What is African philosophy

The African philosopher of the Enlightenment

Martin Durupublished on 17 min

Do you know Anton Wilhelm Amo? Probably not, but his path in life is as unique as it is remarkable. Torn from his home on the banks of the Gulf of Guinea in the 18th century and “given” to a German prince, he was the first black man to receive a doctorate in philosophy at a European university. A way of life beyond the norm that opens the door to many appropriations, but also exposes a way of thinking that needs to be rediscovered.

In the beginning there was the greatest possible coincidence. A philosophy professor close to the magazine was in the process of initiating an aid program for early school leavers. Before she started her first workshop, she was briefed by a colleague. The young people often ask questions that challenge our political correctness, including again and again: “Isn't philosophy an invention and a discourse by whites? Were there black African philosophers in history? ”According to this colleague, a name could be mentioned - that of Anton Wilhelm Amo, thinker of the Enlightenment. The professor's reaction? Same as ours. Amo? Never heard. Even in common lexicons and works on the history of philosophy: nothing. No amo, nowhere. Finally, you google the name. And only then do you discover that the page dedicated to him on Wikipedia is quite extensive. That there are whole works, articles and even web blogs by amo specialists. In short, that Amo is an extremely famous stranger. What is its peculiarity? “He is,” says the comparatively detailed French website, “without a doubt the first person from sub-Saharan Africa to study at a European university and the first African to receive a doctorate from a European university.” An African philosopher Enlightenment! Immediately you are captivated by this story. It all starts with a child barely four years old who is deported to Europe. His birth is somewhat vague: Amo probably saw the light of day in 1703 in Axim or a place near this coastal town in the southwest of present-day Ghana. At that time, the entire region of the Gulf of Guinea was in great demand among the European powers. They build fortresses there for military and commercial purposes, divide new territories among themselves or conquer them by force in rivalries. Axim, which was initially in the hands of the Portuguese, changed to Dutch patronage in 1642.

The uprooted one

When the child is born, Axim is an important port and production center. Gold is brought out of the country; Salt, rice, agricultural and handicraft products are also sold. Yet another commodity passes the fortresses of the Europeans: people. You are chained and destined to be escorted to the New World. The slave trade, which began with the arrival of the Portuguese, continued to grow in the second half of the 17th century. On the Dutch side, it is the almighty West India Company that does the dirty business of the Atlantic triangular trade. So the little boy is being loaded onto a ship. Was he kidnapped by pirates and / or sold as a slave? Rather unlikely. The most plausible thing is that a Dutch pastor noticed him in Axim and was sent by him to Europe to receive a religious education there. In any case, in 1707 a ship belonging to the West India Company dropped the child off in Amsterdam. But instead of being given to a boarding school, it is "given" to an aristocrat with good connections to the company. The boy was entrusted to Duke Anton Ulrich (1633–1714), the ruler of the Duchy of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. He is a patron of the arts and sciences, owner of an impressive library, and writer. One can assume that this enlightened duke welcomed the child benevolently. However, this type of “gift” was common at the time; the greats of that world found pleasure in surrounding themselves with "chamber carrots" from Africa - as exhibited signs of wealth and progressiveness, which should give their court the tickle of exoticism.

