Transcript: 28. Chike Jeffers on Precolonial African Philosophy

Co-host Chike Jeffers and Peter chat about the themes and questions raised by the podcast so far.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: So let's start with something that's arguably overdue, which is to have you introduce yourself briefly to the listeners. Can you sketch your academic career so far, say what your main research interests are? 

Chike Jeffers: Sure. Well, I'm from Toronto, Ontario, and I did my undergraduate degree at York University. And I started at York University actually doing film. I thought I might want to be a filmmaker. As I progressed through that program, I realized that I didn't see myself going into that industry, and I realized I was more attracted to the academic side of things. But at first that meant just a change from film production to film studies. And then I did actually kind of throw on a minor in philosophy. I'm not even sure if I had taken a philosophy class yet at the time, but I did that – I just knew that from outside reading I had done, it seemed fun to me. And what happened is that third year of my undergraduate degree, or as they would say in the US, junior year, I first of all at some point picked up in the bookstore George Yancy's African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations, which as the title suggests is a book of interviews with professional African American philosophers. Also that third year I took a course on African philosophy from Esteve Morera who works at York. He's an expert in Gramsci and I think maybe also Vico, but he had enough of a reading interest in African philosophy to offer a course. And between the book and the course, I realized I definitely wanted to be a philosopher. So that was how that happened. And it is an interesting kind of story in terms of getting into philosophy because many people might get into philosophy and eventually realize, well, hey, what about stuff related to my background or something like that if they come from a background that is underrepresented in philosophy. But it is precisely my exposure to those who were doing Africana philosophy that made me realize hey, philosophy is more than just fun. It's actually something that I would be happy to make a career in. It's actually something that I would think of as possibly my way of contributing to the collective advancement of my people, and so on. And so that's kind of how I made the decision to become a professional philosopher. I got my PhD at Northwestern University and I was fortunate there to study with Robert Gooding-Williams, who at the time was working on his book on Du Bois, which was eventually published under the title In The Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America. I was also able to study with Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who we had on the podcast. And he was working on a book on Senghor, which he eventually published and which I actually translated. And it's been available in English through my translation. And eventually also – he wasn't at Northwestern when I started, but Charles Mills, who many listeners who are familiar with the world of philosophy might know, joined the department at Northwestern and was eventually the supervisor of my dissertation. And so it really was a wonderful committee to have in terms of doing Africana philosophy. Also eventually Penelope Deutscher in that department was also on the committee. But yeah, so my dissertation was called The Black Gift: Cultural Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in Africana Philosophy. And that kind of at least tells the story of how I got into the field.

Peter Adamson: And also your love of long titles. The listeners don't know this, but we're always arguing about the titles and I'm always trying to get them short. You're always trying to get them long. 

Chike Jeffers: Sounds short and sweet to me. 

Peter Adamson: It's funny that you started out in film studies and have wound up doing a podcast. 

Chike Jeffers: That's true. 

Peter Adamson: At least with media now. 

Chike Jeffers: There you go. Everything comes back around. 

Peter Adamson: So obviously you've been interested in Africana philosophy as long as you've been a philosopher then. 

Chike Jeffers: Yes. 

Peter Adamson: Has your understanding of what it means to talk about African or Africana philosophy shifted over time? 

