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date: 26 January 2021

African Fiction and Philosophyfree

  • Jeanne-Marie JacksonJeanne-Marie JacksonDepartment of English, Johns Hopkins University


Though the two fields have rarely been put in conversation, African philosophy and African fiction share a set of foundational concerns. These include the relation of the individual to the community; the significance of culture to unseating exclusively Western universalisms; and the tension between “lived” and a priori claims to truth against a background of political and epistemological decolonization. In addition to this substantive thematic core, both fields have also been shaped by an acute and even anguished degree of self-definitional questioning. What is “African” about African philosophy, or about the African novel? And inversely, what is fundamental to philosophy or the novel as such? Orality has served in both fields as a means of gauging the relative knowledge value afforded experience, on the one hand, and ideas’ formal contestation, on the other. While strong advocates of orality as a distinguishing feature of African intellectual production have extolled its collective dimensions, critics have been wary of its potential for cultural reductiveness and essentialism. Textuality, some argue, is an epistemological orientation that exceeds the literal practice of writing, and need not be viewed as a historical development at odds with African knowledge traditions. A number of influential African philosophers have homed in on the related problem of individualism in an effort to differentiate philosophical from social-scientific claims. This makes African philosophy an ideal interlocutor for African novel studies, which has sought in its own right to reconcile the form’s historical premium on the individual with African social contexts. While countless African novels from the mid-20th century to the early 21st century represent the challenge of negotiating between collective and individual as well as oral and textual elements, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s masterwork Kintu is an exemplary study in how the subgenre of the “philosophical novel” can narrativize the interaction of different African knowledge paradigms. In its staging of an oral, embodied system of knowledge alongside a textualized, meta-epistemological one, it invites the reader’s mutual evaluation of each vis-à-vis the other.

Linking African Fiction and Philosophy

Modern African fiction is widely celebrated for its insights into the social and personal costs of the transition from colonialism to political self-rule, as well as, more recently, the formations of power, mobility, and identity that attend global neoliberal capitalism. Since its advent as a cosmopolitan institution following the independence movements of the late 1950s, typically marked by the founding of Heinemann’s African Writers Series in 1962, the African novel has dissected the relationship between metropolitan and local and/or indigenous values and traditions. This has often centered on the critical exploration of liberal individualism, narrativized as a give-and-take between personal growth and African communal affiliations. From the tension between British and Igbo social norms in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease; to Tsitsi Dangarembga’s tale of a young girl’s rise above rural patriarchy in Nervous Conditions; to the transcontinental romance of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, naming but a few well-known examples, African writers have imagined the enticements and limitations of individual agency with especial prominence.1

Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, African philosophers debated a related set of issues to those that concerned African literary scholars in the same period. The question of the individual’s relation to community—and analogously, the philosopher’s relation to culture—undergirds a dense archive of writing by figures including Valentin Mudimbe, Paulin Hountondji, Sophie Oluwole, Mogobe Ramose, Kwasi Wiredu, Kwame Gyekye, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Olufemi O. Taiwo. It is striking, then, that the fields of African philosophy and African fiction have rarely been put in conversation. Part of the reason for this is no doubt African literature’s association with social over meta-epistemological forms of inquiry; that is, with a capacity to represent globally marginalized “ways of knowing” more than with an investment in systematically querying what fundamental standards of knowledge are or should be operative in African contexts. Yet a particular strain of work on individualism in African philosophy might serve as a valuable resource for theorizing intellection in African fiction; in this instance, it is mostly addressed to an anglophone postcolonial African context, by constructing a cross-disciplinary conversation between two distinct intellectual traditions, philosophy and literature. Bringing parallel streams of inquiry together in order to introduce an explicit philosophical dimension to the mainly social and historical investments of African novel studies, thereby illuminates how representations of the philosophical individual speak to a larger concern with the point of demarcation between knowledge, culture, and experience.

Foundations of African Philosophy

Among African philosophy’s defining features is its preoccupation with what constitutes African philosophy, and by extension, with the implications of the field’s consolidation around this self-questioning. Mudimbe and Appiah, in 1993, refer to African philosophy not as a field but as a “problem,” around which “there is . . . a good deal of uncertainty about how to define its projects.”2 As Olufemi O. Taiwo writes in 1998, references to Africa as a viable source of philosophical thought were, at that point, the product of

the last twenty, or at the most twenty-five, years. Even then, a good part of the current mention is preoccupied with issues of pedigree. Is African Philosophy philosophy? Or of the conditions of its possibility, or whether it ever was, is, or is a thing of the future?3

In this way, African philosophy’s self-interrogation overlaps with what have long been the major concerns driving theories of the novel. Does the novel have consistent traits, or does it mutate across time and space? What is the minimum threshold of its standardization and definitional coherence? And, most significantly here, is the novel an inescapably Western and/or liberal institution, as per Franco Moretti’s much-cited thesis in “Conjectures on World Literature” that its rise outside Western Europe is a compromise between European form and local material?4 African philosophers have been similarly and formatively concerned with what, if anything, is uniquely “African” about their work. The stakes of this question are high: if African philosophy is just philosophy that originates in Africa, then the larger discipline’s universalism, along with Africa’s, is affirmed. If African philosophy requires new methodological tools attuned to some specific feature of African culture(s), then the field’s guiding principle will appear to be that of difference, more aligned with anthropological particularism than with a search for a priori truths.

