Materialist Philosophical Inquiry and African American Studies
Materialist philosophical inquiry into African American Studies falls within the orbit of the philosophy of African American Studies. The philosophy of African American Studies is, in turn, both a subfield of philosophy and a discipline within the interdisciplinary scope of African American Studies (AAS). Philosophy’s relationship to AAS is dialectical. The dialectical character of the philosophy of African American Studies lies in the fact that it is both part and parcel of AAS and, at the same time, a method of inquiry into it. For nearly thirty years, the role of philosophy in AAS has steadily increased from its status of virtual absence in 1982.1
The academic discipline of philosophy treats AAS with at best benign neglect. The tradition of teaching philosophy in the United States has been (and continues to be) focused mainly on European/Western/Euro-American/white philosophers and on the cultural landscape and experiences that form the social and intellectual context for professional philosophical work in general.2 As a result, we find that philosophical questions and problems that may pertain to African American intellectual and material culture are generally disregarded by most professional philosophers and philosophy departments. Nonetheless, I contend that AAS is a rich resource for philosophical investigation and deliberation. We cannot ignore the insights of African American philosophers without substantial intellectual loss – both to AAS and to the discipline of philosophy.3
My primary objective here is to present a materialist philosophical inquiry into African American Studies. My approach will be to examine how the major contending philosophical perspective to materialism, namely idealism, has influenced inquiry into a number of key facets in AAS. Secondarily I intend to illustrate how theorizing about African American Studies can assist in learning about many aspects of philosophy. My goal in this respect is to amplify and clarify the philosophical implications embodied in the critical analysis of AAS. As we traverse the topics of philosophical materialism, philosophical idealism, and the problem of category mistakes, we can better comprehend matters of ontology (the question of what is ultimately real) as it relates to African American Studies.
Philosophical Materialism and Idealism in African American Studies
I will begin by discussing the theoretical importance and historical influence of both idealism and materialism as philosophical approaches applied within the general framework of AAS. Philosophical idealism supports the view that non-material things such as a consciousness, ideas, values, culture, as well as ideal entities such as minds, spirits, and souls form the basis of reality. Although some idealists reject the notion of matter altogether, not all idealists do so.
For the idealist, the existence or reality of material phenomena is dependent on non-material entities. In terms of social analysis, idealism’s emphasis is on the centrality and primary role of consciousness, ideas, values, myth, and culture. In their connection to social institutions, relations and practices, consciousness and culture (the ideological superstructure) are paramount and the starting point of analysis. In a nutshell, consciousness and culture are most important for the understanding social reality. Always in opposition to materialism, philosophical idealism remains as one of the dominant contemporary philosophical perspectives in African American Studies.4
Materialism, my own standpoint, is a philosophical outlook on the world and the nature of reality, which argues that the world is material in its makeup and exists independently of our consciousness of it. My materialism is dialectical and views matter in terms of its motion, change, and development. Dialectical materialism takes matter and material phenomena as intrinsically endowed with the capacity to change. Evolution and natural selection, for example, are dialectical processes. Historical materialism is a dialectical method for comprehending how various modes of production and socio-economic formations emerge over the course of human history through the process of class struggle. In opposition to idealism, historical materialism starts from the analysis of modes of production, as offering the explanatory principle for discussion of social consciousness and culture.5
Rather than viewing reality as fundamentally non-material or ideal in content, philosophical (dialectical) materialism renders reality as objective in its makeup and material in terms of its character, constitution and substance. In agreement with science, philosophical materialism posits that material entities and relations are objectively ascertainable public phenomena, and that one need not be committed to some article of faith or privy to some kind of mysterious revelation to comprehend material reality. Material phenomena are open for all to see by means of empirical (scientific) examination as well as for anyone to judge and interpret through rational reflection and discussion.6
My use of the term ‘materialism’ has nothing to do with greed or avarice.7 The materialist approach or method of analyzing the history of society, what is called historical materialism, starts with how people in their social practice transform nature to fulfill material needs. Humans as social beings have as their first concern the production of the material means (productive forces) needed in order to utilize nature’s resources both for immediate survival and for long-term reproduction (of the species) over generations. From the viewpoint of historical materialism, production pertains not only to the development of technology or mechanical instruments (productive forces) but also to the social process wherein a given set of relations of production forms the institutional context for how people come to find themselves socially located within definite socio-economic formations.8