Chike Jeffers: That's a great question. And I would say no. I'd say that while I don't know that I knew the word Africana philosophy when I first got interested in the subject, because after all for those who are outside academia, it's not necessarily a common phrase. As soon as I encountered it and saw how people were using it, I was pretty clear that, oh well, yeah, exactly the stuff I want to do – this is the word for that. I think it was one of those kinds of things. In more simplistic terms, I would have said, yeah, I'm interested in philosophy and particularly Black stuff. And slightly more sophisticatedly, I might have said something like, well, I take a Pan-Africanist view of things and therefore I'm kind of interested in philosophy as it will relate to the entire African world, both the continent and the diaspora, seeing those as in some sense unified. And so yeah, in all of those ways, that's the kind of thing that I think Africana philosophy ends up being about. I think that certainly there are complexities that one can then introduce. For example, say you're interested in Black stuff and then there's the question of, well, so how does ancient Egypt fit into that? There are questions there, but of course, I think you and I agree that when you get those questions, it actually just increases the philosophical interest of things. How do you justify these connections? And just to take that example, I think one thing I've certainly realized is that even if we could justifiably say that ancient Egypt is no part of Africa, which I think is a ludicrous statement, but if we for some reason could say that, I'd still be fascinated, fascinated and really interested in learning more about, and probably working on, to the extent that I could, ancient Egyptian philosophy. And the reason I think that is that I know that something that we did an episode on, philosophy from ancient Mesopotamia, that fascinates me as well, the way in which we can kind of look back towards these two oldest traditions of writing to kind of see what philosophical work is there, just given my interest in philosophy, I find that interesting. And then as it turns out, though, it is in Africa. And as it turns out, not only is Egypt in Africa, but you can't disconnect ancient Egypt from places to the south of it, like Nubia. And then even beyond all that, the way that in the modern era, many Black thinkers have been interested in Egypt, have taken up ancient Egypt. Even if you were to say that it's all an invented tradition in that sense, that they were making a connection where there wasn't one before, well, that connection has long been made by the time I am now coming to the subject. And so for all those reasons, it's just obvious to me that ancient Egypt is a topic of great interest from the perspective of Africana philosophy. And so, yeah, I think that that's just one example of how you might make the story more sophisticated, but all the stuff I was already interested in when I kind of came into it is still part of it. 

Peter Adamson: Yeah. So I guess the point there would be that even if it's in some sense not justifiable to consider ancient Egypt as part of Africana philosophy, we needed to cover it anyway, because it has to be on the table when we get to talking about modern or contemporary discussions of Africana philosophy by Africana thinkers. A couple of other things I would add there, because obviously we've both been thinking about this a lot, and I've been thinking about it for the first time. You've been thinking about it again. Two things that really struck me when we were thinking about not only Egypt, but also Ethiopia, is that first of all, I think that there's a tendency a lot of people have, which is not helpful, to assume that there's only one correct way of classifying a certain body of philosophical literature, or maybe not literature in the case of oral traditions, as we'll get on to talking about in a minute. Let's say a tradition of philosophy. And Ethiopia is a great example of that, because as it happened while we were doing the Ethiopia episodes, at the very same time, I was also writing about Byzantine philosophy, which is just a coincidence. It made me see that Ethiopian philosophy is simultaneously really clearly part of African philosophy. There's relationships between Ethiopia and Egypt. There's relationships between Ethiopia and Islam in Africa. I mean, when we told that whole story, we kept referring to what else was going on in Africa around that same time. Yet, also you can think about translations into Ge’ez as part of this wider phenomenon of Greek philosophy being disseminated all around the wider Mediterranean, like all the way up to Georgia and Armenia, and obviously Constantinople into Latin, into Arabic. And so I would resist the urge to say that Ethiopian philosophy is only Africana. But similarly, I would also resist the urge to say it's only part of Eastern Christianity. It’s actually both. 

Chike Jeffers: Exactly. 

Peter Adamson: So that's one thing. Another thing is that the historical connections between all of these traditions we looked at are more robust than I was expecting, to be honest. I kind of thought it would be – I thought the episodes would be episodic, if you don't mind me putting it that way. In other words, I thought that we'd kind of talk about ancient Egypt and then we could just stop thinking about that, move on to Ethiopia, then talk about Islam. But actually when we got into it, for example, as we saw, you can't talk about what's happening in the time of Zera Yacob without talking about Islam in Africa. And then when we were talking about the Sokoto Caliphate, the people that they were declaring jihad against are some of the people whose oral traditions we were covering.

Chike Jeffers: Precisely. Yeah. 

