Mpalive-Hangson Msiska. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Realism in Africa is often expressed as a concern with the authentic and full representation of African cognitive, experiential, historical, and cultural reality, focusing on the fundamental nature of African identity as expressed in its thought, art and culture.
Realism in African Philosophy
In African philosophy, the very existence of such a discipline forms an important topic of discussion, as aptly captured in titles like Paulin Hountondji’s African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (1983) and D. A. Masolo’s African Philosophy in Search of Identity (1994). The central problem is whether there exists a separate discourse of philosophical reasoning that is specifically African. If at all it exists, what are its procedures? Can they be elaborated in a way that is distinctly African? Given that the term philosophy itself is a product of African cultural and historical contact with the West, does its adoption indicate the impossibility of such a discipline existing outside the symbolic order bequeathed to Africa by its colonial heritage? Various authors have taken different positions in the debate, with significant overlaps at times.
Some have challenged the very distinction between African and Western philosophy, contending that, since Egypt contributed substantially to the rise of Greek philosophy and, since Egypt—whatever the debate about the racial identity of its ancient inhabitants—is an African country, Africans should not be apologetic about the existence of an African philosophy—there has been an African philosophy for millennia. Others argue, that even without regard to the African origins of Western African philosophy, it can be amply demonstrated that there is a distinct African philosophy that is based on the elaboration of the traditional cosmology and belief systems of Africa. This is the position developed by John Mbiti, Alexis Kagame, and Placide Temple, for example. For V. Y Mudimbe in The Invention of Africa (1988), it is impossible to speak of Africa as if it were an unproblematic concept, since, as an idea it has been produced within the historical encounter with the West. Thus the very reality of Africa as a formation itself, let alone that of its philosophy, is under question or at least perceived as in need of clarification before being used as a secure ground for a pure and autonomous African reason.
Paulin Hountondji (b. 1942) considers Mbiti and others as practicing “ethnophilosophy” rather than professional philosophy. Hountondji argues that ethnophilosophy is characterized by the presupposition that the worldviews of African ethnic groups can be uncritically transposed into philosophical discourse. That is seen as a return to the colonial paternalistic view of African culture as separate and prelogical. He also maintains that such a transposition would be equivalent to Greek philosophers abstracting their philosophy from Greek cosmology, which is the very thing that the founding Greek philosophers deliberately refrained from in order to launch philosophy as a distinct secular, and for Hountondji, scientific discipline. (It should be noted that Louis Althusser [1918-1990] heavily influenced Hountondji’s notion of science.) Henry Odera Oruka concedes that the kind of philosophy practiced by Mbiti and similar scholars is indeed a form of ethno-philosophy. Oruka agrees with Hountondji and Kwasi Wiredu that African philosophy is what professional post-colonial African philosophers, or in his view, rationalist philosophers, who have been exposed to Western philosophy (such as they themselves) do, but he allows for the possibility of the existence of unlettered African sages in traditional society in the manner of Socrates in ancient Greece. In his view, ethnophilosophy presents traditional African society as one where individuality of outlook and thought is not only disallowed, but impossible, making the formation appear static rather than as dynamic and open to change as revealed by historical research. African society is shown as providing for the emergence and sustained presence of individual and critical consciousness rather as singularly engaged in promoting adherence to a consensual and collective view of reality. The African sage is thus capable of reflecting on the fundamental problems of philosophy such as the nature of reality. More radically, Oruka believes that philosophy does not need to be written down—it can be produced orally as in the case of the sages of Kenya he and his colleagues studied. Nevertheless, philosophical sagacity does not necessarily imply that African sages are the same breed as their Western-trained counterparts, but neither does it suggest that they are an utterly distinct species—they elaborate the first order of concepts whereas their university-trained counterparts grapple with both first and second order conceptualization. Like Oruka, Kwasi Wiredu accepts the validity of a traditional African philosophy, but he regards it is as markedly distinct from postcolonial African philosophy. Wiredu observes, “There is a traditional African philosophy, and there is an emerging modern philosophy. A modern philosophy will appropriate whatever there is of value in [Western philosophy] and domesticate them and it will seek also to make contributions to them” (p. xi). Thus, Western problems of philosophy can still form the basis of African philosophical practice without compromising its capacity to promote the modernization of the continent as well as the advancement of philosophy as a global discipline, contributing simultaneously to the particular and the universal.
