The tensions between John Mbiti’s African Religions and Philosophy and Henry Odera Oruka’s Mythologies as African Philosophy speak to the greater divide between ethnophilosophy and sagacious reasoning. The former is the practice of discussing the belief systems of particular African communities or the continent as whole, therefore placing greater emphasis on collective thought than the self. The latter movement rebukes this homogeneity in favor of rational, logical, and individual thought. Oruka critiques Mbiti’s subscription to ethnophilosophy because he believes doing so mistakenly merges mythology with philosophy, an injurious practice to the advancement and development of Africa. Oruka believes that true value lies in the voices of individual philosophers converging in conversation, and mistaking traditional beliefs for philosophy focuses too much on the past and present while obstructing the future of Africa. Both trends in African philosophy have had far-reaching ramifications in terms of how Africa has been globally perceived, and the philosophers’ differing opinions seem to stem from their target audiences and their estimation of Western opinion.
Significant differences become apparent in each philosophers’ definition of philosophy. Mbiti begins his essay by stating that “Africans are notoriously religious.” (Mbiti 1) This plurality plants the idea of collective African thought, an idea that he maintains throughout his text. He formally defines African philosophy as “the understanding, attitude of mind, logic and perception behind the manner in which African peoples think, act or speak in different situations of life.” (Mbiti 2) To tap this African philosophy, one need only study religion because it is “ultimately a study of the people themselves… Religion exerts probably the greatest influence upon the thinking and living of the people concerned.” (Mbiti 1) Thus, Mbiti both equates traditional religions and popular opinion with African philosophy and prioritizes communal thought over the individual. In considering this stance, questions of audience arise. ‘Notoriously’, a pejorative term, hints at a comparison between African peoples and the West. Mbiti does not seem to be addressing African peoples, who might vigorously agree or disagree with such a broad assertion. Instead, he seems to be addressing an audience that might thoughtlessly accept such a declarative statement as fact: Western readers. Though religion as the backbone of culture cannot be discounted, it does not have any specific place in conversations on African philosophy and cannot wholly replace individual African philosophers. Further, Mbiti criticizes African traditional religions by saying, “traditional religions and philosophies are concerned with man in past and present time.” (Mbiti 5) Interestingly, Mbiti’s implicit critique of traditional religions and philosophies is exactly what Oruka believes is wrong with ethnophilosophy in general; ethno-philosophers dissect the past and present while ignoring the future.
Oruka defines philosophy as “thoughts or reflections” that “analyze concepts rationally and with a critical exposition of problems involved.” (Oruka 26) Namely, however, Oruka believes that philosophy is not when “what in all cases is a mythology is paraded as ‘African philosophy’.” (Oruka 23) This distinction is especially critical to Oruka because accepting popular opinion as African philosophy,
“justif[ies] the conditions under which such a people exists… but in Africa today the main concern is for the people to get out of the prevailing social conditions, for these conditions harbour the evils of colonialism and neo-colonialism. They are obstacles to freedom.” (Oruka 32)
So not only does ethnophilosophy cheapen African philosophy, it essentially throws flowers on the shackles of the African people; Oruka maintains that this definition of philosophy is one that keeps Africans chained to their past and present. Oruka criticizes philosophers like Mbiti who work to impress European audiences by over-elevating African traditions. Oruka does not wholly discount mythology, conceding that mythologies are indeed “the mythological moral system, cosmology and history that explain to a people their moral collective-ness, worldview and historical destiny.” (Oruka 27) Oruka does, however, take exception to the emphasis some philosophers place on oral mythologies and traditions because such beliefs allow little room for critical analysis and debate while altogether failing to address the multitude of problems facing the continent. To Oruka, anonymizing African philosophy casts doubt on the African’s ability to think independently, promoting a philosophy without philosophers. In the words of Toni Morrison, “the function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.” Oruka would most likely agree that ethnophilosophy has had a similar effect on the progress of Africa in that trying to “prove” our worth to Western audiences only distracts from the issues at hand.
Outside of philosophy, Mbiti and Oruka’s texts hold contemporary significance. As Oruka astutely points out,
“What may be a superstition is paraded as ‘African religion’, and the white world is expected to endorse that it is indeed a religion but an African religion. What in all cases is a mythology is paraded as ‘African philosophy’ and again the white culture is awaited to endorse that it is indeed a philosophy, but an African philosophy… ” (Oruka 23)
When considering the definition of philosophy and its place in African society, it is important to note that the word seems to command a different reaction when used in a Western versus an African context. ‘Philosophy’, in a Western context, calls to mind serious discussion, rigorous research, and collaboration between several different Western philosophers. This order seems to fall apart when philosophy is studied in an African context. Suddenly, philosophy becomes a seemingly random and fluid project undertaken by the populus, sparsely discussed, and passively adopted by every African on the continent as their “collective thought”. The Western itch to consolidate African thought into one easy pill to swallow is exactly the one Oruka resists. Oruka asserts, “ what people like Tempels, Mbiti and Lugira are parading as African philosophy passes as philosophy only because the adjective African is before it: In the ‘dark continent’ everything can be upside down.” (Oruka 32-33) African philosophy would never pass as true philosophy in the West, and Oruka finds conforming to such low standards unacceptable. The unanimity in Mbiti’s definition is most concerning because of its erasure of any possibility of African agency and individual philosophies. Creating a new philosophy, one that lends weight to the opinion of African philosophers, is the only way to propel Africa into the future.
While ethnophilosophy propagates an orderly, aggregate African thought, Oruka suggests that to truly speak of African philosophy we must free it from its Western narrative and create our own. We must abandon the collective and open the floor to individual, conflicting African philosophers. Until a clear distinction is made between mythology, religion, and philosophy, we can only hope to discuss an imitation of African philosophy.
Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophies . N.Y., Doubleday, 1970.
Oruka, H. Odera., et al. Sagacious Reasoning: Henry Odera Oruka in Memoriam . Pgs. 23-34, P. Lang, 1997.