Statues Also Die

Pierre-Philippe Fraiture


“African thinking,” “African thought,” and “African philosophy.” These phrases are often used indiscriminately to refer to intellectual activities in and/or about Africa. This large field, which sits at the crossroads between analytic philosophy, continental thought, political philosophy and even linguistics is apparently limitless in its ability to submit the object “Africa” to a multiplicity of disciplinary approaches. This absence of limits has far-reaching historical origins. Indeed it needs to be understood as a legacy of the period leading to African independence and to the context in which African philosophy emerged not so much as a discipline as a point of departure to think colonial strictures and the constraints of colonial modes of thinking. That the first (self-appointed) exponents of African philosophy were Westerners speaks volumes. Placide Tempels but also some of his predecessors such as Paul Radin (Primitive Man as Philosopher, 1927) and Vernon Brelsford (Primitive Philosophy, 1935) were the first scholars to envisage this extension of philosophy into the realm of the African “primitive.” The material explored in this article – Statues Also Die (Marker, Resnais, and Cloquet), Bantu Philosophy (Tempels), The Cultural Unity of Negro Africa (Cheikh Anta Diop), and It For Others (Duncan Campbell) - resonates with this initial gesture but also with the ambition on part of African philosophers such as VY Mudimbe to challenge the limits of a discipline shaped by late colonialism and then subsequently recaptured by ethnophilosophers. Statues Also Die is thus used here as a text to appraise the limitations of African philosophy at an early stage.  The term “stage,” however, is purely arbitrary and the work of African philosophers has since the 1950s often been absorbed by an effort to retrieve African philosophizing practices before, or away from, the colonial matrix. This activity has gained momentum and has been characterized by an ambition to excavate and identify figures and traditions that had hitherto remained unacknowledged: from Ptah-hotep in ancient Egypt (Obenga 1973, 1990) and North-African Church fathers such as Saint Augustine, Tertullian and Arnobius of Sicca (Mudimbe and Nkashama 1977), to “falsafa”-practising Islamic thinkers (Diagne 2008; Jeppie and Diagne 2008), from the Ethiopian tradition of Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat (Sumner 1976), to Anton-Wilhelm Arno, the Germany-trained but Ghana-born Enlightenment philosopher (Hountondji [1983] 1996). 

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