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Out of Africa

Social scientists have long grappled with ideas about race. In recent years, discussion on the significance of these ideas – particularly in exploring notions of identity, and the cultural and political options these appear to make available – have penetrated other areas of the humanities. A spate of recent publications signals that it is philosophyʼs turn to address some of the vexatious issues this discussion raises.* Two such issues are raised by the authors reviewed here: first, the possibility and meaning of African philosophy and its relevance to European traditions of social thought (Wiredu and the two volumes edited by Eze); second, the significance of race concepts to philosophy in general and the development of a distinctively African-American philosophical tradition in particular (Pittman and Outlaw). Although there are some important overlaps between these issues – for example, they both address questions to do with anti-foundationalism, postmodernity, postcolonialism, objectivity, and culture and agency – I propose to consider each in turn.

Kwasi Wireduʼs Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective sets out a propitiatory case, insisting that what unifies us is more fundamental than what differentiates us. In a cogently argued chapter, Wiredu rejects the ʻfacile universalismʼ of Western Christian missionaries in their dealings with African religions, whilst arguing for the importance of ʻjudicious claims of universalityʼ (p. 31). These imply that ʻcontending adults can, in principle, discuss their differences rationally on a basis of equality, whether inside identical cultures or across them.ʼ Wiredu sees the human community as fundamentally united in its activities of knowing and understanding – we all think about more or less the same things – in which communication is not only possible but ʻpervasive and intensiveʼ. This makes it possible for human beings to think astride conceptual networks and to access other elements of the world of human thought.

The difficulties of this task are not minimized.

Wiredu spends an attentive and careful chapter exploring the complexities of cross-cultural translation of concepts in the human sciences, concluding reasonably that such translation is not impossible but does require a greater degree of conceptual self-consciousness than the translation of natural science concepts. This account draws on his own background in Akan thought (the Akans constitute roughly half of the population of Ghana, with a rich tradition of oral and written philosophy, of which the most well-known representative is Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana) and his training in European philosophy, and is a lively demonstration of how a translator respectful of both bodies of thought can bring out common themes and interesting contrasts.

Wiredu is aware that this is not a fashionable position, and that it renders uncertain the role and Out of Africa Philosophy, ‘race’ and agency

Bob carter

* Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1997. 237 pp., £13.99 pb., 0 253 21080

1. ^ Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, ed., Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader, Blackwell, Oxford, 1997. ix + 166 pp., £40.00 hb., £12.99 pb., 0 631 20136 X hb., 0 631 20137 8 pb. Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, ed., Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader, Blackwell, Oxford, 1996. ix + 374 pp., £50.00 hb., £14.99 pb., 0 631 20339 7 hb., 0 631 20340 0 pb. Lucius T. Outlaw, On Race and Philosophy, Routledge, London, 1996. xxxi + 232 pp., £40.00 hb., £13.99 pb., 0 415 91534 1 hb., 0 415 91535 X pb. John P. Pittman, ed., African-American Perspectives and Philosophical Traditions, London, Routledge, 1997. xxii + 296 pp., £45.00 hb., £14.99 pb., 0 415 91639 9 hb., 0 415 91640 2 pb.meaning of African philosophy. In his discussion of the debates in African philosophy between those who see it as ʻcoterminous with philosophical investigations having a special relevance to Africaʼ (p. 149) and those of a more universalist outlook he comes down emphatically on the side of the latter. Truth is true, he notes, wherever it comes from.

This points to several conclusions about the role of contemporary African philosophy. First, it is much broader than a concern with traditional African thought. Second, a concern with African thought is an indispensable preparation for cross-cultural evaluations since this requires conceptual clarity at both cultural ends. Third, African philosophy has an important position in the postcolonial world, partly as a challenge to the neglect and disparagement of African thinkers and traditions of thought by Europeans, partly as the basis for what Wiredu terms ʻconceptual self-exorcismʼ. Wiredu regards this as a necessary response to the effects of colonial domination – particularly the distortion of African cultures (through ʻlong standing blandishments, importunities and outright impositionsʼ) and conceptual frameworks – through their ʻarticulation in the medium of foreign categories of thoughtʼ. African philosophy, in his view, is a necessary antidote to the ʻinvoluntary mental de-Africanizationʼ that threatens African thinkers.

