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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Egid

Philosophy in... Wolof

“before one single European set foot in West Africa, logic – Aristotelian logic – was studied as such in Timbuktu and other intellectual centres”

For philosophers interested in translation or African languages, Souleymane Bachir Diagne needs no introduction. Currently Professor of French and of Philosophy and the Director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, New York, his work covers a remarkable range of topics from Boolean algebra to Sufism, with monographs on figures as diverse as Henri Bergson, Léopold Senghor and Muhammad Iqbal. In this interview we discuss philosophy written in the Ajami scripts of West Africa and the study of logic and Islamic theology in Timbuktu, the problem of orality in African philosophy, linguistic determinism versus grammatical inclination and the importance of translation for philosophical universalism. As always, the interview concludes with a philosophical wordlist and further reading.

I - The Ink of the Scholars

Today we're going to be talking about philosophising in Wolof. And I wondered whether you could just begin by telling some of our listeners a little bit about Wolof itself: where it's spoken and what kind of languages it's related to.

Well, Wolof is the lingua franca of Senegal, the westernmost country on the African continent as I'm sure everybody knows. And it is the language of the Wolof people, that is, the people from Jolof, which was the original name of the region in which Wolof was spoken. And the reason why it became the lingua franca of the country is because, first of all, Wolof people are the majority ethnic group in Senegal. But it's not just that they are the majority, it is that their language was the language of trade, the language of playgrounds, the language of cities. So now something close to ninety percent of Senegalese speak Wolof. So those who are not Wolof have in addition to Wolof their own language.


It is also spoken across the Senegambia in general, because as you know, looking at the map, the Gambia is a former British colony, therefore separated from the rest of Senegal, which was a French colony, but you have basically the same populations in the Gambia in Senegal, so Wolof is spoken also in the Gambia. And since Wolof people have historically travelled a lot, the language is also spoken in southern Mauritania, indeed quite widely spoken there, and also spoken in Mali, in Guinea, all these surrounding countries as well. But it is primarily Senegalese language, and not as widespread as say, Fula or Mande, but still the lingua franca of Senegal.

The Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali

A lot of your own work focuses on written philosophy in the West African context. And in order to give a bit more background on the context of written philosophy in the region, I was wondering whether you could tell us a little about Ajami writings in the region, in particular, how Ajami writing is used in some of the great centres of West African like Djenne and Timbuktu, so we can start to link some of these points together.


Yes, it's a very important point because there is this stereotype, according to which African cultures are oral cultures. Africa is not married with orality, so this is an important thing to say. So when we talk about writing African languages, we have to remember one important thing, that the Islamisation of important regions of Africa meant the introduction not only of the Quran, not only the Arabic language for those who learned it and became scholars using the Arabic language, but the Arabic script as well. The Arabic script was used to write indigenous African non-Arabic languages as well, which is what is called Ajami. Ajami is a word for the use of Arabic scripts to write languages other than Arabic. So very early, thanks to Islamisation, many West African languages were written using Arabic scripts in very specialized fields. Wolof one of those, so was Fula or Soninke or many West African languages as well. So we have to take into account not just the presence of Arabic in Africa and the use of Arabic for philosophical thought but also the use of Arabic scripts to write indigenous African languages.


So it is not that there's an evolution from Ajami works of philosophy into Wolof philosophy, but that we already have philosophising in Wolof, we already have the first written text of Wolof philosophy in some of these Ajami works. Sometimes account of African philosophy contrast Arabic traditions from those in African languages, but not only does Ajami complicate this picture, you've mentioned a couple of times before that it's important to consider Arabic as an African language. What do you mean by this and why is it important for understanding the development of philosophy in Africa?


Well, there are many reasons why it is important to mention at the outset that Arabic is an African language. First of all, Arabic is the language of North Africa, what is called the Maghreb, and although they speak various dialects coming from Arabic rather than classical Arabic, one can still say that Arabic is the language of North Africa. And when we talk about Africa, we have to talk about the whole, the totality of the continent, not just Sub-Saharan Africa. We have a tendency to think that when we say Africa, we have in mind Sub-Saharan Africa, a perception precisely connected to the stereotype I mentioned earlier about African cultures being quintessentially oral cultures. People forget that the Sahara has never been a wall separating two words. Trans Saharan routes have always existed, and exchanges between the south of Sahara and northern part of Sahara have always existed,  meaning that you had ideas  traveling, scholars  traveling, all sorts of goods and merchandise traveling – also we have to mention, people were traveling, people who were not free scholars going to intellectual centres, but people in bondage as well – these trans-Saharan routes always connected the northern part of the continent and the southern part of the continent.


