Book Review: African Philosophy of Education Reconsidered: On Being Human, by Yusef Waghid
London & New York, Routledge, 2014. Pp.143. Hbk £90.
Extended Review by Penny Enslin and Kai Horsthemke
Yusef Waghid’s African Philosophy of Education Reconsidered is a significant publication, not only for its extended articulation and defence of African philosophy of education. It also offers an attempt both to bridge the long-standing gap in African philosophy between the particularism of traditional ethnophilosophy and the universalism of African professional or academic philosophy, and relatedly to harmonise the universal and the particular in the further sense of drawing on philosophy from outside Africa, in Europe and the West. With regard to education in particular, Waghid undertakes to defend ‘an African philosophy of education guided by communitarian, reasonable and culture-dependent action’ (p. 1), by drawing ‘on a communitarian understanding of the notion of ubuntu (African humaneness and interdependence)’ (p. 2). Ubuntu is a term derived from the Nguni language proverb Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, meaning ‘a person depends on others just as much as others depend on him/her’ (p. 57; Letseka 2000, pp. 182-183), or ‘I am because we are’. Waghid takes ubuntu to offer a medium or vehicle not only for the enactment of African philosophy of education but also for its contribution ‘towards achieving democratic justice on the African continent’ (Waghid 2014, p. 2). The book’s description and defence of ubuntu will be of interest to readers within Africa and also to a wider audience wishing to find out more about this key concept in African moral, political, and educational philosophy.
The main argument of the book is that ‘an African philosophy of education as a practice has three constitutive aspects: first, to be reasonable in one’s articulations; second, to demonstrate moral maturity; and third, to be attuned to deliberation’ (p. 5), i.e. to ‘consensual’ and ‘deliberative dialogue’ (pp. 9, 13). The book comprises two complementary halves. The Introduction and Chapters 1 to 4 present an articulation of African philosophy of education, while Chapters 5 to 7 and a Postscript set out to apply African philosophy of education, specifically the preceding elucidation of ubuntu as an expression of communitarian thought, to selected examples of problems that Africa faces. As aspects of the African predicament, Waghid cites, following Olusegun Oladipo: ‘poverty, hunger, famine, unemployment, political oppression, civil wars, colonialism (imperialism) and economic exploitation …’ (p. 8; Olidapo 1992, p. 24). We share Waghid’s hope that philosophy of education could make a contribution to transforming educational discourse and so to empowering communities to address this formidable predicament, though we are not convinced that a distinctively African philosophy of education is available or indeed necessary to perform this role.
Considering the first of the three constitutive aspects of an African philosophy of education, reasonableness, Waghid provides several approaches, not all of which are compelling. Thus, he defines ‘rational justifications’ in terms of ‘what people offer as reasons for their beliefs, practices and institutions’ (Waghid 2014, p. 4). Yet, we suggest, to have ‘reasons’ for one’s beliefs etc. does not amount to producing ‘rational’ justification – since these reasons may be good or bad, better or worse. ‘Reasonable’ does not only mean ‘accompanied by reasons’: it also means having adequate justification as a result of careful reflection and weighing (or consideration) of the available evidence. More problematic is Waghid’s endorsement of Kwame Gyekye’s view that ‘African philosophical discourse is embedded in two interrelated processes: rational discourse and the application of a minimalist logic in ordinary conversations without being conversant with its formal rules’ (p. 7; Gyekye 1997, p. 29; see also Waghid 2014, p. 25ff.). Fair enough: coherence and consistency in normal, everyday conversation do not seem to require acquaintance with the formal rules of symbolic and propositional logic – but what exactly is ‘a minimalist logic’? What amount or degree of fallacious reasoning would such logic accept? What beliefs in the supernatural, and what superstitions, myths, and folklore, or even self-serving rationalizations, would be acceptable, or not? Waghid writes:
‘An African philosophy of education is not concerned mainly with the validity of the belief or story, but with the procedure according to which the story is narrated – with lucidity and argumentation that will present reasons for one’s views. While these reasons might not always appeal to the understanding of those who listen, or listeners might contest the logic of the narrations, the existence and proliferation of these beliefs must be understood within the context of a particular life-world.’ (Waghid 2014, p. 7)
There is a strong case to be made for some kind of context-sensitivity in the acceptance of reasons and justification, and indeed in the attribution of knowledge, but this cannot mean that we should be unconcerned with whether or not a particular belief or story is actually true or not. Waghid’s endorsement of life-world context-sensitivity comes hazardously close to relativism about knowledge and truth.
