Reason, Identity, and the African Quest: The Problems of Self-definition in African Philosophy

Olusegun Oladipo. Africa Today. Volume 42, Issue 3. Third Quarter 1995.


The focus of this essay is on one of the issues that have served as a significant force in the development of modern African thought. This is the issue of self-definition in Africa, that is the issue of how best we can achieve freedom and development without compromising our identity. This issue has its provenance in colonial and postcolonial attempts by African nationalist scholars, writers, and philosophers to defend African culture against its underestimation by some European scholars. It is one of the issues which defines “the struggle for identity in Africa by means of the definition of reason, its nature, and its functions.” Two questions are involved in this issue: the question of how best to respond to the colonial denigration or underestimation of African cultures and traditions, and the question, which is still very relevant, of how best to achieve development in Africa without compromising our identity. In addressing these issues I not only intend to identify and explain certain positions in modern African thought on the “problems of African self-definition in the contemporary world,” but also to elaborate one attitude to these problems which I consider very promising.

The Context of Debate

But first, let us try to delineate the context of the debate on these problems in modern African thought. The story of the birth of this debate is somewhat like this. There was a European discourse on Africa. This discourse underestimated and disparaged African culture and identity. Specifically, it denied that reason played a significant role in the development of society and culture in Africa as it did in Europe. This claim was an aspect of the myth which was designed as an ideology of legitimation for the colonial enterprise. This myth can be summarized “in its elemental terms” in these words borrowed from an authority on African politics:

Africans are, and always have been, a backward and barbarous people who have never been able to establish any civilized society of their own. … These barbarous people were brought into contact with civilization by the brutalities of the slave trade. However, the unhappy slave trade is happily behind us, and as a result of their contact with European civilization, primitive Africans became a part of a unified world. …

To the colonizers, then, Africans were an inferior race of people whose religions, where they had any, were without any abiding values; they were people who generally lacked the intellectual and moral resources of the Europeans, whose mission in Africa was a “civilizing mission.”

In order to correct this underestimation of their personality by the colonizers and free themselves from the social subjugation that went with it, Africans had to initiate a “counter discourse.” The aim of this discourse, of course, was reclaiming African humanity. This reclamation took the form of demonstrating the rationality of African beliefs within the framework of the people’s world-views and cultural practices. In epistemological terms, it involved the postulation of a form of rationality unique to Africans who, in metaphysical terms, were said to have a personality different from, but not in any way inferior to, the European personality.

No African scholar better exemplifies the attitude described above than Leopold Sedar Senghor who postulated an “African mode of knowing” characterized by him in the following terms:

The African is, as it were, shut up in his black skin. He lives in the primordial night. He does not begin by distinguishing himself from the object, the tree or stone, man or animal or social event. He does not keep it at a distance. He does not analyse it. Once he has come under its influence, he takes it like a blind man, still living, into his hands. He turns it over and over in his supple hands, he fingers it, he feels it. The African is one of the worms created on the third day … a purely sensory field. Subjectively at the end of his antennae, like an insect, he discovers the other. He is moved to his bowels, going out in a centrifugal movement from the subject to the object on the waves sent out by the other.

So for Senghor and his disciples, the African mode of knowing is a holistic one in which dualisms such as those between man and nature, subject and object, mind and matter, are totally absent. This mode of knowing is then contrasted with another which is considered to be characteristically European. This mode of knowing is analytic and, consequently, promotes all manners of dichotomies: between man and nature; subject and object; body and mind; etc. Again we have to return to Senghor for a proper characterization of this contract. He writes:

The life-surge of the African, his self-abandonment to the other, it is thus actuated by reason. But here reason is not the eye-reason of the European, it is the reason-by-embrace which shares more the nature of logos than ratio. Ratio is compass, set-square and sectants, measure and weight, where logos, before its Aristotelian tempering, before it became diamond, was living speech. Speech, which is the most typically human expression of neo-sensory impression, does not cost the object, untouched, into rigid logical categories. African speech, in raising itself to the Word, rubs and polishes things to give them back their original colour, with their grain and their veins, shooting their rays of light to restore their transparency penetrating their surreality, or rather their underlying reality, in its freshness. Classical European reason is analytical and makes use of the object. African reason is intuitive and participates in the object.

The contrasts presented above marked the beginning of “the struggle over the control of identity by means of the definition of reason, its nature and functions,” in the arena of scholarly discourse in Africa.

