Exploring African Philosophy of Difference

  • Elvis ImafidonEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Handbooks in Philosophy book series (HP)


It is the tradition of philosophy as a rational and critical human activity across borders to isolate specific human ideas both as syntax and as real and lived human experiences, bring them to the foreground, and make them occupy a crucial and specialized place in philosophical discourse. This is apparent in the many delimited branches of philosophy such as metaphysics – an inquiry into the fundamental principles underlying reality; epistemology – an inquiry concerning the nature, scope, and theories of human knowledge; axiology – an inquiry into the theories of human values; and philosophy of science – a critical examination of the nature, methods, and assumptions of science. African philosophy has thrived and flourished in the last six decades beginning as a reactionary scholarship to prior denial of the possibility of its existence, to becoming an established academic discipline. However, African philosophy although succeeding in establishing its general nature, themes, and problems, is still at the elementary stage of discussing specifics and delimiting its areas of inquiry into specialized fragments. Thus, beyond the general commentaries on African philosophy in existing literature, it is only recently that we find a few scholars writing and laying the groundwork on specialized themes in African philosophy such as African ethics, African epistemology, and African ontology. My goal in this chapter is to bring one essential human experience to the foreground in African philosophy as a specialized area of inquiry. The human experience that interests me here is the ubiquitous concept of difference and the peculiarities of its experience by Africans in Africa and beyond. My intention is to attempt a preliminary sketch of the meaning, nature, scope, and primary tasks of African philosophy of difference. I show, for instance, how African philosophy of difference can shift the discourse of difference from empirical manifestations of difference to an exploration of the theories that stands under such manifestations. I conclude that African philosophy of difference is crucial in understanding and dealing with the complex issues of identity, difference, and the other experienced in Africa in areas such as albinism, xenophobia, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, and politics. The possibility of such an inquiry also indicates the prospect of delimiting African philosophy to more specialized spheres of discourse.


Difference African philosophy Othering Ontology Epistemology Ethics 


African philosophy as an academic discipline has flourished in the last six decades much more than it ever did in human history before the 1950s. This flourishing began as a reaction to a long history of denial of the possibility of its existence, that is, the denial of the ability of Africans to philosophize and the possibility for anything philosophical to emerge from African thought. (The denial of philosophy in Africa goes way back to centuries before the second half of the twentieth century. We find it, for instance, in Hegel’s The Philosophy of History (1956), Kant’s Observation of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1960) and Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (2006) and a number of works written by anthropologists and sociologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Levy-Bruhl’s Primitive Mentality (1947). But the reactions against such claims did not take deep roots until Tempels published the book Bantu Philosophy (1959), which in many ways departed from such claims and affirmed the exact opposite. This triggered a series of debate on whether or not African philosophy was possible.) Beyond this reactionary scholarship, which carried on for about four decades, African philosophy has emerged as one of the prominent world philosophies competing nicely with the Western, Asian, and Indian counterparts. There are now many books, journals, conferences, workshops, and seminars organized on African philosophy. African philosophy is now an integral part of the philosophy curriculum in many African and non-African universities. Its meaning, nature, scope, and themes get clearer and clearer by the years.

But there is much left to be achieved. Of interest here to me is increasing the visibility of delimited specialized areas of discourse within African philosophy because African philosophy at the moment is still largely clumsy and general in its contents. In African philosophical traditions, debate on key concepts are not yet in the foreground; they are not given specific attention but are instead discussed within the broad heading of African philosophy. Thus, although there are evidences of the discourse of such ideas in Africa, they do not currently play a crucial role in philosophical debates (Cf. Graness 2017: 305). There is need for African philosophy to focus more on (and African philosophers to increasingly specialize on) specific areas of discourse in African philosophy. Such areas include African ethics and its subareas (e.g., African environmental ethics, African bioethics, and African business ethics), African epistemology, African philosophy of science, African philosophy of language, African philosophy of religion, African metaphysics, African philosophy of disability, African feminist philosophy, African philosophy of difference, to mention a few.

