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Philosophy in Africa

Who Counts as a Sage? Problems in the
Further Implementation of Sage Philosophy

Gail Presbey
Marist College

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ABSTRACT: With the recent death of Prof. H. Odera Oruka, founder of the ‘sage philosophy’ school of research based at the University of Nairobi, there is a need to look at some now-problematic issues. I suggest that the original impetus for starting the sage philosophy project-the defense against Euro-American skeptics who thought Africans incapable of philosophizing-has been outgrown. The present need for studies of African sages is to benefit from their wisdom, both in Africa and around the world. I also suggest that the title ‘sage’ has to be problematized. While there were good reasons to focus earlier on rural elders as overlooked wise philosophers, the emphasis now should be on admiring philosophical thought wherever it may be found—in women, youth, and urban Africans as well. In such a way, philosophy will be further relevant to people’s lives, and further light will be shed and shared regarding the lived experience in Africa.

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Odera Oruka’s Own Criticism of Sage Philosophy

Despite his pride in launching what many consider an important project in African philosophy, the writings of Odera Oruka himself express some doubts about the project. For example, in his essay "Philosophy in East Africa and the Future of Philosophical Research in Africa," he seems to refer to his own project as one of passing historical significance. There, after criticizing Tempels and other ethnophilosophers, he admits that he himself "indulge(s) in some kind of anthropological-cum-philosophical research." He said projects like his own sage philosophy and Sumner's researches into historical texts of Ethiopian philosophy were necessary at that historical point, but would soon give way to nationalist-ideological and professional-technical philosophy, trends he saw as more central to the future of African philosophy. In "Sage Philosophy Revisited," he states that "sage philosophy started as a reaction to a position which Europeans had adopted about Africa that Africans are not capable of philosophy." So, does this imply that once Europeans change their perceptions of Africans, there will no longer be a need for professional philosophers to search out the ideas of wise rural sages? Even in this late essay, Odera

Oruka continues to suggest that his work merely serves as a "base" for other forms of philosophy which will emerge in the future, but which he can't imagine right now. By "base" he seems to mean a collection of texts to which professional academic philosophers can turn, instead of always consulting European ones [Odera Oruka (1996, Ch.17)]. In some places he refers to the written interviews with rural sages as the "raw material" professional philosophers will need as the focus of their work in the future.

Odera Oruka, in the earlier essay on the future of philosophical research in Africa, goes on to say that although research into the traditional beliefs of African society would be a significant contribution of Africa to the world, such research "...will be of no or little scientific and philosophical value in the modern sense. And this is not because African traditions in particular offer no contribution to science or philosophy in the modern sense, but because ethnological beliefs in any society are not much of a contribution to the current level of scientific and philosophical thoughts" [Odera Oruka (1996, Ch.23)]. One must wonder how Odera Oruka can possibly make such a cutting and dismissive critique of his own project. I can only surmise that although he refers to his entire book, Sage Philosophy, as the site of his anthropological- cum-philosophical project, his criticisms regarding the limited value of the study are actually aimed only at those he calls "folk sages," those who uncritically hold the beliefs of their community.

Yet, in his August 1995 interview with Kai Kresse, Odera Oruka instead voiced much enthusiasm and hope about the expansion of studies in sage philosophy. He suggested that many more sages should be interviewed [Kresse (1995)]. But along with this insistence that research continue came a redefining of who should be considered a sage, and therefore what kind of interviews should be done. In fact, in the 1993 radio broadcast he explained how he answered the charges of skeptics, that since sages must be illiterate, and there are now projects to decrease illiteracy in Africa, sages will disappear and sage philosophy will become obsolete. Odera Oruka clarified, stating that sages don't have to be illiterate. He explained the historical reason why illiterate sages were chosen first (to debunk certain European skeptical remarks regarding Africans and philosophy). But he explained that "...in the future it will not be so... sage philosophy should not be restricted to rural areas and in a place where people are illiterate... We have done research on non-educated sages. There is still a large room for somebody else to do the research on the educated sages" [Odera Oruka (1996, Ch.17)]. He suggested that his interview of Oginga Odinga should be seen as the first in a series of expanding works on sage philosophy [Kresse (1995)]. Certainly Oginga Odinga is not illiterate; he has written a famous book.

Who Counts as a Sage?

In a way, Odera Oruka's expansion of the term "sage" is helpful, in that it answers certain charges of inconsistency in his earlier position. For example, Jay van Hook has argued that in these times, it is impossible to do what Odera Oruka said he was accomplishing in the early study of his sages, which is to find people not influenced by contemporary Western ideas and education.

