Photo by Chris de Bode/Panos


A truly African philosophy

‘Consolation philosophy’ understands the human being as a unity of feeling and reason, in a cosmos rich with primal emotion

by Ada Agada + BIO

Photo by Chris de Bode/Panos

The ambitious African philosopher finds herself between the devil and the deep blue sea. She has to convince the West that she has something interesting to say about philosophy. She has to insist that African philosophy is not the same as ‘philosophy in Africa’. And by insisting on African philosophy, she stamps her foot hard on the ground and defends the virtue of originality: innovative thinking that’s not subservient to the dominant Western tradition of philosophical thinking and which, at the same time, transcends traditional African thought. The other front of her struggle is Africa. She has to confront a very limited local audience averse to radical creative thinking. Most of her colleagues don’t think that ‘originality’ is possible or even desirable. These are colleagues who studied Western philosophy all through college, and had come to see Western philosophy as the supreme and only universal template of philosophy.

Aristotle held that philosophising begins with wonder. The African philosopher Jonathan Chimakonam suggested that, while wonder might have instigated Western philosophy, it was frustration that spurred African philosophy, with the emergence of radically Afrocentric nationalist philosophers such as Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire and Kwame Nkrumah who saw in philosophy an ideological weapon for attacking those who sought to denigrate and subjugate Africans culturally and politically. What is needed now is a 21st-century African synthesis that can help to resolve this struggle. ‘Consolation philosophy’ – spurred by both wonder and frustration – attempts to do just that.

The idea of ‘consolation’ philosophy does not imply an attempt to comfort philosophers. Rather, it suggests a philosophy of life, a project similar to the human-centred philosophical projects of Western existentialists such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gabriel Marcel, Søren Kierkegaard, Miguel de Unamuno, Emmanuel Levinas and German idealists such as Arthur Schopenhauer. Here I offer a brief presentation of this African philosophical synthesis, which I hope will help to resolve the dilemma eloquently put forward in 1997 by professor of philosophy at Penn State University Robert Bernasconi: ‘Either African philosophy is so similar to Western philosophy that it makes no distinctive contribution and effectively disappears; or it is so different that its credentials to be genuine philosophy will always be in doubt.’

Human existence has long fascinated me. I realised as a child that maximising joy is the goal of human striving. It didn’t seem to matter whether one was a genius or an imbecile, a first-rate scientist or the lowliest janitor, female or male, educated or illiterate. The common denominator is the striving that goes into the moment-to-moment maximisation of this specific emotion of joy in all humans. This fundamental status of emotion in human life awakened an enduring philosophical interest in me.

One evening, sitting on the veranda of my family home with the African sun setting in the western sky and my eyes on the pages of Plato’s Republic, I decided to commit myself to philosophy – African philosophy in particular. I opted out of studying biochemistry at university and started a programme in philosophy and religion. The main objective of consolation philosophy took shape in my undergraduate days: demonstrating the possibility of a thoroughgoing philosophy that comprehensively addresses the emotion-intellect relation while at the same time recasting the question of being (that is, an investigation into what is most fundamental/primordial) in terms of what I call mood. It was not until I began graduate studies that I was able to develop a final thesis of my consolationist project: the Universe has a purpose that the human mind can intuit as the realisation of freedom in the sphere of conscious beings and the perfection of nature in the sphere of nonconscious beings.

The two dominant research questions of consolation philosophy are: is human life meaningful? And is the Universe pointless? By the time I formulated my research questions, I’d encountered Western existentialist philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Unamuno, Heidegger and Sartre, and independently arrived at a number of conclusions that overlapped with their thinking (for example, an emphasis on the concept of anxiety as a phenomenon of consciousness). Yet consolation philosophy diverged from the systems of the Western existentialists to the extent that consolation philosophy was erected on the foundation of African traditional thought, not Greek and European.

Consequently, I was reluctant to label my system ‘existentialism’. Instead, ‘consolationism’ underlined the philosophy’s African inspiration as well as its claim to universality. In answering the core questions of consolation philosophy, I looked to Senghor, the Senegalese poet, statesman and thinker who argued that Africans tend to emphasise emotion while Europeans emphasise discursive reason. It occurred to me that he was partially articulating the idea that had struck me so profoundly in my youth: the idea that emotion has a primal status not only in the sphere of thinking humans but also in the sphere of nonconscious objects (more on this later).

