Not knowing is bad.
Not wishing to know is worse.
Epistemology from the African point of view.
By Bert hamminga
Cultural Research Centre Jinja
Contents: The African "knowing subject" is not an individual person. The African's view on Western philosophy and science The drawbacks of writing and calculating. New proposals: the role of communication Truth and authority General truths: What is unwise to doubt What happens to you is always done by someone. Language as a method of power transmission Secrets and guile Time and realism Making causal theories is a waste of energy: good luck-bad luck Acquisition of knowledge relevant to the principle of minimum investment. Conclusion 1: Knowledge we need Conclusion 2: Why the need for science of Western specification is not felt Conclusion 3: The "individual" contra the "personal" Competitiveness and romanticism What can epistemology from the African point of view mean to Western philosophers? Question and Exercises
1. The African "knowing subject" is not an individual person
As an African, when I am born, some ancestor has been "born into" my mother. I will carry his name. I am not this ancestor himself. It is not "reincarnation". I am the vital power this ancestor is willing to invest in me. I am a link in the chain of vital power, the chain of procreation of my community. I pray often to him when I need power. Give us power, I ask him. The living people depend for their survival on the power of the ancestors. We are nothing but that power. We are the power to find food, shelter, and partners to procreate. And, the ultimate aim: to have vitally powerful children, as many as our own vital power allows. These are all instances of power growth. Vital power is what matters in life, we care of nothing else. We understand Darwin very well, and the Old Testament much better than Western people do. The Old Testament describes our life and most of our consciousness far better than that of the 20th century Westerner.
Our community is a tree. (Dead) ancestors are roots giving energy to the trunk, the adults, who in turn supply the branches, leaves and flowers, our children. The tree knows. "We" know. The tree is the knowing subject.
Westerners can be surprised to see us all getting gay if some of us get gay, to see us all becoming sad if some of us get sad. That is because we are one body, a tree. We sing, we dance, we weep, we know. We are "together", in a so far reaching meaning of that word that Westerners will have a hard time understanding and believing this togetherness. Ironically, the West sent christians to us to teach us about togetherness. But we are the experts. Knowledge is one form of togetherness.
Since togetherness is the highest value, we want share our views. All of them. Hence we always agree with everybody. Standing up and saying "I have a radically different opinion", would not, as it often does in the West, raise attention to what I have to say. Instead, I am likely to be led before my clan leaders before I even had the chance to continue my speech. Among us, you simply never have radically different opinions. That is because, and that is why we are together. Togetherness is our ultimate criterion of any action, the pursuit of knowledge being just one of them.
2. The African's view on Western philosophy and science
If you ask Africans familiar with Western philosophy and science what they would primarily say about it in case they would have to explain it to fellow Africans unfamiliar with the subject, often the answer is: "It's critical". Now what does that mean if one African says that to another African in explaining the Western idea of philosophy as well as science? The listening African is asked by the explaining African to make the following steps. First consider yourself as an "independent", "isolated" individual. Second, build up your own private set of "reasons to believe". Third, on every occasion you have to decide whether to believe something or not, you should come, individually, on your own, to your own conclusions, using your own set of reasons to believe, if necessary expanding them for the purpose.
This might strike Westerners as an underestimation of the social aspect of Western thought and belief formation. But from the African distance, it is not far besides the point. Anyway, it stresses the scary leaps to loneliness Africans have to make if they wish to understand Western belief formation, whether in philosophy or in science (and for Westerners the reverse leaps, the subject of this paper, are even more difficult to make).
Westerners who are best in understanding the reverse leap are those who have to co-operate closely and on a nearby instinctive level with others. I know it of participants of team sports at high level, and of improvised music. I remember the comment by an Ajax player on a goal: "Yes, it went perfect, we did not think, we just did it". Similar experiences can be heard in improvised music: musicians say that at their best moments they "dissolve into" their own music, they do not at that moment feel they consciously decide for some playing strategy, it just "happens" to them together.
Among early modern Western hero's of thought and science, there is a strikingly frequent occurrence of independent minds that went their own individual, often lonely way, frequently laughed at, punished or even burned by their tribesmen. Africans ready to make such a choice for a dangerous solo tour through life are even scarcer than there were in the early modern Western period, though they are now growing in number. Their courage should make everybody stand in awe. A part of a tree does not choose an individual existence. No part of a body, and by "body" the tribe is meant to which you belong, can meaningfully survive cut off from the rest. And everything you do, including acquisition of knowledge and coming to beliefs, serves the purpose of enhancing the vital energy, the procreation of the tribe. Together. What the soloist does is worse than dying: he will never be a root.
Lusoga proverb: Omwâná wa mwíno: tákúmála bugúmbá: The child of your sister (friend) can't take away your barrenness. (Cultural Research Centre, Ensambo edh' Abasoga) and passim proverbs on "bachelors"
3. The drawbacks of writing and calculating
As Africans, we consider it a dignity to be able to write and calculate. Traditionally, we did not write en we did not calculate very precisely. Writing and calculation, however, confronts us with a major and not often fully appreciated difficulty that requires some explanation.
If at some moment we are together orally on something that is or should be done, then later on, if things change we will still be together. That is easy when months and years might vary not so predictability in their number of days, debts are vaguely described in terms of animals or services, and when sun, moon and rain are the only objects to mind if you think of time. In such happy circumstances, it is not difficult to slightly change, if necessary, what we were together about. Actually, nobody would even consider it a slight change (at least not publicly). Prudent use of sloppiness serves our highest value of togetherness. This useful instrument of sloppiness is beaten off our hands by writing and calculation, by money, clock and calendar. Most of our national leaders try to keep money as sloppy a thing as it can be, we ignore clocks as much as possible, although we now have them, and even the calendars issued by our most respected journals must, by Western standards, be treated with suspicion,
On the Uganda New Vision calendar of 1999, the one month stopped a day short of the end, and the weekdays of the succeeding two months had to be renumbered by the user, though again one month later weekdays and date matched again.
On New Years Day, January 1st, 1998, I was leaving a inn on Mount Elgon (Uganda, near the Kenya border), where I had stayed for the night. While writing the bill, the owner asked me: what is the date today?
but this only reduces, not eliminates the damage done to the effectiveness of prudent sloppiness in maintaining togetherness. To us, it seems an insult to correct someone, let alone a powerful man, by referring to a piece of paper displaying an agreement or a calendar, or a ticking little engine on your wrist.
This is not the way we traditionally interact. It is impolite.
After going through incredible efforts to collect twelve documents for my Ugandan motorcycle driving licence I finally visited the Revenue to receive the license. I handed over all twelve documents. "What's your name?" it was asked. Of course all twelve documents carried it, many more than once. That is the "oral" politeness at its very peak.
