Tuesday 2 August 2022

The Rational Basis of Yoruba Ethical Thinking; Dr Sophie B. Oluwole

At my doctoral graduation party in 1984, the then Head of Department of Philosophy at Ibadan congratulated me for my attainment of the license to talk all the nonsense I had been talking before. Since then, I have tried to strengthen my intellectual capacity to make the adversaries see the sense in what, by their own perceived standard, is absolute nonsense.

For Africans, Philosophy Is In Languages


LET me express my gratitude in the words of the Yoruba philosophy of life that goes thus: K'a ma tete ku, awo ile alayo/ Aiteteku se, awo ibanuje/ Bi' ku bade, ka yin Oluwa l'ogo, awo Oloooto/ Eese ti iku fi n pani? / Ire ni Amuniwaye fi iku se/ Omi ti ko san si' wa ti ko san s'ehin/ A di omi ogodo ogodo, omi ibanuje, omi egbin/ Omi n gbe wa lo rere omi n gbe wa bo rere/ Olokunrun ka re'le lo gbawo tuntun bo wa ye (Oyeku Ise).

Translation: (Death after a long happy life is glorious/ If we live long and die in poverty and disgrace/ We achieve nothing but sorrow/ So if death comes after a long or short good life, we should accept it in good faith/ And give thanks to God for a life well spent/ Why, if one may ask, should man suffer death after all? /The Creator bestowed death to human beings as a blessing/ Life is a stream that flows out and flows back/ When it flows out, we call it death/ When it flows back, we call it rebirth/ A stream that does not flow out and flow back/ Becomes a stagnant pool full of impurities that threaten good health/ Without death there can be no new birth/ Death carries us away;/ Rebirth brings us back/ We die as invalids but return in new found health).

At 70, I thank God for a good healthy life and wish all of us here many years of prosperity.

My journey into African Philosophy was prompted by my training and experience in Western Philosophy. I was taught that the first recorded Greek philosopher was Thales. The memorable thing he said was "Everything is water". 

Socrates was declared the father of Western Philosophy not only because he was critical of the ideas and beliefs Athenians lived by, but he was modest enough to declare that he was not a custodian of absolute knowledge.

This wisdom is today popularly expressed in the dictum: "He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool". Hence, when Socrates was told that he had been declared the wisest man in Greece, his response was that the Oracle at Delphi was referring to his self-declaration of ignorance.

In later years, I was taught, in the classroom of Western oriented African universities and textbooks that Africans never originated any cogent tradition of philosophy. My first Ph.D. proposal to the University of Ibadan in 1977 was rejected because the title The Rational Basis of Yoruba Ethical Thinking was declared a myth and not philosophy. I was forced to write on a Western (British) philosopher.

At my doctoral graduation party in 1984, the then Head of Department of Philosophy at Ibadan congratulated me for my attainment of the license to talk all the nonsense I had been talking before. Since then, I have tried to strengthen my intellectual capacity to make the adversaries see the sense in what, by their own perceived standard, is absolute nonsense.

Ladies and gentlemen let me remind you of a few of the ways in which Africans were seen and described by some Western thinkers.

Homer (c.700 BC): "Ethiopia is a remote place at the extreme of the universe where the people worshipped and sacrificed to the gods."

Thomas Hobbes (1588 -1679): "Africa is a timeless place in which there are no art, letters or social organisation, but instead, only fear and violent death."

Friedrich Hegel (1770 - 1831): "Africa is an a-historic continent even though it has a geographical location. The people live in a condition of mindlessness barbering without laws and morality."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778): "The black people are unable to think in any reflexive manner. Their engagement in arts is, therefore, a thoughtless activity which is the ant-thesis of the intellect."

Thomas Jefferson, (1743 - 1826), The third president of the United States who coursed the phrase "All men are created equal" wrote in his, one and only published book, Notes on Virginia that 'it would be impossible for a black person to understand the mathematical formula in Euclid's famous book The Elements. This, to Jefferson is proof of the intellectual inferiority of black people.

Comte Joseph-Arthur Gobineau (1816- 1882): "Africans are people who lack the sophisticated linguistic skills, the scientific and political faculties of the European and are best suited to dancing, dressing up and singing."