Consequently from the standpoint of materialism, our place in society or within definite social structures – for example, as either slave or slave-master, wage-earner or capitalist – is not a matter of personal choice, nor is it a result of what some form of consciousness (god) has ordained from on high. Instead, our given social position follows from our material circumstances within the framework of the accompanying social relations of production. The class position one holds in society often comes into contradiction and conflict with opposing social groups or classes. Therefore, we observe that slaves and slave-masters, wage-earners (workers) and capitalists often clash in light of their antagonistic interests. Historical materialism further posits that this conflict among antagonistic classes is the pivot of historical development and is not due to the evolution of consciousness.9
The materialist approach does not deny the value of social consciousness or culture; however it places consciousness/culture as secondary to the mode of production with regard to the correct (scientific) analysis of social relations. Yet, a considerable number of scholars in African American Studies – rather than offering a materialist approach to African American historical development and reality – opt for accenting consciousness or culture as the focal point.10
In light of the kinds of philosophical works prominent today, it is no surprise that a number of students in AAS conclude that idealism is the only viable option. To date there is not a single book devoted to the philosophical treatment of African American Studies from the standpoint of materialism. It is clear that a large number of AAS students find that the only philosophical approaches to the theory and method of African American Studies are either some form of cultural nationalism (with the dominant expression being Afrocentrism) or cultural criticism (e.g. Postmodernism).11
The Philosophical State of African American Studies
While most proponents of African American Studies do agree that a link to the Black community, if not to social activism, is important and that solid research is foundational, there is to date no unanimity among them with respect to the definition, aims and functions of AAS. African American Studies programs, departments, and centers vary widely in their academic orientations, curriculum, and intellectual outlook and objectives. The variety and multiplicity of perspectives in AAS may cause some measure of bewilderment, especially to students who are new to it.12
Although various professional organizations in AAS have attempted to develop academic standards for Black Studies, one cannot identify any single view as the standard outlook for the field.13 The ostensible distinctions among AAS scholars are often rooted in fundamentally divergent philosophical outlooks. Whether they are explicitly or implicitly articulated, these philosophical viewpoints are crucial for the elaboration of a broad range of theoretical positions in African American Studies – including theories of identity, philosophies of history, political ideologies, and notions about curriculum and pedagogy, as well as concepts of race and nationality.14
Arguably the dominant philosophical viewpoint in AAS is idealism. Idealism is not something unique to African American Studies, Africans or African Americans. Throughout the world, there have been idealist philosophers with claims about how the possession of a soul separates humans from other living beings and that humans are foremost either spiritual or rational beings. Some racists even make the claim that people of African descent are less than human because they lack souls.15
The belief about soul as the decisive human trait (one that stands above all others) has been affirmed by philosophers in Africa, Asia, Europe and all other parts of the world. Within the Western tradition, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle held such idealist views. Also in African American Studies there are advocates of idealism who emphasize the centrality of the concept of soul and spiritual life as the defining feature of African and African-derived cultures. Other idealists in AAS think that some kind of cultural transformation is more fundamental than changing the material/economic conditions that African Americans face within the system of capitalism.16
Certain Afrocentrists make idealist claims that focus on the nature of human existence as such, while other idealists are more concerned with the specificities of African American existence. For instance Ama Mazama tenders the general claim, “The essence of life and therefore of human beings is spiritual. This is not to deny the material aspect of life; however, when all is done and said, what remains is not the appearance of things but the indivisible essence of life that permeates all that is, the spirit – the ultimate oneness with nature, the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.”17 Clearly Mazama’s idealism subordinates the material dimension of life to spiritual affairs. In this respect, her approach approximates the idealism of many religions which situate material reality as dependent on non-material or spiritual reality. Another Afrocentric scholar, Dona Richards (Marimba Ani) does not make such universal pronouncements about the spirituality of humanity as such, but instead focuses on “The Implications of African American Spirituality.” She concludes that the “essence of the African cosmos is spiritual reality; that is its fundamental nature, its primary essence.”18
If we take for granted Mazama’s claim, it would follow (assuming that both Africans and Europeans are human beings) that for each group of people the essence of life is spiritual. In contrast, we see that Richards (Ani) specifies that African Americans are in essence spiritual, implying that Europeans are not. Therefore, Europeans should not be considered in the same spiritual light as Black people. Additionally in her magnum opus entitled Yurugu, Ani declares that Europeans are essentially materialist. And she even views Plato as foundational to the materialist tradition because of his propensity for rationalism. This assertion is all the more surprising inasmuch as Plato is conventionally presumed to hold an idealist stance. The basis of Ani’s confusion about Plato is that she conflates rationalism, which is an epistemological viewpoint (theory of knowledge), with materialism, which is an ontological vantage point about the ultimate nature of reality. Rationalism need not point to materialism; more often than not, it leads to idealism.19
