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The Location(s) of Philosophy: Generating and Questioning New Concepts in African Philosophy

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The life-blood of African philosophy (as with any philosophy) is the generation of new concepts adequate to an intellectual milieu. That milieu includes historical, cultural, political, and pragmatic elements, among others, as well as the existing
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  Philosophia Africana , vol. 16 , no. 1, summer 2014  9 The Location(s) of Philosophy: Generating and Questioning New Concepts in  African Philosophy  Bruce B. Janz Professor of Humanities, Department of PhilosophyGraduate Faculty, Texts and Technologies Ph.D.University of Central Florida  The life-blood of African philosophy (as with any philosophy) is the generation of new concepts adequate to an intellectual milieu. That milieu includes historical, cultural, politi-cal, and pragmatic elements, among others, as well as the existing concepts that make the milieu philosophically viable. These concepts are both the result and the starting point of questions that can only be asked in a particular manner within African milieus. The access to these questions comes initially from the writing done by those who are of this place, and ultimately from a phenomenological presence in and to the place. This paper will illus-trate this approach to  philosophy-in-place  by considering some concepts (specifically, responsibility  (especially toward the environment), the digital  , and the nature and form of philosophical questioning  ) and arguing that African milieus enable valuable and unique questions to be asked. In fact, I will advocate that while the imperative to philosophically “be true to Africa” is crucial and should never be forgotten, that truth must come with a creative element in which concepts adequate to the present milieu are created, as well as recognized as they are being created. This paper is a sketch of what that creativity might look like.I have chosen these three concepts because they will help to flesh out philosophy-in-place. Concepts, I want to argue, each have a milieu and owe a debt to their provenance, to those who fostered them. But asking about the first concept I address, environmental responsibility , pushes the concept of responsibility to its edge, since the concept is not responsible to an author or a source. In other words, the idea of responsibility is not one that can be clearly understood as being the property of an agent, in the manner that we think of moral or legal responsibility as the question of which agent’s task it is to ensure a particular kind of action. African philosophy’s traditional understanding of the basis of responsibility is that it is rooted in community—regard depends on recognition of the other as in some manner connected to oneself or, put more precisely, both the other and the self are manifestations of the community. But the environment is not obviously part of the com-  10  Philosophia Africana munity in that traditional sense. So the question is, how might the environment be theo-rized within an African philosophical context? The second concept I cover is that of the digital  . I choose this concept because, to my knowledge, no one has raised the issue of digitality from within African philosophy. Why  would this be the case? Likely it is because even with contemporary African philosophy, the focus has been on elements of traditional practices that might yield answers to contempo-rary issues. But if African philosophy is a comprehensive activity, it ought to at least in prin-ciple be able to address new concepts. A philosophy-in-place is not bound by its place. And, of course, the digital is part of daily life and practice in Africa. There have been advances by Africans in digital technology. African life, to some extent (and that extent is growing) is mediated by code. African philosophy has been largely silent on these sorts of practices in contemporary life on the continent. But what if this philosophy-in-place took seriously con-temporary developments such as the rise of digital technology?Finally, we can consider the concept of the question  as another moment in philoso-phy-in-place. Western philosophy has tended to regard the central goal of philosophy as the establishment of a claim. Questions, then, are moments on the way to a successful claim. Since questions have this provisional status in the West, they are rarely interrogated. They disappear as soon as they yield a claim. I want to argue that African philosophy, or at least some African philosophers, can lead us to interrogating questions themselves.So, these three concepts are not just randomly chosen but are, rather, meant to inves-tigate the limits of African philosophy. The first of these is the limit of responsibility—how might African philosophy conceptualize responsibility to something other than the commu-nity? The second is the limit of applicability. If we can theorize the digital within the scope of African philosophy, we push the boundaries of the production of concepts. The third is the limit of srcins. I am not referring to historical or cultural srcins (which, after all, address the issue of the history of thought, but not necessarily philosophy), but to the ori-gin of the production of concepts. How can African philosophy begin its activity, and what  would constitute an African question?If consideration of these three concepts is successful, what I hope to achieve is a way of opening up new questions within African philosophy. As I have argued elsewhere (Janz, 2009), I think that a great deal of African philosophy has been animated by external ques-tions, in particular, the question, “Is there such a thing as African philosophy?” I believe that question, whether legitimate or not is not an African question and hence cannot be the foundation for a coherent African philosophy. Nevertheless, a great deal of work seems to be focused on showing that Africa has real philosophy because it has historical priority, or cultural purity, or a unique perspective or argument, or a unique method, or unique goals.  