Sophie B. Oluwole

Culture, Nationalism and Philosophy

1. Introduction

The term culture usually means an indigenous heritage of norms, values, beliefs and doctrines which determine the sum total of a people's achievements in different realms of human endeavour. A cultural tradition or civilisation as historians would like to put it, is therefore made up of general customs and behaviours in terms of which a society's distinctive cultural identity is established. Culture in this popular sense finds expression in the artefacts, including language, physical structures as well as the social institutions put in place within a community of men.

                                  However, we do sometimes distinguish a people's intellectual culture from their communal world view. When we do so, we restrict ourselves to the consideration of the growth of the mind or intellect: how their entire range of ideas, beliefs and values are accommodated within a rational whole that can stand criticism. This feat of rationalising human thoughts is usually carried out by a small group of men within society who devote themselves to reflecting on different elements of popular views. When all we can find in a society is an agglomeration of myths, dogmas and folktales not subjected to the scrutiny of both: Logic and Reason, we conclude that such a society never fully developed a respectable intellectual culture.

                        To say of a man/woman that s/he is intellectually uncultured is not to insinuate that s/he violates some accepted norms of behaviour within a particular society but that s/he has not yet achieved the state of completeness in matters of logic and reason in thinking. To be intellectually cultured therefore is not just to behave in particular ways but more specifically to become rationally and factually enlightened in thought. An intellectual culture is therefore antithetical to bigotry, fanaticism, narrowness of mind or belief. Many scholars of Western orientation will say this means the same thing as declaring somebody scientifically minded.

                            One fundamental question that has become germane in recent times is whether or not there exists only one intellectual culture in the world which has attained the ultimate level in the realm of the development of the human mind and consequently deserves to be accorded the status of the universal ideal and in terms of which every other intellectual culture of the world must be assessed and justified. Many scholars have answered these questions in the affirmative identifying the Western paradigm as that ideal. The suggestion is that the principles of Western philosophy, more especially when the discipline is pursued as a science, coincide with those that define a universal intellectual culture. [1]

               However, if culture in all its ramifications, is time and space relative, then the idea of regional intellectual cultures become antithetical to the goal of philosophy as a scientific endeavour. It is for this reason that the very concept of culture-based philosophies becomes suspect since each culture is prone to dogmatic defence of its basic principles by its proponents within or beyond its borders and in the process yield results which are invariably partisan - the very opposite of the conception of philosophy as a universal rational endeavour. Are there ways of reconciling this presumed universality of philosophy as a discipline with the reality of authentic cultural variations? Are there universal principles in terms of which local species are to be evaluated and assessed? In other words, how can the notion of local philosophical systems be integrated into the assumed universality of Logic and Reason?                    

               The discussion so far shows the need for some conceptual clarifications. Is there a difference between an intellectual culture and philosophy as a discipline? If so, what is the nature of their differences and relationship? Can we meaningfully talk of local variations of intellectual culture and philosophy if these two are seen as non-limited in time and space? Strong objections have been raised against the claim that Western philosophy provides a universal paradigm of human intellectual culture. My own view is that its propagation is nothing but the promotion of intellectual bigotry. To clarify this, I present in this essay some analysis of the basic features of Western intellectual culture in the effort to show that while philosophy as a discipline does not necessarily coincide with the principles of a people's intellectual culture, it does pay homage to the latter. This is so since an intellectual culture necessarily underlies every rational endeavour carried out under its influence. And this is what determines its cultural intellectual identity.

                    My attempt is to revisit the nature of the principles that actually underlie and strengthen Western intellectual culture with the hope of demonstrating their cultural and rational limitations. This I believe will pave the way for a clearer vision of the direction in which to seek the possible existence of other cogent intellectual cultures in the world. I shall end by making suggestions as to how best to discover and characterise an authentic African intellectual culture which can stand its own ground in the face of an obvious Western challenge.

2. Principles of Western intellectual culture

The most common characterisation of Western thought is that it is scientific in nature. This has been variously interpreted by different authors. For some, to say of a tradition of thought that it is scientific is to mean that thinkers within that tradition pay adequate homage to the precepts of both: Logic and Reason, these two categories serving as the final arbiters in determining matters of truth, human knowledge, values and beliefs.