One general problem Wiredu investigates is the relationship between language and representation. Focusing on the Akan language group of Ghana, he examines the difference between logical and mystical statements and concludes that the two differ fundamentally in their adherence to the law of consistency. Whereas the former abide by the principle of non-contradiction, the latter follow that of contradiction. Nevertheless, the contrast between the two forms of statements does not correspond to the differences between African and Western society. Both societies have their fair share of the both logical and mystical statements. Wiredu shows how the Akan respect the law of noncontradiction in the domain of knowledge, but will accept its nonobservance in the sphere of mystical articulation. This leads him to conclude that fundamental structures of language are not necessarily a reflection of the culture of a given society, but of universal logical structures. It is with this in mind that Wiredu cautions against the argument for the uniqueness of African philosophy in terms of its focus, for in the end, its distinctiveness is less a matter of its object of knowledge, but more of the cultural and environmental location of the philosopher. Location may inflect the philosopher’s view of universal problems of philosophy, but does not thereby consign his or her observations to the status of the mystical utterings of the sage of an ethnic group. Thus, the philosophical study of African languages reveals fundamental universal laws rather than those of a particular language, undermining the perception that language is simply a reflection of a given ethnic cosmology. For him what makes translation possible between languages is the universality of their underlying logical structures, observing, “unless different languages share basically the same logic, it would be impossible to translate one into another” (Oruka, Trends, 1990, pp. 149-148). More research on the general laws of African languages has been conducted by theoretical linguists, some of whom have used Noam Chomsky’s (b. 1928) notions of transformational generative grammar and universal language as well as H. P. Grice’s pragmatics to study African languages. While this research represents a serious advance on the early studies of African languages, especially in its examination of the general laws of meaning in the languages, its theoretical categories are borrowed from Western linguistics without much concern with the underlying compatibility between African culture and Western knowledge. This lack of concern exhibits the universalism of the rationalist school of African philosophy. Literary and cultural critics such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o (b. 1938), as shall be discussed later, are much more sensitive to the ethnocentricity of what passes off as objective universal philosophical categories and consequently emphasize the political character of language and its use.
The classic problem of appearance and reality has also been examined in African philosophy. Wiredu, for instance, locates it within a commonsense view that is modulated by his dual subject position within the Western philosophical tradition and the contemporary African experience, which is a hybrid of traditional African cosmology, such as the Akan worldview, and Western modernity. From this perspective, in the debate between, on the one hand, the idealists such as George Berkeley (1685-1753) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who believe that reality is a function of perception, and, on the other, the empiricists or phenomenalists, such as John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who believe that there is a reality that is independent of perception, Wiredu steers a middle course, formulated as “to be is to be apprehended,” rather than “to be perceived,” as Berkeley had asserted. Wiredu contends “it is the existence of an object not the object itself that consists in being known” (p. 132). He sees his reformulation of the old problem of the argument from illusion as restoring the “cognitive relation to [the perceiver’s] relation to reality.” That is what underpins Wiredu’s theory of knowledge, summarized as “truth is nothing but Opinion” (p. 123). Oruka has criticized its implicit relativism, proposing instead the restatement “Truth is nothing but belief” (Trends, 1990). Nevertheless, according to Wiredu, the principal strength of his theory is that it enables the grounding of the validity of African philosophy in philosophical logic rather than the politics of identity and anti-imperialism, since African philosophical opinion is now a matter of a general law of perception and epistemology.