Much of the debate surrounding what counts as philosophy in relation to Africa has centered on the controversial label of “ethnophilosophy.” Mostly remembered in the 21st century for its rejection as culturally essentialist or even nativist, ethnophilosophy is usually traced to the 1945 publication of Bantu Philosophy by the Belgian missionary Placide Tempels.5 Based on his experience living among the Luba people of the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, Tempels’s work posits a God-derived “vital force,” variable in degree as it pertains to any given individual, as the African alternative to the Western ontological fundament of “being.” To be sure, Bantu Philosophy marked a significant turn away from the Western denigration of Africans as fundamentally unphilosophical—what Stephen O. Okafor summarizes as the then-prevailing view that “[The African] is a primal being who has managed to make it to the modern world more or less as a museum piece.”6 It was rightly criticized, however, for its vast and untenable generalization across distinct African belief systems. Successive discussions of ethnophilosophy nonetheless retain a focus on the role of cultural and linguistic insiderness in understanding African thought. In other words, what is or should be the relationship between culture as a store of knowledge that is lived, and philosophy as knowledge’s formal, argumentative pursuit? Sophie Oluwole, in her book Socrates and Orunmila, warns against too readily conflating culture’s enactment with its conceptual systematization.7 “What needs to be characterized and critically examined are African ideas and beliefs,” she writes. “This warning is sacrosanct since philosophy is about what people say rather than what they do.”8

The most prominent African philosophers to address the role of culture and indigeneity in the discipline all avow a commitment to epistemological decolonization. Disagreement among them is not so much a matter of what, politically speaking, they imagine themselves as achieving, but of how they methodologically commit to achieving it. They proceed with due regard for what distinguishes philosophical from anthropological or sociological claims. “The task for historical sociology is to see which institutions have changed and which ones have remained the same in content and in form,” writes Oyeronke Oyewumi in The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses, “and what historical processes and cultural forces made such changes and continuities ‘permissible.’”9 Such work strives for a locally and linguistically embedded account of the beliefs that shape African lives and institutions, “[recognizing] that traditions as a body of knowledge are in and of themselves not static but dynamic and part of a process in people’s lived experiences.”10 A philosophical approach, however, would presumably take a granular and linguistically informed account of African beliefs as a startingpoint for their normative exposition. And yet finding this line of disciplinary complementarity is no easy task. As Oyewumi indicates, culture is embodied and changing, making it a slippery object of abstract as against empirical analysis.

Determining what is or is not “philosophical,” in this way, becomes twinned with the challenge that orality presents to philosophy and African fiction alike. In both intellectual settings, orality serves as a barometer for the relative value afforded immediacy and mediation. As Mudimbe and Appiah suggest, there is a strong, culturally restitutive motivation for granting oral traditions philosophical status. “On the whole,” they write,

even when African local Weltanschauungen [worldviews] have been explored with sympathy . . . they have had to prove themselves against two theoretical assumptions: first, that African thought was backward, primitive; and second (correlatively) that Africans needed to be converted to a more civilized, more systematic order.11

Approaching African-language proverbs, for example, as philosophy thus serves to undo a stagist or evolutionary model of culture used to justify imperial domination. Kwame Gyekye argues as much in the Preface to his seminal 1987 work, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme.12 He maintains that because “philosophy of some kind is behind or involved in the thought and action of every people, every culture . . . produces a philosophy,” but that

as a result of the lack of writing in Africa’s historical past, the indigenous philosophical output of African thinkers, in the traditional setting, has remained part of their oral traditions and has come to be expressed also in religious and sociopolitical beliefs and institutions.13

Gyekye thus addresses himself to charting the “reflective impulse” in “African religious thought” as it deals with “such fundamental questions as the meaning of life, the origins of all things, death, and related questions . . . of ultimate existence.”14 In this way, his work finds fruitful dialogue with that of the Kenyan philosopher John Mbiti, who devotes his career to these questions’ particular formulation in African Christianities.15

The Individual and Textuality in African Philosophy

Unobjectionable as philosophical attention to Africans’ oral traditions and customary practices may sound, the critique of this orientation has been rich and persuasive. In African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, the Beninoise philosopher Paulin J. Hountondji insists that the “mode of existence of philosophy” is “that of a text or set of texts, that of a piece or pieces of explicit discourse.”16 As Hountondji is aware, this is a controversial position. While he is, like Gyekye, committed to the idea of investigating the “world-views and value systems of traditional African societies,” he is hesitant to equate these categories with philosophy as such.17 Philosophical status, in his view, demands “empirical” documents that self-consciously express an “intellectual quest.” This is because philosophy is distinct from “wisdom,” per Hountondji, in that it exceeds the mere transmission or “living out” of truth to arrive at the structured interrogation of what truth is.18 The Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu, in an interview with Michael Onyebuchi Eze and Thaddeus Metz, also emphasizes the analytic distance required to cross the threshold of philosophy as distinct from worldview, positioning the culturally particularized iteration of the field as part and parcel of a larger priority on molding beliefs into a consistent set of principles. African philosophy, he claims, is “the investigation into various fundamental concepts of human thought,” while philosophy in general is what happens “when you investigate or you try to make a coherent picture from your worldview.”19

