The Problem of Rationality in the History of African Philosophy

The Problem of Rationality in the History of African Philosophy


The discourse on problem of rationality in African Philosophy has been associated historically with two related happenings: Western discourse in Africa and the African response to it . The Western discourse had come in form of such notorious proclamations and claims as “reason is Greek”, “emotion is African”, which meant to them that Africans are not rational . Yet to some, it further meant that African beliefs are neither rational nor irrational because the categories of rationality just do not apply to them . For another set like the postmodernists, the concept of rationality does not apply to Africa, since the concept is a contested one that presupposes a language game with its complete rules that do not apply across languages and cultures; African was supposedly one of such languages and cultures. This according to Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka can be described as hyperbolic weapons that were figured in the heat of contestation.

The African response has come in different forms and dimensions, with the African nationalists, postcolonial African leaders, pan-Africanists, scholars, writers and traditionalist in the fore front. The response has sought to reafricanize the ‘natives’, to strip them of the alienations of Western modernity that had as it were, made them a people with no identity and hope, and to force them to return to the ‘authentic’ and pristine values of a pre-colonial past. They have sought to disprove what Paul Tiyambe calls the Western excessive rationality that has portrayed their image as that of rational excellence, and to free Africans from its materialism, moral decadence and lifelessness; alienation from nature and propensity for destructiveness. This has formed the basis for the rationality debate.

The rationality problem is therefore the problem of how to determine the place and status of Africa and African knowledge in the great debate on the concept of reason. It is the question of critically analyzing the conceptual issues, implied in the distinction between the civilized and the uncivilized, the logical and the pre-logical or mystical. It suffices to say that Africa today has been greatly determined by this distinction.

However, the writer believes that the Africans’ responses and demonstrations of rationality has not really debunked or disproved completely such classification of Africans as prelogical, instead, further justified the classification and claims. The major focus of this paper would be to seek various ways, if any that Africa can in this twenty first century demonstrate rationality.

The Emergence of a Dominant Rationality
The rationality debate or problem is understood as the theoretical and practical dimensions depicting the individual’s role and impact in the shaping of one’s identity and destiny, and control of history and other cultural values. It is the estimation of the basis and merits of cultural norms and the clarification of the supremacy of contending images of man. The debate evolved as claims and counter-claims, justifications and alienations, passed between the two camps: western and non-western . To a large extent, the debate about African philosophy can be summarized as a significant contribution to the discussion and definition of reason or what Hegel called the Reason. Indeed, it is commonly referred to as the “rationality debate”.

Defining Rationality
The question of how to define the criteria of rationality has become a central theme in Anglophone philosophy. It has occupied debates among social anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers of science. On one side are the foundationalists who argue that formal rational procedures are the defining feature of science, which supersedes common sense and is universal. On one side of the divide are the pluralists, who argue in favour of the diversity of human experience and systems of representation. Most African cultural relativists fall under the later category, predicated on their conception of culture as a people’s experience and ways of life. Given that different people would have divers and sometimes unrelated experiences, it is believed that their attitudes towards life and issues of life would also differ, and this according to them, cannot be overlooked in adjudging a people’s rationality.

The origin of the English word “rational” is the Latin word “ratio” which can be translated as “reason” in English. A rational action or belief going by this is one, which is reasonable, the one concerning only good reasons for acceptance . This being the case, we can say then that a rational action is one that has a reason, after all being reasonable means to have a reason, in most cases good reasons. Since an action is rational when it is reasonable, it follows that if a reasonable action is that which make sense, and then a rational action will also be that which makes sense. In other words, it is the power resident in human beings enabling them to make discrimination concerning reality which aids greatly any process decision making and rational judgment. We could have or lack reasons for upholding any particular belief; we act rationally when we maintain consistent beliefs, and irrationally when we don’t. To a large extent this determines our actions.

