed to the wider debate, sometimes indirectly, even when their immediate goals and the language they deployed were politically, rather than epistemically, defined; on the other hand, philosophers who debate the nature of scientific theories have lent their voices to the ethnophilosophy debate, also indirectly, even when their immediate goals and the language of their writings are almost always only epistemically inclined.

The Idea of the Indigenous

Like its synonyms (local, native, original) and counterparts (migrant, alien, settler), the term indigenous is an ecodeterminant used to define the origin of items or persons in relation to how their belonging to a place is to be temporally characterized, especially in comparison to other contenders in claiming belonging. Historians and other social scientists analyze and define movements of people, ideas, and things to different places over time all the time. Similarly, the rise of the idea of “indigeneity” in relation to the practice of African philosophy has only recently appeared on the academic scene through the historical analysis, or the need for one, to outline the mobility of ideas, schools, and movements of thought in their contribution to the formation of African philosophy as a separate intellectual movement or endeavor. In intellectual history, the aim of such analysis is usually to determine the historical nature and character of the ideas making up schools of thought or theories around specific issues. The discernment of local from migrant, native from alien, or original from settler is often spurred by a political setting, in which such separation usually serves other goals, some noble sometimes, others sometimes not quite so noble, as often happens in traditional politics. The debate over the role of indigeneity in African philosophy is part of the larger postcolonial discourse. As part of this global emancipatory voice, debates and views on indigenous values generally, and on indigenous knowledges more specifically, straddle both the traditional and the lighthearted senses of recent global politics of domination and emancipation. In the rhetoric of this politics, the defense and promotion of the indigenous goes hand in hand with the antihegemonic quest for freedom and autonomy, so that whatever is indigenous or locally produced is reinstalled at the head of its epistemic regime, where it will have greater political and cultural values over what is foreign or imported.

In formal terms, the growth of the indigenous has occurred concurrently with, and has been spurred by, an approach now, since the late fifties and early sixties, widely used or simply assumed by most disciplines, namely the radical philosophical critiques of scientific realism. This revolution, popularized by Thomas Kuhn’s leading work in theoretical history, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), gave a new spin to people and movements that already believed that knowledge generally, and scientific theory more specifically, is human-centered-that is, a function of social forces in their multidirectional evolution. The central claim of Kuhn’s work was that the history of science displays a certain pattern, and that this pattern may be explained by reference to the institutional structure of science, specifically the way professional scientists base their research on objects of consensus that Kuhn called “paradigms.” Because science is thus significantly socially established, the “normalcy” of its theoretical practice and framework is determined by its adherence to the regulations established by, and applicable within, the “paradigm.” Although it is hard (and certainly this is not the place) fully to estimate the impact or direction of Kuhn’s influence, Kuhn is regarded to have undermined a whole philosophical tradition-that of logical positivism, or more broadly, logical empiricism-such that many philosophers no longer regard scientific language to be characteristic of any language used to talk about the world. Importantly, the study of the nature of modern sciences extended to the domains of (usually) comparative social and cultural analyses. For example, according to Sandra Harding (1997), all sciences are local knowledge systems. Internally, she has argued, good scientific knowledge is characterized by strong objectivity, inclusive rationality, and universal validity, but still remains a local knowledge claim. Sharing a theme with feminist critiques of science, non-Western perspectives assert, with their feminist allies, that science can make universal claims while remaining locally grounded. Because all sciences are locally grounded, they are, compared with each other, ethnosciences. It would seem, from these recent developments in the analyses of the sciences, that all knowledge-in the Wittgensteinian sense of facts as (propositional) descriptions of the relations of objects in the world to each other-that all knowledge is a point of view, some at the individual level, some more culturally embedded.