It is according to our etiquette to agree. Always. With everyone. To everything. If you claim that you saw the moon wavering on its course last night, we agree. If you ask whether it happens more often we'll say yes, even if we've never seen it or heard about it. That is a matter of respect and to express the readiness to be together with you. We always want to be very nice people (at least as long as we are not fully sure to have complete power over you, if you are lucky, which you could well be, even longer, vid.the good luck-bad luck issue below, and Burgman on "holding back" (like the concept of "Ng'uono" in Dholuo language).
Classical Africans are not the only ones with reservations about writing. Plato is fundamentally against writing (vid. his seventh letter), Caesar reports on reservations among Celtic druids. The contemporary Afganistan Taliban resist literacy too. See Reservations about writing.
4. New proposals: the role of communication
The clan or tribe is the knowing subject. All knowledge is power. All power comes from our ancestors. These are three maxims that have a status comparable the law of conservation of energy in Western science: if some of your thoughts do not tally with it, that means you made some error. So even if the tribe changes its mind, as for instance tribes, facing AIDS, nowadays do on sexual relations, this is an accommodation to new circumstances, agreed upon, yes decreed by the ancestors.
Scientists in the West might work for years on the basis of provisional beliefs not shared by their social en even scientific environment before deciding whether they were wrong or they should come to the fore with their conclusions inconsistent with general opinion. That is not what Africans mean by togetherness. If one sheep moves, it should come back or the herd should follow. And all this now. There is no bar on proposals by anyone. There is, if something is under discussion, remarkable freedom of speech for everybody and not any kind of dictatorship.
Uganda president Joweri Museveni, in his autobiography, explains how he had to learn the use of the commanding type of leadership the hard way: only after serious human losses in the early stage of his liberation guerrilla, he started to cut short spontaneous procedures of common decision making among the fighters. "Originally, the group had been consultative - every decision was arrived by consensus. But this practise was dangerous when it applied to military situations" (Museveni p.80).
It is not even sure beforehand who will get his or her way. That might depend on the subject. But at some stage settlement sets in. There are no formal regulations for that to happen. Everybody feels ("Hears" as it is expressed in most Bantu languages) it. At that moment truth is made. Everybody conforms. Everybody.
Now this settling in the group looks, to Westerners, most like the way Westerners settle things individually: Westerners usually buy the metaphor of doubt that one voice in you tells you to go somewhere, another to go elsewhere. That is a way to say you hesitate. It is an uncomfortable state of mind. If in an African group there are inconsistent proposals, the group as a togetherness is in quite a similar uncomfortable state of mind. The state has to be resolved quickly. It decreases vitality, it inhibits action. Westerners do not have objections to the internal conflict of doubting as such, but, apart from may be some philosophers, they do not want it to last for long. A Westerner who keeps hearing conflicting voices goes in therapy. In the African group, one feels the same, though not about oneself but about the community. They do not need therapy, they are well trained to reach community-wide consensus.
The term "voice" in the sense just used is a beautiful instrument to say what a "person" is in classical Africa: a person is voice in the tribe. Everybody is a voice in the tribe. In most public events, sung and clapped refrains by everybody are alternated by persons coming to the middle and performing song and dance, watched by everybody. And everybody will have his or her turn. Almost as soon as you can walk, you will participate, and you will keep doing so often even well after you lost your ability to stand. It is the most important African way to represent, affirm and propagate established thought and science. This rhythmic and social (not the harmonic) tradition where everybody has his share came to the West with jazz, quickly degrading from science into personal lamentations (blues) and then pithily perverted in its recent Western academic degeneration to "art" (jazz musicians learning to read!!!) and perverted most of all in that vital insult to the drum, the fake 19th century Western romanticism of the pop music of the last half century, where the desired one is the victim of brutish and savage singing.
This unconditional individual(!!) acceptance by the group has the astonishing effect often observed by those Westerners who did some teaching in Africa: ask a student to lecture on a subject in the class next time and he or she will tell a coherent story, by heart, or with only a few words on a tiny paper. No shyness, no groping for sentences. They give themselves, because they did not learn to fear as students learnt in the West.
To the African it seems difficult to be an individual in the West because in Western society they do not see a group to be an individual in. And that is why to the African Westerners seem to be a mass, a mob. Westerners look like each other: they wear similar clothes, although different every new season (while the old ones were still perfect), they have the same opinions, the same interests, they watch the same TV programmes. There is a fixed set of commodities a Westerner needs to possess in order to take part in normal social intercourse. There is competition in having it a little bigger, a little shinier than your neighbour. To obtain these commodities, Westerners neglect the care and extension of their families in favour of money earning activities. To Africans, the mass of Westerners seems to consist of very similar "individuals", a homogenous sea to drown in.
5. Truth and Authority
The general rule always to agree with everybody holds most emphatically with respect to authorities. In the clan context, the elder's opinion is truth. All force, all truth comes up from the roots of the family tree, the dead ancestors, to the trunk, the elders, and passes up to parents and children, the branches, leafs and flowers.
This casts a light on the Western strategy to convince with arguments. From the African point of view, arguments are a sign of weakness, of lack of power and vitality. A good, forceful truth does not need arguments. Arguments are crutches only invalid opinions need. And truth is felt as a force coming from the speaking human. A strong man has strong truths. As far as truth is concerned, strength is not measured in muscles but in age and wisdom. Wisdom does not exist of stockpiles of arguments. It consists of wider and deeper understanding of the universe. Wisdom is felt as a force.
Omúkulú táyoná: omúto n'âyoná: an elder (boss) never makes mistakes, it is the younger (inferior) who makes mistakes (proverb 759 in Cultural Research Centre, Ensambo edh' Abasoga).
In the artificial and perverse foreign imposed state bureaucracy context this is made to a criterion by which an authority tests and shows his power: the authority likes to deliberately park his car at forbidden and inconvenient places, and display weird opinions to test the obedience of his subordinates in agreeing with them. The general law that the authority is right is used, by the bureaucrat, to test whether or establish that he is an authority.
6. General truths: What is meaningless to doubt
Like Western scientific knowledge, our African knowledge has
it layers. At the lowest level there are the things on with we often disagree,
like where best to hunt a specific animal, or whether there will be rain
(disagreement does not entail we believe to deal with contingency, see below).