This seems to me to jeopardize Wireduʼs robust defence of a universalist view of African philosophy and the possibilities of cross-cultural translation, for it hints at a view of culture and thought as symbolically consistent universes of shared meanings. I shall return to an elaboration of this presently, but in Wireduʼs case it highlights several tensions to do with the meaning of the term ʻAfricanʼ and the relationship between the ontological status of ideas and their generation by groups and individuals inhabiting specific social and historical locations. How, for example, is cross-cultural translation to be distinguished from the ʻentanglementʼ of ʻforeign categories of thoughtʼ? How is ʻproper African thoughtʼ, free of colonial encrustations, to be recognized? The term ʻEuropeanʼ (or ʻWesternʼ) could, of course, be substituted for ʻAfricanʼ here and the questions would remain pertinent, because at their basis is a misconceived view of the relationship between ideas and agency, between how we think about the world and what we do with the ideas we come up with. Simply, ideas do not have nationalities or carry passports; human beings do. This is a point Wiredu has made forcefully elsewhere, [1] arguing that African philosophy is simply that part of the universal discourse of philosophy that is carried on by Africans; reason is without colour.

The first of Ezeʼs readers, Race and the Enlightenment, illustrates the shortcomings of an approach that does not address this misconception. It is a useful and attractively presented collection, assembling selections from the texts of some key Enlightenment thinkers – Kant, Hegel, Hume all figure here – in an attempt to explore the question of whether or not, and in what ways, race ideas might be a key component in Enlightenment thought. Aligning himself with feminist critics of the patriarchal nature of Enlightenment reason, Eze seeks to demonstrate that the ʻAge of Reasonʼ was predicated on the belief that reason could only come to maturity in modern Europe. It therefore consistently described and understood non-Europeans as rationally inferior, discursively casting them as the Other of European reason.

There are several different arguments elided in this account. Certainly the extracts demonstrate the prejudices about Africa and Africans held by European philosophers, from Kantʼs ʻThis fellow was quite black … a clear proof that what he said was stupidʼ, to Hegelʼs assertion that non-European peoples are less human than Europeans because they are not fully aware of themselves as conscious, historical beings. By and large, these thinkers drew on commonplace ideas about race and colour as a means of classifying and ordering human populations. The question is: what are we to make of this?

Eze has an unequivocal answer. Enlightenment philosophy, he avers, ʻwas instrumental in codifying and institutionalizing both the scientific and popular European perceptions of the human raceʼ (p. 5). These writings played ʻa strong role in articulating Europeʼs sense not only of its cultural but also racial superiorityʼ (p. 5). They were able to do this because they provided an identifiable scientific and philosophical vocabulary – about ʻraceʼ, ʻprogressʼ, ʻcivilizationʼ and the like – constitutive of an intellectual worldview. With a little Foucauldian jiggery-pokery this becomes a ʻuniverse of discourseʼ which ʻdetermines … not only how studies are done, but also what are constituted as objects of scientific, philosophical, or cultural studyʼ (p. 7).

The problem is that beyond the averral, there is an acute shortage of evidence to support these ambitious propositions. From the modest, and I suspect largely accurate, charge that some of the key figures in European philosophy during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, notwithstanding their considerable philosophical accomplishments, shared with many of their less cerebral contemporaries uninformed and ignorant views of people of colour, we shift quickly to altogether grander pronouncements about ʻpopular European perceptionsʼ. In expressing such views, no doubt, Kant, Hume and others gave authority and legitimacy to ideas about race and colour; there can also be little question that such views proved useful to those who wished to defend colonialism, slavery or other exploitative and inequitable social arrangements. This, though, does not amount to a ʻcodification and institutionalization of European popular perceptionsʼ, at least not without a more considered account of the relationship between philosophical ideas and social agency.

