Farewell to a Great Philosopher: Kwasi Wiredu (1931-2022)

Paulin Hountondji is Professor Emeritus at the National University of Benin in Cotonou and is a Research Associate in Political Theory at the School of Social Science at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He has published a number of influential texts on the history of African Philosophy, and is considered one of the most important figures in this field.

Kwasi Wiredu (1931-2022)

Kwasi Wiredu remains the greatest African philosopher. Until his recent death, he was the oldest and greatest, despite his almost shocking modesty. Although many – both before and after him – have published original works of great depth, his precision, nuance, rigor of analysis and, moreover, sense of humour, was incomparable.

A Ghanaian philosopher, Wiredu bowed out on January 6, 2022 in Tampa, Florida, USA, at the age of 90. He leaves behind a wife, the elegant and dynamic Adwoa[i] Gifty, 5 children, 11 grandchildren, 2 great-granddaughters aged 6 and 4 and a swarm of readers and disciples who will continue, from generation to generation, to feed on his penetrating views and his immense contribution.

Born on October 3, 1931 in Kumasi, Wiredu studied philosophy first at the University of Ghana in Legon, a suburb of Accra, then at the University of Oxford in Great Britain. He exerted considerable influence through numerous articles grouped in two collections:

  • Philosophy and an African Culture, a collection of articles from 1966 to 1976[ii]
  • Cultural Universals and Particulars
    Wiredu also edited:
  • A Companion to African Philosophy, with the collaboration of William Abraham, Abiola Irele, Ifeanyi Menkiti.
    And along with his compatriot Kwame Gyeke, he co-edited the book Person and Community.

It is a pity that he remains largely unknown in French-speaking Africa![iii] I heard about him as early as 1967, during a symposium organised by the African Cultural Society (alias Présence Africaine) and the Association of Scandinavian Friends of “Présence Africaine” in Denmark. He was already, I believe, head of the philosophy department at Legon and was represented at this conference by Martin A. Kissi.

Later, during my brief but fascinating stay in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, which took place at the same time that Mobutu’s Congo was being renamed Zaire, the philosophy department accepted my proposal to launch a bilingual journal called the Cahiers Philosophiques Africains / African Philosophical Journal. I was editorial secretary. The first issue published, among other things, an article by the Kenyan philosopher Odera H. Oruka, who was at that time still known as Henry O. Odera. But there were no contributions from Wiredu.

My first real encounter with Wiredu was in 1972 when I permanently returned to Dahomey (present day Benin). One of the first initiatives upon my return was to create a structure for exchanges and discussion between black African philosophers of all sub-disciplines and ideological orientations. The idea was simple: until then, like their colleagues in other disciplines, African philosophers had prioritised vertical exchanges with their European and Western counterparts. But it was time to favour horizontal exchanges between Africans. I was young, I was daring. The roads in Nigeria were good and less dangerous than today. I drove to the universities of Lagos and Ibadan, to the University of Ifè – which has since been renamed Obafemi Awolowo University – where the late Olubi John Sodipo, then head of the philosophy department, edited a remarkable philosophical journal, Second Order. Then I went to Lomé and Accra. The University of Ghana guesthouse was comfortable. I was warmly welcomed by Wiredu. We shared the same ideas. Appointment was made for a meeting in Cotonou.

This meeting took place on January 3, 1973, in a modest classroom of the Protestant secondary school in Cotonou then directed by the late Samuel Akle, himself a philosopher, the constituent assembly of an association called the Inter-African Council for Philosophy (IACP).

Olu Sodipo was elected president, Abdoulaye Elimane Kane, from the University of Dakar, 1st vice-president, Wiredu was 2nd vice-president, Aloyse-Raymond Ndiaye from the University of Dakar general treasurer, Odera Oruka from the University of Nairobi Assistant General Treasurer and myself Secretary General. The IACP immediately requested and obtained its affiliation to the International Federation of Philosophical Societies / Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie (FISP), an institution which organizes the World Philosophy Congress every five years in conjunction with UNESCO.[iv] The IACP was thus de facto affiliated, through FISP, to the International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences / Conseil International de la Philosophie et des Sciences Humaines (CIPSH) based in Paris in the premises of UNESCO, and whose Secretary General was then Jean d’Ormesson of the French Academy.