Now when we look at the intellectual history of Africa, we cannot make a neat separation between Sub-Saharan Africa and the northern part of Africa because of what we just said about the meaning of Islamisation. Islamisation was not just the arrival of a new religion in the southern part of the Sahara, it also meant a new intellectual paradigm, first of all involving the use of Arabic script, but also a connection to the larger global word of Islam and Islamic science. This meant that you have the development of intellectual centres, you mentioned the name of Timbuktu, and Timbuktu is probably the best known centre because of the manuscripts kept there, but it was not the only one. In northern Nigeria too you had many important intellectual centres, Senegal, Djenne, Kokki, etc, were also very important centres, and the study of this tradition of written a tradition in West Africa, for example, has just started.


The development of what a colleague and friend of mine, Ousmane Khan, has called Timbuktu studies, which is the generic name of all the studies of the manuscripts and the written tradition of West Africa. This is a developing field now, but in order to really understand that field, to study and to understand the intellectual history of West Africa, one has to get rid of the idea of a radical separation between the northern part of Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa and reestablish the continuity without which one cannot understand how Africa was also connected to what has been known by the Latin phrase of translatio studii. This Latin expression, referring to the transfer, or transmission, of Greek philosophy [to later societies], happened in the Islamic world in general, when the word of Islam received, so to say, Greek philosophy, Greek sciences, through the translation of Greek works into Arabic. This also meant that you would have dimensions of that translatio studii in Timbuktu or Djenne or other intellectual centres like that.

Distribution of Wolof speakers in West Africa

For example, Senegalese historian, Cheikh Anta Diop famously wrote that one must remember that before one single European set foot in West Africa, logic – Aristotelian logic – was studied as such in Timbuktu and other intellectual centres. So this is very important when we want to have the general picture of the intellectual history of West Africa. Indeed, from what I have said about West Africa as you could draw analogies with something that happened on the other side of Africa, on the Swahili coast of the Indian ocean, but for now lets focus on West Africa.


It's interesting that you were making the parallel with the Swahili coast because I was thinking about the parallel with Ethiopia, where once again you have a kind of isolation myth about Ethiopia being totally isolated and cut off from the rest of the world, not by the Sahara but by the Ethiopian highlands. Just as with West Africa, contemporary scholarship shows that this is absolutely not the case, that Ethiopia is connected in all sorts of interesting ways to the Islamic, Greek, Oriental Orthodox and Indian intellectual traditions. So to continue on that point, I remember once you said that the history of philosophy in Africa is always a history of encounters, and there was one particular kind of encounter I was particularly interested in in the West African case, namely translation. You mentioned Aristotelian logic, but what other kinds of texts were Timbuktu scholars most interested in translating into their own languages in studying in this context?


Well because we are talking about the Islamic world, at the centre of this learning would involve the Quran itself and everything connected to the understanding of the Quran. And when we talk about translation, we have to remember that it is not always a written translation. People might be commenting on the Quran, translating and explaining and commenting on it in a mental language that would be their own indigenous African language. We can perfectly well imagine a scholar sitting with their disciples and then translating for them the Quran, just as it is done today, even in mosques throughout West Africa. There you always see people doing tafsir – which is the Arabic word for translation and commentary at the same time – of the Quran. And then there are the disciplines connected to that theology. Jurisprudence was a queen of the disciplines across the Islamic world, and so it was also in West Africa. You would have theological works as well. For example, we know that a theologian such as Al-Ghazali,  a famous theologian who attacked philosophers but was ultimately himself such a great philosopher, was very much studied in West Africa and very often quoted by West African scholars as well.


And of course I mentioned logic. The reason why I mentioned logic is that it was probably the part of philosophy that was most highly praised and which was taught without any kind of controversy. You could have religious controversies surrounding metaphysics, the physics of Aristotle, philosophy in general. All these could be in conflict with religious teaching, but not logic. Logic considered as the science of valid reasoning was considered useful for everybody, especially the jurisprudence who would like to have their own legal decisions put in the nice form of a syllogism etc. So this explains why logic was so important the study of logic and you had many textbooks of logic interestingly written in poetry in verses. One way of making sure that you remember you memorize the rules in that you put them into poetic form, into verses. Verses are always easier to recite, to memorize than prose. So it was a whole genre of putting into poetry these very abstract text – not just logic, but also theological texts.


