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Indeterminancy, Ethnophilosophy, Linguistic Philosophy, African Philosophy

  • Barry Hallen (a1)
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This is a paper about philosophical methodology or, better, methodologies. Most of the material that has been published to date under the rubric of African philosophy has been methodological in character. One reason for this is the conflicts that sometimes arise when philosophers in Africa attempt to reconcile their relationships with both academic philosophy and so-called African '‘traditional’ systems of thought. A further complication is that the studies of traditional African thought systems that become involved in these conflicts are themselves products of academia– of disciplinary methodologies.

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1 Word and Object (Cambridge:MIT Press), Ch. 2 (‘Translation and Meaning’).

2 A comprehensive bibliography of major interpretations, criticisms, elaborations and defenses of the IT is to be found in Robert Kirk, 1978Translation Determined(Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1986), 259–265. A much-quoted ‘informal’ discussion of the IT by many of the principals

3 Those who are interested in a more detailed examination of the IT, with specific reference to possible consequences for African philosophy, are referred to Hallen B. and Olubi Sodipo J.,Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophyd(London:Ethnographica Publishers, 1986), Ch. 1(‘Indeterminacy and the Translation of Alien Behaviour’).

4 In the literature of African philosophy, the earliest reference to the IT that I have been able to identify occurs in a footnote to Henri Maurier, ‘Do We Have an African Philosophy?’ in the 2nd edition of African Philosophy:An Introduction, Richard Wright (ed.) (Washington, D.C.: University Press, 1979). Interestingly the footnote is editorial, i.e. added by Wright himself. It containsan explicit recommendation that the issues raised bythe IT should warrant the special interest of African philosophers.On a more generalized level, one of the earliest analytic philosophers to recognize and enunciate clearly the theoretical potential of African languages for African philosophy, a position he has continued to refine up to the present day, is Kwasi Wiredu. See his 'On an African Orientation in Philosophy', Second Order: An African Journal of Philosophy,1, No.2(1972), 11. I am indebted to Robin Horton for first drawing my attention to Quine′s IT, and for many invaluable conversations about translation. His collectedhoughts on the subject, which should by no means be treated as his final word, are newly available in Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science (Cambridge: University Press, 1993).There was substantial discussion of the IT in the philosophy of the ocial sciences and in anthropology before it became an issue for Africanphilosophy. A particularly informative interdisciplinary collection is tobe found in Rationality and Relativism, Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes(eds.) (xsOxford: Blackwell, 1982).

5 J. J. Katz compares the effects of Quine′s critique of meaning to1978those of Hume′s sceptical analysis of causality in ‘The Refutation ofIndeterminacy’, The Journal of Philosophy LXXXV, No.6 (May 1988),227–252.

6 For purposes of this discussion it is enough to say that the form ofbehaviourism being introduced is methodological rather than the reductivepsychological species enunciated by Skinner and Co. Quine is notdenying the existence of the conscious ‘mental’ self, of personal feelings, or of introspection. But these experiences are private to each individualrather than public

7 Quine, op. cit., 73–79;Hallen and Sodipo, op. cit., 30–34.

8 ‘Remarques sur la philosophic africaine contemporaine’, Diogene. No.71 (1970); revised and translated in African Philosophy: Myth and Reality(London: Hutchinson, 1983), Ch. 1 (‘An Alienated Literature’).

9 Bantu Philosophy (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1959

10 La Philosophie Bantou-Rwandaise de I'etred(Brussels: Memoire in 8 de Academie Royale des Sciences Coloniales, 1956), N.S. XII, No. 1.

11 Liberte I: Nigritude et humanisme(Paris: Seuil, 1964).

12 Conversations with Ogotemmeli(Oxford University Press, 1965).

13 Essai sur la religion bambara(Paris: Presses Universitaires de France1951).

14 There is anticipation of indeterminacy in the following edited quotefrom Hountondji, in which he derides the usually unspecified methodsused by these ethnophilosophers to educe African philosophy from oral literature: ‘The discourse of ethnophilosophers, be they European or African, offers us the baffling spectacle of an imaginary interpretation with no textual support, of a genuinely 'free' interpretation, inebriated and entirely at the mercy of the interpreter, a dizzy and unconscious freedom which takes itself to be translatinga text which does not actually exist and which is therefore unaware of its own creativity. By this action the interpreter disqualifies himself from reaching any truth whatsoever, since truth requires that freedom be limited, that it bow to an order that is not purely imaginary and that it be aware both of this order and of itsown margin of creativity’. ('An Alienated Literature', note 16, 189).

15 For a postmodernistic defense of ethnophilosophy see G. Salemohamed, ‘African Philosophy’, Philosophy 58, No.226 (October1983), 535–538. For a more recent, comparatively strident condemnation of virtually the whole of 'African philosophy' as no«-philosophy, as tooculturally specific and descriptive (in other words, as ethnophilosophyyet again), see Carol Pearce, 'African Philosophy and the SociologicalThesis', Journal of the Philosophy of the Social Sciences 22, No. 4(December 1992), 440–460.

16 Most prominently by the phenomenological movement, even if not discussed here. For a discussion of phenomenological description andAfrican philosophy see B. Hallen, ‘Phenomenology and the Exposition ofAfrican Traditional Thought’, Second Order 5, No.2(1976), 45–65.

17 As more technically reconstructed by J. O. Urmson, 'A Symposium1978 on Austin's Method, 1', Symposium on Austin, K.T. Fann (ed.) (London:Routledge, 1969), 76–85.

18 Anthony Appiah makes a similar observation about anthropology in1978 In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (Oxford:University Press,1992), 94. Robin Horton is of course one distinguished L exception

19 As more technically reconstructed by J. O. Urmson, 1978 ‘A Symposium on Austin’s Method, 1′, Symposium on Austin,K.T. Fann (ed.) London:Routledge,1969), 76–85.

20 Appiah gives an example of this with reference to Cartesian dualism,1978 a theoretical parallel frequently drawn in contemporary African philosophy;op. cit., 100.

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