Cultural Traditionalism and Its Limitations

In the Senghorian response to “cultural degradation and political oppression” in Africa we find a certain kind of cultural traditionalism which has the following characteristics, among others: affirmation of an African world-view which is undergirded by a distinctive form or rationality; a certain degradation of scientifico-technical rationality and adoration of intuition and emotion as alternative sources of knowledge; an attempt to move African culture to a site out of criticism by celebrating locality as the ultimate determinant of cultural authority; belief action; and recommendation of a solution to the crisis of self-definition in Africa which says that Africans should discover what they were previously and take steps to be such again.

Before examining the position described above, it is important to adequately understand what it was a reaction to. It was, as already stated, a response to European denigration of the African personality and social subjugation. This denigration and the social process of which it was a product were regarded, rightly, by Africans as enemies “of their authentic African traditions and their will to cultural identity.” It was therefore necessary that these traditions and identities be protected one way or another. This was the case not only because of the theoretical need to undermine the ideological pillar of the colonial enterprise, but also because of the need for Africans to regain “pride in themselves as worthy human beings inferior to none.” This is a pride without which the struggle for independence could not have started and freedom from colonial rule and racism could not have been achieved.

The point is that there is nothing wrong in the affirmation of an African identity in the face of European ethno-centrism. What is questionable is the attempt to consider Africans as a species apart from other human beings, thereby suggesting, contrary to the evidence, that there is a process of human development which is uniquely African and that the culture which is a product of this process has already exhausted the possibilities of human creativity.

Many things are wrong with this suggestion, but we need to consider only the crucial ones. Recall that the response to the European denigration of African culture which we are considering was essentially an attempt to argue for the equality of races and the need for the mutual recognition and appreciation of African cultures by others. In doing this, however, it emphasized African difference or particularity. This in itself would not have been problematic except that it was done at the expense of those things which establish our identity with others as human beings, namely, the universals of culture. This confirmed, though indirectly, what it set out to attack, namely, the belief that Africans were a people quite unlike others; people whose situation in life justified their being denied by others an important condition of human flourishing—freedom.

But it should be clear that while Africans are unlike others with respect to certain aspects of their culture—their cultural peculiarities—they share with others the universals of culture. It is because of the possibility of this sharing that they are able, as they do, to interact and communicate with others. And with interaction and communication—two human processes that are now being accentuated by current social processes characterized by the following features: “globalization of the productive forces and relations, internationalization of consumption patterns and markets, and the complexity in the intensification of the operations of technological communications”—come the possibilities of dialogue, criticism, and mutual understanding across cultures.

Here we are already hinting at a distinction made by Professor Kwasi Wiredu between two broad aspects of human culture. This distinction is important. Failure to make it and understand its implications for African self-identity is one of the major weaknesses of the kind of cultural traditionalism we are considering here. What then is this distinction? And how important is it to the search for plausible and existentially beneficial solutions to Africa’s problems of self-definition in the contemporary world?

Let us note, as a first step in attempting to answer these questions, that culture is a complex phenomenon. As Professor Wiredu has correctly noted, its meaning goes beyond art, song, and dance to include everything that is connected with a people’s way of life. It is seen in their work and recreation, in their worship and courtship, in their ways of investigating nature and utilizing its possibilities, and in their ways of viewing themselves and interpreting their place in nature. It is also seen in the manner in which they house and clothe themselves; their method of conducting war and peace; their systems of statecraft, of education, of rewards and punishment; the way they regulate personal relations generally; and the ideas underlying these institutions and practices.

However, here we are back to the distinction between two broad aspects of culture which we mentioned earlier—although culture is a complex phenomenon its constitutive elements are of two broad types. There are those which “have no essential bearing on questions of either human well-being or truth or falsehood.” These include procedures, customs and usages such as: language, style of apparel or address, dance, music, recreation, and style of courtship. According to Professor Wiredu, “all of this and more are contingent” in the sense that adopting one of their forms rather than another “often makes no objective difference to human well-being or to one’s beliefs about the world.” For this reason, and according to Professor Wiredu, “there cannot be any compelling reason to change such elements of a culture in favor of foreign ones.” To do so is to engender a loss or diminution of identity.

But when we come to elements of a culture that are anchored on truth value or have some essential bearing on human well-being—the second group of cultural elements which include philosophy, science, and religion—the story is different. In these areas, it is not desirable, even if possible, to ignore developments in other cultures. Hence, they are areas which are not crucial to self-definition. Indeed, Professor Wiredu has observed, these “are areas of human experience in which the effects of cultural differences could conceivably be eliminated through the peaceful give-and-take of dialogue among cultures.” The point here is that since the areas concerned are domains of thought where truth is sought, it would be foolhardy for any culture to ignore whatever developments have taken place in other cultures in the name of cultural self-definition.

