Jürgen Hengelbrock, Bochum


The Relationship between African and European Philosophers


What It Ought To Be





            Friedrich Nietzsche has given a definition of concept which I find very fruitful. He wrote in Beyond Good and Evil: "Words are sounding signs of concepts, but concepts are more or less pictorial signs for sensations which recur and are coming together, for groups of sensations. In order to understand each other it is not sufficient to use the same words: we must use the same words for the same species of interior events, in the end we must have our experience in common". (§ 268)

                       If Nietzsche is right, the answer to the question: "Can we have our experience in common?" is decisive for intercultural relationship and for intercultural philosophical communication.

                 There are tendencies in contemporary philosophy which in their results deny the possibility of common experiences, even if that is not their intention.  If you say that man or mankind live and realize themselves in cultural horizons, and that all activities and expressions of man (manual, sensual, intellectual) are formed and imbued by the culture in which man was born, you must doubt the possibility not only of communication of experience, but also of the existence of common human experience. For in this case there is no primary experience before culture, but all experience is constituted, mediated or interpreted by a specific culture.

                           Consequently mankind divides into cultural biotopes, and the first ethical claim would be to preserve all human biotopes.

                      I recognise the profound humanistic inspiration of this thinking. However, "humani nihil a me alienum puto" (nothing human seems strange to me), this saying of Terentius expresses that there is not a privileged idea of man, but that mankind adopts an infinite number of forms which are all species of equal value. Consequently there is no longer any justification for colonization or more subtle forms of tutelage, because there is no superiority of one civilisation above another.

                          Mankind can be named by all names because there is no name which is really appropriate, which can be applied univocally to all people. "Omninominabilis quia innominabilis": the ancient theologians of the Christian church said that we can speak of God only in a negative way, expressing what he is not, because God transcends all categories of thinking.

              I use this epistemological principle of ancient theology not for rhetorical embellishment. Denying the existence of one God for one mankind or enclosing God in the cultural biotope, modern thought is inclined to deify culture which becomes the new divinity and from which man is not authorised to escape. We assist so at a renaissance of polytheism.

                    There is something like this in the relationship between European professors and African students. When African students address themselves to us for a scholarship with intent to write a thesis at a European university, they in general propose as subject a study on a European philosopher, for example on Kant, Hegel or Schelling . In this case we are a little embarrassed, because there are thousands of studies on Kant, Hegel and Schelling, and we don’t understand why a young African comes to us in order to add another study which will interest hardly anybody. We are also not able to convince juries of foundations to accord scholarship for such studies. So we propose to write a thesis about traditional African philosophical thought, which is unknown here and can delight the juries. I have always met disapproval when I suggested this proposition. Writing about Hegel, African colleagues want to leave their cultural biotope to be recognised as fellows of the international community of research, irrespective of their cultural origin. They just want to emancipate themselves from their cultural biotope. Turned back to their African tradition, they might consider themselves in a situation similar to that of a tropical animal which ventures an escape from a zoological garden.  I exaggerate, surely, I also recommend to write theses about African thought, but I believe that the described reaction of offence is not completely out of place. Denying the possibility of man to transcend cultural horizons and to reach a position beyond and above them, we divide mankind in several species and necessarily the question will arise and remain: which is the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the profoundest species or culture?

                       I think it is an overestimation of man (which the Greeks called „hybris“) to celebrate the abundance of cultural diversities and particularities. At least this celebration counteracts its own moral intention to avoid privileges for one culture, and to respect the right of particularity and the right of being different.

            It seems to me that there is, beyond all cultural differences, a real and substantial identity and universality of man in a very basic and at the same time in a very modest manner. I would not recur, however, to a universality of reason or to a metaphysical definition of the common nature of man.

  Wherever you are in the world, there are a number of basic appeals and repulsions which you understand immediately: sexual appeal, appeal of power, pride, desire for beauty, feeling of hatred, hunger, illness, joy, suffering from confinement,  fear of death, and faith, unfaithfulness, jealousy. Prior to culture, there are a lot of biological and psychological facts which are always the same. Recent genetic research proved that mankind descended from one group of ancestors and that genetic differences in mankind amount only to 4 %. From this genetic heritage biological and psychological facts originate which create identical conditions of pursuit of happiness in all cultures. And since mankind lives in one and the same world with identical fundamental structures, there are the same conditions of work (in Marxian sense), there are the same conditions of naturalisation of man and humanisation of nature. This is the common basis of culture.

                         This universality of human condition („la condition humaine“ according to Sartre) creates a categorical basis of human understanding because we all have the same basic urges and sufferings. I speak of a categorical basis in the sense of Aristotle: Categories are not what is perceived and named, but the means by which man perceives and names. The forms of perception are not the contents of perceptions.

