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Justin E. H. Smith is university professor of philosophy at the University of Paris. He is the author, among other books, of Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2015), and co-editor and translator, with Stephen Menn, of Anton Wilhelm Amo: Philosophical Dissertations on Mind and Body (Oxford University Press, 2020). In 2019-20 he was the John and Constance Birkelund Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library.
Anton Wilhelm Amo and the Connected Histories of Early Modern African and European Philosophy
Anton Wilhelm Amo (c. 1703-after 1753) was the first African to earn an advanced degree in philosophy in Europe in the modern period. He studied and taught in Germany from the 1720s into the 1740s, before choosing to return to the place of his birth in what is today Ghana. Amo was an exceptional individual, but he was by no means alone as an African intellectual in early modern Europe. The path he followed was well trodden, and the options open to him were in large measure the same as those taken by the central African military engineer and general Avram Petrovich Gannibal (1696-1781) at the court in St. Petersburg, or by Angelo Soliman (born Mmadi Make, c. 1721-1796), a high-ranking Freemason in Vienna. Yet in pursuing philosophy in particular, Amo was fulfilling a European expectation, still prevalent in the early 18th century, that associated Africa with ancient learning and that saw Northern and sub-Saharan Africans alike as preservers of a pre-Islamic “Oriental” wisdom tradition worthy of recuperation and revival in the modern world. But if this aristocratic and intellectual “philo-Africanism” led Amo's German supporters perhaps to exaggerate his innate philosophical inclinations and to speak of his talents in caricatural ways, it is also clear that Amo himself conceptualized his scholarly work in Europe as continuous with the intellectual traditions of his homeland. In this talk I would like to consider what lessons we might draw from Amo's life and work in our efforts to understand African-European intellectual exchange at the beginning of the modern period, and also to consider, perhaps more importantly, what relevance these lessons might still have today as we seek to reenvision philosophy not as a narrowly European tradition, but as part of the inheritance of all humanity.