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Anton Wilhelm Rudolph Amo / Antonius Gvilielmus Amo, Afer of Axim (1703-c.1759)

 

African philosopher and educator, who was raised in Germany and taught in several universities there before returning to his native country, Ghana. Amo was the most important African philosopher in Europe in the 18th century. By his own example, Amo broke racial prejudices and promoted the values of the Enlightenment.

"The eighteenth-century African philosopher from Ghana, Anthony William Amo, who taught in the German Universities of Halle, and Wittenberg, pointed out in his De Humanae Mentis Apatheia that idealism was enmeshed in contradictions. The mind, he said, was conceived by idealism as a pure, active, unextended substance. Ideas, the alleged constituents of physical objects, were held to be only in the mind, and to be incapable of existence outside it. Amo's question here was how the ideas, largely those of physical objects, many of which were ideas of extension, could subsist in the mind; since physical objects were actually extended, if they were really ideas, some ideas must be actually extended. And if all ideas must be in the mind, it became hard to resist the conclusion that the mind itself was extended, in order to be a spatial receptacle for its extended ideas." (Kwame Nkrumah in Consciencism, 1964)

Anton Wilhelm Rudolph Amo was probably born in Awukenu, a small village near Axim, in the southwestern Gold Coast (now Ghana, independent from 1957). ('Amo, William Anton' by Edmund Abaka, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, Volume 1, edited by F.Abiola Irele, Biodun Jeyifo, 2010, p. 70) The Axim region, where his family lived, was in Dutch hands, mainly dealing in gold and slaves. Amo was of the Nzema people, known for their strong, unique culture. An outsider wherever he was, Amo constantly presented himself as coming from Aximto stress his identity. Moreover, he kept his Ghanaian name, Amo.

At the age about four, Amo was brought to Netherlands, but the circumstances of his transport are not clear. It is generally believed that he was sent by a preacher of the Dutch West Indies Company to be baptized and educated for further clerical services in Ghana. It is also possible that he was taken as a slave to Europe – a fate that Olaudah Equino (1745-1797) made widely known some decades later in the autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African, Written by Himself (1789). The open question is, whether Amo's family was in any way involved in the slave trade.

Soon after his arrival, Amo was turned over to the German Duke Anton Ulrich Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, a philanthropist, novelist and composer, and the brothers Wilhelm August and Ludwig Rudolp. The dukes, his protectors, had Amo baptized in the Saltzthal Chapel of Wolfenbüttel Castle in 1708 and renamed him after themselves. Following a ceremony at the chapel in 1721, he was called "Anton Wilhelm Rudolph Mohre." In his scholarly work, Amo himself preferred the name Antonius Gvilielmus Amo, Afer of Axim. His studies Amo wrote in Latin, which was the international language of learning. In addition to mastering Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French, Amo also spoke fluently German, English, and Dutch.

Amo grew up in the Duke's castle in Lower Saxony. Although it was the fashion to have blacks servants, Amo was educated as a nobleman. With the financial help of his supporters, Amo acquired a classical education and religious training at the Wolfenbüttel Ritter-Akademie and at the University of Helmstedt, which he attended to qualify for postgraduate studies. In 1727 Amo entered the University of Halle, an intellectual centre of the German Enlightenment, where he studied law. Amo was the first African student at the University. In Halle, he became acquainted with the thoughts of such philosophers as Christian Thomasius, who had helped to found the University, Christian Wolff, a hero of freedom of thought, and René Descartes, on whose writings he published a study.

Amo received his doctorate in philosophy on October 10, 1730. He then studied physiology, medicine and pneumatology (psychology) at the University of Wittenberg, receiving a degree in medicine and science in 1733. In his address the Rector of the University emphasized the high regard Amo held in academic circles and said that the work proved that Amo's intellectual ability was as great as his powers of teaching.

Amo was after the poet and scholar Juan Latino (1516-c.1595), born probably in Guinea, the second African who lectured in European universities, and the first black professor in Germany. He taught at the universities in Halle, Wittenberg, and Jena. At Halle he lectured on the political thought of Christian Wolff, who had been forced to leave the university in 1723 by the Halle Pietists and King Frederick William.

The original manuscript of his first work, Dissertatio Inauguralis De Jure Maurorum in Europa (1729), is lost – probably it was ever published – but it concerned the rights of Africans in Europe. (In German, the word "Mohr" did not just mean "Moor" but was used to describe dark-skinned Africans.) It was described in the weekly newspaper of the university: "Here [in Halle] resided for some time an African called Antonius Wilhelmus Amo . . . and as he had before then studied the Latin language, he very diligently and with great success studied here with the School of Private Law. . . . So with the knowledge and consent of his patrons who up to that time had kept him, he registered with the Dean von Ludewig publicly to defend a dissertation under him." (African Intellectual Heritage: A Book of Sources, edited by Molefi Kete Asante, Abu Shardow Abarry, 1996, p. 430) A bried summary of the text was published in the Annals of the university. Amo's "inaugural dissertation," which was directly related to his being an African, earned him candidature in both private and public law. He argued that African kings, like their European counterparts, had been vassals of Rome. By slave trade Europeans were violating the common heritage of Roman law, the principle that all the Roman citizens were free, including those who lived in Africa.