It can also be held that the availability of evidence supporting our beliefs also forms a basis to adjudge rationality. These beliefs in themselves have no element of rationality and this implies that their rationality is determined externally. However, this can constitute some problems, as much as it proves its relativity. One of such problems is evident in Gordon Reddiford’s conception of rationality as consistency of beliefs with actions. According to him,

…The way in which we come to hold our beliefs, in our attitudes to the evidence for example, and further to the procedures we adopt in maintaining or rejecting them. Thus to ascribe rationality is to comment on our success or failure in continuing to subject them to scrutiny in attempting to maintaining consistency particularly when we express our beliefs in action .

This position poses a serious moral problem; that of justifying as rational, an immoral belief which is expressed consistently in actions. Would Reddiford adjudge as rational Hitler’s killing of the Jews predicated on the belief that they are Chicken? Or does a mere consistency between a reason and an action make that action and belief rational or good? The problems associated with the definition of ‘good’ would cause a rather quick abandonment of such definitions of rationality; they are rather sophistry than normative.

Another Western scholar Steven Lukes, identifies criteria which a set of beliefs has to satisfy for them to be adjudged rational. Among these are that; (i) such systems are logical, that is consistent and admit no contradiction (ii) they are not wholly or partially false, (iii) not nonsensical (iv) not situationally specific or ad hoc, enduring just for a very short time that is must be universalisable . Among all the criteria listed above, the criterion of logicality stands out. For if a belief is illogical one can rightly infer that it is nonsensical, partially or wholly false, and inconsistent. The criteria of logicality was first formulated by Aristotle, as Sogolo opines,

Aristotle was the first philosopher to systematize all forms of positive thinking about thought the result of which was the invention of formal logic .

Since the formulation of formal logic by Aristotle, it has remained indispensable for correct thinking and thus has been described as the systematic formulation of instinctive logic of common sense . The fundamental laws in formal logic as formulated by Aristotle are (i) the law of identity which simply states that a thing is equal or identical with itself (A equal A) (ii) the law of contradiction. Strictly speaking, it is a negative formulation of the first law. The law of contradiction states, that a thing cannot be unequal to or different from itself; (A is not none-A) (iii) the law of excluded middle. This particular law of formal logic combines the first and the second. It states that if a thing is equal to itself, it cannot be unequal to or different from itself (if A equal A, it cannot be equal non-A)

The formulation of the Aristotelian logic was meant to serve as a standard, a yardstick for adjudging the intelligibility or otherwise of a thought system, and therefore normative. Scholars of different ages, like Evans Pritchard, Martin Hollis, Steve Lukes, etc, felt the inclination to insist that for any form of thought or action to be adjudged intelligible or rational, it has to conform to the rules of formal logic. That therefore meant to them that any thought system that seems contrary to this formulation is irrational. This was the mission that Bruhl set out to execute in his bifurcation of societies.

The Bruhlian Socio-cognitive Bifurcationism

The image of the ‘scientific society’ set out to be projected by the intellectual school pioneered by Tylor and other sociologists such as Levy Bruhl, as well as Evan Pritchard, Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes, is that of rational excellence; the very paradigm of institutionalized rationality. It is on this Eurocentric posture that Levy Bruhl bifurcated of the human society into two categories: those of a ‘primitive mentality’ and those with a ‘civilized mentality’. Africa by this classification falls under the former category. Levy Bruhl describes a ‘pre-logical thought’ as one that is unscientific, uncritical and contains evident contradictions. People with such thought differ not in degree but in quality from those with logical mind.

The pre-logical mentality connotes that the Africans are not a race different from the animals. This speculation about the Africans as inferior and savages was intertextually entrenched within the universal discourse of the French, British and German enlightenment thinkers. The African thought system has been adjudged irrational because according to Bruhl, it is insensitive to the rules of formal logic as formulated by Aristotle. Hollis states that these rules render it possible to make trans-cultural and comparative judgments as to the degree of rationality and irrationality in a belief and action system . Hence Levy-Bruhl found contradictions in assertions such as when the Nuer say “twins are birds”. From Levy-Bruhl’s point of view it is a clear violation of the rules of logic, which do not permit a thing to be itself and yet another thing. The Nuer is therefore involved in contradiction by saying that a twin is a twin (A is A) and at the same time that a twin is a bird (A is non- A) .