The distinction made above between two broad aspects of culture makes clear an important point which should always be borne in mind in our definition of what we are in the contemporary world. This is the point that “a culture can shed off many of its traits and gather foreign accretions without losing its identity.” If this is the case, then Africans need not demonstrate their uniqueness (by clinging to all elements of their traditional culture, however anachronistic) to maintain their cultural identity. All they need in order to ensure this is that they safeguard those contingent aspects of their culture (which are really what give them their self-identity) while they avail themselves of the opportunities offered by advances made in other cultures in those areas of culture, for example, philosophy and science, which have bearing on questions of either human well-being or truth or falsehood. This, it seems, is the only way they can ensure that their intellectual future is no longer “exclusively decided by the fact of the economic and technological superiority of the already hegemonic cultures of the metropolitan world.” It is the only way they can ensure their effective participation in the quest for development which is “a continuing world-historical process in which all peoples, Western and non-Western alike, are engaged.”

It follows, then, that “the answer to Africa’s problem of identity in the contemporary world does not lie in cultural traditionalism but in a critical and reconstructive self-evaluation.” The point of this self-evaluation is to enable Africans to develop a modern identity which guarantees their cultural autonomy without setting them apart from others in their quest for freedom and development. We are Africans. Granted. But we are also human beings very much like others. This, I think, was the message of Professor Anthony Appiah when he counselled that:

We Africans will only solve our problems if we see them as human problems arising out of a specific situation,…we shall not solve them if we see them as African problems, generated by our being somehow unlike others.

We need to recognize with Siegel that:

There is a sense in which cultures are local and separate; there is equally an important sense in which we are all members of the same overlapping set of cultures, and in which we not only may, but must be concerned with cultural activities from a far. …

With this recognition should come the realization that there can be no place for “self-adulation and uncritical self-appreciation” in our search for freedom and prosperity; that the way to ensure effective African participation in the quest for development is that of critical appreciation of our culture and openness to positive (beneficial) developments in other cultures.

Reason, Identity, and Social Transformation

It does not require any special philosophic acumen to see that reason is a crucial factor in the practice and realization of this kind of self-appraisal and openness. How do we achieve the necessary discrimination between aspects of our culture that are no longer suitable for contemporary existence and those that are still conducive to human flourishing without the development of a rational outlook on life? Also, how do we achieve a conscious appropriation of aspects of the cultural heritage of humankind which are existentially beneficial without the development of this outlook? The point, then, is that the development of a rational outlook on life is a necessary condition for achieving cultural autonomy in Africa. It is also an important condition for gaining the kind of self-knowledge we need for determining the suitability of aspects of our traditional culture for contemporary existence and facilitating a “broad exchange of cultural values” between African and other cultures.

The rational outlook on life, as Professor Wiredu has defined it, is an outlook in which claims and theories are tested against observed facts, and beliefs are adjusted to evidence; also one in which reason provides the guide in the choice between alternative beliefs and forms of action, and there is a readiness to entertain questions about the reasons behind an established practice or institution; in short, one to which the authoritarian mentality in all its manifestations is anathema. The development of this outlook on life requires that we undermine those aspects of traditional culture-for example, “the reference to gods and all sorts of traditional spirits in traditional explanations of things”—which are no longer existentially rewarding. Correlatively, it requires the cultivation of those aspects of this culture—for instance, the humanistic orientation of traditional ethical thinking and the sense of community which informs traditional forms of social relations—which are conducive to human flourishing on the continent. Secondly, it requires the development of new habits of mind—for example, “the habits of exactness and rigor in thinking, the pursuit of systematic coherence and the experimental approach so characteristic of science”—which are important ingredients of meaningful social change anywhere.

Neither Cultural Traditionalism, Nor Ethnic Submission

It should be clear from the definition of the nature of a rational outlook on life and its requirements given above that there can be no significant social transformation in Africa without the development of science and technology. To the extent that the Senghorian program of cultural renewal underplayed this point by glorifying the unanalytic cast of mind and the ways of life associated with it, it would remain irrelevant to the pursuit of the task of improving the condition of people in Africa.