What is equally noticeable is the proximity of Wiredu’s view to the idea that “Existence precedes essence” propounded by existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Ironically, this also brings Wiredu to the more radical view of African philosophy advanced by the younger generation of African philosophers, especially those of the Marxist-existentialist persuasion who regard the study of “being in the world,” the contingent African contemporary world, as the primary object of African philosophical practice. As Tsenay Serequeberhan argues, “African philosophy is a historically engaged and politically committed explorative reflection on the African situation aimed at the political empowerment of the African people” (1990, p. xxi). Here, African reality is transformed into a politicized space, whereby the concerns of philosophy are not only the pursuit of abstract truth, but also the transformation of that reality. African philosophers, as much as literary and cultural critics, have been profoundly influenced by Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) view that philosophers have hitherto merely interpreted the world, but the aim must be to change it.
This strand of philosophy is part of a broad Marxist approach to African culture, history, politics, and literature. Its presence within African philosophy has enabled the discipline to extend its object of analysis to the work of politicians such as Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972), Amilcar Cabral (1924-1973), Sekou Toure (1922-1984), and Julius Nyerere (1922-1999); and of cultural and political theorists such as Franz Fanon (1925-1961), as well as that of African writers and artists.
Reality in African Aesthetics and Literary Criticism
One of the concerns of aesthetics has been the refutation of the colonialist definition of African aesthetics. A particular area of debate has been the negative assessment of African art, such as the claim that the category of realism does not apply to African art. William Abraham argues, “When critics like Gombrich say that the African artists were incapable of realistic representation, they quite miss the point of African art. If they seek life-like representation, they should turn to secular art, the art which was produced for decorative purposes or the purposes of records, rather than moral art, the art whose inspiration is the intuition of a world force” (p. 113). Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001) had only looked at one particular African art form, and proceeded to make inferences about the general character of African art. Abraham observes, “The Ashanti wooden maidens, which epitomise epitomize the Ashanti ideal of female beauty … were reasonably life-like.” (p. 111), thus demonstrating that African art is both realistic and figurative, depending on its specific social function. Abraham’s broad concern is to show African culture, including African art, as expressions of an essential African cosmology. For that reason, despite being a pioneer of professional or rationalist African philosophy, he is nevertheless classified as an ethnophilosopher (Oruka, 1990, p. 151).
Yet, Abraham’s position is typical of African aestheticians whose objective is mainly to elaborate the general aesthetic laws of African art. This effort has been significantly extended in what is known as Black Aesthetics, a movement rooted in the 1960s anticolonial movements in Africa and the civil rights struggles in the United States. The work of diasporic scholars, such as Addison Gayle’s The Black Aesthetic (1972), was vital to the process of defining African aesthetics, as it offered a set of clearly defined theoretical tools for the analysis of black arts for their distinctive aesthetic qualities. According to Oruka Black Aesthetics is bound up with the black person’s awareness of a negating social reality and his/her attempt to negate that reality by means of a counter-reality, that of the values of black people. The operative assumption is that in a racialized world, literary and other artistic norms and values themselves bear the stamp of racial ideology and cannot be applied uncritically to works of art produced by a people who are denigrated within that social and political formation. Thus the aim is to found a set of aesthetic principles which will do justice to the quality of Black works, and then use such principles and artistic works to foster a collective Pan-African consciousness. It is in this instance that the slogan “Black is beautiful” emerges. The quest achieves its most prominent public emblematic form in the FESTAC festivals (Black and African Festival of African Arts and Culture). Marxist critics such as Onafume Onoge view this movement as flawed since all it does is substitute race for class analysis without addressing the complexity of the real power relations of postcolonial societies.
Largely, this quest for an essential Pan-African culture is what animates one of the earliest and most persistent cultural movements of the twentieth century. Negritude, begun in the 1930s in France by Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001) and Aimé Césaire (b. 1913), among others, sought to define and represent the essential core of African values as embodied in African spirituality and experience. In Senghor’s case, this took the form of a preoccupation with the representation of the ancestral presence in literature and a positive revalorization of black identity. Additionally, for Senghor, African art is conceived as inherently committed because it is intrinsically social and communal, as opposed to the individualism of European art. Senghor is also famously quoted as having proclaimed “Emotion is [Black], as reason is Greek.” Clearly, Senghor’s is an affective mimesis.