                            Once you pass from this categorical level on to the contents of perceptions and knowledge, to the concrete contents of wishes and sufferings, culture intervenes. There is no immediate perception or desire. All perceptions and wishes need symbolic representation in our minds. This symbolic representation develops various forms of expressions like gestures, clothing, images, languages, tales, myths ... and this is the origin of culture. Culture penetrates and interprets the categorical basis of human life and provides forms of symbolic expression and concrete realization.

                        This level of conscious and subconscious symbolic representation and imagination is the source of all creative activities of men facing problems of survival, and it gives orientation and meaning to individual and collective existence. It is the real wealth of man which enables him to create areas of life beyond the necessity of biological survival (festivals, customs, art, literature, plays etc.). At this level mankind develops cultural horizons which offer a complete orientation of all sectors of individual and social life. Man needs no other orientation for a life of happiness.

                             But man has just not  been content inventing symbolic worlds of representation and orientation. There is a spirit of contest which pushes him to question symbols, to cast doubt on them; this shows that man is not confined to symbolic worlds and that there is a transcendence of the first (categorical) and the second (symbolic) level, a transcendence  which Jean-Paul Sartre calls nothingness or liberty and the German Helmut Plessner the „eccentricity“ of human existence. This transcendence of symbols has enabled man to form non-symbolic tools for the conception of reality: abstractions by which he could condense and manipulate (by logical operations) groups of sensations and perceptions. So mankind has emancipated itself from symbols, from the myth which has confined it to more or less fortuitous worlds. This step was the birth of a reasonable conception of reality, the birth of philosophy which finally resulted in the birth of the sciences in the modern sense of the word.

Defining philosophy as a third level of human mental architecture and as a logical and conceptual form of proceeding, I do not wish to devaluate the symbolic level, declaring it as merely accidental and chaotic. The symbolic world organises itself in logical structures and achieves in its elaborated form a primary conceptual level. This primary conceptual organisation of the world where concepts are bundles of perceptions, each represented by an intellectual sign or idea, I prefer to call wisdom. Auguste Comte attached it to the „theological age of mankind“. Wisdom is the treasure of experiences and of creative possibilities of mankind. Compared to it, philosophy is very poor. Philosophy does not invent. Invention is the domain of imagination. The task of philosophy is the systematic, logical, critical examination of experience or wisdom in order to achieve coherent, well-founded conceptions of world and action. Philosophy needs wisdom; otherwise it is running idle. Wisdom needs philosophy; otherwise it will become a prisoner of the past, of a petrifaction which prevents man from facing changes and the future. Tradition or cultural identity is not in itself a value, its value depends on its ability to find solutions to the problems of the present and the future. Marcien Towa has clarified this question in a definitive way. There is a mutual rivalry of wisdom and philosophy. Heraclitus said that war is the father of all things. In this war wisdom has the authority of an old man, whereas philosophy is always a bit in puberty. But Aristotle did not like the old men. They invent nothing and they weigh hard upon youths and adults who have to assure the future. Mankind progresses if there is a constructive competition and collaboration between wisdom and philosophy.


Let me return to my subject: What ought to be the relationship between European and African philosophers?

                  First we must state that philosophers are human beings like all others, neither more intelligent nor morally better. So we must understand ourselves on the basic level of gestures and of other spontaneous, non-reflected signs of sympathy and antipathy which regulate human communication. I guess that with African peoples the spontaneous intelligence of man or human empathy are greater than with European.

                        Aristotle said that without friendship there is no success in enterprises. This basic emotional and more or less unconscious understanding dissolves prejudices and makes the mind more disposed to assume a new, strange view of man and world.

                     But apart from gestures and other basic signs like the expression of the eyes man has developed language for communication. Especially African peoples conserved and transmitted their treasures of experience and wisdom in an oral way, in narrations, myths, proverbs. These are symbolic forms of interpretation of existence and of moral norms. I said that this symbolic orientation in existence is the richest, the most effective one, and that it is sufficient, since man is first of all a being conceiving by symbols and not just an intellectual being.

                         For the purposes of a communication on the level of symbolic conception of the world and in the domain of intercultural relationship, philosophy defined as a logical operation with abstract concepts is not necessary, but it can be very useful. History gives to us many examples of very fruitful intercultural exchanges and mixtures without any intervention of philosophy. For an understanding between men of different cultural horizons the basic categorical level of conditions of life and work, as described above, is sufficient. Living together creates a growing intuitive comprehension of symbols, in recourse to the categorical basis of life. So we have to face the fact that the best judges of men were seldom philosophers.

