The great currents in history and society may often be experienced through the simple things of life. Someone singing a song, greeting a friend, or preparing a meal. Such things may tell us a great deal about a broader culture and patterns of thought. It was like this that I first came to understand the African way of thinking. I should say, more specifically, the Xhosa way of thinking – where the Xhosa people belong to the broader Nguni group of Southern Africa.
I married into Africa. That is, my wife is a member of a Xhosa clan – in fact, a descendant of the great King Mpondo. Year by year, therefore, I visit the clan. The first time that I visited, we travelled to Ester’s childhood home, to meet her parents. After a long journey by car, we reached a desolate plateau. We drove through a farmyard and pulled to a halt. A wiry, bearded man came down a hillside. Ester kissed him on the lips. He briefly took my hand, then dropped it. He didn’t speak to me. He didn’t look at me.
I married into Africa. That is, my wife is a member of a Xhosa clan.
Ester wiped away tears. She said, ‘Where are the potatoes?’ The man said, ‘There are two sacks of potatoes in the shed. But one of them is rotten.’ They exchanged a few more words about potatoes, then the man walked back up the hillside.
‘Who was that?’ I asked. ‘It was my father,’ said Ester. Her father? Why didn’t he speak to me? Why didn’t he look at me? And what happened to a daughter’s customary endearments? ‘Good to see you, Dad. Love you, Dad.’ The talk was entirely about potatoes.
This event stands out for me in my growing relationship with African culture. It epitomises one of the fundamental characteristics of Africa. At first it distressed me, then gradually began to open up a new world for me. It was the problem – a problem to me, as one of European stock – of a lack of verbal articulation. This applies very much to African philosophy, too. At least, it is ‘most controversial’ as to whether African philosophy is, or is not, articulate.1
There are two ways in which those of European origin are taught to articulate.
On the one hand, we have been taught to articulate our thoughts. In fact, it is more or less expected of all of us to be able to express ourselves on a fairly abstract level. Not so in the African culture I have come to know. The poet, politician, and cultural theorist Léopold S. Senghor said, ‘White reason is analytic through utilisation; [Black] is intuitive through participation.'2
This applies not only to reason, but also to emotion. Psychology professor Maurice J. Elias defines emotional literacy as a means to ‘detect and express’ emotions.3 More specifically, a means through which one may ‘properly label’ them. While, in Africa, detection and expression of emotions happens all the time, labelling of them may not.
Imagine a world, often enough, without labels.
Imagine a world, often enough, without labels. Without abstract constructions, written analyses, verbal endearments – and often enough, without arguing or theorising or philosophical views. Ester one day seemed to put it in a nutshell when she said to me, with apparent surprise, ‘Your people fight over words!’ Indeed, we cut each other off over words. We argue over concepts. We even go to war over (supposedly) big ideas.
Some are aghast at the thought that philosophy might be unarticulated. The philosopher Kjell S. Johannessen characterises this view as follows: ‘Linguistic articulation [is] an unconditional demand. The possibility of possessing knowledge that cannot be wholly articulated by linguistic means emerges, against such a background, as completely unintelligible.'4 Philosophy professor Samuel O. Imbo put the attitude succinctly: ‘European rationality came to claim universality.'5
Today, some consider that African philosophy is and should be carefully formulated and articulated. Yet there is a broad acceptance, too, that much of it is not. It has been called, controversially, ‘philosophy without philosophers’.6 However, it is not bereft of reason. Philosophy professor Yu U. Zhenhua describes a broader kind of reason, which is ‘ability, capacity, competence and faculty in knowing and action’.7 This goes far beyond words. It is ‘the reasoning-embrace’, wrote Imbo.8
Being habituated in my European ways, at first I could see no remedy for the relative absence of articulation of thought and emotion in Xhosa culture. How should I come to terms with this? How should I understand a people who were coded? As if Europeans were not.
Yet the answer revealed itself to me slowly. Ester, I realised, spoke volumes with her face, with her bodily movements, and – among other things – in rhythms and songs and silences. I began to decipher this, faster than I had thought possible. It seemed like learning a new language.
As I learnt to interpret Ester, I discovered that I was able to interpret her clan.
As I learnt to interpret Ester, I discovered that I was able to interpret her clan. Everywhere I went, a new world seemed to open up to me. On the streets, in homes, and at festivities. I finally came to see that Ester’s ways had everything to do with the ways of a continent. We did not have radically formulated knowledge here, but a body of thought, emotion, and action, all mysteriously and holistically intertwined.
Dances, prayers, and feasting, maxims and story telling, rituals, music and rhythm, signs and symbols, facial expressions, bodily motion, and so much more – the silences, too – all combine to form what some call African philosophy. According to Imbo, it all represents ‘mirrors of the corresponding systems of thought’. Culture, religion, and daily life in Africa are, according to the New World Encyclopedia, ‘inseparable’.9
This article has been able to give no more than a brief impression. There are major streams of African philosophy which I could not canvass here: ethnophilosophical approaches, universalist definitions, hermeneutical orientations, and more. Many consider, too, that African philosophy is embedded in the very languages of Africa – burnt into their grammar.10
I joked, as I began this article, that I was embarking on the impossible: an article on African philosophy. The New World Encyclopedia observes, seemingly as an understatement: ‘African philosophy is a disputed term.’ 11 Any treatment of it is bound to be too ambitious.
Finally, the features of African philosophy raise various personal and philosophical questions – among them these:
What would our society look like without layers of careful articulation, which we often employ unconsciously. Often, we have filters which check our spontaneity, instinct, genuineness. Is this a good thing?
How much more would we see in our personal and social relationships, if we listened not only to words, but saw faces, bodily movements, the arrangements of things, and patterns of behaviour? Do we exclude too much?
Would we not be more philosophical if we recognised philosophy not only in philosophical publications and organisations, but in – among other things – songs and services and street markets?
Have we failed to understand how philosophy applies, not only to the ‘hot’ issues of our day, but to – for example – social capital, town planning, or medical treatment? Has our philosophy, on the whole, been too disembodied?
Do the larger problems of our world have to do with an inordinate focus on individual concepts, if not individual philosophers, rather than the whole, which involves broader relationships, processes, and states of affairs?
Have we been universalists, in that we think of European philosophy as the universal norm? Have we thought of other forms of philosophy as inferior? Would we ever see such forms of philosophy on this very site?
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Thomas Scarborough is the author of Everything, Briefly: A Postmodern Philosophy (2022) and This Town: A Complete Metaphysics (2023). He is an ex UK top ten philosophy website editor, and a Congregational minister.