Issue 3/2019 - Freedom Africa

Thinking with African Philosophies and Living Our Cosmic Condition

Séverine Kodjo-Grandvaux

The ecological crisis has made us aware of the need to rethink our link to nature and the limits of the Bacon-Descartes model according to which human is “master and owner of nature” and which led to a positivist conception of science and to a technical and mechanical rationality. What is important to do nowadays if we want to think ecology is to reconnect not only to nature but to our cosmic condition. During the mechanical revolution of the 17th century, the Western separated nature and culture, and in the same movement created a zone of non-being in which non-Western people lived, including civilizations, worlds, that were assimilated to a ‘natural state’. The Western destroyed these worlds and imposed one world, his world. A humanitas was set up in opposition to an anthropoï to dominate. This humanitas extracted itself from Nature and the Living. A true “physiocide” took place, a repression of the living, a refusal to recognize any philosophical dignity in Nature and the cosmos, accompanied by an “epistemicide”: we denied all knowledge that took any form other than that which succeeded in imposing itself in the Western, confining African cosmologies to the status of pre-philosophical mythology.
By objectifying Nature, the Western transformed it into a resource that it authorized itself to own and it launched itself, with all the hubris possible, into the savage enterprise of conquest. This was a question of colonizing Others and the Earth. One of the justifications for colonization in legal manuals was the non-exploitation of the land by local populations. By way of this process, the Western transformed earth into territory splitting humanity into peoples and nations that have entrenched themselves behind borders and turned Nature into barriers. Rivers and mountains are perceived as separating and not as linking. Now territory divides, splits humanity, and creates categories of rejection (the Other, the foreigner, the migrant, etc.) that reduce empathy. How then can we think of a way of anchoring ourselves to the earth that would be nourishing and not exploitative? How can we have a culture that is not one of exploitation but of fertile work?
Western Modernity is also the period during which Copernicus decentralized the cosmos by discovering the heliocentrism. One of the consequences of this discovery is to understand that the Earth, and then humanity, was no more at the core of the cosmos. This was a terrible narcissistic injury for Western man. Western has never been really heliocentric. Modernity identified itself with the appeal of the Earth at the expense of the stars. Astrology has progressively disappeared and the Earth became the final horizon of the Western existence and knowledge. In fact, geocentrism is the soul of the Western knowledge. Until now, we have concentrated on the Earth in order to think about ecology and geography and to define geo-knowledge but we have forgotten our planetary condition, that we are inscribed into a cosmos and that the Earth could not exist outside of it. It is important to move out of the night in which we are enclosed and think about the sun, the moon, and the stars. There is no autonomous Earth. Let us make philosophy a cosmology once again.
We are not earthlings but we are cosmic beings. Everything that lives on the Earth is astral in nature. There is a material and ontological continuity between the Earth and the rest of the Universe. This planet that is our home is a celestial body. We all share the same genealogy. As astrophysicists proved it to us, we are the children of massive stars that exploded and during this process, produced the chemical elements (gold, silver, mercury, uranium …) that we are made up of and which also make up our world. Massive stars are our ancestors. Our roots are not so much in the ground as in the cosmos. No form of vertical thinking makes any sense. On the contrary, we must think about immersion. We are not located in a world that is outside of us; rather we are fully inside of it. To be immersed is not to be in something that surrounds us, but to participate in something that is inside of us. To inhale is to take the world into yourself. To exhale is to project yourself into it. Immersion is an action of reciprocal interpenetration. This implies an epistemic shift to understand that what constitutes our world, our universe, is interdependency and relation. And invites us to think and develop a relational cosmology.
Contrary to the Western civilization, the other ones – in Africa, Asia, Americas, and Oceania – chose to think themselves in their relationship and interdependency not only with the other human beings but also with all the living beings, with the Earth, and the cosmos. This link is not only organic. It is also spiritual, philosophical, and sometimes religious. But it is also social.