II - Orality, Critique and The Problem of Unanimity

I’m sure I would have enjoyed my logic classes so much more if we've been reading them as poems instead of instead of formulae! This also brings us to one of the more general topics that I wanted to explore: the distinction between oral and literary philosophy. So much of the early debates about the nature of African philosophy, especially ‘ethnophilosophy’ begin from oral traditions and a lot of the metaphilosophical innovations that proponents of philosophical sagacity like Odera Oruka of propose ways of getting around the apparent absence of written texts in the African context,. So what do philosophers miss out on when they exclusively focus on orality?


Well they miss out on very important dimensions of philosophical thought on the African continent. It is important to insist on both a written tradition and also to insist on the capacity of ‘orature’ as oral literature is called sometimes to carry philosophical thought – ‘philosophical sagacity’ to use here the concept popularized by the late Odera Oruka. The question that was posed was to ask whether you can find philosophical thought expressed in oral traditions because as the Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji famously put it, the mind might be so focused on memorizing what needs to be transmitted orally, that they do not criticize, do not have a critical relationship with what is being transmitted. In other words, orality would fail by its very nature to be self-critical, and philosophy must be identified with a critical examination. This is a very important question to pose, and indeed the project of philosophical sagacity constituted a response. I mean when Odera Oruka mentioned that you did have sages who expressed themselves orally and presented philosophical arguments that are worth of studying, this was a way of talking about orality as a medium equal to the written medium of philosophical thought.


Moreover you have also the discussion raised by the Senegalese philosopher Mamoussé Diagne, who in a book entitled Critique de la raison orale (a Critique of Oral Reason) – paraphrasing obviously Kant – mentioned that if you look at oral narratives, oral texts as we might call them you can see how an oral text can respond or critically deal with another oral text. In other words when you look at the way in which oral texts maybe or oral narratives may be responding to one another, then the critical self-critical dimension of orality can appear. So we need to be careful in the study of orality and not just think that orality as such is debarred from philosophical thought.


I wanted to examine the connection between philosophy and linguistics on Kagame’s view, because his idea that certain philosophical systems or certain worldviews can be derived from the grammar of a natural language I thought was a really interesting one. I was wondering whether this is just linguistic determinism in the Sapir-Whorf tradition, such that ‘the Indo-Europeans have an ontology of being whereas the Bantu languages have an ontology of becoming’ or is there something more subtle going on here whereby we see certain philosophical inclinations: maybe that the grammar of a certain language gives us reason to think of time in a certain way, or we maybe see that there is a certain kind of ontology that you can do with the Greek noun ousia or the Greek verb einai that you can't do with other languages?


I like the word that you use which is ‘inclination’ because this is a very important question, one which by the way leads us to be much more prudent in dismissing what we call ethnophilosophy. There really is is something to be gained from the linguistic approach. This was present actually in the book by Tempels which started the whole question of ethnophilosophy and that has been vilified in a way that was a little bit unfair. Tempels tried to pay attention to the language of the people he was talking about so, it is not as though everything he said was  mere construction. Nevertheless this was more developed in Kagame's approach. Kagame looked at the language itself, writing important passages analysing the relationship between Aristotelian ontology and the Greek language of Aristotle, saying basically that what was presented as the universal grammar of reasoning through Aristotle's enumeration of the categories of thought may very well just exemplify the grammatical categories of his own Greek language. And it is important to note that this was written by Kagame in 1956, that is to say two years before French linguist Emile Benveniste famously wrote an article on the very same topic, saying that categories of thought in Aristotle’s philosophy were really just categories of language, specifically the Greek language.  


So does that means that to each language is own philosophy? This is a radical relativism, a radicalization in a way of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: each language contains its own philosophy and to philosophise in Africa would be to philosophise in the African languages, digging out the logical categories contained in those languages and using them in a way that would be there authentically African. Kagame seems to be tempted to go in that direction because as you know as our listeners know he listed four categories from the Kinyarwanda language he was analysing and saying that in the same way that Western ontology was built on Aristotelian categories, one should build on these four Kinyarwanda categories a whole new philosophy.

Catholic Wedding in Nianing, Senegal

This brings me back to what you said about inclination. To think that we are determined by our the grammar of our languages to think in a certain way is a negation of philosophical thinking. One could not ignore obviously that we think in given languages and that the language we speak the language in which we are thinking actually shapes in a way our thoughts. Nietzsche says as much when he said that in virtue of their own grammar certain European languages were inclined to think certain type of categories, and so on and so forth, while different languages were directed differently.


