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Philosophy in... Amharic



Ethiopian philosophy so far has not assumed its unique essence - there is still room for experimentation with different traditions and schools of thought

Fasil Merawi teaches in the Philosophy Department at the University of Addis Ababa, at the Sidist Kilo campus set in the grounds of Haile Selassie's old Imperial Palace. His work focuses on critical theory, aesthetics and postmodernism. Today however, we discuss philosophy in his native tongue of Amharic, the lingua franca of modern Ethiopia, exploring its unique position in Ethiopia's diverse linguistic landscape, and the ways philosophy is popularized in contemporary Addis Ababa. He is also a friend and frequent collaborator of the interviewer, and their book on the Hatata Zera Yacob is set to be published in the coming months. A philosophical wordlist and suggestions for further reading are to be found at the bottom of the interview


 

I - Philosophical Trilingualism in Addis Ababa


I wanted to start off our conversation by reflecting a little bit on the university that you work in and where you hosted me earlier in this year, and to talk about the linguistic background of Ethiopian philosophy. So we're talking today about Amharic, the language people speak in the street in Addis Ababa and the widest spoken language in Ethiopia. But you’ve mentioned to me before that there's a sense in which it's one of only three languages of philosophy in Ethiopia, at least three. So could you tell me about those three that you had in mind?

 

Well, Amharic is the ‘popular’ language that is utilised within the popular discourse and for everyday conversations and so is the major vehicle for popularising philosophy to the masses. Amharic therefore plays a huge role. If you look at most of the works dealing with philosophical issues that are published and are easily circulated in Ethiopia, they have been published in the Amharic language.

 

Most of the philosophical literature produced in Amharic that deals with philosophical content is characterized by two major things. First, it is not produced by academic philosophers but by journalists who aim to ‘sell’ philosophy as a commodity to the masses. Second, these attempts tend to the popularisation of Eastern philosophy – for example thinkers like Osho – and similar texts dealing with Eastern philosophy and meditation. Amharic is used to develop a ‘pop philosophy’, sort of to pop psychology. In my opinion, it does not lead to the development of a genuine philosophical discourse, since it is primarily motivated by the need to sell philosophy books to the masses. Nevertheless, Amharic certainly occupies huge role in any attempt to popularise philosophy.

 

But that is just one of the major expressions of philosophy in Ethiopia. We then have an academic tradition of philosophy that is dominated by the continental tradition, and this goes back to the introduction of Marxist philosophy in the Derg period. And ever since then there is this obsession with using philosophy as a way of transforming society, developing philosophy as an emancipatory practice and as a way of diagnosing existential predicaments which arise in a given society. So that is the second major form of expression.


Church Scholars Examining a Manuscript in Northern Ethiopia


And thirdly philosophy in Ethiopia is also expressed through the usage of the Ge’ez language. In this context you have the attempt to study the religious texts that are the foundations of Ethiopian philosophy and you also have the attempt to popularise different Ge’ez texts like the Hatatas.


So you are saying that Amharic is used to present a ‘popularised’ philosophy – philosophy as a form of self-help, philosophy as Eastern spirituality for East Africans! Then on the other hand we have got the academic style of philosophy, mostly continental philosophy conducted in English and finally we have the church-based Ge’ez tradition. I find it really interesting that while you have the vernacular of Amharic, instead of one classical language (like with Latin in Europe or Sanskrit in India) you actually have two languages that function in this way, a traditional holy language of Ge’ez and then the contemporary academic language of English. I was just wondering could you tell me a bit more about the use of English – do you yourself teach in English at the university?

 

Yes, if you look at the courses that are given at Addis Ababa university, not just in the philosophy department but the university at large, English is the official form of instruction. Except for a few departments like Afaan Oromo, Amharic and the Tigrinya departments, all the other courses, within the natural sciences or humanities are given in the English language. In the philosophy department we trace the development of philosophy starting from the Presocratics in the ancient period, going into the medieval period, the modern period and currently the postmodern philosophical literature.

 

It is a really interesting kind of sociological case of the three different languages working all alongside each other, and it is interesting of course that these different languages have such different focuses related to the particular social roles that they play – in the case of Ge’ez as connecting Ethiopia to a part of its religious past, in the case of English connecting it to contemporary global academia, or for Amharic connecting philosophy to people's everyday lives and speech.  You mentioned that most of the teaching at the university takes place in English. Is the thought there that the ideas can be shared in the widest possible community, allowing Ethiopian scholars to be part of a global conversation?

