Anton Wilhelm Amo, Ghana’s greatest philosophical genius 1

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Fri, 11 Nov 2016 Source: Kwarteng, Francis

“Our honored Professor Hollman, while he was still in Wittenberg, conferred the degree of Doctor of Philosophy on a Negro [Anton Wilhelm Amo] who proved his great talent both in his writings and in his lectures, and who later came to Berlin as counselor to the King.

I have two of his treatises before me, of which one especially contains much unexpected and well-digested reading in the best physiological works of that time” (Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, the Father of Physical Anthropology; see the latter’s “Observations on the Bodily Conformation and Mental Capacity of the Negroes,” Philosophical Magazine 3 (1799): 141-146; see also Andrej Krause’ “Anton Wilhelm Amo’s Ontology,” Philosophia Africana, Vol. 12, Issue 2, Fall 2009, p. 141-157).

Firstly, let us make it clear that it was through Kwame Nkrumah’s influence and efforts in the 1960s that compelled the Germans to begin to recognize Anton Wilhelm Amo, the Gold Coast’s/Ghana’s pre-eminent philosopher and polymath, and his intellectual achievements. Put simply, we owe the revived memory of Amo due to Nkrumah’s personal interventions, influence, efforts and vision. Of course both were Nzemas, two of Ghana’s and Africa’s foremost philosophers. Nkrumah, just like William E. Abraham, wanted the man and his achievements celebrated.

Secondly, Kwame Anthony Appiah delivered this year’s Reith Lectures, part of it in Europe and one in particular in Accra, Ghana. Ex-President John Kufour and poet Atukwei Okai, one of Ghana’s and Africa’s greatest poets, attended the presentation.

The title for Appiah’s presentation is “Mistaken Identities: Creed, Country, Color, Culture,” a talk centered on Anton Wilhelm Amo (1703-1759), his person, academic training, professorship, academic writings, importance in and to Enlightenment thinking, and the like.

Last but certainly not the least, a Ghanaweb commentator, Tekonline.org, drew our attention to this year’s Reith Lectures featuring Appiah (what we present here in a two-part series is an excerpt from the lecture series, four parts). In this learned and informed presentation, Appiah mentions a racist satirical play directed at Amo (but he did not mention racist satirical poems about Amo. The German jurist and professor at University of Halle Johann Ernst Philippi authored those poems; Amo also spoke English though Appiah also failed to mention this).

Finally, Amo was elected to the prestigious Dutch Academy of Flushing and other learned societies and his works covered all the important questions of the 18th century from epistemology, psychology of knowledge, political philosophy, ethics and ontology, philosophy of language, and hermeneutics to logic. In sum, he contributed significantly to “the findings of German and European Enlightenment.” As well, Gottfried Achenwall of Elbing, Amo’s friend and originator of statistics in Germany and one of the inventors of statistics, put together an album containing “personal memorials of eminent men of science and learning” including his [Amo’s] (May 5, 1740).

Interestingly enough, a full-size statue has been dedicated to him at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, in 1965. This university was “one of the centers of German Enlightenment.” Some of his works have also been translated from Latin into French, German, and English. Amo acted as “devil’s advocate at the defense of numerous dissertations…Moses Abraham Wolff completed his studies at the University of Halle. His two known professors were Frederick Hoffman and Amo.”

Amo later became a lecturer in medicine soon after obtaining a Master’s Degree in Medicine. He also studied law, psychology (pneumatology), history, aesthetics, metaphysics, astronomy, physiology, science, theology, mathematics, hermeneutics, etc. Amo was also an educator (Readers should also read about Juan Latino (1518-1596), perhaps the first African scholar, poet, and professor to teach in a major European university). The University of Halle-Wittenberg has since 1994 been awarding “‘the Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Prize’ for excellent academic achievements of students and postgraduates in honor of the black philosopher.”

Amo and his works have since been at the center of international research and discourse on philosophy, race and racism, slavery historiography and history of slavery, philosophy of mind and logic, Enlightenment thinking and history, philosophy of education, etc. The irony however is that, in some academic circles in the West, he is largely seen as a Western philosopher, educator, theorist, and thinker than an African philosopher and thinker per se. The other important fact is that African, Asian, and Western academics, writers, historians, philosophers, and scholars have all written about him and his works.

How interesting!


Those interested in the topic can read more about Anton Wilhelm Amo in “African Intellectual Heritage: A Book of Sources,” an influential academic text edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Abu Abarry, Jacob E. Mabe’s “Anton Wilhelm Amo: The Intercultural Background of His Philosophy,” Barry Hallen’s “A Short History of African Philosophy,” Peter King’s “One Hundred Philosophers: A Guide to the World’s Greatest Thinkers,” and Paulin J. Hountondji’s “African Philosophy: Myth and Reality” and “The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture, and Democracy in Africa.”

