Certaines notions philosophiques dans leur splendeur paraissent s’imposer à tous en Afrique. C’est ainsi que la réalité, l’existence, l’objet, la substance, la qualité, la punition… semblent avoir une extension presque universelle. Il est question pour l’auteur de contextualiser ces notions et de décoloniser mentalement les Africains qui les utilisent sans en tirer des conséquences historiques.
The controversy about how best to do African philosophy has now gone at least three decades. That controversy is sometimes misconstrued to be about whether there is such a thing as philosophical thinking among Africans as a people. The absurdity of this latter question should be apparent at least to Africans. Ignorance, due perhaps to geographical distance or racist conceits, may have engendered such questioning in some foreign minds. But any African of the slightest philosophical sensitivity, raised within an African culture, must be aware, at least, of the wealth of philosophical apothegms in our folklore  One can, of course, say much more, as should be apparent.... These emanate not from the void but from the brains of individual thinkers. Thus the existence of philosophy in our traditional culture is a given  Because of his criticism of ethnophilosophy, it is.... What is open to debate is the African tradition of philosophy in our era. That tradition is undoubtedly still in the making, owing to well-known historical ruptures in the African experience. A basic imperative of that process is the need to work out a synthesis of insights from our traditional philosophies with any we can get from modern resources of knowledge and reflection. The extent to which the phrase « African philosophy », in analogy with the semantics of such designations everywhere, appropriates that synthesis as its referent in our time will be a measure of our success in that effort of reconstruction. This is what is meant by saying that African philosophy is still in the making.
Given the foregoing, the importance of methodological reflection in contemporary African philosophy should go without saying. Methodological controversies are, in any case, unavoidable in philosophy. In contemporary African philosophy there are reasons additional to the one just cited for this kind of methodological cogitation. Colonialism has caused a widespread involuntary intermixing of Western and African intellectual categories in the thinking of contemporary Africans. Common sense alone dictates that we Africans of the immediate post-independence era should try to unravel the conceptual entanglements. We should then be in a position to view our own philosophic inheritance in its true lineaments. But, of course philosophy takes, or should take, nothing, or nearly nothing, for granted ; and the rational approach to that heritage must be that of critical reconstruction. Regarding the elements of foreign philosophic thought with which our colonial history and contemporary experience have brought us into contact the need for a critical spirit should be doubly obvious. It is only by this approach that a contemporary African can construct a philosophy suited to present-day existence.
Without prejudice to the supreme importance of philosophical self-identity and self-knowledge  On this see Kwasi Wiredu « Problems in Africa’s Self-Definition..., it is worth repeating that in this project there is no assumption that what comes from Africa is necessarily true, sound, profound et cetera. Much less, of course, should there be an over-valuation of what comes from the West. In fact, however, exactly such an overvaluation, at an apparently semi-conscious level, is the hallmark of that infelicity of the mind called the colonial mentality that still afflicts us in African philosophy and other areas of African intellectual life. The cure for that mental condition, however, does not require the disavowal of all foreign sources of possible edification. It seems to me likely that any African synthesis for modern living will include indigenous and Western elements, as well, perhaps, as some from the East. There are good reasons for such catholicity. The Christians say that God works in mysterious ways. He presumably also (if he exists) works in a reasonably even-handed way in his distribution of wisdom and folly (philosophic or otherwise) among all the peoples of the world; so that we might expect philosophical insights and errors to occur in the various cultures in roughly the same proportions.
