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University Of Alberta Professor Aims To Help African Philosophy Find New Relevance

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As many of Africa’s societies were trampled by colonization, its traditional thought systems were also caught underfoot and eroded along the way.

Now, a new University of Alberta scholar is working to help remedy that loss by helping African philosophy secure a place alongside other recognized schools of thought.

“I am researching how we can do African philosophy better, such that it can become rich enough to compete with western, Chinese and other regional philosophies,” says Michael Omoge, an assistant professor at Augustana Campus.

By studying research methods of some western philosophical findings and traditions, he plans to help build a better understanding and strengthen the identity of African philosophy.

Currently, African philosophy is “relevance-oriented, meaning it’s geared towards resolving sociocultural ills bedeviling African societies.”

But at the same time, those societies are “too plentiful” for that type of approach, adds Omoge, one of 12 new tenure-track Black scholars hired as part of the U of A’s Black Academic Excellence Cohort Hire.

“We would have to postulate singular solutions for each society, without the hope of replicating one for the other.”

But we can, for example, incorporate conceptual analysis — one of the tools used in western analytic philosophy — and in so doing, African philosophers can address this methodological challenge, Omoge suggests in his work.

“Conceptual analysis can enable teasing out one solution that works for more than one African society.”

Freedom of thought and expression
First captivated by philosophy classes as an undergraduate student years ago, Omoge values the general field for its “freedom of thought and freedom of expression. There are issues that elicit strong emotions from people, but with philosophy, one is allowed to have such thoughts, and to defend them logically and rationally.”

As the study of life’s biggest questions, philosophy tends to be dismissed by society, but holds an underlying importance, he adds.

“There’s a notorious image among the general public that philosophy doesn’t bake bread. Nonetheless, it’s important to ensuring that we have reasons to say things — and these reasons, though we may not be aware of them, are part of us.

“Explaining our reasoning is important.”

As a scholar at the U of A, Omoge’s main research focus is modal epistemology, which involves investigating and evaluating claims about what is possible, impossible and necessary.

Omoge’s research takes the unique approach of considering findings in cognitive science, in fields like neuroscience, concerning perception and imagination, and incorporating them into his analytic work.

“This way, I’m able to clarify how our perceptual systems — our eyes, for example — enable us to form valid possibility, impossibility and necessity beliefs.”

Finding common ground with science
Though science and philosophy differ greatly in their research methods, the two disciplines go hand in hand, he believes.

“Explanation is the goal of both science and philosophy. They are identical in their goal to make us understand ourselves and our place in the world.

“Science is a field that is making significant advances and explaining even the most obscure parts of our universe, so it’s important that we have a philosophy that advances these scientific findings.”

And when the two mesh, “the result is quite momentous,” as in the case of quantum physics, when the early scientific hypothesis that atoms can be indiscernible but not identical challenged a long-standing philosophical theory that when two things are indiscernible, they are identical.

“As expected, this upset some philosophers, who rejected this aspect of quantum physics,” Omoge notes. “However, it also led scientists to clarify what they mean when they say indiscernibles can be non-identical. It turned out that what is carrying the explanatory force is the notion of ‘individuality’ philosophers or scientists are working with.

“Such clarification led to a significant paradigm shift in the history of quantum physics.”

Helping African philosophy find its rightful place
Omoge also uses his expertise in analytic philosophy to clarify issues in African philosophy. Part of his work will look to open up interest in the philosophy of his home continent to other scholars on a global level.

He wants to define “what is African philosophy, how is it being done, how should it be done, who is an African philosopher?”

By helping to answer those questions, Omoge, who is Nigerian, hopes to show that the field is not exclusive to African philosophers.

“My goal is to help make it outward-looking enough so that non-Africans can resonate more with it and in that way help to make it stand side by side with other philosophical traditions.

“This is about Africans in Africa, and we want non-Africans to see that there are philosophical traditions about Africans. I believe if we can get a handle on that, it allows non-Africans to understand African philosophy — and also to perhaps become African philosophers, which would help African philosophy find its rightful place.”

Strengthening the profile of African philosophy will also help renew it to its people, Omoge believes.

“Restoring indigenous African thought systems to their usefulness is essential to capturing the experiences of both traditional and modern Africans.”

Heightening the profile of African philosophy also empowers more knowledge-sharing about the differences in philosophical traditions, he notes.

Dreams and divination — seeking knowledge through supernatural means — for example, are part of African beliefs but aren’t accepted as standard knowledge sources in western philosophy, which relies more on perception and reason, Omoge notes.

“Yet, understanding why divination is important to an African philosopher can provide a source of knowledge to western philosophers that they can build on. They can learn from one another.”

African philosophers are also especially concerned with sociopolitical issues like the many civil wars that dog the continent, and that can contribute to pondering solutions for larger society, Omoge believes.

“If we make African philosophy global — make it known beyond the African shores — the resolution of those kinds of problems that African philosophy champions may also become a goal in general for philosophy.”

Putting the puzzle pieces together
To further his work as a philosopher, Omoge plans on eventually collaborating with other U of A researchers.

“It’s important that what we do in philosophy is continuous with what other academics are doing in their respective fields, that our conclusions fit a giant jigsaw puzzle, even though the pieces may be far apart. Collaboration is one way to ensure that.”

He also hopes his students come away from his classes using the crucial skills philosophy offers.

“What drives my teaching is that as human beings, they have the skills of critical thought and to be able to express their thoughts as clearly as possible. These are very underrated but important life skills.”