"The Invention of Africa" and Intellectual Neocolonialism

by Jedi Shemsu Jewheti

a.k.a. Jacob H. Carruthers

These comments are not as an exegesis on V. Y. Mudimbe's The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge, although I will argue some of the ideas contained therein. I am concerned specifically with his argument that "Modern African thought seems to be basically a product of the West." To the extent that Modern African thought includes post 1960 thinking. Mudimbe's conclusion may be called "Intellectual Neocolonialism." My question is not so much with the conclusion itself as with the meaning he attaches to the conclusion, and with his location within the neocolonial discourse.

First of all let us attempt to locate Mudimbe's essential interest in the project. In his words, his "commitment" is "not to philosophy, not to an invented Africa, but to what it essentially means to be African and a philosopher today (xi emphasis Mudimbe's)." In other words Dr. Mudimbe is searching for thought about Africa and by Africans from the perspective of "a philosopher" who is also an African. Since "African traditional systems of thought" do not include philosophy, "strictly speaking" according to Mudimbe (ix), he uses the Greek concept gnosis to identify African traditional thought. He defines the term Thusly:

... higher and esoteric knowledge, and thus it refers to a structured, common, and conventional knowledge, but one strictly under the control of specific procedures for its use as well as transmission. Gnosis ..., cannot be confused with episteme, understood as both science and general intellectual configuration. (ix)

Thus, for Mudimbe, philosophy and science are absences from African traditional thought. Mudimbe's vocation, thus involves a possible estrangement. His search for "conditions of possibility of the larger body of knowledge on Africa called `Africanism'," (ix) implies that this absent philosophy is something that ought to be provided for Africans, by African philosophers.

Using a methodology developed from the ideas of Michel Foucault and Claude Levi-Strauss, Mudimbe proceeds to examined "discourses" about Africa by Europeans and Africans with a focus on evaluation of African traditional thought. He examines the intellectual "invention" of a primitive African and its relationship to the changing paradigms of modern European social sciences. Following Foucault he attempts to construct as "Archaeology" of thought about Africa with special focus on the discipline of anthropology. Archaeology enables the researcher to treat every human discourse as a "moment" and thus discover meanings not consciously intended by the authors of the discourses. (Thus, archaeology is like the anthropology which allows Robert Merton to teach that the Hopi "Rain Dance" really functions to promote group solidarity even though Hopi priests assert that it is designed to produce rain.)

This frame work enables Foucault to trace the change in the western discourses on "non-western" societies from those projecting the "achievements of the civilized world against the primitiveness of non-literate societies (27), to those which allow for the possibility of "decolonialization of the social sciences." This is the context in which Mudimbe examines the development of European evaluation of African traditional thought from the missionaries through the several generations of anthropologists. From that base Mudimbe addresses the African responses with special emphasis on the "Négritude" and post-Négritude generations.

In fairness we must point out that Mudimbe does not accept Foucault and Leve-Strauss with reservations. In Mudimbe's words:

"The masterful demonstrations by Levi-Strauss and Foucault do not convince me that the subject in the discourse on the same or on the other should be a mere illusion or a simple shadow of an episteme." (35m Mudimbe's emphasis)

This is in reference to the tendency on the part of both Levi-Strauss and Foucault to promote ending the debate on "Race," since race never existed in the first place: it was merely a metaphor or simply an invention. But this "color" blind position still enables Levi-Strauss to conclude "... it is true that science is more successful than magic" (31). According to Mudimbe, Levi-Strauss de-emphasized the differences between the disciplines of history and anthropology; from a framework of white cultural supremacy to one of multi-cultural reciprocity is paralleled in the discipline of history. For Mudimbe, Durkeheim's prescription on the pathology of civilization, levy-Bruhl's thesis on pre-logical systems of thought and Frazier's hypothesis on primitive scientists (28), represented the older framework which was based upon a philosophy of conquest. These ideas in effect "invented" the concept of "primitive Africa" in the disciplines of social science. Their studies complimented or supplemented the explorer tales and the "philosophical interpretations about a hierarchy of civilizations" (69).

