HomeLUMINAvol. 21 no. 2 (2010)

Ifá and the Consequences of Literacy: A Philosophical Analysis

Omotade Adegbindin

Discipline: Philosophy, Culture



Before Placide Tempel’s La Philosophie bantoue (Bantu Philosophy), the dogma of regarding philosophy as essentially Western had already reached an unimaginable apogee, in part because the polygenetic theses of such personages as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, and Lucien Levy-Bruhl, to mention a few, had at the time become indispensible research materials for early anthropologists and white missionaries. The Eurocentric theses and the rise of modern science; thus, gave rise to the imperious notion of Occidental superiority in philosophy. These also augment the racial hypothesis of seeing the African as the “other,” the hypothesis which thrived as a veritable paradigm in most writings in Europe. To extricate the African from the status of the “other”, African intellectuals and philosophers, in particular, embarked on an intellectual decolonization of the Africans and published several volumes of remonstrative reportage. The published volumes reveal, among others, that racial writings earned such sterling popularity around the world at that time because African cultures were significantly oral in character. In the period preceding colonialism and during colonial era, therefore, Western intellectualism saw writing as a precondition for philosophy and, by extension, history and science.

Later, after Tempel’s publication, there emerged two dominant schools in the enterprise of African philosophy, namely the traditionalists and the universalists; while the universalists inherited the Eurocentric dogma of seeing philosophy as that which necessarily requires a writing tradition since it is (erroneously) believed that ideas can only be preserved and exchanged in books and journals, the traditionalists believe that writing is not a precondition for philosophy, that ideas can be preserved through mnemonic devices like songs, folklore, proverbs, and so on. The universalists thus constitute a group of insistent champions of literacy who valorize writing at the expense of orality; the traditionalists, on the other hand, hold the wrong assumption that narrative assertions in oral texts can overcome the historical fluidity of oralism. However, it is our belief that the intransigent relationship between the universalists and the traditionalists persists in the enterprise of African philosophy because the two dominant schools have failed to recognize the need to furnish a paradigm of interaction or dialogue between their projects. From the standpoint of Ifá, therefore, this paper rejects the written-oral dichotomy that is central to both the universalist and the traditionalist orientations, occasioned by their parochial and provincial conceptions of philosophy respectively. The paper shows how Ifá oral text puts a premium on the need to incorporate the contributions of both the oral and written cultures in order to understand the complete intellectual configuration of our human society.