Furthermore, what constitutes ‘rational discourse’, for Gyekye and Waghid? Like the other constitutive aspects of African philosophy of education, rationality receives a communitarian interpretation here. Especially troubling in this regard is Gyekye’s claim that ‘rationality is a culture-dependent concept’ (Waghid 2014, p. 7; Gyekye 1997), that:
‘the way rationality is understood in Western culture … may not necessarily apply to African culture. In other words, it would be quite possible, [Gyekye] contends, to find within the African past itself a rational ethos – such as in African traditional folktales – which embody critical thought that might be understood differently to the notion of rationality in Western culture…. Gyekye’s notion of a culture-dependent rationality can be related to a critical re-evaluation of received ideas and an intellectual pursuit related to the practical problems and concerns of African society. In other words, African rationality is a critical, re-evaluative response to the basic human problems that arise in any African society.’ (Waghid 2014, pp. 7-8; emphasis added)
Apart from involving what might be called the fallacy of the collective singular – in referring to ‘Western culture’, ‘the African past’ and ‘African society’ – this communitarian interpretation of rationality is, again, in uncomfortable proximity to an all-out relativism. It would also imply that any ‘critical re-evaluation’ etc. will be culture-dependent – and will not necessarily seem compelling (perhaps not even ‘critical’) to anyone not belonging to a particular (African) culture or community.
Similar concerns arise with regard to the next constitutive aspect of African philosophy of education, moral maturity. Drawing on Wiredu’s ideas (2004), Waghid refers to ‘an educated person’ as someone:
‘who has attained moral maturity and refinement.… Such a person has acquired the virtues of honesty, faithfulness and duty to, and empathy for the well-being of others in her community. This implies that an educated person has developed a sense of responsibility towards her kin and community.’ (Waghid 2014, p. 8; emphasis added)
‘Mutual respect’ is a key term here (p. 12), as are sincerity, justice (p. 8) and moral sensitivity (p. 12) – but they are of limited value if confined to one’s ‘kin and community’. Clearly, like care, empathy and compassion are often biased. After all, we tend to empathize to a greater extent with those close to us: with family members, members of our primary group, close friends and companion animals, and those whose personal needs and concerns are similar to our own. But this is not invariably or exclusively the case. Moreover, why should the moral maturity and refinement of an ‘educated person’ be measured in this narrow communitarian sense? And what about acting out of a sense of moral duty or responsibility, respect, honesty and faithfulness? Surely these are not confined to ‘kin and community’. Waghid also leaves unaddressed the reality of many, if not most, traditional societies or communities, where duty and responsibility are characteristically understood, for example, as an obligation to obey or as a duty of unquestioning loyalty. It is unclear whether acting out of such a sense of duty or responsibility to the community will precipitate moral maturation, or the development of moral maturity and refinement, especially if related to the wider problems of the African continent beyond kin and community.
As the third constituent of ‘any African philosophy of education as a social practice’, Waghid mentions deliberation and ‘consensual dialogue’ (p. 9). We have no problem recognising the significance of deliberation and dialogue in (any) philosophy of education: our concern arises with the use of ‘consensual’ and, again, with the narrow communitarianism at work in the qualification of ‘dialogue’. It is one thing to recognise the value of consensus in small-scale, fragile societies and communities; it is quite another to see it as a significant if not essential component of African philosophy of education (see Wiredu 2004, p. 21).
African philosophy of education is presented by Waghid as ‘a practice that can contribute towards addressing some of the major philosophical problems related to human life … on the African continent’ (p. 117) and the second half of the book develops this claim through a discussion of enacting ubuntu to address selected problems: learning and teaching in South Africa with reference to creating a culture of humanity and responsibility in schools and a politics of humanity in teacher education (Chapter 5); education and human rights in Africa (Chapter 6); social marginalization and educational exclusion of women in Africa (Chapter 7); and addressing terrorism (Postscript). Each of these chapters includes some convincing analysis of the problems that Waghid addresses, but we comment here on one problem in particular.
