African philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Z018-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 20, 2019, from

2. Older literate traditions

Although these oral traditions represent old forms of thought, the actual traditions under discussion are not as old as the remaining African literate traditions. The earliest of these is in the writings associated with the ancient civilizations of Egypt, which substantially predate the pre-Socratic philosophers who inhabit the earliest official history of Western philosophy (see Egyptian cosmology, ancient). The relationship between these Egyptian traditions and the beginnings of Western philosophy have been in some dispute and there is much recent scholarship on the influence of Egyptian on classical Greek thought (see Egyptian philosophy: influence on ancient Greek thought).

Later African philosophy looks more familiar to those who have studied the conventional history of Western philosophy: the literate traditions of Ethiopia, for example, which can be seen in the context of a long (if modest) tradition of philosophical writing in the horn of Africa. The high point of such writing has been the work of the seventeenth-century philosopher, Zar’a Ya’ecob. His work has been compared to that of Descartes (see Ethiopia, philosophy in).

It is also worth observing that many of the traditions of Islamic philosophy were either the product of, or were subject to the influence of scholars born or working in the African continent in centres of learning such as Cairo and Timbuktu (see Islamic philosophy). Similarly, the work of some of the most important philosophers among the Christian Church Fathers, was the product of scholars born in Africa, like St Augustine, and some was written in the African provinces of Rome.

In considering African-born philosophers, there is Anton Wilhelm Amo, who was born in what is now Ghana and received, as the result of an extraordinary sequence of events, philosophical training during the period of German Enlightenment, before returning to the Guinea coast to die in the place he was born. Amo’s considerable intellectual achievements played an important part in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century polemics relating to the ‘capacity of the negro’. Unfortunately, only a portion of his work has survived.

Citing this article:
Appiah, K. Anthony. Older literate traditions. African philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Z018-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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