Science and Technology in Contemporary African Philosophy


The complex problems facing developing countries have often been attributed to the tendency of their people to maintain traditional beliefs and practices. Many contemporary philosophers have criticized traditional thought for failing to match the levels of efficiency and effectiveness achieved by modern science. However, other contemporary philosophers have suggested that modern science embodies tendencies that are as likely to exacerbate as relieve the problems of the developing world. I conclude that philosophers must be as wary of modern practices and beliefs as they are of traditional practices and beliefs. Modernity rather than tradition is undoubtably a principal source of Africa's problems. Philosophers discussed include Kwame Gyekye, Robin Horton, Godwin Sogolo, Charles Taylor, Karl Popper, Joseph Rouse, Justen Habermas, and Segun Gbadegesun

Albert Mosley
Philosophy Department
Ohio University
Athens, OH 45701

Draft: Comments Invited
Science and Technology in Contemporary African Philosophy
This paper will attempt to show how orientations towards development in Africa have been influenced by unstated assumptions about the relationship between traditional and modern beliefs, science and technology, and the relationship between humankind and the natural world. I will argue that we must take as critical a stance towards modern science as we take towards traditional religion if development is to benefit the majority of people it affects. For the problems suffered by the people of Africa and the third world are to a great extent the result, not of traditional, but of modern beliefs and practices.

Standard accounts of modern science typically trace its origins from the marriage of mathematical description, instrumentally mediated observation, and experimental verification beginning in the 16th century with the work of Galileo. Modern science is most frequently conceived of as serving the cognitive function of producing true judgments about the nature of reality. On the other hand, technology is conceived of as the application of scientific knowledge to achieve predetermined practical results.

It is such a view of the relationship between science and technology that leads Kwame Gyekye to account for the lack of technological advancement in traditional and modern Africa in terms of "the incomprehensible inattention to the search for scientific principles by the traditional technologists".1For Gyekye, the principal source of knowledge in African traditions is inductive generalization from specific experiences and observations. Given his acceptance of the view that science develops by a similar strategy, he expresses puzzlement as to why such an epistemic outlook in traditional Africa did not lead to a greater interest in the scientific principles underlying traditional technologies.2His conclusion is that the tendency for traditional Africans to provide causal accounts in terms of spiritual or mystical powers stunted the growth of science. 3

Gyekye's views reflect those of Hans Reichenbach, who in 1963 argued that scientific explanations and hypotheses were based on inductive generalizations from observable facts to scientific principles. A generalization was valid, Reichenbach held, if it was derived from the relevant aspects of the circumstances in question. And facts were explained when they are subsumed under general scientific laws. On the other hand, appeal to gods and spirits in order to account for events were not explanations because they relied on weak analogies to common sensical entities and processes. For Reichenbach, the assignment of human qualities to physical objects was a form of anthropomorphism that produced, not explanations, but pseudo-explanations.

"Where scientific explanations failed because the knowledge of the time was insufficient to provide the right generalization, imagination took its place and supplied a kind of explanation which appealed to the urge for generality by satisfying it with naive parallelisms. Superficial analogies, particularly analogies with human experiences, were confused with generalizations and taken to be explanations. The search for generality was appeased by the pseudo explanation." 4

It is possible, however, to see explanations in terms of gods, spirits, and ancestors in a different light. Thus, Robin Horton has argued that mystical accounts are theoretical schemes linked by correspondence rules to the realm of common sense, the aim being to account for anonomalous everyday happenings by appeal to interactions between theoretical entities. As such, the mystical entities and forces of primitive religions serve the same function as the theoretical forces and entities of modern science. "Like atoms, molecules, and waves...the gods serve to introduce unity into diversity, simplicity into complexity, order into disorder, regularity into anomaly."5

Whenever a pattern of events or behavior does not result in its usual or expected outcome, an explanation is called for.6 A typical example is a disease that does not respond to the usual treatment. Explanations that appeal to witchcraft or to germs transcend the realm of ordinary things and events, and equally appeal to the realm of theory. On this view, mystical thinking is simply another form of theoretical thinking.

