Academic journal article Canadian Social Science

The Rationale for an African Epistemology: A Critical Examination of the Igbo Views on Knowledge, Belief, and Justification

Academic journal article Canadian Social Science

The Rationale for an African Epistemology: A Critical Examination of the Igbo Views on Knowledge, Belief, and Justification

Article excerpt


The idea of African epistemology just like the larger discourse of African philosophy (especially in its early beginnings) still faces some challenges. One of the challenges centers on the proper meaning and adequacy of the idea. No doubt this difficulty has instigated some misgivings about the discourse prompting some philosophers to either reject it outright or accept it with reservations. I believe that part of the misgivings of African epistemology borders on the meaning ascribed to it by the advocates of the concept which is fluid and inappropriate with the present realities of Africans in their interaction with the rest of the world.

Part of our business in this paper is to dispel this unfortunate attitude and perception towards African epistemology through a careful reconstruction and delineation of the meaning and nature of African epistemology in a way that accords with the true situation of Africans and as such reflects their correct ontological and epistemological conceptualization. This is buttressed by some insights drawn from Igbo traditional thought system which in all intents and purposes chimes with other epistemological systems elsewhere.

Key words: African epistemology; Belief; Knowledge; Culture; Igbo


Roughly speaking, the idea of an African epistemology as understood by those who propose it is taken as a way the African conceptualizes, interprets and apprehends reality within the context of African cultural or collective experience (Anyanwu, 1983, p.60). The idea of African epistemology is based on their (its advocates) acceptance that such concepts as knowledge, truth, rationality etc. can be interpreted using African categories and concepts as provided by the African cultural experience without a recourse to Western or alien conceptual framework. Thus this epistemology is abstracted from the collective world-view of Africans and leaning essentially on such materials as myths, folklores, proverbs, folk wisdom etc..

It is important to note that the discourse of African epistemology can be subdivided into two phases; namely its early beginnings and later attempts. In its early beginnings, the scholars whose works are associated or linked with this view, who were mostly religious clerics and theologians include, Placide Tempels, Bantu Philosophy (1959); E. Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief {1962); W. E. Abraham, The Mind of Africa (1966); J. B. Danquah, The Akan Doctrine of God (968); John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (1969) among others. The intention of these scholars was to argue that African epistemology or way of knowing flows from African ontology and ultimately to establish that Africans had an idea of God even before Europeans came to Africa, apparently refuting the so-called civilizing mission of the Europeans with its dominant ideology which ascribed a pre-logical mental frame to the Africans and other nonWestem peoples during the hay day of colonialism.

This early discourse of African epistemology attempted to link the African mode of knowledge with African ontology. In other words both are intimately related making it inconceivable to understand one without a prior knowledge of the other. Onyewuenyi, an African philosopher from Nigeria and defender of African epistemology, argues that African theory of knowledge follows closely upon ontology (Onyewuenyi, 1976, p.525). He goes further by saying that True wisdom, according to Tempels, who pioneered the discourse of African epistemology, lies in ontological knowledge, it is the intelligence of forces, of their hierarchy, their cohesion and their interaction (Ibid). It is in this direction that Tempels' (1959, p.21) explication of Bantu philosophy and ontology, where he attempted to show that reality in Africa is invested with "life or vital-force" features prominently in the formulation of African epistemology. This view tends to suggest that an understanding of the African mode of knowledge should pay due attention to the background of African spiritualistic and dynamic metaphysics. …

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