Breaking new ground in African philosophy

Jonathan O. Chimakonam Ph.D, is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Calabar, Nigeria. He is also a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. His teaching and research interests cover the areas of African Philosophy, Logic, Philosophy of Mind, Environmental Ethics and Postmodern/Postcolonial Thought. In this exclusive interview he discusses his aim to break new grounds in African philosophy by formulating a system that unveils new concepts and opens new vistas for thought (Conversational philosophy); a method that represents a new approach to philosophising in African and intercultural philosophies (Conversational thinking); and a system of logic that grounds them both (Ezumezu).

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Jonathan O. Chimakonam: I am Igbo from Nigeria. I hail from the region at the eye of the rising sun, in the lands across the great Niger River, snaked through by the mystic river called Idemmili at the bank of which is the land of my ancestors, Oba. I come from the family of Okeke-mpi, in the lineage of Ezeneche, from the brave clan of Umudimego in Okuzu, a community on the hill. I trained as a philosopher, obtained my B.A honours from Ebonyi State University followed by a master’s and a doctorate degrees from University of Calabar, Nigeria where I currently work.  It is an impossible angle to work from as a researcher like most universities in the Sub-Sahara with little or no funding and of course, no mentoring. For these, your development as a researcher is slow and you tend to make mistakes in the absence of mentors. But a sheer doggedness kept me going.

Having gone through some really difficult times and experiences in my formative years as a scholar, I decided I was going to solve this problem for my students. So I gathered some of my postgraduate students and started the Calabar School of Philosophy initially as a mentoring club, which later metamorphosed into the Conversational School of Philosophy (CSP). Today, I am proud to say that I am the convener of this forum and its membership cuts across several universities on the continent and beyond. It has developed into a school of thought in African philosophy tradition and a movement of difference-makers in Africa’s intellectual history.

As a researcher, I aim to break new grounds in African philosophy by formulating a system that unveils new concepts and opens new vistas for thought (Conversational philosophy, 2015a,b); a method that represents a new approach to philosophising in African and intercultural philosophies (Conversational thinking, 2017a, b, 2018); and a system of logic that grounds them both (Ezumezu, 2017, 2018, 2019). I give everything to my research in African philosophy because above all else, I wish to be remembered as an African philosopher and not just a philosopher.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your philosophical practice?

JC: Definitely, every philosopher has had some influence and mine is not different. I started off as a logician having been influenced by one of my teachers at Ebonyi State University (EBSU), Professor Uduma Oji Uduma. To me, he was more than a teacher. Back then in the Department of Philosophy, he was a figure that was larger than life. I remember our first year; we would gather in circles and discuss him. He seemed to have made a name for himself in the school generally. So, there were a lot of expectations and impressions about him. We were not sure what to expect and to make matters worse, he skipped the early classes thus prolonging the suspense. When he did turn up for his first class with us, I recall the tension, some of our colleagues who had a phobia for logic were scared to death, others were too excited, but I remember I was focused on discerning what made the man think. You could see inspiring confidence with a touch of challenging arrogance in his demeanour. A combination of these two traits was not lacking in Dr. Joseph N. Agbo, our firebrand lecturer at EBSU and an unabashed Marxist, a virus, unfortunately, he could not infect me with, much as he tried. While Uduma challenged me the most, Agbo was the one who inspired me the most.  I think it is safe to say that the influences from these two were basic in my formation as a scholar. Over the years, I have come to realise that a good scholar must have a tincture of confidence and arrogance; confidence, to inspire their students and arrogance, to challenge them. The humble and timid scholar, no matter how brilliant, neither inspires nor challenges anyone and that makes them a bad scholar as far as I am concerned. The academe is no place for timidity or the idea of humility bandied around nowadays. Humility is a concept that is terribly misunderstood and misinterpreted, especially in the African academe rift with jealousy, fat ego and mediocrity. The idea of academic modesty or humility encourages peers not to brag about their accomplishments in ways that would rub others’ failures or under-achievements in their faces. It does not discourage inspiring confidence and challenging arrogance. A certain level of corkiness is important in the academia. Unfortunately, fat ego mediocres in the African academe waste valuable research time castigating and plotting the downfall of their more aspiring peers who represent the true spirit of the academe, that of inspiring confidence, challenging arrogance, charisma and charm, all of which my two teachers above possessed.