Plato argued that the ultimate basis for reality (ontology) was ideal forms that did not exist in the material world. The forms were independent of the material world, while the material world was not only dependent on the forms; it was a weak imitation of them. Knowledge of the forms (epistemology) was a matter of innate ideas, and only philosophers had the rational capacity to think beyond the encumbrances of day-to-day experience to reach the more abstract (conceptual) nature of the forms. The political implications of Platonic idealism are expressed in his notion of the Philosopher-King as the rightful ruler of society.20
African philosopher Kwame Nkrumah in his text Consciencism offers a telling dialectical materialist critique of Plato’s idealism and political philosophy. Nkrumah demonstrates how Plato’s idealism is incompatible with developing a philosophy of liberation for African people. Nkrumah grounds his critique not in the fact that Plato was European or that he accented reason as a way to obtain knowledge, but rather in the fact that Plato’s idealism directs us to a reactionary philosophy based on class exploitation.21
On the subject of Plato, Nkrumah’s materialism and Ani’s idealism provide us with a good example of how materialism and idealism, within the framework of Africana Studies, fundamentally differ in their interpretations of the history of ideas. While Ani resorts to a cultural reductionist approach, claiming that all western thought is reducible to Plato, Nkrumah holds that philosophy is best understood in terms of its social implications. Thus, Nkrumah acknowledges the diversity of philosophical traditions within western thought and for example shows how and why Aristotle, although a student of Plato, was his harshest critic. Nkrumah does not discard western philosophy; instead he critically evaluates it in terms of its “social contention” and hence relevance to African liberation.22
Furthermore in contrast to Nkrumah, Ani argues not only against European thought but also for a definitive conception of African thought that she considers antithetical to western thinking. In the cosmological dimension, she views African thought as fundamentally sacred rather than secular; in terms of knowledge (epistemology), she sees African thought as more intuitive than ‘rationalistic.’ In the comprehension of the universe, Ani adds that Africans do not begin with empirical observations of the material world; rather they have “perception of spirit in matter.” Hence for Africans, the universe is not known either by empirical means or from use of the ‘rationalistic’ logic of inference but instead through the vehicle of the “logic of metaphor.”23
In contradistinction to Ani, Lansana Keita argues that aspects of traditional African thought, just as with Europeans, rested on principles of rationality and logical argument. This perspective on African philosophy as a rational undertaking is not an isolated position among African philosophers. Kwasi Wiredu also argues that rationality is not only a fundamental human trait but also has been important to Africa and its all-around development. For Wiredu, this includes ethical claims, which are in fact prescriptive in content.24
Ani’s dismissal of ‘rationalistic’ logic for the “logic of metaphor” essentially sustains a principle of irrationalism as the basis for African philosophy. Her account is irrationalist in that she presumes that reason (‘rationalistic’ logic) is strictly the European mode of thinking. She effectively assumes that there is a fundamental bifurcation between African and European thought when it comes to reason and principles of rationality.25 This assumption follows from a culturalist paradigm of a plurality of insular cultures. As the African philosopher Emmanuel Eze astutely argues, “In fact, historically, for some, pluralism appears to be a kind of invitation to outright irrationalism. (We see this, for example, among the German thinkers, just prior to the Romantic movement, who took pride in calling themselves ‘the Irrationalist’; in the French surrealism of the 1950s; and in the Afrocentric primordialism of the 1980s.)”26
Ani actually ignores a body of African philosophical thought that along with Eze acknowledges that irrationalism, particularly in the form of intuitionism, is not foreign to European philosophy. Messay Kebede in his essay “Negritude and Bergsonism” demonstrates that Senghor’s Negritude shares with Bergson’s intuitionism a propensity to highlight the irrationalist character of philosophical thought. In effect, the so-called divide between African and European philosophy cannot be maintained with respect to intuitionism.27
Even if Ani’s description of African thought were accurate, it would not follow that we should take that form of thought as our model. To identify facts with norms (or descriptions with prescriptions) is to commit what is called the naturalistic fallacy. Facts and norms or descriptions and prescriptions are qualitatively different categories. We are not required to assume that since African Americans are spiritual (presumed here to be a fact) they must therefore embrace an African/African American philosophy based on spiritualism or idealism, which is the prescriptive mandate. Yet, this is precisely what Ani does! Her account is not just an ‘innocent’ description; rather it is a recommendation or a call to action. In short, Ani’s argument is an appeal to take up an Afrocentric (idealist) philosophy. What we have in Ani’s conflation of descriptive and prescriptive proposition is what I term as a category mistake.