The themes of colonialism and European modernity are pursued in more detail in Ezeʼs other edited collection, Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader. This provides an excellent introduction to the complex issues of postcolonialism and African philosophy, and one that reflects the liveliness, variety and rigour of a growing area of debate. Eze provides an introductory essay in which he argues that colonialism, ʻthe brutal encounter of the African world with European modernityʼ (p. 4), is the single most important factor driving the field of African philosophy. The latter thus has two tasks: a critique of how the intellectual and philosophical production of Europe ʻjustified imperialism and colonialismʼ; and the understanding and articulation of Africaʼs experience of European modernity.

Again, the conflationary impulse to posit ideas as inseparable from their concrete historical realization by specific social actors pushes towards a sort of ʻbig actor scenarioʼ in which huge, reified concepts like Africa and Europe square up and do things to each other: ʻBy dialectically negating Africa, Europe was able to posit and represent itself and its contingent history as the ideal culture, the ideal humanity, and the ideal historyʼ (p. 13). This not only overstates the role of ideas and their influence, but inhibits an account of the conditions of their production and of their relations to the political interests of groups and collectivities.

Other contributions to this lively volume register some unease about the notions of ʻpostcolonialityʼ and its historical tasks. Kwame Gyekye, for example, argues for a political definition of the term, suggesting that it refers to the era of political independence of African states from European colonial power, whilst Leonard Harris is deeply critical of the very notion of the postcolonial, pointing to its theoretical incongruities and its political impotence. More crucial reservations emerge around two further, interconnected themes: the meaning of tradition and its relation to cultural and political identities; and the relation and relevance of African philosophy to African-American philosophy and politics. These motifs are explored in all the texts reviewed here, although with differing emphases. In Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader the issue of tradition and identity is to the fore and focuses on the bald question: what is African philosophy?

Obvious descriptive replies to this quickly become bogged down in exceptions that eventually render the question nugatory. Is it philosophy carried out in Africa? Is it philosophy dealing with Africa? Is it philosophy done by Africans? Living in Africa or elsewhere? (We can ask the same questions of European philosophy, of course, with pretty much the same consequences.) Hence, several of the authors in this volume see hermeneutics as providing the means by which answers may be developed.

Peter Amatoʼs essay is an intriguing example.

He uses hermeneutics to question the counterposing of reason to culture and tradition which, he claims, characterizes Western modernityʼs own philosophical prejudgements. Against this, reason needs to be placed, Gadamer-like, within culture – sagacity should be a conscious movement from one cultural particularity towards a plurality of particularities, a constant interplay between oneʼs own cultural embeddedness and the shifting horizon of an ever-widening set of cultural resources. In the spirit of this position, Western philosophers should recognize that the cultural productions and forms of thought of those ʻbeyond its self imposed boundariesʼ (p. 86) can be legitimately philosophical, rational and modern. There are rich and audacious philosophical traditions in Africa (amply represented by the writers in this volume) by means of which the horizons of European philosophy could be broadened immeasurably. Understanding, Amato sharply notes, ʻis a matter of bringing traditions into active correspondence, not pretending to speak ʻReasonʼ and waiting for the Other to learn its languageʼ (p. 92).

A hermeneutic approach is also endorsed by Bruce Janz in another essay in this volume. He stresses its importance for African philosophy as a means of pushing the issue of self-understanding to a new level, since a truly African philosophy is ʻnot one which ignores outside influences, but one which is able to root them in its own soilʼ (p. 235). This points to the difficulty with adopting such approaches, namely that sooner or later the boundaries of a tradition, the nature and limits of ʻits own soilʼ, have to be specified. If this is not done, the fluid notion of tradition as an oscillation between cultural particularity and the horizon of universal rationality ossifies into a transcendent category. Two difficulties then arise. The first is that avoiding some form of essentialism becomes something of a quandary. Janz, for example, ponders the question ʻis there an African way in which African philosophy can understand itself?ʼ (p. 233). I do not think that there is a satisfactory way of answering this, partly because I am not sure that it is a meaningful question. The second difficulty is that the ʻmyth of cultural integrationʼ, to borrow a phrase from Archer, [2] is firmly reinstated.

