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.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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

  1. As you know, I am deeply interested in the topic.
    I long held that “philosophy” could be properly used for two major tradition of thought, one “Greek” and more generally “Western” (which clearly includes philosophy in Judaism and Islam) and one “Indian” (with offshoots outside the continent). Further reading led me to believe the case for “Chinese” philosophy is stronger than I previously thought (although I think that in this case, the matter is really one of semantics). I am both less familiar and less sure about other traditions of thoughts; what I have read about the preserved works of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican prince Nezahualcoyotl do contain a clear “family resemblance” to one acquainted with Pre-Socratic texts that is striking (in the context of how little is know about Aztec intellectual history, it seems hard to say more).
    Of course a serious part of the problem can be reduced to semantics (or ontology, in a Platonic perspective): what IS philosophy? What do we MEAN when talk about “philosophy”? I am afraid that this approach is ultimately sterile (“philosophy” becomes whatever is deemed to be relevant in the given context, depriving it of any usefulness whatsoever as tool to understand anything).
    But I think there is more.

  2. It has to be remembered that philosophy as a narrow specialised discipline is a late development. Up to the 17th.Century, the science of first principles could cover every sort of first principle including Physics – thus Natural Philosophy. Personally I am for the study of wisdom as embedded in all sorts of practices, a true logos/anthropos but I am aware that the curriculum is already overloaded and common sense dictates a core critical thinking orientation. If the subject is made too diffuse and vague then the all powerful managers of the academy will find it all the easier to shed it altogether. Linking the issue to American identity type politics is a bad strategy. Without a designated curriculum an informed teacher should be able to bring it in where relevant. Then I remember that Continental Philosophy is as remote as African in most departments.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Michael and Marco. I have been busy with a deadline in the last two days and today I read first the comments on the copy of this post at the Indian Philosophy Blog and then yours and found out that I had written something similar to what you are saying here in my replies there:

    In other words:
    1) it is difficult not to need a pragmatic definition of philosophy, for practical reasons
    2) such a lakṣaṇa cannot but be based on family resemblances and be elastic enough to include new elements every time one starts thinking about it again