At the highest level there are, like in Western science, general laws acting
like methodological rules: they are considered to be universal properties of the
world, they act as filing and phrasing principles, and are used to prove ex
negatio that someone is wrong (if he would be right, the general law would
be wrong, which nobody wishes to accept). Many might think about these general
truths in terms of the Western concepts "metaphysics", "paradigm", "hard core",
"ground theory", "basic theory", but given the academic sophistication of the
discussion around these terms it is counterproductive at this stage to make a
choice out of all these terms. In African spirit, we simply coin
many different terms like different sticks possibly capable of driving different
cows in the same direction.
We turn now to those principles that a classical African deems unwise to doubt (if it is at all known how to do so, which it often is not).
All things in the universe are forces. They exert power over other things. You have: non living forces, living forces, formerly living forces (dematerialised forces, forces nevertheless!). Licking some kind of stone can stop you feel sick when you are pregnant. A plant can cure your skin. Your dead father can give you power and advice. A bow can help you to hunt successfully. Everything has power, is active. More or less active. The African question to any unknown object is not: what is it, but: what does it.
Newton opposed the Antique idea that everything is at rest unless it is moved by a force, by generalising the notion of rest to a linear movement with constant speed, of which Antique "rest" (no movement) is a special case. This "generalised rest" would occur at the absence of forces exerted on the object. In the African tradition no notion of inertia whatsoever is meaningful, because everything is a force itself. It gets its power from outside, yes, but if it doesn't there is no force, so there "is" nothing.
In most African languages, the way to express that you got hit by a stone is: "A stone has beaten me".
In Africa, you can buy fuel saving herbs to hang in your car.
The universe is a chain of forces "empowering" and "depowering" each other. God is the universal superforce charging everything. God has important business, so he does not deal with people directly. He leaves his public relations affairs to others: the young go to the elders, the elders to the ancestors, and to the diviner, who is in contact not only with the ancestors, but also with powerful spirits, people who died and whom we know only as a force.
There is not only a human chain of forces, their is also an animal chain, a plant chain, and a non living chain. Transfer of power from everything to everything is possible.
Every force has something you may call a "meaning", an "intention", an "aim", a "function".
In Lingala (Congo), it is called ntína, in Lusoga (Uganda) ensónga.
All these terms approach the idea in their own way. The universe, not only the biological part, but all of it, is functional. The stone is there to cure sickness when you are pregnant, and probably for a lot of other "reasons" we do not know. All knowledge acquisition is to discover the power of a force. To discover what a thing "does". What the force is for. Burgman illustrates this with Luo language, where one says literally that the grass "greens", the water "colds" and a woman "beautifuls".
Compare this to Plato, Phaidon, where Socrates is reported to say to Kebes, on his way to proving the immortality of the soul: "that nothing else has the power to make beautiful but the presence or the community with the beautiful or however you may wish to call such a being-together."
In their concept of God as omnipresent Supercharger of the universe, too big to be approached by individual humans, Africans are decisively less anthropocentric than Western christians and islamites, even curiously enough more "modern" than them to Western standards. Here we can learn from the type of Western modernity advocated by Spinoza in his ethics. Spinoza, whose Jewish ancestors arrived in Amsterdam from Portugal which they had reached through Africa, maintains as basic principles of "Ethics" that "every thing thrives to keep existing" (and fails to do so only in a clash with something stronger), and that "God is all things in all aspects" (of which humans only know the spiritual and material aspect, a negligible subset of the aspects of things). Spinoza upholds a parallelism -bijective attribution- between material and spiritual appearance of things. By "spirit" Spinoza simply means, quite understandable to every African, the thing as it appears to us in the form of thought. But when the thing meets something stronger and dematerialises (stops "existing"), according to Spinoza, its spiritual attribute remains perhaps in humans and certainly in God. From the epistemological viewpoint of eternity ("sub specie eternitate") everything exists by definition. The body of all thoughts is one aspect of God, the body of all material forces another. There will be infinitely more such aspects. Humans do not know. Finally according to Spinoza, the aim of man's life is utility, that is survival. The primary means is the acquisition of intuitive(!) knowledge, that is acquiring "adequate" ideas. Adequate ideas make you stronger, inadequate ideas hurt you.
Spinoza's "utility" is less "consumer" or "commodity"-centred that the recent Western economic concept of utility that suggest top influence of free moving atomic individual desire as a factor determining our lives. Spinoza is thinking of what enhances the power to survive like abilities to maintain good shelter and food, possibly, but not necessarily procured by exchange of labour and goods on markets
Most of that is perfectly clear to every African you meet, even though in the West, Spinoza's ideas have largely remained specialised woodoo for modernists. But Spinoza is generally considered to have been "ahead of his time" in the West (note the notoriously Western linear time concept and natural progress idea in this short expression!) Though dead more than four hundred years, Spinoza is still too "modern" (in the Western sense!) to be a christian's (or, for that matter, Jew's or Islamite's favourite philosopher. From the African point of view, there is some reason here to consider the possibility that Westerners and Africans have common ancestors.
In their relation with God, Africans are decisively less anthropocentric than Catholics, Protestants and Islamites. Truth to them is intimately associated with personal advantage in the strife for survival and which of the religions enhances power most depends on the circumstances, that is, on what these religions have to offer in a given time at a certain place. As a result of the competition of the great foreign religions, Africans possess a remarkable fluidity in getting converted hence and forth: what is the difference to them? The choice is between, for instance, only a single wife (christians) or no drinking (Islamites). For leaders, it is a matter of which foreigner has the highest power to add to his interests. Advantages depend on circumstances. Many Africans divide their children over schools of all the imported faiths like prudent Westerners do when investing on the stock market. Like Spinoza they do not worry about the specific type of foreign worshipping, but more about what Spinoza calls "utility".
7. What happens to you is always done by someone
The real and to Westerners astonishing anthropocentrism comes in as soon as questions are asked concerning the causes of increase or diminishing of ones own vital power. As a classical African, your vital power is derived from all kinds of forces: your name (your charging ancestor), your parents, your wife your children, your hunting equipment (bows and arrows, as well as other forces you are wearing such as vitally strong parts of hunting animals and other non-living objects charged by, say, a diviner) and all other animal, vegetal and non-living supplies you procure yourself of. In the system of transmission of power, your own power increases and diminishes.