It was out of the question to transfer the African Philosophical Journal to Cotonou as it was rightly claimed by the National University of Zaire (UNAZA) as its inalienable property. We therefore created a bi-annual publication, Consequence: journal of the Inter-African Council for Philosophy. The first issue contained, among other texts, the French translation of an article by J. E. Wiredu (as he was still known at the time)[v] previously published in English in Universitas, an inter-faculty journal of the University of Ghana.

At the end of the 1970s UNESCO decided to launch a vast survey of philosophical teaching and research in the world. The head of the philosophy division, Moroccan scholar Mohamed Allal Sinaceur, asked me to carry out this survey for French-speaking Africa. An Anglophone scholar was needed to conduct the same survey in English-speaking Africa. It was Wiredu.

The lessons of this double investigation were to be drawn during a UNESCO experts’ meeting organized in Nairobi in June 1980. Wiredu presented a remarkable paper, in which he urgently called for a ‘conceptual decolonization’, no more and no less.[vi] For him, a multitude of concepts and statements that seemed self-evident as long as they are stated in European languages were simply unthinkable in African languages. The universality of these concepts and statements were therefore only a false universality.

A very simple example of this is the Cartesian cogito. Instead of this inaugural certainty on which Descartes intended to have found the whole edifice of knowledge: ‘I think, therefore I am’, the Kenyan John Mbiti found it more natural to say: ‘I am because we are. And since we are, therefore I am’.[vii] Before him, Senghor had formulated what seemed to be the reaction of the Black African to the cogito: ‘I feel, I dance the Other, I am’. Alexis Kagame had shown the incongruity of the expression ‘I am’, which remained unintelligible in the Bantu languages as long as it was not supplemented by determinants that give it meaning: I am this or that, I am such place, etc.

Wiredu, in turn, took specific examples from the Akan languages to relativize and put in their proper place some of the most classic notions of the Western philosophical tradition. And at the end of his communication, he launched this appeal in the form of a manifesto: ‘African philosophers, let us learn to think in our own languages!’

I have never forgotten this lesson from Wiredu. It came to meet my militant convictions on the need for rehabilitation and development of African languages. But what Wiredu shows is that this claim, which at first sight is simply political, refers to an infinitely deeper issue; that beyond political, economic and cultural decolonization, the most radical issue is conceptual decolonization.

The Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o [viii] will say the same thing differently when calling for ‘decolonizing the mind’.[ix] Suiting the deed to the word, he will say his ‘farewell to the English language’ and will henceforth write novels and plays in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, or in his vernacular language, Kiswahili, even if it means leaving it to others the care of translating them into English if they deem it useful.

Born on January 5, 1938, Ngugi is six years younger than Wiredu. In a way, the latter didn’t go that far. He did not say goodbye to the English language. He has not resolved to write now only in his mother tongue, Twi, or in another Akan language. But the difficulty was not the same. Because philosophy is not literature. Telling is one thing, thinking is another. Telling a story, real or fictional, in an African language is different to analysing problems and forging the right concepts for this purpose.

In line with what Wiredu wanted, 15 years ago the African-Canadian philosopher Chike Jeffers remarkably solicited several African philosophers to write original articles in their languages. The young academic won his bet. The result was a multilingual collection where the original texts appeared on the left and the English translation on the right.[x] A preface by Ngugi wa Thiong’o written in English, inevitably, opened this collection where texts written in seven African languages followed one another. Wiredu’s closed the collection. Its original Twi title, Papa ne Bone, translated into English as Good and Evil. [xi]

Beyond the Legon campus, Wiredu has enjoyed national influence in his country. Philosophy and an African Culture was originally the title of his acceptance speech at the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, delivered in October 1976, before it became the title of a book of which this speech constituted the first chapter.

Beyond Ghana, he radiated on the continent, lecturing in various countries in sometimes restricted frameworks, as in Benin, or in broader frameworks as in Abidjan, Nairobi and elsewhere. In 1984 he carried out a visiting professorship at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.

Beyond the continent, like many African academics, he yielded to the attraction of America. Contributing to the influence of Africa, Wiredu has carried out teaching assignments at the University of California in Los Angeles, at the University of Richmond in Virginia, at Duke University in North Carolina. Since 1987, he held a permanent position at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he became a Distinguished Professor.

The patriarch is gone. As part of the fourtieth day ceremonies, a solemn tribute was paid to him at Legon under the joint aegis of the University and the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences . Both institutions have claimed him. Africa has claimed him. It only remains for us to fully integrate him into our intellectual heritage and to continue his fight.