It is crucial that for Wiredu, philosophy even in its orally transmitted form suggests an orientation toward the individual and, along with it, textuality. In fact, textuality in his work often functions as a stand-in for the individuation of the thinker; it is not irredeemably tethered to European modernity, or even to writing. In “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality” from 2009, Wiredu uses the example of an Akan tradition called “talking drums” to identify the point of demarcation between an oral and a textual paradigm, even where writing is not literally present. As drums are made to approximate the human voice to transmit, through set patterns, “deep reflections about reality and human experience,” only those who have “[learned] the given drum language” will be able to understand, so that “something is going on not altogether dissimilar to the reading of writing . . . to the extent that the method of preserving the drum text is almost as formalized as in the case of written text.”20 Wiredu ultimately uses this case of acquired, systematized knowledge to work toward what he sees as the necessity of “dialectical aptitude” on the part of the individual listener for moving from an oral to a textual and, thereby, from a communal to a differentiated model of conceptual transmission.21 By identifying a disharmony between the message latent in a particular drum “text” (which he takes to be pantheistic) and the broad foundation of Akan theology (which is theistic), Wiredu concludes that “There was no uniformity of thought in the traditional society under discussion” and that “A pattern of thought in an oral tradition need not be communal; it may be the outcome of an original and nonconforming way of thinking.”22 Wiredu’s performance as a philosopher here is also central to his argument: even those trained to decipher the drum “text” might lack the inclination or ability to draw deeper, comparative conclusions from its content. His reading, furthermore, in its attention to where cultural convention breaks down into discordant forces diverges from Oyewumi’s sociological aims.

In an earlier 1998 essay that distills much of his thinking across his career, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion,” Wiredu memorably underscores his investment in the “independent grounds” of philosophical evaluation, or “considerations that are independent of the peculiarities of the given vernaculars and are, therefore, intelligible to all concerned irrespective of language, race, persuasion, etc.”23 Although he foregrounds African culture in his turn to Twi grammatical structures (the widest-spoken Akan language), his central interest is in how Asante phrases and beliefs can be made to disclose concepts and principles that are then evaluable against others. For example, he reasons that because “The idea of nothing can only be expressed [in Twi] by some such phrase as se whee nni ho, which means something like ‘the circumstance of there not being something there,’” Akan cosmology must attribute ultimate meaning to spatial context and the manipulation of pre-given materials.24 This, in turn, suggests “a metaphorical articulation of God as the Great Designer” instead of a miraculous conception of creation.25 The desired end, for Wiredu, is that these two ultimate attributions of meaning to existence can be set off against one another, prompting the proactive evaluation and refinement of their relative truth claims and merits. The point, in other words, is not simply to represent African cultures as intrinsically philosophical, but to do philosophy in relation to culturally derived concepts. “The obvious lesson is that African thinkers will have to critically review both the conceptions—of god as ex nihilo creator and god as a cosmic architect—and choose one or none, but not both,” Wiredu concludes. “Otherwise, colonized thinking must be admitted to retain its hold.”26 The experience of culture is not the source of philosophy; it is the source of the intellectual materials that make philosophy possible.

Rather than deny communality’s validity to African philosophical inquiry, Wiredu introduces an individualized dimension to its theorization. He attests that “a communal philosophy is the result of the pooling together over a considerable length of time the thoughts of individual thinkers,” adding that “It goes without saying . . . that a communal philosophy is a gathering together of inputs from thinkers who may not have agreed on all points.”27 It is revealing, on this point, that much recent work on Enlightenment thought has moved away from its firm individual basis. In his 2013 book The Architecture of Concepts, for example, Peter de Bolla contends, “When concepts are considered as cultural entities, it becomes possible to discern how ‘ways of thinking something’ are not only determined by an agent who thinks.”28 Whereas contemplation of the collective origins of thought marks an innovative and indispensable revision of past Western truth claims, African philosophers have often sought ways to responsibly assert the significance of discrete minds. Achieving this means tethering localized knowledge systems to the affirmation that universalism is possible, with the specter of Africa’s colonization looming large in the background. Against a tendency to dismiss Western values like individualism because they are associated with the West, Ato Sekyi-Otu writes in Left Universalism, Africacentric Essays that

the simple or rather complex truth is that there can be and there are transcultural value commitments not because or only because someone echoes another . . . but because these commitments speak for ill or good to shared human necessities, desires, claims and dreams.29

The African philosophical subfield, then, has a different default point of departure than (implicitly Western) philosophy as such. For Hountondji, Wiredu, and others, the African philosopher emerges as the individual who can perform being both of a culture—at least enough to have knowledge of the grammatical and religious systems by which it is instantiated—and capable of standing at an analytic distance from it. If Appiah can justifiably claim, in In My Father’s House, that “‘Philosophy’ is the highest-status label of Western humanism,” then African philosophers contend with the counter-pull of a hard-earned skepticism toward Western humanistic hubris.30

