Bert hamminga Le Penseur Africain         version date 991023    Questions

One of the most difficult things to explain to Westerners is how the African concept of thinking, the idea of what thinking is, differs from the Western concept. What follows is an attempt that might seem unconventional but has proven to be most effective (after actually getting acquainted with an African community and live through actual thinking experiences with this community).

The primary African "thinking 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 all that 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, leafs and flowers, our children. The tree knows. "We" know. The tree is the primary thinking subject. Our way of conveying these messages is not by writing, because we consider writing a highly ineffective form of communication for our purposes. We use myths, stories and knowledge available and propagate  them in danced and sung music, in story telling, and by visual methods. Many of these activities and their results are called "art" in the West, because due to their being victim of writing-[hypostatics##] few Westerners can comprehend that it really constitutes what in Western terms is best called science. For instance, the words written thus far lack the sharpness of the African way to propagate the message in the form of  a family tree:

tree_zo.jpg (150469 bytes) The best way to explain to a Westerner in the Western way -in words- :what you see on the picture left is to say: this is the African subject. The tree is the "one who" thinks, knows, works. It contains many people, dead and alive. Every thought originates from the trunk of the tree, the (living-)dead. They are the most powerful, thoughtful and knowing, and transfer all power, thought,and knowledge to the trunk, the adults, who in turn supply the branches, leafs and flowers, the young and the children. There is no other way to obtain power, thoughts and knowledge than this.









tree_n.jpg (142676 bytes)If observed from another angle (right), you can see that a tree is used for this sculpture deliberately in such a way that its tree-origin remains visible. What the Westerner should notice in the first place is the superiority of this picture mode of propagating the thought of subjects as collectives of people forming trees over the written words above.

So, in African culture the vehicles of thought and science are: sounds and gestures of living people as well as dead ancestors, and shapes and colours in various media (stone, wood, cloth, ivory etc.). What the propagator of thought does is representing existing, established thought and science. Representation, in African phrasing, is the transfer of power of what is to be represented in something else, thus making this something else a (derived) force in its own right. The African "representer" (for which the term "artist" is a misleading translation) does not typically "experiment" or expresses a unique individual thought, emotion or wisdom. A new thought is impossible, unthinkable  in traditional African culture, a contradictio in terminis, since all thought and science travels "bottom up" (taken literally) through the family tree, from living-dead ancestors up to the youngest of generations of a tribal community.

An East Ugandan tribe recently abandoned its permissiveness in sexual promiscuity facing the AIDS problem. But it was done only after consulting the ancestors, who did agree with new punishments for promiscuous sexual contacts previously not considered to be a source of worry. So, the new rules are thought to constitute a neglected part of the old tribal wisdom that has now to be put into practice facing the new danger.

Thought formation and communication

If, therefore, a science is still contested in the tribe there is no expression of it . Contested thoughts are not expressed: actual thought formation is not the business of singing, dancing or other visualiziations.

The clan or tribe is the thinking subject. Its thoughts come from the ancestors. New thoughts are unthinkable (only thinkable are thoughts that "always" have been "there" may be without part of the community knowing it). How then does the tribe "doubt"? What if there is a problem of thought?

pens_ozo.jpg (546060 bytes)   Let us not forget that in the West eminent people brilliantly expressed this state of mind - the Western version of a problem of thought- visually. (They are not called scientists but artists, a distinction that is entirely culture-relative).
Western scientists might work for years on the basis of provisional beliefs not shared by their social and even scientific environment before deciding whether they were wrong or they should come to the fore with their conclusions inconsistent with general opinion. That lonely heroism is hailed in the West and striven after by many individuals. , It is part of the Western appeal of Rodin's  "Le Penseur"  (left). It is not at all what Africans cherish. They primarily cherish togetherness: if one sheep moves, it should come back or the herd should follow. And all this now. What is expressed in Rodin's "Penseur" is, to African standards, intolerable behaviour. If there is some doubt about something, 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. But someone who is going to sit like Rodin's Penseur will be pulled off his rock immediately, and on resistance, face the danger of becoming accused of being possessed by evil forces. Thinking and doubting is considered to be a collective process, after all, we are one single subject, deriving our common power from common ancestors.

Uganda president Yoweri Museveni, in his autobiography, explains how he had to learn the use of the commanding type leadership the hard way: only after serious human losses in the early stage of his liberation guerilla, he started to cut short unorganized procedures of common decision making among the fighters. "Originally, the group had been consultative - every decision was arrived by consensus. But this practice was dangerous when it applied to military situations" (Museveni, Y.K., Sowing the Mustard Seed London etc: MacMillan (1997),p.80 ).

