Is there “African Philosophy”? Or just Greek, German…and Indian Philosophy?

Don Howard recently uploaded an interesting paper on cross-cultural philosophy on
The paper discusses stimulating topics, such as why we* react ackwardly when we hear of “African philosophy” or “Native American philosophy” and why these labels sound like a contradictio in objecto.

  1. Has this to do with the nature of philosophy, which was born in 6th c. Jonia (as claimed in Howard’s first paragraph)?
  2. Or rather with our racial prejudices?
  3. Or with our inability to recognise as philosophy what does not conform to our expectations?

Howard further notes that the only partial exception to the ban to non-Western philosophies is “Indian philosophy” (Jewish and Arabian philosophy are clearly part of philosophy and not in need of discussion). His answer as for why this is so regard all the xthree alternatives mentioned above, since he suggests that Indian thought might have in itself something more philosophical than, say, African thought. However, he also notes that the recognition of Indian philosophy by Schopenhauer and Deussen went along with the almost-coeval recognition of Sanskrit as an (or: “the main”) Indo-European language, so that this “ratial” affinity could have vouched for Indian philosophy as a worthy discussant at “the philosophers’ Stammtisch“.
Next, Howard also discusses the discipline’s boundaries and their historicity (and their socio-economical reasons).

Last, Howard concludes with the commitment to tell a story of continuity, continuity between philosophy and religion (and philosophy and history, and different cultures among each other).

Is this a way to avoid leaving behind different philosophies?

*The pronoun is Howard’s. Perhaps readers of this blog will have a different intuition.
(cross-posted on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

12 Replies to “Is there “African Philosophy”? Or just Greek, German…and Indian Philosophy?”

  1. Interesting topic. One might even extend the question to include inside boundaries, so to say. I’ve always been suspicious, for instance, when certain authors are labelled as poets or just thinkers, instead of philosophers, simply because they fail to conform to a certain implicit standard of expressing their thoughts or theories—read, they do not write in a dry and technical language. Anyway, I’ll read the article and come back.

    • Right, Camillo! We tend to recognise as philosophy only that which confirms to our preconceived ideas of what philosophy should be. But in India several thinkers have chosen to write (also) poetry (I cannot resist mentioning Vedānta Deśika, but there are many other examples), so that it is tempting to think that also their “poetical” works are full of “philosophy”.

  2. There are a lot of topics broached in that article, but for now let me just note that Ninian Smart’s book, World Philosophies (1999), relied on a capacious conception of philosophy, as a glance at the table of contents will attest. The second edition (2008), edited by Oliver Leaman following Ninian’s death, contains bibliographies from philosophies around the globe. Yours truly updated these lists, and one will find a compilation for “African Philosophies” from pp. 546-549. So…yes, we can speak of “African Philosophy.”

    • Yes, Patrick, thanks for your continuous efforts in updating crosscultural bibliographies. Do you have a catalogus catalogorum of all your bibliographies, by the way?

      • Elisa,

        My 50+ (I quit counting after fifty) bibliographies are found here (alphabetized, beginning with the Ambedkar list and after some published and unpublished essays and articles):

        My latest is “The Sullied Science & Political Economy of Post-Industrial Agriculture (Or: ‘Toward Agroecology & Food Justice’)—A Basic Bibliography”

        My next one is a massive compilation on “international law” that is taking me quite a long time to complete!

  3. Elisa, when I look at readers on African philosophy, many entries seem to be the “archaeology” of philosophical content, where the scholar is doing tons of constructive philosophical work, piecing together philosophical themes and content from the raw cultural material she may find. There are some exceptions to this, like the wonderful Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob (whose work was really put on the map by Claude Sumner) and a few others, who are philosophers in our modern sense.

    Insofar as there is a conception of philosophy that makes self-conscious deliberative use of argument and perhaps a concern with systematicity to be central to the idea, some of the work here called “philosophy” is at the margins. But of course *so are many of the formative works in the Big Three (Indian, Chinese, and Greek Philosophy)*: the Daodejing, the Analects, the Upanishads and Gita, the Sermons of the Buddha (some of them), the work of the Presocratics, etc., etc. If these count as broadly “philosophical” work, why not the others?