To be sure, this is already happening in minimal forms in African philosophical literature. There are now seminal essays on such specialized areas of African philosophy, and African philosophers are now focusing more on some delimited scope of thought and inquiry. (For instance, Kevin Behrens works focuses on various aspects of African environmental ethics as seen for instance in many of his essays such as: “Exploring African Holism with Respect to the Environment” (2010: 465–484); “Toward an African Relational Environmentalism” (2013: 76–97); and “The Imperative of Developing African Eco-philosophy” (2017: 191–204). Similarly, Bert Hamminga has focused his research primarily on issues of African epistemology. This can be seen, for instance, in his edited book: Knowledge Cultures: Comparative Western and African Epistemology (2005). These, of course, are just a few out of many.) This gives hope that African philosophy is no longer too general in its scope. However, much more is still needed to be done and very little is available particularly in the area of African philosophy of difference as may be seen in the scanty literature on the philosophical discourse of such issues as disability and alterity.

It is in this line of thought that I intend to present some preliminary remarks on what it entails to research on an underexplored area of African philosophy, the African philosophy of difference. What is the essence of difference in African thought systems? What would be the specific concerns of the African philosopher with the experience of difference within African spaces of dwelling? What should be the focal points of an African philosophy of difference? What are the relationship between the philosophical discourse on difference in Africa and other specialized African philosophical discourse such as African feminist philosophy, philosophy of disability, philosophy of race, and ontology? How can an African philosophy of difference contribute to an understanding of the ubiquitous experience of identity and difference by Africans in African and non-African communities? These are essential questions I hope this essay would provide directions to finding answers.

To achieve the aim of this essay, I begin in section “Conceptualizing Difference” with an academically difficult attempt to present, in as simple terms as possible, the meaning of difference, bearing in mind the highly and essentially contested nature of the concept, and the complicated and complex conceptualization, the concept has gone through in the history of ideas, in both philosophical and non-philosophical literature. (Difference is indeed an essentially contested concept for a number of reasons. W. B. Gallie (1955: 167–198) gives an apt explanation those reasons. He explains that such a concept is highly appraisive, not purely descriptive; it is inevitably controversial and thus involves endless dispute since its proper use is determined by their users; such disputes are nevertheless sustained by perfectly respectable arguments and evidence; though the disputing parties adhere to different views as to the proper use of the concept in question, nonetheless, each party recognize that his/her own use is contested by others, and each party has some appreciation of the different criteria in light of which other parties claim to be applying the concept; and each party continues to argue most seriously that his/her use of the concept is sound even while, at times, realizing that other participant in the dispute can make a rational case for their own view and that no conclusive argument can be advanced for any of the competing views.) Then, I proceed in section “African Accounts of Difference” by exploring African accounts of difference which provides fertile grounds for philosophizing. The understanding of the concept of difference and the African accounts of difference prepare the ground for the exploration of the meaning, nature, scope, and themes of African philosophy of difference in section “African Philosophy of Difference”. Here I will show how the philosophy of albinism in particular and the philosophy of disability in general fall under this branch of African philosophy. I conclude that African philosophy of difference is crucial in understanding the manifold manifestation of identity and difference experienced in African societies and also highlights the prospects of delimiting discourses in African philosophy.

Conceptualizing Difference

Francois Laruelle in his Philosophies of Difference: A Critical Introduction to Non-Philosophy (2010) highlights three stages of difference, or three interrelated levels of conceptualizing difference:
Difference, or becoming-difference passes through three continuously linked levels of which the last two define the double articulation of philosophical decision in general:
  1. a.

    Difference as present in object-being, ontic difference, and corresponding to this, the category of ‘difference’: this is the empirical level of Difference, which tends always towards the reciprocal exclusion of contraries under the law of a representational and transcendent unity.

  2. b.

    Difference as ‘ontological difference’, the metaphysics as such of metaphysics, the transcendence of presence relative to present being. This is no longer the empirical but instead a priori level of Difference. It is metaphysics in the sense understood by Heidegger when he thematises in this mode the difference of Being and beings. Yet this operation still leaves transcendence in its relation of origin, in its relativity to the object-being or the present.

  3. c.