In an African collective doubt-resolution procedure, it is not even sure beforehand who will get his or her way. That might depend on the subject. Different group members have different expertise, hence different persuasive power in different situations of doubt. It is the elders how take the lead directing the attention to voices most likely to transfer the best of the expertise available, that is, voices that have, in African phrasing, most power. Whoever gets his or her way, we shall have to settle the thing now. After settling, you accommodate. African communities have a wide range of methods to make voices heard and streamlining them towards a consensus. Africans are astonishingly obedient in following the outcome of a procedure, even if it runs counter the opinion  they defended and their interest in the affair at stake. These opinions and special interests are readily sacrificed for the higher aim of togetherness. and it is this ultimate aim of  togetherness that is the exact opposite of what Rodin's Penseur radiates.

Now this settling in the group looks, to Westerners, most like the way Westerners settle things individually, as heroically expressed by Rodin: 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 as an individual but about the community. They do not need therapy, they are well trained and equipped with procedures to reach community-wide consensus.

The African "palaver" is a well known example of coming together and reaching agreement. On disagreement between individuals or groups, elders are sought, preferably common grand-elders and great-grandelders, if this is impossible, one brings together grandelders and great grandelders that are close relatives. They hear parties seperately, and together, and try to reach some consensus. If this fails they consult the ancestors and  issue a solution of the problem by way of tribal verdict (usually involving the obligation to some party to apologize and present certain kinds of gifts) to which non compliance is thought absolutely impossible.

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 African collective science in 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.

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.

Although Westerns cherish individuality and  Africans hail group conformity, the resulting picture is not simple. Many  advertising are decisively Western in creating lots of associations with "individuality", but the result is an extreme conformity of larger masses of consumers of the very same product! Because due to freedom of individual choice exit and entry to different Western "groups" is easy (fan clubs, schools, options-exchange brokers, and many other kinds of "scenes"), the way to become part of such a group is to conform meticulously to habits of dressing, accessories like types of cars and scene-specific codes of behaviour. Due to basic individuality Westerners have  to "work" for membership of some group. Africans do not need to do anything to be member of their family, clan and tribe. As a result, Africans are remarkably free in other respects like dressing, behaving, and choice between protestant, catholic or Muslim religion. The obvious and unassailable group membership of the African yields options for individualism unreachable for Westerners.

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 think. 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. thinking is one form of togetherness.

The African view on Western thought. 

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.

Westerners who are best in understanding the reverse leap are those who have to cooperate 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.

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). 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. (proverb 848 in Ensambo edh' Abasoga, Cultural Research Centre) and passim proverbs on "bachelors"

In what sense the African force of thought appears to be stronger than of the West

The difference between the individual thinking hero that constitutes a Western ideal with the representation of thought in African culture is best displayed not in the Western way, by writing words, but in the African way, by contrasting the lonely and suffering Penseur by Rodin with the vital energy radiated by the family tree.   

lesdeux.jpg (491335 bytes)However even if we put together a statue of an African elder, as such considered to be one of the highest, hence most powerful, hence most respected,  living thinkers, generally called Musé in Uganda, with Rodin's penseur, the real proportions become clear at sight: it immediately transpires that both are thinking about the the problems of....the Western lonely hero. That is because Musé so markedly, so unlike  Rodin's Penseur radiates togetherness in his thinking. That radiation of togetherness in thinking of Musé himself is what is the representer wants the beholder to learn, the fact that this power of radiation transcended to the wooden object  illustrates the the force and maturity of African expression. It stems from it being recognized as what in the Western phrasing should be called science (not "art"). It is not probing, it is representing established thought, in its full force of being established: old people are powerful, wise, they are the foundation of tribal civilization, their thought is not experimental, and not merely about themselves but about all problems that may arise in the community. Another important thing to note is that African wisdom is, contrary to Rodin's thinking, not muscular, though Africans understand very well the meaning and necessity of  muscles.

pens_nw.jpg (22383 bytes)Rationalism and empiricism

Le Penseur, a popular image often used in philosophy books, announcements for conferences etc. depicts the Western rationalist in the technical philosophical sense: one who attempts to capture knowledge by pure thought, reasoning to the essence. While thinking, he supports his right elbow with left knee and bends his back forward in torsion, a position emphatically dissuaded by physiotherapists because it tends to lead to back injuries (see picture left).





pens_zw.jpg (19822 bytes)Western empiricists, who seek to acquire knowledge through observation, would not be charmed by the way Le Penseur seems to have closed himself off from sense experiences (see right). The Western empiricist is looking around like the African family tree does (see pictures above), but unlike the African family tree has no objections at all in doing so on his own, as in individual activity. 