Mood is an originary intelligence, the basis of feeling, a proto-mind from which advanced reason arises

I went to work constructing a philosophy of life around the concept of Homo melancholicus, or the melancholy being. I interpret Senghor’s goal as an attempt to show that the human being is an entity constituted by emotion and reason, and that emotion is primordial while reason evolves out of emotion through an internal dialectic of mood in the quest for consciousness through evolutionary time. I was thrilled to discover that the African philosopher Mogobe B Ramose had asserted in his book African Philosophy Through Ubuntu (1999) that the African traditional worldview (what has been dubbed ethnophilosophy) regards the Universe as the rational expression of a basic emotional impulse. While Senghor discerned the nature of the universal human being, he was unable to describe this human being in the language of philosophy and universalise his intuition. I set out to rescue the universal human being as a melancholy being from Senghor’s racial category.

The human being as a melancholy being is the entity defined first by emotion, which is fundamental, and secondly by reason, which is a structured intellectual capacity with roots in the nature of the melancholy being as a creature of mood. Mood is an originary intelligence, the basis of feeling, a primordial reason, a proto-mind from which advanced reason, thought, affects and attitudes arise. The conception of mood in the dimension of a proto-mind – and the results that this conception produces for speculative metaphysics – distinguishes my thought-system from the existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre, for example. In other words, consolation philosophy understands the human being as a unity of emotion and reason, with both aspects of her nature having a real efficacy in the physical world and, therefore, equally important, without the one diminishing the value of the other. Emotion supplies the primal, motivational energy of life while reason structures the realities we embrace by simple faith.

Consolation philosophy is not only a philosophy of life, or meaning in life, but also a system of speculative metaphysics. Therefore, I extended the concept of mood to the external or mind-independent world at the risk of facing the charge of anthropomorphism. What epistemological framework could facilitate the projection of mind into the space of matter in a manner consequential for the reconciliation of freedom and determinism, emotion and reason, joy and sadness, optimism and pessimism? Panpsychism.

I turned then to the analytic philosophers to see what they had to say about the mind-body problem. In my engagement with such thinkers as Galen Strawson, David Chalmers, William Seager, T L S Sprigge and Philip Goff, I used the method of conversationalism endorsed by the Conversational School of Philosophy at the University of Calabar in Nigeria (which has also endorsed consolation philosophy as a viable constructive alternative framework for philosophy). The canons of conversationalism, an African method of philosophising, stipulates that the interrogator (nwa-nju) moves from theoretic interrogation and critical conversation with the proponent of an idea (nwa-nsa) to a constructive modernisation of ideas. This is done by giving non-African philosophical concepts a local (African) flavour in the course of critical engagement with philosophers from the West or East. The thinker should also be immersed in African intellectual life and make an effort to truly understand African thought-systems to avoid hasty generalisations about Africa. The essence of conversationalism is intracultural authenticity and cross-cultural engagement. The focus is Africa, but the outlook is global. This approach ensures that African thought retains a distinctive character in terms of content while interfacing with non-African thought.

My encounter with Strawson and others convinced me that panpsychism was gaining recognition in the West, and that I wasn’t on a wild goose chase after all. The main claim of panpsychism is that mind or mental stuff is ubiquitous in the Universe. Depending on whether one is an idealist or a physicalist, one can either claim that everything is mind, or that mind coexists with matter and is irreducible to matter. In consolation philosophy, mood is a proto-mind, out of which what we discriminate as mind, matter, reason and emotion emerge. Consolationist panpsychism is a kind of neutral monistic stance that leans more towards an idealism rather than a physicalism.