[i] Pronounced a’joa

[ii] French readers are tempted to translate: “Philosophie et culture africaine – as if the English title were: Philosophy and African Culture. The indefinite article (an African Culture) clearly indicates that it is a specific African culture, the Ghanaian culture, and more precisely, as the contents of the book show, the culture of the Akan.

[iii] Lucien Gagni, now philosophy teacher in a high school in Parakou, North Benin, prepared under my direction and defended in 2009 at the University of Abomey-Calavi an excellent dissertation for a diploma of advanced studies (DEA), which has remained unpublished, on Kwasi Wiredu : presentation, commentary and partial translation of Philosophy and an African Culture. In addition, we will read with interest an exhaustive and critical study of Wiredu’s work published by a Nigerian academic, Sanya OSHA: Kwasi Wiredu and Beyond: the Text, Writing and Thought in Africa. Dakar: CODESRIA Press, 2005

[iv] The general assembly of FISP is held every five years within the framework of this congress. On this occasion FISP renews its steering committee. Wiredu was thus co-opted at the 18th World Congress in Brighton (Great Britain) in 1988 and reappointed for a second term at the 19th Congress in 1993 in Moscow. Aloyse-Raymond Ndiaye was co-opted at the 20th Congress in Boston in 1998 and reappointed for a second term at the 21st Congress in 2003 in Istanbul. I myself was co-opted in Istanbul in 2003, reappointed for a second term at the 22nd Congress in Seoul in 2008 and for a third and final term (now authorized by the rules of procedure) at the 23rd Congress in Athens, Greece, in 2013. Since the 24th congress meeting in Beijing in 2018, the CIAP is represented by Suleyman Bachir Diagne

[v] J. E. = Johnson Emmanuel, as he told me at the time.

[vi] Kwasi Wiredu, “Philosophical Research and Teaching in Africa: Some Suggestions (Toward Conceptual Decolonization)” in Teaching and Research in Philosophy: Africa. Paris: UNESCO, 1984

[vii] See John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann, 1969

[viii] Like Oruka and Wiredu, Ngugi also changed his name. He was initially known as James Ngugi.

[ix] Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind. The Politics of Language in African Literature. London/Nairobi: Heinemann Educational, 1986

[x] Chike Jeffers (ed.), Listening to Ourselves: Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy. New York: State University of New York Press, 2013

[xi] The exercise is not that easy. I had also been asked, but I was unable to complete my article on time. And despite the encouragement of Chike Jeffers who promised to publish it separately, I still have on my computer since 2009 this unfinished article which I had titled in Gungbe (the vernacular language of Badagry, Nigeria and Porto-Novo, Benin which is very close to Fongbe, the Fon language spoken in Benin and all other Gbe languages wherein a language is called Gbe): “Núdodíndín: dagbe kaví ylankan? (Curiosity, value or counter-value?)

Political voice in a changing world

Manjeet RamgotraManjeet Ramgotra teaches political theory in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS University of London. Her research, teaching and writing focus on decolonising political theory and reinterpreting republicanism in both the history of western ideas and twentieth-century anti-colonial thought.

How we use language and participate in politics has transformed democratic notions. Today democracy is understood in terms of diversity and inclusivity. Yet, although executive and legislative institutions are open to a greater diversity of citizen, the institutions through which we conduct our political lives have not been reconceptualized to reflect contemporary social relations between individuals of different cultures, genders and class.

Many have reclaimed their place within political spaces, yet their voices are often muted and marginalized, especially if they challenge the predominant structures. Often diverse voices are either co-opted into the existing system of power or silenced. Moreover, as executive power becomes increasingly centralized, it stifles voices of change in an effort to maintain the status quo. Nevertheless, those who question the abusive use of privilege are speaking out. Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements unsettle the locus of power and traditional use of authority. This produces conflict in which the powerful use their position to censor and the less powerful talk back.

This article examines how free speech operates in a changing political environment and calls for a rethinking of the institutions that govern, not simply to make them more inclusive but to redress the activity of politics and representation to better reflect the agency of the many groups of people who comprise our society. It argues that the language of diversity does not adequately challenge institutional structures and sees difference stripped of its racial, gender and cultural specificity. Decolonisation, on the other hand, repudiates the language of diversity and calls for a fundamental shift in power and knowledge structures. This includes dismantling power structures that are symbolized in statues, supported through educational curricula and actualized in gender, racial and social relations. How we see power and its embodiment, how we are formed to know truth and authority and how we relate to each other together construct part of the nexus of power and knowledge to which we are subject.

