Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.1A, 113-116
Published Online February 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 113
The Place of Symbols in African Philosophy
Bonachrist us Umeogu
Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria
Received August 6th, 2012; re vis ed Sep tember 10th, 2012; accepted September 24th, 2012
Communication cannot do without symbols. There always comes a time when one runs out of words and
symbols step in where words have failed. Civilization has changed many aspects of people’s culture, be-
liefs and actions. In African philosophy and within the African culture, this paper tries to mirror the place
of symbols within African philosophy.
Keywords: African Philosophy; Symbols; Communication Symbolism
Way before communication as we now know it was concep-
tualized and contextualized, man has always communicated
with symbols. This means that from time immemorial, symbols
have played a communicative and interactive role to man in
general and, Africans in particular. Even the developed coun-
tries did not spring into giants overnight. History will reveal
that their ancestors must have had their own way of communi-
cation. In other words, communication has evolved overtime to
what and where it is today.
Dukor in one of his works on African philosophy observed
that symbols are natural to man way before formal languages.
In other words, senses can only work when there are symbols.
By implication, symbols are everywhere, some we understand
and others we are not even aware of, not to mention under-
standing its meaning or the message behind them.
The fact remains that symbols in most occasions start where
words have stopped. They are used to delve and signify mean-
ings that defy the constructive use of words. This paper primar-
ily looks at African philosophy as a whole and the place that
symbols occupy in the African philosophy. It will also identify
the challenges of African philosophy and expatiate on some
African symbols and their symbolisms.
What Is Meant by African Philosophy?
Philosophy literally means the love of wisdom; an un-
quenchable thirst to find answers to unending questions and
meanings; the insatiable desire to probe and understand the
reasons for things, events and even nature; an obsession to be in
the know at all times.
Ukagba (2000: p. 80) observed that “when an African or in-
deed a non-African philosopher writes or reflects about African
wisdom, the Africa world view, the African existential identity,
or African ideologies, he does African philosophy”. As this
paper is trying to reflect on the place of symbols within the
African culture, it is African philosophy in practice. By way of
definition, Iroegbu in Ukagba (2000: p. 78) saw African phi-
losophy as the “reflective inquiry into the marvels and problem-
atica that confront one in the Africa world view, in view of pro-
ducing systematic explanation and sustained responses to them”.
This demonstrates that African philosophy is more practical
than theoretical. It is its practicability that will ensure its arrival
and sustenance on the same pedestal as continental philosophies.
At this point, the question that will be on the minds of many,
especially western philosophers is; when did African philoso-
phy become part of the big family of philosophy?
Before I delve into defense of African philosophy, I want to
make an observation/assertion that if philosophy is big enough
to accommodate Continental, American, Indian or Chinese
philosophies, then there ought to be room for African philoso-
phy. Be that as it may, the problem is not with philosophy ac-
commodating African philosophy but Western and even Afri-
can philosophers accepting African philosophy to claim their
rightful place on the same pedestal as Western philosophies.
For there to be philosophy, there must be a kind of reflec-
tions and organization; a kind of rational appreciation, constitu-
tion and control of the meaning of things. So in Africa, if there
are such things like aspects of culture, tradition, thoughts that
have been subjected to that kind of level of analytic, rational
and intellectual scrutiny, that can pass as philosophy. That is
why it is argued that without the analytic prodding, probing and
scrutiny, there won’t be any room for whatever will be called
philosophy. And if there is no philosophy, African philosophy
would be a mirage.
No matter how it is viewed, every philosophy is a cultural
philosophy. Here, cultural is used in the sense that it bothers on
the realities, traditions and thoughts of a particular society.
Culture varies from society to society in that despite the prom-
ises of globalization to unite cultures, there are significant dif-
ferences in cultures. This necessitated the different types of
philosophies namely: American, Chinese, Continental, Indian
and recently, African philosophy.
Commenting on the reason for its newness is Ukagba (2000:
76) who submitted that
African philosophy within the context of conceptualiza-
tion and intellectualization is a recent phenomenon in our
institutions of higher learning. It is a recent phenomenon
not because the Africans have not been cultivating phi-
losophy since time immemorial but because as an aca-
demic enterprise, like many other disciplines, it has been
denied the Africans or black race all over the world.