According to Mudimbe as the European paradigm shifted to the position of cultural relativity, conditions for the methodological position of Levi-Strauss and Foucault developed. The "ethnophilosophy" of Placide Temples and Marcel Griaule's Conversation with Ogotommeli, provided bases for the upgrading of African thought from the level of pre-logic to near parity with European thought. For Mudimbe not only did these sympathetic studies pave the way for Levi-Strauss and Foucault, they also provided "an atmosphere' for an "African prise de parole about philosophy and knowledge." (36)

When Mudimbe turns to discourses by Africans he examines the relationships between their arguments and those of the European thinkers. In fact Mudimbe does not always separate the Africans from the Europeans in this regard. Thus, African thinkers seem to be merely amending (or "Amening") the thoughts of the Europeans. In fact modern African thought seems to be dependent on the European paradigm:

"Until now ... African analysis have been using categories and conceptual systems which depend on a western epistemological order ... Even the most explicitly "Afrocentric descriptions." (x)

Indeed, after examining "the history of knowledge in Africa about Africa" (175) he asserts, the thought of modern African thinkers:

"... Is at the crossroads of Western epistemological filiation and African ethnocentrism (and) are inventions of the West." (185)

This intellectual colonialism is nonetheless the condition for the possibility of African philosophy, for Mudimbe.

Mudimbe divides the African thinkers into two groups: those of "the era of Négritude and African Personality" (38) consisting of "the pre-independence generation" (36); and "a new generation" which advances a "notion of epistemological vigilance" (36). Mudimbe associates the older generation, which includes Aimé Caesar, Leopold Senghor and Cheikh Anta Diop, with producing:

"... an African literature that flatters condescending Western ears, in which Africans prove, by means of négritude and black personality rhetoric, that they are "intelligent human beings" who once had respectable civilizations that colonialism destroyed." (36)

He goes on to assert that the younger generation is more concerned with "the path to truth" (37) among other epistemologically related issues. Indeed, Mudimbe indicates that they are somewhat embarrassed by the arguments of their elders. In fact some of them consider the literature "to be a childish reaction of over compensation." (36) Among those Mudimbe considers representative of this spirit are Willie E. Abraham, Pauline J. Hountondji, Theophile Obenga and Kwasi Wiredu. (39) He reveals their shared qualifications:

1. They were or still profoundly marked by Christian principles and values. (39)

2. They are university professors (who) are not only teachers but also in charge of regional inter-African, or even international agencies working for the development of the continent. (40)

3. All ... are in "power." (40)

4. These intellectuals are producing a body of good works, which are both difficult, because of the amplifications that explain them, and extremely sophisticated with respect to the relationships between power and knowledge. (xxx)

After explaining the Levy-Bruhl school of thought about savage Africa, Mudimbe analyzes the Négritude movement which presumably was a black reversal of the European perspective. He primarily focuses on Senghor whose "influence on contemporary African thought, particularly in Francophone countries, is considerable." (94) In fact, Mudimbe points out:

"Of the African thinkers of this century, he will probably have been the most honored and the most complimented, yet probably also the most disparaged and the most insulted, particularly by the present generation of African intellectuals." (94)

Although Aimé Caesar, who first put forth the concept, is discussed by Mudimbe, the role of the founder of Négritude is not analyzed as thoroughly as Senghor's. Nor is the parallel "affirmation of African political thought" (black personality) argument treated as thoroughly by Mudimbe (87-88). From time to time Mudimbe cites Cheikh Anta Diop's project and works with such epithets as "extreme." (78)

Mudimbe notes Senghor's claim that this older generation was influenced by: Anthropology, Black American Ideology, and Marxism. He assess the influence of Anthropology throughout his work. He also examine the Marxist influence at come length. About the "Black American influence" he is less decisive. He agrees that:

"... the association with Black Americans strongly influenced the critical views of black Africans with respect to the crisis of Western values." (90)


"It is difficult to say with certainty to what extent the ideological commitment of Black Americans made an impact on the African intelligentsia." (90)

Mudimbe's assessment of the work of this "school" is that it contributed to changes in colonial thinking along with other intellectual influences. His list of major influences is put in the following order: first, Anthropological and missionary commitments to Africans values (e.g. Marcel Griaule); second, interventions by some Western sociologists and historians (e.g. Basil Davidson); third, "awakening" of African intellectuals." (88)

Mudimbe devotes a chapter to Blyden presumably because Senghor, whom Mudimbe calls " the father of Négritude," suggested that Blyden promoted the spirit of "modern African ideology" in the 19th century. (99) His critique of Blyden is based upon his conclusion that African thinkers use "categories and conceptual systems which depend on a Western epistemological order." (x) In this regard, Mudimbe asserts that much of Blyden's discourse is racist and "based on the European thinking that he should be opposing." (105) Concerning Blyden's thought Mudimbe recognizes that:

"The premises and even the essentials of his ideology were already in the air before he explicated his thesis ... They had already been used both politically and ideologically by the founders of Liberia ... and the Haitian revolutionaries." (131)

