Paget Henry and African Ontology

Teodros Kiros


Ontology is the study of Being, existence and becoming, and Africans have long held their commitment to Ontology far longer than their Western counter parts. African Ontology as part of African philosophy has continued to organize African life since it came into being as early as 2500 years ago.

Ancient Egyptian thinkers have contributed mightily to the birth and maturity of ontology as an important part of philosophy. Ancient Egypt, an African civilization, gave the world its first systematic ontology symbolized by the idea of Nun, the liquid ether, from which emerged the ancient Transcendent, Atum Ra, who in turn functioned as the Supreme reality, the originator of space and time, and thus the universe.i Atum Ra was the divine grounding of the universe, the cosmos, earth and sky, and human order itself.

Professor Paget Henry humbly acknowledges the formative role of African foundational writers on whom he builds, by writing, “long before there were professors of philosophy there were philosophers. Gyekye and Oruka in particular have developed for us the role of the African sages who were the producers of rich philosophical traditions”ii

Professor Paget Henry is among the foremost thinkers who have systematically articulated this ontology, as one of the pillars of Afro-Caribbean Philosophy. His penetration of African ontology is premised with the original view that Caribbean Philosophy needs an ontogical grounding and that African philosophy can readily provide one, provided that the Caribbean thinker plumbs the past, so as to unravel the hidden ontology of her distant and immediate African thinkers. He does so through a philosophical idiom which does not relegate African ontology merely to an exercise in Ethnophilosphy,iiibut uses the crucial ethnographic data as a potent source as he develops a philosophy of African religions embedded in a discussion of the structure of Supreme Being, therefore an analysis of ontology, as a part of philosophy as it applies to the African condition.

Henry introduces this daunting task of presenting African Ontology, by writing:

“The vision that informs traditional African philosophy, that generates its fundamental questions is a religious one”.iv

Henry is right. It is precisely the religions’ horizons which provide the ontology and the ontology itself can be further engaged through the devises of analytic philosophy, which I propose to do in the future, via my work on Zara Yacobv, and the resources of existential phenomenology, as Henry plans to do in the immediate future.

African religions and the ontologies are similar to Eastern Philosophy, where the religion informs the philosophy, and the philosophy in turn generates the ontology. Indeed, Brahmin, a supreme reality, functions exactly like Atum Ra in Egyptian/African Brahmin and Atum Ra are the originators of the Universe. One could extend this insight to include numerous other African Ontologies, as we shall below. Henry argues that these two are originators of cosmonogicontologies, as Paget dubs it.

The rest of the paper is a detailed elaboration of the above thesis. I will argue following Paget for the thesis that in African religions, as for example among the Igbo’s of Eastern Nigeria, there is a Supreme Being who creates the Universe and is in turn self-created, and is luminous and self-organizing. For the Igbos, this Supreme Being created the Earth and Sky and also two messengers, the Moon and the Sun, who report on the African condition. Similarly among the Yorubas of Nigeria, the creator God shares his ASHE or generative powers with the animal kingdom, which includes a python, a viper, a snail, an earthworm, and a woodpecker.vii

Africans draw their identities by embedding their existence on a luminous, self-creating and self-organizing Supreme Being who gives Africans the attribute of existence, so that they can give a rational accounting of their existence and the cause of their existence. Their identity is deeply linked with the self-generating Supreme Being who consciously created them by sharing his powers with them and all the other beings, including animals and plants with which they share the world. On this view all beings are created by the Supreme Being and that all these beings have dignity and corresponding rights, which cannot be violated. These sacred dignities are the source of African Existential seriousness. These mythopoeic articulations of African Existence are simultaneously mythical and rational, descriptive and analytical, poetic and discursive. Their very mythicality is the source of a rationality which mystified a litany of Western Anthropologists and some reductionist Africans, who themselves jettisoned these ontologies as ethnophilosphy, and rejected their philosophical status.

Paget has brilliantly restored the purity and power of these mythopoeic ontologies, which are also articulated in analytic proverbs as in classical Ethiopian Philosophy.viii These ontologies are sources of African identity. Through them Africans are given complete individual ontologies, which also link them to the communities in which they grow and mature. On this view the African conception of the individual is imbedded in community and the community itself is composed of ontologically complete individuals who move from the I to the We, and when necessary from the We to the I. African ontological vocabularies empower individuals to speak as free individuals critically and lovingly.

