- Henry Odera Oruka
The Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka became known for his project of the sage philosophy. Sage philosophy, a philosophical project which was started in the 1970s, is an attempt to preserve the knowledge of the rigorous indigenous thinkers in traditional African communities. This project made Odera Oruka known not only in Africa but also internationally.
Life and works
Henry Odera Oruka was born in Nyanza province, one of the eight provinces of Kenya. After his University studies in Kenya, Odera Oruka left to Uppsala University in Sweden. It is here that he studied natural science but later changed to philosophy. Odera Oruka mentioned Tommie Zaine as the one who introduced him to philosophy. Later he changed to Wayne State University (Michigan, USA) but went back to Uppsala, where he finished his PhD on the theme of “Freedom” in 1970. From 1970 he was at the University of Nairobi, the department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.Odera Oruka was also the president of the Philosophical Association of Kenya (P.A.K) and a member of the Inter-African Council of Philosophy (I.A.C.P). He was a member of the Executive committee of the “Federation International de societe philosophique” (F.I.S.P) and World Future Studies Federation (W.F.S.F). Odera Oruka applied his acquired knowledge to the socio-political situation in Kenya. He was able to criticise the Arap Moi government on his article that he wrote “the philosophy of Liberties”. He taught at the University of Nairobi till his tragic death 9th December 1995.
Three philosophical approaches can be seen in his works:a. Socio-economic deprivationOdera Oruka pointed on poverty and hunger in Africa as the greatest constrains to mental development and creativity. Such socio-economic deprivation should be addressed and remedies found. Instead of complaining about imperialism, colonialism, foreign cultural domination etc, the remedy should be looked for with stem from self-national examination and critique.b. Cultural racial mythologyThe fight against cultural and racial mythologies was one of his main topics. Odera Oruka differentiated two types of myths: Myths about civilisation and nobility of some races and backwardness and slave mentality of some races. The other is myths about philosophic-scientific gifts of certain races and corresponding deprivation of other race, African being at the ungifted and uncivilised side of the scale.c. The illusion of appearanceOdera Oruka divided the meaning of appearance into three parts. The first part, he describes appearance as the disease of most people in the society, the second meaning is appearance as the secret of the business tycoons to boost their scale. In the third description, the philosophical level, appearance becomes an obstacle to the intellectual activity. This type of appearance is achieved in the field of education, whereby people gain or acquire styles rather than substance. The consequence is not knowledge but prejudice, racism, tribalism, sexism and irrational indifference to other cultures. This caused him to analyse concepts in order to arrive at generally accepted truth rather than mere appearance.
The existence of philosophy in Africa
The question about the existence of philosophy in Africa has caused raging debates that focus on the question whether African Philosophy exists and - if so - what its nature is. Odera Ouka identified four trends in this discussion:
#"Ethnophilosophy": Ethnophilosophy describes a worldview or a thought-system of particular African communities as philosophy. This type of philosophy sees the African way of thinking as “communal thought” and describes its emotional appeal as one of its unique features. Examles of the Authors are:
Placide Tempels, Leopold Sedar Senghor, John S. Mbiti and Alexis Kagame.
#"Nationalistic-Ideological philosophy": These are the works of early politicians in Africa, whose theories were based on traditional African socialism and family values. Among those who advocated such movements are:
Kwame Nkruma, Julius Nyerereand Kenneth Kaunda.
#"Professional philosophy": Professional philosophical works are debates of professional trained students or teachers of philosophy in or about Africa. They reject Ethnophilosophy and take instead a universalistic approach to philosophy. In their opinion African philosophy should be approached with criticism and arguments as a better method for its acceptance and recognition. A descriptive approach to African thought alone, a practice of Ethnophilosophy, would not pass it to a philosophical standard. Philosophers belonging to this trend are:
Kwasi Wiredu, Paulin Houndtonji, Peter O. Bodunrinand Odera Oruka.
#"Sage philosophy": The fourth trend is the sage philosophy project which will be described in the next section.
Sage philosophy is the creation of Odera Oruka. He formulated this research project, to preserve the thought of the traditional Kenyan sages in 1974. According to him sage philosophy is a movement on the African continent. The basic principles of Sage philosophy are that in both, traditional and modern Africa, there are a number of women and men, illiterate and literate, who commonly practice philosophical reflection on various problems of human life and its nature in general.Unlike Ethnophilosophy which advocates communal thinking, sage philosophy searches for individual thinkers in the traditional community. The thought of the given individuals expresses and defends themselves as philosophical opinions on various issues of nature and human life. It will then mean that anybody looking for answers or advice on the fundamental moral and metaphysical questions will find such material in the thought of a sage. Such thoughts or opinions form raw data for technical philosophical reflections by professionals.Odera Oruka wanted to point out that there was a philosophy in Africa in the strict sense of the word. It was a philosophy that was dealing with daily human problems and issues which are perennial to every human being. These issues and problems are found in every culture in the whole world, such as Deity, life, knowledge, death etc. They are puzzling both to illiterate and literate people in every culture. Such mental puzzlement is not the activity of all members but of the few who can “transcend” the communal way of thinking.Odera Oruka differentiates between folks-wisdom or popular wisdom and dialectic or philosophical wisdom. The former wisdom expresses well known communal maxims, aphorisms and general common sense, while the latter expresses thought of wise men and women in any given community. It explains the popular wisdom. The popular wisdom is above usage of the word sage as an expounded wisdom and a rational thought of a given individual within a community.
