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You Know What?: The Pursuit of Knowledge, Part 1

By Dr. Josef Ben Levi

Presented by Omni-U Virtual University 

"The truth is the knowledge we need."

Ancestor, Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers 

As a teacher of philosophy, I am very well aware of the questions fundamental to philosophical inquiry. Those questions are centered around theological, ontological, theodicy, hermeneutics, politics, morality, psychology, and ethics to name a few. Africa has always had systems of thought that address these crucial questions. What is unfortunate is that since there has always been an African philosophy, its exclusion from Western academic departments of philosophy can be attributed to the way that Hegel formed the Western philosophical conceptualization of Africa.

How do you know what you know? How do you know that you know what you know?  In order to answer these questions, it is important to understand "Epistemology" and its  etymology, i.e., the origin and history of the term, " which is the "philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge."

There are many aspects to Epistemology, the branch of Western  Philosophy that is sometimes referred to as the "theory of knowledge." However, in its most fundamental form, it is the question of" what do you know and how do you know it"? Epistemology refers to the investigation of the origin, nature, and methods of human knowing. The term is derived from the Greek ἐπιστήμη ‎(epistḗmē, “science, knowledge”) and logos (λόγος “reason”). This branch of Western philosophy is sometimes referred to as the" theory of knowledge". 

Why should there be a discipline such as epistemology? Aristotle (384–322 BCE) provided the answer when he said that philosophy begins in a kind of wonder or puzzlement. Nearly all human beings wish to comprehend the world they live in and many of them construct theories of various kinds to help them make sense of it. However, because many aspects of the world defy easy explanation, most people are likely to cease their efforts at some point and to content themselves with whatever degree of understanding they have managed to achieve.

It is equally important to understand that most of ancient world history had been completed when the Greeks made their first appearance on the stage of humanity. In fact, until the 8th century, the Greeks didn’t even have an alphabet with which to write anything down . Their earliest works of "literature," "The Iliad et Odyssey," didn’t come into existence until the late 8th or 7th century BCE. [1] Consequently, the supposition that they had any “unique” ability to “know” anything was challenging.

This is best exemplified by a quote from Plato in his "Timaeus and Critias." When one of the famous seven Greek sages, Solon, visited ancient Egypt and was curious about the early origins of Greek civilization, since they, apparently, had no knowledge of their ancestries, he consulted with one of the ancient Egyptian priests and he answered Solon’s inquiry this way:

"Oh Solon, Solon, You Greeks are all children (relative to their existence in world history) and there’s no such thing as an old Greek."

"What do you mean by that? Inquired Solon. 

"You are all young in mind came the reply (the Greeks were late-comers to the nature of cognition). You have no belief rooted in old tradition and no knowledge (epistemology)hoary with age(old)…"

Plato is quite clear on this subject when he has the ancient Egyptian priest declaring to Solon, one of the seven sages of Greece, that the Greeks were all children and there was no such thing as an old Greek. Solon acknowledges that- compared to the Egyptians- he and all his countrymen were entirely ignorant about antiquity. That statement, alone, speaks volumes about the assumption that the ancient Greeks were knowers of anything!

The primacy of Egypt as the home of philosophy was first acknowledged by none other than the great Greek philosopher and historian, Aristotle.  He stated that:

When all such inventions,- i.e., inventions related to the necessities of life and art- were already established, the sciences which do not aim at giving [physical] pleasure or at the necessities of life were discovered. First in the places where men began to have leisure. This is the reason that the mathematical arts (science of precise knowledge or philosophy) were founded in Egypt, for it was there that the priestly caste was allowed to be at leisure. Since it is obvious that the early Greek thinkers did not have an epistemology of their own, where did it come from? From whom did they  confiscate  it and why ?

This issue is very similar to the situation in which the  protagonist, Winston  George, refers to the "memory  hole" in the profoundly simple but provocative novel “1984.” The "memory hole" was a small chute that led to a large incinerator into which anything that needed to be wiped from the public record, i.e.,embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts,etc. would be sent. As a clerk in the Records Department of the "Ministry of Truth", Winston Smith often had to throw things into the "memory hole" to continuously revise history and keep current the ever-evolving "Party" dogma.