The year is 1707: the archives of the local chapel mention that “a little Mohr” was baptized. He received two first names, that of the duke, Anton, and that of one of Anton's sons, who was to be his successor, Wilhelm August. The civil identity at the crossroads of two legacies is established: He will be called Anton Wilhelm Amo (where Amo is apparently his birth name). Nothing certain is known from his childhood and youth. How was he viewed in high society? Has he served as a page, as a “chamber black”, as some biographers have claimed? Did he meet Leibniz, who was a librarian in Wolfenbüttel? One thing is certain: The Ulrichs act as his protectors and patrons. Between the ages of 16 and 18, Amo has funds available to finance his upbringing. In an academy in Wolfenbüttel, then in a neighboring university, he received a classical education. But this is only the beginning. With careful reference to his origins, Amo enrolled on June 9, 1727 at the University of Halle, a city annexed to the Kingdom of Prussia. There is a handwritten entry Amos in the faculty's matriculation register. In addition to his name, he himself noted: "Ab Aximo in Guinea Africana" ("from Axim in African Guinea"). The University of Halle, founded in 1694, stands like a bastion of the early enlightenment in the German intellectual world. Within its walls, reason fights against the forces of tradition and clericalism. One of the figureheads of the Enlightenmentists working there was the metaphysician Christian Wolff (1679–1754), who worked out a comprehensive system that included all or almost all disciplines. However, the camp of conservative theologians in Halle still has powerful zealots. With the support of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I, who had aversions to intellectuality, Wolff was expelled from the university and, if threatened with death, was driven into exile by hanging.

This is the arena that Amo enters. He continues his education, mainly in philosophy, specializing in law. In 1729 he delivered his first university thesis in Latin, which earned him the degree of Magister Legens (the equivalent of a doctorate in law). The subject is explosive and affects him very directly - it is a “disputation on the legal status of the Moors in Europe” (“De iure Maurorum in Europe”). Unfortunately this font has been lost. Its content is summarized in a review in a Halle weekly magazine.

A pioneer of abolitionism?

Amo's work begins with a look at history: It shows that in antiquity the Roman emperors, who were used to rule by means of a mandate (a “patent”), made the “kings” of the African provinces their “lieutenants”. did. In other words: The African chiefs and subordinates who were subordinate to the empire had a legal status which guaranteed them inviolable rights. In a second step, Amo turns to his time and asks himself "how far the Moors bought by Christians in Europe extend their freedom or servitude to the usual rights". Even if clear evidence remains impossible, it is likely that Amo indirectly or even explicitly denounced slavery as an illegal practice. Amo, a pioneer of abolitionism? Two aspects stand out: First of all, he does not approach the question on an emotional level, but moves on the rational, factual terrain of law. It can be guessed that his discussion must have seemed disrespectful. At that time, the Roman Empire was a mythical model. Justinian in particular, the strictly Christian Byzantine emperor, referred to by Amo, was considered a role model. Amos' presentation that a personality of this format granted the Africans autonomy meant bringing the Christians of the 18th century, who invoked Rome and at the same time accepted slavery, into flagranti of incoherence and even heresy. Wasn't the slave trade a double scandal, an attack on both reason and religion? Amo probably used highly strategic references to shake up his contemporaries and counter them with their own legacy. A subtle maneuver with biting irony - quite bold in this context.

Heyday in Saxony

It is not excluded that this work caused a stir. And in Halle the warning shots of the opponents of the reconnaissance were doubly violent. Possibly looking for a place of refuge that was more receptive to the new ideas, Amo enrolled in 1730 at the University of Wittenberg in the Electorate of Saxony, which rivaled Halle. A successful transfer: barely a month after his matriculation, he received his master's degree, this time in philosophy, although he had not yet submitted a thesis in this discipline. The title allows him to hold his first lectures parallel to his studies in medicine, metaphysics or logic. For Amo, who finds appreciation and recognition here, a heyday: The Rector of the University of Wittenberg gives an exuberant public eulogy in which he recognizes Amo's competencies and places him in the ancestral line of illustrious authors born in (North) Africa - above all Terenz, Tertullian and Augustine. This appreciation of Amos is reflected in the facts: When August III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, visits the university, it is Amo who is chosen to lead a procession presented to the ruler in ceremonial regalia. How may August, more versed in drinking than in the intellectual arts, have reacted when he saw the African-born philosopher approaching him? Amo's academic recognition is not long in coming. In April 1734 he defended his dissertation in philosophy, a first for a thinker born in Africa in all of Europe. In abbreviated form, the title of the work is “On the lack of feeling in the human soul” (“De humanae mentis apatheia”). The main idea is already summarized in the title: Amo is of the opinion that the soul (which he understands as a kind of spirit) does not have the ability to feel or perceive. It is about a conceptual-analytical clarification, a correction of a metaphysical kind: "Man feels material things not from his soul, but from his living organic body." at. Here Amo crosses blades with Descartes. He questions a very specific point in its doctrine: the idea that the soul “is united with the body and can act and suffer with it”, as Descartes himself writes in a letter quoted by Amo. The Cartesian soul is a thing that thinks and also feels; it is the seat for a certain “passive ability to feel” (sixth metaphysical consideration), which causes it to feel pain, for example, when the body is injured. Amo doesn't want to hear about that now. Referring back to the technique that he had already used in his “Disputation on the Legal Status of the Moors in Europe”, he counters Descartes with his own words: If the soul is really an immaterial substance, as the father of Cogito assures, how could it be then, as Descartes thinks, do they feel and are affected by material things?