Thanks to Paget Henry, these ontologies are now reclaiming their eminent philosophical value. These African narratives of creation are the precise sources of African ontologies. Being, as a Supreme Reality, which created itself and the universe cannot be understood outside the Cosmo-ontologies. The African self-understanding is that individual Africans are only because the Supreme Being is sharing his Ashe with all those whom he created. Individuals exist to the precise extent that they partake in the ASHE of the Supreme Being who endowed them individually with the attribute of existence by which they propagate the human species as biological beings. There is no duality in this narrative. Being and beings, Subject and object interpenetrate. Individual beings are only because they partake in the ASHE bestowed on them by the creator Being. The ego is pervaded by the Supreme Being who expands African horizons of being by embedding them in a being who gives Africans a sense of their immanence. On this view, Transcendence and Immanence interpenetrate in the generation of a spiritually conscious African personality. The African personality is deeply spiritual and this spirituality is precisely what is needed to control the material excesses of the ego’s desires. The excesses are regulated by the abundant spirituality, which guides moral action. OKRA is to the African Soul as is Reason to the soul, as Plato following his Egyptian thinkers observed. OKRA is equally universalizable as is Reason, except that OKRA is a product of the South and has not been given the attention it deserves by Northern philosophers. Otherwise, OKRA just as easily could be the organizing principle of individual souls on a Global scale.

Of course, Philosophers from the Global South, of whom Henry is a foremost leader, are changing the nature of the discourse.ix Thanks to Henry and Lewis Gordon, two hard working philosophical voices of the Global South, the Global South is now emerging not merely as a depository of Euro-American discourse, but as a source of universalizing values, now that the Geography of Reason has shifted to the Global South: the cradle of human civilization.

For the Bantus of the Belgian Congo, The Supreme Being is perceived as pure force. Exactly like the Yoruba Supreme being who inhabits the physical universe in the form of ASHE, so does this Supreme Being impart to those whom he created an enabling and empowering force. Individual human beings are suffused with a vital force, which gives potency and agency. Force for the Bantus and Ashe for the Yorubas empower Africans to make things happen, to generate change and transformation.

The same is true for the Akans of Ghana. For the Akans, the African person is made up of three inseparable parts very much like the three inseparable parts of the human soul (Reason, Spirit and Desire) for Plato. According to Akan Ontology, the human person is composed of OKRA (soul), Sumsum (ego) and the Homan (body). Following Gyekye, the individual person is an “Ontic Unity”. The Okra is a divine gift from the Supreme Being, Onayame, who exists in all human beings, as is for the Igbos, the Yorubas and the Bantus. The Sumsum must follow the spiritual paths divinized by Okra in order to achieve human fulfillment. Similarly, the Homan must also follow the regulations of Sumsum carved out by Okra, in order to live a life of balance and moderation by following the standards of excellence lovingly suggested by OKRA. Through this systematic scheme, the African individual becomes ontologically complete and moral life becomes a definite possibility. This ontic unity seamlessly produces a balanced human being, destined to live the good life.

As Paget puts it, “This spiritual order was central to the African religious visions of existence.”x In this way, the ontologically complete individual African maps out an existentially serious moral life.

For Paget, African ontology directly leads to the production of cosmogonicontology. The different Supreme Beings among African cultures are represented by a plethora of images and attributes. Thus for the Akans, Onayame is represented as alone, the absolute, Eternal, Boundless Architect and originator; Uncreated, Omniscient and Omnipotent. These are attributes of perfection.

Among the Igbos, Chineke, is described through similar properties. The Supreme Being of these different cultures is also the creator of space—of the Universe itself. In this sense, Paget argues the ontology is simultaneously cosmogony.

For Paget, African Ontology is intimately connected to an examination of existence and leads to a discussion of existential seriousness.