The book ends with the discussion of the educational challenge presented by terrorism and political violence, generally. The presence on the African continent of Al-Qaeda- and ISIS-affiliated groups imbues this discussion with additional topicality and urgency. Waghid’s discussion of education as a ‘credible response to bring an end to dehumanisation, global instability, and terrorism’ (p. 124) is arguably one of the book’s most original features. It deserves more than a postscript and it merits further development.
In mapping the contribution of African philosophy of education to addressing this problem, Waghid emphasizes not only (interreligious and intercultural) dialogue but also the possibility and promise of ‘a communal language’ (p. 125). If one accepts his empirical point – that terrorism is caused by people’s failure to recognize one another, to acknowledge and indeed be open to the ‘otherness of the other’ (p. 128), and by processes of exclusion – then this arguably permits the optimistic belief that education and the pursuit of a communal language can make a substantial contribution to the cessation of political violence. However, this is surely not the whole causal story, as the role of indoctrination and other forms of mis-education in the evolution of terrorism has been well-documented. Given Waghid’s account of rational discourse, with its accommodation of culture-dependent rationality that may work according to a minimalist logic, the scope for developing a common language is likely to be limited. Terrorists have reasons for their beliefs, and they articulate them within the context of a particular life-world. Indeed, what are we to say to a terrorist who declares that his actions are an expression of his responsibilities to his own kin and community, to be judged in its own terms? Where would this leave education and pursuit of a communal language as a countervailing force, beyond preaching to the already converted? The very idea of a communal language already assumes that a way out of the ideological impasse has been found.
More troubling, given the central aim of the book – and notwithstanding that we share Waghid’s view that terrorism and the other problems discussed in the latter half of the book require urgent practical attention, in Africa and many other parts of the globe – is the extent to which these chapters draw heavily and predominantly on philosophical sources written by philosophers writing from outside Africa. These include, most prominently, Stanley Cavell, Jacques Derrida, Martha Nussbaum, Seyla Benhabib, Judith Butler, Iris Marion Young, Amy Gutmann, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Jacques Rancière. To make this observation is not to imply that any particular regional philosophical tradition (this is a diverse list of writers, some of whom have disagreed strongly with each other) has competed more successfully with any others. For surely we should seek to draw on the most appropriate and illuminating arguments and concepts universally available. But it is striking that these chapters make so little explicit mention or indeed use of the concept of ubuntu as such, though ubuntu does receive some brief mention, for example on page 80. We are left with the sense that in addressing Africa’s predicament, ubuntu, as emblematic of a characteristically African mode of philosophical reasoning, seems ultimately to have little to say. A description and defence of African philosophy, as philosophically and educationally distinctive (though not necessarily unique), is both a compelling promise and a puzzling feature of the book. If to apply ubuntu to the problems of Africa requires an articulation that depends so heavily on extra-African texts, is the ‘Reconsideration’ promised in the book’s title not ultimately best understood as a debate within African philosophy about how best to interpret the concept of ubuntu itself?
Correspondence: Penny Enslin, University of Glasgow.
Gyekye, K. (1997) Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
Letseka, M. (2000) African Philosophy and Educational Discourse, in: P. Higgs, N. Vakalisa, T. Mda and N. Assié Lumumba (eds) African Voices in Education (Lansdowne, South Africa, Juta).
Oladipo, O. (1992) The Idea of African Philosophy: A Critical Study of the Major Orientations in Contemporary African Philosophy (Ibadan, Molecular Publishers).
Waghid, Y. (2014) African Philosophy of Education Reconsidered: On Being Human (London & New York, Routledge).
Wiredu, K. (2004) Prolegomena to an African Philosophy of Education, South African Journal of Higher Education 18.3: pp. 17-26.
 We acknowledge that Waghid seems to oscillate between this narrow sense and a wider, more encompassing understanding of communitarianism. (This is especially noteworthy in his discussion on pp. 21-28, where he pays tribute to the work of Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer and Charles Taylor, before reiterating his intellectual debt to Gyekye.) Our concern is not with the communitarianism of Sandel, Walzer and Taylor – but clearly the question arises what would be left of a characteristically African philosophy of education in the defence of such a wider use?
You can read an interview with the author of ‘African Philosophy of Education Reconsidered’, Yusef Waghid, here.