                        According to Maurice Richter [2] Rationalism and Empiricism are the two scientific principles the West recognizes as salient in the acquisition and validation of knowledge. Rationalism here means that as long as certain propositions are accepted, all other propositions which can be logically deduced from them must be accepted also no matter how absurd they may seem. Empiricism on the other hand, means that the question of which propositions are to be accepted is to be answered by what is given in nature rather than by the arbitrary fiat of the mind. To be scientific therefore is to be committed to these two principles as the only reliable intellectual weapons for the attainment of absolute truths.

                               E.A. Ruch and B. Hallen pushed Richter 's exposition a little further. Ruch, for instance, argues that what it means to say that philosophy is a scientific enterprise is that its goal is to formulate systems of deductively related and/or objectively certified propositions about things and their causal relationships. [3] But for Hallen, the Hypothetico-deductive style identifies the entire Western tradition of thought in the sense that its practitioners always try to present theories all of which are expected to be related in a rigorous logical manner from the general to the particular, everything falling consistently within ONE deductive system. Consistency is required since all theories in different realms of knowledge are supposed to be brought into play simultaneously. [4]

  While not denying that Western philosophers usually see their discipline as the id eal of Western thought because it thrives to achieve all the above, it is important to note that the discussion here is not just of philosophy but of the entire Western intellectual culture. Hence when we say Western thought is scientific in nature we do not intend to restrict our considerations only to philosophy as a discipline. This is why I believe it was Bertrand Russell who fully grasped the question when he stated in one of his early works that the style  of system building is a UNIQUELY Western one. He declared: "The love of system building is perhaps the innermost essence of the intellectual pulse (of the West)." Russell also identified the Western quest for certainty as the second salient point of the future of Western tradition of thought.


                  This rough sketch reveals that the two fundamental principles that underlie every intellectual endeavour in the West are those of system building and the search for absolute certainty. Evidence for these abound not only in Western philosophies but also in all disciplines including Religion, Economics and Political Science. The Western quest for certainty does not give room for the existence of different realities to be captured in each of these rational endeavours. The belief is that the same reality determines truth in each of thesedifferent areas of human understanding and knowledge.    

The monistic view that every basic axiom of each discipline can be reduced to ONE REALITY is not new in Western thought. Thales ' journey to discover the basic stuff out of which everything came into palpable existence was based on the assumption that this primordial stuff is one. His contemporaries' suggestion of air, fire and earth were not meant to be taken together. Each was offered as an alternative to Thales' water. And Thales and his colleagues were not philosophers in the modern understanding of the term. They were more of scientific oriented thinkers who laid the rational foundation of Western intellectual culture. Thales and his associates are still highly respected for this reason. But others who suggested the combination of the four elements as basic realities were regarded as myth makers. In modern language their ames are included in te annals of the progenitors of Western civilisation as "Mystic Masters". [5]                                     

History bears witness to the fact that from Thales of Miletus through St. Augustine , Marcus Aurelius down to Russell most Western intellectuals have upheld Thales' initial faith that nature offers only ONE unitary system. Theories that explain nature as based on ONE REALITY until very recently have been rated higher than those that attempted formulating theories of dualism. Hence as recently as 1970,  J.J.C. Smart , [6] upholding the tenets of Occam's azor, argued that the principles of simplicity and parsimony make monism an option preferable to dualism. Western intellectual culture is therefore a monotheism. This does not mean that no thinker tried his/her hands at dualism. But the overwhelming argument has always been that no such theory as dualis ever succed in giving adequate explanation about the relationship between two distinctively independent axioms of reality.

                          It is therefore pertinent to ask whether or not these salient principles of Western thought are culture-neutral, objectively grounded in a way that makes them necessarily universally binding on all human beings who regard themselves as intellectuals. Russell , despite his identification of the love of system building and search for certainty as uniquely Western, never saw them as rationally undeniable. For him, the love of system building has been the greatest barrier to honest thinking in Western philosophy; he also saw the demand for certainty as human yet an intellectual vice. As for the ONENESS of reality Russell saw as rubbish the belief that the world is a unity. He held that the universe is all sports and jumps, without unity, without coherence or otherliness or any other properties that govern love: Order, Unity and Continuity are for him human inventions. [7] What this means is that they exist only in the realm of fancy.