Since Kuhn, the study of the nature of scientific theory has progressively blurred the boundaries among science, the humanities, and the social sciences to enhance understanding on all sides, and unavoidably placing realism at the heart of the debate. One major characterization made in the course of this scholarship is the distinction in terms of what is independently “there” and what we “construct,” what is the case “in itself,” and what is so because of our ways of experiencing. Other scholars of the philosophy and history of science-a disciplinary outgrowth from of Kuhn’s influence-who have made critiques of the sciences similar to those of Harding include Helen Verran and Carrey-Francis Onyango. In Science and an African Logic (2001), Verran provides concrete narrative examples to show the role of culture in the constitution of rationalities. She argues that not only have the culturally familiar strategies (methods) for arriving at basic concepts and knowledge of the world not been recognized as such, but their specific Western models have been accorded undue privilege over others as the essence of rationality; yet, she confesses, we get so assumptive about our culturally familiar methods that we not only regard them as the essence of rationality, but are likely to get frustrated and confused when they are shunned in preference for other methods, even when these yield just as good results. Rather subtly, Verran makes the point that methods crafted by us and reflecting our interests and limitations can still lead to instrumentally successful science. Thus, what appears as conflict of rationalities is probably only discomfort (on the part of those who are “monorational”) with unfamiliar explanatory strategies. Those who are “polyrational,” especially those on whom colonialism imposed Western methods alongside their own, like Yoruba teacher-students, a shift back and forth between multiple models presents no problems. Polyrational people can do this without sacrificing the objects of inquiry, such as the basic abstract concepts about the world such as extension or volume. The form of explanatory constructs-that is, theories-is at least in part a response to the envisaged expectation of the target audience, and exposes practitioners and audiences as coinhabitants or strangers in a given epistemic field.

Obviously, Verran’s narratives raise interesting questions concerning the status of foundational or methodological aspects of theories in general, and of scientific theories in particular. What, exactly, is involved in the claim that a particular theory, or a particular system described by such a theory, is deterministic? And what would it mean for the whole world to be deterministic? Questions like these poke at the heart of a once unassailable scientific position, that of realism, the claim that the objects of scientific knowledge exist independently of the minds or acts of scientists, and that scientific theories are true of that objective, that is, mind-independent world.

Onyango’s apparent focus, in contrast, is to contribute to the debate between realism and antirealism. In a doctoral dissertation presented to the University of Vienna in 1999, he takes a pragmatic approach to scientific theory and argues that such an approach narrows, or at least disregards, the divide usually regarded to obtain between realism and antirealism by arguing that positions usually regarded as antirealist, such as Van Fraasen’s constructive empiricism, are only strands of what Onyango calls the “models-semantic conception” (MSC) a combination of the models-theoretic and semantic versions of realism. As such, Onyango states his position, “can accommodate a variety of interpretations of the claims of theories [such as] realist, empiricist, and constructivist [stands], or any other appropriate interpretation depending on the issue at hand … but not antirealism” (quoted in Onyango 1999:2). This view can only hold, as has been shown by the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour (1979, 1987, 1993), that both social context and technical content are essential to a proper understanding of scientific activity, and that science can only be understood through its practice. The Mozambican mathematician Paulus Gerdes has shown (1998, 1999, 2003) that even mathematics, like other technical and abstract knowledge, can best be grasped only in practical terms, that is, as part of everyday practices of coping with and managing and transforming the world of everyday experience. Such an approach would make Onyango’s MSC “essentially pragmatical” (1999:2).

Although African perspectives in the critique of scientific realism are more recent than the ethnophilosophy debate, the works mentioned above, and others, have added significantly and supportingly to the antiHountondji position and generally to the global debate on the idea of social construction of knowledge. In addition, self-critique in Western knowledge has lent a strong supportive voice to the emergent postcolonial text in asserting that most aspects of knowledge, as we know them through the disciplines, are significantly local and partly reflect the communally practical (sociohistorical) contexts of their production.

The African ethnophilosophy controversy rekindles and contextualizes the opposition between local and universal perceptions of knowledge, an opposition that was already raging in relation to science. As Harding indicates, the idea of the universality of science grew alongside European political, military, and economic might, and ideological deployments of universality became a dominant feature of North-South relations in the nineteenth century and later. Thus, the emergence of the social-construction-of-knowledge movement (“ethno-knowledges”) clearly erodes its force by questioning its foundational status. In opposition to that which is alien, foreign, or extraneous, the postulation of the adjective indigenous before the characterization or name of any knowledge is to claim for the adjective the desirability of autochthonomy (autochthony), self-representation, and self-preservation. In the Marxist scholarship of Africa, the concept of indigeneity arose as a categorical value-concept, which, first and descriptively, was or is used to identify and separate those things that belong) ed) in the local political and cultural space from those that were or are elements of (hegemonically) intrusive and illegitimate invasion. Second, but in relation to the first, it is a concept used prescriptively, to change the attitudes of such a (politically, culturally, and economically) dominated people by causing them to desire and seek to reclaim the schemes of representation from the dominating alien, foreign, or extraneous control, in order to restore them to themselves as natives. In Western historical and anthropological texts about Africa, Africa was represented as that which was distant, foreign, and alien to the schemes of writers and their intended Western audience. The flow of the product of such enterprise was always to the outside, that is, extroverted, as Hountondji describes it. The indigenous was the pure object of the metropolitan scholar; and its nature, in the scholarly sense, was-thanks to the mediative role of “the native informant,” as Spivak calls her (1999, esp. chapter 1), or, in Hountondji’s words (1995), “the junior collaborator”-the object of distant consumers in the Western metropolis. The perpetuation of this uneven relationship in production generally, and in the production of knowledge in particular, is the basis of what has long been known as the dependency syndrome, a critical neologue of political economic theory developed in the 1970s by Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank, and Immanuel Wallerstein.