In Southern and Central Africa, this relational ontology is present in the notion of “ubuntu”. Building a shared world is wanting that everybody can live off the land and can share all the land offers to us. According to Kwasi Wiredu, in traditional African cultures, “the land […] belongs not to the individuals but to whole clans, and individuals only have rights of use that they are obligated to exercise considerately so as not to render nugatory the similar rights of future members of the clan.”1 This questions the very concept of property on which the global capitalist system built itself. Nelson Mandela – who transformed the notion of ubuntu that we can translate by “I am because we are” in a philosophical concept – explained during his trial in 1964 that his ideal of a classless society came from his readings of Marx but also “from [his] admiration of the structure and organization of early African societies in this country. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There were no rich or poor and there was no exploitation”. Private ownership does not exist in this system. Wiredu explains that “the external world that the traditional African […] recognizes includes other human beings and living and non-living beings as well as extra-human beings of various grades of power and intelligence, ranging from the super-human to the sub-human. All these are regarded as regular parts of the world order. There is, therefore, no question of trying to control or dominate this whole scheme of things and beings.”2
What are the consequences of this? Community must be enlarged to encompass not only the ancestors and the not-yet born but also all the living and non-living beings: there are “obligations to both ancestors and descendants which motivates environmental carefulness, all things being equal”3. There is a real importance of the rights of those who are not yet born. This is not theoretical. This is practical and defines both praxis and an ethics. This is the reason why the Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka and Calestous Juma “argue for an ecophilosophical approach which recognizes the totality of (spatial, temporal, spiritual and other) inter-linkages in nature” because “there is a need for a shift towards a new epistemological outlook in which humankind is viewed as part of a complex and systematic totality of nature”4. There are two conceptions of nature, which imply two conceptions of ethics, one – the Western one – is anthropocentric, the other – the African one – is ecocentric.
This ecocentric conception supposes to recognize the importance of relation. If we peer the cosmos, we can see the very importance of it. I would like to take the example of the virtual particles. They go back and forth between stable particles and thanks to this movement they transmit for example the nuclear power, the nuclear force. There is a real power of the virtual. And what these virtual particles teach us is that things occur only in the interaction. The world is creating itself in the interaction; this is for example what Buddhism suggests with the concept of vacuity. This invites us to think about a relational ontology and a relational cosmology.
According to Odera Oruka and Juma, we have to “adopt a holistic outlook in which everything is related to everything else. This inter-relatedness requires a corresponding philosophical approach that looks at nature in its totality and derives from it ethics that reflect this outlook.”5 This is a way to construct an ecophilosophy. Contrary to environmental studies which “have so far, restricted themselves to the study of the earth and atmosphere”, ecophilosophy “must include the totality of both human-made as well as non-human-made philosophy about nature and the totality of the universe”6.
The ecophilosophy invite us to found a new ethics, which would take into account the complexity, and totality of nature. This would be a parental earth ethics. This implies to take care of the human beings as well as the non-human beings. Parental earth ethics is, for Odera Oruka “a basis ethics that would offer a motivation for both a global environmental concern and a global redistribution of the wealth of nations”7. This is interesting because Odera Oruka worked also on distributive justice and social justice. According to him, there is a link between the manner of thinking our link to the universe, the cosmos, and the manner of thinking a fair society.
In the second half of the 20th century, African philosophy built and defined itself in opposition to African cosmologies, to animism, and yet, it could be extremely fertile to explore these traditional philosophies in that, according to the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr in Afrotopia, “the conception of the Universe that is visible in a wide variety of African knowledge and practices is that of a cosmos thought of as a great living thing. It is a whole of which Man is an emanation, one living being amongst others. [...] Man is considered as a symbolic operator linking heaven and Earth. [...] the ritual of repairing the Earth constitutes one of the most significant symbolic acts in a realization of this responsibility.”8 They could certainly provide us with a rich source of material that we need to accomplish our humanity in understanding that becoming human is helping life, and every life force, grow. One of the consequences of this is to refuse the existence of a zone of non-being as colonialism has constructed it, as this zone is one of lesser-being in which the flourishing of life is held back. To achieve one’s humanization, not only for humanity, but also for everything living, is to inscribe oneself into a cosmology of emergence.
Through this, writes Souleymane Bachir Diagne in Bergson post-colonial, “the push towards better-being is carried out, the horizon being that which Senghor referred to again and always, the Teilhardian that he was, as being civilization and the Universal”9. This latter is not the standardizing force of colonialism that destroys. On the contrary, it is a plural cosmic universal. Here again the observation of the living is a source of learning. It reveals to us that at the beginning, there is one principle but it produces and expresses itself only in the multiple: there is a cosmic principle that diffracted and created this world; the living only gives in its plurality. In contrast with the colonial and imperial One, which is the One of sameness, the cosmic One is that of diversity, of the multiverse. The Universal is thus fundamental – it is the source of the cosmos and of life – but it only gives of itself in its plural form. It is a “pluriverse”. From this point on, the “in-common” is our horizon, that which we should all reach out towards. This obliges us to sketch out an ethics of relation which reinforces being and allows us to realize ourselves fully, that is to say, not to head towards greater having but towards better being, just as Souleymane Bachir Diagne invites us to do in Bergson postcolonial. In other words, to fulfill ourselves spiritually.