                        No matter the amount of opposition one may have to Russell 's assessment, latest developments in science, most especially in Quantum Physics and Molecular Biology, raise fundamental doubts about the objective status of both of these two principles. The basic problem therefore is how to understand, and if need be, resolve different conflicts that arise from the different principles of various intellectual cultures of the world. Until such resolutions have been adequately provided, any particular intellectual culture that claims absolute supremacy of its principles necessarily turns others against itself.

   Furthermore the recent interest in post-colonial and inter-cultural philosophy cannot be meaningfully promoted without a sound foundation on which to base the search for possible and distinctive intellectual traditions as alternatives to those of the West. Otherwise we may be working under the assumption that all human thoughts are reducible to Western paradigms. Such an assumption is, to say the least, bound to be unfortunate and contradictory.

3. Nationalism in contemporary philosophy

The last one hundred years or so have witnessed the outright denial of the existence not just of an African Philosophy but of an authentic African intellectual culture. The popular view is that what exists is philosophy only in the broad, debased and non critical sense. The claim is that Philosophy as a discipline in which a people's "world outlook is subjected to systematic scrutiny by rigorous ratiocinative methods" is just beginning in Africa. [8]

      Defendants of this view have consistently argued in support of an undeniable universality of Western paradigms of thought. Ironically, many of these scholars are Africans themselves. P.O Bodunrin , [9] for instance, once insisted that whether Africans like it or not, they must accept Western science. Hountondji [10] on the other hand, argued that all rationally creditable human thought must be presented in the STYLE of science. And Wiredu [11] was once of the opinion that Africans lag behind the West in the cultivation of rational thought. More recently Anthony Appiah [12] recommended that the African communal 'we' of oral narration be replaced with the individual 'I' of the written word of the West because the latter is more amenable to the modern economic situation of the world. Critics of these views attempted to show that the source of this intellectual slavery is an unquestioned acceptance of the basic principles of Western intellectual culture. Anyone who believes that intellectualism is a universal search for ONE absolute certainty is supposedly intolerant of claims about truths different from the ones sanctioned by a system he regards as ideal. This intellectual intolerance is evident in many areas of Western thought : The Christian God says : "Thou shall have no other gods before me", Islam claims "There is no other God but Allah", in philosophy, it is either Rationalism or Empiricism; one absolute Logic, one universal Reason. In all areas of thought any conclusion not arrived at via Western conception of Logic and Reason are regarded at best as pseudo-intellectual.

       Richter [13] reminds us of how the history of Western civilisation is fraught with claims of absolute and exclusive truths and the attendant attempts to bring societies under the total domination of particular institutions: The Church in Medieval Europe, The Free Market System in laissez-faire Economy and the One Party System in modern states which claim to have established scientific socialism. Recent discussions of the existence of alternative rational intellectual cultures elsewhere in the world have proceeded in ways that signify a modern version of this type of awareness leading to a form of bigotry and nationalism in intellectual matters. Many scholars have defended the universal appropriateness of the principles of Western intellectual culture with such vigour that one suspects either plain ignorance of the limitations of Logic and Reason as principles of human thought or a questionable enthusiasm for the principles of science. The continued insistence that the Western paradigm of thought must be adopted by all rational men in the world has reached a level where many see it as a resurgent not of white racism, but the birth of intellectual arrogance.

                           However, intellectual nationalism and arrogance are both offsprings of Western tradition of monotheism which upholds absolutism in all spheres of rational endeavour. The snob tradition is therefore as old as Western thought itself. But quite ironically the defenders of the existence of an independent African intellectual culture have proceeded in ways similar to the ones adopted by their opponents. Their main style has been one of an unwitting matching of force with force rather than making efforts at dispelling rumours. In view of several instances of ambiguity and confusion, many recent scholars have displayed mere ill- judgements in intellectual reasoning just because they too have fallen victims of the same wanton nationalism and arrogance. Scholars on either side of the debate have replaced factual evidence with modern scholarcism, each trying to prove its case on purely theoretical grounds when the issues at state have an identifiable empirical basis.

