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A Hazard into African Philosophy to Understand the Grounding of the Self Help Societies of the Igbo
“In the Western view, a man is a single individual; and that singleness is what makes an entity “a man”. In the African View, a man (person) is defined only in reference to his community, not by any of his physical or psychological characteristics. “Ifeanyi Menkiti. 1984. Philosophy Professor Wellesley College.
“I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” John Mbiti Emeritus Professor University of Berne, Switzerland.
African morality is founded on humanism, the doctrine that considers human interests and welfare as basic to the thought and action of the people. ..African humanitarian ethics generates social morality, the morality of the common good, and the morality of duty…which are considered supererogatory in Western ethics. But central or basic to African morality is character, for the success of the moral life is held to be a function of the quality of an individual’s personal life.”
Igbo Self Help Societies
This Austin Africa article started out relatively simple, to try to understand the foundations of the self-help societies found so often in Igbo communities throughout the diaspora. My family belongs to one, and while my wife seems to expect the sort of humanism expressed and acted upon in our group, I was very much surprised. However, as I came to the issue of African ethics, I was also required to follow, to understand it better, the entire question of African philosophy. This absorbed my purpose for a time as there has been several decades of complex dispute by the Western philosophic community as to whether Africans have or ever have had a philosophy.
There are no kind words for this prejudice, and I felt obligated to pursue it along the trajectory that it has followed since African independence. As one Igbo philosopher, Professor T. U.
Nwala stated early on, the question of whether Africa had a philosophy or not was the ‘Great Debate.’ Stated differently, the argument is whether Africans were capable of ‘critical’ thinking before colonization and for some even afterward.
Much of the thread that this article follows is based on Barry Hallen’s A Short History of African Philosophy, which is a downloadable document.
Before stepping into this fracas, I first need to establish some bona fides per the assertion that Igbos have self-help communities almost everywhere they have found a
home. Besides my personal experience, I think useful to see it through the eyes of that wisest of Igbo philosophers, Chinua Achebe. In his famous African Trilogy, Achebe interposes between his two novels of change coming to traditional Igbo society, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God; his novel No Longer At Ease, which is a story of the bittersweet success of an Igbo in the Colonial world. Obi Okonkwo’s success is based on his university ‘education in England ‘the ‘home country’ and a ‘white man’s job in the Nigerian colonial service. The story can only happen because Obi, the protagonist, is lent the sum needed to pay for his education by a self-help society of Igbos in Lagos, the Umuofia Progressive Union. For the betterment of their community, which is equated with that of Mr. Okonkwo’s, these semi-professional workers and small business-people scrape together shilling by shilling the amount of pounds required for his BA. Obi becomes the first of their compatriots to attain an English degree, no small matter in those days. Education is incredibly important to Igbos, and even now, they will abide untold suffering to have that suffix which they believe will change their world and that of their family and village. And in the beginning, and now in so many cases, these self-help societies have helped raise their society and the lives of their young people.
As self-help is an ethical concept, it was on the way to African ethics that I encountered the struggle for ‘African philosophy’, which was much maligned at each stage of its ‘post-independence’ development by Western philosophy and Professional Philosophers. Of course, the field is not an easy turf, in any case, home to intellectual head hunters, home of the arrogant and land of the bitter.The timing of the struggle for African philosophy could not have come at a worst time because analytic philosophy (epistemology and hermeneutics, logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, etc.) was dominant. In the last half of the 20th century, this school and its kin and ilk felt triumphant over more than two millennia of Western metaphysics, and there was no room at
the Inn for any traditional philosophy, much less an African philosophy. Even now there are no kind words for African philosophy. The following comes from the ‘peer-reviewed’ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and is not as kind as Stanford:
‘African philosophy as a systematic study has a very short history. This history is also a very dense one, since actors sought to do in a few decades what would have been better done in many centuries…(and also) they also did in later years what ought to have been done earlier and vice versa.”