Peter Adamson: So I actually came away from it thinking that it's not only that it is a thing, but that it's much more of a unified thing than I was expecting, if anything. So maybe we can get on now to talking about this central question that we spent a lot of time thinking about in these past episodes, which is this issue about oral traditions. And we talked a lot about specific oral traditions and a wide variety of African cultures. And we moved on then to talking about the whole debate between practitioners of ethnophilosophy like Placide Tempels, and John Mbiti. And we looked at the critique of that through the professional school. We looked at Sage Philosophy, this idea of Henry Odera Oruka, that you should interview sages, that you find living sages who represent traditions. And finally, we looked at the way that the members of the professional school made concessions to the Sage Philosophy or ethnophilosophical way of seeing things. And I guess I just wanted to ask you, what do you think? Where does your own preference here lie? 

Chike Jeffers: Yeah, well, I guess the way I think about it is that things kind of happened the way they needed to happen, which makes it sound providential. And I don't want to go that far. But ethnophilosophy is a kind of starting point. I think it got African philosophy going in a way that made it clear that exploring oral traditions was important. And then I feel that the critique of ethnophilosophy then served an important purpose. I think that it forced a certain kind of self-consciousness about the enterprise of African philosophy. I think that something that our last few episodes maybe demonstrate is that if you're interested in metaphilosophy, that is, if you're interested in philosophical questions about the nature of philosophy, then studying something like African philosophy as it has played out in the 20th century is a great way to explore some of these questions. And so I think that it's a strength that the controversy came. I think that it required those who were doing African philosophy to think about, well, what are we doing? What methods would make this a credible enterprise, this enterprise of exploring the philosophical content of oral traditions? And then also the importance of philosophers understanding that they are individuals engaging with these traditions and bringing to them their individual philosophical critical lenses, and that it is in fact part of taking it seriously as philosophy that there would be that critical and evaluative component. I don't know, it's possible that some historians of philosophy might disagree. I mean, as you would know, there are historians of philosophy who think that's critical – let me tear it apart from the perspective that I now stand in, the type of approach to doing the history of philosophy is not so respectful. And then there's, of course, the historians of philosophy who think that it has to be that, otherwise, it's antiquarian and not actually doing anything. So I think there's actually interesting questions about how important it is to have a, let's say, critically evaluative component. But again, I just think that the critique of ethnophilosophy made it so that those kinds of questions had to be asked. And then so I think that the rapprochement as we just looked at it, the kind of closing of the gap as major figures like Wiredu and Hountondji kind of came around to the point where people almost were like, whoa, now aren't you doing the same thing that you were criticizing? For there to be that kind of closing of the gap, I really just think that it's kind of perfect in a way that there is a certain consensus that among the things that are going to be centrally important to the doing of African philosophy will be the exploration of the philosophical content of oral traditions that we take to, in some sense, go back to pre-colonial times. And insofar as there's a consensus about that – there may be those who would think I'm going too far in saying there's a consensus – but insofar as there is a consensus, that doesn't mean that, well, OK, we've solved the problem of African philosophy, now we can pack up and go home. It's rather a starting point. Because again, there's the questions of, OK, well, if we at least know that we are going to be taking oral traditions seriously, what are the best ways to do that? And so there's so much more to be done in terms of pushing the discipline further. But I guess I think that the kind of arc that we traced is a very philosophically fruitful one. 

Peter Adamson: Yeah, I agree with that. And I think also another upshot that we haven't really mentioned but that should be flagged is that it's not like Africa is the only culture in the world that has oral traditions, or traditions that you can only access through, say, archaeology and ethnography. You have the cultures of free colonial Latin America, for example. You have Native American culture. You have Australian Aboriginal culture. And one thing that doing this with you has made me realize is that I need to cover all that as well. 

Chike Jeffers: You’re welcome!

Peter Adamson: And as far as I know, there isn't nearly as elaborate discourse about the methods and pitfalls and even possibility of doing that that focus on these other oral cultures or cultures that haven't been really looked at as much by history of philosophy. So in a way, what we've done in these episodes is look at a set of problems that's generalizable beyond Africa. 