A diviner can recharge objects that help you. In case, for instance, of hunting he charges not only your bow, but also some thing like a lion tooth hanging around your neck while hunting. When they start to loose power, you bring them to the diviner. Charging might take some days, in which you of course will be careful. Cadmium batteries were amazing to Westerners when introduced, but no surprise to Africans. Once I bought non rechargeable batteries in a very small town. The seller claimed that they would auto recharge by simply giving them rest for a while. "Will you pay me back if they don't?", I asked to test his conviction. He wouldn't. Inferring from this I was tested to typical African "guile", and hence probably also was asked a muzungu (Western) price, I bid down on the batteries, starting from a wrong figure, erroneously offering him twice the money. "I cannot accept that" the man replied, "I want to be an honest trader". So the "rest" or if you will "recovery" theory was serious after all. The battery metaphor has helped me a lot. Mbiti uses the car battery as a metaphor. Think also of battery light: photons ("power") leaving a force that has been charged. That is what you, as a force, do when you talk to someone (see below in the main text). Every word is a photon (in Congo, the Mongo have a proverb saying: "ofonda nk' okaka, joi nta fondaka": what rots away is a fallen tree, a word does not rot away). And how to survive alone? Who will charge you? The battery as an "individual" force, separate from charging devices, is doomed to dematerialise. Power transmission makes everything hang completely together, not only in the long run, but even on short notice. Consciousness is almost exclusively in use for "we"-considerations (as opposed to "I"-considerations). I never heard an African speak about "my village". It is always "our village". Considering your African self as an individual comes closer than the Western reader can be made to believe to asking a Westerner to consider, say, his middle finger as an independent individual. And it would be frowned upon by classical Africans as least as much as is often done in the West on those males who treat their penis as an independent person.
The causes of these fluctuations of your power are wilful agents (dead or living) only. Whatever happens to you, "somebody" is responsible. It is unthinkable that your vital power changed by a mere contingency. Even natural forces that change your vital power, like a torrential rain, are sent by people using power transmission procedures. Not even God is involved in the specifics of what happens to you. Some people may be identified to be evil forces ("sorcerers"), but others to be misused as evil force by others (they can be cured).
Unfortunately this often makes certain people the scapegoats of a community, a danger to which the slightly deviant and childless are most prone.
Wilful agents are living humans, dead humans (human born spirits) and spirits born as spirits, known for residing in trees, rivers and certain types of animals.
Hence, to acquire knowledge of the cause of decreases in ones vital power, one should find the force with evil intentions deliberately triggering a chain of force transmissions that resulted in damage to your vital power. Analogously, knowledge concerning increases of your vital power should be acquired by research up the chain of power transmissions until you reach the living or dead person who intended this increase.
Elders and diviners will monitor these causes for everybody, since this knowledge is basic to the vital power of the community. Needless to say, the community is a force, and knowledge itself is a force, transmitted to the living by the ancestors.
Elders and diviners are concerned with the acquisition and updating of knowledge on vitality affecting forces. Such knowledge is not "produced" (a metaphor of knowledge acquisition acceptable to many Westerners), but received (many great Western scientists, however talk about their brightest moments in similar ways, as seems reflected in Popper's distinction between discovery -inspiration- and justification -hard labour-). In general, any association of knowledge acquisition with working is alien to the classical African mind (like with classical Greek knowledge). Just having an open mind is what counts.
Omúgeesi ekyámúzîmbyá ku ngírá: kulágíríwá: Why a smith built his working place near the road, is to be corrected (proverb 716 in Cultural Research Centre, Ensambo edh' Abasoga).
Evil forces may have to be addressed with counterforces, and the identification of all such forces goes with a great deal of uncertainty, as any participant will readily admit. Against some force, you "try" another force (a herb, a carefully charged stone, and many other means, some of them reported by Westerners to be astonishingly effective on them). In the course of your life, you improve. Your knowledge grows. The older you get, the more you will be asked for advice.
Children coming from school with wisdom unknown to elders constitute a fundamental epistemological problem. A radical new chain of power transmission is to be accommodated. Sure, kids could do many things better than elders, like picking the jackfruit from the tree for breakfast, but by serving as a forces transferring knowledge they become like "elders". A clear tension.
You may be thought to be gifted and picked out young by a diviner to learn the trade.
Westerners are inclined to think there is an epistemological demarcation between "natural" knowledge about such things as forging iron, building a house, making pottery, hunting, fishing, harvesting on the one hand, and about "magic" on the other. That is a Western problem. There is, from the African point of view, no difference in epistemological status. Africans have their own demarcation lines between different types of epistemological status that, for the Westerner, are not always easy to keep track with. There is medicine, magic, and work of spirits. Medicine is considered to be the most casual force: your bow is "loaded" by a medicine man, and also for instance the lion's tooth you wear around your neck. These forces enhance your hunting power. Also medicine are herbs against pimples, words spoken against sleeplessness. Magic for instance is what the diviner is doing for you when you fear theft or robbery: when at night you are sleeping in your hut, it will look like a shrubbery, and the thief will miss it. I have been told that a flying saucer made of reed maintains a ten minute service between Tanzania and New York (you travel naked without any luggage). Its fuel is human blood. You pay much more than you do to a regular airline. That's all magic. Spirits, finally, are not lightly to be manipulated by living humans, like the Western spiritual class tends to suggest. They make their own decisions. They come, usually because they are annoyed about something. Hamlet's dead father, however, appearing to his son to tell him how he had been killed and what he wants to happen, conforms African spiritual etiquette. When a spirit comes it scares the hell out of you, but this has nothing to do with medicine or magic.
Many able African craftsmen combine medicine and magic, but after all, one can be both a good plumber and a meritorious water-polo player
When I tried to construe
a general demarcation between medicine and magic, on the basis of the many
examples given to me, I had some success among Africans with the criterion that
medicine is understandable, in principle, to everyone, and magic is only
understandable to magicians. Medicine is a craft. Certified medicine men are not
the only ones able to charge bows and lion's teeth, en use herbs to cure al
kinds of diseases and misfortunes, such as allergy and excessive fuel
consumption of your car. Those things are a pure matter of practise and
experience, nothing special. But the magician who cures a painful knee at a
distance of 100 kilometres (the son, who made the visit, gets instructions on
when and how to position his father to receive the magical forces) bewilders
even the African.
To Westerners, the difference between magic and medicine should be learned by understanding what is surprising, bewildering to an African and what isn't. The first thing to realise is that to an African everything is power transmission from one force going to another, and many forms of it that might bewilder Westerners are casual to an African and hence no magic.
For the Western understanding of epistemology from the African point of view the term "magic" threatens to mislead. I shall avoid it.
You might, it should finally be conceded, be the cause of your own decrease of power. That is when to have done evil to someone (a member of the community, dead ancestor, or even spirit) yourself. You could for instance have insulted someone, taken something, or have broken the ethics in other ways. If you make good for it, by due apologies, maybe accompanied by gifts, you will be better. Others, who acquired knowledge and experience, might help you to find the ones you have offended.
