Decolonising African philosophy: What the curriculum should look like

African life-experience and thinking should be at the forefront

The impetus for this piece is the demand for the decolonisation of the philosophy curriculum at our universities, made, at least in the context of South Africa, by none other than students of philosophy themselves.

As some philosophy students see it, it is no longer politically, and even morally, acceptable for African students to be taught philosophy exactly as they would be taught it in a European university, disregarding, in effect, the epistemic position out of which we are supposed to function. To many of these students, the subject-matter that has been termed “African Philosophy”, which they consider, not without reason, a token addition to the curriculum, is misplaced in Africa.

“African Philosophy” treats thought by African scholars as a curiosity, and as potentially not sufficiently philosophical to be included in discussions of “normal” philosophy. These students observe that African thought should be at the centre of philosophy done on the African continent, and that if this were the case, there would be no need to cordon off a segment of thought on the continent and call it “African philosophy”. Philosophy done and taught in Africa ought to speak to the African experience, and the African way of being. Philosophy that does this should not be cordoned off into the title “African philosophy” and treated as a strange phenomenon.

Now, while philosophers (or more properly, philosophy teachers) in Africa, and specifically in South Africa, increasingly realise this need to decolonise the curriculum, and while many of these philosophers appear to understand, albeit only in broad outlines, what it could mean for a curriculum to be decolonised, the question of the specific form a decolonised curriculum would (or perhaps, should) take remains hotly contested terrain.

There are at least three forms the decolonisation of the philosophy curriculum could take. First, some people conceptualise the decolonising of the philosophy curriculum as entailing the retention of the themes currently engaged with by the current curriculum, but including African thinking in those conversations. The problem with this approach is that it proceeds by suggesting that we force African thinking into moulds pre-determined by Western philosophy. African philosophers seem to be admonished to join at the proverbial table of Western philosophy or submit to neglect and exclusion. This approach is problematic because it ignores, or papers over, the fact that African thinkers have carried on debates, between and among themes, based on themes which have particular relevance to them as people grappling with a specific sort of reality, context and life-experience; realities, contexts and life-experiences which are different from those which produced the themes which the current curriculum engages with. This body of work is valuable in its own right and needs to be treated as such, and not merely as an appendage to Western philosophy. It is hard to see how this first possibility is a form of decolonisation at all.

A second conceptualisation of decolonisation demands that we boot every text of philosophy from the West, or more generally from outside the African continent, from the current philosophy curriculum, and teach only African philosophical texts. I think that this approach depends on a serious misunderstanding of what decolonisation is. Decolonisation, as I understand it, demands a centring of African knowing and being. To centre a thing metaphysically implies the existence of other surrounding objects. The object at the centre does not exist in isolation. It is precisely in relation to the positions taken up by other objects around it that the centred object is, properly speaking, “centred”. In like fashion, it seems to me that creating a curriculum which pretends, so to speak, as though there are no other knowledges in the world, that is, that African students should only be exposed to African thought, is a serious misapprehension of what decolonisation is.

However, it ought to be admitted that this last possible form of the decolonisation of the philosophy curriculum gets something right, at least in its spirit. African philosophical thought, it suggests, ought to be given a position superior to the one it currently occupies. The themes, texts and debates associated with philosophy on the continent ought to serve as the starting point of philosophical discourse on the continent, as a matter of course. Philosophy, as I understand it, is primarily the philosopher’s attempt to make sense of their reality. This leads us into the third possible conceptualisation of what a decolonised philosophy curriculum should look like.

Philosophy on the continent should have African thought at its centre. The thoughts of African philosophers, whose experience of the world is roughly similar to the experiences of those who study philosophy on this continent, and whose experience can be called the “African” experience in some reasonably discernable sense, should take centre-stage in the study of philosophy on the continent. But we cannot lock other voices out of that debate for two reasons. First, the more voices there are, the more insights there will likely be. An increase in the number of insights is likely to occasion an enriching of discourse, in a way that can only be a positive thing.

Secondly, we are able to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our reality if we consider them in contrast with other experiences of the world. All other traditions that have anything to say under any given theme need to be allowed to come into conversation with African thought, without preference for any specific non-African tradition.

The basic starting point, nonetheless, needs to be and remain the African life-experience and African thinking about that life-experience. The themes engaged with should be themes that emerge out of the African life-experience, and not themes which are inherited from the thoughts of long-dead white men from the 16th, 17th or 18th century. This third form is the form I think a decolonised philosophy curriculum should take.

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