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Aristotle many years ago asserted that it is the nature of man to know: in other words, every man seeks to know. In fact, philosophical activity started out of the spirit of wonder when men were no longer satisfied with the mythological explanation of reality. It was their curiosity that sparked off this enormous discipline man is awed by the stand back of mystery of the universe. Man stand back and ask himself question in order to understand the universe.  Man has ever been in search of the knowledge of the world. What is knowledge, what is its nature and scope, are questions that have attracted philosophers from various orientation or schools of thought.

The western philosophical tradition has been divided sharply on what constitutes the source of knowledge namely: Rationalism and Empiricism. Unfortunately, this controversy has led to dualism in knowledge and consequence a bi-fraction of man should be considered as a metaphysical unit. Against this extremism in knowledge, African proposes another criterion of acquiring knowledge. Anyanwu has correctly observed that:

……any appeal to empirical and rational methods has no meaning and relevance unless we know the basic assumption about the African cultural reality we want to know1


The Africans as human being following the metaphysical imperative of human nature equally want to know, what is the nature of this knowledge? How do we come to know the things we claim to know? Does consciousness constitute a philosophical data, without which his life cannot begin in the first place?

It is in light of the above question that we have decided to carry out a research titled “knowledge in Traditional African Perspective”.


From time immemorial, knowledge and what ever constitutes its nature have been a topical issue and a problematic one in philosophical circle. The problem of knowledge arose in the past, more often than not, as a result of philosophers. Inability to seek for the unity of experience. This in no doubt led to the unfortunate controversy between Empiricism and Rationalism.

Since the advent of African professional mode of philosophizing. The African philosopher must get ready to examine the old controversy of epistemology. Rationalism  and Empirical; one of the most recent problems that seem to be militating against  progress  in African philosophy today is the ontological status of African Epistemology. K.C. Anyanwu has argued that “the basic problem of any philosophy is epistemology or the theory of knowledge, that is the method which the mind must follow in order to arrive at the trust worthy knowledge of reality. Epistemology provides the basic premises with which other problems, namely metaphysics, religion, moral political and aesthetic doctrines can be approached”.2 Anyanwu therefore places knowledge as prior to being.

This is however a centesian way of philosophizing which has randomly been condemned by Ukagba in his unpublished doctoral dissertation (1993)3.  For Ukagba, being is always  prior to knowledge or else we fall into Reductio Absandum, knowledge is the knowledge of somebody, a being. The being who must cognize must exist first before the act of cognition and this is why Ukagba asserts that ontology  or metaphysics comes before Epistemology. We shall examine the premises of these different positions in this research in order to find where the truth lies.



In the scope of this study, we shall seek to limit ourselves to those areas, which will enable ‘en bloc’ give the research a justifiable treatment. Since the research concerns Africans, it should be limited to how the African conceives the nature of his knowledge, his community knowledge and in the last analysis the ultimate knowledge. However, when necessary reference can also be made to western knowledge as ways of comparing and contrasting


The first purpose here is to bring stability in the various conceptions and notion about how the African knows the things he clams to know.

Secondly, it is also our intention to show that any attempt to approach African theory of knowledge from the ambit of western Rationalism and Emperialism, will be a fruitless exercise.

Finally, it is also our intention to emphasis once again the relevance of metaphysics albeit African ontology as the only condition sine quo non for African Epistemology. With these three purposes in mind, it will become easier to focus properly on the nature of African theory of knowledge.


The importance of this research centers on the present need to put the perception of the African man in proper perspective. Having been beaten out of ontological psychological and economic shapes, due to centuries of colonialism, exploitation and humiliation. It becomes necessary to recover the authentic African, the basis of his knowledge.4 The inter­­-relatedness and limit of this knowledge will go a long way towards understanding the ‘being’ of the African.


Our methodology  shall follow a gradually  unfolding of ‘being’ through exposing, analyzing  classifying, synthesizing and evaluating its part in its entire ramification  since the nature of African epistemology is not yet clear to all and sundry. It therefore becomes imperative that it should be exposed first before analyzing. The analytical method will enable us to clarify the various concepts like truth. We shall be making us of such concepts truth, wisdom, e.t.c in this research essay.

Equally through the synthetic method, we shall seek together the various views expressed so far with regards to the nature of African Epistemology. In the last analysis, we shall evaluate the nature of African Epistemology and other theories. These various methodologies will help in presenting our research in scientific light.


The researchers’ scope is going to be African conception of knowledge. We will however, limit ourselves to the conception of truth, wisdom, what is knowable and that which is not knowable, amongst others in the African context. One major limitation of this essay is the non-viability of recent literature on the issue under discourse.



  1. A. Ruch and K.C. Anyanwu, African Philosophy; An Introduction to the Main Philosophical Trends in Contemporary Africa,(Rome: catholic Book Agency 1981) p.82.

2.     Ibid;                            P. 80


  1. U .Ukagba, “A philosophical Examination of African concept of man with Reference to the Igbo of south-East of Nigeria” (unpublished doctoral thesis Department of Philosophy, Catholic University of Louvain, 1993), P. 98.


  1. Temples, “Bamtu Philosophy”, quoted by Innocent Onyewuenyi  In Towards An African Philosophy culled from Ogbu U Kalu(ed), Readings in African humanities African cultural development  (Nsukka U.N.Y 1978), P. 250.