Mudimbe finds some merit in Blyden's stance, for example he proclaims:

"one cannot but be amazed when analyzing (Blyden's) thesis, which was the first articulate nineteenth-century theory of "blackness." (132)

Nonetheless, Mudimbe concludes that Blyden's thought "represents an emotional response to the European process of denigrating Africa. "Finally he asserts that Blyden's concept of race is now generally considered an ideological trap!" (132)

In his penultimate chapter, Mudimbe examines the influence of "The Belgian Franciscan Placide Frantz Temple" whose Bantu Philosophy seemed to have been a wake up call to African intellectuals. The African thinkers began to take sides either generally supporting or opposing Temple's "sympathetic" assertions about traditional African deep thought. It is out of this debate that the African discourse on philosophy seems to have begun Mudimbe.

Although Mudimbe's view of "the existence of philosophy as an autocritical exercise and a critical discipline in Africa" (162) includes four broad angles he apparently exudes the Diop project, which seeks "to give Africa the moral benefit the cradle of mankind and of having influenced the history of ancient Egypt as well as Mediterranean civilizations." (97) Instead he included only those African discourses which have been influenced by Christianity (Ethiopian heritage) or Western Europe including Marxism. It seems as though African discourse cannot exist except in response to foreign intrusion, for Mudimbe.

Mudimbe adds an appendix entitled "Ethiopian Sources of Knowledge." The implication seems to be that here at last are authentic African discourses. But these texts are responses to the impact of Christianity. Had Mudimbe included those Kemetic (Ancient Egypt) texts in his thinking, his treatment of Diop's proposals may have been different. Surely African deep thinkers should examine what Africans were thinking about before the advent of Christianity and Islam. The mutual impacts of those encounters could then be a later stage of analysis.

Before beginning my negative criticism of some of Mudimbe's ideas, let me first of all commend his scholarship. The Invention of Africa is a brilliant work which presents a provocative argument and is well documented and surprisingly complete. Indeed he seems to have read everything possible and included significant insights to many positions put forth by the leading scholars about African thinking. There are, however, some connections, disconnections and possible discourses which, in my opinion are quite pertinent to discourse about African thinking.

To begin let us accept a modified version on Professor Mudimbe's proclamation: "The conception framework of [some] African thinking has been both a mirror and a consequence of the experience of European hegemony." (185) This has been true in parts of Africa since the advent of European Christianity, first in the latter part of antiquity and later from the latter 15th century when Europe began its invasion of the West Coast of Africa.

Acceptance of the proclamation however, does not require that we also accept the conclusion that there was no African thought before the advent of European hegemony, or that some traditional African thinking did not continue throughout the era of colonialism, or that African thinking was inferior before the advent, or that there is no continuity between African thinking before and after the intrusion. In fact, it is quite logical to conclude that there have been continuous African discourses from the beginning of our national histories. We may further assume that the African discourses responded to foreign encounters and intrusion when they occurred; some did mirror European thought, some others probably accepted European thought wholly. But why then are we implied to begin the reconstruction of African "critical" thinking with the first African who reacted to the ancient Christian project or to the European Anthropologists or missionaries; or indeed to the first African who argued against "racism." Why not begin with what African thinkers were talking about before these intrusions and regardless of the great interruption.

If we begin by the restatement of an African traditional discourse we may view the period on which Mudimbe focuses as the era of "Intellectual Welfare." (Carruthers, 1996) In the middle of the 18th century the European thinkers such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume, and Kant began their project of white supremacy with the fabrication of an inferior "Negro." In time this "Negro" was separated not only from Eurasian humanity but also from other black skinned kinky haired Africans like the ancient Egyptians and Ethiopians. This intellectual blitzkrieg was followed by a sustained barrage of ideological atrocities aimed first at "educating" Europeans about the necessary causes of the slave industry. Africans in the diaspora were the first Africans to experience and recognize the intellectual onslaught as a cruel campaign to aggravate the deep wounds of the three centuries. If successful the campaign would have removed Africans not only from higher humanity but also from history.