It is not surprising that these are the points at which many currently challenge the foundations of power. Rhodes Must Fall, broadening the educational curricula to include the female and non-white voices that have often been suppressed by the ‘white male voice’, Black Lives Matter and Me Too are all movements that question and speak out against our current power structures. Moreover, each of these expose various articulations of white male power in the public space, in our ideas, in racial and sexual relations. The call for change is thus structural. It is not just about opening up to and including others but actually calling out oppressive practices, reimagining public spaces so as to not venerate historical figures who supported oppression and reading theoretical ideas of the canon critically, especially when women and people of colour are accorded inferior intellectual and rational capacities so that the ruling classes maintain patriarchal and imperial structures. The point is not to take Aristotle or Kant off the curriculum, but rather to interrogate their ideas, to ask what is knowledge and to learn other sources of knowledge as well.

What is the difference between diversity and decolonising?
These two languages shape how we participate in the public space and how we think of democracy. When we use them, we invoke two understandings of contemporary politics: one that expands yet maintains institutional structures and the other that reclaims political voice and transforms.

Although people who enter politics as a result of diversity and inclusion may want to change structures, they can be co-opted into existing structures. Their voice and agency become shaped by structures or silenced. Often they are excluded through techniques that ridicule, consider as lightweight and don’t take seriously. For instance, Diane Abbott a long-standing and successful British MP is constantly ridiculed in the press and abused on social media. Their diversity gets muted and does not effect any real change.

This process reflects the view that the offices and institutions of politics construct power to keep it from becoming corrupt and abusive. The offices remain over time, whereas office-holders don’t. Hence politicians are shaped by the office. Their interests and personalities are meant to be held in check by the structures of power. Political office and institutions mirror a certain type of power and authority embodied in the ideal type citizen who tends to be the white propertied man. Such power controls and dominates change to maintain stability as well as privilege. The process of adapting to the institutional environment reflects the need to be part of a system to advance personal ambition and self-interest. In this system, individuals are rational, calculated and compete against each other, rather than work together in solidarity (Collins, 1994, p.93). This can lead to corruption and neglect of the public interest, whatever that may be at this time of uncertainty as we question our collective values.

The language of diversity shapes the ‘liberal face’ of democracy and inclusion. The language of decolonisation, in contrast, presents a more radical politics of democratisation that gives marginal voices the capacity to change the direction of politics through the recognition of their positionality and epistemic outlooks.

Rather than imposing a liberal universalist model to which one must conform, a decolonised politics would listen to difference and recognize the various needs. As such it would create the space for different voices to speak and be heard without necessarily conforming to a particular model of power. There is an anarchist element to the decolonising project, but at the same time the idea is to evaluate power structures in order to reconstruct them to be more fair and open. In part, decolonising occurs through the recognition that these institutional structures are predicated on a particular masculinist embodiment and understanding of power, that is both patriarchal and imperialist.

These ideas of power are deeply rooted in western thinking and were reiterated in the Renaissance. Power was conceptualized in terms of virtue which derived from the Latin ‘vir’ emphasized manliness, the capacity to rule and (to a lesser extent) be ruled. Machiavelli reconceptualized it as ‘virtù’ and promoted the virile, virtuous and authoritative prince who possessed the rational, strategic and physical capacities to dominate over irrational, unpredictable and constantly changing circumstances. These capricious and volatile circumstances were associated with the feminine and embodied in the Goddess Fortuna. In this understanding of power, domination of the masculine over the feminine gets played out in gender, class and racial relations where women, lower classes and the non-white are seen to be irrational, unruly and volatile. Decolonising seeks to uproot these power structures that try to mute and dominate change.

Those who hold power never want to give it up, as Machiavelli observed long ago. There is conflict. The powerful use their clout to censor and silence. The less powerful talk back. For instance, Me Too has empowered women to speak out about sexual exploitation in the work place within socio-political contexts that take them seriously and hold men to account. Through this dialectic change may occur. Indeed, to a certain extent it is occurring as new institutions that address people’s needs and take representation seriously are conceptualized (Hamilton, 2014; Williams, 1998). These move beyond the simple structure of a single MP authorised through elections to act on behalf of thousands of constituents. They are discursive institutions through which the needs of everyday citizens and constituents can be voiced.