The history of African indigeneity is therefore long and, as Mudimbe (1994) has shown, dates back to the times of ancient Greek explorations. Critical analyses of how it grew have been well presented by Appiah (1992), Mudimbe (1988, 1997), and others. In a general sense, the issue of indigeneity is well treated in the critical anthropological and other texts of the eighties and nineties. The central question for writers working in the nineties hovered around interrogating metropolitan scholars’ pretentions in relation to the stifling of the indigenous subject-cum-object whose word about itself could be neither final nor independently authoritative, except under metropolitan investigators’ guidance and approval.

Ethnophilosophy and the Controversy over Indigenous Knowledge

For a long time in academic philosophy in sub-Saharan Africa, much controversy over the embattled concept of ethnophilosophy appeared to pit indigenous African knowledge systems against philosophy as a specialized category of knowledge. The assumption in much of that literature, and in the work of some diehard critics of the idea of African philosophy to date, is that an idea cannot be both indigenous and philosophical at the same time. Popularized and transformed into a full-fledged topic of debate in the seventies by Hountondji’s critique of Tempels’s (1959) work under the rubric of ethnophilosophy (used in a pejorative sense), the indigenous, exoticized as purely oral, was perceived to stand in a lower position in relation to scribed knowledge. In the wake of the written word, which was foreign, the oral, which was indigenous, had slipped into irrelevance. But, as I have tried to argue before, either this situation has changed, that is, either Hountondji has since recanted his antitradition stand, or it just was never the case that his critique of Tempels amounted to the rejection of the significance of traditional knowledges. A reading of Hountondji’s work of the nineties, especially his essay “Producing Knowledge in Africa Today” (1995), reveals a deep concern for indigenous knowledge systems as the basis of a legitimate concept of development that is historically relevant and socially meaningful and need-responsive.

Hountondji’s point is that mastery (active, engaged, critical understanding) of the local-the capacity to harness, manage, and transform available resources for the improvement of the conditions and the quality of life for a community or nation-should be the starting and focal point of development. An expansion of this idea, taking other factors into account, leads to the claim that development, understood in the foregoing manner, would be even better if the majority of the people it is meant to benefit can relate to its deliveries: they should first desire it, and then be able to sustain it. But perhaps even more importantly, the call for an engaged and critical understanding of the local means, as it has been argued by the exponents of the call, that the local should not be mistaken for the unanimous. Rather, as it always was, it should be given room to be complex and diverse, dialogical and inclusive.

If indeed this is what underlies Hountondji’s idea of introverted development, then his embrace of the local as the starting and focal point of development revalorizes the indigenous in a manner that avoids the oppositional colonial categories of traditional and modern. Perhaps these categories would not even matter, if it were not for the fact that every cultural system (of thoughts and practices) has a past and a present, in which the burden of history requires of the inhabitants that the present be critically different from the past. And the role of intellectual habits is to provide the methods and the questions out of which the difference between the past and present will emerge.