This view has not gone down well within the community of African scholars. As for the rationalist philosophers, with their commitment to the idea of reason as universal, negritude is seen as a fundamentally unphilosophical characterization of both African and Western reason. Oruka regards what he describes as “Negritude’s mythological consciousness” as a phase in the development of a colonized consciousness toward a more liberated postcolonial consciousness of a different and better reality. Marxist critics too dismiss Senghor’s negritude as staging a bourgeois reification of the real conditions of postcolonial existence, describing it as a mystical affirmation of African identity that transposes the real into a cultural collective that offers little possibility of fundamental change in the social and political order. Onoge contrasts Senghor with Aimé Césaire whom he commends for offering a more radical version of negritude, one that is predicated on a revolutionary affirmation that goes beyond the validation of the integrity of African culture. For Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), negritude’s major weakness is that it articulates rather than enacts its radical identity. As Soyinka says, “A tiger does not pronounce its tigritude, it pounces” (Feuser, p. 559).
Its influence is evident in the whole ideology of Black Consciousness and in particular in some of the radical attempts to produce anticolonial African aesthetics such as that of the self-proclaimed Bolekaja critics, Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike. They are particularly concerned with the dominance of what they term Euro-Modernism in African writing and criticism. They cite what they call the Ibadan school of writing, Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo included, as the arch progenitor of this tendency. Soyinka retorted by describing them as Neo-Tazarnists, that is, critics who are bent on disseminating neo-primitivist ideas about the nature of contemporary African reality. However, Soyinka’s commitment to developing a distinct African aesthetic is one of the most ambitious among African writers. He produces a cosmological aesthetic from his reading of Yoruba culture mediated by Friedrich Nietzsche’s conception of Greek mythology in Birth of Tragedy, fashioning his own theory of tragedy that is both hybrid and authentically African. According to Soyinka, Yoruba art is both mimetic and transformative of the structure of traditional Yoruba cosmology. Furthermore, he argues that African reality can be best understood as a simultaneous inhabitation of the world of the living and the dead as well as the present and the past. It is the tension between all these coordinates that is the primary object of mimesis for African art, but in a way that turns the artwork itself into an active formative agency of the very reality it imitates. Thus, Soyinka’s theory of mimesis works with a more complex idea of reality than we are offered in the founding text of mimetic theory, Aristotle’s Poetics. On the whole, though, he encapsulates both the ethnophilosophic and rationalist traditions of African philosophy.
Ngugi’s Decolonising the African Mind (1986) is another major attempt at grounding African literature and culture in the historical worldview of Africa, in the belief that the only way this can be done effectively is by producing literature in African languages instead of the received colonial languages. Ngugi argues that language is bound up with a people’s being; it “is a carrier of the history and culture of a [given community] … a collective memory bank of a people (1993, p. 15). Ngugi uses the reflectionist view of language, seeing it as a mirror of a people’s belief system. In light of this, he can be placed squarely within the Afrocentric camp, but perhaps not so easily within that of the ethnophilosophers.
In literary criticism, indeed in cultural theory generally, the term realism is usually employed to describe a concern with the way in which literary and artistic representation reflects African reality. Here the fictional universe is judged in relation to its verisimilitude or vraisemblance to the actual world. Thus, the application of the concept is not dissimilar to the way it is understood and used in the European critical tradition. This is a result of the very particular history of African critical and cultural criticism. African criticism has, like postcolonial African philosophy, developed within the terms of Western theory. There have been calls for a distinctly African critical language and some serious attempts have been made in this regard, for instance, Wole Soyinka’s cosmological aesthetic and Henry Louis Gate’s African-American vernacular theory. However, for the most part, like their counterparts in philosophy, African writers and critics see their primary task as that of using all available meta-languages to illuminate the fundamental character of African cultural and artistic production, but in a way that adapts these various conceptual tools to the particular conditions of African reality.