But how are Africans in the contemporary world to set about the project of exploiting the resources of philosophy available to them from their own and other cultures ? This question has a special urgency because of our historically peculiar situation. Intellectually, we are brought up in Western-style educational institutions. What we learn in these institutions both in philosophy and general knowledge comes mostly from Western sources. More significantly still, our philosophical researches and results are propagated in one Western language or another. And to cap it all, many of us are up to the neck in Western religious and metaphysical assumptions. Given all this, the question naturally arises in what sense we may call any philosophies emerging from such an intellectual milieu African and to what extent such philosophies can be useful to a post-colonial Africa sensitive to questions of her own identity. The concerns just hinted at are present in the deceptively simple question : « What is African philosophy ? » Viewed in this way, it is obvious that the question calls for both a descriptive and a normative treatment. It is obvious too that the passing of three decades or so has not diminished the importance of the question. Yet it is becoming a fashion for some African philosophers to deprecate the controversy precipitated by those concerns. It seems to be suggested that the whole thing has been a waste of time.
This view of the matter seems to arise from the misperception of what has been going on to which allusion was made at the start of this discussion. The misapprehension, that is to say, is thanks to the supposition that the main issue has been whether there is anything called African philosophy. Contrary to this, the real issue concerns the right way of conceiving and advancing African philosophy in our time. What has happened is that some African philosophers have interpreted the suggestions of other African philosophers regarding the right way of conceiving and doing African philosophy as amounting to denying that there is anything like African philosophy ! More radical misunderstandings among philosophers in various parts of the world are not unknown, and only time will tell whether these particular misunderstandings in African philosophy will not wither away, desiccated by their own disutility. At all events, one thing is clear : One cannot cause them to evaporate by simply calling a halt to the discussion. I am not, however, to be understood to be suggesting that the methodological soul-searching in question should be the main concern of African philosophers. Two decades ago I commented that « The search for the correct conception of African philosophy is part of the post-colonial African quest for identity. But it is necessary at this stage to balance this concern with Meta-African Philosophy with a readiness to get along with the task itself of modern philosophical thinking ; that is the only way in which the establishment of a modern African philosophical tradition can be advanced »  Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture, Cambridge....
But suppose that luck is on our side, and the foregoing is clearly understood. Still it would be necessary for us to learn to distinguish, at least conceptually, between the question of what African philosophy is and what it ought to be. A confusion of the two issues has generated a lot of passion that might have been directed towards more useful enterprises. With the best descriptive criteria for what African philosophy actually is, that reality may still be worthless, incapable of helping Africa to master the arts of modern living and holding her own in the comity or (to be closer to the facts) in the competition of cultures. The quest, then, is not just for African philosophy, but for good African philosophy, and I regard what I call conceptual decolonization as a precondition of that objective.
To define conceptual decolonization is easy enough. It is the elimination from our thought of modes of conceptualization that came to us through colonization and remain in our thinking owing to inertia rather than to our own reflective choices. But this is easier said than done. One reason is connected with the fact, noted above, that African philosophy, both in gestation and dissemination, is done mostly in Western languages. Languages (in their natural groupings) carry their own kinds of philosophical suggestiveness, which foreign as well as native speakers are apt to take for granted. If, by virtue of a colonial history, you are trained right from the beginning in a foreign language and initiated thereby into the professing of philosophy, then certain basic ways of thought that seem natural to native speakers might become natural to you too. Consequently, you might not even realize that those ways of thinking may not be all that natural or, if your own language is radically different, even coherent from the standpoint of your own language. This means that you might not even be aware of the likely neo-colonial aspects of your conceptual framework. This is one of the greatest impediments to conceptual decolonization in African philosophy.
The main antidote to that impediment, as far as I can see, is for African philosophers to try to think philosophically in their own vernaculars, even if they still have to expound their results in some Western language. That sounds simple, but it is not. In philosophy exclusive training in a foreign language severely disinclines you from that experiment. Contrary to what one might, perhaps have expected, the disinclination to think in one’s own vernacular in philosophical meditation may be as equally operative in an African philosopher’s treatment of specifically African topics as in it is in regard to issues emerging in Western philosophy. This is not only because of the constraints of the medium of exposition but also because of the historical fact that in many parts of Africa the first accounts of African thought were written by Western scholars. Not, surprisingly, those authors saw the African thought materials through their own Western conceptual lenses. The resulting texts, emanating originally mostly from the disciplines of anthropology and religious studies, were, until recently, the main fare upon which African students of African thought were brought up.