One hardly requires special efforts to notice that philosophy is always about the familiar and the indigenous, whatever its form or epistemic status: it interrogates, deconstructs, analyzes, and tries to explain. It is related to indigenous knowledge as the written word is related to the oral. Derrida reminds us that the discussion of the relation between the two expressive modes is not new. In the history of Western philosophy, he traces it back to Plato, of whom he writes: “Plato says of writing that it was an orphan or a bastard, as opposed to speech, the legitimate and high-born son of the ‘father of logos’” (Derrida 1981:12). Let us consider two examples that illustrate philosophy’s ties with ordinary and everyday language, for it was not in vain that the founders of the analytic tradition looked to the clarification of language as key to understanding our knowledge of the world. When discussing his critique of the claim that an analytic statement is that whose truth value depends entirely on the meanings of its terms, the American philosopher W. V. Quine uses as his examples the statement “No unmarried man is married,” or its synonym “No bachelor is married,” to ask, first, what it is about “meaning” that, as alleged by the proponents of analyticity, makes those statements necessarily true, and, second, what it is that makes them synonyms, that is, interchangeable with each other without altering their truth value. The point is that, although what Quine criticizes is the notion of analyticity that the empiricists claim to account for the logical truth of the statement “No unmarried man is married,” many of us will hesitate to refute the common-sense impression that such a statement is indeed true on account of the meanings of its terms as provided for within the English language structure; we assume the statement is true because it conforms with how we have been taught to use words in the English language to make and convey meaning. But claiming so, according to Quine, implies an assumption about “meaning” that begins to appear funny only after a careful (philosophical) analysis:

For the theory of meaning a conspicuous question is the nature of its objects: what sort of things are meanings? A felt need for meant entities may derive from an earlier failure to appreciate that meaning and reference are distinct. Once the theory of meaning is sharply separated from the theory of reference, it is a short step to recognizing as the primary business of the theory of meaning simply the synonymy of linguistic forms and the analyticity of statements; meanings themselves, as obscure intermediary entities, may well be abandoned. (Quine 1980:22)

Then there is the question about what it is that makes Quine’s two statements “synonymous.” What do we mean when we claim that two statements are synonymous? Again, one possible response may be that it is because the subject in both statements, bachelor and unmarried man, “mean the same thing.” According to this example, ordinary common-sense assumptions have suddenly become enormous philosophical problems on account of critical analysis. The problem noticed by Quine is not an invention of the empiricists; rather, it is one embedded in the use of ordinary language, in this case in the English vernacular, and only used by the empiricists to illustrate one type of what they mean by analytic statements.

Let us consider another example, this time from an African language. The Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu uses the Twi phrase Ete saa (which translates as “it is so”) to illustrate how the nature of philosophical problems can, at least in some instances, depend on the structural form of the languages we speak. According to Wiredu, the correspondence theory of truth, as we know it in English, would sound cumbersome in Twi at best, so it does not even arise. In his view, to render the English formulation of the correspondence theory of truth as “A statement is true means that it corresponds with facts” into Twi, one would have to put it, rather awkwardly, in his opinion, as Asem no te saa kyeiese ene nea ete saa di nsianim.