My conclusion about the prescriptive nature of Ani’s argument is based on the following points. Ani asserts her aim is for “the reconstruction of revolutionary African culture.” She seeks a change from what the culture “is” to what it “ought to be.” Next, she intends to meet this goal by carrying out “de-Europeanization” (critique of the European concept of culture) with the goal of liberating African people from Eurocentric ideological dominance. Here the putative European concept of culture is identified with Eurocentricism. In turn liberation requires African-centered thinking, which is assumed to be fundamentally antithetical to European thought. Furthermore, African-centered thinking (the solution to Eurocentric ideological hegemony) is actually established on the grounds of the description, which Ani suggests is the authentic African worldview. Hence, Ani’s description of the African worldview ultimately serves as the prescription (solution) to European ideological dominance of Africans.28
Yet descriptions, even if they are true, do not in themselves contain prescriptions. One way of demonstrating the pitfalls of the naturalistic fallacy is by means of what philosophers call reductio ad absurdum. For instance, if we were to note the fact that most African Americans belong to certain religious groups, this fact alone does not make the case for the need to join and support those particular religions or any religion at all. If we were to describe certain historical facts of 1860, namely that most African Americans were slaves, it would not warrant the call for Africans Americans to join the Confederacy and support the institution of slavery. In each instance this form of argument results in an absurdity.
Yet this is precisely Ani’s form of argumentation. With putative facts about African philosophy as irrationalist/intuitionist, she puts forth the normative claim that African Americans should philosophically commit to Afrocentric idealism. Not only do we face committing a logical fallacy in consenting to Ani; there is a real danger from Ani’s idealism in that it devalues the rational comprehension of reality and consequently undermines a scientific approach to knowledge.
Fellow Afrocentrist Molefi Asante expands on Ani’s claim about African essence and employs an irrational justification to support his claim. Asante even goes so far as to posit that this African essence, based in spirituality, is actually the foundation for a theory of identity which is all-encompassing and applies to all people of African descent wherever they may be. He states in unequivocal terms, “We have one African Cultural System manifested in diversity. Nevertheless to speak of the Arab in Algeria as my brother is quite different from speaking so of the African-Brazilian, Cuban or Nigerian. We respond to the same rhythms of the universe, the same cosmological sensibilities, the same general historical reality as the African descended people.”29
Now Asante’s claim is also presented as a matter of fact. But rather than grant truth to his claim, let us challenge its factual merits. Is it the case that the experience of African Americans in the United States has the ‘general historical reality’ of Africans in Nigeria or Afro-Brazilians? The real answer to this question would mandate an empirical inquiry into concrete history. However, Asante would only require that we make a leap of faith and accept this assertion on grounds of intuition rather than reason and empirical verification.
The notion of “the same cosmological sensibilities” is fundamentally an irrational principle that ignores historical transformation in material conditions. If Black people in the United States adopt a cultural framework that is more in accord with Euro-Americans, let’s say as in the case of Christianity, then what results is a worldview that often rejects certain cultural phenomena such as indigenous African religions with their attendant “cosmological sensibilities.” The history of African American missionary efforts in Africa is an instance where African Americans share with Euro-Americans the same perspective on African culture. The work of AAS scholar Tunde Adeleke, UnAfrican Americans: Nineteenth-Century Black Nationalists and the Civilizing Mission, is a critical examination of the ideological implications behind 19th-century Black nationalism, which despite calls for “Back to Africa” was in essence western and imperialist. Its proponents had more in common with bourgeois culture than with traditional African cultural perspectives.30
How can we account for this change in cultural outlook, where African Americans no longer embrace an essentialist “African universal identity” that Asante claims is so pivotal? From a materialist standpoint a change in material conditions can explain the nature of transformations in culture and consciousness. Centuries removed from Africa, life in the African diaspora becomes the material foundation for African American cultures. This follows from the basic premise of the materialist conception of history.