What follows in this article is unpalatable and condescending. I thought it painful just for the drenching cynicism at its beginning. It is long but for those that want to see the other side of the argument it has a use, as we will see later. It was written by Jonathan O Chimakaron an academic from the University of Calabar, so due diligence was done in having an African at the emasculation of African philosophy.
I recognize that this is an ‘unwinnable’ debate (in that both sides will simply disagree with the other in a situation where there is no omniscient referee) but on the other hand, the argument need not be lost for lack of engagement. Professional philosophers have robbed and rolled themselves and continue to do so, so much so, that there is little of it that now can be applied to the human condition. Given this, it cannot be expected to address the traditions of the human ‘home world’ where it had its origins. It has more or less has allowed itself to become the ‘common law wife’ of Science ever hoping that Science will not get bored and walk away. For some, what happened to African philosophy is simply racism, but in as much that Western professional philosophers are equally unkind to themselves and their past, I think it is rather just indicative of the low estate to which this discipline has descended. These carnivores exist only because they have found a nest at the modern university. This degradation of the liberal arts is why I have recommended within the discussion of ‘Princes of Africa’ that learning should sometimes be sought outside of the universities. Why would any African parent allow their child to be exposed to such a negative orthodoxy? Sadly, parents believe that sending their children to a good university means that they will be exposed to better minds.
Criticisms of African Philosophy
The first rejection of African philosophy was based on sheer disbelief that Africans past or future could have any critical thinking or even thought they could. The early frustration African philosophers felt was borne out of the colonial caricature of Africa as culturally naïve, intellectually docile and rationally inept; this caricature was created by European philosophers such as Kant, Hegel and, much later, Levy-Bruhl. A contrary concept competed with this prejudice based on Rousseau’s concept of the Noble Savage, who possessed all that was best in a human being and the civilized world was simply the corruption of that good. However, this sentiment, held by a very few, was not allowed to get in the way of the ambitions of nation states carving out glory from the African continent.
Among the next stages, Afrocentrism, arose from the assertion, mostly in the United States according to Wiki, scholars and others that African culture extended to the Mediterranean and that Egypt was a part of it. This philosophy asserts among many things that Africa has full ownership of all of ancient Western culture. Afrocentrism is seen as an early petulant reaction of ‘African philosophy’ to ‘Professional’ criticism. For those that wish to follow up on this theme, seek out The Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization by Martin Bernal, three volumes published in 1987, 1991, 2006 as well as Volume II of the UNESCO General History of Africa (GHA). The latter can be downloaded free should be interesting for those wanting an introduction to Afrocentrism. In the UNESCO history seek the article on The Origins of Ancient Egyptians by Professor Cheikh Anta Diop.
Mr. Chimakaron suggests that African philosophers got it backward, first seeking Truth in their traditions and only later imitating the form and style of Professional philosophers in the mode of Western thinking. On the contrary, I think that their instincts were right. Traditions pass quickly, and it was good sense to focus on what might
be lost before they would be carved up by ‘critical’ thinkers. Additionally, it was better to seek their ancient knowledge before they became prejudiced by a career in Western academia where the rule of the wild is to publish or perish. It is this rule that has likely broken the back of the Humanities on politics of tenure. Another problem for Professional philosophers was that the early ‘traditional’ philosophies were unwritten. This will be addressed later.
In the next period, first a few, and then many African philosophers sought to break through the generalization of Africans as having the same philosophy and culture. Africans’ criticism makes perfect sense; the critical thought of one ethnic group is likely to be different from another. One first step to asserting that there was no common African philosophy was a study of Bantu philosophy which described how that society perceived the world. However, this study and those similar that followed were seen as folk philosophy and therefore not true critical thinking. While it
was not perfect, it was a step away from defining African philosophy as a whole counterpart to Western philosophy which is itself a composite of many kinds of philosophizing.