The examples of the English and the Twi expressions used here appear boundlessly where relevant in the everyday uses of the languages of which they are part, and neither one is more or less philosophically privileged than the other without the philosopher’s problematization. The problems philosophers raise are relative to the nature of the rest of the languages within which they respectively make sense as communicative tools (signs, phones, and so on), yet the philosophical problems (of defining meaning and truth respectively), as identified and discussed by Quine and Wiredu, are not part of the everyday instrumental significance or usages of those phrases or sentences. At the speech level, everyday (that is, nonphilosophical) speakers of English and Akan (Twi) are concerned with their other forms and uses: grammatical or syntactical structure, and the shared meanings they convey. The philosopher, aware of these assumptions, as well as of some critical elements woven into the everyday nature of language, subjects them to the scrutiny of their theoretical content. As best illustrated by the late Rwandan philosopher and linguist Alexis Kagame, philosophy is hidden in and woven with the oral, if only we could, as he did in his massive philosophical work, bring it out through careful analysis. In Kagame’s view, Kinyarwanda, as he probably believed of most spoken human languages, is an embodiment of a whole philosophical system as envisioned by its speakers (Kagame 1956). Kagame held that the demonstration of the philosophical content of everyday language had to be done systematically and comparatively. As some readers might already know, he did both. In the broader contexts of their works, Quine and Wiredu argue that although it is not impossible to translate certain types of statements from one language to another, such translation is often loose and indeterminate, because various ontological and other implications accompany language-specific expressions. The difficulty, they must have seen rightly, is due to language’s elasticity to embrace most concepts we formulate and communicate. I use these examples to argue that philosophical endeavors begin with the everyday, the familiar, which is part of the indigenous, as embedded in the locutions that bridge our relations with the external world around us, a claim long established in the “Ordinary Language philosophy” movement, from which Quine and Wiredu are at least partially intellectually descended, in believing that clues to deep philosophical questions can be found through scrutinizing the workaday usage of the words in which philosophical questions are framed. But in arguing so, I also want to imply that Hountondji, a student of Derrida’s, was not less aware of this primacy of the everyday, although his route to this position stems from the continental (European), rather than the analytic perspective. He therefore could not possibly be casting it away in order to ground philosophy in the extraordinary. The evidence for this may come from one of his most recent works. He narrates in Combats pour le sens (now translated as Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture, and Democracy in Africa, 2002) that his critique of Tempels was driven by a focus on Husserl’s project to lay the groundwork for science in examining the structure of consciousness, or the “lifeworld,” as Husserl called it (1970: § 33 and § 34 [pp.121-135]). The immediate question that arises here is how Husserl’s idea of the “lifeworld” bails Hountondji out of the antitradition image which he built in order to reconnect himself with the indigenous world. It seems that the goal here, for both Husserl and Hountondji, was, first, to recognize the active structuring role of consciousness, which enables it to intend its object. Second, Hountondji seeks to show, again working within the Husserlian method, how the world of intentionality is the locus of our everyday experiences: our consciousness is directed (intentionally) at this world and forms a relationship with it. Thus, consciousness is not passive, even at that very rudimentary level, nor can that rudimentary level of intending the world be the constitution of philosophy. It is instructive to remember Hountondji’s critical response to Franz Crahay’s famed essay, in which he reminded the latter that myths already stood at the second level of abstraction. The point, in an antirealist fashion, was that the first level of abstraction occurs already with consciousness’s intention, so abstraction was not the problem facing ethnophilosophy. If so, then consciousness delivers to people the immediate world, not just of objects, but also of beliefs and other ingredients of the human experience in a wider sociocultural sense-that is, the ingredients by which consciousness itself is structured. The nature of consciousness is the basis of our knowledge of the world. The variety of interpretation notwithstanding, it is safe to state that Husserl saw a connection, rather than a fracture, between science and philosophy (or should we say phenomenology?): for him, our knowledge of the external world, when it is presented to us, occurs within the rubric of the preceding content of consciousness, which is a combination of both the natural and phenomenological attitudes. The meanings of our statements about the external world are inextricably linked to the “lifeworld.” Husserl believed that the examination of the “lifeworld”-the task of phenomenology as a radical retreat from the natural approach to the world-was itself a scientific endeavor; a careful and systematic exercise. Phenomenology and science formed a unity; or, put another way, philosophy was part of science. Husserl’s now classic text on phenomenology, published in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1932, opens thus:

Phenomenology denotes a new, descriptive, philosophical method, which, since the concluding years of the last century, has established (1) an a priori psychological discipline, able to provide the only secure basis on which a strong empirical psychology can be built, and (2) a universal philosophy, which can supply an organum for the methodical revision of all the sciences.

It is my view that Hountondji’s critique of Tempels, as sharp and nearly as uncompromising as it was at the time of its first articulation, was driven by an eagerness to underscore the realism of Africans’ everyday experiences, in contrast to what he perceived as ethnophilosophers’, especially Tempels’s, obsession with staffing Africans’ consciousness with only apparent or pseudo-objects, objects that do not exist, like the so-called “vital forces.” Such emphases, he frequently laments, disconnect Africans’ consciousness from the real (“scientific”) world around them. Clearly, Hountondji felt frustration with a philosophical proposal that sidestepped and almost trivialized African people’s everyday concerns with the world of “real” objects and problems in an attempt to replace it with one that emphasized magicians’ imaginations. Of course Africans too had beliefs full of superstitions and other opinions, justified and otherwise, but these were by no means the absolute content of their consciousness. The paradox is that it was Hountondji who was then accused, by his critics, of being relentless in pursuit of a nonexistent universal philosophy, an interest that, in their view, betrayed him as being bourgeois and unmindful of the masses’ local experiences and knowledge schemes.