We can trace the militant African response to these atrocities from the last decade of the 18th century, although a response of submission was recorded a few years earlier (the poetry of Phylis Wheatley). The responses of Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and Prince Hall in the 1790's were more than appeals to recognize the humanity of Africans as Henry Louis Gates has suggested. They established Ethiopia, Ancient Egypt, and the Haitian Revolution as pillars of a revitalized African History. This intellectual strategy was continued in the early 19th century by such leaders as Prince Sanders, David Walker, and Hosea Easton who converted the defensive stratagem into a vigorous offense. By the 1860's this project had been cultivated as a concrete plan for liberation and intellectual freedom by Henry Highland Garnet and Martin Delaney and others. First and second generation repatriated Africans such as Africanus Horton, Colin Teague, and Edward Wilmot Blyden took the strategy to the African continent itself. By this time the pillars of Africanity were used by two camps of Africans: the vindicationists and the foundationalists. The former directed their discourse toward the European in order to prove their humanity; the later spoke to their fellow Africans in order to reconstitute independent African nations. At this point we can observe the emergence of two streams of African intellectuals: those who would become the agents of intellectual neocolonialism (the Vindicationists), and those who continue to fight for intellectual freedom, who are often called extremists and irresponsible.

In the meantime, European intellectuals began to exercise dominance over African knowledge through disciplines such as anthropology, and the training of excommunicated Africans. Indeed the training of Europeanized African Intellectuals, whether through integrating European Universities or through providing "separate but equal" African schools, was the final phase of the white supremacy project. These trained scholars were pitted against the self-educated champions of African civilizations. From time to time a few of these intellectuals have rebelled and joined the ranks of the champions.

Let us now focus on a major implication of this conceptualization of the Intellectual Warfare. All European disciplines and scholars with African interests aim at dominance, i.e., mastery of knowledge about and by Africans. Some of these "patrons" are emphatic or sympathetic toward the African target. Others are apathetic, still others are antipathetic. But whatever the bias of their pathos, all attempt to persuade other Europeans and Africans that their way of discoursing about Africa is the proper way. (Admittedly some of them are brilliant, enchanting, audacious, and rebellious like one of Mudimbe's mentors, Foucault.) This includes Anthropologists, sociologists, historians, political scientists. Marxists, and especially philosophers. The extent to which trained Africans are protégés of these European intellectuals attests to the success of European domination of African knowledge. At best the relationship between these African thinkers and their European teachers is neocolonial.

The problem can be seen in Mudimbe's response to the "original interpretations of `savages' [by] Enlightenment social scientists." (17) He continued:

"I quite agree ... that if we look at their work what shine (sic) out are its virtues rather than its vices, its brilliant intuitions rather than its occasional logical lapses, its adventurousness and novelty rather than its dogmatism." (17, my emphasis)

Let us recall that the "Enlightenment social scientists" include Montesquieu , Hume Voltaire, and Kant. The concepts they put forth included not only "savages" but also "Negro inferiority." In other words they develop philosophical white supremacy. They set the stage for Hegel's proposal of African historicide. How can their virtues out shine their vices for African thinkers? The intellectual atrocities which they perpetuated was a declaration of was against African peoples. According to them a Mudimbe could never come into existence except as "a parrot who speaks a few words plainly," as Hume would put it. (Hume, 208) Thus, Mudimbe is himself as agent of the intellectual colonialism which he so brilliantly analyzes.

W. E. B. DuBois's dilemma over the tension between being "a Negro" and "a student of Science," (DuBois, 725) is a classic example of the tendency toward intellectual schizophrenia. He criticized John W. Burgess (who is credited with the founding of Political Science as a discipline in the United States). DuBois explained Burgess's "theory of Nordic supremacy which colored all of his political theories" and Burgess's conclusion that the United States congressional reconstruction policy as an attempt" to establish barbarism (blacks) in power over civilization (whites)" (DuBois, 719). After his critique of Burgess, DuBois concluded:

"Subtract from Burgess his belief that only white people can rule, and he is in essential agreement with me." (DuBois, 726)

The tendency of African Intellectuals to find the good in the opponent is a testimony to the power of the European control of knowledge. Perhaps in attempting to humanize those who have dehumanized us we must search their vices to find some virtue. But let us make a distinction between the moral urge to sympathize and the emotional tendency to empathize, on the one hand, and the necessity of analyzing the enemy on the other hand. Understanding the oppressor does not require us to fall for his propaganda about morality and objectivity.

Let us put the question in a much simpler manner. If one could not be both, which would DuBois choose to be, "a Negro" or a social scientist? Which would Mudimbe choose to be, an African or a philosopher?

This is the context in which I wish to consider Mudimbe's commitment "to what it essentially means to be an African and a philosopher today." (xi) The first answer is that the commitment is a ticket to intellectual schizophrenia; that is the position in which the African agent of neocolonialism finds himself or herself. Philosophy is the cause of the warfare against African knowledge. Philosophers invented the doctrine of Negro inferiority, especially intellectual inferiority.