Changes in consciousness and culture where African sensibilities are no longer the focal point for people of African descent need not have political/ideological outcomes that are reactionary and conservative. Pan-Africanist advocates from Richard Wright to C.L.R. James, although supporting African liberation, also viewed themselves as far removed from African cultural sensibilities. Wright and James were western in their cultural sensibilities, though not in the bourgeois sense of western culture. Their position was stamped by a proletarian consciousness that acknowledged the western rather than African foundations for Black liberation in the diaspora.31
In concert with Ani, Asante rejects any rational basis in logic for his claim about the substance of this universal African identity and relies instead on the mysterious and irrationalist notion of collective “cosmological sensibilities” which are adjoined to “the same rhythms of the universe.” If we grant to Asante that cosmological perspectives are essentially intuitive rather than rational in nature, then it follows that he and Ani are on the same idealist page. The idea of African “cosmological sensibilities” is tantamount to ignoring that cosmology in today’s world is a science rather than what was an earlier pre-scientific and now antiquated notion with its basis in mythology. Asante’s idealist step is undoubtedly backward in its rejection of scientific and materialist comprehension of the world.32
Asante’s idealist ontology or philosophy of reality renders science on the same plane as the arts. It makes sense to speak of artistic sensibilities; for example, one can articulate that syncopation is a form of rhythmic sensibility in music. However when one talks of “cosmological sensibilities,” the demarcation between art as an affective (emotional) response to reality versus science as a cognitive apprehension of reality immediately collapses. In other words, it takes more than sensibility to master the science of cosmology.33
This notion that Africans (and all people of African descent) have some unique form of “cosmological sensibilities” is equivalent to claiming that there are African “physicist sensibilities,” “chemist sensibilities,” or “biological sensibilities.” Claims of a collective identity around putative cosmological sensibilities, however, have not gone unchallenged. Moreover the very presumption that African identity for African Americans is intrinsically progressive34 is a cultural standpoint that discounts concrete political realities of the United States in favor of a search for African authenticity.
Students of African American Studies should not take such pronouncements from Asante as the only viewpoint in the field. Postmodernist cultural critics such as Anthony Appiah have their own counter-arguments. Appiah states, “[T]he Afrocentrists – like all who have chosen to root Africa’s modern identity in an imaginary history – require us to see the past as the moment of wholeness and unity; tie us to the values and beliefs of the past: and thus divert us from the problems of the present and the hopes of the future.”35
Appiah’s counter-argument not only demonstrates that there are multiple viewpoints in AAS concerning African identity; it also indicates how philosophies of history and theories of identity are crucial dimensions to the philosophy of African American Studies. As most AAS proponents recognize, these distinctive philosophies have profound implications for how one undertakes to explicate matters of theory, methods, pedagogy and curriculum.36
Rather than accenting the need for changes in the concrete material conditions of exploitation and oppression of African Americans in the United States, certain idealists among the cultural nationalists (particularly the Afrocentrists) argue that the reclamation of African consciousness and values along with the elevation, vindication, and utilization of African culture are the pivotal concerns essential to teaching and curriculum development in AAS. Asante is quite clear about his mission: “How can we regain our pre-slavery, indeed our pre-American, heritage?”37 And to the extent that African Americans do not claim an African identity, this rejection is attributed by Afrocentrists to cultural dislocation. In turn cultural dislocation is blamed on white cultural supremacy, which began under slavery and continues to the present. The argument is premised on the notion that one is not Afrocentric by way of biology but rather by way of perspective. Furthermore, the Afrocentric perspective rests on what Patricia Hill Collins describes as “a core African value system.”38
There is glaring contradiction between the notions that all people of African descent throughout the world share in some common “cosmological sensibilities” and yet at the same time that Africans are not by birth Afrocentric. For is it not a matter of birth that – as the Afrocentrists would have it – an Arab in Africa has less in common with a Nigerian (let us say a Hausa that may even have the same religious and cultural commonality of Islam) than does an African American Baptist that is four centuries removed from Africa?”39
In the case where the Black Southern Baptist may believe that all Muslims go to hell because they have not been saved by conversion to Christianity, perhaps there is the counter possibility that he or she may dance in a certain manner and express the kind of “rhythms of the universe” that is beyond – more African than – what the “Arab” Egyptian or Algerian can grasp? However, this raises another question, what about the great number of African Americans that by virtue of birth may have a greater amount of Euro-American genetic heritage than African. What would this mean for Black people that are fair in complexion such as Homer Plessy, Walter White, and Joann Grant? In terms of phenotypic makeup, they are in fact Black people that are indistinguishable from white people. Here Blackness amounts to the concrete social relations of race and racism in the United States. The same person in Brazil, for instance could be declared a white person. Asante’s idealism ignores the concrete material relation that establishes race identity as a social category. Given the preeminence of social relations as the determining factor of racial identity, the line of demarcation between white and Black people cannot be drawn without historical specification.40