Chike Jeffers: Yes, I would agree. 

Peter Adamson: So obviously, in a way, everything we looked at was new to me. And in some sense, very little of it was new to you. Like, I mean, not every single detail is something you thought about before, but you thought about all of the big issues and traditions that we looked at. But has anything kind of come up while we've been writing these episodes that surprised you or that you found particularly interesting in a way you hadn't thought about before? 

Chike Jeffers: Oh, I would say I've learned a ton on the way. Yeah, I don't know if that's surprising, but it's definitely true. 

Peter Adamson: I bet you didn't learn as much as I did. 

Chike Jeffers: I'll grant that possibility. It's understandable to guess that I would have learned a lot less because despite the fact that it's a collaborative process between the two of us in terms of writing the scripts, and listeners don't realize this, but they don't know when you did the first draft or I did the first draft. And it's been quite a mix. I don't even know, maybe even 50-50. But despite the fact that it's collaborative in that way, there is, of course, the preceding fact that the plan of the series – like, what are we going to do? What are we going to cover? Yeah, that was all me. But yeah, it's been amazing, how much I've learned, going back to episode two, when we were doing the research for that, there was a point where I had the thought, if I decided not to be a philosopher anymore, paleoanthropologist could be a pretty cool job. I mean, it's just one of those things where you realize just how exciting a field is. And for us to be linking that field to philosophy in the way we did, I thought that was fascinating. And it's what's kind of also funny about that episode is that I find that for a lot of people, when they learned the arguments of that episode, that that given certain basic assumptions, we should think, yeah, philosophy was almost certainly born in Africa, among prehistoric peoples. They would often react as if the argument was as if we were saying something obvious. And the fact that we were saying something that you don't necessarily find if you go look at any history of philosophy. I think it's one of those interesting moments where you could actually end up saying something that hasn't been said before, but it's so obvious when it hits people. I think that the moments like that have been really interesting, even where we have been doing something that I've thought a whole lot about, like I've read a lot in ancient Egyptian thought. But when we worked on the dispute between a man and his Ba, I was kind of hit by what a philosophical classic I think that is. 

Peter Adamson: It's an amazing text. 

Chike Jeffers: It really is, so that hit me. And then Ethiopia was a revelation. So you've already kind of covered some of why that is, in this conversation, because I mean I barely knew anything about Byzantine thought before you started covering it in the podcast. And then to be then to be learning about Byzantine thought from you and then making those connections with Ethiopia – I mean, like mind-blowing stuff. And yeah, I just remember diving in and trying to – I think the thing with Ethiopia, and I think this would be maybe a good example of the difference between your position and mine – so you, for example, would not have been familiar with Claude Sumner. I take it. 

Peter Adamson: No. 

Chike Jeffers: Right. So in my case, by contrast, I would have known about Sumner. I would have known about Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat. And so I would have kind of had this idea that Sumner's done this important stuff showing that there's Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat, and then plus there's this older stuff that's translated from the Greek. And so that would have been stuff that was new to you and not completely new to me. But when we were working on those episodes, it was an opportunity for me to think beyond Sumner. And so we ended up covering the Kebra Nagast in significant detail. And we ended up mentioning people like the other Zara Yaqob, the emperor. We ended up mentioning Walatta Petros – and that's of course something that has only recently been made available in English. And so, as I mentioned to you at one point, it really made me want to go learn Ge’ez to be able to continue to explore that long tradition of writing. I love the fact that probably when we started, we probably thought that Islamic philosophy in sub-Saharan Africa would have been one episode. But then we were able to kind of break it into two episodes and have that focus on the Sokoto Caliphate. And I think moments like that are great where we can kind of say, hey, there's a specific family of philosophical thinkers that you can now explore. So I'd say that there's been so much that I've learned along the way. I guess actually probably some of the last few episodes would be kind of like the parts where it's been the most familiar territory to me. 

Peter Adamson: Probably taught that stuff, right? 