In the text edited by Asante and Abarry readers should look for William Abraham’s essay, “The Life and Times of Anton Wilhelm Amo, The first Black African Philosopher in Europe.” See also Abraham’s essay “Anton Wilhelm Amo” in Kwasi Wiredu’s “A Companion to African Philosophy,” the Chapter 12 of Kwesi Wiredu’s “Amo’s Critique of Descarte’s Philosophy of Mind” in the afore-mentioned volume, Lewis R. Gordon’s “”Black European Thinkers and Trajectories of Emancipation” (“Conference Presentation and Debates, International Conference,” Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 2009), Lewis R. Gordon’s “Introduction to Africana Philosophy,” and German/English publication of Amo’s texts by the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg (Title: Anton Wilhelm Amo Antonius Gvilielmus Amo Afer of Axim in Ghana: Translation of his Works”).

See also Kwame Nkrumah’s “Consciencism: The Philosophy and Ideology of Decolonization,” Uzodinma Nwala’s “Anton Wilhelm Amo’s Treatise on the Art of Philosophizing Soberly and Accurately (With Commentaries),” Kwame Anthony Appiah/Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s edited volume “Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience,” Robert L. Arrington’s “A Companion to the Philosophers,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s “Figures in Black” and “The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader,” Gates/Emmanuel Akyeampong’s edited volume (Vol. 6) “Dictionary of African Biography,” Heiner Klemme/Manfred Kuehn’s “The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century German Philosopher,” etc. (For a more comprehensive bibliography on Anton Wilhelm Amo, readers should consult Hakim Ali/Caroline Bressey’s edited volume “Belonging in Europe—The African and the Work”).

Finally, David Henrij Galandat, a Swiss physician who met Amo in person in Axim, covered the him, the latter, in his memoirs.


In 1707, a boy about five years old boarded a ship at Axim on the African Gold Coast, a long morning’s drive west from Accra, where we meet today.

The ship belonged to the Dutch West India Company, and after many grueling weeks, it arrived in Amsterdam. But that wasn’t the end of the boy’s long journey. For he then had to travel another 500 or so kilometers to Wolfenbüttel, a German town midway between Amsterdam and Berlin.

It was the home of Anton Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, who was a major patron of the European Enlightenment.

The Duke’s library boasted one of the most magnificent book collections in the world, and his librarian was the great philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibnitz, an inventor of the calculus and among the most powerful minds of his century.

This was a glittering, dazzling center of Enlightenment rationalism: what was this boy from Ghana doing there?

Well apparently, he had been “given” to the Duke as a present. We don’t know what the boy’s status was exactly: Had he been enslaved? Was he sent by missionaries for a Christian education?

What we do know is that Duke Anton Ulrich took a special interest in him, arranging for his education, and conferring on him, at his baptism, both his own Christian name and that of his sons: so the young man came to be known as Anton Wilhelm Rudolph.

For the Duke, the gift of an African child was an opportunity to conduct an Enlightenment experiment, exploring what would happen to an African immersed in modern European scholarship.

The young man from Axim received the family’s patronage for three decades.

They were presumably aware of a similar experiment, which began a few years earlier, when Tsar Peter the Great of Russia took an African slave as his godson, naming him Hannibal. Hannibal became a successful Russian general, and was the great grandfather of Pushkin, the founder of modern Russian literature. They didn’t know that was going to happen.

But Anton Wilhelm wasn’t content to be an object of inquiry; he had inquiries of his own to conduct. We’re not sure when Anton Wilhelm started using his Nzema name, Amo: at his confirmation, the church records call him Anton Wilhelm Rudolph Mohre; Mohr, or Moor, being one of the ways Germans then referred to Africans.

Later, though, he called himself Anton Wilhelm Amo Afer, using the word for African in Latin, the language of European scholarship. So he wanted to be known, then, as Amo the African.

Nowadays, we might call Amo a person of color, and we know that Enlightenment Europeans could be rather unenlightened when it came to color.

Immanuel Kant, the most influential European philosopher of the eighteenth century, once declared that the fact that someone “was completely black from head to foot” provided “distinct proof that what he said was stupid.” And, though it would be nice to report that such hierarchies of hue are merely of antiquarian interest, they have, of course, proved curiously persistent.

Consider the bestselling book on politics by a German author in the past decade, written by a then board member of the Deutsche Bundesbank no less, which suggests that Germany is being made less intelligent—“verdummt,” is the expressive German word—by genetically inferior Muslim immigrants….

In the United States, where I live, the color line is an unhealed wound. In the past year, while the Black Lives Matter movement has sought to draw attention to black victims of state violence, white nativists have found a Presidential candidate to rally behind.

And so questions arise: Why have the divisions of color proved so resistant to evidence and argument? Why did the Enlightenment spirit of rational inquiry fail to consign these hierarchies to the ash heap of history, alongside so many other discarded notions? What has gone wrong in the longstanding global conversation about color?

Let’s retrace our steps. The experiment with our young African, three centuries ago, looks like a success.