 

Yes, I mean if you look at the current ways in which philosophy is being taught and practiced in Ethiopia, it is mostly dominated by continental philosophy where philosophy is employed as part of a discourse on social activism. Continental philosophy is seen as a way of using philosophy in order to bring about a real transformation in the lives of the masses. The way in which philosophy is taught within academia thus has a sort of a Marxist orientation that goes back into the Ethiopian student movement and the equation of philosophy with Marxist thinking within the Derg period and which still lingers within contemporary Ethiopian philosophy. As I see it, this interest is not given to the pursuit of philosophy for its own sake, but rather instrumentalises philosophy as a way of bringing about change in the lives of the people.


Street Scene near Mercato, Addis Ababa

 

So it sounds like there are two very large background influences on contemporary Ethiopian philosophy: the legacy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on the one hand, and then on the other hand the philosophical legacy of Marxist-Leninist thinking. Would you say that these influences inhibit philosophy in Ethiopia or would you say that these are maybe themselves two of the most important philosophical traditions that have been expanded on subsequently?

 

It is important to say that contemporary Ethiopian philosophy should concern itself with two things: one it is a discourse that is still being mapped out, and to such an extent it does not have a unique essence – it is still being figured out in its experimentation with different grounds of truth. Secondly, in terms of the various influences that you mentioned, I would say that it is a Ethiopian philosophy developed in an entanglement with both domestic and external sources of philosophizing: on one hand you have the reflection on culture, society and indigenous texts that originated within the Church tradition, and on the other hand a wider religious tradition that involves a rich experimentation with the Arabian world and also with Greco-Roman civilization so Ethiopian philosophy really emerges as a result of all of these influences

 

What you say reminds me of Paulin Hountondji’s wonderful line ‘African philosophy is still in the making’ – is that something you agree with?

 

Definitely. So far the many attempts to popularize philosophy in Ethiopia are characterized by severe limitations: on one hand you have these attempts to romanticize the past and make it seem as if we have a philosophical tradition that is comparable to the systems of rationality that originated in Western Europe, but without any conclusive evidence for this comparison. Other limitations include simply a conceiving of philosophy as a discourse that is only a tool for societal transformation, thereby separating its political impact from the quest for knowledge. So I would say that Ethiopian philosophy so far has not assumed its unique essence and there is still room for experimentation with different traditions and schools of thought.

 

I was interested in what you were saying about the idea of popularizing philosophical ideas in Amharic, and what some of the challenges might be when you are trying to translate a certain set of ideas. I know you are very interested in Habermas for example – what is it like trying to teach Habermas in Amharic?

 

I mean the major challenge not just in teaching Habermas in Amharic but philosophy at large is one the fact that we do not seem to have a coherent conception of the public sphere, and because of that we do not have this public space in which ideas are being debated in a detached way, meaning that some of the most fundamental concepts and notions in the life of our society are not being debated. So the fact that we do not have a proper conception of the public sphere essentially inhibits the very development of a philosophical temperament. Secondly the way philosophy has been popularized within the Ethiopian context so far prevents us from drawing a distinction between the religious sphere on one hand and the public sphere on the other hand. Because of that philosophy is still perceived as a taboo in some quarters, and because of that you are not able to raise questions regarding for example the existence of God, the foundations of society and values the essence of morality and so on.


A Selection of Philosophy Books Available at book stalls along Arat Kilo, Addis Ababa


On the other hand we also need to consider the experimentation during the Derg period when philosophy was essentially identified with Marxist learning. Because of this legacy the very idea of philosophizing is sometimes identified with a radical political discourse that seeks to undermine the foundations of society and values. On top of that, within the last one or two decades the attempts to introduce philosophy in Ethiopia has involved itself in an intellectual sophism – all these journalists and individuals coming from different disciplines simply taking the ideas of the greatest philosophers of the scholars and repeating what they have said about religion, love, aesthetics and so on and using those ideas in order to say their books to the masses, rather than having an interest in initiating a rational discourse about our society.


So would you say that a lot of these early attempts to do philosophy in Amharic end up paraphrasing other ideas rather than trying to philosophize in Amharic themselves?