What then should be salvaged, and what disregarded from Western philosophy’s tarnished universalizing aims and individualistic biases? While being part of a culture and critically evaluating it are by no means mutually exclusive, the latter, per Appiah and Mudimbe, when generalized as a textual practice inculcates a distinct level of deliberation. They succinctly articulate this distinction by noting that the difference between “an experimental, skeptical science and an unexperimental, ‘dogmatic,’ traditional mode of thought is the difference in images of knowledge that are represented in the difference in the social organization of enquiry in modern as opposed to ‘traditional’ societies.”31 Their point is not to discredit oral cultures as intellectual wellsprings or to valorize professional philosophy as somehow superior, but to associate it with the generation of knowledge through largely agreed-on norms of individual contestation “for its own sake.”32 Philosophy by this definition, they argue, is inextricably bound up with “political individualism, of a kind that is rare in the traditional polity” and that accompanies the social mobility facilitated by industrialization, with writing as a specific means of testing ideas. “Write down a sentence and it is there, in principle, forever,” they contend, “and that means that if you write down another sentence inconsistent with it, you can be caught out. It is this fact that is at the root of the possibility of the adversarial style.”33 The conjoining of individuality, textuality, and ideas’ status as “philosophical” is a consistent theme in Appiah’s highly influential work across the 1990s. Again in In My Father’s House, he writes that

Creative, critical philosophers have been very few in the history of the West, and their bravery has often been made easier by their access to a written critical tradition. Oral traditions have a habit of transmitting only the consensus, the accepted view: those who are in intellectual rebellion . . . often have to begin each generation all over again.34

Contested Communality in African Literary Studies

Regardless of the empirical validity of Appiah’s claim above (which I and most literary scholars lack the methodological tools to evaluate), the conjunction of the individual and philosophy within a self-consciously textualized mode of intellectual contestation has particular relevance for narrative fiction. Transposing the parameters for “philosophy” from the African philosophical lineage to the context of the African novel can facilitate a sharper definition of “the philosophical novel” as a generic subcategory. More specifically, discussion of orality in the literary arena suggests a distinction, here again, between cultural experience or embodiment, and a degree of critical distance from culture sufficient for its evaluation and, if desired, modification. While any intellectual practice is in principle embodied, philosophers and novelists alike have often sought to distinguish between seeing it as a mediation versus a root source of knowledge claims. This is not necessarily a normative assessment, in that a novel that wields the individual toward a goal of representing the beliefs common to a certain time or place may well fulfill literary criteria that a meta-epistemological novel does not. It is a distinction, rather, more in keeping with the one Hountondji formulates between wisdom and philosophy. While the first represents individual reflection in a way that is true to the spirit of folk sages within Henry Odera Oruka’s “sage philosophy” project—as elders in whom a community’s collective wisdom comes to its fullest fruition—the second entails stronger emphasis on meta-argumentative exploration.35 A folk-philosophical figure in a novel may embody, articulate, and refine widely held cultural understandings, whereas a philosophical figure on the order of Mudimbe, Appiah, and Wiredu’s textualized contestation should reflect on the stakes introduced thereby for knowledge as such. The line between experientially oriented or “culturalized” forms of knowledge, and those that skew toward knowledge practices by which culture becomes an object of analysis is tricky, at best, to determine.

As in African philosophy, debates about orality in African literary studies have centered on whether literacy marks continuity or a break with more obviously embodied forms of knowledge transmission. Emmanuel Obiechina, in an essay called “Narrative Proverbs in the African Novel,” argues that “vital aspects of the oral literature [of Africa] are absorbed into an emerging written literature of greatly invigorated forms infused with vernacular energy through metaphors, images and symbols, more complex plots, and diversified structures of meaning.”36 He represents a position that sees African literacy as an amplification of oral cultures’ distinctive rhetorical features, noting, for example, that “a substantial body of Africa’s oral literatures—from epics and extended forms to unicellular tales and verbal art—was written down, recorded, and archived” owing to the “superimposition of alphabetic writing upon the oral cultures of Africa in the nineteenth century.”37 By turning to the ways in which proverbs are embedded in novels alongside folktales and myths, grounded in a reading of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Obiechina wrests the form out of the individual locus it shares with the textual modernity described by Mudimbe and Appiah.38 He concludes that

The African novel is not a sole product of an individual consciousness (even though the novelist is a conscious individual artist), but is mediated by communal consciousness and impulses arising from group sensibility. The story when used as a proverb is drawing upon group habits of speech and narration as a means of giving shape to experience, drawing upon what could be called the populist impulse in art and life.39

Abiola Irele argues along similar lines in his field-defining essay “The African Imagination,” concluding that African literature is best defined as a body of writing for which orality is a “basic intertext.”40 A palpable proximity to orality, then—a formal engagement with collective knowledge forms and terminology—would seem to distinguish the African novel from its European predecessors. This is precisely the innovation attributed to Things Fall Apart by Obiechina and many others, as in Isidore Okpewho’s suggestion, in reference to the novel’s use of “moons” rather than “months,” that “the most visible revolution affected [in the book] is on the level of language: here, the English language has been forced to assume lexical and semantic burdens for which it was never designed.”41

