Introduction by Heinz Kimmerle
Who are the African sages?
In African traditional societies the sages form a group with a
special function. These men and women give advice to those who ask for it:
to individuals as well as to political leaders and representatives of other
social institutions. The knowledge neccesary to execute this social function
is handed down traditionally from one generation of sages to the next. In
the old African kingdoms sages often lived at the royal court. But also in
the villages and cities of peoples with different (e.g. more egalitarian)
political systems sages can be found.
Because today the primarily oral traditions in African societies are
beeing replaced increasingly by writing and other modern media, the function
of the sages is dying out. Amadou Hampaté Bâ himself one of the disciples of
Tierno Bokar, the sage of Bandiagara (a city in Mali, at the foot of the
Dogon mountains) has stated: 'Every time when a sage dies, it means the same
as if a library burns down'.
We know about the function of the sages from the Kenyan philosopher
Henry Odera Oruka, the son of a sage of the Luo in Western Kenya, who
studied philosophy in Sweden and in the USA. After taking his PhD in
philosophy at Fort Wayne University, he went back to Kenya and he performed
research about the work of his father. He came to the opinion, that he had
heard much of the same from his father at home during his youth of what he
had learned later at the Philosophy Departments of Western universities. In
his book 'Sage Philosophy' (1990) he rendered the teachings of 12 sages, not
only from the Luo, but also from other groups in Kenya. Here he made a
difference between folk sages and philosophical sages. The latter ones he
called philosophers in the sense of individual critical thinkers using
exclusively rational arguments.
How do the sages use proverbs?
The advice, which is given by the sages, is not a direct instruction
what to do. They put the personal or political problem with which they are
confronted (e.g. what great misfortune can mean to a person or whether a war
might be advisable for a community) into a broader, more general context.
The eventual advice is given by using a pithy and condensed formulation,
mostly in rather general terms. Those who search for advice have to apply
the answer themselves to their personal situation. In this sense a sage's
advice is comparable to an oracle in ancient Greece like the one that had
been given to Oedipus or to the directives which can be found in the ancient
Chinese book 'I Ging'. Actually the pithy formulations of the sages are ofte
n already existing proverbs or they can be expected to become one. By using
and creating proverbs the sages bring forth so to speak philosophical texts
in a primarily oral tradition.
In African proverbs the wisdom of the sages is deposited and at the
same time preserved. Reading those proverbs and reflecting on them can bring
part of their knowledge and their wisdom to us. But in this situation, which
proverb may mean something to us as an answer to a particular problem, we
have to decide ourselves. A computer programme which chooses a certain
proverbs to answer a (silent) question by chance can take over - in a very
reduced way, of course - the function of the sage. It can act as a Virtual
By categorising the proverbs thematically, the choice of the virtual sage
can be guided in a certain sense. In his book: 'The Wisdom and Philosophy of
the Gikuyu Proverbs' (1997), Gerald Joseph Wanjohi, a Kenyan philosopher
and Kikuyu by descent, has developed the following categories for the
proverbs which are orientated at philosophical disciplines, as they exist in
the international philosophical discourse.
III. Epistemological (= reflecting
on the possibilties of
IV. Ethical, A. Metaethical (=
reflecting on ethics as such),
B. Individual Ethics, C.
V. Social Proverbs, A. On
Industry, B. On Hospitality, C.
On Attitude to Life;
VI. On Violence and Non-violence;
VII. On Kihooto (= worldview based
on reasoning): Direct and
Indirect, and on
Foolishness/Ignorance (= not
based on such a worldview);
VIII. On God and Religion;
IX. On Politics;
One can easily notice that ethical and social proverbs prevail.
How to consult the Virtual sage?
To make sure that the Virtual sage cannot come into the place of a real
one, we have to consider what Hampaté Bâ says in his book: 'Vie et
enseignement de Tierno Bokar. Le Sage de Bandiagara' (1957): 'A word,
totally vibrating of life and of love, like the one which was heard at
Bandiagara, can never be replaced in all its force by a book' (p. 128), and
certainly also not by a computer programme. Here it will be necessary that
the user of the proverbs in such a programme relies much more on his own
intellectual activity. It is meaningful enough that above the door to the
place of the ancient oracle of Delphi was written: 'Learn to know
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