Panpsychism is an underexplored topic in African philosophy. Yet this concept is firmly rooted in traditional African thought. In its simplest form of animism, panpsychism has appealed to traditional societies for ages. As the proposition that mind is distributed throughout the Universe, panpsychism has appealed to thinkers in every generation, from Ancient Greek philosophers such as Anaxagoras to the contemporary Nigerian philosopher Maduabuchi Dukor. While African philosophers such as Senghor, Ramose and Innocent Asouzu don’t espouse panpsychism directly, their metaphysical works presuppose panpsychism as they are all committed to a complementary and monistic universe in which mind and matter implicate each other. The main objection to panpsychism is that it is strange. But panpsychism is no stranger than the idea that our Universe exists eternally, or that an intelligent creator willed it into existence at some point in cosmic history. We have to contend with the idea that something suddenly sprang into existence for a reason we don’t know.

Consolation metaphysics absorbs the interconnected world espoused by Asouzu and Ramose, in which all aspects of reality cohere and each aspect provides insight into the workings of the whole. The vision of an interconnected universe is in fidelity to the African communitarian and complementary worldview, which regards unity as conducive to the wellbeing of humans, nonhuman animals, vegetative life, and what is regarded as inert nature. For the consolationist, nonliving nature is not inert but active at micro or subatomic levels. This is a reasonable panpsychist assumption: thus I felt justified projecting mood into the external world.

Moodiness, which produces mindedness, is the nature of every existent thing. For a thing to actually exist, I hold that it must attain the fatalistic threshold. According to the consolationist, yearning is the very basis of existence, the impulse that realises the fatalistic threshold. This hypothesis is plausible in the absence of certain knowledge about why the Universe, or anything, exists, and who or what created the Universe. The absence of this knowledge is a tragic dimension of existence. A universe where moral evil (the wrong use of free will) and physical evil (natural occurrences like hurricanes that inflict suffering on humans) are real should be regarded as incomplete in the sense of imperfect. The yearning essence of conscious, subconscious and seemingly nonconscious objects indicates perfection as the final goal of the Universe as far as the human intellect is concerned. Yet this perfection of the conscious part of nature and the consummation of the seemingly nonconscious but active part is impossible: experience shows that perfection is a mere wish.

Perfection should be equated with freedom in humans because freedom is the property of the perfect being. To be free is to possess the capacity to always will an ideal or perfect state of affairs that conduce to human happiness. The free being is a perfect being and the perfect being is a free being. Furthermore, freedom is transcendental: it is the capacity to will a perfect state of affairs that constantly calms the radical yearning which defines the human being. It is not just the mere capacity for choice, because this capacity cannot reconcile determinism with free will such that the human being’s choices are ideal ones that bring about happiness and sustain this state in perpetuity. The curious thing is that the human intellect intuits perfection as the goal of the Universe even as this perfection is impossible but nevertheless animates human hopes and calms human fears.

Given the impossibility of freedom, I hold that the meaning of existence, from the human standpoint rather than from the standpoint of an omniscient mind, is the realisation of ‘consolation’. While the goal of existence (perfection) is unrealisable, there is meaning (consolation) in existence that is realisable. Consolation is realisable and has been realised in human beings in the moment-to-moment maximisation of the emotion of joy in the life of the melancholy being who defines her intellectual project from an understanding of herself as a being thrown into a world whose purpose she doesn’t know but can only speculate about. Consolation is realisable – and has been realised in nonsentient nature at the micro level of atomic and subatomic impulses in the endless striving for what I speculate as consciousness as a step on the road to perfection.

Universal existence is a cosmic tragedy, and all that is available to thinking and non-thinking nature is consolation

Perfection is the goal of existence from the perspective of an omniscient mind, a goal that the human mind intuits even in the absence of certainty. The double jeopardy of nonsentient things such as stones is that they seek consciousness but cannot or have not attained it. The human being is ignorant of the ‘why’ of existence but she’s better off than the stone, which is not only ignorant of the ‘why’ of existence but also has no knowledge that existence is a tragedy. According to consolation philosophy, everything that exists is encompassed by the category of consolation by virtue of the yearning that defines mood and, consequently, existence.