You mentioned for example ousia. One could mention more generally the verb ‘to be’ which is so characteristic of Indo-European languages. When you recite the beginning of Parmenides poem ‘being is, not being is not’, you have to be aware that this is only possible in a particular language where you can go from the verb ‘to be’ to the substantive ‘being’ by adding ‘-i-n-g’ the same way you can do it in French the same way you can do it in Greek going from einai to on. But while it is a characteristic mark of the Indo-European languages, the rest of the world actually doesn't use the copula ‘to be’ in the same way. To return to Benveniste, he made a very interesting comparison between Aristotle's Greek and the language of Ewe spoken in Togo and in Ghana etc. There he says ‘well they do not use the verb to be in the same way and one could not even say that they lack the verb ‘to be’’. It is absurd to say that a language lacks the verb ‘to be’ – Benveniste says well maybe you have even too many ways of saying ‘to be’ but a language cannot lack the capacity to express being.


So yes, one has to take into account the fact that a given language is a certain relationship to the world, a certain way of relating to the word – even as Merleau-Ponty puts it a relationship of body to the word. Merleau-Ponty adds that in that sense one could say that no language is translatable into another language. But at the same time translation still happens, one always find ways of translating from a language to another language.


This happened for example to Greek philosophy when it was translated into Latin. Now, we might say that Latin is close enough, it is another European language after all, and then it was translated into Arabic which became the language of philosophy at one point – not just for Muslim philosophers but Jewish philosophers as well. It was the language of Maimonides etc. So translation itself teaches us something about the nature of philosophical thought and the relationship between philosophical thinking and the languages in which we are thinking and writing and expressing ourselves. This is why that dimension of the translatio studii that I mentioned earlier is so important, why the translation of Greek philosophy through different languages is important, and this is why I come back to inclination. I think that our languages incline us to think in a certain direction but without necessity. They incline and do not necessitate and saying that I'm paraphrasing an expression from Leibniz that I like to quote: “incliner sans nécessiter”.


The last point you made is really interesting for the general mission of this series of interviews, because it strikes me that this notion that the grammar of natural languages offer certain sets of philosophical inclinations offers a really strong argument for the importance of linguistic diversity in philosophy. If Greek grammar inclines us towards a particular kind of ontology and if most philosophy downstream of Aristotle's Categories is composed in languages that share relatively similar grammatical structures for the verb ‘to be’ – I mean obviously they are quite a variation of them within Indo-European languages, but the linguistic world is much larger than the Indo-European languages! – then by studying these alternatives we would surely be able to see what is truly universal and what is simply the accident of a particular local linguistic category. Is that the sort of a project that would be worth continuing?


Absolutely, that is the project I am myself engaged in. This is why I believe in the philosophical importance of translation. This is why, in response to this absolute relativistic approach of ‘let's all philosophize in our own languages, exploring our own categories’, I believe in what has been called by philosopher of translation Antoine Berman ‘the test of the foreign’ – l'Épreuve de l'étranger – the idea that we must test our philosophical arguments through their translation into other languages, looking at what philosophical questions, topics, problems and concepts become through translation. That approach seems to me a very important comparative approach and also the best way to take into account a pluralistic approach to philosophical thinking.

French Colonial Era Postcard of Saint-Louis, Senegal

Translation happens all the time. It i what makes a history of philosophy a history of encounters. For example, we have been discussing African languages, the way in which African languages have undergone hybridisation: the hybridity of African languages, through mixture with Arabic and also through European languages. When we talk about categories of languages, we have to look at the way a language such as Swahili has so much Arabic vocabulary and that the same thing is true to a lesser extent with many other African languages. We started our discussion talking about philosophising in Wolof, so I will return to my own Wolof language. Many words have been adopted and adapted from Arabic, especially words expressing temporal categories. Thus waqt (moment) zamān (time, era,etc.) are widely used in many African languages. That is the case for my own Wolof language. The adoptions from Arabic were the result of translations, precisely because translation never leaves the language of arrival the same as it was. Your language is transformed through translation, and that movement of transformation is very important. All of this emphasizes the importance of translation and what I would call a translational approach to what it means to decolonize philosophy, that is to say to pluralize philosophy, to pluralize the geography of philosophy, and to pluralize the languages of philosophy. A translational approach is really the contrary of absolute relativistic and separatist approach.