Briefly, the ʻmyth of cultural integrationʼ portrays culture as a perfectly integrated system, as a community of shared meanings. It thereby elides community with meanings. Community has to do with how groups and individuals pursue interests within the contexts of cultural values and norms, and therefore the extent of their commitment to these norms, whereas meanings are to do with the relations between the components of culture, especially their degree of logical consistency. The myth allows one to argue that by identifying a coherent body of ideas – humanistic Marxism, say, or Protestantism, or Islam or Judaism – one has also identified a culture or tradition constituted by all those who assent to these ideas. This accounts for the attraction of hermeneutics for Amato, Janz and Jean-Marie Makang in the present collection. There is a price to pay for this, though. Few of the contributors develop a philosophical engagement with African ideas or thinkers; rather, the concern is more with defending and explicating a notion of African philosophy as a tradition in the sense just depicted.

The enduring advantages of this strategy are well illustrated by Makangʼs essay. After a powerful critique of the ʻcolonial ontology of participationʼ (p. 325) in which Africans were discursively construed in various inferior ways to their European colonizers and were stripped of their ʻhistoricity, diversity and conflicts of interestsʼ (p. 325), he moves on to the tasks of African philosophy. Here the myth of cultural integration melds with hermeneutics to produce an African philosophy that trans-cends its spatial location through its ability to face the challenges which confront ʻpeople of African descentʼ: What unites the African people of the continent with those of the Diaspora is not only the fact that they descend from people whose homeland is Africa, but also the fact that they share a common historical consciousness, and are linked by the same destiny and the same hope for a full realization of their humanity. (p. 325)This would appear to leave little room for the ʻhistoricity, diversity and conflicts of interestsʼ of African peoples living in Africa, let alone those scattered around the world. This tension between the hermeneutic recovery and/or development of an authentically African philosophy and the strategic desire to press it into the service of a larger project of identity formation, particularly in the context of US ʻrace politicsʼ, becomes more evident in the final two books under consideration here.

Pittmanʼs edited collection African-American Perspectives and Philosophical Traditions marks the shift of emphasis explicitly with its title. Readers not familiar with US debates about affirmative-action programmes and the campaigns for faculty diversity may find the last section rather narrow in focus. The other sections, though, provide a splendidly conspectual view of the current state of play in the sometimes fierce debates about African-American philosophy, its role in the ʻrace politicsʼ of the US academy and more broadly in the formation of political identities in a nation-state characterized by enormous inequalities and discrimination. Many key figures are represented in these writings (a notable exception is Cornel West) and this text would certainly be a good place to start a crash course in current US thinking about colour, philosophy and racism.

Commendably, it does not seek to avoid awkward questions. Briefly, these have to do, first, with the identification of a dominant European tradition, whose ʻabsolute, foundationalist standpointʼ, to use Pittmanʼs description, has silenced the voices of excluded others and sought to impose a (white) Western notion of reason; and, second, with the role of ʻraceʼ in defining political identities and philosophical traditions capable of challenging ʻthe socially constructed canons of the dominant traditionsʼ (Pittman again). The authors in this volume, unsurprisingly perhaps, find it difficult to arrive at common answers.

Pittman, in his Introduction and opening essay, puts the case for the prosecution succinctly. He situates himself and, by implication, African-American philosophical traditions as part of the effort to ʻsubstitute for the foundationalist dream of a purely rational language of truth a sensitivity to and exploration of the actually existing plurality of contingent social practicesʼ (p. ix). As in the texts reviewed earlier, this project is bolstered by the claim that the ʻdominant European philosophical traditionʼ has been complicit in the exclusion of people of colour – and their intellectual and moral traditions – from ʻparticipation in the centers of power of Western civilizationʼ (p. x). This is another consequence of the myth of cultural integration: the ahistorical privileging of ideas and traditions. Again, this is not to deny that philosophical ideas to do with colour, Africa and innate inferiority of the sort illustrated in Ezeʼs reader Race and the Enlightenment have been deployed to justify exclusion and discrimination; but they have been deployed by groups and individuals, for particular purposes and in particular circumstances. Unless these are specified we are left with the strong imputation that the European philosophical tradition (is this meant to include antifoundationalists such as Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Rorty, Harding or Max Weber?) has itself an interest in accomplishing these ends.