Here again, though, the perceived valorization of orality has met with sharp criticism. Comparably to their counterparts in philosophy, African literary scholars through the 1990s established what are in some ways rival paradigms of cultural restitution and no-holds-barred intellectual accountability. As one case in point, Wole Ogundele described the field’s constitutive concern with mythology and orality as an evasion of more rigorous attention to pre-colonial pasts, facilitating “the displacement of history by myth in the postcolonial African novel in English.”42 Just as Hountondji and Wiredu, especially, insist that culture is important in its own right but not in essence philosophical, Ogundele seeks to disarticulate an overly generalized sense of history as “African experience” from one that ascribes significance to particular actors and events. The first sort, which he describes as “history as reality, or existence, or being generally” tends to “align history with myth,” while the second sees history “as the deeds of human beings, done by particular individuals or groups at specific moments and places, with discernible motives, causes, and consequences.”43 Ogundele pulls no punches, designating the restitutive, mythologized sense of history as “fudged.”44 He also holds the postcolonial realist novel to account for its role in blurring the line between a rationally knowable and, thus, specifically critiquable sense of the historical past, and one that is at heart concerned with what he casts as the “eternal” realm of “the inner life of a people and their worldview, supernatural beliefs and myths.”45 Ogundele’s attribution of historical status does not map exactly onto the criteria for a philosophical one, but it does share an investment in analytic individuation. Whereas Obiechina turns to Things Fall Apart to showcase the refraction of its main character’s life through communal forms, Ogundele adopts the same text as an example of how communal emphasis is used to foster a misleading sense of cultural and historical stasis. The novel’s “narrative weight,” he claims, “is more on filling a cultural canvas with the way it was than on dramatizing the historical evolution of that way,” an effect achieved through techniques such as “extended flashbacks that give the impression that personal and communal life revolves around a still point.”46 In his insistence on an “infinitely more complex” notion of history than representations of culture as “a slow, cyclic, and permanent rhythm” can allow, one hears echoes of Wiredu’s efforts to dig down into the discordant origins of what might easily be taken as straightforward collective beliefs.47

Ogundele’s intention is not to prioritize the individual over the broader social good; on the contrary, he takes a studied disaggregation of the many things bundled as “culture” to be an essential part of instilling social accountability through the accumulation of arguable analyses over time. He writes that

Oral texts change during performance, and more so in the process of being handed down from one generation to the next, as each modifies, adds, and deletes according to its own needs. This is to say that while an oral text may in performance directly mirror, or capture, all the many-sided qualities of lived experience, it is as evanescent as the experience itself.48

A central, recurring quandary among African humanists has been whether or not a cultural belief system transmitted by and lived out as experience is adequate to imagine what might be called a truly decolonized—which is to say, epistemologically equal because fully interrogable—place for African thought traditions in larger disciplinary conversations. On the one hand, the customs and beliefs of any given African polity are subject to change, and so arriving at a clear view of their operation at any given time is a mammoth task all its own. On the other, lived forms of knowledge were overlooked or denigrated for so long within European colonial archives—often in gendered terms—that their deliberate representation as objects of intellectual inquiry feels politically essential.

This tension between recuperative desire and analytic slipperiness means that the narrative and philosophical treatment of pre-literate traditions often risks reverting to essentialisms, “appropriated,” in the words of Adeleke Adeeko, “for a localist foundation of the emergent post-independence culture.”49 The trick, then, following Eileen Julien’s instructive caution in African Novels and the Question of Orality is to acknowledge African literature’s debt to both oral and textual forms without reverting to the idea that Africans are intrinsically more disposed to the former.50 “Paradoxically,” she writes, “the assumption of the profoundly oral nature of African life and art is expressed more subtly in the expectation or requirement that novels be leavened with the appropriate African yeast of orality.”51 In other words, the assumption that orality bears an organic connection to “Africanness” becomes a convention in its own right. This is where the novel’s inbuilt predisposition to individualism can be helpful, rather than the hurdle it is often perceived to be in an African context: the range of contrastive types required to create an effect of individuation fosters the form’s capacity to stage different analytic orientations alongside one another.52 It is neither an intrinsically “sociological” nor “philosophical” medium based solely on the historical prominence of the individual as its main representational tool. Instead, the novel can wield distinct kinds of knowledgeable figures to stage the point of demarcation between knowledge as the embodiment of communal wisdom, and knowledge as a textualized, meta-epistemological pursuit. It can, in other words, differentiate between what the African philosophers and literary scholars surveyed here thus far elaborate as cultural versus philosophical knowledge modes, without necessarily hierarchizing their relation.

