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Appreciating African Philosophy

Philosophy is often thought to have originated out of a sense of wonder; the Greeks called this emotion, thauma. However, academic discussions of African philosophy often claim that the origin of this thought is frustration. This characterization originates from the fact that Africans, as a whole, have endured frustration in the face of colonialism and racism. The caricature of Africa is that Africans were naïve and rationally inept. As colonization came to an end, Africans, including those displaced among the diaspora, had to defend their humanity by answering the question, “Who are you?” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Not only did African and African-descended people have to defend their humanity, much philosophical energy was diverted to deconstructing oppressive social systems.

However, African thought is not solely the result of interactions with Europeans and the subsequent colonization. In order to have a true appreciation of the diversity of philosophical perspectives, philosophical perspectives must be constructed in an accurate and truthful manner. Regardless of the modern characterization of African thought, there is evidence that African philosophers were wrestling with some of the “Big Questions” even before the more famous European philosophers such as Hume, Locke, and Kant. One such example is Zera Yacob. Zera Yacob serves as an example that African philosophy is not necessarily born out of frustration and interactions with Europeans.

Zera Yacob was born August 28, 1599 in northern Ethiopia. Zera Yacob was highly educated in rhetoric and later Christian doctrine (Ethiopia has been a majority Christian country since the fourth century). When the Ethiopian king became Catholic, free thinkers began to be persecuted, causing Yacob to flee into a cave for safety. Yacob remained in the cave for two years. During this time, Yacob expounded upon the supremacy of reason, feminism, and a theistic Creator in an unpublished manuscript known as the Hatata (translated as The Inquiry). Yacob even did what enlightenment thinkers were afraid to do, question the Holy Scriptures. Yacob pointed out the fact that all religions claim to have the truth.

“Indeed, each one says: ‘My faith is right, and those who believe in another faith believe in falsehood, and are the enemies of God.’ … As my own faith appears true to me, so does another one find his own faith true; but truth is one.” (Herbjørnsrud)

Yacob suggests that religion is very subjective. Building upon this thought, Yacob began to criticize all religious traditions including Judaism, Islam, and even Indian religions. For example, he criticizes all Abrahamic religions for claiming menstruating women were unclean since if God was the creator of all, he had to have made women that way. Yacob questions how the natural work of God could be considered unclean by religious beliefs. Even after his life returned to normalcy following the death of the Catholic king, Yacob remained committed to his ideas of equality. Upon entering marriage with a woman of a lower class, Yacob clung to the belief that they were equal, contrasting many of Descartes’ and Kant’s ideas on women. In fact, Yacob argued that his wife, who worked as a maid, should no longer be considered a servant since “husband and wife are equal in marriage” (Herbjørnsrud). This argument conflicts with Kant’s claim found in his book entitled Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime that men only desire women as an “object of sex.”

“All men are equal in the presence of God; and all are intelligent, since they are his creatures; he did not assign one people for life, another for death, one for mercy, another for judgment. Our reason teaches us that this sort of discrimination cannot exist.” (Herbjørnsrud)

Zera Yacob is not the only example of often overlooked African philosophical thought. There is also Amo of Ghana and Toussaint L’ Ouverture, whose ideas of equality and representative government contributed to the Haitian Revolution, which took place before the French Revolution. While Amo of Ghana’s work was more theoretical than L’Ouverture’s, that fact does not negate the importance of his work.  For example, Amo of Ghana argues that “everything knowable is either a thing in itself, or a sensation, or an operation of the mind” even though Immanuel Kant is now known for the phrase “thing in itself,” which is found in Immanuel’s Kant Critique of Pure Reason (Herbjørnsrud).

Much attention is often given to great African-descended philosophers such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. However, focusing on these works constructs African and African-descended philosophy as being born solely out of “frustration.” However, this construction is not correct. In order to gain a true appreciation for the African and African diaspora’s philosophical perspective, it is important to go beyond the modern, if not colonial, construction of African thought to see the richness of this perspective and the impact that it has had, and continues to have on human thought.


Work Cited

Dag Herbjørnsrud. (December 13, 2017) The African Enlightenment. Retrieved from:

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2018) History of African Philosophy. Retrieved from:

October 8, 2018
Jon McCain