Van Hook notes that of the twelve sages presented in Sage Philosophy, "three are identified as Christians, one a preacher in the Anglican church; one attended a colonial school; another talks about Socrates; one is identified as the son of an anti-European activist; and still another is described as inseparable from his radio and as having satisfied all his ambitions except owning a car" [Van Hook (1995, pp. 54-65, esp. 58)]. One could add that Odera Oruka praises Paul Mbuya Akoko when he exclaims, contrary to the beliefs of the average Luo, that the Luo god and all other gods are One; for there is only one God [Odera Oruka (1990, p.137)]. Yet this concept was probably the first thing that Christian missionaries taught people on entering Luoland; if Akoko said he had learned it from foreign missionaries, however, it would have undercut the rationale for the study.

While Odera Oruka praises the wisdom of the sages, he is frustrated with the way in which most rural people focus on them. He argues that philosophy is popularly misconceived as "having to do with wisdom and conventionally acknowledged wise persons." He notes, in a reductio ad absurdum argument, that if this were true, philosophy departments would be impossible to manage, since the real philosophers, the elders, would lack qualifications to teach at the universities [Odera Oruka (1996, Ch. 23)]. Indeed, Odera Oruka insists that neither age nor gender should be considered a requirement for being a sage. Yet, overwhelmingly, his designated sages have been elder men. In his book, out of twelve sages, one is young, and one is a woman. The social connotations of the word make identifying particular "wise old men" as sages too easy, while the young or women are immediately met with suspicion. As in other cases of discrimination, they have to "try harder" to merit the same laudatory title. Although Odera Oruka defines "sage" as someone with wisdom, insight, or ethical inspiration who uses his or her talents for the betterment of the community [1991, pp. 9-10], not all who show such commitment are regarded as "sages."

There is a crisis of meaning and definition at the heart of the sage philosophy project. In a radio interview, Odera Oruka stated "'Sage' simply means... a wise person, but sometimes it is more complicated than that" [Odera Oruka (1996, Ch.17)]. Sometimes philosophers are known for giving a common, everyday term a narrower, stricter meaning than in common usage. Conversely, "sage" has acquired a very wide scope, given Odera Oruka's modifications, while it has a much narrower scope in daily conversation. However, its extension to women, the young, the urban, the literate, is not adequately reflected in his own researches, nor in most M.A. and Ph.D. theses subsequently written as exercises in sage philosophy. In fact, in recent research he conducted on ideas of family planning in Africa, he interviewed two groups, "sages" and "non-sages," particularly making sure that the group of non-sages comprised at least 50% women. Although he did so specifically to include women in his study, since there is no documentation of the percentage of sages who were women, it reinforces the perception that women possess common sense and general wisdom, but not enough to warrant the title of sage [Odera Oruka (1995)]. Thus, it can be said that Odera Oruka failed to provide a clear model in his own actions for those who would follow him.

It could be that the decision to emphasize the word "sage" in "sage philosophy" originally reflected the desire to secure for some Africans (mainly elder, rural men whose reputations made them good candidates) recognition as philosophers. This was a useful apologetic strategy in the fight against cultural imperialism. Only later did the desire arise to extend the word's application, as the aim of fighting cultural imperialism became nuanced by concerns to bring the excluded and marginalized into the study. For example, in his article "Cultural Fundamentals in Philosophy:

Obstacles in Philosophical Dialogue," Odera Oruka shows sensitivity to the plight of women who feel excluded by the language used in philosophical discourse. With this increased concern to avoid exclusion, and a decreasing need to prove that someone not exposed to the West could philosophize, the category of "sage" grew more inclusive.

In a 1993 interview with Kai Kresse, Odera Oruka complained that many recent dissertations submitted in Africa focussed on sage philosophy or, relatedly, on African philosophy of culture. Regarding this trend, he counselled that this was not "the only area" of philosophy in Africa needing growth and attention. He then referred to the need to help "get Africa out of its turmoil" by philosophical analysis of its social, political, and legal problems. Coupled with his remarks about national-ideological and professional philosophy being the "growth areas" of philosophy in the future, this seems to designate sages as a passing phase of African philosophy, needed at one historical moment, but ultimately to be sidelined. Certainly, Odera Oruka did not limit his research to sage philosophy, but continued to write articles on contemporary topics of professional philosophy, such as environmental ethics.

His reference to his book on Oginga Odinga as the first in a proposed series of in-depth interviews of sages illustrates a tension in Odera Oruka's views about his own project. Although, by the larger definition of "sage," Oginga Odinga's literacy does not disqualify him, one might wonder if he better examplifies the very nationalist-ideological trend that Odera Oruka said needed more attention from African philosophers. This particular work also raises questions of the importance of the interview format for sage philosophy. Is Oginga Odinga, when writing his own book, a practitioner of nationalistic-ideological philosophy, and a sage when he is interviewed? Since part of Odera Oruka's stated rationale for sage philosophy is to create texts for professional philosophers to analyze, we can say that Oginga Odinga has already created his own texts. Odera Oruka helped create yet another text by publishing a collection of interviews with Oginga Odinga. But it can't be the method or format alone that makes someone a sage. Otherwise, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvior would qualify as sages just because someone has published interviews with them. Certainly no one would question a philosopher's desire to interview the two French philosophers, but would the resulting interview be considered part of a French sage philosophy project? And did Odera Oruka himself become a fitting subject for sage philosophy when he was interviewed by Kai Kresse?