Ontology is also the study of existence: the existence of humans and external objects. African ontology is particularly sensitive to the existence of humans and the conditions in which they exist. Ethics is singularly focused on the conditions of human existence. The African moral philosopher dissects the human status of existence. Thus it is important that we recognize human beings as bearers of rights, which cannot be violated. When any right is violated then the existence of that individual shouts out for unconditional attention. The existentially serious moral philosopher is committed to the documentation of cases in which individual rights are transgressed and blatantly violated.

The existential rights of the individual are guided by the ontologically determined status of the individual person in the eyes of the supreme beings, which guide African everyday life. The individual is not only a self-determining ego but also importantly a spiritual being with a destiny; a destiny mapped out for the person by the spiritual forces. On this view existence in not immanent but transcendent. It is not self-determining but a coherently organized ontic structure beholden to a transcendental power—the power of the deities who lead the individual. The life of the individual is ontologically determined but existentially dynamic. The individual determines her destiny in concert with guidance furnished by the Supreme beings of the various African cultures.

Paget writes,

“ There is an inherent tendency in the SUMSUM to revolt against the cosmic order of things and subject it to its own creative and self-creative powers. This tendency to revolt on the part of the ego is very clearly captured in the Dogon myth of the struggle between Yurugu and Amma, the creator God. Yurugu is a classic figure of cosmic discord, like the Judeo-Christian counterpart, Lucifer…”xii

The crisis-ridden ego is then softly guided by the deities to respect the internal relation of Sumsum with the Okra, the regulatory spiritual force and is challenged to respect its spiritual leaders. It is in this sense that Ontology provides the self to examine its existence critically, in order to free itself from permanent crisis.

The ego is at all times expected and spiritually trained to submit to the existential paths carved out for it by the all knowing Deities who gave the ego the precious attribute of contingent existence and that unless the ego is to be pervaded by permanent crisis, it must humbly submit to its fate and perform the necessary duties of stable existence.

The ego must respect that it is a coherently organized ontic entity embedded in a restructured ontological reality guided by spiritual Beings who created beings, of whom humans are one.

Again Henry writes:

“ In contrast to Indian traditions that call for a dissolving of the ego into the Atman, or soul, African solutions to the problems of ego existence call not for its spiritual dissolution, but for each individual ego to recognize its unique spiritually encoded nature and the responsibilities that come with it. This affirmation of ego existence is thus a primary contribution to African existentialism to philosophical anthropology. If the cosmogonic discourses of African philosophy revealed its celestial reach, then its existential discourses reveal its human depths. Between the two, we get a good look at the comprehensive nature of traditional African philosophy”xiii

I would like to end the paper by extracting three analytic propositions from the above ontological discussions thus far.


The ego’s existence is owed to the Deities.
OKRA is the diving grounding of Sumsum.
Therefore, Sumsum must follow its divine grounding, its OKRA.


The Ego unnecessarily creates a crisis for itself.
This crisis is self-caused.
Therefore, the crises could be solved only if the ego follows its destiny, its predestination in the order of things.


That the ego will always exist as an ontic entity.
The ego cannot become one with its creators.
As a created ontic reality, it occupies a different space of reality.
The space that it occupies is inferior to the space of the Deities.
Therefore, what the Deities order, given their place, must be obeyed.

i Theophille Obenga, “Egypt: Ancient History of African Philosophy” in A Companion to African Philosophy, Ed. Kwasi Wiredu, Blackwell Publishers,

iiPaget Henry, Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy, Routledge: London, 2000, p, 21.

iiiThe early Hountondji had dismissed ethnophilosphy as non- philosophical. Henry’s Caliban’s Reason is a sustained response to this dismissal.

ivPaget Henry, Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy, (New York: Routledge, 2000) p, and 23.

See also, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

v Teodros kiros, Zara Yacob: A Philosopher of the Heart, 2005

viIbid, p, 23

viiIbid, p, 23

viiiTeodros Kiros, Zara Yacob: On The Rationality of the Human Heart(NJ: Africa World Press, 2002).

ixAnke Graness is the debate on “ global justice a global on? Some consideration in view of modern philosophy in Africa, Journal of Global Ethics, Volume 11, Issue 1, 2015

xIbid, p, 29.

xiCaliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy, PP, 31-37

xiiIbid, p, 32.

xiiiIbid, p, 37.