"...the relation between the many spirits and the one essentially the same as the relation between the homogenous atoms and planetary systems of fundamental particles in the thinking of a chemist. It is a by-product of certain very general features of the way theories are used in explanation."7

Horton argues that theoretical entities in traditional Africa are modeled on the activities of persons because "The human scene is the locus par excellence of order, predictability, regularity."8 In modern industrial societies, however, human interactions are in constant flux and the locus of order, regularity and predictability are in the world of inanimate things. Just as atoms and electromagnetic waves are theoretical entities developed by analogy from ordinary inanimate objects and processes, so "traditional thought draws upon people and their social relations as the raw material of its theoretical models".9 Horton concludes that "the theoretical models of traditional African thought are the products of developmental processes comparable to those affecting the models of the sciences", with the former being expressed in an idiom of persons and social processes and the latter expressed in an idiom of inanimate things and processes. A mere difference in idioms masks an identity of functions between religious and scientific thinking.

For Horton, the primary difference between African traditional religion and modern western science is that traditional cultures are 'closed' and scientifically oriented cultures 'open. By this he means that "in traditional cultures there is no developed awareness of alternatives to the established body of theoretical tenets; whereas in scientifically oriented cultures, such a awareness is highly developed."10 This absence of awareness of alternatives encourages an absolute commitment to the theoretical idiom of spirits and mystical relations. Since the traditional thinker "can imagine no alternatives to his established system of concepts and words, the latter appear bound to reality in an absolute fashion", so that manipulation of words and symbols is tantamount to manipulating the spirits and mystical relations the words and symbols represent.11 "With the change from the closed to the open predicament...the outlook behind magic becomes intolerable", for thereafter words are able to vary independently of reality.12

Horton's views reflect the influence of trends in the philosophy of science which deny that the laws and principles that constitute scientific knowledge are generalizations inferred from our perceptions of particular facts. Representing such an orientation, Sir Karl Popper argued that the attempt to specify a principle by means of which inductive inferences could be justified was futile, because any principle justifying inductive inferences would itself have to be the result of such an inference, and therefore would be as much in need of justification as the inferences for which it was offered as justification.

Popper recommended that we ignore how hypotheses originate (whether they are generalizations from people or things, positing gods or atoms) and focus instead on how they are validated. Validation of a hypothesis involves at least the following three facets: first, the hypothesis must be formulated and provisionally accepted; second, predictions must be deduced from the hypothesis; and third, once a prediction has been made, it must be determined by experiment or observation whether the prediction is satisfied or not.

Much of the critique of Popper's work has involved showing how problematic it is to conclusively falsify theoretical descriptions by empirical observations. As a result, developments in the philosphy of science led by Thomas Kuhn reject both inductive generalization and experimental falsification as the engine of scientific progress. Instead, Kuhn introduced the notion of a "paradigm" to, as he puts it, "underscore the dependence of scientific research upon concrete examples". 13

Kuhn's stress on the role of "exemplars" emphasizes the importance of perceptual and pragmatic factors as essential aspects of scientific activities. He stressed that the techniques mastered by a scientific apprentice are acquired in direct relationship to the concrete situations in which they are to be applied, and not merely by means of verbalized descriptions.

More recently, Ian Hacking has also argued against the view that experimental observation is grounded in linguistic competencies meant to produce or test more general hypotheses. Hacking stresses that observation is not just a matter of describing what we see. Nor is experimentation always or primarily for the purpose of producing observations with descriptions that will generate or falsify some theory. As Hacking puts it: "experimenting is not stating or reporting but doing - and not doing things with words".14

This approach rejects the view (implicit in Gyekye's critique of traditional beliefs and practices) that the evolution of science serves the function of bringing us closer and closer to true descriptions and laws of reality, and instead views science as itself an extension of the technological transformation of reality. Experiments manufacture phenomena rather than simply provide observations of them.15 Such phenomena are them packaged into devices, techniques, and algorithms that can be used to give reliable results in a broad range of non-laboratory environments. The knowledge resulting from experiment "is extended outside the laboratory not by generalization to universal laws instantiable elsewhere, but by the adaptation of locally situated practices to new local contexts."16

On this view, experimental science introduces new phenomena into the world, phenomena accessible rarely if at all to prescientific perception.17 Compasses and hammers exist only because we have created them, and it is similar with electrons.18 Each allows us to reliably engage in certain kinds of activities (ocean navigation, hammering, focusing electron beams) that otherwise would not be possible.