Malcolm X came to reject all blanket denunciations of white people after he encountered Arabs who, based on phenotypic description, would have been considered white in the United States. However, he recognized they were politically revolutionary as well as African. Malcolm states,
I used to define black nationalism as the idea that the black man should control the economy of his community, the politics of his community, and so forth. But when I was in Africa in May, in Ghana, I was speaking with the Algerian ambassador who is extremely militant and a revolutionary in the true sense of the word.... When I told him that my political, social and economic philosophy was black nationalism, he asked me very frankly, well, where did that leave him? Because he was white. He was an African, but he was an Algerian, and to all appearances he was a white man. And he said if I define my objective as the victory of black nationalism, where does that leave him? Where does that leave revolutionaries in Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Mauritania? So he showed me where I was alienating many people who were true revolutionaries, dedicated to overthrowing the systems of exploitation that exist on this earth by any means necessary. So, I had to do a lot of thinking and reappraising of my definition of black nationalism.41
Would it follow that the African of putative mixed heritage such as Kwame Nkrumah’s son Gamal Gorkeh Nkrumah (whose father is a ‘Black’ African from Ghana and mother an Arab from Egypt)42 has stronger or weaker “cosmological sensibilities” than say the African American who is fair and blond like the previously mentioned Homer Plessy, Walter White and Joann Grant? The factor of African Americans being more African by means of “cosmological sensibilities” than say an Arab in Algeria or Egypt becomes problematic within Asante’s notion of Afrocentric identity, especially if we are to assume that such identity is not determined by birth. From a materialist standpoint, changing realities leave little room for static identities based on mystical grounding in “cosmological sensibilities” adjoined to “the same rhythms of the universe.”
It is obvious that the question of birth is not far removed from Asante’s equation. Are we to believe that Gamal Nasser, Ben Barka, Ben Bella, Moammar Khaddafi, and other people that have lived in Africa north of the Sahara for several centuries are less African than African Americans centuries removed from Africa and now living in the United States? Does a reactionary African American have more of an African identity than a revolutionary Arab in Africa who identifies with progressive and revolutionary Africa?
This brings us to the questions, where does the African value system find its substance? Is it only in those cultures identified as ‘Black’ Africa? Well, Asante makes it clear that the values come from ‘Black’ Africa and its traditional/classical belief system, which means that both Christianity and Islam are “contradictory to Diasporan Afrocentricity.”43 Yet, no less an African figure than Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah would dissent from Asante and answer No to the question. Nkrumah’s theory of African society and identity is not restricted to what some would describe as traditional or classical Black Africa. His position is clear: “Our society is not the old society, but a new society enlarged by Islamic and Euro-Christian influences.”44
For a number of Afrocentric intellectuals the idea a monolithic African value system is presumed to be antithetical to an equally monolithic European value system. Consequently, there is the need for African Americans, as well as for all people of African descent, to return to African values that are purged of European as well as Arab influences.45 Such a return is an imperative that has priority over contemporary African American cultural issues. Asante maintains, “Cheikh Anta Diop said it: Egypt is to Africa and African people everywhere as Greece is to Europe and European people. What he meant was that until we were able to examine the classical Nile Valley civilizations we would not know how to handle contemporary cultural manifestations, on the continent or in the Diaspora.”46
Appiah provides a critique of Asante’s notion about the centrality of “classical Egyptian philosophy” and its relevance for contemporary African philosophy and African American education by distinquishing between folk-philosophy and philosophy as a formal discipline. And in this respect, Appiah offers a challenge to Ani’s reduction of philosophy to myth. Folk philosophy as proverbs, myths, old tales, and folk wisdom do not suffice as formal philosophical argumentation, where an assesment or conclusion requires the use of reason, and logical inferences are paramount.47 As the Benin philosopher Paulin Hountondji has put it, “neither philosophy nor science are, by right, the patrimony of Western civilization”; we should avoid “a short-sighted cultural nationalism which will have us believe that an African Philosophy, an African Science, an African Technology are already present, and achieved once and for all in our so-called traditional civilisations, which today we need only to dig up.”48
On a theoretical plane, the widespread notions about the intuitive and subjectivist character of African American knowledge, and how the subjective dimension of life is not open to objective evaluation, openly escalate into forms of irrationalism and mysticism. We should not conclude, however, that Afrocentrism has an exclusive monopoly on idealism. Especially evident is the propensity of the part of a number of postmodernist scholars, such as Appiah, toward idealist and hence anti-scientific conceptions of African American life and culture.