 

I agree with that. One example that you could use is the fact that the most popular thinker for the average Ethiopian reader of philosophy seems to be this person called Osho. You know, know there is a legitimate interest in yoga, in Eastern philosophy and so on, but some of the journalists deliberately popularize the idea that philosophy must be otherworldly, that it needs to be defined narrowly, in relation to meditation or the negation of the material life. Even more recently there was an attempt to introduce the ideas of Ayn Rand, but again this seems to me just an attempt driven by the attempt to sell books for the masses and does not have any real foundation within the life of the community


II - Epistemological Anarchism at the Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob School of Philosophy

 

I do remember being surprised at how many different editions of these Eastern spiritualists thinkers you could find in the book stalls outside of Addis Ababa university. I wanted to talk about what I thought was a very interesting alternative to that set up by our a mutual friend Brooh Asmare: the Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob School of Philosophy in which teaching takes place in Amharic could you tell me a little bit about that institution?

 

I think that the Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob School of Philosophy is a brave attempt to introduce philosophy in Amharic in a different way: every summer Brooh would invite philosophy lecturers and instructors who have an interest in a wide range of topics like aesthetics, the question of modernity, philosophy of science and so on, to give lectures to students from different backgrounds, as long as they have an interest in philosophy. I myself have participated in two or three of those sessions and it is a really stimulating experience where you get to have a dialogue with individuals from different disciplines and intellectual backgrounds. So that is one way of popularizing philosophy in Ethiopia

 

Exactly – instead of having to translate ideas from Ge’ez or English into Amharic you simply have native speakers doing their philosophical work in that language. That seems like a really productive alternative. Who were the audiences of these classes at the Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob School of philosophy?

 

Essentially what Brooh did was to make posters for the Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob School of Philosophy and out them up all over town, and he ended up attracting a broader audience made up of intellectuals, university teachers, lecturers, journalists, artists, high school students and so on, even retired professionals from different disciplines and from within the ranks of the government. They ended up coming to those lectures that me and others who were invited by Brooh and the organizers into giving a series of lectures. When you attend those classes you see that you are dealing with individuals from different backgrounds, and since it is not a sort of a rigid environment that is only interested in academic philosophy, very rich conversations and dialogues emerged.


Semien Mountains, Amhara, Ethiopia

 

I can give you one instance where I was defending postmodernist ideas in the philosophy of science and there was a heated discussion in the classroom when I invoked the ideas of Paul Feyerabend – epistemological anarchism – and challenged the view that science represents the exclusive path to knowledge. Just to see the reactions of the students I argued that as far as the question of method is concerned, anything goes – there is no ultimate standard which you could use in order to say that science is superior to witchcraft. At that instance one of the students who I think was a chemistry teacher at another university couldn't control himself and exclaimed that these ideas are a form of stupidity! All of the students that were attending the class were shocked, but this just shows you to what extent the students were reacting to the kind of ideas that were being discussed and the discussions were genuine and different ideas were being debated

 

That sounds like a fantastic example of how doing philosophy in the language that people will directly understand is a way of getting people to really feel the problems, to really react to them. It sounds like a fantastic sort of environment not only for the students but perhaps for yourself as well. I was wondering how it felt to be teaching philosophy in Amharic rather than in English – did you find it easier to teach in your mother tongue or was it harder in some ways because it was much less familiar? 

 

I mean there are both challenges and prospects that are associated with this kind of attempt. When you teach philosophy in Amharic you become more enthusiastic because you have this way of situating the debates within everyday language, the kind of conversations that are taking place on the street, and also to embed ideas within the cultural values of the people. The main challenge is that almost all of us actually all of us are brought up within this English-dominated system of education and because of that we internalize these ideas and translating some of the basic concepts and ideas that are being discussed is quite a challenging task. Coming up for instance with an Amharic equivalent for ‘primordial matter’, ‘the nature of metaphysics’, Hegelian ‘spirit’ and so on, that is quite a challenging task.  

 

Yes I can absolutely imagine that finding ways to translate Hegelian terminology into Amharic must be a really tricky one! In between a chemistry teacher telling you that your epistemology is stupid and having to invent these terms it must have been real challenging, but it sounds like it was extremely rewarding for you as well.

 

Yes, definitely it was rewarding and you know back in the days one of those thinkers that made a really huge contribution in terms of trying to translate this difficult English philosophical concept into Amharic was Professor Messay Kebede, who prepared an Amharic glossary for Marxist-Leninist terminology. In one of the volumes that he prepared you have all these translations for some of the difficult concepts and it is by borrowing on those translations that we can carry out these discussions of philosophy in Amharic.

