Friday, July 14, 2017


Thank you Tyin for sharing this material with forum.

This is why  ( in addition to his many talents verbal, lyrical and cognitive) we recognise Abiola Irele as "Ojise Elegbara'

Sent from my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

-------- Original message --------
From: Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju <>
Date: 14/07/2017 03:30 (GMT+00:00)
To: WoleSoyinkaSociety <>, usaafricadialogue <>

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: toyin adepoju <>
Date: 12 July 2010 at 10:31
Subject: NIDOA | Abiola Irele's "The African Scholar"
To: All Nigerians In Diaspora <>


I experience a chilling power in the excerpt below from Abiola Irele's "The African Scholar",first presented as an inaugural lecture at the University of Ohio and later published in Transition in 1991.Chilling on account of the sense of hope it projects and  a sensitivity it stimulates in me to the scope of the challenge it outlines,as well as to the seductive force of the cognitive possibilities it  describes  in Irele's almost lyrical prose.

The essay is an effort,both courageous and poignant,by  the scholar just migrated from the University of Ibadan where had built a glittering career as one of the most prominent if not the most prominent African literary critic or even the most prominent critic of African literature,to account for the validity of the African scholar in the marginalized place of Africa in the contemporary   global academic dominance of the West.

The content and tone of the essay takes its origins  from the location of Irele in the migration of some of the most prominent African scholars to Western institutions in the wake of the disappointment of their hopes in the challenges faced by African academic institutions in the context of   the stresses of the larger societies they belonged to.Irele traces the process of hope and  disillusionment  over the decades  that led to this situation,in the effort to locate in both historical terms and in terms of research agendas the place of the African scholar in the modern world.

This effort makes the essay directly relevant for all civilizations outside the West as recognized by at least one response to it I have seen from a non-African context.It is also relevant in historical terms,to the post-colonial experience as it has emerged in all affected societies at any point in history,including the specific example of the post independence United States,a historical relationship Irele aligns his essay title with through  his references to Ralph Waldo Emerson,the US philosopher whose  essay "The American Scholar" Irele's essay adapts its tittle from. Emerson's essay is a landmark in the development of US self consciousness against the background of the European origins of its dominant group,the European migrants.

Irele's essay  also highlights questions about the relative validity of  various models in scientific world views.Similar questions  have been addressed by a number of scientists and philosophers of science,from Paul  Feyerabend's  Against  Method to the contemporary exploration of possible parallel  universes and variants in cosmic laws,examined,for example,in Paul Davies The Goldilocks Enigma and  Other Worlds:Space, Superspace, and the Quantum Universe.

There is much that is striking in this essay but the section I want to focus on,as represented by the extract below, is the section on cosmology where Irele suggests the possibility of correlating one aspect of the broad outlines of classical African cosmological structures and those of Western science. Is this subject not applicable to non-African,non-Western world views too?Within one week,I will try to examine this section of the essay paragraph by paragraph.




                                                                 AN EXCERPT FROM
                                                            "THE AFRICAN SCHOLAR"

… the third direction I have in mind from which our possible contribution to scholarship may well emerge, one that could be original in a special way.  It concerns the real prospects we bring of an extension of the perspectives of knowledge, and which may well contribute to the process which is bringing about a reconfiguration of the systems of knowledge now in place in the West.  I refer here to the revolutions within these systems introduced by developments in physics and biology and to the more recent emergence of what is now referred to as nonlinear science.

While these developments cannot be said to have completely overturned the traditional canons of Western scientific investigation and activity, they have without question provoked a profound re-assessment of these canons, and especially of the assumptions about the world on which they are based.  It has become increasingly clear that nature is more complex than was dreamt of by modern science in its genesis, and that the positivist approach to knowledge by which the scientific enterprise has been largely prosecuted up to the present century is no longer capable of providing an account in their full range and depth of the workings of nature, of encompassing objective reality in its scope and mystery.  The earlier self-assuredness typified by Bacon about the possibilities of science in unraveling the system of regularities that govern the world has thus in our day not only been [22]tempered by an awareness of "the uncertainty principle" but by a growing attitude of perplexity about the reality of our world.  It is largely this mood that Gaston Bachelard saw as pervasive of what he called "the new scientific spirit," one that has been brought to a recognition of the truth of this observation in contemporary physics which he reports:

Plus le grain de matière est petit, plus il a de la réalité substantielle; en diminuant de volume, la matière s'approfondit. [23]

(The smaller the grain of matter, the more it takes on a substantial reality; by shrinking in volume, matter becomes deepened.)

It is not without interest here to draw attention to the analogy between the new scientific spirit as described by Bachelard – with its progressive abandonment of the reductive bent of an earlier age, and its greater attention to complexity, systems of relations and fields of force – and the profound intuition of the fundamentally unsettling nature of the world within those non-western modes of apprehension that have been qualified as "mythical" and have thus tended to be dismissed out of hand.  As the noted French Africanist Georges Balandier has pointed out, there has always been a recognition, made explicit in ritual and avowed in the symbolic discourse of non-industrial cultures and what he calls "sociétés de tradition," of the tension between the principles of order and disorder, of stability and randomness, as a constitutive factor of all reality, natural and social. [24]  It is this sense of a duality in the world that is felt as marking life and consciousness for which Yoruba society in particular has found an embodiment in the person of the trickster god, Eshu.  And it is significant to observe the striking analogy between the non-cartesian mode of contemporary scientific awareness represented by the extract from Bachelard I've just quoted above and the "mythical" grasp of the reality of the world as communicated in this passage from a Yoruba praise poem (oriki) in celebration of Eshu:

Esu sleeps in the house

But the house is too small for him;

Esu sleeps on the front yard

But the yard is too constricting for him;

Esu sleeps in the palm-nut shell

Now he has enough room to stretch at large. [25]


One might further remark that the rapprochement I'm suggesting between the insights of traditional thought and those of contemporary science is further validated by the well-attested tendency of the former to integrate the achievements of modern technology into an all-embracing consciousness of the wonders of the world, a feature of the mythical imagination that is well demonstrated by the novels of the Nigerian novelist, Amos Tutuola.  At all events, the new disposition in contemporary science towards an acceptance of ambiguity as a factor of knowledge, a disposition which Jean-Francois Lyotard has singled out as the epistemological foundation of postmodernism, is one that the African scholar might be said to be culturally prepared to relate to in a wholehearted way.  The scientific historian Alan Beyerchen has remarked that the integration of linear science with the nonlinear in a unified field of what he calls "pan-science" has now become one of the major intellectual tasks of the future, and has speculated that this might be accomplished by a woman.  There is no reason to suppose that such a feat might not be brought off by an African woman!

Such speculations take us to the very frontiers of science.  But although the one lesson we can draw from the current situation of crisis in African scholarship seems to be the need for an adjustment of means to achievable ends, the compression of our ambitions which this implies still leaves us with the imperative to update our grasp of modern knowledge in its relentless progression.  I am not even thinking of advanced areas of investigation in the natural sciences such as Chaos research, super-conductors or the effort to develop artificial intelligence through computers, but rather of the routine tunneling that is steadily opening up the world for human understanding.  It is the rare African scientist who is in touch even with this level of activity as it is being carried on in the developed world, yet it is as this level that our efforts have to go forward, in areas of scientific research that concern our our specific environment and are of immediate interest to us, if we are ever to make a claim to form part of the world scientific community.

The prospects of an original African contribution to knowledge become even more distinct when we consider that the fund of positive knowledge available to our traditional societies has yet to be seriously investigated and made available to the world.  So much attention has been devoted to the institutional and symbolic aspects of these societies that it is often forgotten that they produced real science with practical applications and evolved functional technologies.  We may well agree that, compared to the volume and intensity of the science that is now associated with the West, such knowledge is limited in scope, and is in many respects inadequate both as regards its procedures and results, but that is no good reason for the neglect with which it is at present being treated.  For there is much in it that is pragamatic and which only stands in need of revaluation for its scientific value to emerge.  We are in what can only be regarded as a priviledged position to carry out this revaluation of such indigenous forms of knowledge, which may still be relevant to our contemporary needs and situation.

One area that immediately comes to mind in this respect is that of pharmacology, in which definite skills were developed by professional healers who are disdainfully dismissed with the term "witch doctor."  I happen to know of two cases in which Western medicine proved ineffectual against yellow fever; in both cases, the attack was stemmed in a conclusive way by traditional therapy.  We cannot afford to ignore the science which is capable of such results.  It offers at the very least a whole field of research which can be integrated into the body of knowledge and structures of scientific understanding that have shaped the modern world.  I ought to add here that the present convention of labeling areas of study and systems of knowledge that have a reference to the non-Western world as "ethno-this" and "ethno-that" seems to me of little scholarly value.  Knowledge, if it is valid, is one and indivisible.

       The opportunity is still open to us then of making an appreciable impact upon scholarship, as indeed upon the world system of knowledge.  And if, as I've remarked earlier, the African scholar is obliged for now to function in a situation of dependence in relation to the western frame of reference, in terms of the established body of concepts and conventions of scholarship within which he or she has to operate, we might well come to consider this situation as the necessary point of departure for the elaboration of a new and authentic discourse, for a new direction of thought destined eventually to transcend the conditions from which it takes its source.


            The points I have been making are of special importance for the Humanities, given the real potential they offer not only for new insights into the world but for the enrichment of the possibilities of human understanding.  It is especially on this terrain that, I'd like to suggest, my argument takes on a moral connotation with a universal application.  An openness to the world, of the kind advocated by Emerson – to recall him once again – enables a reasoned appreciation of the conditions of pluralism and promotes the virtue of tolerance as a function of the differences fashioned by nature and culture between the various branches of the human family.


Inaugural lecture on assuming the post of Professor of African, French and Comparative Literature at the Ohio State University , Columbus , Ohio .


Published in Transition, No. 51 (1991), pp. 56-69 .

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Accessed: 15/03/2009 11:38



[23] Gaston Bachelard, Le nouvel esprit scientifique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 13e edition, 1975. 144.



[24]  Georges Balandier, Le désordre. Paris : Editions Fayard, 1988. Balandier employs the expression "sociétés de tradition" as a way of avoiding the pejorative connotation of terms such as "primitive," "archaic" and the like. In the work which is a wide-ranging discussion of the sociological and philosophical implications of the discovery of "chaos" by contemporary science, Balandier relies heavily on African examples to demonstrate the anticipation of  the phenomenon in the systems of thought and social practice of non-western cultures. For an earlier and comparable discussion of the relationship between rational/discursive modes of knowledge and the mythical imagination, see Georges Gusdorf, Georges Gusdorf, Mythe et Métaphysique, Paris: Flammarion, 1953.

[25] H.U. Beier and B. Gbadamosi (Editors), Yoruba Poetry. Ibadan : Western Region Ministry of Education, Special Publication. In his Myth, Literature and the African World, Wole Soyinka has provided perhaps the fullest account of the Yoruba world view as projected through the indigenous system of….


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