Behind Pittmanʼs charge, and constituting the critical standpoint from which the European philosophical tradition is both demarcated and challenged, is the hovering presence of ʻraceʼ. It is ʻraceʼ that marks out the counter-position of the African-American tradition. The problem of what is meant by it, and of how it relates to philosophy and to political practices, is a central thread running through all the essays in this collection. Pittman opts for a social and historical definition, arguing that racism is a universal in the experiences of people of colour and it is this common history of oppression that justifies the use of a category of ʻraceʼ. Furthermore, since the African-American tradition is constituted through the very process of opposition to a dominant European tradition, it is fundamentally antithetical to a Eurocentric, foundationalist Reason. ʻRaceʼ, Pittman observes, ʻ is something we do as much as something we areʼ (p. xvii).

Frank M. Kirkland, in a later essay in this volume, opts for a more modest, discursive role for ʻraceʼ, using the term to describe the use of race notions in everyday encounters. In this illuminating discussion of the work of the nineteenth-century intellectual Alexander Crummell, Kirkland also registers misgivings about regarding ʻraceʼ as some sort of ʻgroup spiritʼ in the Pittman sense. Tommy L. Lott, on the other hand, turns to the work of W.E.B. DuBois in defence of a social-historical view of ʻraceʼ. In a detailed and engaging account, Lott examines DuBoisʼs efforts to develop nonbiological criteria for a definition of ʻraceʼ. He argues that for DuBois ʻraceʼ was a political project in which African-Americans would invent a conception of themselves that would contribute to their political and social elevation. The nature of the African-American contribution to US life could only be established if African-Americans themselves were clear about what that contribution was. This leaves unresolved the question of what constitutes AfricanAmerican culture and of the relation between this and political identities. After all, to say, as Lott claims DuBois is doing, that the strength of a group lies in its cultural integrity rather than in biologically fixed categories still requires some specification of how, and in what ways, culture gives rise to community.

This point is driven home by Anthony K. Appiahʼs essay in the same volume (he has also made it extensively elsewhere3). Arguing against the notion that ideas constitute communities – what he terms ʻethnophilosophyʼ – Appiah urges a view of intellectuals as rational burrowers in a Popperian ʻWorld Threeʼ and whose perspective has necessarily to be comparative, integrative and critical of the ʻcozy celebration of oneʼs own conceptual and theoretical resourcesʼ (p. 22). Consistently, he also rejects the notion that there is some key body of ideas shared by (black) Africans generally and raises the correlative question of what relevance African philosophy might have for AfricanAmericans.

The last part of this lively collection deals with another aspect of African-American philosophy: the application of philosophical concepts to the exploration of racism and exclusion in contemporary USA. These include Adrian M. Piperʼs stimulating efforts to develop an account of xenophobia using Kantʼs notion of personhood (an interesting exegesis with much to say about xenophobia as a psycho-biographical strategy); Laurence Thomasʼs deployment of the notion of moral deference in enabling people to think differently about each other; and Michelle M. MoodyAdamsʼs account of the impact of discrimination and exclusion on self-respect. All are compelling examples of what philosophy can contribute to current thinking about racism, inequality and injustice. On the other hand, the discussion of affirmative action by Anita L. Allen, and that of alienation by Howard McGary, seem to rest on unspecific claims about, respectively, the effects of role models on student achievement and the effects of community support in reducing alienation. Both reproduce many of the difficulties associated with a concept of race, difficulties which are encountered directly in the final book under review.

Lucius T. Outlawʼs On Race and Philosophy again has a slightly misleading title: rather than a text exploring the philosophical dimensions of ideas or propositions about race or what philosophy might bring to our understanding of a dangerously protean concept, we have a sustained and complex argument about the place and the tasks of ʻAfricana philosophyʼ. Although Outlaw insists that the term ʻAfricana philosophyʼ is a ʻgathering notionʼ, and not a proxy for an immutable essence shared by all Africans, his unsteady combination of genetics and ʻmyth of cultural integrationʼ hermeneutics is unpersuasive.