However, as I have acknowledged or even insisted in previous publications, the influence of language on philosophical thinking is not irreversibly deterministic, and it is possible for philosophers, if need be, to resist the suggestiveness of even their own languages or at least to become reflectively aware of it. If they can do this with respect to their own vernaculars, they can do it with respect to any second language in which they may have occasion to philosophize, even if by dint of historical colonization. This is possible because of the self-reflexivity of natural language. When the grammar of a language, for example, is studied in the same language, that language becomes its own metalanguage. In this kind of metatheoretic situation not only grammatical reflections can be ventured; metaphysical and other types of comments too are possible. Thus, for example, when Russell comments that the subject-predicate syntax of the English language has misled English speaking metaphysicians into the ontological fantasy of substance (as that which has independent existence) and attribute (as that which has only a dependent existence)  See Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy..., this philosophical exorcism of his own vernacular, though starting with grammar, goes far beyond it.
Whether Russell is right or wrong in his specific example, it is because human beings can, so to speak, step aside from language, or figuratively be in two places at the same time, namely, both within and above a language, that we are not prisoners to language. It is that same capacity that makes it possible for people from different cultures to hold philosophical conversations. And if they can converse, they can converge. It is said that familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps so ; but it breeds understanding too. Moreover, it is the only thing that can breed understanding. As human beings of different cultures interact more and more and become more and more familiar with each others’ languages and philosophies, with any fallacies of racial superiority dropped, one can expect that there will be increasing cross-appropriation, and consequently, cross-fertilization of ideas ; so that cultural difference will become more and more unreliable as an index to philosophical difference. This is not, of course, to predict that everybody will agree with everybody. That does not invariably happen even within the same culture or, still more strikingly, within the same school of thought in the same culture. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the multiplicity of languages need not become a biblical Babel in philosophy or anywhere else.
The resort to language in the program of conceptual decolonization in African philosophy, then, is not a resort to an eternal source of difference. That program is primarily a remedy for what, hopefully, is a temporary disorder, namely, a hangover from colonialism. In any case, African philosophy will also have to habitually interrogate reality directly. Or, perhaps, the matter should be put this way : we should also be in the habit of responding directly to the questions that reality asks of us, for it may be that it is reality that interrogates us rather than we who interrogate reality. Be that as it may, it should be noted that although primarily a temporary expedient, the program of decolonization in African philosophy does have some permanent aspects with an African as well as a trans-African significance.
To take the African angle first : recall the fact that much in the situation in African philosophy that calls for a decolonizing reversal is due to the superimposition of Western intellectual categories on African thought elements. To remove the colonial encrustation is to bring oneself to a vantage point for viewing the African thought materials in their true light, as we have already noted. Again, this need not necessarily reveal the given bit of thought as a beam of light. It may reveal, on the contrary, the necessity for emendation, reconstruction or, to adapt a contemporary cliché, dé-construction. It does not matter which way it goes. What matters is that the exercise would be apt to inculcate or reinforce the habit of conceptual self-examination. Since the conceptions under reference here would be the kinds that go to constitute the foundations of a worldview, the self-examination involved is exactly the kind of intellectual activity that is the mainstay of philosophical thinking. Conceptual decolonization, then, becomes an aid to the probing of perennial issues that must continue after the eventual obsolescence of the anti-colonial motivation.
Drawing on an earlier paper of mine, I would like to give here a partial list of the kinds of concepts I have in mind : The list goes as follows.
Reality, being, Existence, Object, Entity, Substance, Property, Quality; Truth, Fact, Opinion, Belief, Knowledge, Faith, Doubt, Certainty; Statement, Proposition, Sentence, Idea ; Mind, Soul, Spirit, Thought, Sensation, Matter, Ego, Self, Person, Individuality, Community; Subjectivity, Objectivity ; Cause, Chance ; Reason, Explanation, Meaning ; Freedom, Responsibility, Punishment, Democracy, Justice ; God, World, Universe, Nature, Supernature ; Space, Time, Nothingness, Creation ; Life, Death, Afterlife, Morality, Religion  Kwasi Wiredu, « The Need for Conceptual Decolonization....