               Hence today we have in existence several literary works by Africans which confirm rather than deny the inferiority of African intellectual culture. To begin with, such works inevitably adhere to the Western dogma that must be put at arms length in the quest for authenticity in African thought. And the way to arrive at this authenticity is by going into oral tradition itself which serves as the only repository of black intellectual heritage. The point then is that the way to our goal is not in theoretical postulates but in rigorous research into indigenous languages of Africa. In doing this we are not looking for parallels of Western Metaphysics etc. in these languages but the likely intellectual ideals embedded in oral literature. The view that we need not do this is nothing but a disguised attempt at proselytizing Africans into accepting Western intercultural culture and that without any cogent reason.

4. Different characterizations of African cultural identity

The very first efforts to identify the unity of African culture were reactions against racism. About 100 years ago, 1893 to be precise, Pan Africanism was launched in London primarily as a political movement. Before then Edward Wilmot Blyden and his associates saw their task as one of characterising a uniquely African personality with distinctive biologically determined racial traits of mind. Blyden sincerely believed in what was then believed as the "science of races". [14] When Leopold Sedar Senghor [15] later tried to identify the basic principles in terms of which Africans traditionally understand and interpret experience, he did not completely avoid some of the implications of this supposedly racially determined mentality of the black race .

            Despite this basic inhibition Senghor , to my mind, came closest to exposing the foundation of the features of an authentic African intellectual culture. Contrary to popular opinion, Senghor did not formulate an African communal Philosophy. Negritude , when adequately analysed, was more of an attempt to set the conditions of meaningfulness and truth within an ancient tradition of African thought. But quite unfortunately, Senghor's endeavour to present the notions of truth and meaningfulness resemble Western concerns with the formulations of theories of knowledge, i.e. with Epistemology. [16] Hence, when professional philosophers afterwards came on the scene they did nothing to rescue Senghor's thesis from this false interpretation by anthropologists. Many allowed themselves to be misled into the erroneous view that Senghor's proposal was an epistemological point of view commonly shared by every African. Things became worse when this Negritude was coupled with Placide Tempels ' 'acclaimed' discovery of a native African ontology. Most scholars of African studies have rejoiced at having a befitting metaphysics for Senghor's epistemology. [17] African philosophers of the first generation therefore formulated theories which today are known as Ethnophilosophy . Their goal was to identify a distinctive African system of metaphysics and epistemology as a unitary view of life held by all ancient Africans.

                   In all these few seem to pay heed to the obvious fact that Western intellectual system is never defined in terms of one metaphysics or epistemology. Some critics of Ethno-philosophy who made an effort to stress this point sometimes fall into the same mistake of defending particular schools of metaphysics and epistemology as distinctive features that define Western sub-cultural units. There is a well known convention of talking about German Idealism, British Empiricism and American Pragmatism. [18]

         A close look at Senghor 's Negritude reveals that the author was not defending any particular philosophical stance as uniquely African in nature. Instead his ambition was to identify some principles as those that underlie ALL rational thoughts in traditional African societies. Senghor might have actually erred in the principles he identified and/or in his analysis and explanations of their origin and nature. Yet, to my mind, he had some clear vision of his mission - namely that of identifying principles that hitherto guided intellectual endeavours in traditional Africa. Senghor did make efforts to show that although these principles differ from Western alternatives, they constitute cogent options which he believed can stand rational criticisms against Western intellectual alternatives.

                         Senghor had some deep understanding of the salient features of Western thought. He identified the Hypothetico-deductive method of arriving at absolute truth as a uniquely Western impulse. He saw the subject-object-distinction as Western inspired and by that very token a culturally limited option. This was what encouraged him to conclude that the empathico-participative understanding of nature wherein Reason is not divorced from intuition and emotive sensibility adequately represent a viable alternative to Western concepts of Logic and Reason which ignore these essential features of human experience. For Senghor it was a matter of making a choice between these two, Logos and Ratio. [19]

                        In following this tradition of matching theory with theory Senghor like his predecessors, did not directly confront his readers with any specific body of African literary works to justify the principles he proposed. The assumption perhaps was that there are innumerable ideas, beliefs and doctrines identifiable in African beliefs and behaviour patterns which testify to the authenticity of his analysis. Yet what Senghor was dealing with are not individual items of thought but more specifically principles that ancient African thinkers used in putting all these together into meaningful units.