Allier: "The Negro is content with vaguer ideas, he (does not) allow himself to be troubled by the flagrant contradictions, which they contain. These Negroes have no theories; they have not even conviction, only habits and tradition." (1929)

Henry Maurier: "Do we have an African Philosophy? The answer must be: No! Not yet." (in Wright, 1984:25).

The various philosophical perspectives of the Enlightenment and Modern scientific discoveries have not changed the hypothesis that the Africa is a negation of all-cogent human experiences and expressions. Contemporary African intellectual giants such as Phillip Emeagwali and others are declared exemplary exceptions or people with some Caucasian blood in them. (Emeagwali, 2003).

Let us take a look at what some Western trained Africans said about Africans: Leopold Sedar Senghor, (1806 - 2001): "The vital force of the African Negro, that is, his surrender to the Other, is thus inspired by reason. But reason is not, in this case, the visualising reason of European White, but a kind of embracing reason which has more in common with logos than with ratio... The reason of classical Europe is analytic through utilisation, the reason of the African Negro, intuitive through participation."

Bolaji Idowu: "The religion of the Yoruba permeates their lives so much that it expresses itself in multifarious ways. It forms the theme of songs, makes topics more minstrelsy, finds vehicles in myths, folktales, proverbs and saying and is the basis of philosophy." (Idowu, 1962: 5)

John Mbiti: "African ideas of time concern mainly the present and the past, and have little to say about the future, which in any case is expected to go on without end. (1975:34)"

Kwasi Wiredu: "Our traditional mode of understanding, utilising and controlling external nature and of interpreting the place of man within it (a) mode common to the African race... is intuitive; essentially...unscientific mode. (This) unanalytical, unscientific attitude of mind (is) probably the most basic and pervasive anachronism affecting our (African) society." (1976:11)

Paulin J. Hountondji: "The absence of a transcription certainly does not intrinsically devalue a philosophical discourse, but it prevents it from integrating itself into a collective theoretical tradition... So thousands of philosophers without written work could never have given birth to an African philosophy. African philosophy can exist only in the same mode as European philosophy, i.e. through what is called literature. It is difficult to imagine a scientific civilization that is not based on writing." (1983:101; 99).

Akin Makinde: "This is so because our language (native language) is not yet developed to the extent that its vocabularies and logical syntax can handle abstract philosophical discourse...I do not know what purpose will be served by calling mathematics, isiro when the latter simply means addition."

Some of these are fictions not based on the facts of African expressions while others are heresies because they are a disqualification made on the bases of false or irrelevant canons. For instance, it is fictional to claim that the Yoruba believe in the existence of 201/401 gods since they do not have the idea of 'small gods' but believe in only one God. It is heretical to identify and/or characterise African thought from definitions derived from Western concepts and traditions of thought.

My own approach is that what we need is a discovery of ancient African thought which invariably must have been expressed in various indigenous African languages.

In other words, to discover African thought and philosophy, we must study texts, which exist in the authenticity of Bantu, Edo, Hausa, Igbo, Swahili, Wollof, Yoruba, and other African languages. The reason is simply obvious. Socrates' thought was expressed in Greek and he wrote nothing. Hume wrote in English, Kant in German and Rousseau in French. There is, therefore, no doubt in my mind that each group in Africa and in Nigeria has a body of thought that exists in oral tradition. Since the only Nigerian language I can speak, read and write is Yoruba. I give you a few of the intellectual pieces I have discovered in their oral tradition.

The relativity of knowledge

(Ogbon odun ni, were eemi i) (Wisdom this year is folly next time). Nkan t' o k'oju si'ni, ehin l'o ko s'elomi i (What has its face to one person has its back to another) Enikan ki i nikan gbon tan (Nobody is the custodian of knowledge).

Compare Akan: Nyansa nni onipa baako ti mu (Wisdom is not in the head of one person).

Igbo: (If one thing stands, another thing stands by it).

The limits of reason

Bi a ba na gongo ogbon si nnkan ti o to, ki a fi were die ti's (When reason is stretched to the limit, folly becomes inevitable). Omilengbe o l'akamoye, iyerundu ko lomukaka. Mo gbon tan, mo mo tan, ara re nikan l'o tanje. Aiforoloni, awo ilu awon were. (Just as it is impossible to count water and powdery stuff, so are the faces of truth uncountable. A self- conceited person who refuses to consult others is a wise person only among a universe of fools.)

