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Bekele Gutema

»African Philosophy
at the Threshold of the New Millennium«

An International Conference in Addis Ababa

 Developing African Philosophy

African Philosophy at the Threshold of the New Millennium
7th Annual Conference of the International Society for African Philosophy and Studies (ISAPS)
March 9-11, 2001
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


  The 7th Annual Conference of the International Society for African Philosophy and Studies (ISAPS) was held in the School of Graduate Studies of Addis Ababa University between March 9 and 11, 2001. The theme of the conference was "African Philosophy at the Threshold of the New Millennium".


  Showing the path that African philosophy went through over the years, in his key note address, Claude Sumner, who presided over the conference, said that it is the duty of African philosophers to work out a philosophy of development, a philosophy of science, etc. for African philosophy to be up to its challenges. Endashw Bekele, Research and Publications Officer of Addis Ababa University, in his opening address underlined the need for developing African philosophy to realize an "African renaissance". Femi Taiwo, President of ISAPS, appealed to African Universities to actively support philosophy departments in view of philosophy's indispensable role for a morally civilized society.


  There were twenty two papers presented in the three-day long confernce. The conference took place in one panel but the sessions of the pannel were six: History of African Philosophy, African Philosophy and Theology, African Political Philosophy, African Philosophy of Education, Sage Philosophy and Philosophy as an Intercultural Activity and African philosophy: Ethics and Aesthetics. What follows is a very brief summary of the papers that were presented and the discussions that ensued.

 History of African Philosophy



  The papers presented in the first session dealt with the history of African philosophy from different perspectives. Mokena Semela tried to explore the philosophy underlying the oral literature of South African Society which was able to survive the onslaught of apartheid. It must be the task of contemporary philosophers to use this material as an object of philosophical discourse and anlysis.


  Berhanu Gizaw on the other hand attempted to point out a philosophy underlying various written texts particularly associated with churchs and monastries in Ethiopia. Messay Kebede's paper titled "The Invention of the White man" attempted to explore the picture of the white man as it is presented in various writings. Teodros Kiros's paper dealt with Zara Yacob as the harbinger of modernity.

 African Philosophy and Theology

African Spirituality & Philosophy
(Introduction and Links)
external linkWeb Site


  In African Philosophy and Theology, Pamela Abuya's paper titled "Religious Fanaticism in Uganda" discussed the issues associated with the cult of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments and showed that unless it is held within the bounds of rationality, religion could lead to the kind of mass killings that took place in Uganda by the leaders of the cult. Kolapo Abimbola in his paper "Philosophy and the Unity of Religion" talked about the practical uses of religion. On the hand it gives form and content to human life and on the other provides a rich text for philosophical analysis.


  Humphrey Jeremiah Ojwang in the paper "The Wisdom of Leviratic Unions: How African Marriages Survive Death" discussed the meaning of death as it is understood by the Luo of Kenya and underlined the importance of the Leviratic Unions for the family particularly when the head of the family dies, a point which was not accepted particularly by those who were looking at it from the feminist point of view. Finally in this session Fred Olwendo talked of the importance of making philosophy and theology practical. On the basis of classical philosophical texts of Plato, Aristotle, etc. he pointed out the posibility of working out a philosophy and theology that could play a role in practical life. His paper was titled "Towards an African Philosophy and Theology".

 African Political Philosophy

»In view of the marginalization, it was argued that the black philosopher must take philosophy as a weapon that is able to render possible a transformation of the disadvantaged black population.«


  The number of papers presented in the sesssion in African Political Philosophy is relatively larger in comparioson to the other sessions and dealt with a variety of issues. Nkiru Nzegwu's paper titled "Legalizing Patriarchy: Constructed Norms and Customs" discussed the dynamic nature of traditions. She particularly talked of traditions before 1900 which gave power to women in Eastern Nigeria, but which were systematically replaced by the colonial courts system thereby denying women the traditional rights and powers that they had earlier.


  Sirkku Kristina Hellsten in her paper tiltled "Tradition as Fashion in African Political Communitarianism" appreciated the positive use of tradition as a motive force for political processes, but warned of tradition becoming fashion loosing its purpose. Femi Taiwo's paper "Post-Independence African Political philosophy" underlined the emergence in Africa, after independence of a number of political thinkers with visions for Africa. The political ideas of these visionaries is invaluable in the reorganization of African societies is the main idea of the paper.