Modes of Knowledge in the African Novel: Kintu as Case Study

It would be impossible to survey all the ways in which the primacy of the individual has been adopted, transformed, and contested by African novelists. One key strain of critical discussion has centered on the Bildungsroman, and specifically the degree to which its African permutations may or may not be complicit in normalizing global regimes of legal and economic inequality.53 A second has concerned “spectral” or flat characterization, often with socially radical investments.54 Still another has seen the deep exploration of consciousness as a tool for narrativizing what Wole Soyinka calls the “psychic emanations” of African cosmologies.55 Both of the latter two approaches urge individual representation toward collective expression, in effect rehabilitating the novel form from its bourgeois European origins. At the farthest reaches of this undertaking is a questioning of the most fundamental aspect of Western liberal modernity: namely, its presumed and constraining definition of the human.56 In keeping with debates about what constitutes African philosophy, however, as distinct from what Hountondji might call the “wisdom” accrued by and within particular cultural traditions, a prominent 21st-century African novel represents two people marked in different ways as exceptionally knowledgeable.

The Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s novel Kintu retains a representational investment in the individual in order to foreground the challenge of epistemological discordance, making space for both oral transmission and textualized argumentation within the same family.57 At the same time, the book clearly distinguishes between their respective methods and merits, demonstrating the coexistence of but not quite compatibility between knowledge acquired through bodily experience and that formed mainly by abstract study. More specifically, Kintu employs a roving third-person perspective to explore the collision between orality in the form of supernatural mythology (namely a cross-generational curse), and ideas’ textual contestation as it hews to rational-scientific norms. The text spans four centuries of the Buganda Kingdom, from the 18th to the 21st, and is structured as a Prologue followed by six long sections or Books, each of which is devoted to a different main character (or, in the last case, to their assembly during a family reunion). Its overarching theme is the supposed unfolding of a curse’s effects from 1750 to 2004, and by extension, the evolving ways in which the very notion of a curse is affirmed or doubted in accordance with the era in which it surfaces. As she weaves oral tales about the curse’s origins together with apparitions, family misfortunes, and characters’ self-reflexive commentary on all of these, Makumbi creates real uncertainty in the reader as to what constitutes the right interpretation of events. Is the curse a story or a fact? And what kinds of knowledge are adequate to its contestation and legitimation? By adopting such a wide range of characters brought together by a central epistemological challenge, Kintu offers a fictional enactment of the influential notions of African philosophy. Following Hountondji (and in large part, Mudimbe and Appiah), the book hosts both “wise” and “argumentative” figures without conflating the two. In a similar vein to Wiredu’s definition of philosophy, it then facilitates their deliberate evaluation vis-á-vis one another. Kintu, in other words, is a philosophical novel by virtue of the comparative and contestatory work it both performs and demands of its reader.

Embodied Knowledge in the Figure of Suubi Nnakintu

Arguably the key example of an oral tradition’s substantiation as knowledge by lived or embodied means is Book Two’s protagonist Suubi Nnakintu. While Suubi is privy to the story of the curse, she understands it precisely as a story, which is to say as fiction rather than knowledge that has a real role to play in shaping her life’s decisions. It is transmitted to her in oral form by her grandmother, who warns her that the curse’s ancestral progenitor, the original Kintu, “is still roaming the world” to protect his descendants.58 Events in her childhood that might have lent credence to this tale, though—including the death in infancy of an identical twin sister—are lost to her faltering memory. “It felt as though someone had come with a broom,” Suubi thinks, “swept away all her childhood recollections, but missed her grandmother’s voice.”59 As a result, she begins from a position of skepticism toward what the reader knows may be effects of the curse introduced in the previous section, attributing its possible manifestations to her own psychic fragility. On her way home one day, Suubi perceives the dark presence of the dead twin, named Ssanyu, which then causes her to flash back to an earlier encounter.

The first happened eight years ago on the morning after Suubi’s graduation. She had lain half-awake in bed when a sensation of being “locked”—she could not open her eyes or move or scream—came over her. Yet she could see a young woman standing above her bed looking down at her. The woman looked exactly like Suubi only she was so emaciated that it was surprising she could stand at all.60

Over time, however, Suubi determines that Ssanyu was “a bad dream” and moves forward with her life committed to what she sees as rational principles that rule out deeper contemplation of her oralized inheritance.61 Instead of what Obiechina calls the mythological “story-within-the-story” enriching the individual’s experience with a collective consciousness, it is isolated here as a cultural curiosity.62

The family reunion approaching the novel’s conclusion, however, marks a critical turn of events that helps usher Kintu toward the meta-definitional stakes of African philosophy. Upon her arrival, Suubi remarks that she is “neither Christian nor atheist,” seeing herself as “just plain.” She quickly takes any uncontestable form of knowledge off the table with the quip, “These things have no place in the modern world.”63 Nonetheless, Suubi agrees to participate in a traditional ancestor-conjuring ceremony as a matter of pro forma respect. Its effect on her is unexpectedly profound: she undergoes a complete transformation and begins to channel what announces itself as the voice of the previously disregarded dead twin. “The woman’s body swinging or rotating, picked up momentum and started hopping about on her hands.”64 Suubi’s almost exaggerated embodiment of “culture”—her literal, physical containment of voices once relegated to the status of mere myth—portends the reinstatement of orality as a viable source of worldly knowledge. More subtly, it also merges a narrative of personal growth with that of cultural representation, as Suubi becomes the apotheosis of centuries’ worth of wisdom. She makes an informed choice to embrace the “un-modern” belief system foretold by her grandmother during her childhood, bringing what she once saw as the “pieces” of herself into a wholeness encompassing both communality and individuality.65