Mudimbe's indictment of Blyden who advocated African racial solidarity as a necessary condition for liberation, fall under a like criticism. There is always contradiction in fighting to establish peace but what can you do when the other side refuses to stop its aggression? While African racial solidarity may never be achieved, to abandon the goal seems an invitation to defeat. As long as while supremacy exists in any form, political, economic, social, psychological or philosophical it seem that all Africans should fight together against it by any means necessary.

The "obvious racism" Mudimbe found in Blyden's criticism of " people of mixed blood," is removed from Blyden's context. (104) As clumsily as Blyden may have expressed himself, he was reacting to the attitudes of many "light skinned" Africans who project as air of superiority over darker Africans. Chancellor Williams in Destruction of Black Civilization presents extended discussions of the intra racial problem.

The term racism as Mudimbe uses it gives the European intellectuals a great advantage because as a generic term it implies that there is white racism and black racism. But if racism is what Montesquieu, Hume, and company inserted into European philosophy, and if the brutal, hostile, and demeaning behaviors of Europeans toward African peoples are instances of racism, then only one case of racism has ever come into existence. There could possibly come a time when the leading African thinkers might invent a theory of white inferiority; there would come a time when the political and economic leaders of African nations could oppress all whites within their reach and base such actions on a doctrine of black supremacy. In the meantime, let us identify the real problem, white supremacy, and leave the ambiguous term racism out of the discourse. Not even Mudimbe could accuse Blyden of being a white supremacist, although some Africans probably are.

I should say at this point that we hold as did Martin Delaney, that there are probably some Europeans of good will. The problem is that these good Europeans have never had the power, or the "will" power, to overthrow their more mean spirited fellow Europeans. In any case, our fight is not against good Europeans but against the perpetrators and defenders of white supremacy, some of whom are Africans. In pursuit of our objective, however, we do not believe that the enemies are necessarily our friends. While the overthrow of white supremacy should be everybody's goal, the revival of African thought is a job for Africans-only; that is only Africans can do it. If Europeans do it, it would only mean that they defeated us again.

Finally, we must oppose the way Mudimbe dismissed Cheikh Anta Diop's project with the question:

"But could then potentially mobilizing myths provide, as Diop hoped, the possibility of a new political order in Africa?" (97)

The possibility of restoring African thinking to its position of world wide acclaim lies with Professor Diop's instruction that: "The return to Egypt in all domains is the necessary condition for reconciling African civilization with history, in order to be able to construct a body of modern human sciences, in order to renovate African culture." (Diop, 1991) In other words, it seems to me that the objective is neither to adapt African discourse to the parameters of a European discipline nor to modify the European discipline to include African content because both approaches are essentially intellectual versions of neocolonialism. Rather Africans should construct their own modern disciplines based upon the pillars of African traditions. In this sense we do not have to "invent African history" but merely to restore it, to free it from the debris of the European sandstorm which covered it up. If we abandon the search for the phantom of an African philosophy (or at least philosophy, "strictly speaking") we may indeed rediscover a much more profound way of thinking about existence. [One might begin to break the bonds of intellectual colonialism by not only recognizing that African traditional deep thought is different from European philosophy but calling it by one of its African names like Medew Netcher (Divine Speech), instead of Greek words such as gnosis which Professor Mudimbe uses. (Carruthers 1995)] It seems to me that the question is whether African thinkers should give their intellectual allegiance to the traditions of those who debased us including their rebels, or to the traditions of their ancestors.

(Winter 1996)


Jedi Shemsu Jehewty (a.k.a. Jacob H. Carruthers) received his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado and is currently on the faculty of Northeastern Illinois University's Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago. He is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations (ASCAC) and Director of the Kemetic Institute. He is the author of Mdw Ntr: Divine Speech (A Historical Reflection of African Deep Thought from the Time of the Pharaohs to the Present) and The Irritated Genie: An Essay on the Haitian Revolution.


Carruthers, Jacob 1995 Mdw Ntr: Divine Speech Karnak House

Carruthers, Jacob 1996 Intellectual Warfare

Chicago: Third World Press

Diop, Cheikh Anta 1991 Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology

New York: Lawrence Hill & Company

DuBois, W. E. B. 1964 Black Reconstruction

New York: Meridian Books

Gates, Henry Louis 1992 Loose Cannons: Notes on the Culture Wars

New York: Oxford University Press

Hume, David 1912 Essays: Moral. Political and Literary

New York: Indianapolis Liberty Classics

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