On the surface, it would seem that Levy Bruhl made an honest and innocent observation about the thought system of the Nuer people, though such an interpretation would be inevitable, following the Aristotelian logic. But for the Nuer people the saying “twins are birds”, means that birds unlike other creatures that crawl on the earth surface, are seen as divine creatures from above because they fly. Therefore twins according to them are likened as birds, special gifts from God, precious to man.

Such saying, it would be observed are common among Africans. For instance, the Igbos in Nigeria would say “Uwaa bu popo”, meaning that this life is Pawpaw, especially ripped pawpaw. This life likened to a ripped pawpaw that would break in to pices when it falls. This is a mere use of metaphor, which interestingly abounds in the Western literary expressions and thought system. For instance, the expression, ‘that man is a lion’, is no violation of any rule of formal logic, but simply likens the man to a lion-strong, fearless and courageous. Hence, Levy Bruhl’s misinterpretation of the Nuer’s saying was never an oversight, rather an orchestrated attempt to devalue the Africaness of the Africans with the view to fostering a Western control and determination of Africa’s destiny and identity. Therefore the denial of Africans of rationality by the West- Levy Bruhl, Hegel and the rest, rests on a prejudice against the Africans.

This Western attitude according to Masolo “…had started as a mere cultural bias, supported loosely by a racist or orthodox biblical ideology, which gradually grew into a formidable two-pronged historical realities, slavery and slave trade on the one hand and academic expressions on the other . What Masolo calls the ‘academic expressions’ were actually seen as the justification for colonizing Africa with the delusion that Europe was spreading civilization. A choice sampling of the underpinnings of this colonial ‘academic expressions’ would show clearly their mentality and mindset.

For instance, Hume was of the conviction that the Africans, due to their blackness are precluded from the realm of reason and civilization. He speaks:

I am apt to suspect that the Negroes, and in general the other species of men to be naturally inferior to whites. There never was a civilized nation of any complexion than white.

Kant corroborated this when he thought that the fact that the Africans were black from head to foot was a clear proof that whatever they say was stupid . This implies that there are fundamental differences between the two races of man, differences that were more in mental capacities than colour. In Hegel’s opinion
The African, in his undifferentiated and concentrated unity, has not yet succeeded in making this distinction between himself as an individual and his essential universality, so that he knows nothing of an absolute being which is other and higher than his own self.

Africans from this point of view are neither part of the world history, nor part of humanity. People without culture and history, living in a state of innocence, unconscious of themselves, as in the natural and primitive state of Adam and Eve in the biblical paradise and will. This state could be likened to the state of nature described by the contractarians- Hobbes and Lock. In like manner, Marx and Engel articulated this same Eurocentric view as part of their philosophico-histotical position. For them the colonial Europeanization of the globe was a prerequisite for the possibility of the true human freedom, which to them, is communism.

These discourses on Africa underestimated and disparaged African culture and identity. It denied that ‘reason’ played any significant role in the development of society and culture in Africa, as it did in Europe. To the colonizers then, Africans had no abiding values and lacked generally, the intellectual and moral resources of the Europeans, whose mission in Africa was a ‘civilizing mission’. This civilizing mission, which was in form of colonization and Christianization of the Africans, can best be described as rape of Africa, which created a crisis of self-identity, injured her human dignity, sapped her self-confidence, and led her into perpetual soul-searching. The civilizing mission of Europeans was an active program by the Europeans to change the African’s supposed inferior ways of life to conform to European models in same important areas of human experience such as education, religion, economics, politics and social.

The very fact that the Africans were conquered was taken as a proof of the unhistoricity and lack of humanness of the colonized. The colonial racism succeeded in alienating many Africans from their own culture. There became a preference for European culture, values and mores. Some Africans began to see themselves inferior to the Whites, and our culture through Christian indoctrination, barbaric, inhuman and devilish. Through education and religion (Christianity), the European languages became official languages of most African countries, to the extent that our children feel ashamed to speak African native languages, and ashamed when unable to speak the so-called language of enlightenment. This implanted colonial and colonizer’s mentality, has made it difficult for this ugly situation to be reversed in any way. This is the mentality that makes a formerly colonized person, over-value foreign things coming from his erstwhile colonial master. ‘Things’ here is to be interpreted widely to include not only material objects, but also modes of thought and behaviour.