After my honours programme, I went for one year mandatory national youth service. Returning, I went to University of Calabar (UNICAL) for my postgraduate programmes upon the recommendation of Dr. Kanu Macaulay, an amiable gentleman that supervised my honours project. I wanted to continue my studies in logic and UNICAL appears to be the ideal place. There was Professors Princewill Alozie who was retiring as at the time, Chris Ijiomah, Andrew Uduigwomen and Dorothy Ucheaga (now Oluwagbemi-Jacob), and both Professor Uduma and Dr. Kanu had been trained at UNICAL, Uduma in his undergraduate and Kanu through to his doctorate. It was during my time as a postgraduate student that I began to study African philosophy. The African philosopher and metaphysician Professor Innocent Asouzu was already well known for his metaphysical system dubbed ‘ibuanyidanda ontology’. I did not take any of his classes but I took time to read his works. Even though I conducted my master’s and doctoral research in the field of logic, moderated by Uduigwomen and Ijiomah, I did a lot of personal studies in African philosophy. It was in African philosophy that I became heavily influenced as a researcher by the trio of Innocent Asouzu whose thinking style I adopted, Pantaleon Iroegbu whose writing style I adopted and Campbell S. Momoh, whose radical style I adopted.

Today, I am probably known in the academia more as an African philosopher than as a logician. My contributions to knowledge in the folds of conversational thinking, conversational philosophy and Ezumezu logic have been shaped by influences from the three African philosophers above. I am grateful to them for influencing my research and to Uduma and Agbo for shaping my character as a scholar. This is not to suggest that others who taught me at various levels have not contributed anything to my development, they all did one way or the other and for which I am grateful, but I am here focusing on two specific forms of influences, my character as a scholar and my research.

RB: What are the factors behind the contemporary understanding of identity?

JC: Well, that question can have different answers depending on the inclination of the philosopher. But for me, I would like to say that Reductive Physicalism and Non-reductive Physicalism are shaping most philosophers of mind nowadays. While the Reductive Physicalist position holds that with time, scientific accounts would be able to explain all mental states and properties, the Non-reductive Physicalist position holds that the predicates we employ in describing mental states cannot be reduced to the language and lower-level explanations of physical science, even though the mind is not a separate substance. There is this movement towards monism and away from dualism. You see, the days when substance dualism was the pop culture of the field are in the past. The influence of religion has since waned following the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and the displacement of supernaturalism by science as a framework of choice. The individual is no longer largely seen as an entity with two aspects; one physical and the other spiritual. Scientific understanding of the human being is gaining prominence due mainly to the works of the neuroscientists which influenced the neurophilosophers, of which Patricia Churchland is the egg-head.

When you study the works of physicalists like Daniel Dennett and those of the neurophilosophers, you would understand why physicalism (of different shades) is making more sense in this science-guided era than say the metaphysical option promoted by consciousness scholars like David Chalmers.  With physicalism and neurophilosophy, there is hope and a clear path for the realisation of that hope, that one day scientific explanations can help us make sense of it all. But the metaphysics of consciousness, the type hyped by Chalmers and inspired by Thomas Nagel’s ‘what is it like to-be-a-bat-experience’ does not offer similar level of hope. This latter position excites the mind no doubt, but does not inspire much hope.

From the foregoing, you can see why the contemporary understanding of identity is going the way of physicalism. What makes me, me? This question tends to suggest a sort of introspection until we ask again, what makes me different from others? Then we begin to understand that the question of identity is not an internal thing, it is a social phenomenon. My identity can only be sorted out in connection with the identity of others. It is a property that identifies me from others and identifies others from me and since the interaction between me and others can only be created in a physical space, identity becomes a social phenomenon. The African conception of the self as articulated by Chukwudum Okolo, in a way, can be likened to a physicalist position on identity.

RB: Are they different from any past understandings of identity?

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