Review of U. Loelke's book by H. Kimmerle

Kritische Traditionen: Afrika. Philosophie als Ort der Dekolonisation, by Ulrich Lölke.

Frankfurt/M.: IKO – Verlag für Interkulturelle Kommunikation, 2001, 250 pp.,ISBN 3-88939-552-X



The book of Lölke has served as a PhD-thesis at the University of Düsseldorf in 1999. It is a remarkable fact that his dissertation on ‘African philosophy’ has been accepted at this university. For, it was Prof. Alwin Diemer who introduced this subject to the international philosophical discourse when he organized the 16th World Congress of Philosophy at the University of Düsseldorf in 1978. At this congress he arranged for the first time a symposium on ‘Philosophy in the present situation of Africa’. [1] Nine African philosophers participated in this symposium. Five years later he called together a much larger number of African philosophers to discuss the subject ‘Africa and the problem of its identity’. [2] Since 1978 the World Congresses of Philosophy are an important forum for African philosophers.

However, African philosophy has not become an acknowledged topic at German universities. This can be illustrated by Lölke’s commentary on the XV. Deutscher Kongreß für Philosophie at Hamburg in 1990: ‘It is interesting that the section ‘Gegenwart der Philosophie in Afrika’, which has been chaired by Jürgen Hengelbrock, has not been attended by German philosophers and thus has not been acknowledged as such’ (p.116, note 3).  Many other examples of this attitude could be given among most of the German philosophers. On the European continent research and teaching in the field of African philosophy has been established only at Erasmus University Rotterdam and at the University of Vienna. This situation is changing with a number of younger German philosophers like Lölke who have done or are doing their PhD-research on problems of African philosophy. [3] Lölke had still to lean on A. Diemer’s merits of introducing African philosophy to the World Congresses of Philosophy when he succeeded to find the successor on Diemer’s chair at the University of Düsseldorf, Prof. N. Henrichs, ready to be his ‘Doktorvater’ (p. 5).  

There is a specific context of ‘intercultural philosophy’ on the German philosophical scene, although this context is kept also in the margin of the official university departments. The ‘Gesellschaft für interkulturelle Philosophie’, under the presidency of R.A. Mall who stems from India, offers a forum also for African philosophy. And Lölke’s book is published in the series ‘Denktraditionen im Dialog: Studien zur Befreiung und Interkulturalität’, edited by R. Fornet-Betancourt who comes from South America and is especially linked to ‘IKO - Verlag für Interkulturelle Kommunikation’.


Despite of this somehow narrow-minded German background with regard to African philosophy, Lölke has been able to give an original contribution to the international discussion of this subject and to the global philosophical discourse in which it has to be situated. His main issue is the concept of tradition. About this concept he is in a dialogue with the Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Gyekye. [4] In his book Tradition and Modernity, Gyekye tries hard to work out what the concept of tradition means. Discussing especially the book of E. Shils: Tradition (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), he comes to the result that one can speak only of a tradition if a set of ‘cultural values’ has been handed on to at least two generations. [5] Lölke confronts Gyekye’s analyses with the anti-traditionalism of Western Enlightenment and of what is called ‘modernity’. His critical assessment of Gyekye’s position includes also K.R. Popper’s appraisal of tradition in the process of scientific research and H.-G. Gadamer’s conception of a dialogue with history in the humanities which tries to avoid the pitfalls of both Enlightenment and Romanticism (pp. 193-195 and 209-212, 178-179).