What makes a cultural philosophy to be recognized and ac-
cepted as philosophy? One of the tenets of philosophy is that it
must be rational, scientific, systematic, consistent, coherent and
organized. Also, it has been said that philosophy has to be uni-
versal. If it is on this ground that the legality and acceptability
of African philosophy is being contested, I wonder why there
was room for other types of philosophy. There would not have
been any need for American or Chinese philosophy. If the two
are same for instance, the need for classification would not
have been raised. American philosophy should have also ap-
plied to Indian philosophy and vice versa. One might be
tempted to question what really philosophy is, because phi-
losophers as regards what philosophy is, does not mean what it
On rationality as a basis, man is man despite their skin pig-
mentation. The fact that Africans are black does not make them
less a man or less a human being. If man is a rational being and
an African is a man, then he must have rational thoughts. The
fact that he has rational thoughts means that he can philoso-
phize and whatever he philosophizes is rational enough to be
called African philosophy. It is as simple a logic as that.
The reality is that rich or poor; black or white; master or ser-
vant; developed or under-developed, we all philosophize
whether it is conscious or not. Philosophizing in this context
means to inquire; to probe; to question; to understand; to ex-
plain; and the capability to give answers or clarify issues that
border on understanding and compartmentalizing events and
happenings within a specific cultural setting. On this, Maduka
(2000: p. 3) has this to contribute:
Philosophizing is part of what it means to be human. True
enough, we may differ in our levels of philosophizing
(some reflect more deeply, profoundly, systematically and
rigorously than others; some consciously and explicitly
proffer reasons for what they do, others conjure their rea-
sons in retrospect while in fact some others are not aware
of their reasons and principles at the point of action) but
we all philosophize all the same in some degree or other.
On the ground of African philosophy being scientific, sci-
ence is all about being organized and proven. Omenzejele
(2000: p. 57) observes that the foremost characteristics of sci-
ence are that it should be specific, public, impersonal and ob-
jective”. Well, there would never have been talk of African
philosophy if it has not been constituted and reorganized and
these can be and was done through rational scrutiny; intellec-
tual scrutiny; analytic appreciation and reorganization of a real-
ity either cultural or otherwise.
African Philosophy on Symbols
“Every knowledge, every meaning of existence must almost
all of the time, involve some kind of reasoning with symbols, in
symbols, by symbols and through symbols”. This was submit-
ted by Umeogu (2012) who tried to explain the highly revered
place of symbols within the African philosophy. Dukor (2010:
p. 200) asserted that “the evolution of human mind was ac-
companied simultaneously with the evolution of symbols and
concepts” and that “Man’s understanding of the world, himself
and the environment is characterized and associated with sym-
bols”. What are symbols and how do we know them before we
will understand its place in African philosophy?
On how to identify symbols, Firth in Dukor (2010: p. 200) is
of the view that “symbols as instrumental tools in any cultural
set-up are characterized by their expressive, communicative,
cognitive and regulative qualities”.
In his own way, Umeogu (1996: p. 75) documents that
… the symbol is something; but it’s something for some-
thing; that is, something that stands with something, for
something and to something. The symbol begins from
something and ends towards something for which it is the
symbol. As such, it provides food for thought as well as
thought for food. As it signals, signs and flows what it is
beyond and to what it shows…
Dukor (2010: p. 200) while noting that symbols could be
grammatical, technical, logical or mystical saw symbols in a
general sense as that, which expresses, represents, stands for,
reveals, indicates or makes known another reality.
At this juncture, I want to ask if signs and symbols are same
or different. This question came as a result of a statement by
Dukor that “symbols could pass as sign but not all signs are
symbols”. By way of functionality, symbol is different from
sign because symbol is always different from what it represents.
In other words, symbol is always of a representative importance.
The philosophy of symbolism is a philosophy of representative
importance as regards communicative functions. Symbols, rep-
resentation and communication are all interlinked in that there
cannot be one without the other. The power of symbols is got-
ten from its ability to represent something that can effectively
communicate its meaning to the receiver. Also, can there be
communication without representation? For there to be an ef-
fective communication, there has to be a representation that is
in consonance with the receivers reservoir of knowledge be it a
signal, a sign, a symbol or even a word. When a receiver does
not understand the representative meaning of a symbol, com-
munication cannot be said to have taken place. This is what the
philosophy of representative importance as regards communi-
cative functions are all about.
Be that as it may, what sign signifies can be discerned by
seeing it. For instance, smoking is the sign of fire because the
two go together so much so that there is a saying that “there is
no smoke without fire”. An instance of symbol is green, white
and green. This colour symbolizes Nigeria but there is no way
you can link the colour to Nigeria as explicitly as that of smoke
and fire. Symbols are just like that. They (symbols) do not give
that kind of obvious meanings in that they are mostly or always
different from what it signifies.
Paul Ricoeur, a French philosopher, once said that a symbol
gives food for thought. In other words, symbols do not have a
complete meaning. They have the tendency of making one to
look beyond the ordinary; to exercise the audience’s mental
energy in trying to figure out the man behind the mask. One can
also say that symbols carry meaning over: it allows people to
read and see meaning that is hidden or implied.