Following upon this a Kenyan philosopher Henry Oruka, beloved by many African philosophers, distinguished four trends in African philosophy: ethnophilosophy, philosophical sagacity, nationalistic-ideological philosophy, and professional philosophy. Later he would add two more literary/artistic (Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, etc.) and hermeneutic philosophy. I consider both
nationalistic-ideological and hermeneutic to be African versions of Western thought. In the case of the first, it was based on Marxism, Fabianism, ‘welfarism’, Social Democracy, or other forms of Western socialistic constructs. In the second, African hermeneutic thought follows Western phenomenology in seeking to create a special language to capture the true meanings of words. I will leave to the side the concept of artistic/literary philosophy for the moment because it is not a topic that I think will get to the crux of Western criticism of early African philosophy.
First Freedom from Generalizations of African Thought and Thinking
Two approaches began to break down ‘continent-wide’ generalizations of African philosophy, and African thinkers, Ethnophilosophy, and Philosophical Sagacity. These schools seek the heart of traditional African thought. The first defines/depicts traditional thinking in the context of individual ethnicities. As noted before the first example of ethnophilosophy was Bantu Philosophy by Placide Tempels, a
Franciscan missionary in the Congo. The basic Western criticism (from Wiki) of this was that it has been used to record the beliefs found in African cultures. Such an approach treats African philosophy as consisting in a set of shared beliefs, values, categories, and assumptions that are implicit in the language, practices, and beliefs of African cultures; in short, a uniquely African ethnic worldview. As such, professional philosophers see it as an item of communal property rather than an activity for the individual. Philosophy here is defined strictly as an activity for an individual not for a society or
culture. A Nigerian equivalent of this is that of E. J. Alagoa, who posits a philosophy based on traditional proverbs in his paper ‘An African Philosophy of History in the Oral Tradition.’
Philosophical Sagacity (again from Wiki) is a sort of individualist version of Ethnophilosophy, in which one records the beliefs of certain special members of a community. The premise here is that, although most societies demand some degree of conformity of belief and behavior from their members, a certain few of those members reach a particularly high level of knowledge and understanding of their cultures’ worldviews; such people are sages. In some cases, the sage goes beyond mere knowledge and understanding to reflection and questioning — these are those ‘wise men’ practicing’ philosophical sagacity. Critics of this approach note that not all reflection and questioning is philosophical; besides, if African philosophy were to be defined purely in terms of philosophic sagacity, then the thoughts of the sages could not be African philosophy, for they did not record them from other sages.This argument, that philosophy needs the written word was the last barrier to the existence of an African philosophy. Thus, the primary issue beneath the philosophical jargon is that the philosophy was not written down in books. Shortly, I will upend this criticism.
Shifting the Battlefield
Rather than to fight on each issue, I think it is useful to see how insular Professional philosophers are. I believe it is possible to controvert the two above criticisms even while using the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Rather than fight the issues on the same battlefield, I think to take the disqualifying qualities of African thought elsewhere and see if there is a difference of attitude and judgment by the IEP to other worlds of philosophical expression. I propose to see what the IEP says about ‘philosophical systems’ which also had significant periods of critical thinking based on an oral tradition before it was set down in writing. To demonstrate professional philosopher’s insularity, I will use Indian philosophy as the test case. The primary concepts of Indian and African philosophies are likely very different. However, the situational criteria used to reject African thought are similar to that existing in early Indian thought. The weighing criteria are twofold: a) an ethnic/cultural philosophy that b) is based on the oral transmission for centuries. The major difference between the two is that Indian oral philosophy was ultimately written down in Sanskrit several centuries after it supposed to have begun transmission from sage to sage. From the IEP on the Upanishads:
The Upanishads are ancient texts from India that were composed orally in Sanskrit between about 700 B.C.E., and 300 B.C.E. There are thirteen major Upanishads, many of which were likely composed by multiple authors and were comprised of a variety of styles. As part of a larger group of texts, known as the Vedas, the Upanishads were composed in a ritual context, yet they mark the beginning of a reasoned enquiry into a number of perennial philosophical questions concerning the nature of being, the nature of the self, the foundation of life, what happens to the self at the time of death, the good life, and ways of interacting with others. As such, the Upanishads are often considered to be the fountainhead of the subsequent rich and varied philosophical tradition in India.”