  Charles Peterson's paper "Nigger Go Home: Frantz Fanon and the Subversion of Colonial Identities" attempted to explore, how the legacy of colonialim became a hinderance to the formation and proliferation of genuinely African institutions. He pointed to the importance of Fanon's master piece, "The Wretched of the Earth", as an inispiration and a source book to come up with self-constructed identities that would enable the Africans to overcome the colonial legacy.


  Following that M.O. Okome's paper made a critique of globalization suggesting that it counters Africa's attempt to evolve counter-hegemonic institutions. The title of the paper is "Antinomies of Globalization: Africa and the New World Order". Jesse Taylor presented a paper titled "On the Role of Pragmatism in the Philosophy of Cornel West". The paper dealt with Cornel's view regarding professional black philosphy and its replacement by a more pragmatically oriented practical philosophy that is able to address the problems of the black. In view of the marginalization, it was argued that the black philosopher must take philosophy as a weapon that is able to render possible a transformation of the disadvantaged black population.

 African Philosophy and Education

Kal Alston:
"Race Consciousness and the Philosophy of Education".
In: Philosophy of Education (1995).
external linkArticle

Raymond Cain:
Educational Philosophy in Black Perspective.
external linkArticle


  In the following session three papers on African Philosophy and Education were presented. Afia Zakia argued in her paper "Indigenous Afrikan Philosophy of Education" which was based on the study of the Amhara of Ethiopia and the Chagga of Tanzania, about the existence of an indigenous philosophy of education. In the case of the two ethnic groups, she said, unity, the union of the individual and the community, moral goodness and solidarity constitute the core of the philosophy of education and children's upbringing. The methods and materials of teaching were similar (proverbs, rituals, stories, etc.).


  Through an analysis of traditional and modern education in Ethiopia Setargew Kenaw attempted a survey of the history of education in Northern Ethiopia. The paper's title is "Traditional and Modern Education in Ethiopia: A Philosophical Reflection on Aims and Objectives". The session on education was rounded up by Daniel Smith's paper "Universities on the Threshold of the New Millenium". He attempted to explore the role of the philosopher in a world that is being globalized. The role of the philosopher should be the clarification of language particularly emanating from agencies like the World Bank, etc. The focus of the philosophers must be to make discourse and teach students to participate in the public sphere as thinkers and philosophize about the right way of living.

 Sage Philosophy and Philosophy as an Intercultural Activity

Gail Presbey:
"Who Counts as a Sage? Problems in the Further Implementation of Sage Philosophy".
In: Paideia Project
. 1998.
external linkArticle


  The next session was that of Sage Philosophy and Philosophy as an Intercultural Activity. "Sage Philosophy as an African Existentialism " was John Otieno Ouko's paper that made a discussion of the existentially inspired ideas of Makindu, the sagacious Kenyan Philosopher who was commited to care, love and attention to the poor. Claude Sumner's paper explored the cross-cultural fertilization that philosophy went through. He showed the relationship between Egypt, Greece and Ethiopia particularly with reference to philosophy, thereby suggesting that philosophy has to be seen interculturally and as a result of an enrichment made possible at these various spots.


  Bekele Gutema in the paper "The Need for an Intercultural Approach in African Philosophy" argued that philosophical ideas develop in a situation of an interculturally determined milieu suggesting that philosophies develop in various cultures and hence should not be seen as the exclusive possession of one culture alone. Looking at African philosophy from an intercultural perspective would show the real essence and importance of African philosophy not only for Africa but to mankind as such. Philosophy is not the exclusive property of any one given race or region but something that belongs to the whole of mankind since it is the product of an intercultural "polylogue" rendered possible by the real situation of life.

 African philosophy: Ethics and Aesthetics

Bekele Gutema
is Professor for Philosophy at Addis Ababa University.


  The last session was that of African philosophy: Ethics and Aesthetics. The two papers here were, that of Irene Danysh and Ikem Okoye. In her paper "Ideals of African Beauty: Literary Aesthetics of Contemporary Kenya" Danysh attempted to make a contrast between the situation of literary critique immediately after independence and the situation now, after three decades of independence. Referring to Ngugu Wa Thiongo's literary works she wondered why it was not followed by others. What are the ideals of African beauty? Is the question with which she summarized her presentation, trying to point to the direction that African Literary beauty can possibly take.


  Ikem Okoye's paper is titled "The Status of African Art and Architecture and the Possibility of Judgement". He dealt with the issue of objective aesthetic judgement, an issue that has always been a point of contention among students of aesthetics. He contrasted the status of West African (Nigeria, Mali) artistic productions in some of the important Western museums showing the status given to the Western products of Art in these centers and questioned the objectivity of such a judgement. He concluded by calling for the evolution of new standards of judgement and visuality.

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