The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: Discourse about Values in Yoruba Culture/A Short History of African Philosophy

By Gleason, Judith | African Studies Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: Discourse about Values in Yoruba Culture/A Short History of African Philosophy


Gleason, Judith, African Studies Review


SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY Barry Hallen. The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: Discourse about Values in Yoruba Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 20001. xiv + 219 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $39.95. Cloth. $17.95. Paper.

Barry Hallen. A Short History of African Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. ix + 130 pp. Bibliography. $29.95. Cloth. $14.95. Paper.

"What is important in a study such as this is to be careful-to try not to misrepresent Afican meanings and attitudes" (9). The emphasis is Hallen's, yet it appears to be shared by all the participants in his project. Hallen's own presence in the opening chapter of The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful is that of a poised host of an estate of thought who meets us at the gate and, as we walk, companionably narrates how he himself-by a combination of concern, design, and good luck-happened upon the path to what follows.

When Hallen arrived in Nigeria in 1970 to teach, philosophy syllabi, "articulated in the British analytic tradition," included no indigenous materials; by implication these were deemed "philosophically insignificant." So he set up an eager, not-for-credit study group. This eventually led him, via his prize student and subsequent research assistant, 'Femi Osatuyi, to the onísègun ("masters of medicine") of a small Yoruba town, Ijan, in the Ekiti region. Their professional association, in turn, selected an appropriate subgroup with whom Hallen engaged in tape-recorded conversations, held mainly on weekends over a span of thirteen years, during which the onísègun painstakingly taught the university teacher. As he explains it retrospectively, his goal was to have his collegial interlocutors "make explicit the criteria governing the correct use of select vocabulary" providing epistemological foundations for ethical assessments. Honored and stimulated by his interest, many onísègun, as Hallen later learned, hoped to increase their own children's respect for a cultural heritage which "modern" schooling in English had led them to disdain.

For some readers, the path to Ijan and the prospect of engrossing, nononsense colloquy with the onísègun will already be familiar from Hallen's first book, Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft (Stanford, 1986), written in collaboration with Professor J. O. Sodipo. But the earlier approach, congested as it was by a massive topiary tribute to W. V. O. Quine's indeterminacy thesis of radical translation, succeeded by an espaliered diatribe against old-fashioned Evans-Pritchard, has now been cleared to permit carefully mediated access to the cognitive vistas we come as loyal visitors to perceive.

Entering the terrain, we at once encounter two indispensible sign posts: ìmò and ìgbàbó; the first is equivalent to "knowledge" in English and the second, "belief." Here one must shed one's Western hobnailed boots and humbly recognize legitimate conceptual variance. Most of our so-called knowledge is derived from books (including this one!) and from salvaging trustworthy reports from a deluge of media, whereas what the oníègun mean by ìmò must be empirically validated by first-hand experience. All the rest, from gossip to gospel, remains conjectural-unproved belief. Goodbye ethnocentrism, greetings to the common world we diversely live in and attempt to make sense of.

From here on follow lessons in assessing character, after which we are given a fascinating tour of instances of pragmatic application of ìmò and ìgbàbó to real human problems faced by the onísègun as healers and counselors, whose reputations depend on subjective validation by satisfied clients. My favorite diagnostic conundrum faced by these wise doctors has to do with the type of person who shows up complaining of failure on many fronts: economic, domestic, and so on. There is a possibility that such a person has "missed road" (sínà). Since one's destiny is chosen prenatally, how is this possible? Casuistically, it could be that one's destiny included bad choices at the crossroads for many years. …

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