Demystifying the soul

Amo is not targeting Descartes alone. He also takes a stand in a debate that is raging at his own place of work. In a philosophical-scientific dispute, the representatives of the mechanism and the Stahlians face each other - followers of the chemist Georg Ernst Stahl (1659–1734), professor in Halle. The mechanists see the body as a highly complex machine that functions autonomously. The Stahlians, on the other hand, assume that the body remains dependent on the soul, on that energy or "working force" (steel) that moves it. Amo joins the mechanists. He denies that the soul is a principle of life and movement, and goes so far as to compare the spirit with a stone and thus to use the inanimate as an argument. Demystification of the soul, rehabilitation of the body, which, far from being a tool or a puppet, is the surface of contact with the world. Contrary to the strong tendency of theologians to canonize the spirit, Amo adheres to the rules of the game of the scientific spirit in his dissertation, even if he pretends that his theses are supported by certain passages of the Holy Scriptures. Religion as a pillar of science and philosophy - caution or renewed tacit provocation? Amo's thinking is directly related to the issues and controversies of his time. Seen in this way, it offers no “black” or “African” philosophy - unless one wants to say that it is enough to be born in Africa to practice African philosophy. No, Amo is a German metaphysician who is driven by the universal claim of the Enlightenment. But is that a complete picture? After defending his dissertation, Amo stayed in Wittenberg for two years before continuing his university career elsewhere: first in Halle, where he returned and completed a “treatise on the art of sober and careful philosophizing” (1738); then from 1739 in Jena. There he teaches philosophy, psychology and medicine, but also astrology, cryptology and fortune-telling techniques, which does not prevent him from holding a parallel lecture on the refutation of popular superstition. Amo, an apparently encyclopedic spirit, increases the number of his lectures for material reasons. Since he no longer has the financial support of Ulrich, he is dependent on his status as a private lecturer, which is paid by his students.

Return to the home country

The precarious own situation, coupled with a context in which the resistance to the spirit of the Enlightenment is still active - this situation seems to have nurtured a certain fatalism in Amo. In the family book of a friend he wrote the following maxim of Epictetus: “Whoever knows how to adapt to necessity is wise and aware of divine things.” The fact that he is revisiting this author is anything but irrelevant: the ancient philosopher was a released slave. Has Amo identified with him and hinted at a distant family relationship? His reappropriation of the stoic creed of equanimity and submission to fate suggests that a veil of melancholy has drawn over the biting of his irony. While the next years of his life are once again lost in the dark - some sources report that he was appointed court counselor in Berlin by Friedrich II, the new, "enlightened monarch" of Prussia, who was well-disposed towards the philosophers - Amo dives in 1747 / 48 up again with a bang. He leaves Germany and Europe to return to Africa. But why? One common statement made refers to a mockery of which he has been the victim. In Halle, an obscure scribe named Philippi wrote and distributed a satirical poem in which he staged Amo declaring his love for a student, "Mademoiselle Astrine". And the young woman rebuffed him with the argument "because my soul can never love Moors". It is not unlikely that the story was inspired by real, grossly blown facts. Under the impression of this disappointment, his feelings of love and the shame he suffered, Amo may have decided to loosen the cord and run away. As nebulous as the episode may be, it shows that he (unsurprisingly) got to know the taunts of ordinary racism, be it latent or open. On his return, Amo, if one can trust the testimony of a ship's doctor in the Dutch service, settles again in Axim, where he lives as a hermit and gains the reputation of a sage and fortune teller. He meets his father and sister again and learns that he has a brother Atta who is a slave in Surinam. Amo is said to have tried in vain to get him back. Did this make him a disruptive factor in the “official” slave trade? In any case, he is moving to another coastal town, Chama, to live there. He lives in a fortress that is run by the Dutch and which in all likelihood has been assigned to him as his residence. There he ends his days, sometime in the 1750s.On his grave, which was erected much later, the date of death will be 1784 - a wise man is considered to be all the wiser once he is 80 years old.

