A Critique of Cultural Universals and Particulars in Kwasi Wiredu's Philosophy

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

A prominent issue that has dominated the enterprise of African philosophy since its inception in the written form is the question of how to define African identity (Owolabi 1999:22). Most intellectual discussions in African philosophy are reactions to this problem of identity. Two things are largely responsible for this search for African identity. One is the negative impact of the colonial experience of domination and exploitation in Africa. The second is the ethnocentric assertion of Western scholarship to the denigration of anything that is African. At the base of that Western intellectual discourse is the Hegelian claim that:

Africa "is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it--that is in its northern part--belong to the

Asiatic or European World.... Africa is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World's History (Hegel 1956:99).

Hegel is not alone in this epistemic ethnocentrism (Mudimpe 1988); the anthropological claims of Durkheim (1912), Frazer (1922), Levy-Bruhl (1949) and Horton (1981) also support the ethnocentric, racist and imperialist claim that rationality is prerogative of Western civilization while the Africans are mentally primitive. The significant role played by Western scholarship and erstwhile Western imperial lords in presenting and treating the African people as inferior and deserving of external control, necessitates that African scholarship in postcolonial era, should be active in the deconstruction of this negative and battered identity (Balogun 2007:1).

In this quest for African self-identity and self-definition, two orientations are dominant. The first affirms the cultural pluralism of Western scholarship, but denies the hierarchy of cultures (Owolabi 1999:24). This first orientation is preoccupied with the discovery of authentic and unique African identity by insisting on particulars--their own previously un-respected and neglected particularities. Scholars like Abraham (1966), Mbiti (1969), Sodipo (1975), Anyanwu (1983), Tempels (1959) and Senghor (1991) who are in this category have sympathy for the orientation in African philosophy, which emphasizes the peculiarities of African culture. To these scholars, all philosophies are cultural philosophies and no philosophical datum of any given culture is applicable to other cultures. Within this orientation, the ethno philosophers, the defenders of negritude and other cultural nationalists can be categorized.

The second reaction to the crisis of self-identity within African scholarship denies cultural relativism and ethnocentrism maintained by Western anthropological scholarship. The argument is that though certain aspects of societal cultures are different, human cultures still share certain fundamental traits that allow for cross-cultural comparisons and interactions (Owolabi 1999:24). Hence, Bodunrin (1985), Hountondji (1983), Appiah (1992), Towa (1991) and Wiredu (1980) who are members of this orientation insist on cultural universalism.

From the above dominant orientations in the quest for African self-identity, the general deducible impression is that there is a dichotomy and incompatibility between the perspectives of African scholars on cultural universalism and particularism as related to the quest for an identity. This paper aims at philosophically discussing, the issues of universalism and particularism in human culture, especially in relation to African's search for self-definition. In doing this, however, an attempt is made to examine critically Wiredu's perspectives and contributions to the discourse.

The following questions shall guide our discussions in the paper: Are there cultural universals? Is there any scheme of concepts, which can be shared by all the cultures of humankind? …


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