Where to Go from Here

It seems that many young researchers are attracted to sage philosophy as a project because they are interested in finding and explicating the philosophical ideas of certain ethnic communities.

Usually researchers are interested in studying communities whose pre-colonial cultures are somewhat intact. Their studies differ from ethnophilosophy insofar as individual informants are named and quoted at length, and differences in views between informants are noted. Since this is the group most attracted to sage philosophy, how is one to find those interested in interviewing, for example, bright, articulate, young urban African women intent on solving social and political issues of their day? And if one found a researcher eager to undertake such a project, would the title "sage philosophy" then sound like a misnomer?

Naming this method "sage philosophy" has the consequence of putting the emphasis on the status of the author of any particular idea, rather than the idea itself. Sometimes Odera Oruka suggests that anyone who's thought up one pithy saying should be considered a philosopher; at other times he complains that people are using the term too loosely, applying it to anyone. The method would change significantly if the goal were to search for good ideas, wherever they may be found, rather than searching for the right people, and then hoping they have good ideas.

Such a change in focus should not overlook, however, the need to guard against sidelining rural people, considering them "backward" or out of touch with the pulse of the present. Part of the attractiveness of sage philosophy was the idea of finding wisdom where the world did not expect it. Indeed, in the contemporary world context before "sage philosophy," the wisdom of rural African male elders was belittled; they were the marginalized, even if in their own communities they commanded considerable power and fame. Philosophers should not, therefore, run after the "limelight" and court only the famous and successful; we should take our cue from Odera Oruka and listen especially for overlooked voices and ideas.

Such an approach mirrors the ambivalence and restless search found in Odera Oruka's own writings. He loved the wisdom of the rural elders in Africa; he wanted to protect them from being maligned in the larger world of philosophy. But he also wanted change; he loved most those rural elders who could criticize their own traditions and look for improvements of ideas and practices.

Whether, and in what way, sage philosophy continues and grows will be determined in part by the ideas of those who have the will to continue it; their works will help define the terms "sage" and "sage philosophy" in the future. As Tsenay Serequeberhan puts it, as contemporary Africans in a post-colonial context, "we are all historical beings and the bearers of multiple identities," here referring both to ethnic identities, and identities born in the context of modernization and domination. As "inheritors of a past... which constitutes our lived present and the possibilities of our future" [Serequeberhan (1996, pp. 110-118)], the challenge of African philosophy as a whole and sage philosophy as well, is to understand the contemporary African people and context for what it is, a mix of ideas and influences, some good and some bad, from many different sources.

As Odera Oruka states, "Philosophy is a perspective of the whole or part of the whole human predicament and insightful suggestions... This sort of perspective can be found in anybody (white, black, yellow, female or male). But in every community, there are always persons who specialize in offering or studying such perspectives. (In traditional Africa, this role was left to the sages)" [Odera Oruka (1996, Ch. 20)]. While we owe proper attention to the traditional African sages, it seems that Odera Oruka is suggesting to us that we look to anyone who is able to offer perspectives and helpful suggestions regarding the challenges facing Africa today.

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Kresse, Kai

1995 "Philosophy has to be made sagacious: An interview with H. Odera Oruka, 16th August 1995 at the University of Nairobi" in Issues in Contemporary Culture and Aesthetics no. 3, April 1996, Jan van Eyck Akedemie, Maastricht, The Netherlands.

Maison, Dikirr Patrick

1994 "The Philosophy and Ethics Concerning Death and Disposal of the Dead among the Maasai," M.A. Thesis, University of Nairobi.

Odera Oruka, H.

1983 "Sagacity in African Philosophy," International Philosophical Quarterly 23, 4 (December 1983), pp. 383-393.

1990 Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy, Leiden: E.J. Brill.

1991 Sage Philosophy, New Edition, Nairobi: ACTS Press.

1995 Ethics, Beliefs and Attitudes Affecting Family Planning in Kenya Today: A Final Report, University of Nairobi, Department of Population Studies, 1995.

1995 Practical Philosophy: In Search of an Ethical Minimum, forthcoming, Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers,1996.

Serequeberhan, Tsenay

"Reflections on In My Father's House," in Research in African Literatures, vol. 27, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 110-118.

Van Hook, Jay M.

1995 "Kenyan Sage Philosophy: A Review and Critique," in Philosophical Forum, Vol. XXVVII, No. 1, Fall 1995, pp.54-65.

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