The popular voice and political institutions
To be sure, people today have more clout. They are empowered by the internet and technology. More women and people of colour run for office and are changing the demographic of the legislature, but as this happens the executive power is becoming more centralized. Those who theorised about the doctrine of the separation and balance of powers worried that not only could the power of one become absolute, but also that the legislative power as the voice of the people had the tendency to become despotic.

Thinkers such as Montesquieu therefore argued for an executive veto over both branches of the legislative power to ward against the abuse of power. To Montesquieu, individual freedom could be secured only if the executive and legislative branches of power were completely separated as institutions and an independent judiciary were established. In this manner, power would be neither absolute nor arbitrary. The executive power would execute laws that were established by the upper chamber of the legislature and ratified by the lower chamber. In the absence of contestation, the people’s representatives who occupied the lower chamber were considered to consent to the laws. This separation of executive from legislation power guaranteed the individual liberty to live in security and as one wants within the bounds of the laws. It provided the political conditions for the freedom of speech.

This configuration of power maintained the social hierarchy between the landed aristocratic classes and the wealthiest ranks of the popular social classes. The nobles sat in the upper legislative chamber and the people in the lower chamber. The institutions were structured to accommodate the propertied social classes. After much struggle, the working classes, men of colour, and, finally, women got the vote. Although the structures eventually accommodated people on the margins, these had been built on a particular understanding of political power. They were established in part to regulate class relations and social conflict between the nobles and people.

Today, our social and political relations are more complex. Our institutional structures do not adequately mediate conflictual relations that arise from racial, gender and social difference. Rather we aim to minimize difference so that it does not matter as we are all equal and blind to difference. The voices of the marginalized get suppressed or are less well regarded and heard in the light of the grammar of white male power and authority. In my view, this is the case because our institutions from the family to the state are proving to be incapable of dealing with difference and relinquishing power.

Free speech and silence
The need for decolonisation is pertinent in struggles for liberation where different voices get pitted against each other and absorbed into existing power structures rather than finding opportunity to dismantle those structures and construct them anew.

I was struck by an observation that bell hooks made regarding black American women who in the nineteenth century reclaimed their public voice and fought for the right to vote. Unfortunately, white feminist and black men’s movements for suffrage alienated these women. Black women were part of neither movement for to be on the side of women was to abandon the struggles against slavery and racial oppression. To be on the side of the men was to support the patriarchy and abandon women’s struggles. Neither movement sought to secure the rights of black women. Yet black women were activists, writers and thinkers. Their activism and voice were silenced. In her book Ain’t I a Woman? bell hooks asks why are black women silent? She eloquently relates this to the silence of the oppressed, which is a “profound silence engendered by resignation and acceptance of one’s lot” (hooks, 1982, p.1). Resignation indicates the feeling of powerlessness against the structures and systems of power and acceptance indicates passive obedience, which maintains the predominant system in place. To bell hooks, this is an indication of the “sexist, racist socialization” that made black women feel that their interests were not worth fighting for, that the only option they had was submission (hooks, 1982, pp.7-9). This is an extraordinary conclusion and powerful reflection of how the struggles of others took precedence over those of some, how sexist and racist oppression have the effect of making black women feel so powerless as to not talk back to power.

I end on this note to reiterate that the object of decolonisation of power and knowledge structures is not make our world more colourful, as it were. Rather it is to give voice to those who have been silenced and oppressed by the structures and institutions that uphold white upper-class masculinist powers. These include the visible manifestations of their power in the statues of public squares, the theoretical voices that pervade our systems of knowledge and education and the assumption that by virtue of their epistemic and authoritative status, they can exploit and dominate the less powerful.

Speech is shaped by the language and discourse we use to construct meaning. As such it is not free. If we want freedom of thought and expression, we must decolonise to reconstruct our democratic institutions to share power and voice across different genders, races and classes according to egalitarian and non-dominatory concepts of power and knowledge.

Acknowledgement I wish to thank Catherine Davidson, Dick Blackwell, Alison Scott-Baumann, Michael Elliott and Lawrence Hamilton for constructive and thought provoking comments.


  • Collins, Patricia Hill (1994) “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought” in ed. Mary Evans, The Woman Question. London: Sage Publications, pp.82-103.
  • Hamilton, Lawrence (2014) Freedom is Power: Liberty through Political Representation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • hooks, bell (1982) Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto Press.
  • Williams, Melissa (1998) Voice, Trust, and Memory: Marginalized Groups and the Failings of Liberal Representation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.