Textualized Knowledge in the Figure of Misirayimu Kintu

On the other end of the spectrum linking lived, orally transmitted knowledge to its formalized, written alternative is Misirayimu or “Miisi” Kintu, a self-conceived rational intellectual educated through the doctoral level in an Irish Catholic seminary, the Soviet Union, and finally England. His dissertation clearly though ironically positions him in “objective” relation to an anthropologized version of African culture, as he studies “child worship in African communities” through the evergreen example of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.66 Upon returning to Uganda after Idi Amin’s rule has ended in the late 1970s, Miisi aims to recover an African sense of self. “He and his friends constructed their own narratives of we, they, us, and them,” Makumbi dryly narrates.

In these narratives, Miisi concentrated on those things that made black more human, wholesome and natural than white. Once he had convinced himself of this, it was not hard to find evidence in the everyday manners, actions, tendencies and behavior of Europeans.67

All the same, he proves unable to internalize a belief system on the order of that to which Suubi comes around through her spirit possession. “As for the family curse,” he thinks, “Miisi argued that it was a documented fact that in Buganda mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia and psychosis ran not only in families but in clans.”68 Where Suubi begins, Miisi resolutely remains.

When a mysterious swarm of bees descends on his home, he refuses to see it as the omen that necessarily comes to mind for the reader. The bees’ appearance is described as “a drama so bizarre that Miisi’s wife and sister looked to the supernatural. But not Miisi. . . . He was rational. There had to be a logical explanation.”69 Notably, however, affording the curse the benefit of the doubt is not in any straightforward way upheld by the novel as the exclusive domain of the “African”: the Irish priests by whom Miisi was raised did believe in it, and so Miisi’s rejection of culturalized modes of knowledge in favor of what he considers to be universal logic is better read as a generative second option for how Africans imagine their pursuit of truth in the world. Miisi attends the family reunion alongside Suubi, but his outlook remains anthropological. He describes it as “a chance . . . to observe and study traditional spirituality,” in advance ruling out any possible truth claims that new experiences there might afford.70 If Suubi’s defining moment in the text is her embodiment of the Kintu mythology, then Miisi’s is his written exploration of the African cultural syncretism whereby mythology continues to operate as a social force. He authors an argumentative piece for the local paper that he calls “Africanstein,” which he translates into Luganda as “Ekisode,” and in which he maintains that, “Africa must learn to walk on European legs and work with European arms” as it evolves into something “neither African nor European.”71 Faced with the same oral-mythological inheritance as Suubi and the same event by which its intellectual legitimacy rises or falls, Miisi opts for a meta-level textual analysis of the cultural situation they both inhabit. Makumbi no doubt provides ample room to doubt Miisi’s path, and Miisi himself experiences a mental breakdown as a result of the cultural syncretism he diagnoses. The novel’s most salient feature, nonetheless, is the evaluable presence of multiple epistemological standards side by side, facilitated by their realization as individual characters.

In sum, African philosophy and African fiction share an interest in the relationship between communal experience and individual analytic agency. Where the first prioritizes culture, embodiment, and orality against the grain of their wrongful dismissal as “knowledge,” the second looks to textual contestation and intellectual non-conformity in wariness of cultural essentialism. Many of the most influential African philosophers of the 1980s to 2020s have grappled with how to distinguish philosophy from complementary social-scientific pursuits. This distinction has often taken shape as a critical individualism that emerges from deep cultural awareness, making African philosophy a useful interlocutor for the African novel as it works through that form’s historical elevation of the individual. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s novel Kintu is one of many possible cases in which the relationship between oral and textual modes of intellectual transmission and contestation comes to fictive fruition. In its elegant, exaggerated contrast of oral myth with a textualized claim to transcultural rationality, it invites the reader to evaluate a range of competing knowledge claims. In doing so, it exemplifies the philosophical novel as a notable and under-recognized African subgenre.

Discussion of the Literature

What work exists at the intersection of African philosophy and African fiction typically conforms to one of two broad models: the first turns to literary texts to substantiate philosophical claims, the best example of which is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father’s House in its use of Wole Soyinka’s career to illustrate a philosophical argument for racial non-essentialism.72 Soyinka’s own Myth, Literature, and the African World also remains critical reading on this front, as it draws on African writing—and in particular, drama—to make a larger case for ritual’s significance to Yoruba cosmology and its influence on the world.73 The second broad model foregrounds figures and texts that confound the very distinction between philosophy and literature. With few exceptions, scholarship in this vein works more within a continental than an analytic philosophical idiom, prioritizing a stylistic fluidity well matched to the blurred epistemological boundaries of its subjects. Examples of texts that address literature and philosophy in this overlapping way are Samuel Oluoch Imbo’s Oral Traditions as Philosophy: Okot p’Bitek’s Legacy for African Philosophy; M. S. C. Okolo’s African Literature as Political Philosophy; Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude; and Omedi Ochieng’s The Intellectual Imagination: Knowledge and Aesthetics in North Atlantic and African Philosophy.74 Ochieng’s book, for its part, professes ambitiously that

robust and rigorous thought about the form and contours of intellectual practices are best envisioned in light of a comprehensive critical contextual ontology—that is, a systematic account of the contexts, forms, and dimensions in and through which knowledge and aesthetic practices are created, discovered, embodied, performed, disseminated, translated, learned, and critiqued.75