Among the postmodernists in particular, the emphasis on culture has led to interpreting African American intellectual history in both an idealist and apolitical manner. Adolph Reed points to the prominence of literary studies, among Afro-American intellectuals of the postmodernist school, as an indicator of this process:
The disciplinary practice of contemporary literary studies centers on construction and examination of text-based notions of tradition, or canons. To that extent it underwrites an approach to intellectual history that is idealist and ahistorical. This approach produces typically ‘thin’ accounts that emphasize purportedly transhistorical relations of writers and texts. In Afro-Americanist scholarship, moreover, this tendency has unhelpfully blurred the distinction between cultural history and the history of social and political thought...49
Cultural reductionism is one of the principal roots of idealism in African American Studies. Although it is necessary and crucial to acknowledge that Afrocentrist and Postmodernist intellectuals have waged intense ideological struggles in AAS, I contend that at a fundamental philosophical level (ontologically) they share in the common viewpoint of philosophical idealism. Idealism anchors a broad scope of conceptions within AAS ranging from cultural nationalism (for example with Afrocentricity) to cultural criticism (as in the case of postmodernism). With specific reference to Henry Louis Gates’s notion of the ‘intertexuality’ of Blackness and race, Robert Young points out,
[I]f blackness is difference and all texts are situated within networks of difference, then all texts are in a sense ‘black’ and black means nothing more than hybridity. Here, then, is the contradiction: Gates is seeking to construct an autonomous and immanent theory of reading (from within African-American literary tradition) but in relying upon poststructuralist principles he is forced to register that all texts are inscribed with their other – thus ‘blackness’ now means nothing more than a sign of intertexuality; and the historically specific content of ‘blackness’ within oppressive and exploitative US social relations is (formally) emptied out.50
It is precisely this act of emptying out the exploitative relations of capitalism in configuring an understanding of race that marks the postmodernist Afro-American cultural critic as an idealist. The centrality of text-based conceptions of reality is linked to the social-constructionist presumption that reality is willfully made, which is a voluntarist position. Voluntarism is a form of idealism that discounts the objectivity of material conditions and particularly the material conditions of social relations, institutions, and practices. Anthony Appiah and Naomi Zack, among others, argue that since race as a reality (ontologically) cannot be established on biological grounds, then race amounts to an illusion. The fallacy of this is that it reduces the question of ontological status to the narrow confines of nature. Hence, the social character of race relations, while acknowledged as the foundation of racial identity, is nevertheless rendered as lacking true ontological status. Yet the fact remains that humans as natural beings realize their natural needs by social means. This is one of the vital lessons that historical and dialectical materialism brings to the discourse on race and racism. While race is a social category, it is not reducible to social construction; rather it is an objective and material reality that expresses determinate social relations.51
Voluntarism is the philosophical stance that emphasizes the subjective dimension of reality over the objective aspect. Theories of identity and philosophies of history, according to the cultural critics, allow for transgressing boundaries (a phrase popularized by bell hooks) as a matter of will. The material character of social reality offers little constraint on the possibility of becoming what one desires to be. Thus, racial identity is less a concern about material conditions rooted in institutions than it is a matter of declaration of will.