The MethodHenry Odera and his colleague went with tape recorders in their hands into villages of different ethnic communities in Kenya to conduct interviews with people who were thought by their own communities to be wise. The interviews were held in the native language of the wise men or women.A wise statement needs a justification. If a person had a philosophical frame of mind he/she would be able to offer some rational answers to the challenges. If he/she has not, he/she will give unimpressive answers or even none. We can therefore conclude that the interviewer had to act as a provocateur to the sage to give birth to a complete view on the subject under consideration.
Critics of the Sage philosophy
Criticism of Sage philosophy came from different philosophers. Three examples are given here.
a. Sage philosophy is no philosophyThis is the main argument of Dismas A. Masolo. In his analysis he showed how frequently tradition and various types of opinion are based on insufficient reasoning. Basing himself on Socratic Method, for him true philosophy is represented by properly researched knowledge with the truth being demonstrable from unwarranted opinion. Philosophy relies on analysis, definition and explanation. On the other hand is the pre-Socratic knowledge which has no place in strict philosophy. Sage philosophy for him too falls into pre-Socratic philosophy. Both have the element of an individual to hold a discussion, for the pre-Socratic or interviewer for the sage: But both fail in a consistent attitude towards and practice of explanation. It means the pre-Socratic and sage philosophy do not have a high degree of abstraction, conceptual analysis and relation which according to him are the essence of strict philosophy.Masolo gave another objection which is Afro-centric perspective as the product of Odera Oruka i.e. by accepting African men and women as philosophers. Here seems to exist a misunderstanding from Masolo about the whole project of Oruka. For him Sage philosophy lies between Ethnophilosophy and Professional philosophy. Secondly, Sage philosophy in the opinion of Odera is a starting point in African Philosophy.
b. The philosopher and the sageIn his article on the question of the African philosophy, Peter O. Bodunrin refuses the opinion that philosophic sagacity is philosophy on the ground of the necessity of literacy. For him literacy is a necessary condition for philosophical reflections. His second objection is whose work will it be if the sage is interviewed by a philosopher? Is it a joint product of both or not? Who is the actual author? Odera responded to such thought by urging that normally thinking comes before writing and secondly the product of such interviews, is to produce raw material to be used by philosopher and to show that philosophy exists on the African soil.
c. Who is a real Sage?Anthony S. Oseghere, a student of Oruka, made a difference between sagacity and knowledge. Both terms according to him are not synonymous but sagacity and knowledge involve the acquisition and usage of skills. Sagacity proposes wisdom of a practical nature which is achieved through and it increases with age. It has a broader meaning than knowledge. Within sagacity too, there is a sagacity that stops with common sense and the sagacity that transcends the common sense.Another point worth noting here is the difference between Sages and prophets. Both sages and prophets can be confused for both are trying to solve the problems that are affecting human society. It is true that a sage can be a prophet and a prophet can be a sage but they are not identical. The basic difference - according to Oruka - is, the prophet can predict the future and his prediction is guided by revelations and knowledge which can be deduced from repetitions or insight experience of the past and the present and make a future prediction. On the contrary, a sage in the philosophical sense is consistently concerned with fundamental issues both ethical, and empirical and questions that are relevant to the society. A sage has the ability to offer insightful solutions to some of these issues. Sages existed in every society as custodian of its culture and values if he/she is literate or not.
Rather unknown are Odera’s contributions to ethical questions like the protection of the environment or the justification of foreign aids.In his article “the philosophy of foreign Aids” Oruka reacted to Garret Hardin’s “life Boat theory”. Hardin argues against helping poorer nations because with help from rich nations poor nations will forget their problems and the population will grow, which will cause the boat to sink.Odera gave three possible reasons for the justification of foreign aid, namely: Charity basis, international trade and historical rectification. He later thought the three reasons are not enough. He came out with another argument of the “right to a human minimum”.
In his article “Parent Earth Ethics” Oruka uses the metaphor of a family of six children with varying degrees of richness and poverty to explain his argument. These six children have some things in common and each has its own individual talent and possessions. He made the following distinctions:
Rule One: Parental debt principlea. Family security ruleb. Parental debt rulec. Individual family survival rule
Rule Two: The individual luck principlea. Personal achievements ruleb. Personal supererogation rulec. Public law rule
From the above outline, the parental debt principle occurs prior to the individual luck principle. Under normal circumstances, if the first rule comes into conflict with any characteristics of the second rule then the first rule takes priority. For Oruka this was “the ethics of common sense”. If common wealth and security comes in conflict with the matters of personal luck or achievements, the former prevails over the later. This type of ethics was/is the ethics of both global environmental concern and global redistribution.
References and further reading
*Graness, Anke & Kresse, Kai (Eds.): Sagacius Reasoning. Henry Odera Oruka in memorial, Frankfurt/Main 1997.
*Masolo, Dismas: African philosophy in search for Identity 1994.
*Odera Oruka, Henry: Ethics, Nairobi 1998.
*Odera Oruka, Henry: Philosophy, Humanity and Ecology, Nairobi 1994.
*Odera Oruka, Henry: The philosophy of Liberty, Nairobi 1996.
*Odera Oruka, Henry: Practical philosophy, Nairobi and Kampala 1997.
*Odera Oruka, Henry: Punishment and Terrorism in Africa, Nairobi 1985.
*Odera Oruka, Henry: Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy (Philosophy of History and Culture, Vol. 4), Laiden 1990.
*Odera Oruka, Henry and Masolo, Dismas A. (Eds.): Philosophy and Cultures, Nairobi 1983.
*sep entry|african-sage|African sage philosophy|Dismas Masolo
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