Absolutely, and this is true not only true of philosophy in the African context, it's also absolutely true of philosophy in in the various European languages. When you see some of the earliest attempts to do philosophy in English you have people grappling with all of these difficult sort of questions about whether we just take these Greek and Latin words over – like your example of time vocabulary in Wolof – or whether we come up with new original English words. I thought about this earlier when you were mentioning logic. One of the earliest works of philosophy in English is called ‘witcraft’ because somebody said that he didn't want to take over the Greek the ink horn term of logic from the Greek we have a good English term we can use. Logic is the crafting of wits, so: witcraft. Then a phrase like ‘every statement is either an affirmation or a negation’ becomes ‘every shewsay is either a yaysay or a naysay’. Obviously these attempts at a kind of linguistic nationalism failed: nobody says yaysay or naysay, nobody says ‘witcraft’ we do say ‘logic’, ‘ethics’, ‘nature’ ‘Self’, ‘person’ all the time so you know it's an important point for thinking about the translation of philosophy in all languages and also just about language more generally: these are words that non-philosophers are using every day!

  And this this kind of leads us nicely to the very last question which is that I know that you've been working on a really interesting project recently which is a Wolof edition of the ‘Dictionary of Untranslatables’: could you tell us a little bit more about this project and what the idea of adding an African language to this already very multilingual project will add?


It seemed to me and to Barbara Cassin who is the editor as you know of the of the Dictionary of Untranslatables that it wasa nice addition to the different versions through which the Dictionary of Untranslatables has been traveling. Having an Africa language as well would be an excellent way of looking at the translation of these ‘Untranslatables’. But it seemed also to us – meaning my colleagues from the Department of Philosophy of the University of Dakar and myself – that this would be a good a good way of introducing the practice of translation in our own approach to philosophizing in in Wolof. We choose a certain number of entries from the from the original Dictionary the original dictionary of the untranslatable because we are not going to translate the whole big thing, but selecting a certain number of entries all of all the entries actually related to language: the one on logic, the one on translation for example the one maybe on French (because French is so present in our life and in our philosophizing) but adding also entries other entries so we need to add an entry on Wolof on the Wolof language talk about the Wolof language and so on so forth.


It is coming along nicely we have already had two meetings and right now we are engaged with a linguist also linguist colleagues a colleague of mine who is teaching Wolof and Pulaar here in Columbia University; a colleague and our friend Oumar Ka who works at Baltimore University of Baltimore and who is a linguist also – actually he is the one who translated my own contribution to the to the volume published by Chike Jeffers under the title ‘Listening to Ourselves’ so he is the one who translated my piece written in Wolof into English so we are quite a nice team of friends and colleagues working on this and we hope to come up with a first draft by the end of this of this year.


Excellent - well I wish you the very best of luck with that project - we're very excited about it. Thank you for joining us here today Professor Diagne


It's a pleasure Jonathan

III - Wolof Philosophical Wordlist

Truth : - dëgg

Mind: - ruu

Reason: - xel

Appearance: - melokaan

Reality: - li am

Eternity: - Abadan

Infinity: - lu amul app

God: - Yalla

Good: - baax

Evil: - bon

Beauty: - taar

Society: - askan


  • Benveniste, É. (1966). Problèmes de linguistique Générale. Gallimard.

  • Cassin, B. (2004). Dictionary of untranslatables: A philosophical lexicon. Princeton University Press.

  • Diagne, S. B. (2013a). On the postcolonial and the universal? Rue Descartes, 78(2), 7–18.

  • Diagne, S. B. (2013b). The Ink of the Scholars: Reflections on Philosophy in Africa. CODESRIA.

  • Diagne, S.B (2000) "Revisiter « La Philosophie bantoue », L'idée d'une grammaire philosophique". In Politique africaine 2000/1 (N° 77), pages 44 à 53.

  • Diagne, Mamoussé (2005) Critique De La Raison Orale. Les Pratiques Discursives En Afrique Noire

  • Hountondji, P. (1996). African Philosophy: Myth and Reality.

  • Kagame, A. (1956) La Philosophie Bantu-Rwandaise De L'être (Mémoires de l'Académie Royale des Sciences dOutre-Mer, vol. XII), Bruxelles

  • Odera Oruka, H. (1990). Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy.

  • Sapir, E. (1924). The Grammarian And His Language (pp. 149–155). American Mercury.

  • Tempels, P. (1945) Bantu Philosophy. Lovania 

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