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See attached reading

Notes and Key Points

Notes on Reading

 As you read Professor Onyewuenyi’s essay, try to determine what his answer to the question in the essay’s title would be. Don’t let the first paragraph of the reading on p. 13 fool you. In that paragraph he is repeating the view expressed by students in America. It should become clear fairly quickly that not only does he believe there are African philosophers, but that, as he puts it on p. 13, these philosophers “were purposely withheld from history of philosophy books.” The first section of the reading on pp. 13-14 mentions a number of philosophers by name, some Western and some African. Don’t get too caught up with trying to remember all the names. You just need to get the author’s overall point, which is that there are African philosophers. Since you probably have not heard of them, he is going to give you their names and tell you a bit about them.

 The section called “Philosophizing: A Universal Experience,” which begins on p. 14, is the key section in this reading. Think about what “universal experience” means, and how this relates to the way we define philosophy. In particular, consider if it is something you think Plato would include in his definition of philosophy. This section of the reading has a number of good candidates for alternative definitions of philosophy that differ from Plato’s. The important overall point is that while “the themes dealt with in philosophy are universal,” we must realize that “no culture has the last word” on what the truth is (p. 14).

 After providing his general definition of philosophy on pp. 14-15, Onyewuenyi then devotes sections to the different branches of philosophy to discuss how the Western and African approaches differ. The first section is on metaphysics or ontology (pp. 15-16). Metaphysics is the name for the most fundamental kind of philosophy, usually associated with Plato, that seeks to determine the nature of ultimate reality. Ontology is the study of “being” or existence, focused on what sorts of entities exist in this reality. The second branch of philosophy discussed in the essay is epistemology (pp. 16-17). Epistemology refers to the study of knowledge, how we define the nature of knowledge and how we determine what counts as knowledge and what doesn’t. The last branch of philosophy Onyewuenyi discusses is Ethics (pp. 17-18). It is most important that you understand the section called “Philosophizing: A Universal Experience,” as this provides Onyewuenyi’s general approach. The later sections give more specific examples based on the various branches of philosophy, and are less central.


Key Points

· Onyewuenyi first mentions the “Mystery System” of ancient Egypt on p. 13. Focus on his descriptions of this system and how it relates to Plato and the other Greek philosophers.

· The best statement of Onyewuenyi’s general definition of philosophy comes on p. 14. He states that philosophy “seeks to establish order among the various phenomena of the surrounding world, and it traces their unity by reducing them to the simplest elements.” Try to think about what this means in plain English. One could say simply that philosophy helps us make sense of the world around us. He also states on the same page that philosophy expresses “each culture’s concept of life.”

· If philosophy is truly a “universal experience” that everyone in all cultures can do, what would it look like? Could we give an example of philosophy as a universal experience? On the Western definition, it is pretty clear who the philosophers are and what they do: they are most likely to be found at universities and they write books. Who would be the philosophers if we define philosophy as a universal experience and what do they do?

· In the section on African Epistemology (pp. 16-17), Onyewuenyi notes that not only the way knowledge is defined, but who counts as a knowledgeable person, is very different in African society than in Western cultures. What do you think of his remark that “Having a college degree does not qualify an African as a wise person in the community” (p. 16). Why not? What would qualify someone as wise in an African community?


In a 500-word essay, describe what are the main points that Professor Innocent Onyewuenyi brings up in his treatise, “Is There an African Philosophy?” and the contrast he draws with the Western Philosophical tradition.  In particular, respond to his claim that “Having a college degree does not qualify an African as a wise person in the community.”  Why is this so?  What do you think?  Respond.  

You might enjoy watching this trailer from “Out of Africa” (with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep) just to “set the stage” a little and give you a visual reminder of the expanse of this truly magnificent continent.