TATAALO ALAMU: The Invention of African Intellectual Tradition

Illustrious members of the high Table and the table not so high, distinguished members of the audience, notable and budding philosophers, Professor Sophie Oluwole, the keynote speaker who is also the moving spirit behind the whole event, it gives me great joy to be here as the chairman of this interactive session on the occasion of the World Philosophy Day. I must particularly thank the Centre for African Culture and Development for putting the issue of Africa’s lost intellectual heritage on the front burner of discourse again.

Given the multifarious problems confronting humanity, it is only sensible that once a year, a day should be set aside for sober philosophical reflections on the state of the human society and the prospects for the survival of the species. Some of these concerns are not to be taken lightly or dismissed glibly. As Claude Levi-Strauss, the great French Structuralist anthropologist, has put it with caustic relish, “the world began without man and will end without him”.

I am not by any stretch of the imagination a professional philosopher. But there is a philosopher in everybody. The ability to think and to think through problems is what distinguishes human-beings from our animal cousins. If prostitution is the oldest human profession, philosophy must come a very close second. It is impossible to conceive of a human society without thinking of its thinkers and savants. These are the wise people, the cognoscenti, the visionary dreamers and conceptual pathfinders without which the great strides and the epic feats of knowledge and self-knowledge recorded by humanity would have been impossible. Without philosophers, a society must atrophy and perish.

This year’s World Philosophy Day is coming against a background of great global unease, of human eruptions on a revolutionary scale and scope, of a fierce contention between man and a capitalist machine that no longer recognizes even its own. There is a trans-societal struggle to bring to heels a world in which inequity and inequality among classes, races, hemispheres and nations have assumed a staggering and idiotic proportion.

A consensus appears to have emerged that the world cannot continue along the lines of the present economic disorder and disequilibrium. After almost six hundred years of unrivalled hegemony, the World Order imposed by the capitalist mode of production and its twin bye products of liberal democracy and the nation-state paradigm appears to be at the end of its historic tether.

It is hard to predict what will follow, but it is a profound irony that while the system bequeathed to the world by western modernity is unraveling at the seams; while the philosophical and intellectual assumptions that underpin and power its baleful hegemony are being daily rubbished by new and novel imperatives, Africa is bogged down at the level of clearing the intellectual debris of misconceptions and misinformation imposed and inflicted on it by the expiring World Order. In a classic case of double jeopardy most of Africa has joined Europe and the west on the road to economic and political ruination without being able to develop the substantial infrastructural insurance of the capitalist metropole.

The misconceptions about Africa’s intellectual heritage are many indeed; the orchestrated misinformation very scary. But intellectual misconceptions do not just arise in a vacuum or out of a void. There is always a philosophical fundament which underlies and structures such misconceptions. In the particular case of intellectual misconceptions of Africa, It might have started out as mere prejudice colouring the worldview of sea-faring merchants and buccaneering adventurers, but it was later to receive its philosophical ballast and intellectual scaffolding from dominant western intellectuals and thinkers as a means of providing rationale for the project of modernity and its systematic brutalization of the human species from Africa.

Let us now put the matter as crudely and as graphically as possible. Can the Blackman philosophize? At face value, this appears to be a particularly inane and vexing question. How can there be a people who cannot philosophize? But by philosophizing, we do not mean stringing together witticisms and wise-sayings into a coherent cosmogony or worldview. We are talking of the capacity for conceptual formulation and rigorous abstractions; the ability for sustained intellection and paradigmatic speculation.

A whole retinue of western thinkers and intellectuals are united in the belief that beyond empty story telling and the regurgitation of received wisdom, the African is incapable of sustained abstractions. From Hegel to Karl Marx and down to Hugh Trevor-Roper who noted that African history is a dark void and an embarrassment to humanity, these western intellectuals are unanimous in the notion that Africa has no cultural or intellectual heritage worth talking about.

In an infamous passage from his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, a founding father and Third President of America, noted thus of the African American: “It appears to me that in memory they are equal to whites: in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous”.

It is note-worthy and interesting that whatever the ideological temperament of these western intellectuals, they were all united in their denigration of Africa’s cultural and intellectual heritage. The project of modernity, being a “national” project that transcends individual ideological proclivity, does not brook intellectual dissension. The discursive formation behind the formulation of western hegemony suffers from its own tyranny of the mother culture.

Karl Marx, for example, thought that pre-historic societies, such as was the case with all societies preoccupied with mythology, tried to dominate nature in and around the imagination and that this fixation with idiotic superstitions gives way once humankind masters his environment through scientific certitude and the knowledge that comes with enlightenment.

To be sure, it is possible that at the time of the colonial incursion, the African continent might have suffered a brutal and catastrophic regression into the state of nature. But it does appear that what we are dealing with here is the substitution of one set of superstitions for another. The absence of western-type formal academies of learning from Africa at the time of colonial conquest does not invalidate the African capacity to learn and to philosophise at the most rarefied level of abstraction.

In the twelfth century, there was a university in Timbuktu which had an attendance of twenty five thousand students in a city of a hundred thousand, although this might have owed its provenance to the dominant Islamic culture. Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth century Tunis-born Arab African philosopher and globally acclaimed political theorist, anticipated most of Marx and Vico’s theories about the cyclical nature of historical evolution. His notion of asabiyah, or group coherence and bonding in conditions of exacting harshness, showed a remarkable insight into the construction and deconstruction of tribal hegemonies.