Whether someone is a rationalist or an empiricist can usually best be judged looking at the eyes and posture.

gassendi.jpg (3331 bytes)Left is Pierre Gassendi, one of the founding fathers of modern empiricism. Look how his eyes look at you.

hobbes.jpg (6756 bytes)Right: Thomas Hobbes, an early modern empiricist. He once was criticised for not having read some book and replied: "Sir, would I have read as much as you, I would have known as little".

hume.jpg (2384 bytes)Left: David Hume, another founder of empiricism. Standing very well upright, open to see who is looking at him. His posture does not make him prone to back problems.



thales2.jpg (2651 bytes)Left: Thales of Milete, an ancient Greek philosopher had, if we should trust the sculpture, the most hawkish eyes of all empiricists. He taught that everything is evolving, nothing stays as it is. But, you can see from his face, this did not discourage him to keep trying to follow as long as possible some things evolving in the world. This is the philosopher whose stature will certainly have most approval from physiotherapists, though all empiricists above are standing well upright with a well stretched spinal column.

euclid.jpg (14396 bytes)Right: Euclid, the inventor of the axiomatic method of geometry. He is depicted as concentrated on what he is writing on a paper. He is in his thoughts. We, seeing him, clearly feel we should not disturb him. He is most like Rodin's Penseur. Though not sitting badly from a physiotherapist's point of view (his table has the correct height, able to support the elbows, and his head is not too far down), he would certainly be advised not to sit like this for a long time and do some stretching exercises after a longer session. Euclid has been a paradigm example for all famous rationalist philosophers of modern times.

Mathematics, Euclid's basic trade, has naturally been the paradigm science for rationalism: its truth does not depend on obervation.

geom.jpg (4374 bytes)It may seem that mathematical objects like circles and traingles can be "seen" on a drawing like the left picture. But that is false: if you look carefully enough, you will discover errors in the drawing. You cannot draw a real, perfect circle. The perfect circle is an idea. Since mathematics, by working with such ideas comes to conclusions that are sure and neat, many philosophers held that the mathematical method of deducing from principles is the proper one for acquiring any type of knowledge, not only about geometric figures and numbers, but also of stars, animals and economic households etc.. Plato, for instance, held that real horses running around on our globe are imperfect models of the idea of a horse that constitutes all real truth about horses, just as it is with mathematical circles.

Empiricist hold that many types of knowledge are unlike pure mathematical knowledge in being established not with full certainty and only by means of reference to things people have observed: all planets move in ellipse shaped orbits, animals cannot live at temperatures higher than 62o C, households procure needs by labour. You can't prove such things, nevertheless you can be justified in believing they are true.

Famous rationalists thought they had proven the "necessity" of things that  were later observed to be false: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) for instance thought he had proven that the universe is Euclidian, which it turned out not to be. Gottlieb Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831), thought he had proven there could be only seven planets orbiting around the sun (and the "proof" was the most interesting part, because everybody at the time believed they were 7), while the list now shows a lot more.

Some empiricists believe even math should be observed to be true: if you do not believe 2+2=4, just add apples, coin, matches. You will get tired and really start to believe 2+2=4. Actually: children first learn to count 1,2,3,4 using things like fingers, apples and pieces of chocolate. Then, they are taught to merge two sets of 2 and recount. So experience does play a role in learning!  But of course, if once the result would be 5, this would not prompt mathematical research. I myself misunderstood the nature of mathematics when as a 12 year old I did my first mathematics homework: I was given two angles of a triangle, and asked for the third. Of course I was supposed to use the recently taught theorem that the the angles of a triangle always add up to 180o, but I came to school with measurement results that, though quite accurate, did have a few degrees deviation!

The dispute between rationalism and empiricism is now solved (except in some quarters of philosophical die-hards): there is a very clear distinction between formal sciences like mathematics, and empirical science like physics and economics. A lot of formal scientic work is done in empirical sciences, because theories of empirical science are often about values of measurement results. These are numbers, and models explaining what combinations of numbers one should expect are, naturally, mathematical models.

What is best to spread science, images or words?

If you download this particular web page, the total kilobyte size of text does not even completely equal that of one image. More than 90% of the kilobyte information of this particular web page is imagery.
What does that mean? Does it mean that the reader should spend 90% of his absorbing time of this page to the images?
Not necessarily. May be more, may be less. Images carry with themselves relatively much of the information you need to understand them. Words are carrying only what is strictly necessary  for the intended receiver to trigger complicated  language software resident in his brains that co-operates with the text sent to create "understanding". You can show the family tree and Le Penseur to a little child and it will understand that people are climbing on top of each other and looking out, and there is a man who should not be disturbed. But the text of this web page will only be readable when the child is 10, and only be satisfactorily understandable when it is 16. Only at that age the child will have managed to load the relevant language software in its brain .

"Language" should not be taken narrowly. To understand words like "science", "knowledge" and "understanding" you need vital pop up's in world understanding as well!.

But the importance of  imagery and interaction in acquiring science is well illustrated with this example: suppose you buy a new type of complicated machine (say a DVD player and recorder). You do not know how to operate it. It has a manual. But your neighbour bought the same thing last month and spent a weekend going through it. How much time would the neighbour need to teach you all that he learned in that weekend? Indeed, many readers will have had experiences  leading to estimates between 30 and 45 minutes!
Among philosophers, written language is a venerated vehicle for inter human transmission. The DVD player and recorder example shows that written language actually is a clumsy and unnecessary time consuming instrument that often leads you astray. In philosophy, people thus led astray write books read by people who are thus led astray and start to write more books, because in philosophy there is no criterion like a DVD player and recorder that should be operated properly.

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