On Barry Hallen’s A Short History of African Philosophy:
Summary of Text
The framework of this review shall be that every chapter/topic shall be individually reviewed. Having said so, I shall start much in the way Hallen started: by humbling my synopsis. In no way, shape, or form can this review qualify as substitution for the actual text. I shall simply abridge that which is already abridged for the purpose of pure relation of subject matter. In essence, with this summary I only seek to provide a concentrate of the fruit of the book. So, having established such, let me begin. Introduction/The Historical Perspective
Hallen first begins the book with the history and background of that which deals with “African Philosophy”. He highlights often how the focus of African discourse, from an intellectual point of view, is Egypt. While the dark land of Kemmet deserves ample acknowledgement in its own right, the whole of African higher thought extends way past that of only Egypt. In further extension, Hallen brings to the reader’s attention (if it wasn’t already there to begin with) the classical idea that Africa is often deemed “a-historical”. So many cultures have borrowed, rather stolen, from African scholarship that it is often lost among discussions of Greek and Roman civilization. Then he next discusses “The Moral Teachings of Ptah-Hotep”, a collection of thirty-seven by an official of the Old Kingdom (2400 B.C.E.) of the same name. These teachings dealt with subjects from the virtue of truth, to respect for one’s elders, to generosity. Ptah-Hotep elaborates greatly on the importance of strong listening and speech skills. The teachings, as a whole, seem to attribute great moral value to truth and those who speak it. It can be looked to as a sort-of handbook toward proper character at the time. The teachings even offer positive and negative consequences to the enacting or ignorance of each of the thirty-seven principles. Summarily, Ptah-Hotep teaching that personal accuracy is equivalent to morality. Hallen next compares Ptah-Hotep’s teachings to Yoruba moral epistemology, which is strikingly similar. He maintains though, that this similarity does not immediately signify direct “transmission” of said moral beliefs. Hallen makes the observation that both the Old Kingdom and the Yoruba were both oral civilizations, which could very well be the reason that they both apply such importance to spoken truth.
Hallen moves on to highlight the philosophy of 17th century Abyssinian philosopher, Zar’a Ya’aqob. In its original language, (Ge’ez) his master work is called the Hatata. He will discuss the specifics of this term later. Ya’aqob was a very religious man who was raised in Coptic Christianity, yet had experience with the Abrahamic religions, (Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam) as well as Indian religion (Hinduism and Buddhism). Ya’aqob stresses the idea that every individual religion was aimed at a certain people as being the “chosen ones”. They constantly highlight how all men are equal, yet specify a certain people as being the progeny/chosen/target of God’s favor. He questions why God would “reveal his law to one nation, withhold it from another?” Instead, Ya’aqob establishes human reason and understanding as the ultimate agent responsible for what a person feels is true. This is where the term Hatata returns. The root of the word means “to reduce to small portions by rubbing, to grind”. This definition has come to mean both intellectual and physical grinding. The term can mental to question incrementally, or to literally grind something. Ya’aqob believes that Hatata is the way to “determine truth from falsehood”. Next, Hallen talks about the voluminous collection of what has come to be known as African “oral literature”. He describes the supposed value of oral literature to scholarship, and how ignoring its utility could minimize the concept of “African philosophy”. Twentieth Century Origins
“Africans are said to live in...
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