This vitalist ontology is present in Bantu, Dogon and Serer cultures, insisting on an ethics of action. We must act according to everything that reinforces the vital force. Evil is the lessening of life force. The good, the truth is what saves it from destruction, as Abdoulaye Élimane Kane explains.10
Senghor found in Bantu’s philosophy by the Belgian missionary Placide Tempels what thinking about a cosmology of emergence amounts to, the same he had also discovered when reading Teilhard de Chardin and Muhamad Iqbal. According to this vitalist ontology, we have to privilege the relation that allows to be related without being tied together, which emancipates and does not stifle. Souleymane Bachir Diagne in Léopold Sédar Senghor: l’art africain comme philosophie writes: “We can, Teilhard de Chardin tells us, follow the path of egoism, which consists of only thinking that movement has attained its end with one’s self (whether one is an individual or a nation). This egoism, parent of all ‘ethnocentrisms’, carries within itself domination and colonization. We can, on the other hand, fully grasp the meaning of ‘being born and developing as a function of a cosmic stream’ and thus see the responsibility of having to continue the effort to bring about more life, more Being, by extending towards ever-greater unity the ‘generative forces of the world’”11.
Being-in-the-world does not suffice. Maybe, we need to be born into the world, to be “in the motion” of the world, but in order to do this, we have to locate our bodies in it and no longer remain in a relation of exteriority, or foreignness. This is an invitation to reconnect to the synthetic “embrace-reason”, as Leopold Sédar Senghor called it, that which comprehends instead of separates and that places us at the heart of the object that is no longer defined in a duality with the subject. Souleymane Bachir Diagne explains: “Embrace, straight away, as an indivisible whole, in a single act of intuition, that is how the embrace-reason operates. It therefore does not place the object in front of the self, but places itself inside of it, molding to its flux. We could say that it dances rather than thinks the object”12. There, Souleymane Bachir Diagne says, lies “the true path of knowledge”13 which allowed Senghor to formulate “the notion of a “corporeal cogito”, which is motion inside the motion of things”14. For Senghor, rhythm “is the vital element par excellence, [it] is the architecture of being, the internal dynamism that gives it form, the system of waves it emanates toward the Others, the pure expression of vital force. Rhythm is the vibrating shock, the force that, through the senses, seizes us at the root of being”15. Rhythm is the being of the thing, that which constitutes its singularity. Thus it is possible to be in the very motion of the world, to be in and with the world, to be with the cosmos, which – as the quantum mechanics teach it to us – relies upon energy, more precisely a basic energy impossible to eliminate. This is the zero-point energy. Rhythm is the very condition of the universe. It is what founds our universal condition and our cosmic condition.



[1] Kwasi Wiredu, “Philosophy, Humankind and the Environment”, in: H. Odera Oruka (ed.), Philosophy, Humanity and Ecology. Philosophy of Nature and Environmental Ethics, ACTS Press, Nairobi, 1994, p. 46.
[2] Idem, p. 45.
[3] Idem, p. 46.
[4] Henry Odera Oruka & Calestous Juma, “Ecophilosophy and Parental Earth Ethics (On the Complex Web of Being)”, in: H. Odera Oruka (ed.), Philosophy, Humanity and Ecology. Philosophy of Nature and Environmental Ethics, ACTS Press, Nairobi, 1994, p. 115, for both citations.
[5] Idem, p. 117.
[6] Idem, p. 119.
[7] Idem, p. 128.
[8] Felwine Sarr, Afrotopia, Philippe Rey, 2016, p. 115 (my translation).
[9] Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Bergson post-colonial. L’élan vital dans la pensée de Léopold Sédar Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal, CNRS editions 2011, p. 48–49 (my translation).
[10] See Abdoulaye Élimane Kane, Penser l’humain. La part africaine, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2015.
[11] Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Léopold Sédar Senghor: l’art africain comme philosophie, Riveneuve, 2007, p. 129.
[12] Idem, p. 82.
[13] Idem, p. 104.
[14] Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Bergson postcolonial, p. 22.
[15] Léopold Sédar Senghor, op. cit., p. 35 and 211.