                  My own immediate worry is not whether or not the categories put forth by Senghor are genuinely African. Many have discredited Negritude on these and other grounds. The pertinent question that needs to be raised and answered here is: On the evidence of which LITERARY TRADITION did Senghor base his claims and analysis? Attempts at formulating principles of an authentic African intellectual culture cannot be rewarding without adequate reference to the tradition of thought which is assumed to have evolved in the process of using them. It is within such literature that the principles are themselves discoverable.

  What Senghor actually did was to negate, point by point, every principle he identified as Western. This Cartesian procedure offers a good illustration of the return of scholarcism in recent times. The fabrication of theories has been allowed to replace the formulation of hypotheses based on the facts of a people's language as expression of thought . Today many scholars have become inventors of African unity rather than discoverers of it.

              Richard A. Wright and V.Y. Mudimbe have both warned against the dangers of this approach in discussing African culture. Wright holds that "until philosophers begin to show the intrinsic value of African thought, until that thought is examined and understood, this missing link will not be supplied and the non-African world will continue to be at odds with the African world". [20]   And Mudimbe insists that "no amount of cleverness of discourse or competence of authors can establish or replace this problem of  'la chose de texte' of traditional African Thought. [21]  

What these two scholars stress is that the justification of an authentic African intellectual culture must, in the final analysis, rest on the evidence of African traditions of thought. An awareness that the Western intellectual tradition differs substantially from the African alternative is not enough justification for suggesting what they think an African alternative OUGHT to be. Rather efforts should be made to DISCOVER what truly is. For the West, this is not a serious matter since their tradition of thought is well documented in writing. But where exactly does one go in search of such an empirical source of knowledge about African thought?

5. Towards the discovery of an authentic African intellectual culture

The obvious answer to the last question is that we must go back to the study of oral literature. But are there ways in which a researcher into African Oral Tradition can avoid the charge of anachronism? We are all familiar with the thesis that African principles of understanding and interpretation of experience are archaic and consequently provide inadequate solutions to African problems of existence in a complicated modern world. Any insistence on the possible existence of an authentic African culture is generally seen as evidence of a failure to appreciate the universal valid import of logic and reason, both of which are not culturally limited. For this reason most African youths have actually been turned against the study of traditional African thought. Kwame Anthony Appiah , [22] for example, noted that Western educated Africans have learnt to ignore or outrightly despise African oral tradition.

         Also Paulin J. Hountondji [23] has led others in justifying this dismissal of oral literature as a genuine source of intellectual activity in traditional Africa. For him, oral literature by its very nature, prohibits criticism, tends to perpetuate a conservative tradition which can only occur as an intellectual activity confined to time and space, the expression not of an intellectual quest but at best of its result. Hountondji, on his part, does not claim that Africans never developed an intellectual culture but that details of this are no more available in oral literature. He therefore insists that what we have are the conclusions which are necessarily particular and hence of temporal and local relevance. It is interesting to note that Hountondji again never refers his readers to any specific body of oral literature in support of his views. At least he could have done this to prove his case that pieces of oral literature are not intellectually sound and comprehensive.

               There is no doubt that Hountondji accepts to use Western paradigms and judgements without question. Hountondji [24] himself makes no secret of this faith. For him, any form of taught anywhere in the world not presented in the style of science is nothing but mysticism. However his charge that principles and themes in oral literature are confirmed in time and space is equally valid against many written documents of the West: most of what Plato , Newton and even Russell said can be viewed in this way. This is not to say that such themes cannot be discussed in contemporary times or that some of them have no relevance to the modern context. But there is no denying that every intellectual thesis is limited both in time and space.

             An ardent scholar who seeks to explore the possibility of discovering authentic principles of an African intellectual culture must be wary of these insinuations and pursue with renewed vigour the study of African oral heritage. This, I think, will lead us to the discovery of an authentic African intellectual culture or to the proof of its non-existence. But we must remind ourselves that what we are looking for is not unanimity of opinion on metaphysics or epistemology. The suggestion of a racially determined thought process in all Africans is equally questionable.

                        Research into oral literature is justified on the assumption that some rational principles must have guided traditional African thinkers in the past. Present day African intellectuals have lost contact with their forebears as well as with one another. Colonial education did not bequeath to Africa only new systems of government, education etc., it replaced African traditional principles of thought with foreign ones. Worse still, it gave Africa several alien languages that cut their intellectuals from their base. It is not an exaggeration to say that most African scholars are pure illiterates when it comes to speaking, writing or understanding their native tongues. It is also not strange that they are generally unaware of the intellectual principles that underlie the formulation of the beliefs, values or doctrines that occurred within African thought.