    Difference no longer as metaphysical or ontological, but as transcendental (in the rigorous sense of a thinking of the One, which is to say, immanence inasmuch as it at least ‘surpasses’ every empirical, generic and even ontological division). This is the point of view of Heidegger’s search for the essence of difference … (2010: 33–34)


In Laruelle’s account, the first level of conceptualization of difference is understanding difference as it is observed empirically in everyday ontic experiences of things with a common genus. It consists of the categories of differences we observe around us every day such as racial difference, color differences, bodily differences, ethnic difference, religious differences, political differences, economic class differences, sexual differences, to mention a few. The second concerns the theories of the being or coming-to-be of difference between two contraries. It is an attempt to understand and theories the metaphysics or assumptions about the ultimate nature of being from which the ontic difference we experience in our daily lives ensue. The last consists of the finite transcendence beyond all sorts of ontic differences and ontologies of differences to come to terms with the very essence of difference in its pure form, not the essence of this or that experience of difference, but difference-in-itself. To be sure, the three levels are interwoven. The first is descriptive and provides some raw materials for the second and the third which are normative and philosophical. Any attempt to understand difference must therefore combine a blend of these levels of the conceptualization of difference.

At the ontic/empirical level, how do we conceptualize difference from our experience of it? Difference is in this sense conceptualized as the contrast between two things and the sets of properties that make one not to be the same as the other. In this sense, difference presupposes some sets of identities that are separable from each other. Difference therefore has to do with what sets two entities apart even when they may belong to the same genus. Difference, in other words, consists of the residues of identities; it is subordinated to identity. Vernon W. Cisney (2015) aptly put it thus:

Difference as… observable relation between entities [comes from] the identities of which are already established or known. Intuitively, we speak of difference in empirical terms, as though it is a contrast between two things; a way in which a thing, A, is not like another thing, B. To speak of difference in this colloquial way, however, requires that A and B each has its own self-contained nature [or realities], articulated (or at least articulable) on its own, apart from any other thing. The… tradition… attempts to locate the identity of any given thing in some essential properties or self-contained identities…

It is in this ontic sense of difference that the most part of Western philosophy – beginning with Aristotle down to the nineteenth/twentieth century – understand difference. It is in this same sense that difference is understood from the perspective of scientific research. Logically and scientifically, therefore, difference can be made between entities that have the same genus. Ontic differences are made between things that share the same form. M. de Beistegui (2005: 151) puts this point succinctly:

For Aristotle, and a whole tradition after him, something (or someone) is different from something (or someone) else only to the extent that they can be subsumed under the identity of a common genus, or kind. Two things can differ only in some particular respect, only on the basis of something they have in common. An apple is different from a banana only to the extent that they are both pieces of fruit. An apple, on the other hand, cannot be said to be different from a hammer, precisely to the extent that the genera ‘fruit’ and ‘tool’ cannot be subsumed under a higher, ultimate term that would be common to both. As such, they are simply ‘other’.

Human reliance on the ontic level of the conceptualization of difference in organizing and ordering their social spaces is palpable. In Africa, for instance, the South African and the Nigerian or Zimbabwean may have a common genus of being Africans, but their individual identity as South Africans, Zimbabweans, or Nigerians is taken as self-contained natures or identities that stands tall and seeks to subordinate the difference that exists between them. It is the same kind of differential relationship that thrives between the Northern Nigerians and Southern Nigerians, the Hutus and the Tutsis, the able-bodied and the disabled, the Christian and the Muslim; it is a long list of differentiations. Lest we forget, it is within this same level of understanding that although sharing a common genus as humans, white people are distinguished from black people as two separate distinct self-contained realities with jaw-dropping theories of differences. The deep-seated assumption that one’s identity is independently derived from one’s self-contained nature and, by implication, the intent to preserve such identity by subordinating any forms of difference results in a hostile and violent relation with difference. Fundamentalism, xenophobia, discrimination, maltreatment, killing, dismembering, unfounded representations, racism, derogation, ethnic cleansing, and the like become the observable but unfortunate linkages between self-contained identities and differences. Remaining in this level of conceptualization breeds antisocial behavior that threatens the very root of our humanity.