All these things might be good, but none of them can push African philosophy forward on its own terms because in my reading, it seems clear that the question is not one that matters for African thinkers. My goal here, then, is to look at these concepts within the ecosystem of a different kind of question. In this ecosystem, the viability of concepts will be considered in the con-text of the question, “What does it mean to do philosophy in this (African) place?”   Janz, Generating and Questioning New Concepts in African Philosophy 11 Responsibility (In and Toward the Environment, and in General) If we consider the question of the nature of responsibility within African philosophy,  we would quickly be led to the issue of responsibility towards a group. This is the common-place of African philosophy—whereas Western thought tends towards individualism, Afri-can philosophy tends towards a collectivity. Whether this is in fact universally true across  Africa is not, for the moment, important (most likely it is not universal). What is impor-tant is that this is a concept that has broad currency within African thought. This means that theorizing responsibility is a different issue than in the West, where it is a problem to be solved (that is, if the individual is the fundamental ontological unit, then the problem becomes, how do those units act toward one another?) The widely held version of ontology in African philosophy begins with connection, and so we might suppose that the funda-mental problem is individual meaningful action within a sphere of collective responsibility. In other words, we might suppose that there is no real problem of responsibility for African philosophy.Of course, things are not quite that simple. Even if we do not consider the questions that might arise concerning the extent and nature of our responsibility to one another  within an identifiable and credible group (the ontological unit), we still have the question of responsibility toward whatever might exist outside of that group. We might also have the issue of how ontological units within the group might bear responsibility (what, for instance, is the responsibility toward women, as apart from women’s membership in a cul-tural group that might undergird some notion of Ubuntu )? My question here, though, will be about a credible environmental philosophy within  African philosophy. In Western thought, at least in environmental philosophy until recently, the problem of responsibility by humans toward non-humans (whether that refers to ani-mals, plants, the biosphere/ecosystem, or simply materiality in the world) has been to take one of four paths. One could either (1) anthropomorphize  nature (making it a function of the inquirer, thus ensuring its agency by making the issue one of self-agency), (2) roman-ticize  it (making it a sort of consciousness of its own), (3) treat it deontologically  (argu-ing that responsibility exists simply because of a duty and that it does not matter about the agency of the other), or (4) regard responsibility as the result of some externally imposed command   or requirement (“thou shalt”). The first path extends human value to the exter-nal world by implication or as a precondition for human existence, while the second sees nature as having some sort of intrinsic value. The last two approaches see nature’s value as externally imposed. We may find one or more of these common Western options within  African thought, or we may find something completely different, but what is certainly dif-ferent is the milieu from which the question is being asked. What does it mean to be responsible for a non-human world within an African philo-sophical context? To whom, exactly, is one responsible? Does this mean the same thing now as it once did in Africa? What is an adequate concept of responsibility for today? Answering such queries would have to take into account demographic and geographical shifts, differ-ent forms of external influence and internal stress, changes in the nature of the family and the extended group, etc. In connection with the environment, the question would be, what  would an environmental ethic look like that was rooted in African thought? In the West, of course, a great deal of work was needed in order to countenance the possibility that non-  12  Philosophia Africana humans, or the environment in general, might be the object of ethical action or, for that matter, that the environment might be an actor in an ethical milieu.Some traditional knowledge systems elsewhere in the world have argued that they have always had an environmental regard and that the environment has always figured strongly in their ethics. The argument continues that it was Western versions of dualism (or something else) that allowed us to forget our connection with the environment. This may  well be true (that is, that Western thought led to a forgetting of the environment as an ethi-cal milieu), but that in itself does not necessarily argue that an ethic existed in traditional societies toward the environment or that if it did, it existed in the same way in different traditional societies, either across Africa or elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, if my goal here has merit, that is, to think about concepts that are adequate for life in Africa today, the idea of the traditional as a basis for an environmental ethic in Africa may only be one com-ponent we would have to take into account. What I am arguing here is that coming up with a coherent ethic of environmental responsibility in Africa cannot be done simply by contrasting Africa with Western modes of thinking about the environment, nor can it be done simply by appealing to tradition.  