             The call for serious studies of African oral literature has been seen by many as a way of propagating a wholesale return to things African. But then this charge can only be the result of the illusion that culture, in its different ramifications, is an ancient, traditional, changeless and hermeneutically sealed heritage which can be preserved intact (like virginity) more or less forever and for a people's moral and social upliftment. A genuine call for adequate research into African oral heritage does not necessarily entail this "romantic vision of the past which establishes a false, confused and confusing notion" of African intellectual identity. [25] Oral literature does not establish a dead form of thought. It developed and can still be developed for modern use.

                  Abiola Irele seems to capture the core of this argument when he contends that "the axis of the African world is shifting from a grounding...in traditional African culture towards a new point of orientation as result of the influence of the impact of an alien culture especifically Western civilisation". My argument is that there is need to identify the nature of the axis so as to have a clear vision of the direction towards which a shift is justifiable. And in any case the Western axis is always shifting too and that in view of contact with foreign civilisations of the world.

                                The problem of the African scholar today is that most of what he reads about African thoughts are documented by foreigners in foreign languages; the ones recorded in native tongues are either by Western scholars or those brought up under their intellectual tutelage. The result is that the semantic undertones, and the hermeneutic implications of such oral literature become lost or at best very difficult to grasp, more especially since they are mostly presented under the guidance of foreign principles of thought. Yet the student of African oral literature is not yet in possession of alternative parameters with which to delve into the logical and rational intricacies of African oral literature.

              I do not believe that these difficulties are enough to scare the ardent researcher into traditional African thought, once we remember that the effort is basically to discover principles that underlie traditional African thought. The idea is not to bring back specific views, beliefs or values from ancient African societies. The argument is that we will never have valid grounds for comparing African thoughts with Western alternatives if we fail to grasp the basic principles under whose guidance African intellectuals operated. Further more, Africans will never be sure of what to retain or jettison from their traditional thoughts so long as they continue to be apathetic towards a rigorous but open minded study of oral literature from Africa.

6. Oral literature as an expression of an authentic African intellectual culture

Maybe one should start this section with the explicit statement that the concern here is with traditional African thought. This is without prejudice to the possibility of a new African intellectual culture being currently in the making as many believe it is. Our analysis so far has been directed towards the possible discovery of principles that guided ancient African thinkers before the advent of colonial education. The argument that men in different cultures of the world engaged in intellectual endeavours for different purposes does not rule against the relevance of Logic and Reason within all such varied options. The only caution I have tried to draw attention to is that Western love of system building and search for the ONENESS of the forms of reality do not constitute an adulation of Logic or Reason. It cannot therefore be an absolute and universal demand on all possible principles that guide th different intellectual cultures of the world.

Henry Odera Oruka [26] has warned against confusing the fact that Logic and Reason are final arbiters in intellectual matters with the claim that a specific system in the world provides universal absolutes. And Hountondji , despite his faith in Western style of science, agrees that there are no "be-all or end-all" systems in the world. [27] These should mean that specific applications of Logic and Reason can be greatly influenced by what a group of thinkers regard as their intellectual goal. And since these goals vary from culture to culture there is always a wide range of logics and rationalities to choose from.

            The following illustrations from Yoruba oral literature are meant to show the directions in which to seek principles that guided the thoughts of traditional African intellectuals. They neither establish a cultural unity of African thought nor details of principles that determine such. I present them only to generate interest in the study and analysis of African oral literature. Whether or not intellectuals in other African societies were guided by similar principles is a matter to be determined by more rigorous studies of oral traditions from different cultures of Africa. But even then the full discussion of the intellectual unity of Africa cannot be developed here.

7.  Some Yoruba proverbs and aphorisms

 1.    Ajaajo o je okunrin o lomun,

             Okunrin lomun, omi ni ko si ni'be;

             Omi si wa ni'be, ko to omo mun ni.

              (The roving life of a man deters the growth of his breasts;

               Is not that he has no breasts at all,

               But that his breast milk,

               Is insufficient to feed his offspring.)