This brings us to the second level of the conceptualization of difference, the ontology of difference. In this level, difference is conceptualized not merely as a residue from two distinct identities, but as something ensuing or resulting from the assumptions about being or reality in the manifold of contained identities. All independent forms of identity invariably operate on some theory of, or assumption about, reality and the nature of things that gives it its structure. All individual members of a self-contained independent identity must fit within that structure of reality by possessing certain qualities presumed about the being of things. It is what gives them their identity as part of that independent set of things. By implication, any entity that lacks those qualities that are seen as fundamental to the structure of the self-contained identity is considered different. Hence, to understand how difference is formulated and brought into being, we must understand not only the observable differences around us, but the assumptions about reality that shores them up. Consider for example the qualities an entity must possess for his\her to be called a human being. As biological as this question might sound, the assumptions about humanness in human history shows that it is a bit more complicated and it depends largely on assumptions within self-contained realities. There was a time Africans and many non-European tribes did not literally fit into what was considered human in European-contained reality. This resulted in a notorious history of racial differences. The assumptions about what is to be human needed not to be true. As long as they were held and assimilated, they had real consequences for real people. Hence, we can liken the ontology or notion of being held by a set of identical entities to a box. Not everything can fit into a box. Some items must be left out of the box. Difference ensues from the excluded items.

The third level of the conceptualization of difference is a purely transcendental ontological level of conceptualization. It involves a finite transcendence of the experience of this or that form of difference in this or that ontology to an attempt to account for the very essence of difference, not of this or that difference that ensues from this or that ontology, but of difference in its purest form. This level of conceptualization of difference is, for instance, noticeable in pre-Socratic philosophy, in Plato, and then seized to exist (thanks to Aristotle) until it reappeared about the twentieth century in many of the continental philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levina, and Gilles Deleuze, and then in many spheres of discourse. We recall, for instance, the ontology of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus who, denying self-contained independent fixed realities, opined that change and difference is the basic principle of our being, not of this genus of being or that genus of being, but of being in general. Everything is in a constant state of flux. In this sense, identity is subordinate to difference. Difference understood in its purest form holds that the identity of any given thing is constituted on the basis of the ever-changing nexus of relations in which it is found, and thus, identity is a secondary determination, while difference, or the constitutive relations that make up identities, is primary. In this case, the other is always present in a relational sense. Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze are key in the rediscovery and analysis of difference in the third level in continental philosophy. Their successors have extended their work into cinema studies, ethics, theology, technology, politics, the arts, and animal ethics, among others (see Cisney 2015; Deleuze 1994; Derrida 1974, 1978). Therefore, in this third level of analysis:

… it is differences themselves, and the material, contingent qualities they exhibit, which generate the apparent stability, permanence and self-identity of the concepts that classical metaphysics took as its point of departure. Drawing on advances made in the natural sciences (evolutionary biology, thermodynamics), on recent developments in the social sciences (psychoanalysis, structuralist anthropology, linguistics and semiotics), as well as on proto-differential discourses in philosophy, such as those of Nietzsche, Bergson and Heidegger, these thinkers insist that differences are not accidents occurring to pre-given, self-identical and already constituted substances, but the very background and process against which these seemingly stable and permanent entities are generated. (de Beistegui 2005: 152)

In the transcendental level of conceptualizing difference, fixed, permanent, pre-given, unchanging identities are pseudo. They do not exist. They are mere illusions. What exist, what is real and remain present in the unfolding of being in general are differential structures and dynamisms that work behind the scene to create temporal and finite self-identity and self-contained realities that are always in a state of flux and change due to the enduring ontology of difference-in-itself.

Hence, the essence of difference is its ability to be present in all things and yet absent. It is:

… without beginning or end: it is the pure movement of a term that is never there, a ‘term’ that is always lacking in its own place, both already no longer here and not yet here, at once late and early, present and absent; and yet, in this double movement, in this spatiality in excess of presence, and this temporality in excess of permanence, everything takes place and sense is produced. The philosophies of difference reveal how, in the phenomenal realm, the seemingly most stable systems, and, in the philosophical realm, the drive to presence and identity, are in fact sustained and undermined by a purely differential economy.

Twentieth-century continental philosophy thus proposed substituting a principle of difference for that of identity. This is the ‘principle’ that declares that, for any given superficial identity, whether that of a substance, an essence or a physical system, there is always a deeper, hidden manifold of differences… This is the principle that stipulates that, contrary to what Aristotle and the ensuing tradition argued, not only is heterogeneity thinkable, it is also the condition of possibility of thought. (de Beistegui 2005: 153)

These three levels of the conceptualization of difference are of course interlocked. They work hand in hand in enriching our understanding of difference. How we gain knowledge about those we consider as different, how our moral obligations to the other are formulated, and how much value we place on those considered different results from a rich conceptualization of difference. Although the philosophical interest in the concept of difference is already made manifest in our discourse above, we shall attempt a detailed analysis of this interest specifically as it plays out in African philosophy. But it is important, first of all, to say a few words about difference as understood in African contexts.