To some degree, Olakunle George’s Relocating Agency: Modernity and African Letters also bridges philosophy and literature through its discussion of key Nigerian writers of fiction alongside the institutional genealogies of poststructuralist and postcolonial theory.76

Students of African philosophy and literature might also wish to familiarize themselves with philosophical approaches to literary study broadly, one useful introduction to which is Patrick Colm Hogan’s Philosophical Approaches to the Study of Literature.77 Much scholarship on J. M. Coetzee’s work offers a bridge between generalist and postcolonial literary-critical contexts. Stephen Mulhall’s The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy, as well as the edited volume Beyond the Ancient Quarrel: Literature, Philosophy, and J. M. Coetzee both look to Coetzee’s novels to flesh out what is distinctive about literary contributions to philosophical ways of thinking.78 “I am not suggesting that philosophy can or should become literature,” Mulhall writes, “or literature philosophy; but I am suggesting that for each properly to acknowledge the other would require both to confront the challenge of re-conceiving their self-images, and so their defining aspirations.”79 By and large, such emphasis on breaking down epistemological and disciplinary walls is characteristic of literature and philosophy as a field.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Adeeko, Adeleke. “My Signifier Is More Native Than Yours: Issues in Making a Literature African.” In African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory. Edited by Ato Quayson and Tejumola Olaniyan, 234–241. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007.
  • Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Fathers House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • De Bolla, Peter. The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights. Kindle edition. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.
  • Diagne, Souleymane Bachir. African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude. Translated by Chike Jeffers. Kolkata: Seagull Books, 2011.
  • George, Olakunle. Relocating Agency: Modernity and African Letters. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003.
  • Gyekye, Kwame. An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Hayes, Patrick, and Jan Wilm, eds. Beyond the Ancient Quarrel: Literature, Philosophy, and J. M. Coetzee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Hogan, Patrick Colm. Philosophical Approaches to the Study of Literature. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.
  • Hountondji, Paulin J.African Philosophy: Myth and Reality. Translated by Henri Evans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
  • Imbo, Samuel Oluoch. Oral Traditions as Philosophy: Okot pBiteks Legacy for African Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.
  • Irele, Abiola. “The African Imagination.” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 1 (1990): 49–67.
  • Julien, Eileen. African Novels and the Question of Orality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
  • Makumbi, Jennifer Nansubuga. Kintu. Oakland, CA: Transit Books, 2017.
  • Mbiti, John. African Religions and Philosophy. Oxford: Heinemann, 1969.
  • Moretti, Franco. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1, no. 4 (Jan–Feb 2000): 54–68.
  • Mudimbe, V. Y., and Kwame Anthony Appiah. “The Impact of African Studies on Philosophy.” In Africa and the Disciplines: The Contributions of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and Humanities. Edited by Robert H. Bates, V. Y. Mudimbe, and Jean F. O’Barr, 113–138. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • Mulhall, Stephen. The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
  • Obiechina, Emmanuel. “Narrative Proverbs in the African Novel.” Research in African Literatures 24, no. 4 (1993): 123–140.
  • Ochieng, Omedi. Intellectual Imagination: Knowledge and Aesthetics in North Atlantic and African Philosophy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018.
  • Ogundele, Wole. “Devices of Evasion: The Mythic versus the Historical Imagination in the Postcolonial African Novel.” Research in African Literatures 33, no. 3 (2002): 125–139.
  • Okafor, Stephen A. “‘Bantu Philosophy’: Placide Tempels Revisited.” Journal of Religion in Africa 13, no. 2 (1982): 83–100.
  • Okolo, M. S. C.African Literature as Political Philosophy. London: Zed Books, 2007.
  • Okpewho, Isidore. “Introduction.” In Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart: A Casebook. Edited by Isidore Okpewho. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Oyewumi, Oyeronke. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
  • Presbey, Gail M.African Sage Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, July 30, 2020.
  • Sekyi-Otu, Ato. Left Universalism, Africacentric Essays. New York: Routledge, 2019.
  • Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature, and the African World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
  • Taiwo, Olufemi O. “Exorcising Hegel’s Ghost: Africa’s Challenge to Philosophy.” African Studies Quarterly 1, no. 4 (1998): 3–16.
  • Tempels, Placide. Bantu Philosophy. Orlando, FL: HBC Publishing, [1945] 2010.
  • Wiredu, Kwasi. “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” African Studies Quarterly 1, no. 4 (1998): 17–46.
  • Wiredu, Kwasi. “Emergent Issues in African Philosophy: A Dialogue with Kwasi Wiredu.” Interview by Michael Onyebuchi Eze and Thaddeus Metz. Philosophia Africana 17, no. 2 (winter 2015–2016): 75–87.
  • Wiredu, Kwasi. “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Research in African Literatures 40, no. 1 (2019): 8–18.