This point of view places as much emphasis on science as the progeny of technology as earlier views construed technology as the progeny of science. It portrays the practical innovations inspired by the rise of capitalism as having more influence on the rise of modern science than any inherent curiosity about the nature of reality.19 Instead of revealing the true nature of reality, we hould view science as reconstructing reality in terms of the instruments at its disposal.20

This provides additional insight to Robin Horton's suggestion that in contexts where natural immunity is the primary defense against illness, a theory of illness and healing that appeals to gods and ancestors may be the most effective remedy available:

In the absence of antimalarials or antibiotics, what happens to [a person infected with malaria] will depend very largely on other factors that add to or subtract from his considerable natural resistance. In these circumstances the traditional healer's efforts to cope with the situation by ferreting out and attempting to remedy stress-producing disturbances in the patient's social field is probably very relevant. Such efforts may seem to have a ludicrously marginal importance to a hospital doctor wielding a nivaquine bottle and treating a non-resistant European malaria patient. But they may be crucial where there is no nivaquine bottle and a considerable natural resistance to malaria.21

In a time when many medicines were ineffective and even harmful, altering a persons attitude towards himself and others might have had a greater effect on his or her wellbeing than any physical remedy available.

It is in this light that, following the suggestion of Kwasi Wiredu in his famous essay, "How Not to Compare African Thought with Western Thought"22, Godwin Sogolo urges that we compare traditional African beliefs, not with modern science, but rather with traditional western beliefs.23 The traditional beliefs of both Africa and Europe make the assumption that some people are endowed with the ability to achieve good or bad effects by supernatural means. As Sogolo wryly puts it, Jesus walked on water and witches fly. The intervention of ancestors, gods, and other supernatural beings was considered a principle cause of illness because it reflected the most effective means of dealing with illness at the time, when a patient's beliefs and attitudes played a critical part in the maintenance of wellbeing and the restoration of health.

In a classic Eurocentric view of the nature and development of science, Kurt Mendelsohn argues that "..the consistent development of natural philosophy has given to the white race the power of domination over others. It has been an exclusively Western endeavour, arising as an intellectual effort out of a specific cultural pattern."24 This view portrays science as developing in and diffusing from Europe to the rest of the world. And to the degree that other cultures have been able to appropriate the scientific tradition, they have been able to resist western domination. But to the extent that cultures have resisted or been unable to appropriate the scientific tradition, to that extent have they experienced domination and exploitation.

"The fact that Asia has now chosen to deviate from its traditional pattern and to follow the technological road demonstrates, better than any other argument, that the philosophical method of science is the most outstanding contribution which has been made to human progress in the last millennium. Since, for reasons unknown to us, scientific progress has not been matched by a corresponding development in morality, the white race has used this powerful method to dominate the globe. It seems that those who apologize for the latter fact tend to forget the achievement of having developed science in the first place. There is, moreover, no reason to believe that , if another civilization had developed science, it would have desisted from using it for exactly the same purpose."25

On the other hand, the attempt to explain, predict, and control phenomena in Africa is portrayed as not having evolved beyond traditional beliefs in magic and witchcraft.26 Such a point of view has encouraged many to believe that bringing a scientific outlook to Africa was another part of the "white man's burden", and many have justified the flow of material wealth from Africa to Europe as just compensation for the flow of cultural wealth (in the form of Christianity, philosophy, and science) from Europe to Africa.27

Objections to the Eurocentric model emphasize that in 1400 Europe was no more advanced than many non-western civilizations and the evolution from feudalism to capitalism was taking place in many parts of the world. Instead of science making possible Europe's exploitation of other cultures, it was Europe's exploitation of non-western cultures that allowed them to develop the technological base we now identify as science.

"...the rise of Europe above other civilizations did not begin until 1492 [and] resulted not from any European superiority of mind, culture, or environment, but rather from the riches and spoils obtained in the conquest and colonial exploitation of America and, later, Africa and Asia."28

Understanding science as the dis-interested pursuit of truth portrays it in value free terms and masquerades its relationship to technological power. Herbert Marcuse writes:

"The principles of modern science were a priori structured in such a way that they could serve as conceptual instruments for a universe of self-propelling productive control... . ...The scientific method which led to the ever-more-effective domination of nature thus came to provide the pure concepts as well as the instrumentalities for the ever-more-effective domination of man by man through the domination of nature. ... Today, domination perpetuates and extends itself not only through technology but as technology... "29 "The point which I am trying to make", Marcuse continues, "is that science, by virtue of its own method and concepts, has projected and promoted a universe in which the domination of nature has remained linked to the domination of man... ."30

Habermas concurs:

"...the empirical sciences have developed since Galileo's time within a methodological frame of reference that reflects the transcendental viewpoint of possible technical control. Hence the modern sciences produce knowledge which through its form (and not through the subjective intentions of scientists) is technically exploitable knowledge... ."31