Outlawʼs case for Africana philosophy is as follows (a concise version of this appears in his essay in the Pittman volume). First, it coincides with the situated practices and experiences (ʻlife worldsʼ) of ʻa dispersed geographic raceʼ – that is, ʻa group of persons and peoples with a shared ancestry and descentʼ [4] (my italics), who share therefore a relatively permanent place of geographical origin and a relatively distinct gene pool. These factors hold even in diasporic conditions. In turn the situated practices and experiences influence the gene pool and cultural practices to condition raciation – that is, the formation and evolution of the biological and cultural factors collectively characterizing the race. Raciation is an ʻimportant means through which we construct and validate ourselvesʼ, and for this and other reasons ʻwe should understand races … as natural, that is as particular types of bio-social collectivities that develop or evolve, as do all things in the natural world, but in ways that are characteristically humanʼ (pp. 11–12). So African philosophy rests on the existence of an African ʻraceʼ, defined in terms of common ancestry and descent, and a genetic pool that is somehow affected by practice and experience.

Second, then, it is defined ex post facto by those who decide what constitutes African philosophy. It is African because it is done by, or is about, Africans; and it is philosophy because Outlaw describes it as such, a strategy allowed for by the claim that what counts as philosophy is a product of local convention – the shared unities of life-world conditions and practices is sufficient for the discursive declaration of a disciplinary field of ʻAfrican philosophyʼ. Third, Africana philosophy is distinguished by the dual effort (a) to ʻforge and articulate new identities and life agendasʼ to deal with racism and discrimination and the difficulties of ʻNew world relocationsʼ and (b) ʻto recover or reconstruct life-defining meaning connections to the lands and cultures of the African continentʼ through a ʻhermeneutics of black folks … aim[ing] at the full disclosure of the life worlds of black people, our life praxesʼ (p. 30). This seems to insist on a definition of philosophy which eliminates precisely what Wiredu, Appiah, Gyekye and others would insist is distinctive in philosophical thinking.

Africana philosophers thus have a particular agenda:

to rethink the history of Western philosophy and its relations to Africa and its peoples; to rehabilitate African thinkers; and to deconstruct and revise philosophical narratives in the West. In combination these tasks ensure that attempts to develop an African-American philosophy are necessarily deconstructive since they must challenge the Eurocentricity of dominant traditions of philosophizing. Despite its emphasis on shared destinies and ancestry, then, and a touchingly old-fashioned attachment to the claim that ʻtheorizing is a form of social praxisʼ (a catchphrase by means of which academics have often sought to give themselves consequence), Outlawʼs book draws freely on postmodern themes. (The Western European provenance of these themes, incidentally, appears not to be as disabling as Outlaw might contend.) The ʻruptures and challengesʼ of Africana philosophy unsettle the false unity of foundationalist Reason, whilst the conventional nature of truth permits a discursive redefinition of the philosophical enterprise. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this gives rise to some tensions in his defence of African philosophy.

The most fundamental of these surrounds his view of ʻraceʼ as a bio-social collectivity, which seems to me a bad case of wanting the best of both worlds. Clearly for the task Outlaw wants to set for Africana philosophy, a modest definition – regarding race ideas, for example, as propositions about the world, or as elements in common sense, practical consciousness – will not do. Africana philosophy, like European philosophy or Indian philosophy, would then be merely a descriptor, a taxonomic convenience whose availability and relevance to those other than ʻblack folksʼ is ensured by the public nature of academic discourse. Furthermore, a consistent anti-foundationalism such as Outlaw proposes swiftly renders problematic notions of African and African-descended bio-social collectivities (recall Appiahʼs scepticism from Pittmanʼs earlier volume). So there must be something about ʻAfricansʼ that gives Africana philosophy its distinctiveness. Hence the turn to hermeneutics and biological attributes, life worlds and gene pools.

The problem Outlaw faces here is one that faces all attempts to mobilize notions of ʻraceʼ, as Appiah notes: the relationship between biology, culture and destiny inescapably issues in some form of undesirable essentialism (undesirable in the sense of being ahistorical, asociological, aphilosophical and, one might add, unworkable). Outlaw is no exception: ʻWhat makes it possible and appropriate initially to group diverse intellectual endeavors of diverse persons under a single heading[?]ʼ he asks. It ʻis the extent to which the persons share racial-ethnic identities as African and African-descended, thus share socially and culturally conditioned biological attributes, cultural traditions, and historical experiences more or less distinctive of the African race and its ethniesʼ (p. 88).