8. Language as a method of power transmission
After having studied the basic doctrines of philosophy of science, I felt very sure of the truth of their basic principles. I considered it to be obvious that now I should be able easily to convince adherents to all kinds of irrational beliefs and methods of belief acquisition, such as astrologers, card readers, media, and especially their "clients" as you have them around in Western countries. I vividly remember the shock of my utter frustration when I experienced from my own conversations with such believers that philosophy of science did not, in my hands, turn out to have that power. And this was in contact with Western people often raised without such irrational beliefs, having acquired them individually in the course of their lives, often merely by reading some books, the words of which apparently appealed so much to them that my arguments taken from philosophy of science could not lure then back into rationality. I discovered myself unable to use philosophy of science as a "force".
The power of language. To Africans, language is a force, its power is used by every speaker. Some know better how to use that force than others. Mbiti notes that the words of parents, for example, carry "power" when spoken to children: they "cause" good fortune, curse, success, peace, sorrows or blessings, especially when spoken in moments of crisis. For explaining this to Westerners I like the metaphor of the photon: light is generally believed in the West to be an energy, transmitted in series of energy packets called photons. African speech is like Western light, and its words are the photons. They are smashed on you by a speaker, and they change your energy level. Sometimes upward (for instance with messages of agreement, encouragement, good news, blessings), sometimes downward (bad news, curses). The effect of words might be reasonably small, but they might also lift you in the air, your feet floundering, or knock you down. You can emit such packets too, and this leads you into an energy relation between communicating people. Many Western artists find inspiration in the African idea of language as a force. Many Western authors show awareness of this "photon" aspect of words.
An ironic example is a passage in Thomas Mann's Zauberberg, where a charismatic heavyweight Dutch wheat-trader Peperkorn arouses thrill when at table in the dining room of a Swiss sanatorium by just now and then saying things like "oui", or raising his glass and say "à la vie". Everyone hangs at his lips trembling, and Mann describes in detail the regrets of the Chinese tuberculosis patients at the neighbouring table who did not know French, after which the author wonders how big would have been their surprise had they been given a Chinese translation.
An African community is a togetherness that is very tense and close, densely connected by streams of energy packets. When they clap with one hundred, you hear one single clap, as if they are connected by the kind of neurones that within a human or animal body perfectly harmonise the movements of the body's muscles. The perfectly regular clap sequence is the "basic sentence" of power transmission medium in Africa.
In the basic clap, the hands meet as perfect mirror images (left), so not skewed in the Western way (right).
If you watch dance in Africa even the bodies as a whole seem
to be interconnected by ultra sophisticated wireless communication media. These
media are forces, what in the West is called "language" is only one of them, by
far not the most powerful one, but useful in some cases.
More about this in: Language from the African point of view
9. Secrets and guile
Because of the extremely powerful African communication media, for normal Westerners it would be impossible to have a secret while living in a classical African community.
I know this from being uncovered several times in African environments (fortunately on secrets with not too evil intentions) despite the expertise I had acquired in my former marriage with a woman from Russia, where, due to a long cultural history of mental oppression both in public and in private, not at all from communist origin, secret-creating and secret-detection capacities almost have the African finesse. Tugonzáníá: gh'ámíra amátánta tákukóberá: "we love each other", when he swallows the saliva he does not tell you (proverb 934 in Cultural Research Centre, Ensambo edh' Abasoga).
Africans themselves do much better in the field of secrets, because due to the "arms-race" between secret detection and secret preservation, the African secret preservation techniques have attained stunning levels of sophistication as well. First of all, there are the social secrets, for instance, the secrets of the group of adult males. Secondly, no diviner will be ready to tell you the details of his trade, and this is accepted, as it is accepted for other types of specialised craft. This know how is going from fathers to sons and nowhere else. But thirdly, every individual every now and then "misses the curves", taken by the community and at the outer side of the road finds something that he or she is not ready to share with others. This may be any kind of force. It may well be knowledge that others would immediately accept as true, but of which the spreading would diminish the vital power of the inquisitive individual involved. Alternatively, it might be a conviction that would, if shared, be contested ferociously or even lead to the banning of the individual.
Whatever the anomalous, not shared finding, the secret character of it blocks the advance of community knowledge. Since the conditions for something to safely be shared are very strong, the bulk of interesting findings die in single persons as secrets.
Proverb: "I'll tell you later" died without revealing its secret.
Before that, however, in his life, the person might have employed the secret well. To use secrets in a smart way is even a positive value in Africa, exemplified by smart animals like the tortoise.
Of course, I am not going to publish the secrets of the tortoise, but once the tortoise boosted to both the hippopotamus and the elephant to be a rope puller of matching calibre. On the day agreed for the contest he swam a rope across the river, at each end of which he connected one of his defiants. Thus he established the reputation he desired.
10. Time and realism
"Future" is a word that both Europeans and Africans know. Mbiti explains brilliantly how the classic African "future" differs from the European one.
To Westerners, time is a set of stripes drawn on the tarmac that is on the road on which they drive. They believe to drive at exactly constant speed, so they think they know exactly when we all, not only Westerners themselves, will cross these stripes. There are big stripes for years, smaller for months, days, hours, minutes, seconds, and so on. Westerners find it unwise to doubt whether the road is perfectly straight, regular, and goes on forever. Their journey stops when they die, but dying soon is not a real possibility to most of them, as it is to every African. Their agreements with each other about future deliveries and payments are very precisely drawn on this tarmac. If they fail to pay or deliver at the moment their machine of time has reached the agreed tarmac stripe they are in big trouble and probably loose their customer and all his friends. So, agreements, in Africa the cause of warm feelings of acquired or reinforced friendship, often cause Westerners to be very nervous.
Africans have no such unshakeable belief in the future. Constant speed over regular tarmac might be possible, but the machine might as well break down, floods could take the road, and a relative might be met. Africans do not like to waste much time speculating about the future.
Bulí mbérí: tágúla bulí ínhúmá: what is forward cannot buy what is behind (proverb 274 in Cultural Research Centre, Ensambo edh' Abasoga).
The chance of it being what we expect is considered low. Why loose energy to such hypothetical considerations! Instead of hours and numerical dates, Africans traditionally rely on personal emotional marks of time, like when you were born, when you married, when you had you first child, when there was a war. But as far as the future is concerned these marks are still to be made, and the African typically considers his or her influence on that as small. The future is hypothetical, unreal and uninteresting to consider now.
This view naturally entails that anticipation is generally unwise, and there is a second fundamental reason why anticipation is unwise: since all forces determining the future course of events are personal, anticipation is also impolite. In anticipating, you expect forces to do something, and that is a way forces, especially powerful forces, that is, the most important forces, do not want to be treated by you. You should not act in the expectation that they will co-operate, but you should modestly wait until they decide to do something for you. That is good behaviour, that is the behaviour that optimises your chances in nature. In short, you are taught to treat nature like you are taught to treat your father and mother: an attentive and respectful waiting. That is not only how you catch fish and dear, that is how you catch everything, including knowledge.
