The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought

Edited by F. Abiola Irele and Biodun Jeyifo


As editors, the starting point for us in this work is the fact that the scholarship related to the general field that may be said to cover the term "African thought" is vast and constantly expanding. While such areas of scholarship as philosophy, political thought, and religion may be said to be central to this general field, many other areas of scholarship and research have a historical and contemporary bearing on it. These include the humanities and the arts, visual, performative, and literary; the study of social movements and the documents they generate; and a diverse body of oral and written textual production across the whole gamut of social life, formal and informal, quotidian and ceremonial, specialized and nonvocational. As the composite literature from all of these different areas of experience and scholarship demonstrates, traditional (pre-colonial) African societies and cultures not only produced elaborate systems of thought with deep foundations in religious ideas and cosmologies, the continent has also been home to a long tradition of discursive philosophy dating from at least the early Middle Ages with the work of St. Augustine of Hippo and the early philosophers of Ethiopia being only the best-known examples of this tradition.

Of equal significance for us is the fact that since the eighteenth century, intellectuals of African origin have engaged in a sustained reflection upon the implications–for Africa and all black peoples in particular and, more generally, for humanity as a whole–of the harsh encounters between Africa and the West, especially with regard to the wide-ranging political, social, and cultural consequences of slavery and colonialism. It was in the light of this part-historical and part-multidisciplinary background in which so many areas of scholarship have much to tell us about "African thought" that we set out on the project of assembling the contents of this work.

We did not, however, entirely have our work cut out clearly and unambiguously for us. For if it is the case that the term "African thought" would nowadays no longer be considered an oxymoron in knowledgeable, specialist academic quarters, this is far from being generally true in a more broadly delimited circle of consumers of textual, audiovisual, and media images of Africa and Africans in the world at large. In other words, ignorance and prejudice concerning all things African, especially in the intellectual sphere, are still widespread across the globe, ironically including Africa itself. And to the extent that we did not intend this as a work of general reference for specialists only, we realized from the very beginning of the project that we could not take anything for granted. In concrete terms, this meant that we had to grapple with the challenge of giving inclusive, capacious, and at the same time intellectually rigorous meanings to each of the two constitutive items–"African" and "thought"–in the title and contents of our project.

A useful illustration of how this principle works in practical terms to give a flexible, nonreductive substance to the conjoining of "African" and "thought" in this volume is the concept of négritude, which has both a philosophical-cum-ideological reference in addition to a literary one. At the same time, as a signifier of aspects of African experience worked over by second-order critical reflection, négritude embraces both the African continent and the African diaspora in Europe and the Americas. Similarly, in identifying and selecting political or intellectual movements and specific concepts for which we commissioned entries, we were especially cognizant of the historical continuity between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, too often neglected despite the vast documentary evidence of continuity and linkages of great religious and cultural import between the two areas. In this connection, we deem it necessary to draw the reader's attention to the fact that while we have generally assumed the central place of the linkage between black Africa and what Paul Gilroy has called "the black Atlantic" for much of the impulse for the development of African thought in modern times, we have not ignored the significance of the East African or "Swahili" coast and the Indian Ocean connection for the generation of important areas of modern African thought.

Of very special significance, with regard to our deliberately very open, critically self-aware, and inclusive deployment of the term "African thought" in this work, is the space we have given to Western thinkers and writers who, in one way or another, have had a considerable impact on modern ideas about Africa and Africans for Europeans and for the world at large. In a very strict, racially exclusive definition of the field, figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Placide Tempels, Leo Frobenius, and Melville Herskovits (for whom there are long entries in this volume) would have no place in a work on African thought. But that, in our view, would be nothing but a reprise of classical Eurocentrism in an inverted form, the kind we typically encounter in volumes on contemporary Afrocentrism in philosophy, ethnology, and historiography. And indeed, this category of canonical Western thinkers and authors on Africa and Africans is one that we hope to expand in future editions of this work to include figures such as Hegel, Conrad, and Trevor-Roper, whose extremely negative and controversial views on Africa have had a profound, perhaps enduring impact on Western and modern ideas of the continent, its peoples, and cultures. That said, it must be emphasized that the contents of The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought are necessarily dominated by entries devoted to Africans and people self-identified as being of African descent. In this, our work is no different from that which one would normatively encounter in a volume on Western thought, Chinese thought, or Arabic thought.