The laws of logic

The Law of the Excluded Middle-Ki ebi o ma pa' die, k' a sarinako ire fun adie, ki a se akoya ibi fun aayan. Ewe egeji ki I je l'ona meji (That the chicken may not stave; we make the medicine for good luck for it. But we also make the medicine for avoidance of bad luck for the cockroach. No single medicine can bring into existence two contradictory states of affairs at the same time and place.)

Zeno's Paradox

Ijapa: "Gbogbo obinrin ti o wa l'oja, iyawo mi ni won".

Amoye: "Da'ruko won"

Ijapa: "Yannibo" Amoye: " O d'eni

Ijapa: "Jinyan iyen naa".

(Tortoise: "All the women in the market are my wives".

Sage: "Name them".

Tortoise: "Yannibo".

Sage: "That is one".

Tortoise:" Disprove that first!")

Gender Equity

Respect for women: Atomodun l'Erin ti nrin, 

Erin o f'ara k'asa, atosumosu l'Efon ti nrin, beni ko tese bo poolo. Eniyan ti o moni l'eni, ti o mo eniyan ni eniyan. Eniyan ti o ba ko ede de'le, ni i pe t'obinrin o si l'aye. ((Great) people who have gone through life with minimal difficulties are those who recognise the importance of women. Only some with little knowledge would fail to appreciate the relevance of women in society.) Odu Ose-Oturupon.

In praise of monogamy

Gbirigbiri ni a yi'do, Gbirigbiri li a nyi 'koko. Iyi ti a yi'do ki a momo yi ikoko. Bi a ba y'ikoko, inu Alamo a baje. Nitori odo n'igi, ikoko l'amo. Okan soso l'obinrin dun mo l'owo oko. Bi a ba di meji a d'ofofo; bi o ba di meta, a di "pami nku". Bi o ba di merin, a d' ajaagbila. etc. (We roll a mortar, we roll a pot. However, we should not role a pot the way we role a mortar. If we do otherwise, the owner of the pot will be unhappy since an earthen pot breaks more easily unlike the mortar. The ideal choice, therefore is one wife. When they are two, they engage in gossip; when they become three, one becomes uncontrollable. When they are four in number, they engage in incessant brawls.)

Justice and democratic principles-Political Participation and Public Accountability

Ajuwon, Ajuwon. Apo eran o j'uko. Awon l' o difa f'Alakooleju ti o ko won je n"Ife Oodaye. Eyiti won ni ki o s'ogbo ita d'ode, won ni ki o ma so igbo igbale d'oje. Won ni ki o ma fi'gbo Osun sede. Nje Alakooleju o gbo, Nje Alakooleju o gba. A o fe o n'ile I mo ma a lo. (The idea that politicians are greater than the people, and that they (politicians) can easily cover their tracks were the principles adopted by those who cheated in primordial societies. They were warned against dealing with people as if they were hunting animals in the forest. They were advised not to turn political association into a cheating cult. They were told not to convert public funds into private use. The greedy ones neither listened nor yielded. At the end they were chased out of society.)

Justice- Equality before the Law

Bi aja ba wo agbada ina, ti amotekun w'ewu eje, ti ologinni wo'so ekisa, apanije ni gbogbo won. (The dog may wear a fiery dress while the leopard dresses in red blood. The cat may appear in a tattered dress. They are all carnivores).

My challenge to the young people of this country and of the entire continent of Africa is that they must rediscover themselves. They must take seriously Philip Emeagwali's charge that Africans will never occupy its rightful place in the intellectual world until we write our own stories instead of allowing others to falsify our intellectual heritage.

I encourage you all to join me in this crusade to rediscover, revive, criticize, amend, and promote Indigenous African Knowledge and Technology and so lay an authentic basis for moving Africa forward.

I appreciate the honour done to me. My joy will be fuller when as Africans and as Nigerians, we can hold up our head, beat our chests and say "I am a Nigerian, an African proud of my intellectual heritage".

Earlier entitled, African Philosophy in Yoruba Language, Sophie B. Oluwole, retired professor of Philosophy and now Director of Center for African Culture and Development, Akoka, Lagos, presented this paper at the celebration of her 70th birthday organised by the O' JEZ Entertainment Limited and CORA, on May 29, 2005.


Few disagreements... But main point noted - we are a function of our Language !

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