Regarding almost all these concepts, I have argued in various places  In addition to the last endnote see also Kwasi Wiredu,... that there are striking differences between them and their supposititious equivalents in the conceptual framework of my own people, namely, the Akans of Ghana, and have tried, with varying degrees of elaboration, to elucidate them in their natural setting. (My hope has always been that other Africans will do analogous experiments and compare their notes with mine.) Since the differences pointed out in those discussions indicate conceptual options alternative to some well-known Western ones, they should suggest to any Western thinkers, not originally given to critical curiosity about the viability of some of their most fundamental modes of conceptualization, the need for a critical reviewing of those thought structures, even if it only leads to their reaffirmation with renewed confidence. Whether it does so or not, the heightened conceptual self-consciousness would be a valuable by-product of the decolonizing discourse that evoked the reassessment. This, then, is one way in which conceptual decolonization in African philosophy could be a catalyst to critical comparative philosophy of a trans-African scope and a post-colonial perdurance.
After these somewhat abstract ruminations let me give a brief concrete illustration of some attempts at decolonized thinking in my own personal history. The first time I ever used the phrase « conceptual decolonization » was in 1980 in my paper « Teaching and Research in African Philosophy : Some Suggestions » which was presented at the UNESCO conference on « Teaching and Research in Philosophy in Africa » held in Nairobi in June 1980  Later published in the UNESCO volume Teaching and Research.... The original subtitle was « Some Suggestions Towards Conceptual Decolonization », but, this not being an age of long titles, I abridged it to simply « Some Suggestions », though the contents were explicitly about conceptual decolonization.
If I might insert an anecdote in an anecdote, I would like to recall that soon after the Nairobi conference I paid a short visit to Nigeria. On my way back to Ghana, I had a long period of enforced leisure at Lagos airport. Seeking some reading matter to lighten the boredom, I went on a spree of window-shopping at the magazine stores at the airport. I had almost exhausted all the available possibilities when, lo and behold, my attention was caught by a book on intellectual decolonization ! There, just fallen off the press, was Toward the Decolonization of African Literature by Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie and Ihechukwu (Enugu, Nigeria : Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1980). Needless to say, the waiting period became much more bearable than I could possibly have anticipated. The book is an extremely well-written critique of the impact of certain Western literary interventions on the canons of criticism in African literature. Although, along the way, the authors express certain notions and manifest toward some African literary figures certain antipathies to which one need not necessarily resonate, for one fresh from a decolonizing effort in another sector of African intellectual life the very idea of decolonization in this work was heart-warming enough. Later, in the middle eighties, Ngugi wa Thiong’o added his voice to the campaign of intellectual decolonization in his magisterial Decolonizing the Mind (Portsmouth N. H : Heinemann, 1986.) It is difficult, in this connection, not to suspect that perhaps the need for decolonization has occurred to scholars and writers in African literature more readily than in African philosophy.
But let us return to the brief sketch of the history of my efforts at conceptual decolonization. Of the topics I selected for attention in my 1980 Nairobi address on conceptual decolonization in African philosophy, I would like here to focus on the question of the nature of the mind. Some months before writing that paper, I had made a presentation on « Body, Mind and Spirit in Akan Thought »  This later evolved into the article entitled « The... to the Philosophy Colloquium at the University of California, Los Angeles, where I was a visiting professor for the 1979-80 academic year. Working on that paper had caused me to engage in long introspections into the history of my own thinking about the nature of mind. Ever since I was introduced, as an undergraduate, to Descartes’ philosophy of mind, I had thought hard about his dualism, but had never ceased to be puzzled about how he, or anybody else, could find that doctrine to be of any elementary plausibility. I had been highly impressed with Descartes’ clarity ; and although I thought his argument (via his methodological skepticism) for the conclusion that the ego is a spiritual substance was fallacious, that was not what puzzled me. After all, the conclusion of an invalid argument might still be coherent, even possibly true. The problem was that the notion of mind as a kind of substance had always sounded to me like veritable gibberish. Then, suddenly, in the midst of my California meditations on the mind, something struck me like thunder : It dawned on me that I must all the time have been thinking of mind in Akan linguistic terms.