Chike Jeffers: Yeah, that's right. It's actually still just so fun to see how best to communicate the ideas in the form of the podcast. But yes, probably that's the debates, with the critique of ethnophilology and so on, is probably where there's been the least new to me. I mean, because one thing that I have complimented you on, in terms of when we were doing the various topics in oral traditions, I think there's a way in which had it had it been just me with no co-author, I would have been often very satisfied with looking at the stuff written by professional philosophers. And there's a way in which you dived in and read widely, not just professional philosophers, but anthropological work and so on, which again enriched my learning as well. So yeah, I'm glad that I had the plan at first, but the plan is consistently educating me as well. And that's good. 

Peter Adamson: Yeah, for me, I think that the thing that certainly, I mean, of course, in a way, everything was new. But there was one thing in particular that sticks out for me, because I felt that it was something I should have known already, which is the Islamic philosophical work from Africa, because in theory, I'm an expert on philosophy in the Islamic world. I just did a 70-plus series of podcasts about it. I've written books about it, blah, blah, blah. And I was like, oh, wait a minute, I didn't even know this stuff existed. And to be honest, it is very hard to access. Like there's a paucity of editions, translations, and so on. But at least to find out, oh, there's thousands of manuscripts from West Africa, and they deal with logic and other philosophical topics. A lot of it is kalam, so rational theology. And of course, I'm a big proponent of the idea that we should take kalam seriously as philosophy anyway. And so there, I really felt that I learned something very valuable that has relevance for my own research. So sort of stepping back from all this and what we've already covered, a lot of what we have been discussing, especially in the last few episodes, is debates about African philosophy that really comes from, in some cases, decades ago. I mean, Mbiti was stuff was written before you and I were born. And so I'm wondering whether you could say something about how the field looks today. Like what are the current trends of research? What are they doing? What are they not doing? 

Chike Jeffers: Yeah, well, that's a great question. And I think actually there's aspects of the field that we don't even need to talk about yet. And I don't mean to be coy with that. But we're doing this in three parts, and we'll be moving on from here to the second part, which will broadly be covering the 18th and 19th centuries. But then the third part of our series is intended to cover the 20th century and beyond, with the beyond, of course, just being the 19 years or so that we've made it into the 21st century. And at that point, we will at that point still be looking at trends in African philosophical thought. And if that sounds weird to people that we have just been looking at people writing, in some cases, in the 90s and the 2000s – well, I don't remember if we said a lot about the 2000s – but writing up to the 90s, at least, in recent episodes, the reason is that we've had this interest in the status of pre-colonial tradition. And so we have tried to not only trace what we could of that, both in written form and a sampling of oral form, so to speak, but we've looked at ways in which people have debated its status. And so I think that there's a lot that we'll come back to in terms of political philosophy that's focusing on issues in contemporary Africa and so on that we're going to come back to later on in the series. But if I were to give an example of recent work that relates to what we've already been covering, I'd actually like to once again give a shout out to a beloved mentor of mine, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who we were so fortunate to have on the podcast, because he's got a book, L'Encre des Savants, is what it's called in French, the Ink of Scholars, and it has been translated into English, and so it is available in English. And I just think Bachir is, in general, a truly brilliant philosopher. But relevant to your question, that book, in a few short chapters, really continues to usefully kind of bring us back to these questions of how we're thinking about the engagement with pre-colonial oral tradition, because the first chapter, for example, is about Tempels, Tempels's Bantu philosophy, and specifically the question of, well, what do we make of this idea of vital force that was so central to African philosophy on Tempels's account? And one of the things that Bachir is doing there is raising the question of whether you can bracket how applicable the idea is as a kind of key to thought in general, key to not only thought in general, but the thought in general of the entire Bantu or entire African people. That, what if we think about how that idea maybe throws interesting light on the interpretation of African art? And this is a way in which Bachir is actually drawn on the ideas of Leopold Senghor, who he's written on and who I've also been very interested in. And yeah, and so how does Tempels's idea of vital force perhaps shed interesting light on the interpretation of African art? I think that's interesting. And then he's got a chapter on Mbiti on time and the question of whether perhaps the whole problem with the controversy that Mbiti’s view of time got going about whether we can say that the Africans lack a sense of a long future, whether it all just has to do with an exaggeration of what it means for language to be concrete. Bachir argues that there's this idea that European languages are abstract and then you can show that these African languages are more concrete. But then you get into the etymology of words in European languages and it seems just as concrete. It's all coming from – I mean, he looks at the etymology of the word abstract, and shows the concreteness of that – but anyway, I could go on. But I just think that, yeah, he's an excellent philosopher in general, but that book is another example of continuing that dialogue about how we're going to explore African tradition usefully. 