                        But I think that the human mind tends toward a fully intellectual penetration of what symbols communicate and consequently of the world. In this way philosophy comes in. No intercourse of different cultures is requested as a basis for philosophy. I believe that each culture contains a sufficient number of contradictions, absurdities and morally revolting facts which initiate philosophical inquiry.

                         But I do not want to deny that the meeting of different cultures is very fruitful for understanding ourselves and mankind in general. In order to  understand our own cultural horizon, we need distance from it and an exterior point of view. Intercultural communication advances to a consciously reflected and intellectual understanding of symbols and of the world; in this way we can communicate and find out why we symbolize in this or in that manner and what is the true ground of things.

                        Therefore, we must elaborate and define abstract philosophical concepts which we do not just find in culture. (Later on, philosophical or scientific concepts may enter the cultural treasure, like 'substance', 'quintessence' and so on.) After defining those concepts, we can examine which intellectual meaning we can accord to symbolic speech and to interpretations.


I shall exemplify this in defending with emphasis the book of Placide Tempels [1] on 'Bantu philosophy', not considering his missionary aspiration and his passing shot at the moral state of European societies, saying that Bantu people respect much more than Europeans the natural moral law.

 Last year, giving a seminar on African philosophy at my university, I recognised that the by far most efficient access for my students to African thought was Tempels ' book! For what reason?

                    Kwame Gyekye's book [2] which we all know is certainly more careful with its  serious scientific claim to differentiate and to prove what had been said by references. But my students were not very satisfied. They learned the different names and ideas of divinities, the characteristics of wise men and so on. But  Gyekye never gives an answer to the question why Akan people say so. He carefully describes Akan thinking, but he does not inquire the reasons of these conceptions nor does he show the interdependencies and consequences of conceptions in other areas of thinking about human existence and action. Philosophical questions arise after reading this book.

            On the contrary, Tempels' book is surely deficient in view of scientific standards. But you cannot say that it is a naive study without method. Tempels uses a concept of being which will be misunderstood by those who look out for a scholastic, Christian content, concluding that he glosses Bantu thinking over with European forms of thought. On the contrary: his conception of being is formally well-defined: according to the Aristotelian philosophy, we need for metaphysics a concept which is empty in content. It is the concept of being. You form this concept by progressive abstraction of all concrete characteristics of beings (like life, matter, society and so on); thus we dispose of an empty concept which only refers to existence as such and which enables us to formulate propositions about the totality of beings. This concept has no longer a cultural background; it is formed by a clear logical operation which can be understood by members of all cultures. Tempels uses this concept for a comparative study of the fundamental conception of existence or being. For him, Bantu has a very dynamic conception, confining being according to the Parmenidian saying: what is, is, what is not, does not exist. And he indicates possible consequences of this conception in the family and in social relationships, in moral life and justice.

                           I am not suggesting that everything he says is right. It’s all very provisional. African colleagues say that the Bantu conception of being or of God is not so univocal; the European conception is less monolithic too. But Tempels' book is an effort to give Europeans access to the Bantu conception of existence by logically well-defined steps. It seems to me that the concept of force as well as the concept of existence will be understood everywhere, because there is a spontaneous, basic categorical knowledge of them. So Tempels transmits to us an idea of profound characters, of the interior life and connections of the Bantu world view, and we can confront them with our own conceptions; in this way we can obtain more profoundness in thinking and mutual understanding.

                   We must go on in this manner without fear to attack cultural biotopes. Perhaps Europeans will never understand Bantu or Akan thought completely. But do we understand each other fully, if we are members of the same culture? Everybody has his own consciousness, and there is a solitude of each consciousness which will never be abolished. We must leave the archivist domain (in the sense of Nietzsche ) of our intercultural relationship, which is better looked after by ethnology. Philosophy must not be retrospective, but rather prospective.

                            My students were not so eager to know how many divinities there are according to different African peoples. And they were not excited to learn that there are elements of Platonism or parts of the categorical imperative in African traditions. Surely it is a primary necessity to conserve oral traditions by systematic studies like that of  Gyekye . But my students were interested in finding out if there was a new and unexpected view of existence which might enrich their thinking and make it possible for them to surmount philosophical prejudices and which could help to emancipate themselves intellectually from their teachers. They wanted to discuss and develop the philosophical questions which arise. We also should do so.

                       When I went to Ivory Coast for the first time I prepared a text about the problem of teaching philosophy. But while staying there and listening to the first debates, I wrote hastily an other text. I was inclined to intervene directly because I noticed that they had all studied in France or had had French teachers. In France, the philosophical élite, instructed by the Ecole Normale Supérieur, knows exactly the same authors and ignores the others altogether. So I proposed to pay more attention to English philosophers and to recent German philosophy. Next time, I presented Helmut Plessner and I spoke about the question whether Marxism is definitely dead. I noticed a certain embarrassment. Coming from another social, cultural and historical context, I formulated arguments from an unexpected point of view. Marxism, when judged against the background of German historical and social experiences, appears in a different light.