As I explained at the colloquium in question, by my understanding of Akan thought  My dear friend and compatriot Kwame Gyekye has a decidedly..., what has any chance in the Akan language of approximating to what in English is called mind is adwene. This is categorially distinct from anything that might conceivably be called an entity, let alone a spiritual entity. One might say, perhaps (subject to a lot of explanation into which we cannot enter here), that the Akan analogue of the concept of spirit appertains to certain aspects of human personality (called okra and sunsum) which are not completely « physical ». But only an undiscriminating commingling of Akan and Cartesian concepts could lead one to identify any of those Akan postulations as to the constituents of human personality with the mind. It is plain, on the contrary, that even in pre-analytic Akan discourse, far from the adwene being an entity, it is a capacity dependent on the functioning of the brain (amene in Akan). Once I realized the Akan provenance of my own manner of thinking about mind, I immediately began to have the sense of beginning to understand myself! Why, if mind, in my mind, is a capacity, then no wonder it sounds so incoherent to me to be told that it is some kind of substance. But why this delay in self-understanding ? The cause, of course, was a colonized institutional education.
However, decolonization is no manner of an apotheosis of vernacular usage, and I did not take this revelation of my Akan predispositions in the semantics of mind as a proof of truth or validity. On the contrary, in the presentation in question (and more at length subsequently in « The Concept of Mind with Particular Reference to the Language and Thought of the Akans ») I gave an independent argument against the concept of mind as a substance  See especially p. 164-165 of the reprint in Guttorm.... In spite of this, incidentally, by a mysterious obliviousness to the printed page, some critics of the article have gravely declared that all I was doing was saying that Cartesian dualism won’t do because we Akans don’t speak that way ! In fact, in addition to the Akan data, I gave an argument that was independent in the sense already explained, namely, that it did not depend on the peculiarities of the Akan language.
Actually, what I take to be the Akan concept of mind has some affinities (though not an equivalence) with the contemporary, computer-inspired, theory of mind in Anglo-American philosophy called functionalism. This theory does not conceive of mind as a kind of entity. Rather it views mind as that pattern of inputs (stimuli), internal changes (modifications of « mental » state), and outputs (behavior, verbal or otherwise) that are displayed by the kinds of beings capable of such things as playing, planning, proving theorems, propounding fallacies, participating in conferences and so on. An even more interesting affinity is that, it follows from the functionalist thesis that the question of the nature of mind is categorially distinct from that of the existence of spirit. This is exactly the same conceptual situation as that which obtains in the Akan conception, as I interpret it. Whether there are spirits or not, and, if there are, whether they are intelligent or not, is not an issue on which functionalism has a necessary implication. Functionalism implies only that if there are spirits, and if they are capable of thinking, then they will have to exhibit the appropriate pattern of inputs, internal changes and outputs. Not all functionalists have all the clarity that could be desired on this point, but what has just been explained is the reason why it makes basic sense to say, as is sometimes done, that functionalism is not necessarily materialistic. The theory may be joined to materialism  In Western philosophy the confusion of the theory of..., depending on the ontological persuasion of the advocate concerned. But, conceivably, it may be woven into a spiritualistic or spiritistic framework. In itself, functionalism is simply a theory of the meaning of the concept of mind. Seen in this light, it is arguably a basically sound theory, though I do not pretend to give the arguments here  A beautiful, reader-friendly, elementary account of....