African Accounts of Difference

A view that has become dominant in African philosophical and non-philosophical literature is that the self in African community is intrinsically interwoven and connected with the other such that the later cannot be conceived at any point as separate from the other and vice versa. As an African, my being cannot be fully understood and comprehended separately from the being of others. To be sure, we are, in African philosophy, all too familiar with John S Mbiti’s classical rendering of this essential feature of African communitarian worldview: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am” (Mbiti 1970: 141). But this is where we need to be careful not to misconstrue non-separateness for non-difference, and thus unreflectively conclude that the interconnectedness of things implies sameness of things. Difference do not only abound and flourish within the African communitarian structure; they are well accounted for by deeply entrenched worldviews and ideologies about the nature of things, which form rich theoretical basis that should arouse philosophical interests.

How are difference, otherness, and alterity understood and conceptualized within African contexts? What theories and ideas account for the manifestations of difference and othering in African societies? African accounts of difference consist of the ideas and views held in African societies about what distinguishes one being from another, or on what basis a thing can be differentiated from another. In this section, I would explore these questions on two levels – acknowledging that there may be other levels from which African accounts of difference could be conceptualized. First, I would explore difference as it unfolds within an allegedly self-contained space in Africa, an African community of selves. Second, I would examine the accounts of difference that exist between two different self-contained African communities of selves.

In the first level, African accounts of difference are clearly manifest within a closely knit community of selves, communitarian structure. As mentioned earlier, African communitarianism emphasizes the solidarity and interconnectedness of all beings. The idea is that all beings, both visible and invisible, are interwoven to form a whole and cannot be conceived as independent of one another primarily because all beings have a common essence, energy, or vital force. In the words of Polycarp Ikuenobe (2006: 63–64):

In the traditional African view, reality or nature is a continuum and a harmonious composite of various elements and forces. Human beings are a harmonious part of this composite reality, which is fundamentally, a set of mobile life forces. Natural objects and reality are interlocking forces. Reality always seeks to maintain an equilibrium among the network of elements and life forces … Because reality or nature is a continuum, there is no conceptual or interactive gap between the human self, community, the dead, spiritual or metaphysical entities and the phenomenal world; they are interrelated, they interact, and in some sense, one is an extension of the other.

Notwithstanding the interrelatedness of beings within an African community, the idea that difference in the degree of energy or vital force possessed by an entity determines the unique status of such a being in the category of beings is cherished and highly valued. The Supreme Being, for instance, is seen as possessing the highest vital force; the vital force of the ancestors is seen as different, more intense, and higher in degree than that of humans; animals and plants are believed to have lesser vitality than humans and are thus different from humans. But this form of difference is seen as normal and largely positive for the flourishing and wellbeing of all beings in the community of beings. The distinctiveness of the Supreme Being as the most powerful being from whom vital force ensues for other beings is seen as essential because this distinct supremacy is essential for maintaining order in the community of beings (Pobee 1976: 5).

Another form of difference and otherness that emerges from this level of theorization about African accounts of difference, one particularly of interest to me here, is the sort of difference found within the same category of being expected to thrive with the same degree of vitality such as the sort of difference that emerges from within the human category of being, or those below the human category of being such as animals and plants. For instance, within the human category of being in an African community of selves, othering takes different forms such as the othering of the elite class – kings, chiefs, and the royal family, elders, notable craftsmen, chief priests, witchdoctors, and so on (Onobhayedo 2007: 270–271) – from the common folks, men from women, and disabled from nondisabled persons. In these forms of othering, the reasons for their occurrence are similar to the reasons found in any human society where human relations invariably take place: power, gender stereotyping, class distinctions, physical/biological differences, and the like. But a peculiar form of difference within the human category of being that strikes one as odd is that which takes place on the basis of differences in vitality. Although all human beings in an African community of selves are categorized as such because they share basically the same form of vital force as different from that of, say, an ancestor or a divinity, certain human beings are differentiated or othered from other human beings for the peculiar reason that such human beings possess a different form of vitality that may be higher than the usual human vital force. This may be seen, for instance, in the othering of persons from witches and wizards and persons with different forms of disability. In many cases, such othering can become violent and negative out of fear that such different persons may harass, harm, and oppress normal human beings with their higher form of vitality. The continuous witch-hunting and killing of suspected witches and wizards in different parts of Africa clearly shows such a violent form of othering. The same is evident in the violent othering of disabled persons such as persons with albinism and persons with angular kyphosis. (A detailed list of the number of the persons killed or tortured on the basis of suspicions of witchcraft in South Africa between 2000 and 2017 can be found in the article: “Remember their Names – Victims of Witch-hunts in South Africa 2000–2017” published online by the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (2017). Accessed on October 25, 2017 from:

The second level of African accounts of difference that explains many of the manifestations of difference that is experienced today in African societies consists of the understanding of difference that exists between two seemingly self-contained communities of selves. There is the temptation in African scholarship to generalize African worldviews across African communities. This is often seen in the way and manner African scholars are wont to use phrases such as “African religion,” “African philosophy,” “African communalism,” “African politics,” and so on. To be sure, the temptation of doing this – even as I have done within the pages of this essay – stems primarily from the fact that many (sub-Saharan) African communities enjoy semblances of thoughts and structures. Notwithstanding this, it is important to note that even though different African societies share similar thoughts, worldviews, and structures, they still separately defend the possession of a self-contained structure that marks them as different from other groups and communities. Hence, the Yoruba tradition would therefore claim to be different from the Igbo tradition, the same way the Christian would claim to be different from the Muslim even though there are semblances in their structures.

Bearing this in mind, each self-contained African unit would conceive as an other anything that is not located within its unit. The relation with such an other could be positive, negative, cordial, violent, peaceful, or tensed based on different factors such as difference in values and beliefs, the need to preserve the self-contained community, the belief in the supremacy, and the enjoyment of a higher degree of vitality of one’s own community over that of the other, economic benefits and so on. This level of African accounts of difference results in ethnic relations as well as ethnic crisis, tribalism, xenophobia, and xenophilia, and even genocide as was obvious in the Hutu-Tutsi crisis. These manifestations of difference on this level are obvious in everyday experience in Africa.

Every person living in an African space is confronted by some form of difference ensuing from these levels just examined. Such confrontation is sometimes violent, hospitable, peaceful, or characterized by tension. African philosophy has an important role to play in unveiling the very essence of such differences and othering. This is important if we are to ever succeed in encouraging peaceful and cordial othering and discouraging violent and negative othering.

African Philosophy of Difference

The last two sections have provided a fairly good background of what difference is and what an African account of it consists of. My aim henceforth will be to forge out what an African philosophy of difference would entail in terms of meaning, nature, and scope of the discourse. I would deliberately avoid delving into a comprehensive discussion of specifics unless the temptation to do so is just not avoidable. An African philosophy of difference is a rational and critical inquiry on the metaphysical assumptions, the epistemological frameworks, and the axiological/moral issues arising from the manifold of the ontic experience of difference on the African continent. African philosophy of difference is not intended to gather more facts or collect more data on the empirical experience of difference in African societies. Rather it is saddled with the crucial responsibility of theorizing and raising fundamental questions about how these many varieties of observable differences come to be in the first place, how they can be interpreted, and how the knowledge of such differences are acquired and justified within African thought systems. It is also concerned with unravelling the moral issues that arise from the African experience of difference.

There are therefore three broad and interrelated areas of inquiry that an African philosopher of difference would be interested in and would have to grapple with. These can be summarized as the ontological questions, epistemological questions, and the axiological/moral questions:

Ontological Questions

Here, the African philosophy of difference is concerned with the ontology of difference in Africa. It attempts to present an analysis of how the manifold of observable difference comes into being. It attempts a critical examination of the metaphysical assumptions about reality in African traditions and cultures that stands under the perception and manifestations of difference in Africa. It is therefore not in search for more information of how the one relates with the other in African spaces of dwelling, but with unravelling what assumptions about reality necessitate or results in such a relationship whether hostile or cordial. It also includes, very importantly, an analysis of the ontological bases on which a non-African considers an African as different. Very importantly too, it includes an analysis of the essence of difference-in-itself and how it has been at work in the unfolding of African realities down the ages.