While not reflecting upon the content of ‘Indian philosophy’, India is considered to have had a ‘reasoned enquiry’ for centuries as its culture/society’ passed its substance (“number of perennial philosophical questions”) orally from sage to sage over centuries whereas Africa is not allowed to have either an Ethnophilosophy or a Philosophical Sagacity. Lack of written texts is seen as not disqualifying in the Indian milieu even as their oral versions were passed from teacher to student for hundreds of years. However, this ‘generosity ‘ is not allowed in the case of African oral tradition.
How is it possible that African sages carrying on a general philosophical orientation (such as materialism or idealism) for generations, going from griot to griot pass such concepts without changing meaning and thought from time to time in various milieu. To assume that in passing such thoughts from generation to generation, all griots were in perfect agreement is naive and assumes a unbroken argument among thinkers, something it is hard to imagine. A system of thought exists because there have been additions and subtractions. In this context, why wouldn’t many of Africana’s rejected works of ‘Philosophical Sagacity’, such as that of the Dogon Sage in the Francophone Conversations with Ogotemmeli, been modified by sages as they utilized their own ‘critical faculties.’ Assuming centuries of oral transmission of the questions of life in Dogon worldview, it is very hard not to imagine that sages changed aspects of it and over time disputed points with each other. In short,‘Indian philosophy’ seems to have been given a pass while it’s ‘African’ counterpart has not.
African Ethics, Igbo Morality, and Self Help Societies
Now back to African Ethics, in particular, that of the Igbo and how it provides grounding for self-help associations that are found so common in Igbo society.
There is an ironic situation at present about Igbos, morality, and self-help. While there are many internet articles by Igbos themselves bemoaning their moral flaws, there is at the same time a recognition by many ‘external’ people and institutions that there is something special about Igbos. As for the first assertion just enter ‘Igbo moral decline’ into Google and you will get pages and pages of complaints and societal self-criticism. However, when it comes to economic development projects in Igboland or an Igbo context, there are articles of praise. On example from Cambridge University Press (2005) notes the powerful impact that Igbos in the Diaspora have had on their home communities via contributions and support. Similarly, there are articles about Igbo Women and Economic Development (2006) in the period between 1900-1960 in Africa as found in The Journal of the International Africa Institute. There is an interesting article by Kate Meagher of the London School of Economics in an anthology on The Comparative Political Economy of Development in Africa and South Asia on Igbo popular associations. There are many similar articles on the Igbo self help mechanism in their economic development. So, I need not go further on either of these real trends. What is needed now is to determine in some way the grounding of this self-help reflex in Igbo people.
There are, in my opinion, four forces that drive Igbos to self-help:
First is the need for the development of moral personhood as described by Ifeanyi Menkiti, which is also covered in depth by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy under African Ethics. Secondly, there is the tendency for Igbos to take humanistic positions aside from what is in their spiritual tradition or their religion (now primarily Catholic). When faced with atheism in a globalized world they will choose humanistic approach because as C. Onyekere asserts in Atheism and Humanism in a Globalized World: The Igbo Experience, they are “heavily anthropocentric.”
Human life is the prime value, and everything is expected to serve its realization. Life is more important than other things especially wealth or riches.
A third factor is that even the drive for economic success is often facilitated through Igbo self-help and societies providing it. According to Zacchaeus Ogunnika in NonFormal Approaches to Ethnicity, An Interpretive Explanation of Nigerian’s Coping Mechanism, the historical success of Igbo auto parts traders in a Northern Nigerian city continues via resource pooling systems. However, there are many other examples or instances of this phenomena.
A fourth factor is the importance of self-help societies in the diaspora aiding the development of their home village/people through the contribution of funds and effort. A historical study by D. Van Den Bersselaar in a Cambridge University Press article entitled Imagining Home: Migration and the Igbo Village in Colonial Nigeria which speaks to the dynamic of this support.