Philosophy and the Habitus of the Everyday

We encounter the everyday, not only in the multiple indigenous uses of language as argued by the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations, but as consumers and agents of the ideological agenda and goals of the social structures and institutions by and through which society itself is defined and objectified. For example, in the workings of the structures of social institutions generally, and in the semantics of words or syntactical structures of the different human languages, are to be found the concepts and theories people use to express and to explain their understanding of the world: their experience, in the Kantian and Husserlian senses of the term. Basic to both is the idea that our consciousness structures what we experience. The task of philosophy, at least according to Husserl, was to analyze the structure of consciousness as a prelude to science.

So, what lessons does one learn from Husserl? And how would such a lesson apply to an understanding of the relation of philosophy to the indigenous in African contexts? There may be several ways of understanding the task here. One is to grasp how the basic notion of experience, as found in the works of Kant and Husserl, open up to the realm which all along we have been referring to, rather unqualifiedly, as “the indigenous.” And my response to it is that the constitution of experience is a function of intersubjectivity, our interaction with others, from which we acquire the basic “bricks” of intentionality. Our inner pegs-our most deeply-seated convictions-result from what the cradle, society, gives us through its many mechanisms, including language (words, complete with their meanings and referents in the world). As in the process of language acquisition, we raise issues and notice problems depending on what society offers and exposes us to as we inhabit it-which is to say, at least in part, that neither society nor the consciousnesses that it births, and which sustain it, can be static. “The indigenous” is the whole realm of what constitutes our consciousness. Thus, indigenous does not mean “unchanging fossilized beliefs good only for the historical space they occupy.” Rather, because problems are defined by their sociohistorical contexts, today, for example, we confront and interrogate the overbearings of community as driven by demands for liberalism in manners we never openly did fifty years ago. A case in point here is the widely discussed “Epilogue” in Appiah’s In My Father’s House. Conflicts between communal demands and individual choices clearly raise issues of the location of moral reason that guides the idea of the moral good. Is the individual as autonomous as some schools of liberalism demand? Or should the community be the sole source of moral reason, regardless of its authoritarian quest for self-preservation? These are just some of the questions that will spring with greater probability out of contexts of social and cultural shifts where once assumed homogeneity begin to fizzle out as a result of the surge of autonomy. In other words, “the indigenous” is constantly transformed, always negotiating its form. Indeed, a look back might now suggest that at least part of the controversy over ethnophilosophy was about how the indigenous was to be represented. On the one hand was the school that appeared to equate the postcolonial reemergence of the indigenous with isolation from foreign, especially Western influence; on the other, to which a number of the exponents of the antiethnophilosophy stance belong, was the view that saw the indigenous in a historical light, wishing for it to sustain what was instructive to modern times, but weary of what would no longer constitute “the indigenous” for the growing younger generations. And God forbid, “different approaches” does not always imply importation; rather, as Hountondji argues in “Producing Knowledge in Africa Today” (1995), it calls for a self-transformation from within first, and a reversion to importation only as a last resort, such as where doing the latter may be more expedient and less costly than endogenous transformation. Hountondji is unequivocal about the primary value of the indigenous:

We should acknowledge achievements and work in progress and seek how to cope with present difficulties and develop new strategies for overcoming dependence. We should promote scientific and technological innovation and self-reliance as means to meet, first and foremost, Africa’s own needs. (1995:2)

The Language of the Indigenous

The view that African scholars should revert to indigenous languages as the medium for inseminating their work has long been popular among many cultural nationalists. Indeed, part of the problem with the false representations of African knowledge in non-African texts has been misinterpretation, misrepresentation, or even total misconceptualization of African meanings, indicating lack of mastery of African languages by many scholars of African knowledge systems, even as anthropologists have done such commendable work in their study of African cultures. The late Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek illustrated such problems in regard to misinterpretations of Acholi and Langi religious ideas in his analyses of related missionary texts of the 1930s, especially in vernacular (Acholi and Langi) Roman Catholic catechetical texts, aiming to transmit to local converts the idea of God as “creator” of the whole universe, including humans. The problems that p’Bitek encountered in his studies highlight major problems with the transfer of meanings across languages, and through language across different culturally informed conceptual schemes. Careful not to discredit totally the practice of cross-cultural translations, p’Bitek tried to show the cultural limitations of language and the difficulties often encountered in the migration of concepts across linguistic specifics. In his view, the missionaries’ catechetical texts were not adaptations of Acholi cosmology into Christian teachings; rather, they were part of a project that reinvented the Acholi language, in several cases by introducing new terms and concepts from the languages of the surrounding communities, including Muslim ones. What is not always clear from such difficulties as issue out of cross-cultural translations is whether the limits of language determine the extent of our concepts as well-a theory once held by Wittgenstein in the earlier stage of his career (in the Tractatus). As p’Bitek argued, largely in agreement with what Quine was saying independently about indeterminacy of translation, one needs to be careful so as to avoid catastrophes like those the missionaries encountered on the occasion of their telling the Acholi people that God could be both good and creator at the same time. For the Acholi, creation was an evil act, associated with the forces of pain and death.

