ASC Annual Lecture 2023 - On the Idea of Freedom in Modern African Political Philosophy


Convener: Miles Larmer

Speaker: Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, Cornell University


On 15 June 2023, our ASC Annual Lecturer, Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò spoke ‘On the Idea of Freedom in Modern African Political Philosophy’. In a powerful and intellectually rigorous address, Prof Táíwò emphasized the centrality of universal notions of freedom and modernity to African demands for political and legal rights. Drawing on his influential book Against Decolonisation (2022), he criticised the tendency of ‘decolonial’ thinking to conflate African modernist thinkers with negative ‘Western’ influences and – in his exchanges with the audience during a lively question and answer session - insisted on recognizing Africans’ historical and ongoing contribution to these universalist traditions.


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Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: When the Republic of Liberia, at its inception, adopted for its motto, “The Love of Freedom Brought Us Here”, they were registering their embrace of one of the core tenets of modernity: the idea that freedom was the primary state of humanity and that any form of social living that turned this free being into a bonded phenomenon, forces it to obey dictates and laws not of its own choosing, to bow before rulers it had no hand in electing, and to live at the behest of another must stand condemned.  They were merely the latest, back then, instantiation of Africans as singers of freedom’s song in the modern age.  Unfortunately, neither theirs nor earlier iterations in the Haitian Revolution much less later contributions by other Africans in the continent are to be found routinely, if at all, in the annals of modern philosophy.  In this lecture, I bring to our awareness how African thinkers have domesticated the idea of freedom as a legacy of modernity in their world.  This is one of the bodies of work that is obscured by the wall that I argue, in Against Decolonisation, decolonisers have erected in their mistaking, wittingly or unwittingly, modernity for colonialism and/or Westernisation.


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Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò is Professor of African Political Thought and current Chair at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.  His research interests include Philosophy of Law, Social and Political Philosophy, Marxism, and African and Africana Philosophy. Táíwò is the author of Legal Naturalism: A Marxist Theory of Law (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996; Paperback 2015), (Chinese Translation, 2013); How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Africa Must Be Modern: A Manifesto (Ibadan: Bookcraft, 2012), (North American Edition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), Can a Liberal Be a Chief? Can a Chief Be a Liberal? On an Unfinished Business of Colonialism (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2021), and Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously (London: Hurst, 2022).   He was joint editor with Olutoyin Mejiuni and Patricia Cranton of Measuring and Analyzing Informal Learning in the Digital Age (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2015).  His writings have been translated into French, Italian, German, and Portuguese.  He has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria, Germany, South Korea, and Jamaica.