Every symbol has an implicit meaning. Implicit here means
that what is said is in an enigma. Enigma in the sense that it is
shrouded in camouflage; not a direct expression but rather has
an indirect impression. Such an impression should be expressed;
and expression of such impressive meaning is what is called
symbolism. This demonstrates that every symbol is incomplete.
The full appreciative explication becomes the fullness of mean-
ings in the symbols.
Coming to signs, signs are what they are. In other words,
they are not open to interpretation; rather, they always have a
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
fixed and precise meaning. An instance was given by Stenger
who used the traffic signs as an instance whereby when the
traffic light is red, it means that you must stop until it changes
to green. A sign needs to be precise and unmistakable.
In the light of the above as it relates to symbols, one can un-
derstand its importance to Africans as a whole. Commenting on
the general importance of symbol and its power in African cul-
ture is Stenger who submitted that “A symbol opens the door
into a larger world. It goes beyond what is visible and tangible.
It opens the door especially to the world of mystery”. He went
on to explain the importance of symbols in the quote below:
… because symbols can say more than words. In this
sense, a symbol is a powerful instrument to extend our vi-
sion, to stimulate our imagination and to deepen our un-
derstanding. Without symbols, we are unable to arrive at
the truth. Words alone cannot express the whole reality.
People in the Western world who are influenced by an
unconscious materialism, often equate reality with physi-
cal, measurable reality, whereas Africans can often see the
symbolic meaning of things and events, because they are
convinced that reality is more than what can be seen and
measured. They are often able to see a symbolic or spiri-
tual meaning in events like sickness, death and disasters…
Types of Symbols
Onwubiko in Dukor (2010: p. 201) identified three types of
symbols namely; direct symbol, indirect and non-material
symbol. Direct symbols are symbols whose material image
expresses what they mean ideologically. Indirect symbols rep-
resent symbols whose material objects signify a different thing
which is not immediately discerned in the material. Finally,
there are non-material symbols, which are expressed in ges-
ticulations and linguistics symbols which are forms of expres-
sion in which the actual meaning of the signs is known through
an in-depth reflection. One would have expected Dukor to give
instances or examples of the different types of symbols so that
philosophers and non philosophers alike will have a good
ground to understand, agree or disagree with the classification.
Here, I want to categorically state that no matter the types of
symbols, its functionality and translatability is culture specific.
It is culture specific in the sense that it will function as a sym-
bol within a particular cultural setting or to a sect of people. For
instance, cross is sacred to Christians but other religions do not
hold it in such high esteem. An occult symbol will look like a
drawing to a non-member while it is the summary of their faith
to a member.
At this juncture, let me list some symbols whose meanings
may or may not be culture specific in Africa.
Mmiri: purity, life etc.
Oji: acceptance, unity of life, love etc.
Ose oji: vibrator, seasoner, activator etc.
Nzu: purity of heart, gift of love for all etc.
Ofo: truth and justice.
The Ofo as it is called in the Igbo African society is a piece
of wood that is a symbol that signifies justice. According to
Umeogu (1996), ofo has no general meaning as ofo ozo sym-
bolizes the sceptre and truth of the kingly-spirit in force of it
and is used by the holder to attest to the gravity, truthfulness
and innocence of the title he holds and, to discharge his office
in relation to it. On the other hand, ofo-ana represents the
power and presence of the earth goddess and is used to care
and remove abominations from the lands.
Well, by saying that ofo for instance has no general meaning
may imply that symbols do not have a universal meaning. What
it shows in essence is that the claim that symbols are quite dif-
ferent from what it represents is not unfounded. It also goes to
prove that they speak in an enigma in that the meanings are
always wrapped in camouflage.
Mmanya: spice of life, spirit of health etc.
Cross: sanctuary, death, danger etc.
Flower: appreciation, love, romance, condolence etc.
Symbols are often used when words are unable to express
complex realities: a deep feeling of love for a person may be
expressed by giving that person a red rose, Stenger
( There are flowers for different
occasions where words are unnecessary. For instance, the
flower called bleeding hearts is used as a sign of condolence.
The Philosophy of Symbols and Representation
The philosophy of symbolism bothers much on what can be
called representative philosophy. Representative in the sense
that it represents a people; represents words; represents action;
and represents thoughts because there is no way a persons’
thought can be carried out. Every philosophizing works on that
and if that “working” is systematic, rational and analytic, that is
philosophy. There is always that super-personal angle of what
is represented. In other words, every thinker thinks about
something. The object of thought and the subject of thought are
not the same. At the end of the day, every philosophy is repre-
sentative. Symbols point beyond itself and in most cases bear
no resemblance to its signified. This shows that symbols are all
about representation.