The dark side of the Enlightenment

Amos' death, shrouded in uncertainty, echoes through history like a cruel irony. The legacy of a lifetime was lost. Amo is certainly not a forgotten genius, not even a particularly great philosopher, but he is a thinker whose work and career are remarkable. It has already become clear that he was representative of the ideals of the Enlightenment. In his “treatise on the art of philosophizing soberly and carefully”, Amo developed typical motifs of the first Enlightenmentists. This includes the classic definition of philosophy as that which should lead to “moral perfection” and to happiness. This also includes the revolt against any kind of prejudice, the "false and erroneous sentence based on" tradition "and" authority ", which derives its origin from inattention and ignorance". Finally, this also includes the call to make public and regular use of the mind. Amo devotes a whole section of the art to criticism and oral debate; In the conflict of ideas, the interlocutors must arm themselves against the rising passions, argue over and over again (“because there is nothing without a cause to be affirmed or denied”) - all of this “for the sake of the stronger consolidation of the truth”.

Amo represents a paradox: on the one hand, he reflects the spirit of the Enlightenment and embodies it impressively; on the other hand, his life path reveals their dark side. Just as massive slavery was the precondition for the possibility of Europe's economic expansion, the Enlightenment also has an ineradicable shadow. Historically, they are companions and at times accomplices in the rise of a discourse on racial inequality. They claim universalism, but that universalism is relative, very limited, and selective. They appeal to reason, but the repressed returns and discriminatory references to “nature” and the “species” of people creep into the discourse (this applies, for example, to thinkers like Kant and Hume, but also to the tolerant Voltaire one overt racist allegations). Enlightenment, then, as the “exit of people from their self-inflicted immaturity” - but not for all people, as some naturally seemed less tired than others. If you follow this trail of racist exclusion, you have the negative of the Enlightenment and its “universal” claim.

The construction of a symbol

Despite his early death far from Europe, Amo is not completely forgotten there. Rather, he appears in the writings of an emblematic actor of the French Revolution, Abbé Grégoire (1750-1831). For the third estate, a member of the Constituent Assembly, the constituent assembly of 1789, the Abbé is also a supporter of abolitionism. In 1808 he published the treatise “On the literature of the negroes”, in which the slave trade was castigated as a crime against humanity: “For three centuries, Europe, calling itself Christian and civilized, has peoples in America and Africa, without mercy and without discount tormented and tormented, which it calls savages and barbarians. "We are the true barbarians ... In order to break down the stereotypes, the Abbé lists black personalities who have" distinguished themselves through talents and writings "over the course of history. Amo is one of them. Grégoire provides a short biography full of praise. In the course of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, a few works come back to Amo, each time to emphasize the extraordinary aspect of his life, at the expense of interest in his work. But in the context of the Cold War and decolonization, the references become more forceful and consistent. Amo is now engaged in the struggle for any emancipation. An African politician and philosopher invokes him: Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972), the builder of Ghana's independence in 1957. Nkrumah, who studied abroad, made a name for himself as an advocate of pan-Africanism, the aspirations that were robbed by colonialism Unite African countries under the banner of a common history and spirituality. At the same time he fights capitalism and has the desire to lead his country on the opposite path of socialism. Which he will do after independence and his election as president. As an African and a socialist, Nkrumah appropriates Amo from these two sides and ensures that they are united. In a letter he honors Amo as an "African patriot who emphatically championed his individuality, his African personality and his undoubted right to equality and freedom". And in his main philosophical work, "Consciencism", he refers to the dissertation from 1734, which he updates according to his reading prism. It's like billiards over three gangs: Amo criticizes Descartes, which for Nkrumah makes him an opponent of idealism, the doctrine that despises the body and actual realities and seeks to subjugate them to the almighty spirit. As an anti-idealist, Amo is a materialistic thinker in this sense; As a refuser of the tyranny of the soul and, in short, all tyranny, he is a humanist and communist and personifies the (according to Nkrumah's considerations) African consciousness oriented towards equality.