In 1734 Amo published his second doctoral dissertation, De Humanae Mentis "Apatheia" (On the Absence of Sensation in the Human Mind), a critique of Descartes's dualism, the opposition between mind and body, which he found problematic. Amo did not reject the assumption that mind is a substance, but suggested, that there was inconsistency and confusion in Descartes' terms – how two fundamentally different substances can be in union. Taking an agnostic stand, Amo also argued, that "Although I do not know in what manner God and disembodied spirits understand themselves and their operations and external things, I do not think it probable that they do it through ideas." According to Amo, "it is the peculiarity of the human mind that it understands and acts through ideas, because it is very closely tied to the body."

Descartes, who had died in 1650, was not just any thinker, but a towering figure in European philosophy and mathematics, which perhaps was one of the reasons why Amo decided to deal with the subject. However, Amo's remarkable study did not mark the beginning of a philosophical dialogue between Europe and Africa. His dialogue with German philosophers remained culturally more significant.

Amo's third major publication was De Arte Sobrie et Accurate Philosophandi (Treatise on the Art of Philosophizing Soberly and Accurately), which runs to 208 pages. This book, which  together lectures he gave at the universities of Wittenberg and Halle, appeared in 1738 in Halle. Part of it was devoted to prejudices.

In 1739 Amo moved to Jena, where he taught at the university. Jena was a seat of Wollfianism, and Amo lectured among others on "the refutation of superstitious beliefs." Amo's tenure in Jena was short lived. During the early years of the reign of Frederick II of Prussia, Amo was invited to the court in Berlin as a government councilor. Amo was also elected a member of the Dutch Academy of Flushing.

As a public figure, Amo played an important role in rising awareness of the wrongness of slavery. In Germany, the Bradenburg-African Company, established in 1682, was engaged in the slave trade. Before the forming of the German Empire in 1871, there were not many Africans even in Berlin. During the era of slavery, Immanuel Kant, a leading philosopher of the European Enlightenment, had furthered intellectual justification of racism by arguing in Physical Geography (1802) that "Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites. The yellow Indians do have a meagre talent. The Negroes are far behind them and at the lowest point are a part of the American peoples". ('The Human' by Steven Shakespeare, in Edinburgh Critical History of Nineteenth-Century Christian Theology, edited by Daniel Whistler, 2018, p. 252)

Amo had close friends, including Moses Abraham Wolff, his student at Halle, and the young Gottfried Achenwall, who became a famous statistician, but he also made enemies in the Pietist movement and was constantly reminded of being a stranger. In the Annals of Halle, he was described as "the Master Amo, who hails from Africa and more particularly from Guinea, and is a genuine Negro but a humble and honourable philosopher." (African Philosophy: Myth and Reality by Paulin J. Hountondji, 1996, p. 117)

Parodies from 1747, Herrn M. Amo, eines gelehrten Mohren, galanter Liebesantrag an eine schöne Brünette, Madam. Astrine and Der Mademoiselle Astrine, parodische Antwort auf solchen Antrag eines verliebten Mohren, are the last known records of Amo in Germany. These poems, which ridiculed his love for a white German woman, made him a laughing stock of the whole city. Humilated, depressed by the racism and discrimination he had experienced and witnessing increasing unsympathy toward liberal ideas, Amo sailed in 1747 to his native Ghana. Also the loss of Professor Peter von Ludewig, his protector, who had died in 1743, played a key role in his decision to leave Europe for Africa. According to some sources, Amo returned as a passenger on a slave ship.

There is very little information about the last period of Amo's life. The main source has been Isaac Winkelmann's obituary insertion in Proceedings of the Zeeland Academy of Science (1782) on David Henri Gallandet, Swiss-Dutch physician and ship's surgeon. Amo settled in the Axim area, where his father and one sister were still living. One brother, recruited by the Dutch, was serving in Surinam in voluntary military corps.