Although there were no formal schools in pre-colonial Africa in the sense that we have come to know them, traditional African societies had their own informal system of education which produced the requisite elite to man the institutions. It was a capillary network of politicians, diplomats, historians, judges, spies, shamans, votaries, savants, psychiatrists, native healers, astrologers, information gurus among other traditional professions.

Indeed the extant ideological apparatuses of the pre-colonial African states still retain an efficacy and power of compliance long after their political and material basis and rationale have been subverted by the colonial irruption. It was not for nothing that Peter Morton described the Yoruba Ogboni confraternity as “mystery-mongering greybeards.”

Even if we are to put all this aside, even we are to concede that medieval Africa did suffer a terrible regression to the savagery of the state of nature, the roots and foundation of western modernity in the ancient African civilisation of Egypt cannot be denied. The myth of the black savage shambling about in the cave of cultural and intellectual darkness is just that: a myth rooted in intellectual superstition.

In order to deal with the conquered and subjugated people of Africa, but, more importantly, in order to explain away the systematic cruelties of western colonisation, western intellectual tradition had to “reinvent” the native African cultural heritage to suit their preconceived notion. Terence Ranger, following the conceptual breakthrough of Eric Hobsbawm in his landmark study of European elite, has written copiously and eloquently on this reinvention of African tradition by the colonialists.

This was the same phenomenon observed by Edward Said, the late Palestinian American cultural theorist , in his path-breaking study of the colonial imaginary in the orient. In order to handle better and justify the brutal decimation of India and the orient, a particular notion of the orient has to be invented and erected in place of the real thing. Thus orientalism, or the reinvention of the orient by the colonial imagination, has little to do with the real orient just as the reinvention of African intellectual tradition has little to do with the real Africa.


Western modernity had to resort to this fictional and ideological reconstruction of reality because it was first and foremost a power project based on the application and manipulation of knowledge. In order to cast itself as the unique bearer of a new universal order and an emergent world-historical rationality, it has had to deny what went before it and to suppress what is contemporaneous with it.

Yet there was nothing divinely pre-ordained or inevitable about its subsequent global dominance. Before its ascendancy, there were other competing projects of modernity. For example before it succumbed to internal disorder, China was the leading world nation around the twelfth century. Portugal was the first truly modern nation-state. The old kingdom of Benin had a representative in the court at Lisbon by the middle of the fifteenth century.

But it is one thing to uncover the roots of misbegotten representation, it is another thing to know how to go about reclaiming a lost heritage. The power of knowledge cannot be confronted by the power of superstition. As Terry Eagleton famously noted, “one sure thing about the organic community is that it is always gone”. The myth of the organic community is the cudgel we employ to beat a recalcitrant and hostile contemporary reality into place.

Much as we idealize and romanticize the ancient African community and our lost heritage, it is virtually impossible to reclaim that mythical past. Yet, the greatest problem facing the Black race collectively and as people sequestered within strange and alienating nation-states is the reconstitution and reconstruction of the colonial subject from a serf of colonialism to a citizen of the post-colonial realm of freedom.

The question is: is it possible to philosophize in a strange language? It is to be noted that countries and societies such as China, Japan, India and the oriental tigers, while enduring the odd colonial infraction or even brutal decimation, never surrendered the cultural and intellectual initiative to the colonialists. They swiftly reverted to their indigenous cultures and powerful philosophies once the colonial masters departed. Buddhism, Confucianism and Shintoism acted as binding glues for these societies helping them to survive and even leverage to their advantage the worst of the psychic and cultural atrocities of colonization.

In the particular case of colonial Africa, it is a major historical tragedy that there was no major or dominant African culture strong and resilient enough to withstand the ravages of colonization and to subsequently act as a cultural and philosophic hub for the rest of the continent. A feeble attempt to impose the Swahili language as this pan-African cultural hub could not even get off the ground probably because the Swahili culture itself emerged from the crucible of Arab colonization in Africa.

The urgent task at hand, then, is how to salvage what is still crucial and important about Africa’s cultural past without going completely “native”. Much as we may wish, we can never return to that old world and the pre-colonial African society. It is gone forever. No human society can wish away six hundred years of its history.

We must now turn the adversities of alienation into great advantages as famously echoed in Abiola Irele’s inaugural lecture. But while enjoying the paradoxical bounties of creative alienation we must also warily patrol the field in order not to turn out as metropolitan mimic-men or hybridized trapeze artists permanently walking a cultural tight rope just for the sake of grudging applause from our former masters.

This is an urgent task for African knowledge producers and the pan-African cultural and intellectual elite. The world does not wait for anybody. Even as the old order is crumbling and collapsing before our very eyes, the extant dominant powers are furiously and frenetically reconstructing the vanishing world to suit their interests and permanent prejudices. The NATO-led liquidation of Gaddafi’s Libya, America’s renewed military interests in Africa, France’s not so covert military intervention that saw off the ancien regime in Cote D’Ivoire, are all pointers to a ceaseless power project even in the face of historical superannuation.

Knowledge is both power and self-empowerment. Before political subjugation comes intellectual subordination. African elite must seize the day and the initiative to invent the continent anew as the past and possible future of humanity. Otherwise, it will be done for them and Africa will be reinvented once again by the emergent masters of the universe with even greater and more drastic consequences. As we have seen with western colonisation, if the adversary wins not even the dead or their heritage are safe. I thank you all.

Being an article written by Tataalo Alamu, culled from the Nation’s Newspaper on 20/11/2011



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