Philosophy Contemporary African Philosophy
Thaddeus Metz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0164


Given a broad sense of “philosophy” as systematic rational reflection on fundamental issues beyond the sciences, precolonial sub-Saharan societies with oral cultures certainly engaged in it. However, African philosophy in a much narrower sense, as a field with a body of literature that is studied by scholars in sub-Saharan Africa, is new, having been properly established only in the 1960s with the advent of literacy and the decline of colonialism. It was only following independence from colonial powers after World War II that substantial numbers of sub-Saharans became university lecturers who began writing about their cultures with sympathy and erudition. This article focuses on this “academic” African philosophy, which, despite its recent creation, is large, admitting of a wide variety of issues and subdisciplines, of styles and methods, and of languages and traditions. To obtain focus in a way that will most interest the audience of this encyclopedia, this article analyzes recently published English-language texts that are informed by perspectives salient in discussions among sub-Saharan professional philosophers. Such a concentration implies, for example, that this article does not refer much to the following: oral engagements with community elders (“sages”), French- or indigenous-language manuscripts, works in Arabic philosophy from North Africa, and sub-Saharan texts appearing before the 1980s. Concentrating on contemporary Anglophone writings of interest to academic philosophers in black Africa will make this article tractable and should enable readers to make cutting-edge contributions to the field.

Introductory Works and General Overviews

The bird’s-eye views of African philosophy that one encounters vary dramatically, differing in terms of the swaths of intellectual territory they cover and the degree of detail. Appiah 1998 is by far the shortest, and yet it is also the most comprehensive in one sense, ranging from philosophical themes in precolonial oral cultures to academic, written work in the postwar era. Masolo 1994, Wiredu 1998, and Janz 2007 focus on postwar materials, such as classic texts in ethnophilosophy and political theory (see Precursors to the Contemporary Debates), as well as on second-order issues related to the nature of African philosophy itself (see Metaphilosophy). Masolo 1994 is notable for including a well-informed, comprehensive discussion of Francophone philosophers. Bell 2002 is split about equally between the issues covered in those texts, on the one hand, and contemporary themes in moral and political philosophy on the other— and like those texts, it does not address any recent philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge or reality. For this area of enquiry, the remaining works will be most useful. In particular, those wanting a big picture of the systematic issues discussed in this article would be best off reading Gyekye 1995, Wiredu 2004, or Hallen 2009, which take up a variety of substantive topics in metaphysics, the theory of knowledge, and value theory. Masolo 2005 is an interesting critical review of the ideas of six thinkers who substantially influenced the field in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

  • Appiah, K. Anthony. “African Philosophy.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Craig. New York: Routledge, 1998.

    Freely available online, this terse contribution covers several traditions but not recent, substantive debates.

  • Bell, Richard H. Understanding African Philosophy: A Cross-Cultural Approach to Classical and Contemporary Issues. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    A clear discussion that integrates a wide variety of texts, including a particularly thoughtful treatment of the way sub-Saharan moral thinking (and not Christianity) was principally responsible for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

  • Gyekye, Kwame. “On the Idea of African Philosophy.” In An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme Rev. ed. By Kwame Gyekye, 189–212. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

    An overview of ontological, epistemological, and axiological themes recurrent among sub-Saharan worldviews.

  • Hallen, Barry. A Short History of African Philosophy. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

    A book-length and yet concise treatment of a variety of topics, including a substantial bibliography as well as a discussion of salient anthologies, journals, and other issues that would facilitate entrance into the field.

  • Janz, Bruce. “African Philosophy.” In Columbia Companion to Twentieth-Century Philosophies. Edited by Constantin Boundas, 689–701. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

    Noting that “the central concern in African philosophy in the twentieth century, often to the frustration of its practitioners, is over the existence and nature of African philosophy,” Janz accordingly discusses, with sophistication and clarity, mainly metaphilosophical ideas and texts.

  • Masolo, Dismas. African Philosophy in Search of Identity. African Systems of Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

    A wide-ranging survey of major strands of sub-Saharan philosophy since the 1940s, this book critically discusses figures influential not only among English speakers, such as Placide Tempels, John S. Mbiti, and H. Odera Oruka, but also among French speakers, such as Alexis Kagame, Pauline Hountondji, and V. Y. Mudimbe.

  • Masolo, Dismas. “The Making of a Tradition: African Philosophy in the New Millennium.” Polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 6 (2005).

    A lengthy critical overview of the ideas of key African philosophers, with a focus on Pauline Hountondji, Kwasi Wiredu, Barry Hallen, J. Olubi Sodipo, Kwame Gyekye, and V. Y. Mudimbe.

  • Wiredu, Kwasi. “African Philosophy, Anglophone.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Craig. London: Routledge, 1998.

    Half of this encyclopedia entry analyzes the post-independence political philosophies of “statesmen-thinkers,” while the other half recounts the major figures and ideas associated with different styles of African philosophy, such as ethnophilosophy and sage philosophy. Available online to subscribers.

  • Wiredu, Kwasi. “African Philosophy in Our Time.” In A Companion to African Philosophy. Edited by Kwasi Wiredu, 1–27. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy 28. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    A wide-ranging and well-organized discussion of major themes in the field, under headings such as “Personhood,” “Democracy,” “Relativism,” and “Time,” by the most influential African philosopher of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

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