A polyglot, Amo must have regained comperence in Nzima language quite easily. First he was welcomed as a traditional doctor but in 1753 Gallandet, who visited him, noted that Amo "lived like a hermit." ('Anton Wilhelm Amo' by William E. Abraham, in A Companion to African Philosophy, edited by Kwasi Wiredu, 2004, p. 198) It has been also alleged that he worked as a goldsmith. According to a report, he was moved by the Dutch in the 1750s to Fort San Sebastian in Shama. Without doubt Amo, who had spoken of common right to freedom, was regarded as a threat to the slave trade. Nothing has survived of his philosophical work, that he might have done. Amo died probably in Shama. It is said that he "died of boredom" in 1756. (''No Longer Strangers and Foreigners, but Fellow Citizens': The Voice and Dream of Jacobus Eliza Capitein, African Theologist in the Netherlands (1717-47)' by Dienke Hondius, in Belonging in Europe: The African Diaspora and Work, edited by Caroline Bressey and Hakim Adi, 2011, p. 41) The diaries of the governors at Fort San Sebastian in the 1750s have not been found and Professor Donatie, whose expedition toured the West African coast in 1759, do not mention Amo in his records. It seems as if everything related to Amo and his name was erased from the local history.

Amo's work fell into oblivion in Germany for a long period. In France he was mentioned in Abbé Grégoire's book De la littérature des Nègres (1808) as one of "all those courageous men who have pleaded the cause of the unhappy Blacks and half-breeds, either through their writings or through their speeches in political assembles, and to societies established for the abolition of the slave trade, and the relief and liberation of slaves." (African Philosophy: Myth and Reality by Paulin J. Hountondji, 1996, p. 117) In 1965, a statue in Amo's honor was erected in Halle and his studies were published in 1968 in German and English editions in Halle by the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg. The university established an annual Anton Wilhelm Amo Prize.

Paulin J. Hountondji has argued, that "I considered it a failure that the work of this African philosopher could only be part, from beginning to the end, of a non-African theoretical tradition that it exclusively belonged to the history of Western scholarship. (The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture, and Democracy in Africa, 2002, p. 73) Although Amo lived most of his active life in Europe, where he had a notable academic career, his oeuvre has been considered also as a part of the history of African philosophy.

For further reading: 'Introduction,' in Anton Wilhelm Amo's Philosophical Dissertations on Mind and Body, edited, translated, and with an introduction by Stephen Menn and Justin E. H. Smith (2020); Anton Wilhelm Amo: the Intercultural Background of his Philosophy by Jacob Emmanuel Mabe, translated from German by J. Obi Oguejiofor (2014); A Modern History of African Philosophy: 'Focus on Anton Wilhelm Amo, an African Philosopher in 18th century German Diaspora by I. Maduakolam Osuagwu (2010); 'Anton Wilhelm Amo' by William E. Abraham, in A Companion to African Philosophy, edited by Kwasi Wiredu (2004); Companion to African Philosophy, ed. by Kwasi Wiredu et al. (2003); A Short History of African Philosophy by Barry Hallen (2002); 'Amo' by W. Emmanuel Abraham, in A Companion to the Philosophers, ed. by Robert L. Arrington (1999); 'The Life and Times of Anton Wilhelm Amo, the First African (Black) Philosopher in Europe' by William E. Abraham, in African Intellectual Heritage: A Book of Sources, edited by Molefi Kete Asante, Abu Shardow Abarry (1996); Anton William Amo's Treatise on the Art of Philosophising Soberly and Accurately (with commentaries) by T. Uzodinma Nwala (1990); African Philosophy: Myth and Reality by Paulin J. Hountondji (1983); Anton Wilhelm Amo: der schwarze Philosoph in Halle by Burchard Brentjes (1976); Anton Wilhelm Amo - Im Halle, Wittenberg und Jena by H. Brentjes (1968) 

Selected works:

  • Dissertatio inauguralis De Jure Maurorum in Europa, 1729 (About the rights of Africans in Europe)
  • De Humanae Mentis "Apatheia" Seu Sensionis ac Facultais Sentiendi in Mente et Earum in Corpore Nostro Organico ac Vivo Praesentia, 1734 - Inaugural Dissertation on the Impassivity of the Human Mind & Philosophical Disputation Containing a Distinct Idea of Those Things That Pertain Either to the Mind or to Our Living and Organic Body (inAnton Wilhelm Amo's Philosophical Dissertations on Mind and Body, edited, translated, and with an introduction by Stephen Menn and Justin E. H. Smith, 2020) 
  • De Arte Sobrie et Accurate Philosophandi, 1738 (Treatise on the Art of Philosophizing Soberly and Accurately)
  • Antonius Gviliemus Amo Afer of Axim in Ghana: Student, Doctor of Philosophy, Master and Lecturer at The Universities of Halle, Wittenberg, Jena, 1727-1747: Translation of His Works, 1968 (ed. by Dorothea Siegmund-Schultze, translated by Leonard A. Jones)
  • Anton Wilhelm Amo's Philosophical Dissertations on Mind and Body, 2020 (edited, translated, and with an introduction by Stephen Menn and Justin E. H. Smith)


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