allzermalmer

Truth suffers from too much analysis

Yoruba Epistemology

Posted by allzermalmer on June 2, 2011

This is blog is based on the epistemology of an African tribe called the Yoruba. Here is some general information on the Yoruba. They are found in the western Africa country known as Nigeria.

The Yoruba epistemology is one that we can call, in western language, an empiricist epistemology. This means that knowledge, for the Yoruba, derive from the senses. This belongs to that of sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. An empiricists epistemology also relies on induction. This moves from past observations to predictions of future observations based on the past.

The Yoruba break epistemology down into two different categories. These are Imo and Igbagbo. Imo is similar to what we call, in the west, but not exactly the same, as knowledge. Igbagbo is similar to what we call, in the west, but not exactly the same, belief.

In the west, we put knowledge down into propositional knowledge. Propositional knowledge would be something like this, “Water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.” In western epistemology, we consider knowledge to be of the propositional sort. However, with propositional knowledge, this is mostly secondhand. This means, someone experiences something and they tell you what they experienced. Thus, with the example of water, someone experiences this and tell us about and hold universally. So, following the water example, a chemist experiences that water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (and I will skip over the problem with that for now). Thus, when we are students in a chemistry class, our chemistry teacher teaches us the proposition, “water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom”. Now we are said to have propositional knowledge. We never experienced it, but we were taught it.We are said to have knowledge that water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

For the Yoruba, though, that would not be knowledge per se, that would not be Imo, per se. For the Yoruba, you would need to have experienced such a thing to have knowledge. The chemist would have had to experience that water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. This is problematic, since atoms are, by definition, something that we cannot experience with our senses. Thus, under the Yoruba theory of epistemology, that would not be considered knowledge. That would be considered belief, or Igbagbo.

Imo is based on someone having a direct experience. For example, say that you see a friend drive down the street in a red mustang. You have Imo that your friend Dave drove down the street in a red mustang. This is knowledge, and this is based on a 1st person experience. But now say that you tell other friend Rick that you saw Dave  drive down the street in a red mustang. For Rick, this would be Igbagbo, or belief. This is 2nd hand knowledge. All Rick knows is what he heard you say, and this is not first person experience. This is not knowledge.

Igbagbo is based on secondhand knowledge. This means that you have no experience about what is being talked about, but it is something that is told you. Thus, going back with the chemistry teacher, they are telling you something that they have Imo on, that they have knowledge on. Now, since they tell you, and you do not have knowledge on it, you only have Igbagbo. You take it that you have knowledge, but it is a belief so long as you do not have first hand experience on it.

Imo=First hand experience=See friend drove a red mustang
Igbagbo= Second hand experience=Told friend drove a red mustang

In order to have Imo, you need to have a sensory experience and cognition (comprehend what you are experiencing). I can walk down an aisle at the library, and have all sorts of experiences, but I am not cognitively aware of the books that I am walking by. Thus, I do not know, as I walk down the aisle of the library with the books on each side of me, what books they are. I am not cognitively aware of if it is Moby Dick or Crime and Punishment. This would not count as Imo.

Nothing that we experience first hand would go under Igbagbo. So if I learn something in science class, and I have no personal experience of it, I do not know it. I only know that my teachers told me something. This is just a belief that I can hold on what the teacher told me. Thus, I do not know that two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atoms make up water. I believe that they do because my teacher told me. Those of us that are not scientists, and more importantly experimentalist in science, do not know anything that scientists tell us. We only believe what they tell us, or what they tell us that they experience.

Now a question could come up for knowledge about mathematics or logic. How do I know, in geometry, that “In right-angled triangles the square on the side opposite the right angle equals the sum of the squares on the sides containing the right angle.” I do not know this. My geometry teacher tells me this. I do not know it until I work out the proof myself. Once I work out the proof myself, then I know that “In right-angled triangles the square on the side opposite the right angle equals the sum of the squares on the sides containing the right angle”. So I can be taught this proposition, and I can only have Igbagbo about it. It is not until I do the actual proof myself do I have Imo about it. The same holds with logic.