In the last section while discussing two levels of the African account of difference, one important fact that became clear was that the African conception of being as hinged on the notion of vital force plays a key role in the unfolding of difference in African societies. Hence, an integral part of the scope of an African ontology of difference is an analysis of the role African ontology of vital force plays in the manifestations of difference in Africa. This can then be narrowed down to a philosophical analysis of specific forms of difference in Africa. Consider, for example, the experience of disability as a difference, an other in African societies. African ontology of difference (particularly, of disability) is not concerned with gathering and reporting more information of how disabled persons are treated and perceived in African societies. Rather, it is interested in unveiling the idea of being within such spaces that is the basis of the observable experiences of disability. It asks such fundamental and perennial questions, for instance, as: what is the African notion of being? How is disability presented in such an African ontology? Within African thought systems, are disabled persons ontologically (not just physically) different from abled-bodied persons? Does the African notion of being encourage/discourage the maltreatment of disabled persons? What gives a person identity in an African community to the extent that an other is considered different? The aim of such questions is to be able to interpret and interrogate what is observed about disability and to get to the foundation or roots of associated problems.

I have argued elsewhere, for instance, how an African ontology may isolate and even encourage the maltreatment of certain kinds of entities including disabled persons with specific reference to persons with albinism. As mentioned earlier, African scholars pride themselves on the all-inclusive nature of African ontology. It is described as a source of solidaristic and reciprocal living. However, as interconnected and interlocked as the African community of beings may be, it excludes a number of beings or entities. The basic reason for this is to protect the socially approved web of relationships from anything that may threaten its harmony and equilibrium. For instance, some have wondered what justification may be given for the stigmatization against victims of deadly, contagious, and (previously) incurable diseases in African traditional societies. This certainly is for obvious reasons. Any human community, African or non-African, no matter how intact and closely knit it may be, would want to protect itself from extinction, which will imply discriminating against and isolating anyone or anything that may threaten its existence. Interestingly, in African traditions, not only persons with deadly, contagious, and (previously) incurable diseases are isolated from the community of beings, even morally bankrupt persons who do not live up to the expectations of the community are isolated to protect the community. This explains the reasons for banishment and ostracism. Apart from these, African ontology also isolates some other beings due to their unusual nature; they are treated as the other, different, unusual, and hence, excluded from the community of accepted beings. The list varies from one African community to the other. Persons with albinism, twins, triplets, and disabled persons will make this list although with some variations from community to community. In some extreme cases of African traditions, when such persons are born, they are either killed or thrown away in the evil forest as they lack certain qualities needed for them to be fully incorporated into the list of accepted human beings. (For a detailed discussion of this, particularly as it relates to persons with albinism, see Imafidon (2017: 163–177).) Thus, ontological questions about difference is an attempt to understand difference from its ontological roots

Epistemological Questions

This may simply be referred to as the African epistemology of difference. In this area of discourse, the African philosopher of difference critically examines how Africans acquire and justify specific knowledge claims about those they consider as different or the other in African societies. It also consists of an analysis of how non-Africans acquire and justify specific knowledge claims about the forms of differences that exist between them and Africans. It is an attempt to employ or construct theories of knowledge that helps us to make sense of the specific knowledge claims about difference and the other that confront us on a daily basis.

The community, for example, plays a key role in the acquisition, transference, and justification of knowledge claims in African traditional societies. Most of the knowledge many Africans have about disabled persons, people of other ethnic groups, unusual persons, and the like come from the representation of such persons or groups within their form of life. And community-based knowledge is mostly a blend of observation, intuition, revelation, and actively produced false-claims. For example, the knowledge claims held by many about persons with albinism in Africa comes from the manner in which the community has presented and represented them through history. If we are to come to terms with the reliability of such specific claims, we must subject them to rigorous scrutiny and questioning. Thus, the African philosopher of difference raises such epistemological questions about the epistemic contents of difference as: What is the African theory of knowledge? How is difference represented within the African theory of knowledge? On what basis are specific knowledge claims about the other acquired and justified in African societies? What is the problem of truth in African understanding of difference? What role does ignorance, emotions, and sympathy play in the African understanding of the other? Such epistemological questions about the other or difference in Africa, and the analyses that ensue, it is hoped, would help us to understand, interrogate, and critique specific knowledge claims about the other in African thought. For instance, the elite class such as the elders plays a key role in the preservation of knowledge claims in African thought systems as they are seen as the custodians and repositories of the traditions and beliefs of the people. As the wise ones, their judgments are taken as objective truth that should be taken without questioning. This understanding of the place of the elite class in the epistemic wellbeing of persons in African cultures needs to be subjected to philosophical scrutiny. Do the elders, for instance, make judgments solely on facts or also emotions and sympathy? Should their elitist epistemic claims on matters of difference be accepted without questioning their validity? These are important questions requiring the expertise of the African philosopher.