Notice, however, that the cultivation of science and technology and the habits of the mind associated with them does not imply the wholesale rejection of traditional culture, and the uncritical acceptance of the world-views and values of those cultures in which these agents of human development are at the moment most developed. In other words, it does not imply the need “to deny oneself, to put the very being of the self into question, and to Europeanize oneself fundamentally.” This kind of “ethnic submission” is as flawed and pernicious as the cultural traditionalism which it urges us to reject. For instance, it fails to see that the linkage between scientific and technological development and Western civilization is a contingent one and that it is possible for a society, as the case of Japan clearly shows, to achieve significant scientific and technological development without compromising its cultural identity. Also, it fails to see that it is not the acquisition or application of science “that is conducive to human well-being but its humane and judicious use,” and that this use is best determined within the context of the goals we have set for ourselves as a human community.

Towards a Cultural Synthesis

Thus, while it is important to admit that it is no longer possible to rely entirely on traditional culture for solutions to our myriad problems, we also need to see that it is not possible to reject this culture in its entirety, and even if this is possible, that it is not desirable. The big question for us, then, is that of how we can develop significant scientific and technological skills and techniques without compromising our identity by accepting “the full force of Western influences.” Related to this is the question of how we can achieve the sense of discrimination which is required for making the right choices in our quest for freedom and development.

An adequate answer to this question should begin with a clear recognition of the fact that Africa today “is in the middle of a transition from a traditional to a modern society” and that the process of this transition “entails changes not only in the physical environment but also in the mental outlook of our peoples, manifested in their explicit beliefs and in their customs, and their ordinary daily habits and pursuits.” With this recognition should come the realization that the important question for us is not the fruitless one of whether change is desirable or not, but that of what kind of change and the means of its achievement.

It should be noted, however, that the realization that change is inevitable does not entail the belief that a total break with the past is possible or that the road to freedom in Africa lies in the assimilation of African culture to Western culture. For much as it is the case that certain aspects of traditional culture have to be jettisoned or require modification as we participate in the universal human quest for development, it is also clear that tradition has a role to play in this quest. This is the case because the legacy of the past in today’s Africa cannot be eliminated automatically.

As Professor Ade Ajayi has pointed out, development is not simply an activity in which the old is replaced by the new in a mechanical manner. Rather, it is a process of social reconstruction in which the past survives in the present, though in a modified form. He has pointed out that “the past is not only the time of our youth as individuals or communities which we outgrow or leave behind in our march towards greater maturity or progress and development;” rather, it is our “origin which defines the essence of our being which can be modified under the impact of various influences, but which remains part of our being and which we cannot outgrow or leave behind.”

Thus, the past survives in the present. This is not to say that this past is static and unchanging, as the cultural traditionalists would have us believe. The point is that as it changes, some of its elements are more enduring than others. It is these enduring elements which, in the words of Professor Ade Ajayi, “are sometimes identified as Tradition.” They are what provide the link between the past and the present in the process of change.

If the past survives in the present, then an adequate understanding of the present depends, in part, on having an adequate knowledge of the past. Since an adequate knowledge of the past, to any appreciable degree, depends on having a reasonable grasp of the various conceptions or ideas which our peoples lived by and of how they informed their day-to-day activities and their social institutions, then a critical study of traditional conceptions of man, society, and nature becomes essential. Such studies would enable us to determine the strengths and weaknesses of these conceptions and the kind of transformation they need to undergo in order to enable us to cope with the challenges of today. Herein lies the significance of contemporary efforts in African philosophy to study and reconstruct traditional conceptual schemes with a view to determining their suitability for modern living. It is thus clear that we can develop ourselves and our society without compromising our identity; the need to improve the conditions of people on the continent does not entail the kind of self-alienation which some African thinkers have suggested.

Underlining the recommendations made above on how we tackle the question of how we can achieve development without compromising our identity is a certain interpretation of contemporary African culture or identity. This culture, as Professor Kwasi Wiredu has correctly noted, is “a product of the interplay between traditional modes of life and thought, Christian and Islamic customs and ideas along with the impact of modern science, technology and industrialization.” We need to explore all aspects of these determinants of our culture in order to be able to make the right choices in our quest for freedom and development. Exploring them would mean a readiness “to extract the best” of all these influences with a view to achieving a synthesis that would be relevant to contemporary existence.


The African quest can be summarized as a quest for freedom and development. This quest cannot be successful if all we do is strive to return to, or maintain, our old ways of life; or pursue change along lines established by foreign peoples. Indeed, the challenge of change which this quest implies requires that we maintain two mutually supportive faces: one examining the past with a view to discovering aspects of it that are useful for contemporary existence and preserving our identity; the other observing the present and contemplating the future with a view to appropriate whatever is the best in the scientific and intellectual resources of humankind for modern living. A careful and balanced use of these two faces can strengthen us in our interactions with other cultures. It can also assist us in the search for appropriate socio-cultural frameworks for building a new and humane society in Africa.