                           I believe that this other light, cast from different cultural and social backgrounds onto our familiar philosophical conceptions, is fruitful for our philosophical reflection and our human progress , and that it is the essence of our relationship. There is nothing more dangerous than just sticking to our habits of thinking. Narrowing our perception, they do not let us face change and new realities. There exists a tiredness of ideas. Having red too many books about the human subject, emancipation and liberty, we get tired of these ideas. And we are charmed by the new idea that the subject does not exist. Karl Marx said that the product of our activity constitutes itself as an extraneous power. Parisian intellectuals, talking so much and writing so many books, believe that reality is nothing but discourse. They confound words with things. Leaving their cultural biotope, they would notice that there is a hard reality behind words which is not at all susceptible to their words and discourses.

 For twenty years now I have given lectures on existentialism at the University of Bochum. I wrote some books on Camus and Sartre,, and finally I got tired of existentialism. Becoming acquainted with Africa, I saw existentialism in another, new light, and I  rediscovered its force. I am engaged in studying the work of Helmut Plessner who is unknown in the French-speaking world. He took notice of the biological existence of man which was totally neglected by Sartre. Thus, contact with Africa was an occasion which helped me to develop my point of view.

                 The next step was that I asked my friend Yacouba Konaté to come to us to advance intellectual development in Germany. For forty years Western Germany has lived peacefully in the shadow of the Berlin wall and the American military basis. Not involved in military conflicts and in the contradictions of international engagements, we tend to consider ourselves as having higher moral standards and as being more reasonable than other people. By that the Germans have become very provincial. Now the Wall is broken downs and the American forces leave, we are exposed to all the winds of the world. Africa has known the winds of the world already for a long time. African people live with intercultural collisions. They have learned to organize themselves in a life full of cultural contradictions and they know how to profit from it. So African experience is useful for us, for Germans have to become more cosmopolitan.

                        Above all, artistic life is an encouraging example of the fruitfulness of intercultural confrontations. Heinz Kimmerle has emphasized it in his sensitive book on African philosophy. We must act like African artists. We must not petrify our relationship in studies on traditions and in search for past African cultural identity. Surely, there is the task to rescue the traditional African thinking which is one of the great intellectual and moral heritages of mankind. But I don’t expect completely new ideas from African traditional thought. The possibilities of thinking are reduced to a limited number of logical operations which, starting from the same questions, have similar results everywhere. So I am not surprised to learn that there are Platonic forms of thinking in the traditional thought of Benin.

                         Let’s act like the artists. Let’s imagine our future together. I think that cultural biotopes are condemned to die all over the world. And nostalgic feelings are not useful. I spent my youth in Münster. It’s a wonderful town with a Romanesque cathedral and streets of traditional buildings. We learned Latin and Greek in the shadow of the cathedral and the Catholic faith. It was an intact cultural biotope. I experienced it as a prison.


Today, philosophers are challenged to conceive what a life without cultural identity might be like. And they are challenged to fight for ideas of justice and liberty. Napoleon said that there are two powers in the world: the sabre and the intellect. He was convinced that the intellect will defeat the sabre in the end.

Philosophers are not so much responsible for traditions, but for the ideas which exist in the minds of men. We are called to take care of implanting ideas which guide men towards a life in dignity and liberty. These ideas exist in various cultural interpretations. We have no time to loose.

                    I think that the solution of the African crisis depends neither on economic aid nor on a return to the sources of traditions or to African cultural identity, but on institutions of general public instruction and on the dissemination of enlightenment which assures stable political conditions of liberty and equality. I don’t think that enlightenment is sufficiently disseminated in Europe or that it is an integral part of the European culture. I think we must distinguish between the contents of European enlightenment and enlightenment as a form of facing or contesting inequalities. Structuralism emphasized that social life is based everywhere on an equality of exchanged gifts, whatever these gifts might be: women, animals, goods. The notion of equality, present in all cultures, is the germ of enlightenment. As you know, justice has always been defined as a form of equality.

                        In Europe like everywhere else enlightenment is an explosive potential, regarding cultures which are systems of exploitation and oppression of man. For those who profit from the established order, enlightenment always seems an alien element to culture. We do not know well enough, what enlightenment in the context of the African culture will be and can be. Philosophers can help to bring forth this knowledge.                            


1 I am refering to the German translation: Philosophie der Bantu. Heidelberg 1956.


2 An Essay on African Philosophical Thought. Cambridge 1987.

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