But perhaps the use of indigenous languages is just good in itself. It is reasonable enough to expect every community to have its own language, through which it expresses and transmits its values to its members. Indeed, anyone who takes time to reflect on the beautiful complexity of the languages they call their own, or any other one they know well, will notice quickly that the use of language is itself a value, an art in which people’s performance is rated, admired, and rewarded in various ways. Poets enjoy this esteem in almost all communities I know of. From an epistemological point of view too, the importance of the vernacular cannot be emphasized enough. Although it seems rather obvious that the language of any community reflects the structure of their world, that is, how they understand, define, and taxonomize ideas about themselves, their relations, their hierarchies, and their ecosystem and its values and dangers, it is only recently, with the quest to free colonized peoples and cultures from foreign domination, that this reality has received emphasis. We know it from the works of the Brazilian Paulo Freire, for example, with his groundbreaking work in the radical philosophy of education for the oppressed, in which he argues strongly that the objective of education is to help people read their reality and write their own history (Freire 1993 [1970]). Most postcolonial theorists have carried on that quest for a decolonized mind. As one of his radical postcolonial themes, Ngugi wa Thiong’o has popularized the call to the use of the vernacular, but perhaps for reasons other than those claimed by p’Bitek.

p’Bitek’s claim that the term creator was inconceivable to the Acholi as applicable to a supposedly benevolent God (for which they had no specific term either) raises questions of the analytical kind, those that interrogate the relationship between meanings (as concepts) to language, and hence call for the analysis of the nature of both for purposes of determining their corresponding extensions and connotations in relation to each other. I consider this to be different from what I have perceived to be wa Thiong’o’s reasons for preferring the vernacular, but without claiming that his position on language and its use is without strong philosophical presuppositions. Most certainly not! In fact, wa Thiong’o was opposed to colonial language because he saw it as a strategy for controlling how the colonized people managed their daily lives, their mental universe, and their perception of themselves and their relationship to the world (1986:16). Thus, while such a position addresses language as the vehicle for ideas, especially in the ideological realm, it raises questions of a different kind, questions that address the tools of domination and, in reverse, the role of writers as a medium of the people for whom they write, and the goal of writing as being primarily to produce knowledge for the empowerment of the masses. In contrast, p’Bitek too was a politically driven intellectual, as most of us are or need be; hence his critique of the missionary and the wider colonial enterprise was first defined by the political reality within which the imposition of Christian ideology and other Western knowledge took place. The questions he raises, which I believe belong at the center of analytic philosophy, may lead us to ask whether we cannot translate between different languages, or whether we cannot express African meanings in non-African languages, like French, English, or any other one, for that matter-languages that, in the course of their adaptations, have taken different local forms.

These questions have been addressed, and I have no intention of claiming originality that does not belong to me when I merely make reference to how they help us understand the complexity and evolution of the vernacular. Most readers have seen at least one piece of work urging the practice of philosophy in African vernaculars. But let us consider for a moment that communication, as Kwasi Wiredu has so lucidly argued, is primarily for communicating concepts between interlocutors or communicators; we are then prompted to ask what kind of “things” concepts are, where and how they occur, how we transmit them to others, and, in the end, how we determine, in the course of communicating with others, that they have apprehended precisely what we intended. The analysis of these questions reveals that the relationship between language and concepts remains one that is often a hit-and-miss affair. Sometimes we hit, as when we use proper names of people or places (especially when we talk with people we are aware to be acquainted with the persons and places whose names we mention), and sometimes we miss, as when I stand in front of my first-year undergraduate class and announce: “Our topic today is phenomenology.” I often find that I need more than a semester, or, even at a more advanced professional level, a whole lifetime to get just a few things right and rightly transmitted to the native speakers of the language I use in the classroom. Concepts are not necessarily made clearer or easier to apprehend because we have expressed them in our interlocutor’s native tongue. Sometimes we may need sentences or even passages to clarify concepts. The reasons for such a difficulty may be multiple, but at least one of them reflects the fact that meanings are not “objects,” so it is harder to be precise in relating words to their meanings (references) than it was with proper names. Sometimes we have no specific words or terms for them, forcing us to strategize, to choose and select words in order to hit as closely as possible the meanings we intend to pass on to others, regardless of the medium we use. I would see no great problem in borrowing a term or a phrase from another language to communicate precisely a concept if my interlocutor would have fewer problems of understanding me in that medium, but it is not impossible to express any concept in any language.

