OBITUARY OF PROF KWASI WIREDU, ‘THE PHILOSOPHER’S PHILOSOPHER’

Professor Kwasi Wiredu, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of South Florida, who died in January 2022 at the age of 90, was born in Kumase on 3 October 1931. 

His close friend classmate and fellow philosopher, the great Prof. William Abraham (author of The Mind of Africa  andthe first African to become a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford) once saluted Wiredu as “a true intellectual and moral giant, son of Africa.” 

Wiredu and Abraham met at Adisadel College 1(948 to 1952), during which time t he discovered philosophy, through Plato. After obtaining a degree at the University of Ghana, Legon in 1958, he entered went the University College, Oxford, where he read for the B.Phil.

Wikipedia notes that “at Oxford University, Wiredu was taught by Gilbert Ryle (his thesis supervisor), Peter Strawson (his College tutor), and Stuart Hampshire (his special tutor),.” He wrote a thesis on “Knowledge, Truth, and Reason”, which must have accounted for the fact that Stuart Hampshire bestowed the accolade “ philosopher’s philosopher” on him.

Upon graduating from Oxford in 1960 he was appointed to a teaching post at the University College of North Staffordshire (now the University of Keele), where he stayed for a year. He then returned to Ghana, where he began teaching philosophy at his old university. He was a well-known figure on the campus, where, if I remember rightly, he drove around in an unusual, greenish sports car – a nice Borgward or something like that. He taught at Legon for twenty-three years, during which time he became first Head of Department of Philosophy and then Professor. He also became an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Florida, in Tampa.

Among other Universities at which Wiredu held visiting professorships were the University of California, Los Angeles, California (1979–1980);University of Ibadan, Nigeria (1984); University of Richmond, Virginia (1985);Carleton College, Minnesota (1986);Duke University, North Carolina (1994–1995 and again, in 1999–2001). 

Wiredu was a member of the Committee of Directors of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies from 1983 to 1998. He was also a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (1985) and the National Humanities Centre, North Carolina (1986). He was Vice-President of the Inter-African Council for Philosophy.

Early in his career, the subtlety and depth of Wiredu’s mind were (according to one philosophy afficionado) “compared to Edmund Husserl’s, in a review of the best articles in the journal Mind.” And Professor Wiliam Abraham noted, in a speech to honourWiredu, on Wiredu’s 85th birthday, that Wiredu was “the only African named among the world’s greatest [one] hundred philosophers.” 

Wiredu’s entry in Wikipedia says that one of his concerns, when defining “African Philosophy”, was keeping colonialised African philosophy in a separate category from pre-colonised Africa. In an article entitled  Towarddecolonising African philosophy and religion published in  African Studies Quarterly in 1998, Wiredu proposed that “the African philosopher has a unique opportunity to re-examine many of the assumptions of Western philosophers by subjecting them to an interrogation based on African languages.”

He went on: “Let’s say, hypothetically, that an African was born and raised in China. Their thoughts and philosophy will be biased to the culture of the language. Not only will they naturally philosophise in that language, but also shape their life around that language.”

Wiredu was also noted for opposing “the “ethnophilosophical and “philosophical sagacity” approaches to African philosophy”, and argued that “all cultures have their distinctive folk-beliefs and world-views, but that these must be distinguished from the practice of philosophising. It was not that he thought “folk philosophy” cannot play a part in genuine philosophy; on the contrary, he had “acknowledged his own debt to his own (Akan) culture’s history of thought”. Rather, he argued that “genuine philosophy demands the application to such thought, of critical analysis and rigorous argument.]

The entry on Wiredu inWikipdia adds that “One of Wiredu’s most prominent discussions revolves around the Akan concept of personhood. He believes this traditional framework hosts a two-part conception of a person. First, and most intuitive to Western conceptions of persons, is the ontological dimension. This includes one’s biological constitution. Further, Wiredu states that the second dimension, the normative conception of personhood, is based on one’s ability to will freely. 

“One’s ability to will freely is dependent on one’s ethical considerations. One can be said to have free will if one has a high regard to ethical responsibilities. This then designates a person to become a person. One is not born a person but becomes one through events and experiences that lead one to act ethically. This differs from the Western conception of personhood in that people, in traditional Akan thought, are not born as willed beings.”

Wiredu was also certain that African tradition was not “purely theoretical”, because he showed how “certain aspects of African political thought may be applied to the practical resolution of some of Africa’s most pressing problems.” 

His influences included, apart from his tutors at Oxford, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, the pragmatist John Dewey, and the epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical resources of the Akan culture. The result was that he possessed a philosophical outlook that was “at once universally relevant and essentially African.”

The writer in Wikipedia added: “Wiredu, in his work, enlightened many people on the philosophy and religion of Africa. Not only did he summarise and outline their beliefs in many of his works but he also challenged outsiders’ predispositions to African beliefs. He wished to shed light and understanding to their belief systems and what they believe to be true and physical. He expressed his thoughts and ideas in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion on African Religions.”

KWASI WIREDU’S BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Philosophy and an African Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980). ISBN 0-521-22794-1(This won him the 1982 Ghana National Book Award)

Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996). ISBN 0-253-21080-1

Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies [Ed] Wiredu&Gyekye ISBN1-56518-004-6

A Companion to African Philosophy (2003: Oxford: Blackwell, 2003). Kwame Gyekye (New York: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1992). ISBN 0-631-20751-1

Articles (include:)

Democracy and Consensus in African Traditional Politics, Polylog.

An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality[11]

Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion (African Studies Quarterly, Volume 1 Issue 4, 1998).[12]

By CAMERON DUODU

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