And, to the extent that we think of African philosophy along the lines of some version of Ubuntu philosophy, or according to some other version of communalism, environmental thought seems at least superficially to be even more difficult to conceive. The non-human environment is, after all, not part of that communal system that has its roots in or uses the metaphors of kinship or extended family. This does not mean that it is impossible to imag-ine an extension of communalism that would encompass at least some of the environment.  We could, after all, think of the environment as a pre-condition for community or, alter-natively, we could imbue it with spiritual qualities that would draw it into the community.  This would be analogous to, but different from, the Western versions that began from the individual and then either extended the circle or posited some version of consciousness or soul within nature. The drawback, though, of both the Western attempts to extend ethics to the environ-ment and my proposed African versions of environmentalism is that it is difficult to make a convincing metaphysical case for the romantic account, and it is equally difficult to make a convincing epistemological case for the extension of either the self or the community to the natural world. How could either speak for nature? And, it seems that environmentalism in both cases must be an extension of the values of the self/community, making the knowl-edge of the environment into a form of self-knowledge.How one would go about developing an environmental ethic is a question that natu-rally arises. Should it, for instance, be based on environmental problems? In other words, is what motivates the production of an ethic the degradation of land, desertification, pollu-tion, global warming, destruction of forest, the effects of slums around large cities, etc.? Is the reason for thinking about the environment within an African context to be able to think about how to address some pressing problems? We could imagine options in an African context, but they would have to address both the metaphysical and epistemological issues just sketched out. The point here is that a coherent environmentalism would require careful thought about how some version of Afri-can philosophy might adequately account for the non-human. It is a kind of limiting condi-tion for philosophy, but a different one from the Western version. In the case of the West,   Janz, Generating and Questioning New Concepts in African Philosophy 13  what is being challenged is the account of the individual as the starting point for philoso-phy. In the case of Africa, assuming some version of communitarianism, what is being chal-lenged is the nature of the community and how an individual might speak when the locus of  value and knowledge is the community. There are several versions of environmentalism in an African context. Odera Oruka and Calestous Juma argued for what they called “parental earth” ethics toward the end of Oruka’s life (Oruka 1994). Wangari Maathai and the “Green Belt” movement is not so much an environmental philosophy, but it does rely on environmental philosophy for its activism. There has been a series of conferences on African Environmental Ethics and  Values (http://www.cep.unt.edu/africa/2010-conference.htm) by the Center for African Environmental, Human and Societal Ethics in Lagos, Nigeria, and the Department of Phi-losophy and Religious Studies at the University of North Texas. These various attempts are a beginning, but in most cases the questions are still ones of application rather than of questioning the limits of African philosophy. The environ-ment is a problem to be solved for African philosophy, but it is not yet a challenge to it, and until it is, it will not create the kinds of concepts that might come out of this encounter. It is important to note that the argument to this point is not that environmental philosophy does not currently exist in Africa or, worse, that it could not exist unless a set of existing concepts changed to be more Western. The argument is that, given the concepts that do exist in Africa, what kind of an environmental philosophy can emerge? What are the intel-lectual challenges or problems that need to be addressed, and how, given the differences in the milieu of concepts in various parts of Africa, can new concepts about the environment become available? And, if it is the case that some form of communalism has intellectual currency, what kinds of intellectual problems would need to be solved in order to have a coherent environmental philosophy? Are there solutions, or at least pointers, in traditional  African thought, and how would those extend to the contemporary world? This is the start-ing point of an African contribution to theorizing one of the limits of philosophy, namely, is how to address the non-human. The Digital  This concept is one which seems a long way from anything traditionally African. This is why I have chosen it. It enables us to think about the kind of philosophical place(s) we find in Africa, it allows us to think about what the digital actually is, and it lets us see that  African philosophical resources might give us new insight into these questions. What could African philosophy possibly have to do with theorizing the digital? And of what possible use could any idea about the digital have for African lived experience? The mere consideration of this concept, whatever it might mean, lays bare some potential preju-dices that some might retain when it comes to Africa. Supposing that the digital cannot or could not be theorized within an African context presumes that the milieu is incapable of dealing with a concept often associated with Western modernity. And yet, why would that be? Is there anything necessarily Western about the digital?Clearly there is plenty of digital activity within African cultures, ranging from robust and ubiquitous cellular phone networks in Kenya to digital art in South Africa, to digital journals and text-archiving projects in many countries. And I would argue that that activ-
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