As a result of its hypothetical nature, to Africans a certain future point in time seems further away than to a European. Waiting for the start of a play in Jinja, Uganda, I met a Ugandan sister who just returned from her first visit to London. I asked her: one Ugandan week, how many London weeks would it be? She immediately understood my question, thought only for a second, looking over my head, and then said decidedly: six.
This would have tremendous consequences: it means that in one weeks hard work, a Ugandan suffers six times as much as a Londoner. If he is free for one week, he enjoys six times as much than a Londoner. If the number six would be a reasonable estimate, which I would be inclined to think, it would be very irrational for a Ugandan to work as hard as a Londoner, especially when you add that the Londoner feels sure about the future enjoyment of his working results and to the Ugandan the future is unreal, unsure and hypothetical.
Whether six or another number, to a Ugandan as compared to a European the present is larger and the future is smaller. Future enjoyment is more real to a European and he is willing to work now in order to fill his future with enjoyment. This future is "big" to him, and he likes it to be filled with enjoyment. To a Ugandan, the same work, requiring the same number of hours, occupies his present, which is something very large. The sacrifice is very high. The reward, filling his future with enjoyment, is low, because his future is small.
11. Making causal theories is a waste of energy: good luck-bad luck
What will happen as a result of your actions is unsure,
because your actions are like the waves a daffodil makes in the air. What does
it do to the air? What does it do to yourself? Don't think of it too much.
You'll waste your time. You float on forces you do not know much about, and you
are not in control anyway. Though always and only subjects, humans, are
responsible for what happens to you, it is hard to know all of them and we
invest in the acquisition of such knowledge only when we experience a persistent
drag on our vitality. That is because you need to appease humans and spirits
that somehow started acquire the habit always to pick on you. For the rest, in
your action, you "give" yourself to nature just as you give yourself to your
community. So why, for instance, drive prudently? If you survive the wild ride,
you had "good luck", if you die, you had "bad luck". Westerners, facing things
neglected by Africans, "causing" in Western eyes misfortunes, may ask why some
preventive action has not been taken. Africans are likely to think that the
waiving of the preventive action has little or nothing to do with the resulting
misfortune, which is simply one of "bad luck". Didn't others waive the
preventive action too, but without the unfortunate result? If the forces turned
out to be against you, you'll have to accept and comply. Africans have
remarkable capacities to accept their suffering.
There is no way to study forces in isolation. Nature as a whole operates on nature as a whole. This implies that it makes no sense whatsoever to do controlled experiments to acquire knowledge of forces. Western scientific method lacks every meaning. Experimental isolation of forces is unthinkable. Wisdom does not reveal itself in the persistent success of efforts to attain goals.
On the contrary even, Karen Blixen suggests in Out of Africa, telling about her laywoman's effort to supply some medical help: "If I had been been able to guarantee recovery to every individual patient, who knows, their circle would have thinned. In that case I would have enjoyed the prestige of a medical doctor -apparently a highly able doctor from Volaia!- but would they still have been sure the Lord is with me? Because they know the Lord from the big years of drought, from the lions on the planes in the night, and the leopards near their houses when the children were there alone, and from the swarms of grasshoppers coming down on the land, nobody knew from where, and not a single blade would be left after they had passed. They knew him from the unimaginable moments full of happiness when a swarm had flown over the field without landing, or when in spring the rains came early and abundantly and let all the fields and planes bloom en yield a rich harvest. So, that highly able doctor from Volaia yet perhaps was an outsider when it came to the real big things in life".
In a discussion on an exposition of techniques of rain-making by Dah-Lokonon (1997), Jean-Marie Apovo describes an experiment where rain fails to fall. "Then the rain-makers claim certain feelings were not quite right, or that a number of subjective conditions has not been met. One wonders why the workings of our [Apove is a native African, though apparently raised in the Western concept of knowledge] traditional intellectual practices are always subject to such psychological, individual and climatic conditions. What can we do to get rid of these subjective factors and achieve pure objectivity?" (p. 88) What Apovo wants to "get rid of", is the essence of the world, in the traditional African view.
On good luck and bad luck in Busoga (Uganda) there is a publication by the Cultural Research Centre Jinja.
12. Acquisition of knowledge relevant to the principle of minimum investment
A very important observation is done by Burgman, whom we shall follow here in detail. A basic rule generally honoured is: keep out of the way of powerful forces unless you can handle them. In fact, it is considered wise to keep out of the way of any kind of forces that bother you. There is wisdom in reducing the number of things that have to be done. Here we have to experiment. Many things present themselves as being utterly necessary, but a little experimentation will show that they often can be omitted. Avoiding aggressive engagement is a wise thing to do, and very good for one's health. This is called by Burgman the "Law of Minimum Investment". Whenever nature devises a scheme, it invests a minimum amount of energy in it, so that it only just works. A lion can only just catch his prey, and often loses it; a kingfisher has more misses than strikes. Too much power in any particular place would upset the balance in nature. So people should also try to reach their goals with a minimum investment. What the minimum actually is should be established by experiment: how far can you reduce your input before the thing actually collapses? This explains why Africans tend to love to omit actions that seem indispensable to Westerners. It has an immediate bearing on the level of maintenance of vehicles, houses and apparatus. Taken on a much bigger scale this explains why technical progress is not a priority.
Africans feel that their "gentle approach" to nature is rewarded. If you do not make outrageous demands on nature, you will find out that nature responds with some degree of reliability and even generosity. It will answer your needs if you make your needs modest enough. So there is no need for preserving food on a big scale. This insight leads to the "feast or famine" attitude. Some outsiders may look down on this, but at least we have a feast every now and then. Feast is whenever there is a lot and we are allowed to finish it all. In the unreal, hypothetical and uninteresting future, nature may give something else again. Or not, in case we still shall have had a marvellous feast today.
After a day of rioting in Kinshasa during which a supermarket was emptied by the mob, someone wrote on the wall of the supermarket: "merci pour la fête" (thank you for the feast).
In the context of the present 20th century technology and industrial world of intense competition, this creates problems. For Africans know and desire the some of the things that technology has produced. But the amount of work that goes into producing them or even procuring them may be more than what they find humanly desirable. Even when these articles are obtained, these very articles will demand a lot of care. Engines of all kinds all have their own laws of maintenance and safety. It is very dangerous to temper with these laws. Yet all around us we see people trying to omit even the minimum demands that these artefacts make. Safety regulations are flouted with incredible ease. As a result calamitous break-downs occur and horrifying accidents. These will be ascribed to "bad luck". For see: many people gave still worse maintenance and took even greater risks; so how come that they did not get an accident, but got away with it? Thus the causal connection becomes obliterated, and the "good luck-bad luck" evaluation takes over.