Chinua Achebe’s fiction is regarded as the supreme example of African literary realism, especially his novel Things Fall Apart (1958). Achebe’s fiction can also be described as historical realism, especially when he seeks to recover the African past from its suppression in colonial discourse. He describes himself as practicing “applied art,” suggesting that realism is also a politically committed and transformative form as opposed to the tradition of “art for art’s sake.” For Abiola Irele, it is this concern with historical and sociological reality that makes African literature a more accurate and comprehensive account of contemporary African reality than sociological or political documents. However, some critics such as Dan Izevbaye see that as the very fault of contemporary African writing, with its emphasis on the social function of literature constricting its formal possibilities. Izevbaye hopes that “as the literature becomes less preoccupied with social or national problems and more concerned with the problems of men as individuals in an African society, the considerations which influence critical judgement will be more human and literary than social ones” (Haywood, p. 30) Izevbaye is perhaps the closest to a universalist Platonic idealism in African literary criticism and aesthetics. His concept of humanity seems to be based on a transcendence of the experiential and the contingent.
According to Onoge, realism in African literature can be further subdivided into critical realism and socialist realism. The first, which is evident in the work of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and a host of other African writers, is principally characterized by an accurate description of the condition of modern Africa, but without proffering a clear solution to the problems identified. However, the latter takes the socialist transformation of the continent as a matter of historical and political necessity and as the only way in which the legacy of colonial and imperial capitalism and their neocolonial manifestations can be eradicated in order to create an alternative political and economic formation. Writers such as Sembene Ousmane, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Femi Osofisan are exemplars of socialist realism. Georg Gugelberger advises against using the term, given its negative connotations arising out of its association with the propagandist writing produced in the 1930s in the Soviet Union. He suggests that Amiri Baraka’s more radical concept, populist modernism, be adopted instead to describe progressive African literature. In his view, the word populist has an additional advantage, for instance, unlike socialist, it cancels the artificial contradiction between Marxism and modernism that has beset mainstream Marxism. Deconstructive critics such as Kwame Appiah argue that realism is the artistic expression of African nationalist ideology and is thus complicit with nationalism’s superficial resolution of the underlying difficulties facing Africa. It no longer functions subversively—for that, one should turn to what he defines as postrealist or postnativist writing such as Yambo Oueloguem’s Le Devoir de Violence, texts that interrogate the nationalist’s imaginary and portray it as merely a reversal of the very race centered European ideology it set out to dislodge. This kind of writing is similar to postmodernist writing, questioning established totalizing narratives and their regimes of truth.
What Appiah describes as postrealist is also part of the general trend referred to broadly as nonrealist modes of representation, but more specifically as magical realism, the best example of which is Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1990). This type of writing, like its Latin American counterpart, involves the deliberate violation of the conventions of realism, for instance the transgression of the boundary between the real and the fantastic. Some critics feel uncomfortable about this label as it suggests African writing imitating alien forms. Other argue that the worldview depicted in such texts is inherent in the contemporary African Weltanschauung in which the elements of traditional African culture coexist with those of modernity. It is as a way of emphasizing the indigeneity of the form that Harry Garuba substitutes it with the term animist realism.
As can be seen, the concept of realism is used diversely in African philosophical and cultural practice. It is used in its traditional sense as a concern with art as a mirror of reality, but also in relation to the requirement for epistemological, cultural, and representational authenticity. It is noteworthy that the term realism is applied to a variety of realities and to different methods of representing the real. Even deconstructionists ultimately cannot avoid employing the traditional meaning of the word, of connoting the degree of representativeness or accuracy of artistic as well as philosophical and critical practice. What is also significant is that the philosophical attempt to define the real and realism often overflows the rather rigid categories set up by the African rationalist philosophers, proving that their concepts, rigorously defined as they are, cannot themselves fully represent the diversity of intellectual reflections on realism in Africa in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps even universal philosophy is particular after all.