This cultural dislocation landed Africa in the problem of self-definition and identity, forced her to ask “who are my as a person?” “What was I as a person?” “How do I fashion out an enduring and a viable future?” Africans have found it difficult to find appropriate responses to these questions because Africa today is caught in a web, in between a past s/he could not recall and a present and future s/he could not envisage.

Despite all these, the dominance of the colonial mentality was not absolute; and this explains the reason why there is the problem of self-search and definition. Put differently, the obvious fact of this consciousness in Africa shows that indigenous modes of thought and action have not been totally eclipsed by colonialism. It shows that the colonialists did not take pain to penetrate and ‘educate’ the rural interior of African countries. As a result this people still retained a large part of their indigenous world outlook. These are the sages, according to Oruka, that have not been unduly influenced by Westernism.

Demonstrating African Rationality

There have been many dimensions to the question of the rationality of Africans and their culture. These dimensions focus on different aspects of the problem of rationality in Africa such as, the question of whether Africans are as human as other people of the world. The African’s philosophical responses and the concept of cultural relativism were attempts by prominent African scholars and nationalists to give answers to some of the questions raised in the problem of rationality, and also to restore self confidences, prestige and honour to Africa, bearing in mind that Africans through slavery and colonialism have suffered cultural discontinuity and dislocations and consequently made a people with no confidence in themselves.

The early Pan-Africansists like Edward Blyden, Dubois, Joseph Ki-zerbo, Africans Horton and postcolonial African leaders like Senghor, Nyerere, Nkrumah, Azikiwe, Awolowo etc, saw the solution to the crisis of culture and rationality in Africa in the discovery of authentic African ideas and thought systems uninfluenced by alien accretion. This gave birth to concepts like Ujaama, Negritude, African Socialism, etc. In the same vein, contemporary African philosophers like Kwasi Wiredu, Kwame Gyekye, Robin Horton, K.C. Anyanwu, Onyewuenyi and Segun Oladipo, to mention but a few, have upheld the concept of cultural relativism and demonstrated convincingly in their scholarly writings that indeed prior to Western contact with Africa, Africa had history and culture which was scientific and in fact with traces of the origin of modern medical science. A culture, which was rational, logical and humanistic, with values and respects, for humanity.

They further have held that philosophy did not spring up from vacuum and that philosophers from all ages were tremendously influenced by their society and culture, since most of what they postulated was already fore-grounded in their culture. And philosophy being a corollary of a culture presupposes that no philosophical theme or problem can completely be understood and handled without familiarity with the culture and language from which it originated. If there is any modicum of truth in the above; it would imply that philosophy arises from the culture of a people and therefore, no culture is bereft of philosophy.

Oruka tried to demonstrate this in his four-trends/orientations in African philosophy. He identifies the various sources and ways in which African philosophy was done: ethno philosophy, philosophy sagacity, the nationalist-ideological philosophy and the professional philosophy. Senghor on his part, postulated African epistemology; unique African mode of knowing; and Mbiti, had the inclination to show that the African’s have a different concept of time. These various responses were articulated to affirm and construct African rationality. That this various efforts represent truly the African spirit has been contested and controverted by many. While we commend these efforts, our worry comes in three folds; one these concepts especially as postulated by Senghor and Mbiti, are not particularisable, therefore nothing about them is peculiarly African. Two, Africa has not yet experienced real pragmatic applications of these ideas. Three, Africa could be said to be in a state currently worst than it was prior to colonial rule.

The Postcolonial African: a Demonstration of Rationality.

A change in the political Lordship, structures and processes expectedly gave Africa a breath of freedom and liberty, the Africa political leaders, who fought slavery and colonialism, took over governance in the continent. Most importantly, is the question of how Africans have demonstrated rationality after colonialism.

