The Case for Inter-Philosophical Dialogue: An African Philosophical Perspective

by Ompha Tshikhudo Malima

The History of Philosophy: An Injustice to Africa  

The practice of philosophy cannot be done with innocence and ignorance while true history and reality shows that “the blurred and dotted picture of the history of Western philosophy is a deformation of the African identity.” This was done through denying humanity and thus philosophy to the African. The use of the Cartesian maxim cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) resonates with what Mogobe Ramose problematized as the abuse of the Aristotelian maxim “man is a rational animal.” The false logic then goes, because the African cannot think, s/he is thus not human. Subairi Nasseem argues that the link between epistemology (the study of knowledge) and ontology (the study of the nature of being) leads to the same thing, and this is why I use the Cartesian and Aristotelian maxims. Emevwo Biakolo categorized these colonial attitudes and plots into “cross-cultural cognition of the African condition” and concluded that they serve no purpose in understanding African philosophy and their purpose is only to derail the discipline. Western philosophy created an imaginary centre which marginalizes other philosophical traditions such as Asian, African and Eastern philosophies. It was founded on “scientific and spiritual racism” which was perpetuated by famous thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel. This historical injustice to (African) philosophy lacks valid reasoning and should not have a place in Africa. According to Dennis Masaka, the problem of philosophical racism is attributed to, and located “within the context of Western cultural imperialism, which has historically tended to take its own testimony as having transcultural relevance and application”  while falsifying the idea of an epistemic centre. A historical injustice was committed by the failure of philosophy in not  “understanding different realities differently.”

Mogobe Ramose also disputes the idea of the world and knowledge having a centre. He argues that the cosmos has no centre and is rather “an incessant interaction of all entities.” There is thus an urgent need for recorrecting history in order to locate Africa at the philosophical table. Indeed, the current situation requires a “profound re-examination.” Re-examining the history of philosophy is necessary to fulfill an unfinished business of epistemic decolonization and for inter-philosophical dialogue to take place. History enables us to move towards the future, knowing what to do right. However, there is a tendency of (African) scholars to re-invent the past and glorifying precolonial ideals. If it is for the purposes of philosophical re-construction, I fully endorse such. Scholars like Pascah Mungwini undertake a re-construction of the intellectual heritage in order to reconcile history with the future. As Pedro Tabensky posits, “the past can only be rescued for the present.”

The Role of Philosophy: An Unfinished Business 

Pascah Mungwini’s chapter which is entitled “Philosophy and the Unfinished Humanistic Project of Decolonisation in Africa” is telling of a serious need to conclude epistemic equality and to give philosophy a human face. My position is that philosophy in our times cannot just be philosophy, it should uplift societal conditions. In this case, philosophy is important to foster dialogue among cultures and/or philosophical traditions. However, this dialogue is impossible when we still have an uneven terrain of philosophical tables. The unfinished project which Mungwini refers to, led Raquel Baker to lament the situation as one “where decolonization is both taken for granted and yet not quite a fully embodied reality.” The point I wish to highlight is that the decolonization of knowledge should be followed by inter-philosophical dialogue. Dialogue needs to be authentic and, on a level-playing field, thus we need to recorrect the malady of colonization first before we have an interaction of philosophical traditions.

Writing on the philosophers Mogobe Ramose and Heinz Kimmerle—who both come from different cultural and philosophical backgrounds—Renate Schepen and Henk Haenen articulate two propositions for epistemic justice. “Ramose demonstrates that the recognition of African epistemologies is an important condition for justice; Kimmerle argues that philosophy become intercultural.” This unfinished business is a precondition for inter-philosophical dialogue. In “The struggle for reason in Africa,” Ramose begins by analysing the question of ontological decolonization and then advocates for the emancipation of philosophy through dialogue. According to Mungwini, we cannot achieve this unfinished humanistic project without dialogue because dialogue defines us as humans and how we philosophize. Our level of tolerance towards other cultures is determined by our ability to dialogue. Without dialogue, we cannot offer each other quality attention to philosophize. This creates a problem because philosophy will be dogmatic as an ideology rather than as an evolutionary process of discovery and the search for truth, knowledge and justice. Ramose is convinced that

“…to deny oneself the opportunity for dialogue is to reject the possibility condition of becoming a philosopher. Dialogue being the basis of deliberation, it is clear that the liberation of philosophy is possible only through dialogue.”

