Meeting 33

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DATE: Tuesday, April 13

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: From Axim to Axum: Two Early Modern African philosophers

SPEAKERS: Jonathan Egid (King’s College London), Dwight K. Lewis Jr. (University of Central Florida)


In Search of Zera Yacob: On an Early Modern Ethiopian Philosopher, and the Question of Whether or not he Existed

Jonathan Egid (King’s College London)

The Hatata Zera Yacob is a philosophical autobiography composed some time in the 1620’s by a Tigrayan däbtära – an itinerant and unordained scholar of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. It presents a system of rationalistic naturalism in ethics and epistemology, based around the principle of ‘the goodness of natural creation’. The author develops a cosmological argument, a kind of theodicy and criticises established religion for its irrationality and unnaturalness, demonstrating familiarity with both Catholic and Orthodox theology, as well as Islam, Judaism and ‘the religion of the Indians’. He sketches a naturalistic ethics based on the idea of moral vision; an approach developed into a social ethics by his follower Wadla Heywat in a companion treatise.

It is, according to some, one of the most important and unfairly neglected classics of world philosophy, the first autobiography and first philosophical treatise in sub-Saharan Africa, and a precursor of the most cherished ideals of the European Enlightenment. Or is it? In 1916 and 1920 the Italian orientalist and colonial administrator Carlo Conti Rossini published two articles apparently demonstrating that the work was a forgery, composed over two centuries later by the Capuchin missionary Giusto d’Urbino. Most philologists came to agree with Conti Rossini’s assessment, and many still do, but after the publication of Claude Sumner’s five-volume Ethiopian Philosophy in the seventies, many have come to reembrace the Hatata as an important work of African philosophy. Today the scholars are divided on the authorship of the text and the ongoing debate between ‘sceptics’ and ‘traditionalists’ marked by a certain testiness.

This talk outlines the philosophical content of the text, and presents an interpretation of the work as a regionally inflected form of early modern rationalism, proposing an account of a ‘connected history’ of rationalism across western and central Eurasia. I am interested in discussing what the debate over the authenticity of this (possibly) early modern Ethiopian philosophical text tells us about the nature of philosophical authorship, the historiography of ‘world’ philosophy and how we should approach texts of uncertain provenance as philosophers and as historians of philosophy.

Anton Wilhelm Amo: Between Two Philosophies 

Dwight K. Lewis Jr. (University of Central Florida)

Diversity and the concept of race are, or should be, central concerns both for philosophy and in our current political reality. Within academic philosophy and our global community, these concerns are expressed in the growing demand for the representation of marginalized peoples and ideas. Until recently, historians of philosophy, have not spent the time necessary to uncover racialized philosophers or to thoroughly engage the history of philosophy in a way that aims to reattune philosophy to these gaps. By reattuning philosophy to these gaps, and by mitigating philosophy’s continuous disengagement with particular concepts and people, we have the opportunity to broaden our epistemic scope, philosophical reflections, and be a part of justice creating. 

This talk aims to deepen our philosophical reflections by engaging the philosophical ideas, legacy, and life of Anton Wilhelm Amo. Amo – the first West African to obtain an advanced degree at a European university – graduated from the University of Wittenberg in Germany, then lectured on natural philosophy at three German universities and published three philosophical texts. Engaging Amo’s philosophical work is as crucial as engaging with his personal narrative because philosophy breathes out of a lived experience: it is fundamentally phenomenal, dialectical, and constituted contextually. For this reason, philosophical works and ideas gain value and proximity to truth when tied to a philosopher’s biography and the surrounding philosophical context.

To accomplish these aims this talk will need to be embedded in the important context of Amo’s life. We will engage Amo’s philosophy and narrative to reveal his connection to Western and Africana philosophy. His connection to Western philosophy is quite clear, but it is not so clear in relation to Africana philosophy. We will ask. Does Amo do Africana philosophy? In what ways is his philosophy Africana philosophy? I will conclude by bringing this argument forward and posing some questions about canon formation in relation to Africana philosophy. Does western philosophy have to be at the foundation of Africana philosophy for it to be accepted and acceptable in western philosophy? How has western philosophy shaped the perspective of Africana philosophy? 

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