Consolation philosophy produces theoretical results. In recasting the question of being in terms of mood, consolation philosophy seeks to reconcile the notions of freedom and determinism by reconceptualising the idea of necessity. Metaphysical necessity involves rigid determinism, where an effect follows inexorably from a cause. A law of nature will, supposedly, be violated if this cause-and-effect rule is broken. Since we have no certain knowledge of the grounds of the Universe – the ‘why’ of its emergence, that is – beyond sheer speculation, we can’t speak confidently of necessity and claim the absolute truth of determinism. In a universe expressed as yearning, it’s possible for laws of nature, which are idealisations of observed empirical facts or human intellectual reconstruction of reality, to be violated.

Consequently, I propose fatalism. Fatalism for the consolationist is the inevitability of events, conditions, states of affairs. The course of events is inexorable not because rigid laws are at play that can’t tolerate transgressions, but because events simply happen when they reach the fatalistic threshold. The fatalistic threshold is the point at which the internal impulse of mood energising an entity causes it to become actual. What causes this striving, and why there should be a striving in perpetuity, we don’t know. The consolationist can only speculate that the reason for this striving is the push towards consciousness (at this point in the evolution of the Universe already realised in entities such as human beings, for instance), the perfection of physical nature (which hasn’t been realised and can’t be realised), and the attainment of freedom by conscious beings such as the melancholy being (which is impossible). Universal existence is a cosmic tragedy, and all that is available to thinking and non-thinking nature is consolation, the very fact of a contingent existence defined in terms of mood. The impossibility of that which is indicated by the thinking and intuiting (human) mind narrates a story of cosmic tragedy.

Events are not rigidly conditioned before they occur but, once they occur, they are regarded as having been rigidly conditioned since they could not have occurred otherwise after their occurrence, although they could have occurred differently prior to their occurrence. A fundamentally fuzzy universe whose fuzziness is a function of its underlying universal emotionality – the consolatory essence of things – demands the fuzzy concept of fatalism. Intellectual structuring can help to throw light on the concept of fatalism but its basic fuzziness must be acknowledged as mirroring the essence of mood.

Consolation philosophy is an ambitious synthesis. It delves into metaphysical, ethical, epistemological, religious, axiological and political questions. My thoughts are still evolving. In constructing this system, I was keenly aware of the need to engage in cross-cultural dialogue with Western and Oriental philosophies. While I’m familiar with Western philosophy, I’m yet to be sufficiently immersed in Oriental philosophy. The little I know about this, in particular Indian philosophy, persuades me that consolation philosophy can fruitfully engage with Oriental philosophy. The quest for a modern African philosophical synthesis didn’t blind me to the need to have a consolation philosophy that lays claim to universality. I was looking for a synthesis that draws inspiration from African ethnophilosophy while addressing the concerns of non-African philosophies. Ethnophilosophy is a term made popular by the African philosopher Paulin Hountondji, who used it in a pejorative sense to describe the philosophical enterprise that seeks to define traditional African worldviews as philosophically valuable and – for some African scholars – a unique African contribution to humanity’s philosophical heritage.

Hountondji is right to have rejected the idea that ethnophilosophy is substantive African philosophy. But he should have seen the great value of ethnophilosophy as a wellspring of African ideas. Western philosophers such as the productive Thaddeus Metz at the University of Johannesburg, who ventured to become specialists in African philosophy, have benefitted greatly from ethnophilosophical resources. Ethnophilosophy, consisting of African traditional worldviews and the writings of professional philosophers on traditional African phenomena, supplied me with the building blocks of consolation philosophy. From the monistic worldview of the Idoma people of Central Nigeria I borrowed the idea of mood as the essence of things. From Senghor, I borrowed the idea of the melancholy being, and proceeded to weave an elaborate philosophy of human existence. From African philosophers such as Placide Tempels, Asouzu, Ramose and Chimakonam, I borrowed the idea of an interdependent universe of missing links, the cosmic picture of the African extended-family system vouched for by Julius Nyerere and Senghor.

Consolation philosophy is African philosophy. It’s nevertheless universally applicable as I believe its submissions are sufficiently general to interest the European, the American, the Indian and the Chinese. My thoughts have continued to evolve, steadily enriched by my interaction with my fellow African philosophers, the Western analytic and continental philosophers, and my budding interest in Oriental philosophies. My own struggle of reason as an African philosopher is negotiating a philosophical compromise from my position between the devil and the deep blue sea.