Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Ghanaian Pioneer: Anton Wilhelm Amo - The first African philosopher to study and teach in European universities…

Amo, Anton Wilhelm (c.1703-56)

The first European-trained African philosopher, Amo pursued a scholarly career in jurisprudence and then in rationalist psychology, logic, and metaphysics. He trained at Halle, Wittenberg and Jena universities, and was influenced by the systems of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christian von Wolff. While at Halle university, he wrote a pioneering legal dissertation on the application of Roman laws of slavery to Africans in Europe. Subsequently drawn to classical, biblical, and hermetic traditions that apotheosized a cultural continuity with ancient Africa, Amo focused his theoretical and practical concerns on the exterior world of international law and the interior world of deliberative intellectual acts.

The first African philosopher to study and teach in European universities, Anton Wilhelm Amo was born at Axim in Ghana to Nzima parents who were converted to Christianity by Dutch missionaries. Sent to The Netherlands at the age of four for a religious education, Amo was then transferred by representatives of the Dutch West India Company to the service of Anton Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-WolfenbĂĽttel, whose Hapsburg court was the intellectual centre of early Enlightenment Germany. Through the Duke's patronage, which also supported G.W. Leibniz, Amo became proficient in Dutch, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French and German and subsequently trained at the universities of Halle, Wittenberg and Jena in philosophy and jurisprudence.

As a student at Halle of Johann Peter von Ludewig, the Prussian diplomat and legal scholar, Amo prepared a dissertation, De Jure Maurorum in Europa (On the Rights of Moors in Europe) (1729), which utilized Roman law, hermeneutical and historiographical traditions to assert ancient prohibitions against enslaving Africans in Europe. He based his argument on legal rights ostensibly inherited from the early Christian era compacts between the Emperor Justinian and the indigenous kings of Roman north Africa. Amo's dissertation, extant only in digest form, represents one of the earliest scholarly responses to the growing legal dispute over slavery and the status of Africans as aliens in Europe during a period of expanding overseas slave colonies. It reflected the impact of rising African populations in metropolitan Europe and the Holy Roman Empire's disintegrating hegemony. The natural law principles and imperial precedents he employed paralleled those developed in Spain by the legal philosopher and theologian, Francisco de Vitoria, to oppose the 'Astral Empire' that Charles V planned to build, through slavery, at the outset of the New World conquest.

In philosophy, where Amo's interests inclined towards the Enlightenment rationalism of Leibniz and the related system of Christian Wolff, he specialized in pneumatology (rational psychology), logic and metaphysics. In rational psychology, he attempted to reconcile the tensions between Thomistic faculty psychology (see Aquinas, T. §1; Thomism §1) as it focused on the 'free' operations of intellect or will, and the more deterministic empirical psychology rooted in Lockean sensationalism (see Locke, J.) and medical physiology. In logic, he explored the nature of intellective acts such as contemplation, deliberation and reflection. Applying the mathematico-deductive method, Amo adopted precepts from the Port Royal semioticians, from modal logic and syllogistic methods, and from Christian Thomasius's 'practical logic' (see Thomasius, C.). In metaphysics, a religious attraction to the Cistercian, Carmelite and Franciscan spiritual orders immersed him in the study of Aristotle's On the Soul and the church fathers Tertullian and St Augustine, all of whom Amo traced through such modern thinkers as P. Melanchthon, R. Descartes, G.W. Leibniz, J. Le Clerc, and C. Wolff.

As a professor at Halle, Wittenberg and Jena, Amo lectured on topics that included Leibniz's principle of sufficient reason, the political thought of C. Wolff, J. Lorenz Fleischer's theories of the law of nature and the law of nations, and the decimal system. However, his interests were not confined to the formal university curriculum: as a private tutor, he conducted classes on several of the ars hermetica (the occult arts and sciences), including physiognomy, chiromancy, geomancy, natural astrology and decipherment. In 1738 as a member of various learned societies in Europe, including the academy of Flushing in The Netherlands, he published in Latin a compendium of his selected university lectures known as Tractatus de Arte Sobrie et Accurate Philosophandi (A Treatise on the Art of Philosophizing Soberly and Accurately).

After the death of his academic patron, von Ludewig, Amo found his position in German academic and social circles increasingly tenuous and himself subject to racial rebuff. In 1747 he returned to Ghana and changed his profession to the honoured Ashanti vocations of goldsmith and seer. He died there in 1756. Since his philosophical

writings remained largely inaccessible until their recovery and dissemination in the twentieth century, Amo's historical influence lies primarily in his posthumous role in the international antislavery movement, where his example served to vindicate African moral and intellectual capacities. He is also known as a moral and intellectual vindicationist.



  1. Replies
    1. It is good to learn about thinkers who have contributed a lot to the civilization of mankind. The world is evolving along with the things around and our thoughts may evolve along with them as well.

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  2. I like the background of this blog too!

  3. Thanks for this fascinating and informative post!

  4. Africa Arising. No doubt about that.

  5. Good stuff! An African was able to prove beyond doubts to the Europeans that the very traditions that they so eulogized treated slavery with contempt. That the Europeans were only making a mockery of what they stood for and so believed in with slavery.......what a bravery! That is why they could not afford to let Amo's work out as it were to spite them in the face..yeah....haha so they had to nib in the bud.
    But anyway Amo was not born to Nzima parents......he was born to Ahanta parents......find more about these guys....do your checks again!
    Kola (Valley View University, Accra)