In order to answer the questions about the reasons that the thoughts and ability  to think of people of  African and African descent has been - and continues to be usurped, i.e., consigned to the "memory  hole" of history, it is necessary to go back into Western academic lore and very briefly look at the trail of subterfuge that led to the assumption that only European thinkers were knowers and everyone else is incapable of being knowers -even of themselves- without European influence . These inquiries also raise other fundamental question(s)?

Can Africans and their descendants  think? Are they capable of knowing? Is there an authentic African philosophy?

Most ethnographers deny that abstract thought exists among "tribal peoples." To properly address this allegation, it will be necessary  to clarify how the notion of "tribes" arose within the Western academy. Interestingly, the concept of "tribes" does not exist in any African language. Where,then, does the idea that Africans belonged to "tribal societies" come from? Africans are always referred to as "tribal," but that term never seems to be applied to European clan organizations whether ancient or modern. This term was created by colonial administrators that often mixed up the words race and tribe in their legal documents.

Non-European societies were regarded as being still at the stage of savagery, or neo-barbarism,i.e., they were incapable of reasoned discourse. According to Blyden, this notion was especially applied to Africans, since it was claimed  that providing them with education through the "normal" means- and by normal we presume to mean European education- was viewed as a useless endeavor. Why would it be assumed that Africans were capable of thinking?  

Most White philosophers are unwilling to apply the modifier African to  philosophy . This is in spite of the fact that ancient Egypt is included in much discussion on philosophical concepts by the ancient Greek writers from Thales to Pythagoras, the rest of the Ionian preSocratics, Plato, Aristotle, and others. The ancient Greek writer Diogenes Laertius from the third century BC provides a virtual litany of ancient Greeks who studied in ancient Egypt and the names of their Egyptian priest teachers.

Fundamental to this academic denial is the way historiography is constructed in the Western academy and its foundations in George Wilhelm Frederick Hegel's thinking about the place of Egypt, whose accomplishments he places outside of the African sphere. He stated that Africa had no history. For Hegel, Egypt was of Asiatic or European origin or what he called "Hither Asia". He argued that:"Africa’s northern coast was to be and must be attached to Europe."  It seems that ,at this point,  the notion of the Middle East was forming since that concept did not come into existence until the 1900s. Hegel goes on to say:

At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again, for it is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit.

Hegel, essentially, relegates Africa and her people to what amounts to a footnote in his introduction. Hegel detaches Egypt from Africa and consequently, the Africans from Egypt. He went on to argue that the Greeks got rid of the foreign nature of philosophy so well that it was essentially of Greek origin.

Hegel's line of thinking has influenced the popular Western European and American concept of Africa as well as the Western academy's view about African philosophy. Since the two main criteria Hegel used to define philosophical thought were reasoned discourse and written records, for Hegel:

Africa was regarded as in an unhistorical, underdeveloped spirit, in a state of nature and, only on the threshold of the world's history.  

Yet, there were lots of written records in Africa before colonialism. Several African peoples, besides the ancient Egyptians, had their own written languages long before European colonialism.

One notable example was at Timbuktu in the old Kingdom of Mali where the University of Sankore stood for many centuries as one of the premier places of learning long before some of the major cathedral schools were developed in Europe. But most of the information about them was hidden from the public in order to perpetuate assumptions of African ignorance and justification for the Atlantic" slave" trade. Despite Herodotus' statement that most of Greek culture was copied from Egypt; what racist historians did was to introduce a new form of geographical localization with the division of Africa into North Africa- which was Arab and White- and Africa south of the Sahara which was Black Africa. Therefore, any monumental accomplishments in Africa were those of a mysterious Caucasian or dynastic race or invading White Semites. 

Although Hegel castigated Africa,he does ultimately acknowledge that Egyptian civilization received its culture from what the Greeks called Ethiopia, mainly the Kushite capital at Meroe which is at the fourth cataract of the Nile valley in what is called the Sudan today. This apparent contradiction in his thinking was the consensus view of the ancient Greeks from Herodotus to Diodorus and it is a fact that is gaining significant endorsement today. With this datum established, the question of whether or not Africa had a system of philosophy can be addressed.

Continued in Part Two…


[1] BCE- Before the Common Era

Recommended Readings:

Ancestor George G.M. James. Stolen Legacy.  

George Orwell. 1984

Garfield, Simon. All the Knowledge in the World.