Axiological/Moral Questions

This represents a broad concern in the African philosophy of difference with questions of value and morals that results from the relations of the self with the other, of identity with difference. For instance, African philosophy of difference invariably consists of an ethics of difference in Africa. This ethics of difference, first of all, has to do with outlining the moral principles that may be visibly absent from the manifold of the relations of the self with the other or the one with those considered different, but ought to be present for a healthy relationship to ensue. An example of such moral principle is tolerance for difference or tolerance of the other. When there is lack of tolerance, then hostility and violence becomes manifest. The ethics of difference also has to do with the moral responsibility of the self to the other such as the responsibility to care. It critically analyzes not specific instance of care for specific cases of the other, but what it means to care at all for someone or something considered different as well as what within the social structures and traditions in African societies may hinder such care and turn the responsibility of care into a heavy burden. It also examines issues of justice and fair treatment for those considered as different on the African continent. It also examines questions of dignity, justice, care, tolerance, respect for autonomy, and moral obligations for Africans by non-Africans and vice versa. The axiological/moral question also include questions of the value of the other, which could be political, economic, aesthetic, and so on, and how the value visibly attributed to the other can be understood and examined. It analyzes how difference, not this or that difference but difference in general, is valued in African societies.

The ethics of difference also examines the extent to which the is/ought gap can be sustained in African contexts when dealing with issues of difference. Are there links between the ontological conception of difference and people’s attitude toward the other in African societies? As I have argued elsewhere, there seem to be a strong connection between a people conception of reality and their idea of the good (see Imafidon 2013: 37–54). This is extended also to their attitude toward the other or those they consider as different. It does not seem wrong for members of an all-inclusive community of beings to protect itself against anything they fear may threaten the equilibrium and harmony in its ontological structure. The ideas in African cultures, for instance, of the nature of persons with albinism clearly show that they are seen as a threat to the established structure of being and are thus excluded from that structure. Due mainly to their “unusual” physical nature, they are seen as not fitting into the community of beings. This justifies all sorts of maltreatment and harm against persons with albinism. For if a human being appears to another person as nothing more than an animal and a threat from that person’s ontological point of view, then harming such a human being by that person will not be regarded as morally impermissible, especially given that harming a threatening animal is not frowned at (see Imafidon 2017: 163–177). Hence, examining the connection between the ontological and the moral is an integral part of an African philosophy of difference.

African philosophy of difference is thus a vital and fundamental inquiry into the experience of difference in Africa and Africa diaspora. It may not provide objective and final answers to question on difference and the other, but it certainly enriches and nourishes our understanding of difference in a perennial and constantly unfolding discourse on difference.


The foregoing is only some preliminary remarks on the blueprint of a field of inquiry in African philosophy, the African philosophy of difference. It is sketchy, lives a number of questions unanswered, and does not pretend to provide a comprehensive discussion of what African philosophy of difference entails. But what is obvious from such preliminary remarks is that coming to terms with what it would involve to be engaged in an inquiry of difference in Africa from a philosophical perspective is crucial in interpreting the specific experiences of difference by Africans in African societies and beyond. It also points to the possibility of going beyond the clumsy way in which African philosophy is mostly done now to doing African philosophy in a much more specialized and professional manner by delimiting its broad spectrum of discourse into specialized areas. Once researchers and scholars in African philosophy take the need for delimitation and demarcation of its concerns into specific areas of research seriously, it will enrich the discourse, diversify participation, and deepen the roots of African philosophy as a major academic discipline in Africa and beyond.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Arts, Department of PhilosophyAmbrose Alli UniversityEkpomaNigeria

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