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  • Philosophical Perspectives on Communalisn and Morality in African Traditions
  • Sanya Osha
Ikuenobe, Polycarp . 2006. Philosophical Perspectives on Communalism and Morality in African Traditions. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield. 329 pp. $80.00 (cloth); $27.95 (paper).

Polycarp Ikuenobe declares: "I see myself as a research scholar in the area of or subject matter of Africa; I see myself as a defender of an African perspective, that is, someone who takes pride in the beliefs, views, thoughts of Africa. In this second sense, I am motivated partly by a kind of nationalism (Africanism) and I have an activist attitude in my efforts to defend African ideas" (p. 42). This declaration necessitates careful unpacking. We need to know what defending the "African perspective" entails; we need to know what "a kind of nationalism" means; finally, we need to understand how an "activist attitude" affects a mode of philosophizing.

In this book, crucial to defending the African perspective is the advocacy of the idea of communalism, which has many virtues for the author. In his view, it leads to a more humane society, one in which African proverbs such as "it takes a village to raise a child" (p. 1) can be taken literally. As for the kind of nationalism on which this vision of Africa is based, it is obviously a kind that maintains a considerable distance from modernity. Finally, the supposedly "activist attitude" branches out into a methodological difficulty. For instance, Ikuenobe avers: "the idea of communalism in African traditions as analyzed here represents a normative theory about what a moral person, community, and their connection ought to be according to African thought systems" (p. 53). He then claims he uses illustrations from African traditional cultures to support his theory. Arguably, these illustrations are not enough, and do not clarify or consolidate his supposedly activist role.

Ikuenobe claims to employ a combination of professional philosophical practice and ethnophilosophy in advancing his idea of communalism; however, it is clear that his conceptualization of these branches of contemporary African philosophy has problems. The boundaries of professional philosophy and ethnophilosophy were defined during the founding debates on the nature of African philosophy by philosophers such as Kwasi Wiredu, [End Page 129] Paulin J. Hountondji, and Peter Bodunrin. Ethnophilosophy was disparaged by Hountondji and Bodunrin as a mode of philosophical practice because it was associated with prehistory and premodernity, and at best was a form of folk philosophy. In the view of these so-called professional philosophers, Bodunrin in particular, it conjured cosmologies and visions of Africa that had become irretrievably lost in the encounters with modernity. Professional philosophers, in contrast, signified the arrival and acceptance of modernity. This branch of African philosophy aspired to a universal category of knowledge. Thus, we see the conceptual chasm that separates the branches of contemporary African philosophical discourse. Rather than dwell on these differences, some of which are in fact irreconcilable, Ikuenobe announces the possibility of using the antagonistic schools of philosophy as the foundation for an Africanity based on the idea of communalism. In his argument, the central figures of the branch known as professional philosophy, such as Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Anthony Appiah, repeatedly come under attack for not seeing the advantages of ethnophilosophy, traditionalism, and the forms of nativism that go with them. In adopting this stance, Ikuenobe celebrates what he terms "epistemic authoritarianism" (p. 175). In defining this term, he argues that African traditional societies have a "communal structure," which "provided a justificatory or rational basis for accepting the views of elders as the source of warranted beliefs and knowledge. I would argue . . . that the acceptance of the views of elders is justifiably based on the notion of epistemic dependence and deference" (p. 185). Again, this conception of traditionalism is perplexing, given the African continent's many problems with modernity. In fact, the book does not systematically engage the notion of modernity, which it usually dismisses as Western, thereby maintaining an artificial separation between what can be regarded as modern and what should not.

The understanding of authoritarianism is unclear in the book. Authoritarianism generally has negative connotations. It appears that Ikuenobe advocates a gerontocracy, instead of modern democratic norms. If authoritarianism has...


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