The idea of symbols of representation in philosophy can be
attributed to Ernst Cassirer who was a philosopher of symbol-
ism. In Cassirer’s vision, scientific laws, religion, and language
are all symbols created by the mind in attempting to produce a
world of understanding. The philosophy of symbols is the phi-
losophy of something. In fact, the power of symbols is gotten
from its power of representation at any point in time. Symbols
are called symbols as a result of the power of representation. In
most occasions, it plays a mediatory role symbols between
man’s perception and subsequent understanding. In essence, it
activates the power of a rational being to assimilate information
and to compartmentalize and construct them to fit into certain
symbolic referents which enable the receiver to understand the
world. Symbols represent knowledge. Knowledge is made ex-
plicit through symbols.
Commenting on symbols and meaning, Luft (2005) submit-
ted that in the “world of meaning—and there is no other real
world for us—there is not merely one perceived X as a substra-
tum with different meanings, but what this X is understood as
depends on the symbolic form within which it is viewed, i.e.,
thematized”. Cassirer in Luft (2005) calls these forms symbolic
because the “X” in view is never a simple substance but stands
as a symbol for the form in which it has its function. It points to
the meaningful whole or totality: to the world of myth, of art, of
religion, of science.
The final word on the philosophy of symbols is that, the
logic of symbolism is the logic of representation. Thought is
about something and between the thought and something,
comes in the representation of symbols to bring about or bring
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out the representative meaning.
Challenges Facing African Philosophy
Ukagba (2000: p. 91) observed that language is one of the
difficulties in the study of African philosophy. According to
him, language is the soul of a culture, the heart of an environ-
ment … Language constitutes an indispensable tool in the proc-
ess of cognition and is one of the epiphanies of human rational-
ity. African thought in a foreign language is not fully African
thought. African philosophy done in a foreign language is not
yet African philosophy. If that is the case, there are many Af-
rican languages as there are African countries. In such a sce-
nario, which language becomes the official language? It was
easy for Western philosophers since English is their lingua
franca. In that case, symbols should step in to take Africans to
the promised land of philosophical recognition and universal
acceptance. A similar view is expressed in the following words:
The subject of philosophy, literate or preliterate is an open
book which each group or society reads and interprets in
its own “verba” or concepts … the African would not
cease to be a philosopher even in the formal sense of the
word if at some stage, he abandons the use of the expres-
sion in European language and reverts to its native lan-
guage. (Nze 2009 in Umeogu 2012).
Secondly, it is being challenged by what I call academic ra-
cism. Umeogu (1996: p. 156) notes that the popular illusion is
that the African scholarship ability cannot both be good and
original. Where it is original, it is not good, where it is good, it
is not original. Consequently, the “tumulting nations and the
‘murmurous people of the earth’ concluded, that never can
there be anything like African philosophy…”
There is another factor that I refer to as internal problem.
Philosophy and philosophers have a problem in that there is
really no universally accepted parameter of what constitutes
philosophy. This gave rise to empiricism, rationalism, pansy-
chism and what have you. This problem is heightened by each
seeing itself as the only true form of philosophy. An observa-
tion was made to that effect by Isiguzo (2000: p. 43) that “phi-
losophy is burdened by fundamental problems. The problem
includes that of … conceptualization which cannot be solved in
a dogmatic manner as in religion or, by way of laboratory ex-
periment as in science. Philosophical questions are not an-
swered dogmatically or empirically”.
Shakespeare once observed that some are born great, others
achieve greatness, while some have greatness entrusted on
them … this is the case with philosophy. Some are seen as phi-
losophy without passing the rationality test while others have to
pass hurdles to be seen fit to have the name philosophy attached
to them. In this case, African philosophy belongs to the class
that will have to achieve greatness.
The philosophy of symbols is a kind of hermeneutics inter-
pretation. It kind of interprets the meaning of a symbol by con-
sidering what that symbol signifies. Hermeneutics here simply
means to make what is implicit become explicit. So, whether
African philosophy is universally accepted or not, the fact re-
mains that symbols have come to stay as far as African phi-
losophy is concerned. Little wonder why Dukor rightly asserted
that symbols pervade the African life and give meaning to their
communal existence. If symbols truly make for unity in various
aspects of African beliefs and existence, then one can now un-
derstand the highly revered place of symbols to the Africans.
By nature, Africans are communalistic in orientation and if
symbols tighten that bond, then it is going nowhere.
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