However, functionalism is not, and cannot be a theory of the basis of the human mind. Such a theory must answer the question : « What are the empirical conditions for the possibility of those input-internal-change-and-output patterns called the human mind ? » Of course, nothing prevents a functionalist from considering the brain as the sole basis of mind, as I think Akan discourse suggests the Akans do. It is, moreover, at this empirical level of the inquiry about mind, rather than at the level of the elucidation of the concept of mind that the question of the nature of sensitive states arises. Functionalism is pertinent to the second level not the first. Yet the problem of « qualia » that has terrorized the minds of some functionalists belongs to the first, not the second level. The problem of « qualia » arises from the alleged possibility that on the basis of different qualitative experiences different persons might nevertheless make the same linguistic identifications. The point, however, is that if the individuals concerned can make any linguistic identification at all, they have minds, on the functionalist definition. But whether they can make the same linguistic identifications in the circumstances imagined is a question that, if intelligible, concerns the nature of perceptual sensitivity rather than what it means to have a mind. Kindred considerations also suggests, I think, that the Identity Theory, the theory that mental states are identical with brain states, could, with but slight adjustments, acquire considerable merits, if proffered as a contribution to the investigation of the basis of mind. Seen in this light, the Identity Theory would not, as is so generally supposed, conflict with functionalism, since the two theories would be pertinent to different provinces of the problem of the human mind. In my opinion Western philosophies of mind are frequently bedeviled with paradoxes and conundrums arising from a conflation of the two aspects of the problem of mind just discriminated  Further on the complexity of « the problem of mind....
This brief excursion into the philosophy of mind and into the psychological history of my own struggles in that field illustrates, I hope, certain features of the program of conceptual decolonization in African philosophy. Sensitivity, on the part of an African philosopher, to the speculative intimations of vernacular conceptual frameworks does not come readily. This due to the circumstance that our minds have been institutionally soaked in Western modes of philosophical thinking, which is something that happened to some of us during training in colonial times and is still happening to our younger African colleagues and students by contagion. As it is, sensitivity to our own indigenous conceptual frameworks may come only after protracted linguistic introspection. But it can come ; and it can, moreover, be revealing. Of course, in itself, such self-knowledge has no necessary probative force, philosophically; which is where the need for independent argumentation comes into the picture. Such argumentation is what creates the possibilities of cross-cultural applications. As the hints in the last paragraph give us reason to think, such applications may very well bring enlightening perspectives on some subtle problems in those traditions of Western philosophy with which the accidents of history have intermixed our philosophical concerns. Moreover, I doubt not but that in any extended discussion of the Akan conception of mind from a multicultural standpoint one could give profuse indications of how that conception could profit from the integration of some data from Western sources.
To be added to these last remarks is the following caveat. Comparisons of conceptions in an African traditional philosophy with Western philosophical ideas ought not to construe the latter in a blanket a manner, for the Western tradition contains a great multiplicity of incompatible doctrinal and methodological persuasions. Indeed, somewhat of the same circumspection is demanded with reference to a traditional philosophy. True, it might be legitimate to speak of the communal philosophy of a traditional society in a fairly unified sense. But it is important to bear in mind that such a system of ideas does not necessarily represent the thinking of all the members of the given society, let alone of all its thinkers, being itself a kind of informal precis of the thoughts of past and present individuals.
I have restricted myself in this discussion to issues of decolonization in which language plays a direct role. But, most assuredly, not all issues of conceptual decolonization are of that character. In the political field, for instance, neo-colonial complications arise more directly from organizational practices than linguistic factors, although the latter can never be altogether discounted. (See, for example, « Democracy and Consensus : A Plea for a Non-Party Polity. »)  Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars :... In the religious field religion, language and custom are implicated in about equal measures. (See « Custom and Morality : A comparative Analysis of Some African and Western Conceptions of Morals. »)  Ibid., chap. 6. But in all cases the kind of decolonization under discussion is a process of intellectual liberation bearing the potential of enlightenment far beyond the confines of one culture.