Double-edged appreciation

Amo is understood as a pioneer of anti-colonialism and negativity (philosophical tendency that advocates African self-assertion) and is appropriated for the Marxist-Leninist project. At this time, the countries of the Eastern Bloc are in exchange with the African nations. The GDR is also bringing Amo into action and instrumentalizing the memory of him: a black intellectual was received and created on its soil - obvious evidence of communism as a doctrine of progress and as a port of humanity that is characteristic of it. The University of Halle-Wittenberg (the two institutions merged in 1817) is the locomotive of this upgrading strategy. In the mid-1960s, a team of researchers began translating Amos' works into German, English and French. Then Burchard Brentjes (1929–2012), Professor of Archeology, published a groundbreaking monograph, “Anton Wilhelm Amo. The black philosopher in Halle ”. According to Brentjes, understanding the philosopher's path in life presupposes the admonishing memory of the African slaves, which is still valid: “The colonial powers of Western Europe, above all England and France, built their economic power on the blood and sweat of these 100 million Africans technical-economic progress of capitalism, based on which crimes like apartheid are presented as a necessary result of the racial superiority of whites. ”A new offensive against capitalism, which is clear in its political inclination, as a synonym for barbarism and total imperialism (as “Highest stage of capitalism” according to Lenin's famous slogan). The last avatar of the symbolic emphasis on Amos: a monument will be erected in his honor on the campus of the University of Halle-Wittenberg. It depicts an African couple and inevitably causes some discomfort. The message is certainly clear in view of the proud attitude shown by both figures of never subjugated - they stand upright in the face of exploitation; however, it may seem strange to pay tribute to Amo by resorting to the standards of the colonial imaginary (the man wears a loincloth and sandals, his torso is advantageously muscular ...). To put it another way: one is moving here close to the performative contradiction.

A lighthouse against racism

Amo's path in life condemned him to become a myth (as inconspicuous as it was permanent). Amo, a possible figure of criticism of the West, remains at the same time a potential lighthouse of anti-racism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the University of Halle-Wittenberg is remembering more actively again, and since 1994 an amo prize has been awarded there to deserving students. In addition, certain associations in Germany, for example Amo Books, have taken on its history in this sense. It is welcome to bring this to mind, especially in Halle or in Saxony, where acts of xenophobia are a permanent problem and xenophobic parties like the AfD are celebrating considerable electoral successes. But the Amo case remains a paradox in terms of politics of memory. On the one hand, this son of the Enlightenment will always be able to demystify him and reveal its dark side, on the other hand his name will always be mobilized to defend the legacy of the Enlightenment against all those who incorporate Amo into their "community" and want to contain in an ethnic identity. In his life as in his thinking he embodied that spirit, that universalistic inspiration. And if you refuse to let his work as a philosopher take a back seat, the unforgettable exclamation of Jean Genet comes to mind: “What is a black man? And first of all, what color is it? "

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