2.               Ogbon odun ni, were eemii

                   (Wisdom of this year is foolishness in the course of time.)

3.               Bayi ni a nse n'ibi, eewo ibo mii

                  (The custom of this land is abomination in another place.)

4.               Omode gbon, agba gbon, ni a fi d'ale Ife

                  (Children are wise, elders too are wise, this is the

                  basis on which primordial existence was structured.)

5.               Bi a ba non gongo ogbon si nkan ti ko ba to o,

                  ki a fi were die ti ese.

                  (If reason is stretched to its limit,

                   Then folly becomes inevitable.)

6.               Eni mon yi ko mon t'ohun,

                  Adia fun Orunmila,

                  Ti yio ko ifa lowo Amosun omo re.

                  (He who knows one thing is ignorant of another,

                   This is why Orunmila had to learn from Amosun his offspring.)

7.               Ologbon kan ko te 'ra re n'ifa,

                  Omoran ko fi 'ra re j'oye,

                  Obe to mu kole e gbe eku ara re.

                  (No wise person regards himself as an oracle,

                   No thoughtful man confers honour on himself,

                  A dagger does not prepare its own handle).

8.               Bi aja ba wo agbada ina,

                  Ti amotekun w'ewu eje,

                  Ti ologini wo'so akisa,

                  Apanije ni gbogbo won nse.

                  (If a dog wears a garment of fire,

                  And the panther dons a coat of blood,

                  And the cat appears in tattered dress,

                  They are nothing but carnivores.)

9.               Da'gi ke, da'gi ke.

                  Aake kan o lee da'gi ke;

                  Da'gi la, da'gi la,

                 Eela kan o le e da'gi la;

                 Bi ko s'Erelu,

                 Osugbo o le e da'wo se.

                 (Cutting alone, cutting alone,

                 The axe cannot cut alone,

                 Splitting alone, splitting alone,

                 The wedge cannot split alone;

                 Without the Erelu (i.e. women representative),

                 Osugbo cult cannot operate.

10.          Bi okunrin r'ejo, ti obinrin pa,

                Ki ejo o ma saa ti lo.

                (If a man discovers a snake and his wife kills it,

                Is well so long the task is done.)

The first six proverb ial utterances may be considered as "a scrap of unfathered wit or wisdom." This does not contradict Aristotle 's view that "a proverb is a remnant from old philosophy, preserved amid countless destructions by reason of its brevity and fitness for use." [28] The fact that African proverbs exist in the oral form may further explain the need for brevity and practical application. All in all the crucial point is that these utterances cannot be regarded as products of a primitive mentality; rather they are evidence of a serious rational endeavour with different aspects of human experience. The first is an analysis of language to remove ambiguities that generate half truths. The second through the sixth stress the relativity of knowledge and wisdom in terms of time, place, age, reason and situation.

       In each of these pieces there is evidence of a critical attitude, elements of argument and caution against unjustifiable claims of absolute certitude. The eighth example warns against the mistaken notion that differences in the status of offenders constitute relevant facts that justify discriminations in dispensing justice. This particular proverb is expressed in the legal language of the West as the law of equity which states that everybody is equal before the law irrespective of differences in our social status.

                   Following in the same manner, example nine is an argument about the complementary roles of the male and female in society. The Osugbo, generally operated as a secret society, is the legal arm of government among the Ijebu people of Yorubaland. And there is always a woman representative. The argument here is that no one section of society can rule alone just as the axe or the wedge cannot function alone. True democracy , in the thinking of the author of this proverb , does not justify the proscription of women participation in decision making processes. There is very little evidence of this intellectual recognition among ancient Western thinkers. It is a popular view among the Yoruba that "eye ki i fi apa kan fo" (the bird does not fly with one wing).

      My effort here is not to show that the claims and arguments presented in these pieces are all rationally or empirically impeccable. The concept of relativity in itself is here to make such an attitude untenable. My goal is to draw attention to the fact that African intellectual endeavours can be found in our oral tradition. The question of what passes as intellectual culture and/or philosophy must be left to the academics to resolve.


[A second example (two verses from Ifa literary corpus) is left out here, because otherwise this contribution would be relatively too long.]