Let us say that I have Imo that if I drop a feather and a bowling ball on the moon, that they both land at the same time. I tell Rick this, but Rick does not believe me. We can settle this issue by testing what I said. Rick could go to the moon and drop a bowling ball and a feather at the same time, and see if they land at the same time. From this, Rick would come to have Imo himself. He would than have knowledge.

Now imagine that I make a claim, and it is one that cannot be tested. Just imagine that I say, “I saw a white crow catch a white squirrel.” Rick might not believe me, and there is no way to test this. There is no way for Rick to come to have Imo on this. Thus, we can settle this by asking someone else. Now imagine that Dave was with me, and Steve as well, when this happened. We all saw it happen. Thus, Rick can ask Steve and Dave. They all tell Rick the same thing I said, and so he might come to believe what I said. Thus, he would come to have Igbagbo.

Now imagine the same situation above, about white crow getting white squirrel. But let us change things a bit. I was the only person there, and no one else was there. Thus, I was the only person that saw it happen, and thus the only one to have Imo. Rick cannot test this himself, and he cannot ask anyone else. So this question is open if Rick will believe me or not.

From these three examples, we find that there are three levels with the Yoruba epistemology. (I.) 1st hand experience, (II.) Igbagbo open to testing & transform into Imo, (III.) Igbagbo never open to verification (or can be), but testimony, or explanation.

Now moving with (III.), there is one important thing that comes into play. This is the character of the speaker. If I am someone who makes the claim about the white crow and white squirrel, and I am known as a liar, no one is going to believe what I say. However, if I am known as an honest person, then that leads credence to believe what I say. Thus, with the science teacher, I come to believe them because I am taught that scientist have good character, and should be believed, even if I cannot experience what they talk about. Character is very important in judging whether to believe what someone says. Character is important in whether or not to have Igbagbo on someone’s Imo.

We can conclude that since Imo is based on 1st hand experience, that the Yoruba works with what we call methodological solipsism. This is the position “that knowledge about the existence & non-existence of everything outside of self origin in immediate experience, or “the given”, which is not strictly shared (with other selves” (Rollins). In other words, knowledge about what is the case and what is not the case, comes from my personal experience. That is the only thing that I can know to be the case or not. I can only know what you say, and I cannot know what you experience. Thus, I will either come to believe you or not, or withhold judgement on what you say. Everything else outside of one’s personal experience is just a belief. It is not based on the testimony of your senses. This does not mean one holds that only one’s self alone exists. It is only in method that one works with such a position.

Now there is something else that is important about the Yoruba epistemology, and it involves tradition. Let us say, hypothetically, that my tradition says that “If a black cat crosses your path, then you will break your leg that day.” Now, the Yoruba will not automatically have igbagbo on this, unless it comes from someone of good character. However, they will accept this tradition if they find, through their own personal experience, that they find it to be true or happen. Thus, they will have Imo on the subject. This means, if my father and my fathers father held to something as Imo, it does not mean I will follow it unless I find it to be true myself. Thus, if I am told there is a certain way to farm my crops, I will not do it unless I find it to be true myself. This means that traditions will not be held unless they are personally found to be true, and thus continue on with the tradition.

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3 Responses to “Yoruba Epistemology”

  1. Niji Akanni said

    I am yet to read the entire material here, but the very first sentence is as nauseating as it is illiterate. You don’t use such a silly, vacuous word as ‘tribe’ to describe a people who number over 35 million, with an authentic civilization predating the Graeco-Roman history. And to think that this post was made in the second decade of the 21st century!

    • So you don’t read the whole thing and you don’t like someone saying “tribe”. Should I not say “all men are created equal” because it does not say ‘person’ and that’s what we say in the 21st century? Your critique of word choice carries no content to me. I will call the almost 1 billion, or 900 million, Chinese a tribe. They are a tribe of Han. IDGAF. (I Don’t Give A Fuck).

      • Niji Akanni said

        I don’t know where (or if at all) you received a training in schorlarship, but I wouldn’t expect a thoroughbred thinker to react with a banal IDGAF to a critique of any element or all his submission.

        I suppose you would also describe the people of England as ‘the English tribe’? (Tsk, tsk)

        Unfortunately, once I brought myself to ignore ur arrogance and did read the entire post, I actually found it very stimulating!

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