Lölke agrees with Gyekye that tradition has to be dealt with in a critical way, that tradition in itself is not authoritative, but reflective. He interprets, however, the Akan symbol of Sankofa to which Gyekye refers repeatedly (in combination with Ofamfa), not as going back to the past (Sankofa) and then examining the past critically (Ofamfa). ‘The bird which is bending its head to pick an egg on its back’, which one sees on the Sankofa symbol, ‘can also be understood as bending back over one’s neck by reflecting’ on the present knowledge of the past which has to be revived (p. 221). Tradition is, according to Lölke, especially and before all ‘living tradition’ or as he says by quoting the French formulation of A. Hampaté Bâ: ‘tradition vivante’ (p. 165, note 2). Lölke criticizes Gyekye for working with a reïfied concept of generations. It is not just by sticking to the same cultural values for two times 20 to 30 years that (eventually, in the third generation) a tradition is produced. The ‘crux of the concept of tradition’ is something different: ‘A tradition is a pattern, a ritual or, also, a more complex cultural and social connection of which the transmission is no longer in the hands of those who have invented them’. That means, there has to be ‘at least one generation between the inventor and the recipient of a tradition’. Therefore, to sketch the production of a tradition we have not to talk about (at least) three, but two ‘generations’ and it does not help to clarify the systematic problem, if one measures the years, which constitute a generation (p. 203).      

The main point of Lölke and Gyekye is that Africa exists at present between tradition and modernity. These two concepts have to be understood as general terms, characterizing the influences of the respective past in present times. [6] This ‘intermediate space’ is worked out systematically by V.Y. Mudimbe in his The Invention of Africa (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988). Mudimbe tries to get beyond the dichotomies of dialectical thought, such as ‘traditional vs. modern, oral vs. written, agrarian/customary communities vs. urban/industrialized civilization, subsistence economies vs. highly productive economies’ (p. 114-115). The problem is that, as a consequence of the processes of colonization in the past, during which changing Western discourses about Africa have been imposed on this continent, in the present time Africa has lost its identity. Thus there is no transition possible from the past to the present. That does not mean, so Lölke states with Mudimbe, that we have to see African Philosophy in Search of Identity’, like D.A. Masolo formulates it in the title of his book (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994). It is the combination of identity and reason in the discourse of this book, which brings it close to the interpretation schemes of colonial rulers (p. 122-123).

In between colonization and an uncertain future, philosophy in Africa can be a space/place (‘Ort’ is the word in the title of Lölke’s book) of decolonization. It is the double meaning of a geographical and a mental space/place, which is functioning in colonization and decolonization, as Mudimbe puts it (p. 114). Philosophy can try to single out elements of Africa’s own consciousness (and not more than that), by deconstructing imposed Western images of the continent. After the battles for independence have been fought, philosophy is now engaged in the liberating enterprise by criticizing the ‘power of speech’ and building up a counter-power in this field. Y. Konaté contributes to this strategic task by showing that there is not only one rationality, namely the Western type, which is mainly a scientific-technical one, but several different types of rationality. [7] By finding out the specific type of rationality, which is incorporated in the living African tradition, philosophy can help to make the crisis of the continent to a place/space of death and rebirth at the same time (p. 116-119).    

Prominent examples of  ‘Decolonizing the mind’ or ‘Conceptual Decolonization’, to use the formulations of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Kwasi Wiredu, [8] are the projects of  ‘Sage philosophy’. Lölke concentrates on H. Odera Oruka’s Kenyan project, mainly among the Luo, Kisii, Gikuyu and Meru peoples, and K. Gyekye’s interviews of wise men and women among different groups of the Akan in Ghana. He leaves out A. Hampaté Bâ’s important report of the life and teaching of Tierno Bokar, the sage of Bandiagara, the capital of the Dogon area in Mali. [9] The most important step of these projects is that they are done in African indigenous languages, although the written documentation is in English or French. According to Lölke, Odera Oruka’s main target is to refute R. Horton’s thesis, that ‘African traditional thought’ is ‘closed’, while the knowledge of  ‘Western science’ is ‘open’. [10] There are sages in Kenyan traditional societies who deserve to be called ‘philosophical sages’ because they do not only transfer the knowledge and wisdom of their peoples, like ‘folk sages’ do, but critically think about it and evaluate it (p. 165-168).