In each case, with regard to both cultural nationalism (Afrocentricism) and cultural criticism (Postmodernism), the view persists that a change in consciousness (for the latter, consciousness as a tradition of textuality) trumps revolutionary transformation of material reality. Philosophical idealism binds the Afrocentrist and Postmodernist together in their conceptions of African American Studies. Although there are real and substantive differences between Afrocentricism and Postmodernism, the fact remains that they are adjoined at the philosophical hip and hobble along on the crutch of idealism.
Afrocentric idealism is expressed when Asante asserts, “My objective has always been a critique that propounds a cultural theory of society by the very act of criticism. In other words, to provide a radical assessment of a given society is to create, among other things, another society.”52 From Asante’s perspective, criticism and criticism alone, without the force of actual material practice, is a sufficient condition for the creation of a new society. This presupposition that the critique of ideas, in and of itself, can create a new society is what makes Asante’s position fundamentally idealist. In his estimation, the need for practice – for real social and political activity – is thrown onto the scrap heap of the dirty world of material reality.
Asante is quite candid about this; he explicitly states, “Life for the Afrocentric person is organic, harmonious, and cultural because it is integrated into African history…. This history of harmony, stemming from a strong sense of God-consciousness in nature and each other, is denied by European materialism…”53 Asante’s presupposition is clear, namely that with Europeans there is materialism and with Africans you have idealism based on a firm belief in God. Against this we may cite the observation of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu:
One of the ways in which African culture has been misunderstood has been through exaggerations of the role of religion in African life…. The familiar notion of the dependency of morality on religion in African society involves misconceptions about the nature of morality and religion in general. It involves, furthermore, confusions about the relationship between metaphysical suppositions and practical norms, in addition to some straight-out mistakes in the description of indigenous moral life.54
In contrast to Asante’s emphasis on God-consciousness as central to African culture, Wiredu shows that a number of Ghanaian scholars, including J.B. Danquah and W.E. Abraham, have argued with respect to the Akan people that the centrality of God is not paramount to ethical considerations and practices. Wiredu states:
Any suggestion goodness might be defined in terms of the will of God is ruled out of court – out of the Akan court.... If, for the Akan, goodness is to be defined in terms of human well-being – we make no pretense here of articulating the definition itself – then it is logically independent of God so that even if there were no belief in God, there would still be rules of good conduct.55
Clearly, far from the idealism associated with a belief in God, the aforementioned African philosophers imply that African morality had a humanistic foundation. Yet Asante, like fellow Afrocentric thinkers Ani, Dixon, Johnson and Mazama, among others, conflates philosophical materialism with European thought and idealism with African thought. In fact, however, idealism has a rather long history in Europe – a point that is not lost on seminal philosophers such as Kwame Nkrumah. Likewise, philosophical materialism is no stranger to African philosophers, and again Nkrumah’s Consciencism is a stalwart example. There is no inherent link between Eurocentrism and philosophical materialism.
Ironically, the writings of a previous generation of Africana philosophers such as George G.M. James and Henry Olela are often put forth by Asante and others as exemplifying the tradition of Afrocentricism. Ironically, however, James and Olela argued that European/western philosophy was no more than plagiarized African philosophy. But if European philosophy is reducible to a plagiarized African philosophy, then there can be no fundamental difference or antagonism between the two.56 I submit that a return to the critical examination of James and Olela’s works actually undermines the thesis that African and European philosophy are fundamentally at odds. Consequently, the quest for African particularity cannot stand on the grounds of African exceptionalism. And it is African exceptionalism that fosters the need for viewing African philosophy in idealist and spiritualist terms.
While I support the idea that a diversity of approaches to African American Studies is healthy for its growth and development, I do not think that each and every standpoint is of equal value, validity and veracity. My objective here has been to provide a clear explanation of how the materialist viewpoint contrasts with idealist philosophies of AAS. By distinguishing sharply between the implications of materialism and idealism, we can advance the philosophical comprehension of African American Studies in all its complexity. Notes 1. John H. McClendon, “The Afro-American Philosopher and the Philosophy of the Black Experience: A Bibliographical Essay on a Neglected Topic in Both Philosophy and Black Studies” Sage Race Relations Abstracts vol. 7, no. 4 (November 1982)
56. See Henry Olela, From Ancient Africa to Ancient Greece: An Introduction to the History of Philosophy (Atlanta: Select Publishing Co., 1979); George G.M. James, Stolen Legacy (New York: Philosophical Library, 1954).