Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Dialectics of Praxis and Theoria in African Philosophy: Essay on Cultural Hermaneutics / Victor B. Bin-Kapela -- Bamenda, Cameroon: Langaa, 2011

For European and American philosophers trained in European philosophical traditions, the field of African philosophy is largely terra incognita. The closest exposure to African philosophy that we get is in the context of anthropology, the philosophy of the social sciences, and problems of radical translation. Africans often do little more than populate our questions regarding moral obligation and international devlopment. Philosophers with radical or progressive political leanings tend to highlight the past economic, political, and cultural exploitation of Africa without delving very deeply into the contemporary lived experience of Africans.

Nonetheless, European and American philosophers are astute enough to recognize that something may be missing in our culturally limited perspectives, prompting at least a nominal interest in the perspectives of Asian, American-Indian and African philosophies. However, breaking out of one's cultural boundaries is not easy, not simply because of the new perspective that one needs to adopt, but for the more mundane reason that authentically non-European/American publications are hard to come by. Fortunately, in the case of Africa, the African Book Collective is marketing roughly 150 valuable works per year about Africa -- often by African writers themselves. One such book is The Dialectics of Praxis and Theoria in African Philosophy by Victor B. Bin-Kapela.

In The Dialectics, Bin-Kapela presents philosophy as a conversation between the specific historical experience of a people and their their common rational capacities to refelct on and make sense of that experience. This approach allows him to recognize a specifically "African philosophy," born particularly of the experiences of European colonization of African following the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference and the experiences of the post-colonial independence era in Africa. At the same time, by recognizing universal human capabilities, he is able to find common ground with elements in the Euopean and American philsophical tradition.

Bin-Kapela describes the damage done to Africa and its people by decades of colonial exploitation and writes sympathetically of the desire of Africans to develop an exclusively African philosophy following independence, but he appears to think the post-colonial philosophies coming out of Africa were founded on a reaction against European philosophy, and while much of value appears in the work of African philosophers of this era, the reaction produced an artificial philosophy not truely rooted in a deeper African experience. Furthermore, many African political leaders merely took on the abandoned roles of the European colonizers, preventing a genuine flourishing of worthwhile traditional African values.

For Bin-Kapela, thoughtful philosophical reflection on African experience can overcome this temporary distortion of African philosophy. He refers to this method as "cultural hermeneutics" in which theoria is applied to praxis in a critical and self-critical way. By taking this position, Bin-Kapela heads off the racist view that African culture and philosophy must be irrational or devoid of basic human cognitive capacities, while at the same time he highlights the unique and valuable roles that different cultures play in enlarging human understanding.

The Dialectics offers a persuasive argument in favor of the universal basis of human dignity out of which human rights can be asserted against illegitimate authorities of any nation or people. Bin-Kapela relies heavily on an Aristotelian conception of Natural Law along with an Enlightenment conception of rationality. Consent of the governed, roughly in the liberal contractarian tradition, is critical to legitimate authority, but furthermore any legitimate authority must also act for the benefit of the people. Here, again, an Aristotelian conception of the good is central.

In all, Bin-Kapela offers those of us who are European and American philosophers common ground for understanding what an African philosophical project might look like and simultaneously, he implicitly leads us to consider adopting a similar project for developing a uniquely European/American philosophy. His views are frank, refreshing, gently critical, and admirably self-critical, exemplifying the best epistemic virtues. His work is an antedote for ethnocentrism of any kind, while still recognizing the importance our cultural situations.

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