Thursday, December 08, 2005

On the Possibility of Christian Philosophy from a Sagacity Perspective

An open narrative is a straightforward story whereas a closed one is a story reduced to a kernel of wisdom. The latter is called a saying or a proverb. Whether the narrative is open or closed, it is functionally a principle of explanation or understanding. It is in this sense that the Igbo people always say that 'Ilu bu mmanu eji eri uka', meaning that proverbs are the mechanisms with which discussions can be analysed, digested, understood, and summarized. Thus in any typical Igbo discussion proverbs are used to punctuate and register the nub of what is being discussed.

-- Chris O. Ijiomah, "Some Epistemological Tools with which Africans Relate to their Realities," URAM 28:1 (2005) 82-83.

There's some very interesting work done in African philosophy that Christians in philosophy should take note of. This is particularly true of what is often called sage philosophy or sagacity philosophy. According to Henry Odera Oruka, the major proponent of this approach to African philosophy:

Sage-Philosophy in my usage consists of the expressed thoughts of wise men and women in any given community and is a way of thinking and explaining the world that fluctuates between popular wisdom (well known communal maxims, aphorisms, and general common sense truths) and didactic wisdom, an expounded wisdom and a rational thought of some given individuals within a community.
(Oruka, Sage Philosophy p. 28)

In effect, we get sagacious didactics in cases where a wise man or woman is explaining the justification of a proverb, or applies the traditional wisdom of a community to a new situation or argument. This is a higher level of sagacity:

Philosophic sagacity is a reflection of a person who is: (1) a sage and (2) a thinker. As a sage the person is versed in the wisdoms and traditions of his people, and very often he is recognized by the people themselves as having this gift. In certain cases, however, he may not be so recognized. Being a sage, however, does nto necessarily make one a philosopher. Some of the sages are simply moralists and the disciplined diehard faithfuls to a tradition. Others are merely historians and good interpreters of the history and customs of their people. In short, they are wise within the conventional and historical confines of their cutlure. But they may not be wise (rational) in understanding of their culture.
(Oruka, quoted in Serequeberham, African Philosophy: The Essential Readings, p. 51)

Just as sages may not be philosophers, so philosophers may not be wise:

In a strict sense, a sage has at least two abilities, insight and ethical inspiration. So, a sage is wise, he has insight, but he employs this for the ethical betterment of his (her) community. A philosopher may be a sage and vice versa. But many philosophers do lack the ethical commitment and inspiration found in the sage.

(Oruka, quoted in English & Kalumba, African Philosophy: A Classical Approach, p. 184)

It is a plain fact that proverbs have played a role in philosophical thought; no one who has ever read Plato or Aristotle could ever deny that it is a potentially legitimate role. It's also fairly clear that we haven't developed many resources for handling proverbial wisdom in philosophical discourse. Further, it's clear that Christians have good reason to take the approach seriously, given the importance of proverbial wisdom to the Christian faith (as witnessed by the Wisdom books of the Bible). It might perhaps be a good idea to look more closely at the sagacity approach to African philosophy, and see what it might have to offer in this regard.

You can find useful resources on African philosophy at Bruce Janz's African Philosophy Resources page. Zeverin Emagalit's lecture notes on contemporary African philosophy discusses the relation between the sagacity approach and other approaches to African philosophy. For discussion of proverb-based rhetoric, see Wolfgang Mieder's list of resources. has a lovely translation of Mishlei (the book of Proverbs), with Rashi's commentary, and the same with Kohelet (the book of Ecclesiastes) (the page seems a bit slow).

[UPDATe: Fixed my repeated misspelling of Oruka's name; I keep wanting to write 'Okura' for some reason.]

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