Peter Adamson: Okay. One last question. We always say the history of philosophy without any gaps, right? And this is always more not a promise, but an ambition, because, of course, you can't do it, I mean, I didn't do the history of Byzantine philosophy without any gaps. I haven't done anything without any gaps for real. And so there's always, I guess at the end of every series, I look back and think, well, I could have done this, I could have done that, but you know, life is short. What are the top one or two things that we could have done and didn't do, just so listeners know about them?

Chike Jeffers: Yeah. I'd say the top two. One would be something that I think that we haven't mentioned in any way and which I myself want to learn more about, which is something known as the Manden Charter. And it's supposed to be something kind of like a constitution, like a political constitution, but one that has come down to us orally, among, I think, the Mande people of West Africa. I think it's also in some sense associated with an epic, the Epic of Sundiata, which perhaps some listeners would have heard of. They might have heard of the epic, but not the Charter. But anyway, that's an interesting topic for political philosophy in oral tradition. And I'm particularly interested in political philosophy, so that maybe cite that as the kind of thing that I'm surprised at myself that I never figured out how we could work that in. And I guess the other thing that I would cite, though, something that we would have mentioned is the Ifa tradition of the Yoruba. I think we would possibly talk about it more than once, but certainly would have mentioned it as a system of divination, which we did cover. But I actually like teaching verses, the verses of the Odu Ifa, so verses that the Babalawo, the priests of the Ifa tradition have memorized and bring up as part of the divination process. But there's a collection of them, actually by Maulana Karenga, someone we mentioned in relation to his work on Maat. But he also put out this collection of verses, and he specifically chose verses of an ethical character. And what has really struck me as I've taught it is that, just as people have looked to Aristotle and also more recently to, say, the Confucian tradition for virtue ethics, I think that in these verses, again, this stuff that has come down to us orally, there's really interesting things about the shaping of character and how to be a virtuous person. One of the things that we end up also talking about when I teach it is some of the stuff on gender. So we talk about feminist philosophy as possibly something that we're getting out of some of these verses in the Ifa tradition. And so I think that's kind of an exciting dimension that I don't think we managed to go into. So I guess I'd throw those out there. 

Peter Adamson: Okay, good. So that's looking back.  Looking forward, you said we're going to be moving on to look at 18th- and 19th-century philosophy, Africana philosophy. So since I'm going to be writing about half of those episodes, tell me what they're going to be about. 

Chike Jeffers: Yeah, so just to let you know, we'll be talking about philosophical thought as it arises in the wake of the slave trade, the transatlantic slave trade in particular, slavery in the Americas, and colonialism of the Americas, which is of course part of how you get slavery in the Americas, and also early forms of colonialism on the African continent. And so one of the ways to distinguish this second part of the series from what we've done so far is that now is the time to look at Africana philosophy in the modern era in European languages. So even though the Sokoto Caliphate, that took us all the way to the 19th century already, nevertheless, there was a kind of continuity there where we were still talking about that which precedes colonialism. And so now starting as early as a poet named Juan Latino, who was writing in Latin in Spain in the 16th century, we're looking at what happened when through this process of enslavement and colonialism, Europeans began to make it such that Africana philosophical thought was being expressed in European languages. 


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