The bulk of the entries, in essay form, are devoted to thinkers and authors who have made significant contributions to the development of African thought in the comprehensive sense in which we have given an outline of the term in this Introduction. For such figures as W. E. B. Du Bois, Leopold Senghor, and Kwame Nkrumah, who are already well known, we have endeavored to provide new insights resulting from the latest scholarship into their careers and their thought. In the case of other less well-known figures such as Obafemi Awolowo and Sol Plaatje, whose sustained reflection respectively on federalism and national self-determination entitle them to consideration as major thinkers with relevance to other areas of the world, we hope this work will prove to be an important source of rare information.

Other entries in the volume are devoted to regional histories and movements, and to a whole array of specific concepts that can be adjudged to be crucial to the construction of some of the most distinctive aspects of African thought. In this regard, a special feature is the inclusion of entries on fundamental terms and concepts in African languages that have been the objects of sustained analyses in academic African philosophy.


There are more than 360 entries and subentries in The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, arranged in alphabetical order. Composite entries gather together discussions of similar or related topics under one headword. For example, under the entry "Urbanization" the reader will find two subentries: "An Overview," and "Pre-Colonial Urbanization." A headnote listing the various subentries introduces each composite entry.

The contributors have attempted to write in clear language with a minimum of technical vocabulary. The articles give important terms and titles in their original languages, with English translations when needed. A selective bibliography at the end of each article directs the reader who wishes to pursue a topic in greater detail to primary sources, the most useful works in English, and the most important scholarly works in any language.

To guide readers from one article to related discussions elsewhere in the Encyclopedia, end references appear at the end of many articles. There are cross-references within the body of a few articles. Blind entries direct the user from an alternate form of an entry term to the entry itself. For example, the blind entry for "Bebop" tells the reader to look under "Jazz." The Encyclopedia includes more than thirty illustrations.

Volume 2 contains the topical outline, the directory of contributors, and the index. Readers interested in finding all the articles on a particular subject (e.g., philosophy or science) may consult the topical outline, which shows how articles relate to one another and to the overall design of the Encyclopedia. The comprehensive index lists all of the topics covered in the Encyclopedia, including those that are not headwords themselves.

A reference work on African thought such as this is long overdue. It can even be said to be belated in the very fact of what we, as editors, paradoxically hope to be its timely publication. In the last two decades, many works of anthologies and specialized monographs on African philosophy have appeared and have been widely and enthusiastically received. But not a single general work of reference devoted specifically to critical thought or reflective, second-order ratiocination on experience in Africa and about Africans on the continent, in the diaspora, and in the world at large has hitherto been published. But while we cannot but take note of this belatedness of our work, we nevertheless do take comfort in the realization that even if these volumes had been published ten years ago, they would still have been both long overdue and belated. For that is the very nature of "thought": any and every particular instance of an attempt to "capture" it in a monograph, a book, or an encyclopedia is condemned to an unbridgeable gap between the phenomenon in all its complexity and its textual codification.

We do not presume, therefore, that this work offers the last word on this vast subject. African thought, long erroneously considered in a perversely obscurantist prejudice against Africa to be the "Other" of such textual codifications, must disavow this presumed constitutive belatedness of all attempts to capture "thought," knowing that every book, every volume on the phenomenon, is incomplete and capable of revision and even rewriting in future editions. It is our hope that in The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, within the dialectical operations of timeliness and belatedness, we have paid full and careful attention to the phenomenon of African thought in all its complexity and variability.

F. Abiola Irele

Biodun Jeyifo