In about the same period of time when Odera Oruka started his project in Kenya, which is finally documented in Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy [11] , Gyekye interviewed a number of Akan sages in Ghana, in the process of preparing his book: An essay on African philosophical thought: The Akan conceptual scheme [12] . Lölke sees Gyekye’s aim before all in showing that ‘there were sages in Africa’s cultural past’, that is to say as a decisive part of historical research (p. 153-164). He criticizes Oruka and Gyekye for making living traditions historical by presenting contemporary sages as people of a period in the past. And he refers to critical remarks against Oruka’s strict borderline between ‘philosophical sages’ and ‘folk sages’, which is inspired by the Western model of criticism and rationality (p. 152 and 158). Different to the estimations of Gyekye, he regards orality not primarily as a deficiency, but as ‘an own quality’ (p.168).  He could have made these references more complete and his re-estimation of orality much stronger, if he had taken notice of my efforts in these fields. [13]

Lölke’s reconstructions of Negritude (especially of what L.S. Senghor has made of it) and of ethnophilosophy on the one hand and of the critical discourses of P.J. Hountondji and M. Towa against these currents in African philosophy on the other hand, precede the chapters of his book, which I have reviewed up to now.  Lölke follows Hountondji’s and Towa’s critique of Negritude and ethnophilosophy in saying that both currents stick to the Western conceptual framework by just formulating oppositions to it. And he also agrees with these authors that it is not correct to reduce African traditional philosophy to collective thought, which has to be worked out and systematized by others. But he recognizes, too, that Hountondji’s and Towa’s ‘dialectical confrontation’ with the Western ways of speaking about Africa does not open a place/space to escape the ‘classical order of things’ in Western thought, which is followed up by the ‘modern order’ in the course of the 19th and 20th century, as Mudimbe says by using M. Foucault’s theoretical approach (p. 111-113).    

With regard to these reconstructions I want to make two critical remarks. There is not one correct way of doing African philosophy. Negritude and ethnophilosophy, and also their critique by Hountondji and Towa are stages on the way of working out African philosophy. The dialectical framework of thought which is applied by J.P. Sartre to justify Negritude (also the version which is worked out by Senghor) as an ‘antiracist racism’, [14] remains useful and correct with regard to this period. According to me, this framework of thought can be extended to the writings of Hountondji and Towa as an antithesis to Negritude and ethnophilosophy. It is, indeed, Mudimbe who gets beyond these dialectical oppositions and with them beyond the attitude of simple ‘hatred against (neo-)colonial guardianship’, which were on their place in former times. [15] And Gyekye goes a step further on this way. He comes to an even more differentiated approach of Africa’s colonial past. In the interview with Lölke, which I have mentioned above (note 4), he says (on p. 96-97): ‘What we really need to do, I argue, is to re-evaluate, re-interpret, and re-assess the cultural values, practices, and institutions that we have inherited from both our own traditions and the colonial heritage. The colonial heritage cannot be completely jettisoned. We live in a postcolonial era, but this era, surely, does not necessarily mean the rejection of all the colonial values and institutions that we have adopted. Even though they were all originally imposed on us, we have come to adopt them; we are practicing them; and we are trying to function within them. Whether we are doing so successfully or not is another matter.’

Lölke presents Gyekye’s contribution to African philosophy in the Essay on African philosophical thought as a form of ‘Sage philosophy’, which he compares with Odera Oruka’s. He mentions also the other sources, which Gyekye uses to systematize the Akan conceptual scheme, but he does not acknowledge them in the same measure as the interviews with the sages. Gyekye himself summarizes these sources in the following way: ‘oral literature’ and ‘the thoughts and actions of the people’; more in detail: ‘proverbs, myths and folktales, folk songs, rituals, beliefs, customs, and traditions of the people’. [16] It is no doubt that his method of doing African philosophy is not only that of making use of ‘sagacious reasoning’, but also that of some kind of ethnophilosophy. In his own interwiew with Gyekye (note 4), Lölke could have understood the great importance, which this African philosopher gives to language (see on p. 83-84): ‘There is a dynamic relationship between the language of a people and their thought, beliefs, and their values’. And the writings of Gyekye testify more than clearly that he often works with proverbs, being something like texts in an oral tradition. In this sense also Aristotle was an ethnophilosopher, for when he ‘began his philosophical inquiries, he started on the language, providing technical meanings to the expressions of the Greek language’.