This notion of races as communities of meaning based on shared ʻracial-ethnic identitiesʼ – groups of people who look roughly alike and who ʻshareʼ a body of cultural norms and values (authentic cultural life worlds) – leads to a selective application of the ʻdifference and diversity principleʼ. Recognizing that ʻDifference has become a significant basis of political mobilization … a highly valued preference that many persons and groups would have accommodated and recognized as the basis for their participation in civic, political and economic lifeʼ (p. 140) does not apparently allow for difference between those sharing a common culture on the basis of their ʻracial-ethnic identityʼ. (I am drawing a veil over the sociologically dubious notion of sharing a common culture, the problems of empirical demonstration associated with it, and the illegitimate way in which it assumes what it purports to discover.)Outlawʼs is a bold book and its strains are very much the consequence of trying to renovate a notion of ʻraceʼ as a viable social category with some explanatory purchase. This enterprise has a long history in the USA, from Alexander Crummell and Frederick Douglass through DuBois, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to Louis Farrakhan – a history to a great extent impelled by the experience of coping with racism and exclusion. It is also a history in which communal resources have been crucial in ameliorating the damaging effects of a racist society. It is a moot point, though, how far a notion of ʻraceʼ takes us in making philosophical (or indeed any other) sort of sense of this. Notions of race always embroil their sponsors in shady deals with disreputable claims about common destinies and traditions, life worlds and genes. ʻWe will only solve our problemsʼ, observes Appiah, ʻif we see them as human problems arising out of a special situation, and we shall not solve them if we see them as African problems, generated by our being somehow unlike others.ʼ [5] If the ʻOther-nessʼ machine is to be jammed, then that part of Wireduʼs ʻuniversal discourse of philosophyʼ that is carried on by Africans cannot be confined to issues of ʻraceʼ, or to the construction of political communities and theoretical traditions grounded in the lingering essentialisms of ʻracial-ethnicʼ identity.

The wide range of issues raised by these texts highlights the varying, and conflicting, senses in which a term such as ʻAfrican philosophyʼ may be understood. Wireduʼs argument that what makes a concept interesting is not whose it is but what it is and how it deals with the realities that face those whose concept it is suggests a possible exit from the fruitless search for ʻauthentic African-nessʼ. Following his hint, we might distinguish between philosophy as a Popperian World Three enterprise, considering particular sorts of concepts, ideas and propositions in a distinctive manner, and philosophy as a social practice, enmeshed in unequal and discriminatory textual relations of production. In the first case, the notion of an African philosophy makes no more sense than a European or a male or a white philosophy. In the second case, however, those seeking to challenge prejudice, discrimination and inequality may find in the notion of an African philosophy a powerful mobilizing force.


I would like to thank the following people for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay: Alan How, Kevin Magill, Alison Sealey and Lesley Spiers.

1. ^ Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980.

2. ^ Margaret S. Archer, Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory, Cambridge University Press,

Cambridge, 1989.

3. ^ See Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Fatherʼs House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992.

4. ^ Lucius T. Outlaw, ʻAfrican, African American, Africana Philosophyʼ, in John P. Pittman, ed., African-American Perspectives and Philosophical Traditions, Routledge,

London 1997, p. 72.

5. ^ Appiah, In My Fatherʼs House, p. 136.

call for papers

philosophy and racePapers or abstracts are invited on the broad theme of ‘Philosophy and Race’ – Philosophy of race and ethnicity / Philosophical analyses of racial conflict / Racism in philosophy / African-American philosophy / Race and multiculturalism, and other relevant areasConfirmed speakers include Linda Martín Alcoff, Bikhu Parekh, Naoki Sakai, Bob Carter

Papers or abstracts by 1st July 1998 to Stella Sandford, Middlesex University, White Hart Lane, London N17 8HR

c o n f e r e n c e 1 9 9 8

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