The postcolonial Africa is still besieged by problems arising from the accident, and design of history. The continent boasts of the highest numbers of failed states Burundi, Cote D’lvoire, Congo, DR, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola. Oyeshile observes that we cannot controvert the fact that ethnic conflicts and wars have resulted in gross underdevelopment in the African continent. There have been wanton destruction of lives and property, human, material and natural resources, the problem of corruption, ethnicity, leadership, poverty, diseases, hunger, death, desertification, and diseases. These have all been wholly or partially attributed to the phenomenon of slavery, colonialism and military incursion into the African body polity. Those whop hold this position are not totally wrong. Hence Oguejiofor has recognized that

…The effect of slavery on African society was thus not limited to visible factors; even of greater consequence are the invisible political, psychological and social effect. The millions of people carted away meant a drastic reduction of the productive capacity, especially when those sought after were those at the bloom of their lives, wars aimed at gathering slaves, and other raids meant serious rupture of economic and social life.

Most Africans have reacted to Africa’s predicament, by simply tracing it to the door steps of external factor like-slavery and colonialism, and by extension militarism. While these can be regarded as major factors, it would be misleading to assume that the transatlantic slave trade described as the “most iniquitous transaction in human history” was solely perpetrated in the African continents by non-Africans. It has been observed that the African chiefs and rulers who through chains of middlemen penetrated the interiors of Africa on behalf of the European slave merchants to capture slaves and negotiate with the buyers, aided part of what we have attributed and considered the impacts of slavery.

It is also important to note that this trade lasted for over four hundred years, and one can not but wonder how this business was sustained for that long. Evidence abounds to show that the trade was indeed big business in its entire ramification for those who engaged in it -Africans and non-Africans alike. Oguejiofor corroborates this fact when he opines that the “Medieval kingdoms of West Africa derived great wealth through the export of slaves” One could imagine that the traders had excellent strategic business management skills and plans on sustainability.

What more can one say, these African traditional rulers might have had some functional management structures, and some would have functioned as MDs and CEOs. There were, one would suppose excellent succession plans to enhance business growth from generations to generations. One may want to raise the question, “how was Africa able to sustain the supply of goods consistently to the West?” A possible explanation that so many would not want to accept is that women were acquired as wives by the traditional rulers with the sole aim of the procreation or better still ‘production’ of slaves for the market? Though no evidence has proven this argument valid, it is a possible origin of polygamy in Africa.

The point that we can’t fail to make clear here is that whatever mentality that was predominant, and whatever justification or good reason(s) given for the Africans participation and partnership in this inhuman and hideous treatment of fellow Africans, some of who as Don Affonso, king of Congo observes were “sons of the land and sons of our noblemen, vassals and our relatives….” justifies, even if partly the view of Rudyard Kipling about Africans as “half devil and half child”. It would be rational to admit that we exhibited non-human mentality and rationality. There was no iota of sense of brotherhood and love exhibited by these African merchants. Where was that spirit of familism and communalism that we were told African’s were known? For whatever reason we failed, and I think we have justified our description by the Europeans as pre-logical.

With abolishment of slavery, African leaders naively embraced the legacies of the colonial administration. It was as Oguejiofor explains ‘a mere change of guards, with the indigenous politicians replacing the Europeans in the same positions, in the same system that they fought for so long to over throw’. Nothing fundamental changed, our brothers simply continued the colonial programs of the West. This era can simply be described a recolonization of Africans by Africans rather than independence. The implication of this is that we became our own enemies and downfall. Africans ploughed Africa further into uncertainty, unprductivity, and ‘undevelopment’. In fact it is seldom doubted that we were not ready for political independence. This has manifested evidently in the ways we have managed our own affairs.