At the end of his book, Lölke turns to ‘postcolonial traditions’, transcending in his own discourse decolonization as the (only) space/place of African philosophy. The last project of Odera Oruka, a theory of  ‘global justice’, on the basis of a ‘Parental Earth Ethics’, had already earlier attracted his attention. [17] Oruka argues that it is necessary to grant sufficient means of existence to everybody in the world, before ethical claims can be made. He suggests that the relations between the different parts of the world should be organized in the manner of family relations in Africa. His ‘philosophy of concrete responsibilty’ is on the way to ‘a more and more … global discourse of philosophy’, which goes beyond the regional structures. This is thought, according to Lölke, in the continuation of the line of ‘Sage philosophy’. For the sages always stress the practical relevance of knowledge and wisdom, and their acceptance among the African communities is clearly higher than that of academic philosophy in the West. Considering these conceptions, the American philosopher Gail Presbey presents ‘the African philosophers as a challenge for academic philosophers’ of the West (p. 230-233, the Presbey-quotation is on p. 232).

Oruka’s last project should lead to the possibility that the ‘subaltern can speak’. Lölke opens up this perspective by referring to G.Ch. Spivak’s research which makes use of the ideas of French philosophers of difference (not only Foucault, from whom Mudimbe and Lölke already have borrowed certain methods, but also G. Deleuze and J. Derrida). To get to this point, it is necessary that the intellectuals of the Western world no longer speak for the subaltern, but that they speak to them and with them, like Oruka and Gyekye did when they visited the sages. According to Spivak, ‘silenced areas’ (geographically and socially) are produced in the world by ‘the epistemic violence of imperialism and the international division of labour’. This cannot be overcome, if the Western intellectuals speak vicariously for the subaltern, but only if they understand the mechanisms of their own dominating way of speaking. That is not yet the solution of the problem, but it disarranges the self-satisfied position of the intellectuals. Their task ‘is not to represent (vertreten)’ the subaltern, ‘but to learn to represent (darstellen)’ themselves (p. 221-227, Spivak-quotations on p. 220 and 224).

This brings me, finally, to the first chapter of Lölke’s book. The Western cultural anthropologists or ethnologists often do not even speak for, but of or about the indigenous peoples, which they describe. They want to make the beliefs and practices of these peoples understandable to themselves and their readers. That is to say, they interpret these beliefs and practices from their own standards of rationality. Following H.-G. Gadamer, P. Winch, and Th. Nagel, Lölke makes clear that in this literature Western rationality is erroneously universalized by claiming to practice a ‘view from nowhere’. L. Wittgenstein provides a way of thought by which magical worldviews or phenomena of sorcery and witchcraft cannot and should not be understood in the manner of scientific explanations, but in the manner of ‘narratives’ (Erzählungen) which have their own plausibility and acceptance (p. 37-42). This concept is methodically important for Lölke’s whole discourse.

S.B. Oluwole shows that it is not in correspondence with the rational and scientific basis of Western philosophy itself to claim that these phenomena are impossible, just because their possibility up to now cannot be proved (p. 44-48). She argues that while some Western scientists and philosophers ‘believe that witchcraft is supernatural in the sense of “being beyond explanation” … they are in fact making a mistake … all it means is that it is “not yet explained”. So the possibility of an explanation may exist at least in the future.’ However, also according to Oluwole, the ‘African doctor’ or magician is not interested in rational explanation of witchcraft in the Western sense. ‘He understands it well enough to be able to influence and to manipulate’. Therefore, she finds it biased and prejudiced ‘to deny the occurrence of something just because we have not ourselves experienced it’. [18]    


[1] A. Diemer (ed), Philosophy in the present situation of Africa, Wiesbaden: Steiner 1981.