While the practice of science produces knowledge that is in principle technologically exploitable, Habermas opposes the ideology of science that legitimizes and extends that methodology to all spheres of modern life. While Marcuse argues that the scientific domination of nature leads naturally to the domination of man32, Habermas argues that a different attitude toward human nature is required, an attitude of participation and interaction rather than control and prediction. But, he admonishes, we will only be able to interact with nature in a non-dominant way when we have learnt to interact with one another in non-dominant ways.33


On the view of science I would recommend, it's purpose is, not truth, but knowledge that can be used to exploit phenomena for particular interests. Recognizing that traditional African practices in medicine, agriculture, and other areas were effective means of dealing with local conditions is an important remedy for the view that science flows unidirectionally from Europe to Africa. Efficient and effective techniques for producing the necessities of life are a necessary condition for the survival of any culture. But as the work of Heidegger, Marcuse, and Habermas indicates, when the production of scientific knowledge becomes our ultimate value, we produce human domination, not liberation.

Just as Europe absorbed developments that had taken place in non-European cultures (gunpowder, the compass, the clock, Algebra, etc), so Africa must utilize developments that have evolved in non-African cultures. But though it may be necessary for African cultures to adopt a more quantitative and analytical orientation,

it is also necessary that they avoid making prediction and control their panacea.

In the final pages of his book African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities, Segun Gbadegesin poses the question: "are African cultures an impediment to development?"34 Gbadegesin notes that traditional beliefs may impede the valuation of work if workers attribute the quality of their work to witchcraft or destiny and not to their own efforts. He concludes that, to facilitate the development of a proper work ethic, such beliefs may have to be rejected. But this, I believe, is premature.

Traditional beliefs in miracles and traditional beliefs in witchcraft both assume that some people are endowed with supernatural abilities. means. As Godwin Sogolo wryly puts it, Jesus walked on water and witches fly. Similarly, I would argue,

belief in prayer has not been incompatible with development in the west, and belief in curses need not be so in Africa.

I do not believe that the work ethic of Africans is impeded by their traditional beliefs in the existence of individuals with supernatural powers. Rather, as Gbadegesin acknowledges, so long as work is viewed as a form of dominance and exploitation, it will be viewed as a curse.35 And this is much more likely to be the primary cause of worker apathy than belief in the curse of witches.

Too often, explanations of the problems of underdeveloped countries in general, and Africa in particular, have identified traditional beliefs and practices as a primary cause of their backwardness relative to the West. The adoption of modern scientific beliefs and practices and the diffusion of western values and technology has thus been seen as a primary solution. 36

The view of science I have traced suggests that the practice of science is insufficient for human liberation. In order to correct the degradation of the social and physical environment that has been a consequent of the rise of science, a different attitude toward both nature and human nature is required, an attitude of participation and interaction rather than control and domination.

Despite the ill-repute in which he is often held, Lucien Levy Bruhl rejected the view that magic, religion, and other forms of mystical thinking were simply less effective pre-scientific ways of accounting for reality. Rather, magical concepts "all involve a "participation" between persons or objects which form part of a collective representation."37

Rather than arranged in a hierarchy of increasing generality, Levy Bruhl held that prelogical concepts were bound together "in a complexity of collective representations whose emotional force fully compensates ... the authority which will be given to general concepts by their logical validity ....".38 This view is reflected in Leopold Senghor's famous claim that "Classical European reason is analytical and makes use of the object. African reason is intuitive and participates in the object". For Senghor " is their emotive attitude towards the world which explains the cultural values of Africans.." 39*

In Les Carnets, Levy Bruhl altered his thesis of a radical incommensurability between western and non-western minds, and argued instead that the two modes of thought coexisted in every culture, magic dominating in some and science in others. I would suggest that each individual has this capacity for multiple orientations to reality, and this capacity must be cultivated.[tambiah]

In this regard, I place myself in a tradition of thinkers who have believed that the antidote to much of what is worse about modern science may be found in traditional beliefs:

Under traditional religious paradigms, it was ... possible to have divine rivers, divine lakes, divine trees and mountains, or even animals. In other words, aspects of nature were even superior to humanity, or at least they did not exist for the satisfaction of people's pleasures or needs. Then came the intervention of Islam and the West in Africa altering the relationship betwee humanity and nature. The new cultures were more materialist and consumerist than indigenous ones. People ... were conceived in the image of their Maker. As such people were not coordinate, let alone subordinate, to nature but rather superordinate to it. 40

