Monday, 1 June 2015

African Philosophy: A Personal Perspective

Oils on canvas 1.5m², courtesy of Ann Moore
By Thomas Scarborough
Great movements may be experienced in microcosm. The dynamics of the national economy may be experienced in the price of a loaf of bread. Global weather patterns may be reflected in a bird which visits my garden. So, too, may the philosophy of a continent be understood through the simple habits of the common people. This is a personal story, through which I began to discern the features of the philosophy of a continent.
“Articulation”, in the common usage, has been understood to be verbal articulation. This meaning was expanded, in philosophy at least, by Michael Polanyi, who (re) defined articulation as formulated knowledge. Thus articulation came to include written words, maps, and mathematical formulae, among other things. In fact, the philosophical meaning of the word has changed again since – yet more of this in a moment.

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 – on the other hand, our feelings. In fact, it is more or less expected of all of us to express our thoughts accurately, and our feelings precisely. Not so in the African culture I have come to know through living and working in Africa – and more than anything, through marriage into an African family.

My Swiss wife and I, who were both settled and well established in life, were faced with the shock of her being diagnosed with end-stage bone marrow cancer at a comparatively young age. Out of care for my well-being, she reverted to an ancient tradition. She instructed me to marry Ester Sizani, a woman from the hills, of largely Xhosa descent. This came to be of crucial importance for me, to a deeper understanding of African philosophy.

While I knew Ester, I had only communicated with her functionally and in passing. This meant that, when we began a personal relationship together, under instruction, we had not needed to know whether we could communicate. We could understand each other's words, to be sure. I spoke her second language English, and she spoke my third language Afrikaans, and we both could adequately express ourselves in these languages. Nonetheless, we soon came to realise that there was a great gulf between us when it came to articulation. This was not a personal gulf. It was a cultural and historical gulf.



Ester and I persevered with an arranged relationship, which gradually grew in warmth. In time, we travelled together to her childhood home. After a long journey by car, we reached a 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.

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? Then 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 above all in my growing relationship with Ester. It epitomises one of the fundamental characteristics of Africa, which at first distressed me, then gradually began to open up a new world for me. It was the problem – to me, at least – of a lack of verbal articulation.

Imagine a world, loosely speaking, without articulation: without endearments, without analyses, without strategies – 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! We don't have that.” This by no means indicates a lack of sophistication in African thought. I have discovered brilliance of intellect, and great emotional sensitivity. However, it was far from what I had ever known.

Being habituated in my European ways, at first I could see no remedy for the relative absence of thought and emotion, as I had ever known it. Yet the answer revealed itself to me slowly. I realised that Ester spoke volumes with her face and with her bodily movements. It seemed clear to me that if I could decipher this, I would know a new language – but then, I despaired of ever learning the code. It would surely take me forever.

I found, however, that I was able to learn it faster than I had thought possible. And as I learnt to interpret Ester, I discovered that I was able to interpret her clan, and her people. Everywhere I went, a new world seemed to open up to me: on the streets, in the shops, and in homes.

Today, it is only through centuries of practice that, by very small degrees, rational and emotional articulation has become widespread in European culture. The thinking which existed before this is referred to as “pre-philosophical” – where “pre” need not refer to a prior moment in time, but to a human condition.

We forget where we have come from, in the European tradition. The premium we now place on articulation did not always exist. The pre-philosophical mindset broadly retreated only with the advent of the so-called Age of Reason.

This having been said, we may now be coming full circle – passing beyond the more narrow kind of articulation which Polanyi described. Articulation, today, may often be understood to include action. One now speaks of articulation, writes Yu Zhenhua, as “ability, capacity, competence and faculty in knowing and action”.

This raises the question as to whether the “articulate” person in the common usage, who relies on the mere formulation of thought (feeling aside), might thereby impoverish their thinking – if not their being. In fact it is formulated knowledge which makes it possible for us to dispose of face-to-face communications and social convocations, so disembodying our human interactions.

I finally came to see that Ester's thinking had everything to do with the thinking of a continent – speaking very broadly indeed. African philosophy, rather than treating philosophy as formulated knowledge, tends to think of it in terms of a body of thought, emotion, and action, all mysteriously and holistically intertwined.

Dances, prayers, and feasting, maxims and story telling, music and rhythm, signs and symbols, and so much more – the silences, too – all combine to form what Africa calls, in its mature form, sagacity. It is controversially called ethnophilosophy, which is, in short, a philosophy which cannot be articulated in terms familiar to the European tradition.

“Knowledge and language are woven together in an indissoluble bond. The requirement that knowledge should have a linguistic articulation becomes an unconditional demand. The possibility of possessing knowledge that cannot be wholly articulated by linguistic means emerges, against such a background, as completely unintelligible” –Kjell S. Jonhanessen.


Elias, M. Teaching Emotional Literacy. Edutopia.
Imbo, S.O. An Introduction to African Philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield.
Jonhanessen, K.S. Rule Following, Intrasitive Understanding, and Tacit Knowledge. Norwegian University Press.
Pettit, P. Practical Belief and Philosophical Theory. Australian National University.
Polanyi, M. The Study of Man. University of Chicago Press.
Zhenhua, Y. Tacit Knowledge/Knowing and the Problem of Articulation. Polanyi Society.

Mirjam Rahel Scarborough (1957-2011) was a Swiss "farm girl", born in Canton Zug. She was a doctor of philosophy, a co-director of the World Evangelical Alliance's International Institute for Religious Freedom, executive editor of the International Journal for Religious Freedom, and an ordained minister.

6 comments:

  1. Soooo.. the key idea here is that there are different kinds of knowledge, different ways of conceptualising the world, that are available in cultures in which

    "Dances, prayers, and feasting, maxims and story telling, music and rhythm, signs and symbols"

    play a greater role? But should the list include language based elements, such as maxims - or is the point better made as symbols and sequences that do not involve words?

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    1. African philosophy was never without words. However, it has only recently admitted written words. The key idea is that words are interwoven with life, as complementary (and perhaps lesser) aspects of sagacity or wisdom. At the same time, that sagacity or wisdom may be “articulated” without words.

      In Africa, one cannot reduce things to words. By way of contrast, European philosophy would seem to want to strip everything away until one only has words. Kyame Gyekye puts it like this: “(In the European tradition) literacy is a necessary condition for philosophising.” And a necessary condition for life, one might add.

      Ludwig Wittgenstein spoke of “forms of life”, which are physical and conceptual mixes within which languages exist, and cannot exist without. However, Wittgenstein went beyond this then, to imply that this puts up an insurmountable barrier between different forms of life: they are incommensurate. I would think rather, one needs a richer concept of language.

      But there is more than a key idea in the essay. There is a key experience: There is a powerful, living philosophy in Africa, which most of the world would seem to look upon with puzzlement, sometimes superiority, not possessing the passwords. I would hope that this essay might help to open up the riches of African sagacity.

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  2. ''In Africa, one cannot reduce things to words. By way of contrast, European philosophy would seem to want to strip everything away until one only has words. ''

    It's very well put!

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    1. +1! Move this up in the text maybe?

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  3. Perhaps it could be a quote but Thomas must decide presumably...

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  4. For completing a book on philosophy I visited Nepal last year but had a untold bad experience over there. Why hotels don't use updated weather measuring instruments! I was almost dead,if police hadn't saved me on time. https://weatherstationary.com/

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