This is an analysis of the sort of society Chinua Achebe describes in No Longer at Ease. However, this author would have done better by noting that this ‘imagining’ continues to this day as Igbos that have been decades in the US, continue to build large homes in their villages, and seek to contribute to their village’s development. Those that have been seen to have made a difference are rewarded with deserving titles. The struggle to be recognized for doing good to their fellow men is a driving principle of the Igbo if not the driving principle. The best of their society after many years of self sacrifice are awarded a title or titles and have for the duration of their lives a recognition that is the closest any Igbo can come to ‘kingship.’
Having validated that this phenomenon exists and that it is based on an existing ethical system, I think it is appropriate to go deeper into it’s ‘why‘ and, for this I will reference again, Ifeanyi Menkiti, who sets out its dynamic in a power point as early as 1984 called Person and Community in African Traditional Thought. In the title and some of the substance, he could be faulted for extending what are his Igbo views to the entire continent. There are famous African tribes that are zero sum not only with their neighbors but also internally.
Returning to the John Mbiti maxim: “I am because we are and because we are I am”, Menkiti makes two distinctions between Western and African views about personhood that are critical. First, in Western societies a person is an individual in ‘singleness’ with rights. The ‘singleness’ is stressed. I infer further that according to Western thought a man (or person in these times) is what he/her makes of himself independent of society and its mores.
This concept of individuality is an anathema to an African society for only through the society can one become a person. There is social effort in becoming a person; Menkiti terms this ‘processural’ personhood. According to Menkiti, it is an ontological process by which one becomes a person, through social and ritual transformation, through sacrifice that is beneficial to society. In Igboland, a great man is one that helps his village or group ‘get up’
As noted for all Igbos in a traditional setting (male or female), there are many titles that can be bestowed on them based on the benefits provided to their society. There are many institutions that provide opportunities such as age groups, women’s societies, and many others; it is, however, important to understand that titles do not come with power. While Western thought respects power inordinately, it is unlikely that Africans do, especially Igbos.
“Although title holders were respected because of their accomplishments and capabilities, they were never revered as kings, but often performed special functions given to them by such assemblies. This way of governing was immensely different from most other communities in Western Africa,” From the Igbo People, the Wiki.
These titles coming from often great personal sacrifices were part of the process establishing personhood, and each step was based on the acceptance of the community.
Menkiti goes forward: while Westerners have a ‘Minimal’ definition of a man (whatever has a soul and rationality) is a person, Africans have a ‘Maximal’ definition. By the African definition, personhood exists in society, and an individual could fail to become a person, which is, however, unlikely because of the continual intervention of the group in a person’s growing. Unlike Modern Western society which sees personhood at its most at the furthest liberation from societal strictures, in African personhood comes from strict adherence to social rules and taboos. The nature of ‘ontological progression’ means that one becomes more of a person as they age, therefore, the greater respect in governance given to the elders whether male or female. Menkiti sees a similarity between African personhood and John Rawls concept of justice where a person deserves the duty of justice in his community only by possessing the ability to act by that community’s understanding of justice.
So if we see the whole, where there is first and foremost a commitment to the community at its most basic level, with those with whom one lives out their lives, and that there is in addition an ingrained humanistic tendency based in part on the many incentives to provide fellow members with benefits, it is not unexpected that the Igbo develop self-help societies of one form or another wherever they live.
This includes Austin where as an example Igbo people having an Enugu (former capital of Eastern Nigeria) background have developed a self-help society of which my family is a part. However rather than seeing these groups workings in terms of the benefits one might accrue personally, I would say that these societies access many of the little miracles existing in our lives. The Igbo focus on helping each other is one. That and its real democratic basis where there is no king to set the rules, and the limits of Federalism are avoided by direct democracy, or perhaps the closest humans might get to it, the potential for human dignity is great. When there are so many little miracles, a great society is built not on power or lucre but on love extended to each other.