    It seems to me that we shouldn’t start with the belief that “every culture has developed philosophy,” which has nothing to do with actual research, any more than we should start with the view that “every culture has developed mathematics”. But there is a rich world of philosophical works and concepts that aren’t articulated in the way we often frame philosophy in our introductory classes on it (as I did above), that may be marginalized for the all-too-common racial and cultural biases, but also because the “rigorous” idea of what philosophy is is too narrow.

    • Thanks, Matthew. The problem is that philosophy —and poetry, I would say— are not one among many technical disciplines. I am ready to admit that one or the other group of people may have developed astronomy more than geometry or ritualistic more than hermeneutic. But I tend to expect anywhere some form of abstract thinking, although this might not assume the form we are more familiar with. After all, I imagine we would all agree that all texts belonging to “philosophy” have at most family resemblances among each other. Don’t we?

      • This is something I am putting out there as a tentative thesis to explore, not something I am settled on at all:

        As someone who is in basic agreement with the concern of the paper and with you, I still think that profound reflection on culture, praxis, and values can occur–philosophy in the laukika sense–without “philosophizing” to to speak, in the more robust methodological sense.

        By way of example, there is much of tremendous philosophical importance in Euripides’ Bacchae. And a book with the title “Euripides the Philosopher” would not sound ludicrous to me at all. Yet, I don’t think he was exactly “philosophizing” if we are to give any serious substance to the idea of philosophy as a distinct sort of discipline that involves things like public argumentation, the primacy of self-conscious use of reasoning etc., etc.

        Whatever philosophizing is, or whatever the family of activities identified with philosophizing is, I have a hunch it is more than just abstract thinking.

        This is not to say that we should exclude the work of Euripides and the like from our concerns as aspiring philosophers.

  4. A few more ideas. Chinese philosophy seems well regarded in the academy, so I think Howard’s remarks on that may be fighting now-dead enemies.

    I asked a few colleagues what they thought of this discussion and how it relates to the way we define philosophy. All of them disavowed any expert knowledge of African philosophy or Native American philosophy, etc., but shared some reflections on this issue insofar as it speaks to the way we define philosophy in general. I hope I am representing them properly here.

    A. said that if the idea is to treat mythology or folklore as philosophy proper, it is hard to understand what is distinctive about philosophy anymore. Sure, there are richly philosophical themes in such things, and one can excavate them. But to do this is not to say they are instances of philosophy in the way we say that e.g., Aristotle is doing philosophy.

    E. said that he disagrees with the idea that the Daodejing is not philosophical in our sense of the term, since it is a sustained critique of Confucianism, hence philosophy in a way we agree is philosophical.

    K. wondered about the definitions of philosophy that make self-conscious use of reasoning a necessary condition, as it would make some religious “philosophers” who reject the primary of reason non-philosophers. (A. responded that they paradoxically still use reason to make that case if they are philosophers in our sense of the term).

    Just some further ideas.

  5. I have a hard time understanding what the question even means. We have a certain idea of philosophy, where the most proximate meaning is “stuff that professional philosophers at American and European universities do,” or possibly “stuff that self-described philosophers in America and Europe did in the past.” But so what? Haven’t we heard the same story a million times? People who literally don’t know the first thing about certain intellectual and cultural traditions (as the very term “African philosophy” shows—which Africa? when?) shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them. And if “we” (whoever that really refers to) finding “ourselves” dismissing them before reading, say, Philosophising in Mombasa, then “we” should be genuinely worried.

    I think that one can define philosopher however one wants. Nobody seems to have a good definition, anyway. And it’s okay to say: look, I work on a particular discourse, with particular features, that involves such-and-such historical figures, even if the questions, themes, etc. stand “outside of history” in some sense. Why do so many people fall into the temptation of saying “if a discourse doesn’t have the particular characteristic features of the one I work on, then it’s not ‘philosophy'”?

    • In the worst case, because they want to continue their dogmatic sleep. In the best case, because they do not want to extend “philosophy” unduly. (I have some sympathy with the latter concern, e.g., I dislike attempts to use “philosophy” instead of “religion” in order to make one’s cult more palatable to Western post-religious élites —am I somewhat justifiable?:-))

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