Can we then use English or French words to transmit African meanings? I believe the answer to this question to be in the affirmative. This is not to say that we do not need African languages to express our knowledge. Indeed, there is nothing culturally comparable to the ability to communicate about anything in one’s native language, and I believe this happens all the time. Language is an elastic phenomenon, and we can bend, twist, weave, and stretch it in any direction and to any length to accommodate the concepts we have in our minds. It may take a long time and many class sessions, such as explaining “phenomenology,” or just one word or a couple of words, all depending on what kind of knowledge and to whom we intend to transmit it.

Despite the problems we mention, the flexibility of language makes translating concepts from one language to another possible. But imagine that we all wrote in our different native languages and/or dialects spoken in Africa today. This would certainly be a wonderful achievement, not only because it would avail the knowledge delivered through them to wider audiences within the respective speech communities: it would also spur such languages and dialects to greater orthographic developments and determination of specific symbols for phonic expressions, as wa Thiong’o has tried to do for Gikuyu sounds. Just a few days ago, I sent an e-mail to a good friend of mine to identify by name someone we had commonly hired to do some work for us separately. His response was: “Joseph; en or Owino Fred.” It happens that many educated speakers of my language are fond of throwing English words into vernacular sentences. They have tamed and woven English phrases and terms into the vernacular with great beauty and elegance. For someone who knows this background, my friend’s response could have been terribly ambiguous. In fact, I read his response to be giving me two names, with the “or” in the middle of the sentence appearing to me like a throw-in of the English disjunctive, hence prompting me to read the sentence as “Either Joseph or Owino Fred”; more literally as “Joseph, it is either he or Owino Fred.” The ensuing ambiguity could easily have been prevented if there was a determinate orthographic manner of rendering the precise meaning of “or” as it appeared in my friend’s response, which could have distinguished it from several other words that we write the same way using the Roman alphabet. Or should we demand that the speakers of the English language give their disjunctive greater recognizability than it now has? In the sentence in question the “or” had meant “brother in-law of.” There is no doubt that we all can think of such problems within our various languages, some simple, others quite complex. There is no doubt that orthographic undertakings for the preservation and improvement of our different languages should be encouraged as part of our cultural heritage and growth.

The possibility of such orthographic developments apart, there appears to be a problem that makes the beauty of our languages to be less attractive for practical professional reasons. While I cannot speak for other disciplines, I am often afraid that reading a philosophical text in, say Lugbara, or Kuranko, would present me with an insurmountable task, especially if understanding its content and using the ideas therein in one or another discursive way is what accounts for the furtherance of philosophy as an enterprise. Thus I wish to have known Akan well enough to be able to access further, and participate in the informative analytical debate that goes on among, Akan-speaking philosophers today. Indeed, my quotation of Wiredu above underlines my admiration of the debate as much as it portrays my frustrating limitations in accessing it. It partly means that much knowledge available for the philosopher’s attention already exists and is constantly produced in the vernacular. The same could be said of the propositions Quine uses. But consider for a moment whether the eighteenth-century Ethiopian philosophical texts would have been known outside the eighteenth-century Ethiopic-speaking world if they had remained untranslated until today, or what would have become of the rich Dogon and Bamana (Bambara) texts without such translations and commentaries as were done by Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen? How more limited would they be than they already are for Africans who are so divided down the colonial language lines? Sometimes we don’t communicate across different speech communities even within same nations, let alone across them. Hence the practical question as to the intellectual benefits of writing in the vernacular remains challenging. I wish we Africans could all speak each other’s one thousand seven hundred or so languages and dialects. My question is: how would that ever be?