Nature must again become a 'thou' and not merely an 'it'. 41

1 Kwame Gyekye, "Technology and Culture in a Developing Country, Philosophy, Supplement 38, 1995, p.121)

2 Gyekye, pp.122-123

3 "..a culture that was obsessed with supernaturalistic or mystical causal explanations would hardly develop the scientific attitude in the users of that culture". Gyekye,p.124

4 Hans Riechenbach, The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, (Berkeley: The Univ. of California Press, 1963), p.8

5 Robin Horton, "African Traditional Thought and Western Science" in African Philosophy: Selected Readings ed. by Albert Mosley, (NY:Prentice Hall, 1995), p.304

6 Stephen Toulmin, Foresight and Understanding, (NY:Harper & Row, 1961), chpt.3

7 Robin Horton, "African Traditional Thought and Western Science" in African Philosophy: Selected Readings ed. by Albert Mosley, (NY:Prentice Hall, 1995), p.314

8 Horton, p.316

9 ibid, p.317

10 ibid, p.322

11 ibid, p.324

12 ibid, p.326

13 Kuhn,1970,p.14

14 ibid, p.173

15 Rouse p.102, p.111

16 Rouse, p.125

17 ibid, p.146

18 ibid, pp.157-8

19 J.M. Blaut, The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History, (NY: The Guilford Press, 1993)

20 see Barry Barnes, Interests and the Growth of Knowledge, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977); and David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976)

21 Horton, p.308

22 in Mosley, p.159

23 Godwin Sogolo, Foundations of African Philosophy, (Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1993

24 Mendelsohn, p.207

25 ibid, p.10

26 "The spread of science outside the white orbit is a very recent development which still has not taken firm root except in the Far East. We must leave out black Africa since it chose to remain in an agricultural village society, never creating proper urban centers, the institution of the state, or the development of a script, and therefore was incapable of producing science. The term 'chose to remain' has been applied purposely since, if they had wished to, Africans could have copied all these achievements from Egypt, with which they were in close contact five thousand years ago. In fact, until this day, native attempts at controlling the forces of nature have remained at the magic level of the fetish priest and the medicine man. The very recent scientific effort in black Africa is a meager graft that has not yet seriously taken." (Mendelsohn, 205)

27 Blaut, p.16

28 Blaut, p.51)

29 Habermas, p.85

30 Habermas, p.86

31 p.99, Habermas

32Lorenzo Simpson, in his Technology, Time, and the Conversations of Modernity (NY: Routledge, 1995) gives the following characterization of the Heidegger/Marcuse view of science and technology: "A technological civilization predisposes us to experience and to frame our talk about things in terms of their manifest utility or potential for use - to experience them within the framework of means and ends."(pp.76-77) As such, the modern age is one in which "factors that are not relevant to technological functioning have no significance". (p.78) The point of technology is to domesticate the future, so that only what suits our interests materializes. (p.91)

33 Habermas, p.115 Harbermas' response to the technological imperative of functional rationality is his notion of communicative rationality. (p.80) For more on this see Simpson, chapters 3 & 4 Habermas writes: "Only if men could communicate without compulsion and each could recognize himself in the other, could mankind possibly recognize nature as another subject: not, as idealism would have it, as it's Other, but as a subject of which mankind itself is the Other. (88)

34 Segun Gbadegesin, African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities, (NY: Peter Laing, 1991), p.260

35 ibid, chpt. 9 (the Ethics and Politics of Work) has a sub-section entitled "Understanding the Conception of Work as a Curse", in which he discusses the debilitating effects of worsening poverty and brazen corruption on African laborers view of work.

36 see O.P. Dwivedi, Development Administration: From Underdevelopment to Sustainable Development (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), p.6

37 ibid, p.61

38 ibid, p.110. In a passage that presages Senghor, Lb writes:

"The prelogical mind does not objectify nature.. . It lives it rather, by feeling itself participate in it, and feeling these participations everywhere; and it interprets this complexity of participations by social forms." (p.111)

39 * p.35. Senghor's primary difference with LB is that while Senghor attributed the difference between "a white European civilization and a black African civilization" to "the psycho-physiology of each race", LB limited his explanation of the difference to the evolution of different cultural traditions.

40 Omari H. Kokole, "The Political Economy of the African Environment" in Faces of Environmental Racism ed. by Laura Westra and Peter Wenz (Lanhan, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995), p.176

41 Kokole, p.165. see also Kwasi Wiredu, "The Need fir "Conceptual Decolonization in African Philosophy" in Conceptual Decolonization in African Philosophy: Four Essays, ed. by Olusegun Oladipo (Ibadan, Nigeria: Hope Publications, 1995)

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