Bantu Philosophy

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Bantu philosophy refers to the philosophy, religious worldview, and ethical principles of the Bantu people articulated by the first generation of African intellectuals and founders of contemporary African philosophy and theology. Originally it referred to research done on traditional culture between 1950 and 1990 in Central Africa, and more specifically in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda by philosophers and theologians such as Mulago Gwa Cikara Musharamina, Alexis Kagame, John Mbiti, Mutuza Kabe, and Alexis Kagame.
This research was part of the process of decolonization of knowledge that began with the collapse of European colonial empires in the wake of the first and second world wars. This research intended to rediscover the ancestral philosophical worldview and spiritual values that had been denigrated and distorted by the colonial education. This goal was accomplished by analyzing African proverbs; the structure of Bantu languages, songs, art, and music; and various customs and social institutions. In so doing, “Bantu Philosophy” scholars defined the criteria needed for a philosophy or theology to be “African.” These criteria involved the use of African languages and an African worldview. This method of philosophizing and theologizing was inaugurated in 1910 by Stephane Kaoze, the first Congolese to gain a substantial training in modern philosophy. In his work titled “La Psychologie des Bantu” (“Bantu Psychology”), Kaoze articulated what he regarded as the Bantu way of thinking about knowledge, moral values, God, life, and afterlife. Working in the context of Christian evangelization, Kaoze called for the replacement of colonial Christianity with an “African Christianity.” For such an Africanization of Christianity to occur, he maintained that the gospel should be preached in foreign languages and with foreign method, and that it should address the real issues of African lives, including colonial oppression. He inaugurated the basic method of African theology, which consists of the following elements:
  • the establishment of the elements of a traditional African philosophy and a philosophical anthropology to be used as foundation for a theological discourse;
  • the use of traditional religion and wisdom (proverbs, myths of creation, traditional vision of God, traditional ethic, and oral literature) as the foundation for theology;
  • the use of African languages;
  • unveiling the “cultural unity” of African cultures through comparative studies that grasp the common features of African worldviews, ethical principles, and spiritual values and use them to articulate an African theology; and
  • the defense and promotion of human rights as a fundamental task of African theology.
However, it is the book published in 1945 by the Belgian missionary Placide Tempels that popularized the notion of Bantu philosophy in Africa and in the West.
Published in 1945 (first in Lubumbashi, Congo), this small book written by a Belgian Franciscan missionary Placide Tempels generated a long controversy that played an important role in the development of contemporary African philosophy and Inculturation theology. Bantu Philosophy is a small book divided into seven chapters: “In Search of a Bantu Philosophy” (chapter I), “Bantu Ontology” (chapter II), “Bantu Wisdom” (chapter III), “Bantu Psychology” (or “The Theory of ‘Muntu,’” chapter IV), “Bantu Ethics” (chapter V), “Restauration of Life” (Chapter VI), and “Bantu Philosophy and Our Mission to Civilize” (chapter VII). The merit of the book resides not in its content, which is quite poor, but rather in its challenge and revolutionary outlook clearly stated in the seventh chapter:
The discovery of Bantu philosophy is a disturbing event for all those who are concerned with African education. We have had the idea that we stood before them like adults before the newly-born. In our mission to educate and to civilize, we believed that we started with a “tabula rasa,” though we also believed that we had to clear the ground of some worthless notions, to lay foundations in a bare soil. We were quite sure that we should give short shrift to stupid customs, vain beliefs, as being quite ridiculous and devoid of all sound sense. We thought that we had children, “great children,” to educate; and that seemed easy enough. Then all at once we discovered that we were concerned with a sample of humanity, adult, aware of its own brand of wisdom and moulded by its own philosophy of life. That is why we feel the soil slipping under our feet, that we are losing track of things and why we are asking ourselves “what to do now to lead our coloured people?” (p. 73)
Like many European missionaries, Tempels embarked for the Congo imbued with Levy-Bruhl's myths about the primitive mind. However, after years of work among the Baluba, Tempels realized the mistakes of the Western idea of Africa. Having carefully studied the Kiluba language and discovered the wisdom of Luba proverbs and worldview, Tempels underwent a deep conversion that led him to acknowledge African moral values and the value of the Luba conception of God. In a time when the notion of primitive people was taken for granted, Tempels shocked the European world by choosing as the title for his discovery of Luba worldview “Bantu philosophy,” rather than “primitive philosophy” or “religious thought,” as Marcel Griaule did with the philosophy of the Dogon. He demystified the colonial invention of a savage Africa by demonstrating the existence of a coherent Bantu ontology, a sound system of belief in the Supreme Being, and a coherent ethical system that guides African existential trajectory. Well before the proclamation of the United Nations' Charter of Human Rights, Tempels argued that the Bantu have a clear vision of human dignity and the rights of the individual. He even speculated on the relationship between Pharaonic Egypt and Bantu philosophy. This was radically antithetical to the prevailing Hegelian Paradigm, Social Darwinism, and Levy-Bruhlian theories of primitivism. Although Tempels still remained captive of the colonial worldview and the belief in the superiority of Christianity, his mea culpa opened the door to a radical démystification of colonial scholarship. This is why the fathers of the Négritude Movement, such as Leopold Sedar Senghor and Alioune Diop, and the nascent publishing house “Presence Africaine” embraced Tempels and promoted the book in French and English translations.
Bantu Philosophy is therefore not simply a book or the philosophy of the Bantu people, but also a way of thinking that honors African humanity by acknowledging “African rationality” and a meaningful African presence in world religions and in the global community of philosophers.

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Further Reading

  • Kagame, A. (1966). La Philosophie Bantu-Rwandaise de L'Etre. New York: Johnson Reprint.
  • Tempels, P. (1959). Bantu Philosophy. Paris: Presence Africaine.