[2] A. Diemer & P.J. Hountondji (eds), Africa and the problem of its identity, Frankfurt/M.: Peter Lang 1985.

[3] I mention especially N. Weidtmann, Der Weltcharakter der Kulturen in der interkulturellen Welt: Eine Auseinandersetzung mit Hermeneutik und Strukturphänomenologie am Beispiel Afrika, Phil. Diss. Würzburg 1998; also the initiative of A. Graneß and K. Kresse to edit the volume: Sagacious Reasoning: Henry Odera Oruka in memoriam (Frankfurt/.M. et al.: Peter Lang 1997) is a hopeful sign in this respect.

[4] Lölke has stayed for a couple of months at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Ghana at Legon, where he has had regular discussions with Gyekye. In Quest. An International African Journal of Philosophy (vol. XI, no, 1-2, 1997, p. 80-99) Lölke has published an interview with Gyekye, and in polylog. Zeitschrift für interkulturelles Philosophieren (no. 2, 1998, p. 95-97) he has reviewed two of Gyekye’s recent books: African Traditional Values: An Introduction (Philadelphia/Accra: Sankofa Publishers 1996) and Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience. New York: Oxford University Press 1997); also published in an English version in African Philosophy (vol. 13, nr. 1, 2000, p. 57-63).

[5] Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity, loc.cit. (note 4), p. 219-232.

[6] Lölke in polylog, loc. cit. (note 4), p. 97.

[7] Y. Konaté, ‘Aktualität der Philosophie Afrikas. Traditionen und wissenschaftlich-technischer Fortschritt’. In: H. Nagl-Docekal and F.M. Wimmer (eds), Postkoloniales Philosophieren: Afrika, Wien/München: Oldenbourg, 1992, p. 156-169.

[8] N. wa Thing’o, Decolonising the Mind. The Politics of Language in African Literature, London et al.: James Currey/EAEP/Heinemann 1986; K. Wiredu, Conceptual Decolonization: Four Essays, Ibadan: Hope Publications 1995.

[9] A. Hampaté Bâ, Vie et enseignement de Tierno Bokar. Le Sage de Bandiagara, Paris: Éditions du Seuil 1980.

[10] R. Horton, ‘African Traditional Thought and Western Science’. In: B.R. Wilson (ed), Rationality, Oxford: Blackwell 1974, p. 131-171.

[11] Leiden et al.: 1990.

[12] Cambridge et al.: Cambridge University Press 1987, Revised edition, Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1995.

[13] H. Kimmerle, Philosophie in Afrika – afrikanische Philosophie: Annäherungen an einen interkulturellen Philosophiebegriff, Frankfurt/M.: Campus, 1991, p. 85-92; ‘The Philosophical Text in the African Oral Tradition. The Opposition of Oral and Literate and the Politics of Difference’. In: H. Kimmerle and F.M. Wimmer (eds), Philosophy and Democracy in Intercultural Perspective, Amsterdam/Atlanta: Editions Rodopi, 1997, p.43-56.

[14] J.P. Sartre, ‘Orphée noir’. In: L.S. Senghor (ed), Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de la langue française, Paris: Présence Africaine, 1948, p. IX-XLIV.

[15] V.Y. Mudimbe: The Invention of Africa, loc.cit. (above in the text), p. 36.

[16] Gyekye, An Essay in African  philosophical thought, loc.cit. (above in the text), p. 13.

[17] U. Lölke, ‘Parental Care as a Principle of Development’. In: A. Graneß and K. Kresse (eds), Sagacious Reasoning, loc.cit (note 3), p. 219-231.

[18] S.B. Oluwole, Witchcraft, Reïncarnation and the God-Head: Issues in African Philosophy. Lagos: Excel Publishers, 1992, p.18-19.

Heinz Kimmerle

Foundation for Intercultural Philosophy and Art

Zoetermeer, The Netherlands


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