        In our examination of the nature of African Epistemology, we shall more or less be following the analysis of Temples, Ruch, Anyanwu, Abanuka, Onyewuenyi and other African scholars who in one way or the other have written philosophical treaties about African Epistemology. There seems to be a tacit agreement amongst the above mentioned philosophers, which a discussion of a people’s conception of knowledge without a prior examination of the underlying principles of their thought world views taking to fishing in water with a broken basket.1

This view is in line with the generally acceptable philosophical notion that:


The conception of  man (knowledge) is always  linked to a particular  conception of being and science, and therefore  the assertion of philosophers especially  with regard to the origin of  knowledge, require a prior  examination of their view on science and philosophy so that the accuracy  and  relevance  of their solutions to questions concerning  the nature of knowledge can be evaluated in light of these more basic ssumptions.2


In order to investigate human knowledge, it is important to require into the foundations of knowledge for without examining these foundations, it is very easy to reach wrong conclusions about how the Africans know. Human knowing follows closely on human being. In other words, beings know the way they are, or individuals on the level of humankind know in accordance with their levels of being. 3 This is why it is importance to consider the foundations of human knowledge in order to understand how human beings know. In this connection says Abanuka, human knowledge must be viewed in the background of its three foundations, namely the ultimate reality, the community and the individual.4?


African theory of knowledge as a branch of African philosophy is a recent phenomena. The dearth of written documentation is a factor militating against the progress of this branch of African philosophy.

However, we shall be consulting some authors whose works directly or otherwise have something to do with African notion of knowledge.

The first work to be reviewed here is authored by B. Abanuka, A New Essay on African Philosophy,  (1994). Recent works on African philosophy takes three major orientations: Skepticism concerning African philosophy itself, ethno philosophy, which proclaims the collective philosophy of a group and methodological works that outline canons for accepting any philosophy as African.

This book does not take any of the above orientation. The book makes a critical yet sensitive philosophical inquiry into the African Universe. In the background of the African folktales, myths signs and symbols, the author gives an all- inclusive account of the principles of African philosophy. Then in a clear and systematic manner he proposes a new interpretation of ancestors and presents a forceful explanation of knowledge, human life and action.

The second book under review here is co-authored by E.A. Ruch and K.C.  Anyanwu African philosoph, (1981). Essay 1 in this book titled “the African World-view and theory of knowledge is very relevant for our research. Ayanwu elaborated his thesis of the primary of epistemology over other disciplines. He argues that the philosophical questions are these. How do the Africans know what they claim to know? What method must the mind follow in order to arrive at what African accept as a trustworthy knowledge of reality?

According to Anyanwu, if we know these, then we can claim to understand why he behaves the way he does, why he thinks and acts the way he does. Anyanwu equally entered into the debate concerning the epistemology status of Rationalism and Empiricism and arrives at the conclusion that knowledge for the African could not be sub-ordinated to reason or the sense alone. Imagination, intuitive experience and feelings are also modes of knowing.

The next book to be reviewed here is authored by P. Temples, Bantu philosophy (1958). Temples defines African concept of knowledge (Wisdom) as “how deeply he understands the nature of forces and their interaction”. True wisdom lies in ontological knowledge; it is the intelligent forces of their hierarchy, their cohesion and their interaction.5

Finally the fourth work under review is the unpublished doctoral dissertation of Ukagba, “A philosophical Examination of African concept of man with reference to the Igbo of south East of Nigeria” (1993)

Ukagba argued forcefully here on the primacy of being before knowledge. He agreed with Temples that “true wisdom lies in Ontological knowledge” the African know in accordance with his nature. It is therefore only at the level of individual and community that African knowledge become possible. The ultimate knowledge which forms the basis of community and individual knowledge equally exist but at the transcendent level.


The African experience of the universe is characterized by unitary views.6 in this connection, the least statement we can make about that which is said to be real is that it is not anything. In talking about the real, one is saying that there is at least one thing.

In other to have a more all-embracing understanding of reality as a whole. We must conceive it not as consisting of the sum total of particular things but as comprising all particular things which exists and the ultimate support or source of these particular things.

Ultimate reality considered as the origin or support of all things can also described as the center of all things in so far as it contains in itself all he characteristics, which are manifested in varying degrees in particular.

Ultimate reality therefore is the first, in the sense of the ultimate foundation of knowledge. This is clear, for ultimacy is the principle of the origin or source and support of all things. In as much as the ultimate reality is the first beginning or origin of being and action of all things and this includes individual on the level of human kind, it is the first foundation of human knowledge. Without the ultimate reality, individual knowledge can neither be nor act as knowledge to one of human actions or operations”?

That the ultimate reality is the source or the first foundation of human knowledge can be understood from the consideration of the nature of reality. The ultimate reality (ultimate vital force) contains all the characteristics manifested in varying degrees in all things (in terms of the vital force which he distributes to all beings in the hierarchy of ‘being’). Since knowledge is characteristic manifests in individuals on the level of human kind, it must be founded on the ultimate reality. In other words, since all beings on African metaphysics derive their force from the ultimate force, human knowledge must have its first beginning or foundation in the ultimate reality considered as the first reality is a remote foundation8


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