Recommended Viewing:


Barnes, J. (1987). Early Greek philosophers. London: Penguin Classics Books.

Bell, R.H. (2002). Understanding African philosophy: A cross-cultural approach to classical and contemporary issues. New York: Rutledge.

Ben Jochannan, Y. (1970). The African origin of the major Western religions. Baltimore: Black Classics Press.

Bernal, M. (1992). Animas versions of the origins of Western science. Isis, 83 (4), 596-607.

Blyden, E.W. (1995). The call of providence to the descendants of Africa in America. In Fred Lee Hord & Jonathan Scott Lee (1995). I am because we are: Readings in black philosophy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts.  

Brown, P. (1969). Augustine of Hippo: A biography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Carruthers, J.H. (1994). Black intellectuals and the crisis in black education. In Mwalimu J. Shujaa. Ed. (1994). Too much schooling, too little education: A paradox of black life in White societies. Trenton: Africa World Press.

DeGraft-Johnson, J.C. (1954/1978). African glory: The story of vanished Negro civilizations. Baltimore: Black Classics Press.

De Villiers, M., & Hirtle, S. (2007). Timbuktu; The Sahara's fabled city of gold. New York: Walker & Company.

Dubois, F. (1896/1996). Timbuctoo the mysterious. New York: Negro Universities Press.

Ebenezer, E.K. (1982). Races, tribes, dialects: Key words of the vocabulary of the colonial era. Afrique Histoire, 1 (2), 43-45.

Emery, W. B. (1961). Archaic Egypt. London: Penguin Books.

Guthrie, K.S. (1987). The Pythagorean sourcebook and library. Grand Rapids: Phanes Press.

Handford, S.A. (1986). Fables of Aesop. London: Penguin Classics.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1899/1956). The philosophy of history. Mineola: Dover Philosophical Classics.

Herodotus (1972). The histories. London: Penguin Classics.

Honderich, T. (Ed). (2002). The Oxford companion to philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hunwick, J.O., & Boye, A.J. (2008). The hidden treasures of Timbuktu. London: Thames & Hudson.

Ikuenobe, P. (1977). The parochial universalist conception of philosophy and African philosophy. Philosophy East and West, 47 (2), 189-210.

Jeppie, S. & Diagne, S.B. Ed. The meaning of Timbuktu. Cape town: HSRC Press.

Laertius, D. (1853/2012). Lives and options of the eminent philosophers. London: George Bell & Sons.

Leiter, B., & Rosen, M. Ed. (2007). The Oxford handbook of continental philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, B. (1998). The multiple identities of the middle east. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Macfarquhar, C.F. (1966). Early Greek travelers in Egypt. Greece & Rome, 13 (1), 108-116.

Obenga, T. (2004). African philosophy: The pharaonic period: 2780-330 BC. Paris: Per Ankh.

O'Brien, E. (12964). The essential Plotinus: Representative treatise from the Enneads. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Onyewuenyi, I.C. (2005). The African origin of Greek philosophy: An exercise in Afrocentrism. Nsukka: University of Nigeria Press.  

Pagels, E. (1979). The Gnostic gospels. New York: Vantage Books.

Pinar, W.T. (1994). Autobiography, politics, and sexuality: Essays in curriculum theory 1972-1992. New York: Peter Lang.

Plato. (1965). Timaeus and Critias. London: Penguin Classics.

Scott, W. (1993). Hermetica: The ancient Greek and latin writings which contain religious or philosophical teachings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. Boston: Shambala.

Trainer, C. (2008). The merits of the Milesians. Philosophy Now, September/October, (69), 29-31.

Verharen, C.C. (1977). "The new world and the dreams to which it may give rise": An African and American response to Hegel's challenge. Journal of Black Studies, 27 (4), 456-493.

Welch, G. (1939/1966). The unveiling of Timbuctoo. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers.

Wilder, A. (1911). Theurgia: The Egyptian mysteries by Iamblichus reply to Abammon, the teacher to the letter of Porphyry to Anebo together with solutions of the questions therein contained. New York; The Metaphysical Publishing Company.

Wise, C. Ed. (2011). Tarikh al Fattash: The Timbuktu Chronicles 1493-1599. Trenton: Africa World Press.

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