My position is that philosophy, unlike political ideologies, is open to new thoughts and is a process rather than a finality. I see philosophy as a discipline which re-examines itself and self-corrects in order to find meaning as we journey through life. Dialogue situates the role of philosophy to be a unifier of different civilizations while we embrace thinking differently—together.

Plurality and the Quest for Humanizing Philosophy 

“There is not anywhere a cosmic register or answer book against which we can completely declare that particular worldviews and perspectives about reality are exact and therefore absolutely true. In the absence of such a cosmic register, all that prevails is the voice of the powerful—even if flawed.”

The above observation by Mungwini articulates the realities of the practice of philosophy. Particularly the fact that philosophy is culture specific and contextual before it becomes universal. This does not advocate for dogma to philosophical relativism—that we all should be left to practice in our own ways without critical inquiry. My position is that we can still philosophize together while we think differently. After all, the truth is not absolute but relative because it is made by human beings through consensus, and not found in a non-spatial and timeless entity. Mungwini argues that  ‘it is also time “to set the truth free” so that it is no longer immured to one particular worldview and form of existence.”’ Anke Graness posits that “the broad academic discourse on the South African concept of ubuntu tends to drift towards (ontological) cultural relativism.” Contrary to Graness, Mungwini does not advocate for a mere relativi-sm but rather a relative-ness. This “-ness” is informed by Ramose’s position that from a linguistic point of view, an “-ism” resonates with dogma while a “-ness” resonates with an open-ness to becoming a human being. Mungwini has expressed the fact that dialogue constitutes an essence of humanity. Proceeding with this line of reasoning, I draw from Ramose’s conception of ubuntu (humanness) as a philosophy of practice. According to Ramose, to become a human being, one needs to fulfil this by having humane relations with others. It is the same thing as becoming a philosopher, one needs to dialogue and philosophize with others on the basis of the recognition that we have ontological parity. According to Ramose, to have ontological parity is to have epistemic parity because ontology and epistemology are inseparable.

But how do we deal with contradictions among cultures and/or philosophical traditions? Due to cultures being different, their conceptions of universal issues might be different due to their contexts. Following Godwin Sogolo, I affirm the fact that differences in cultural conceptions are more internal contradictions rather than a signifier of superiority or inferiority between cultures. What is problematic is that we see difference as antagonism. From my view, difference can be metaphorically, and metaphysically seen as objects oscillating on a circle and moving in the same direction without colliding. These objects are different but moving towards one objective. Important to note, is also the fact that before colonialism, different cultures had trade relations through barter. Without a doubt, knowledge was also exchanged during trade transactions. In his rebuttal of knowledge being seen as exclusively western, Theophilus Okere reminds us that mathematics

“…has been on written record in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia for millennia… [and] cannot legitimately be claimed for one culture, western or otherwise.”

The point I wish to highlight is that knowledge production from different cultures is not a monopoly as Okere acknowledges, it is a symbiotic engagement. We would do well to remember that every industrialization is aided by different knowledges and societies rather one ethnic group or nationality. These different knowledges can be combined or adjusted instead of pitting them against each other as antagonists. Caution should be taken when engaging in cultural borrowing or adjustment due to what history has shown us with imperialism and cultural assimilation of the colonized peoples.

Ompha Tshikhudo Malima is a writer, intellectual and early career scholar. His areas of research and interests include: dialogue in philosophy and politics, epistemic decolonization, African intellectuals and conflict studies. He blogs at Omphilosophical.