 

Thanks so much for your time Fasil, አመሰግናለሁ

 



Amharic Philosophical Wordlist


Truth እውነት ewnet

Mind አእምሮ amaro

Reason ምክንያት mikniyat

Appearance መልክ    melk

Reality እውነታ ewneta

Eternity ዘላለማዊ zelalemawi

Infinity ገደብ የለሽ gedeb yelesh

God ፈጣሪ fatari

Good ጥሩ tiru

Evil እርኩስ   irkus

Beauty ውበት wubet

Society ማህበረሰብ mahabharasab

Philosophy ፍልስፍና filsefina



IV - Endnotes and Further Reading


  • Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. Vols. 1–3, ed. Siegbert Uhlig; vol. 4, ed. Siegbert Uhlig and Alessandro Bausi; vol. 5, ed. Alessandro Bausi and Siegbert Uhlig. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2003–2014.

  • Alemayyehu Moges (1961): EC. Ḥatäta Zäzär’a Ya‛ǝqob, Ethiopian Philosopher. Thesis presented at Haile Selassie I University. Addis Ababa.

  • Asfaw, T. (2004). The Contribution of Native Ethiopian Philosophers, Zara Yacob and Wolde Hiwot , to Ethiopian Philosophy. Philosophy.

  • Bahru Zewde. (1991). A History of Modern Ethiopia. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press.

  • Brooh Asmare. (2018). የኢትዮጵያ ፍልስፍና: የዘርዓያዕቆብና የወልደ ህይወት ሐተታዎች ትንታኔ (Ethiopian Philosophy: A Detailed Analysis Of The Ḥatätas Of Zärʾa Yaʿqob And Wäldä Həywät, A Book That Concerns History, Religion, Philosophy And National Melancholy). Graphic Ltd, Addis Ababa.

  • Daniel Kibret. (2016). የሌለውን ፈላስፋ ፍለጋ (In Search of The Philosopher Who Did Not Exist). Publisher Unknown: Addis Ababa

  • Dawit Worku Kidane. (2012) The Ethics of Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob: A Reply To The Historical And Religious Violence In The Seventeenth Century Ethiopia. Testi Gregoriana Serie Filosofia 30.

  • Egid, Jonathan. (2023b) Fake or Philosophy? Aeon.

  • Egid, J, Cantor, L & Fasil Merawi. (forthcoming) In Search of Zärʾa Yaʿǝqob: On the Authenticity and Authorship of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob. De Gruyter

  • Elleni Centime Zeleke. (2019). Ethiopia in Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production, 1964–2016. Brill.

  • Herbjørnsrud, D. (2017). The African Enlightenment. Aeon

  • Jeffers, Chike (2017) Rights, Race, and the Beginnings of Modern Africana Philosophy in The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race. Routledge

  • Kiros, T. (2005). Zara Yacob. A Seventeenth Century Rationalist: Philosopher of the Rationality of the Heart. The Red Sea Press.

  • Leslau, W. (2001) Concise Dictionary of Ge'ez (Concise Dictionary of Ge'ez (Classical Ethiopic): Ge'ez-English). Harrasowitz Verlag

  • Marzagora, S. (2020). Refashioning the Ethiopian Monarchy in the Twentieth Century: An Intellectual History. Global Intellectual History.

  • Mennasemay, M. (2010). A Critical Dialogue Between Fifteenth and Twenty First Century Ethiopia.

  • Mennasemay, M. (2021). Qine Hermeneutics and Ethiopian Critical Theory.

  • Sumner, C. (1976). Ethiopian Philosophy, vol. II: The Treatise of Zara Yaecob and Walda Hewat: Text and Authorship. Addis Ababa: Commercial Printing Press.

  • Sumner, Claude (1978) The Treatise of Zär’a Ya’eqob and Wäldä Heywat. An Analysis (Ethiopian Philosophy, Vol. III). Addis Ababa: Commercial Printing Press

  • Sumner, C. (1988). The Ethiopian Philosophy of Greek Origin. In Collectanea Aethiopica (pp. 145–172). F. Steiner.

  • Sumner, C. (1994). New Directions in Research in Ethiopian Philosophy. Proceedings of the 12th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, 418–439.

  • Sumner, C. (1999). The Significance of Zera Yacob’s Philosophy. Ultimate Reality and Meaning, 22(3), 172–188.

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