Amo, the Duke’s godson, educated with the children of the local aristocracy, clearly flourished at the local university, because he went on to study law at the University of Halle, then (as now) one of Germany’s leading centers of teaching and research.

There, he wrote a thesis about the legal status of the “Moor” arguing that the European slave trade violated the principles of Roman law.

He soon added knowledge of medicine and astronomy to his training, and a few years later, moved to the University of Wittenberg, in Saxony, WHERE HE BECAME THE FIRST BLACK AFRICAN TO EARN A DOCTORAL DEGREE IN PHILOSOPHY.

When the ruler of Saxony came to visit, Amo was chosen to lead the students’ procession in his honor. His Wittenberg thesis, published in 1734, makes important criticisms of Descartes’ views of sensation.

And Amo, who knew Dutch, German, French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, went on to teach at two eminent institutions of higher learning, in Halle and in Jena.

And in 1738 he published an academic text, which won eminent admirers. The great physicist and philosopher Gotthelf Loescher, who examined his thesis at the University of Wittenberg, spoke of the Gold Coast as “THE MOTHER...OF THE MOST AUSPICIOUS MINDS,” and added (see “SPECIAL NOTES FOR OUR READERS” at the end of this article):



As Anton Wilhelm Amo Afer knew, even benevolence has its limits. Reaching middle age, he decided that it was time to go home, and, in 1747, he made his way back to the Gold Coast, to the Nzema villages of his birth. It was a bold move.

Someone who’d been raised in the heartland of the European Enlightenment and had built a scholarly career in some of the most prestigious seats of European learning, was now turning his back on the grand experiment he embodied and resolving to make a life in a land he’d last glimpsed as a small child.

We can only guess why. There is some suggestion that increasing color prejudice in this period in Germany—the early stirrings of Europe’s racial fixation—may have caused him discomfort: a satirical play was performed in Halle in 1747 in which Astrine, a young German woman, refuses the amorous advances of an African philosophy teacher from Jena named Amo. “My soul,” Astrine insists, “certainly cannot ever love a Moor.” This work demonstrates that Amo was a famous figure in Halle.

But the rejection of the Moor is Astrine’s, not the author’s; and some will conjecture that what drove him off was not racial prejudice but a broken heart.

We know a little more of what happened to him. A Dutch ship’s doctor met him in the mid-seventeen fifties at Axim.

“His father and a sister were still alive and lived four days’ journey inland,” the doctor reported. He also reported that Amo, whom he described as “a great sage,” had “acquired the reputation of a soothsayer.”

Both European sage and African soothsayer: Amo claimed the inheritance of the Enlightenment and an Nzema legacy.

Sometime later, he moved from Axim and went to live in Fort St. Sebastian, near the town of Shama, where he is buried. Today, we are bound to wonder: What did the soothsayer say he had learned from his long sojourn in the north?

And how did he explain his decision to leave behind everything he had built there? It’s impossible not to wonder whether his was a flight from color consciousness, a retreat to a place where he would not be defined by his complexion. A place where Amo the African could just be plain Amo again.

Indeed, his odyssey asks us to imagine what he seems to have yearned for: a world free of racial fixations. It asks if we could ever create a world where color is merely a fact, not a fate. It asks us to contemplate another bold experiment—one in which we gave up our racial fixations and abandoned a mistaken way of thinking that took off at just about the moment when Anton Wilhelm Amo was a well-known German philosopher at the height of his intellectual powers…


“A passage from an address made by Gotthelf Loescher, the professor who chaired Amo’s successful defense of this second dissertation in April 1934 gives some idea of the high regard in which he was held:

“‘We proclaim Africa and its region of Guinea, separated by a very great distance from us, and formerly the Gold Coast, so called by Europeans on account of its abundant and copious yield of gold, but known by us as your fatherland, in which you first saw the light of day, the mother not only of many good things and treasures of nature but also of the most auspicious minds:

“‘We proclaim her quite deservedly! Among these auspicious minds, your genius stands out particularly, most noble and distinguished Sir, seeing that you have excellently demonstrated felicity and superiority of genius, solidity and refinement of learning and teaching, in countless examples before now, and even in this university, with great honor in all worthy things, and now also in your present dissertation.’”

We shall return with Part 2.


Amo, Anton Wilhelm (1703?-1753). Retrieved from http://www.blackpast.org/gah/amo-anton-wilhelm-1703-1753

For transcript presentation, go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00729d9/episodes/player

See also http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/radio4/transcripts/reith3_colour.pdf

Anton Wilhelm Amo (1903-1950s)-Visions Between Slavery and Enlightenment, Between Europe and Africa. Retrieved from http://www.bayreuth-academy.uni-bayreuth.de/resources/Workshop-Amo_vorlaeufiges-Programm.pdf

Anton Wilhelm Rudolph Amo/Antonius Gvilielmus Amo, Afer of Axim (1703-c. 1759). Retrieved from http://authorscalendar.info/amo.htm

Columnist: Kwarteng, Francis