We cherish such enormously powerful technical tools like guns and cars, but our principle of minimum investment makes us cherish mostly those technical objects that require no further investment at all: Africa is conquered by the plastic bags, toe-slippers and jerricans (that do not really need their screw top, as we quickly discovered)
On my second visit to Uganda, I brought a lot of jerrican screw tops, having seen them being absent universally. They received little interest.
13. Conclusion 1: Knowledge we need
What knowledge does the classical African need? The criterion is survival, procreation, the first requirement is considered to be togetherness. We should know how to achieve these goals.
Not wise to doubt or discuss
God is the total of power
The world is the total of forces
The clan or tribe is the knowing subject.
All knowledge is power.
All knowledge is about forces and their powers
All our power, including that of knowledge, is procreationally transmitted. For ourselves that means: it comes from our ancestors.
You don't go for knowledge, you wait till it comes.
Things to keep an open mind about
Omúgeesi ekyámúzîmbyá ku ngírá: kulágíríwá: Why a smith built his working place near the road, is to be corrected (proverb 716 in Cultural Research Centre, Ensambo edh' Abasoga).
What are the powers of every different type of force ("thing"). How best to employ those powers?
Who transmits power in favour of my vital energy? How to deal with them?
Who transmits power detrimental to my vital energy? How to deal with them? ("My" involves all mine, that is ultimately the whole community.)
What are the minimum conditions to keep something in operation?
14. Conclusion 2: Why the need for science of Western specification is not felt
Once, as a student in economics and philosophy of science, I lived with 8 people in a Dutch house where cooking was done in turn, by a mechanism based, I held, on irrational intuitions. I proposed to save 8 old tin cans for the 8 members, each of us to start with 8 marbles in our own tin can, "paying" a marble each night to the one who had done the cooking. The opposition was ferocious. I did not get myself through. One of the leading ladies claimed this would mean the immediate "death" of the community. I gradually learnt to "feel" when my turn was there.
Later, I met a Norwegian girl teaching at an all African primary school near Kampala who tried to learn to feel, at that moment still without much success, when she was supposed to go to which classroom, what children to expect, and what to do with them. She solved the problem by simply always being there and be prepared for anything (other teachers simply did not show up or suddenly appeared). Like in the kitchen of my Dutch house, there was a "schedule" on the wall in this school which, like in my Dutch house, everybody would tell you was old. Like in my Dutch house there was no clear leadership. Things were just "happening". Many questions can be asked: Do I start to "feel like" cooking when others don't? Or when I notice that other people's bad memories of my last turn start to fade? These are after the event questions. The Western concept of rational strategy is the reverse: "reasons" are before the event and make you decide to do something. It is exemplified by the Lucky Luke cartoon in which the butler of an English lord touring through the Wild West starts to fight attacking Indians with his right hand, holding an encyclopædia, open on the entry "self defence" in his left. In the cartoon, of course the butler wins. It's funny, but this butler's behaviour bears a striking resemblance to the mode of operation of a Western symphony orchestra, and to Western poets reading from their own work. African musicians and poets do not work with paper. They fully concentrate on their Indians.
The minute recording of predictions, beliefs and the outcomes of events inconsistent with them does not tally with togetherness. It could if thoughts could be treated as independent of the people who got them, but in a classical African community this is an unthinkable interpretation of the idea of a "thought". Like every force, all thoughts have powers coming from personal forces. All thoughts are personal by definition (or if you will by "knowledge that is unwise to doubt").
Kagame tells the following story: an old illiterate Ruandan woman, says with great confidence and emphasis: 'These whites are really movingly naïve; they have no intelligence.' After being asked how she can say something like that, did we invent such miraculous things as these whites did, things beyond our power of imagination? She replies: 'Listen well, my child. They have all simply learned that, but they have no intelligence whatsoever. They have no understanding of anything.' Kagame, Alexis (1956), La philosophie Bantu Rwandaise de l'être.
15. Conclusion 3: The "individual" contra the "personal"
A basic way to phrase the astonishing dialectics of Western versus classical African approaches is to say that in the West anonymous, free moving atomic individuality ("every thing is individual") is the ideal self image, where the ideal self image of the classical African is holistic, community-dependent, power-connected personality ("every force is personal"). Needless to say, in neither culture you can fully attain nor be fully happy with the ideal self image that you have irreversibly been raised and grown in, the one you've been taught, implicitly for by far the most part, as being obvious.
Many scholars, notably Tempels, Horton and Appiah take pains to clarify the African idea of "personal", and its difference, yes, opposition to the Western "individual". In a Western factory you might have 50 identical "individual" machines operated by 50 "individual" workers. From the management point for view, neither are treated as personal. They both are costly production inputs capable to perform certain routines, nearly identical individuals liable to being counted and treated identically. In Africa even machines quickly acquire their own personal features, as repairs are not usually made in a standard way. In Africa, a machine (car, bus etc.) can usually be operated only by persons knowing this particular machine well.
16. Competitiveness and romanticism
Whether things look essentially the same or different depends
upon the chosen distance of observation. Since it was my purpose to look at
differences, I have chosen my "zoom factor" accordingly. I hope I came near
enough to clearly display the differences between the African and the Western
strategy to acquire and maintain knowledge. But like de Western strategy, the
African one is very consistent if you come to think about it. As far as it is
"strange" to Westerners, its consistency creates for them a window with an
unexpected view on themselves.
An idea is a force that can gain and loose power. The ideas on which the Western mind is based have achieved an "obviousness" to Westerners making them invisible, but permeating everything. But ideas can loose power too. And they do not have the same power everywhere. The vicissitudes of "obvious" ideas that go on travel enhance your power, as a muzungu, that is, as a human force coming from elsewhere.
Western "dead" causality thinking now found its way to the deepest places in Africa. The reason is simple. It gives you power: power to earn money as an engine repairman, and power to keep your car on the road, to get your product sold, to acquire your equipment. If you wish to update to 21st century state of the art your (dead causal) knowledge on what cars do not need in order to stay on the road, you should definitively go to Africa. No kidding!: no Western technician knows as precisely as a great many Africans what is the absolute minimum requirement for a road and a car to keep that car making progress on that road. That this knowledge seems less relevant to the Westerner than is does to the African is a matter of priorities and circumstances, and quite obviously not one of difference in epistemic sophistication.