With the ascendance of the military juntas into power in Africa who were “half educated, inexperienced and incompetent Corporals, Master Sergeants, Lieutenants and Captains … , Africa was further sent into the abyss of political instability and rudderless leadership” . Those dark ages of military rule were terrific, horrifying and pherocious, with such leaders as Idi Amin of Ugandu, Bokassa of Central Africa Republic, Mobutu of Zaire, Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethopia, late Samuel Doe of Liberia, Sani Abacha of Nigeria and Michael Mikombero of Burundi. Again this era showed clearly, even now, our inability to demonstrate rationality and prove the West wrong, that we can paddle our boat unaided by them. It is obvious that our leaders, immediate past and present, inherited some devilish traits from the traditional African rulers who aided slave trade, especially ‘selfishness’. For more than half a century in Nigeria, we are still to graduate from democratic apprenticeship.

Conclusion: Redefining Rationality on the Basis of Societal Values and Pragmatism

It had been the position of the European invaders, anthropologists, ethnographers, philosophers, sociologists, policy makers and the likes that as far as the East is from the West, so is Africa far from philosophy, rationality and civilization. And that while the West in the home of civilization and philosophy, Africa is the home of wild trees, wild animals, wild people and wild culture. Surprisingly, the perception of Africa has not change. For instance, when in the televisions, beautiful houses, structures and hi-tech humans are used to depict the Western world, forests, jungles, elephants, lions and all sorts of wild animals are used to represent Africa.

The state, destiny and the value that Africa has had till today in the globalized village, has to a great extent been determined by the outcome of the debate and problem of rationality and most importantly, the Africans responses to it. The outcomes as we had highlighted include: the enslavement and colonization of Africans, which were justified on the premise that Africans were sub-humans, and indeed needed to be humanized and civilized through servitude and colonialism.

A way to conclude would be an attempt at the redefinition of rationality in the context of Africa. First is to affirm that the failure of African leaders to demonstrate rationality is not totally African. That is to say that if the leaders have been irrational, it would be fallacious to say that Africans are irrational. Interestingly, when one re-examines the ‘academic expression’ of the West about Africa, they are dosed with irrationalities and prelogical analyses and thoughts. For instance, there is obviously no logical connection between complexion and reason or civilization as Hume and Kant postulated. Levy Bruhl’s classification of Africans as periodical which was predicated on his interpretation of the Nuer saying was also a clear exhibition of ignorance and a privation of wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Binns observers that These perceptions were often based upon an inadequate understanding of African environments, societies, culture, and economic…

One distinguishing, essential feature of man is his rationality, and there lies his difference from other animals. There is no evidence to show that God created some people rational and others irrational. If the biblical records are anything to go by, God created man in his image and likeness. So to say that Africans are irrational would imply that God is irrational, or that God never created the Africans. Though these are possibilities, but they cannot be substantiated. Hence we consider the Senghorian theory of African mode of knowing, which seems to suggest that Africans do not rely on the faculty of reason in apprehending the external world as anti-African.

The purpose of a society is anchored on rationality and that explains why co-existence in a society will be hampered without a sense of rationality, rational attitude to life and essential society values, such as: tolerance, respect, freedom, equality, justice and value for human life. Actions that are anti-societal vision and good would definitely not be rational.

Therefore, the adoption of a social rationality has become inevitable for Africa in her quest for a total development. Of great interest here would be the criteria of rationality given by Steven Lukes known as practical rationality. This criterion emphasizes the ability of a practice to aid a people in attaining their goals. In other words, this theory also known as instrumental rationality means acting in a way that is maximally efficient and effective in achieving one’s goals. This criterion must be anchored on aforementioned basic societal African values, thereby making it pragmatic, and humanistic.

Africans, would want to ensure that their religious and cultural differences do not continue to form the bases for hatred, violence and insecurity; rather to be a strong force that would ensure that they fly high above the bumps of ethnicity and ethnic consciousness, overcome hunger, poverty, corruption, war, strive, disease, desertification, political and economic instability. Whatever political and societal values, policies, laws and practices that would ensure freedom, justice, equality, equity and total development of Africa would be very instrumental in achieving our desired goals in Africa. Anything short of this would widely be adjudged irrational in Africa by Africans.