8. Conclusion

I have tried in this essay to show that the conventional belief that some principles of thought are universal in nature is based on the erroneous view that Logic and Reason provide absolute laws of thought and that what all intellectuals in different cultures of the world seek to establish is ONE objective reality defined by such laws. Since every intellectual tradition is culturally limited both in time and space, none can serve as a universal paradigm by which every other intellectual alternative is to be assessed.

       I wish to add here that philosophy is only one of the several rational endeavours of man. Although like other disciplines it is guided by the principles of a people's intellectual culture, the existence or non existence of philosophy within particular cultures is no conclusive evidence that intellectual activities never occurred in such cultures. The existence of philosophy is necessarily subsidiary to that of an intellectual culture. This is not to imply that there were no philosophers in traditional African societies. The point is that the identification of the intellectual unity of Africa cannot be a demand for a proof of the unanimity of her human traits of mind or her beliefs, ideas, values or even philosophies. What justifies the claim of cultural unity in intellectual matters in ancient Africa is the existence of some basic principles which underlie a distinct and different intellectual culture in Africa before colonialism.

     My conclusion is that the promotion of intercultural and postcolonial philosophy, a movement which is currently gathering momentum in Western Europe must proceed on several notes of caution. We cannot legitimately dismiss oral literature as a reliable source of discovering an authentic African intellectual culture if our genuine aim is to compare and if possible promote inter-cultural understanding. African tradition of thought, as an ancient intellectual culture, must have principles which have existed long before modern times. And to have a full grasp of the present day line of thought we need a good understanding of each culture . For if we are not fully conscious of what we were, hardly can we really understand who we are now and how we can have a clear vision of what we ought to be.

             The future development of African intellectual culture will seriously be eroded as long as we continue to ignore traditional African intellectual heritage. Philosophers both in Africa and the West must endeavour to get over the intellectual vice of holding too tightly to traditions which can no more stand the test of time. This has actually slowed down the true development of the minds of men and women in different cultures of the world. We must learn to give up intellectual bigotry.

                            The West still pays homage to its ancestors and intellectual heritage. For who can ignore René Descartes ' "irrationality" in attempting to deduce God and certainty through the deductive system of logic? Who is a greater myth-maker than Nietzsche ? The success of the West lies in the ability to note the errors of these two men and others without giving up Thales ' search for ONE absolute reality and Aristotle 's teaching that Logic provides the most reliable process of arriving at absolute certainty. Drastic changes have therefore occurred in the thoughts of the West but all of them within the culture defined by the earliest progenitors of its intellectual culture.

                     The continued denial and/or underestimation of an authentic African intellectual culture has led to unhealthy rivalry which now tends to degenerate into intellectual terrorism on both sides. And there appears no simple way of stopping this wave until we all become fully aware that our mission is not to destroy any culture but to promote a veritable world civilisation which truly belongs to all of us.

                                  It will indeed be unreasonable to argue that Africa must retain in its pristine form traditional African thought. What I have stressed in this paper is that Africa can keep steps with modernity without completely despising the PRINCIPLE of epistemological relativity or her entire literary heritage. One of the greatest opportunities offered by both intercultural and postcolonial philosophy is that of seeking ways in which each intellectual culture of the world can benefit from others without despising different forms of Logic and Reason. And this, I suppose, is not a difficult task once we disengage philosophy from narrow nationalism and rescue intellectuality from the vestiges of racial discrimination.



1 This ist the main objection of most members of the Professional School against Ethno-philosophy. Relevant aspects of the works of its members such as Kwasi Wiredu, Paulin J. Hountondji and P.O. Bodunrin are discussed in the body of this essay.

2 M. Richter: Science as a Cultural Process. London 1972, p. 68-70.

3 E.A. Ruch and K.C. Anyanwu:  African Philosophy. Rome 1980, p. 60.

4 B. Hallen: A Philosophical Approach to Traditional Culture. In: Theoria to Theory 9 (1975), p. 259-272.

5 See for example J. J. Weed: Wisdom of the Mystic Masters. Wellingborough 1978.

6 J..J.C. Smart: Sensations and Brain Processes. In: The Mind-Brain Identity-Theory. Ed. C.V. Borst. 1970, p. 52-66.

7 B. Russell: A History of Western Philosophy. London 1946, p. 199-200.

8 K..