You can, however, the author is told, also buy fuel saving herbs to hang at your engine, and as soon as he comes by it he is certainly going to try.
Finally: Both in the West and, as I have discovered personally, in Africa there are time-honoured longings for the "happy life of the savage".
It is well know that in the West the savage has been a venerated object of romantic philosophy. But more than once my discussions with Ugandans about culture change took, by their initiative, the path of the "spoiled society", and a longing for primitive tribal community life made impossible by the modern conditions in Uganda.
But there are also voices claiming the "superiority" of modern Western culture.
Here Westerners take the lead, curiously enough showing an astonishing lack of scientific rationality in making observations. But also Africans often are too impressed by Western culture, as a result of erroneously considering it as the "force" that overpowered them. This partly explains the ease by which many "Western" religious sects gain followers. They are erroneously identified as the forces behind the powerful Western technical tools. Their leaders typically are not shy of keeping up that appearance.
It should be stressed again that this paper had no contribution to such sometimes romantic sometimes competitive discussions. Their meaning is in itself quite unclear. In political debate, they can be, and are, misused by all sides. That is easy because they have no consequence for personal action, except to mislead people to cast their vote on one rather than another.
17: What can epistemology from the African point of view mean to Western philosophers?
One of the standard tasks in every Western philosophy education is to characterise the specifics of the Modern Western concept of knowledge, the concept that arose out of the late Middle Age and early Renaissance revolution of thought. Such a characterisation involves a difficulty like that of making the fish understand its water. One needs other environments to explain the specifics one's own. Other concepts of knowledge are not ready at hand in Western society.
A usual, and highly effective method of creating a window with a view on the modern Western concept of knowledge is the study of the Greek and Middle Age philosophy and science. By wondering about the in many respects so very surprising epistemological taxonomies and rules of argument of Greek and Middle Age culture, one gains access to questions like: what would pre-modern philosophers have thought about modern Westerners? Where and why do modern Westerners disagree with pre-Modern views on what is knowledge and how to acquire it?
Surely the analogy with the fish may well keep holding as far as that this is nothing but a small jump above the surface of the epistemological liquid in which modern Western man swims, but any such attempt, however restricted in its power to reach its aim in giving self insight should clearly be worth any philosopher's trouble.
In finding different epistemological concepts that might help us mirroring Western culture, time is not the only dimension for travelling. Space can do the job, as long as substantially different cultures keep existing. The culture of Sub-Sahara Africa is the substance from which we, in this paper, have tried to put together an epistemological mirror meant for Western knowledge bearers to learn from in the same way as one learns for instance by studying Classical and Middle Age concepts of knowledge and rules for argumentation.
Referring, as I frequently did, to literature concerning an oral tradition like the African tradition is a highly devious procedure. From the African viewpoint the genuine and optimal reference is to experience in dealing with African people in life. That is why I have so frequently referred to personal experiences.
This paper is not be engaged in the comparative normative evaluation of the ways to knowledge of the different cultures. This is because it easily leads to conclusions that are far from novel, say, that Western knowledge has led to greater technical capabilities in fields like flying, killing people and polluting the environment. On the other hand it leads to similar arguments from the African side that might raise Western sceptical rationalist emotions that are not helpful to the problem at hand, such as that African knowledge, contrary to Western knowledge, allows you to ask your dead parents for active help (they are even told to sometimes work on the land at busy times!). The respective rejoinders to the claims could well be that Africans say they simply hire Westerners to do the techniques of their wars and Westerners say they do not need Africans to teach them to let their dead parents help them because these are too old to be able to give any useful advice (an astonishing reaction to the typical African). So, generally, norms rest on evaluation principles, and there are no such interculturally accepted principles at hand. As I hope has been dealt with clear enough, priorities diverge widely among the cultures. Besides, there are better things to do than to make the typical Western competitive quarrel on "what's the best" that in Western philosophy of science overshadows so many of the more interesting scholarly questions.
Literature on African thought abounds. A lot of it, both by Western scientists and Africans trained scientifically in the Western sense is so much occupied with the Western rituals of knowledge acquisition that it immediately submerges, often never to be seen again, in statistical analysis of data obtained from aselect samples and their control groups. At the beginning of every attempt to understand, however, is the problem of getting your concepts right. "Knowledge", "truth", "finding the truth", yes, virtually all abstract concepts are bound to leave an African and a Westerner talking in terms of them in utter confusion. Africans traditionally have a profoundly different use and interpretation, a different idea about the nature of language! There are two tasks: enhancing the Western understanding of the way in which Africans engineer their knowledge, and enhancing African understanding of how knowledge engineering ("science") operates in Western culture. These two tasks require some hard to acquire common skills, but are completely different in most respects. I have concentrated on the former, hopefully showing what Westerners can learn about themselves by trying to understand Africans, especially what Africans mean when, talking among themselves, they are addressing the problems of their confrontation with Western culture.
The big trap, or -Baconian- forum, stems from the invisibility at first sight of the ocean of cultural differences. It is difficult to see that there is something to explore. Once a small part is revealed, the rest remains as invisible as it was, and the inclination is to think "the job is done", en there is nothing anymore to gain understanding of. This will leave Westerners stuck again in erroneously identifying what is out there with the dead circularity of Western projections from Western culture. Of course, projection is all one can do, but the forum consists of the treacherous signals one gets that though our previous projections were ridiculous, one's present ones are "good".
Africa has changed since Tempels,
again since Kagamé and Mbiti and it
will continue changing after Appiah. A frequently used
method to deal with the changes is first to characterise "tradition", like a
Weberian "ideal type", featuring the common properties of traditional African
communities as they have almost disappeared now, and then deal with the
historical road taken by Africans from that "traditional" state. Though
notoriously dangerous in many circumstances, I have followed this procedure,
referring to the "traditional" ideal type drawn as the classical African
community. If no confusion is possible I simply wrote African. If
this led to errors of excess simplification, the least that could be harvested
is a list of those errors and an agenda of correcting them.
In explaining the African point of view I often followed Burgman's habit of using the "we"-form, quite inappropriate for me, a Netherland's cross between a Saxon and a Frisian, but a highly pregnant and effective device.
The classical African community as it stands above should, as an ideal type of tradition, be one of pervasive African validity. If not, this paper is no good. Needless to say, it is restricted to the epistemological relevant aspects.
It should finally be conceded that almost everything discussed has been observed and discussed before by others, in other contexts, often couched in other terms, so the chief merit of this paper, if any, is to reorder and rephrase matters in order to maximise the claim to relevance to enhanced understanding of Western knowledge acquisition, epistemology and philosophy of science.
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