Roughly speaking, we might conceptualize the attainments of a given culture as falling into two broad categories. On the one hand, there are things like wagons, gunpowder, and telephony: cultural attainments that, once they have caught on in one society, they cannot but spread to all societies that have the means of acquiring them. There is nothing, for example, intrinsically Chinese about printing. These are things that do not have any special relationship to the context of their origin. On the other hand, there are things like the Pythagorean chromatic scale as opposed to the Indian sargam, or the unicorn motif in Indo-European art: innovations of culture that do not automatically result in global diffusion, since they are only variations on a fixed range of possibilities for the expression of elements of culture --in this instance, music and figurative art-- that are in some form always already there in every culture. In general, inventions diffuse, motifs do not (unless the motifs are from a higher-status conquering elite, which explains in part the abundance of copyright-infringing knock-offs of Disney characters in the developing world; this should probably be the subject of a different essay).
What sort of innovation is philosophy? It seems to me that there is an implicit contradiction in the way we unreflectively take philosophy to be something that is culturally distinct, like a motif in basket weaving or a style in musical composition, while at the same time being something that is, like a wheel or nuclear weapons, universally valid: something that, so to speak, rolls or explodes the same way everywhere.
We can't have it both ways, of course, and I believe it is this very inconsistency that has led to a rather uncomfortable situation for all parties with a stake in defining philosophy, wherein the history of philosophy continues to be taught as if it were the unfolding of a particular continent's Spirit, while small concessions are made to allow for the teaching of implicitly second- or third-tier traditions of 'non-Western philosophy'.
One sub-tragedy of this generally dismal organization of the discipline is that it overlooks real and serious distinctions between the different ways the different, negatively defined non-Western groups have given expression to their moral, epistemological, and ontological commitments. If the distinctions are considered at all, we generally get something like the following schema:
East Asia: Ethics and statecraft, but no metaphysics or epistemology.
South Asia: Metaphysics, epistemology, and logic, but all vitiated by so much mythology as to render the task of salvaging non-cost-effective.
The Americas: Philosophy of nature and 'environmental' philosophy, expressed through practical wisdom and (in contrast with South Asia) transparently meaningful mythology.
Sub-Saharan Africa: The ultimate residual class; philosophy here is whatever is done differently, in the way of belief or practice, that might be held up as worthy of praise.
I mean to say that 'non-Western' regions are summarily caricatured; their philosophy is measured up according to the degree of its resemblance to Western philosophy; and Africa always comes out at the very bottom in these comparisons, just as it comes out at the bottom of any standard index of social, economic, or medical well-being.
How does this happen? For a long time I myself assumed that the appearance of 'African philosophy' courses in philosophy departments around North America was a bit of misplaced reparation, as well as a compromise measure meant to de-Eurocentrize philosophy departments even as it goes against the usual insistence that philosophy is universal and so cannot be divided up into ethnic camps. I suspect that I have not been alone in thinking this. The problem with portraying Africa as 'having its own philosophy', beyond the obvious fact that there is no coherent, stable entity called 'Africa' except insofar as it is forced into existence by European concerns, is that it calls upon 'Africa' to enter into a game with Europe on a playing field that is far from level: it asks us, in the African case, to take as philosophy the implicit ontological and moral commitments that can be extracted from other spheres of cultural activity, while in the European case we are expected to continue to insist that only those products of a certain narrow, formalized, and rigorous sphere of cultural activity be categorized as philosophy.
In the Routledge volume on African philosophy edited by the late Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, we learn a great deal about oral traditions and values that may, by an outside observer, be rendered explicit and formed into something resembling a 'system'. But does anyone think that there are not similar traditions and values waiting to be systematized in a Manitoba Elks Lodge, or, for that matter, at a Nevada Tea Party rally? Would anyone dare to call these traditions and values 'philosophy'? In the volume there is also quite a bit of interest in ethnoscience; for example, there is a section on Yoruba physics, which includes a discussion of a rain-predicting hygrometer 'built' out of saliva expectorated by a Yoruba farmer into his hand and held up to the wind. This is very interesting and important stuff to study (as important, I would maintain, as the Critique of Pure Reason), but one does not have to be all that well-read to see that what it is is not philosophy as ordinarily understood, but rather (amateur) anthropology, i.e., precisely what the editors of most of the other volumes in the Routledge series likely believe philosophy must not be.
On the ordinary understanding, which I do not share, philosophy is by definition the project of decontextualizing ideas, as Jonardon Ganeri says in Philosophy in Classical India, a fine analytic reduction of, principally, the subcontinent's traditions of logic and epistemology. This means that, in effect, we are expected to make a special concession for much non-Western philosophy (though not for Indian philosophy) and to permit culture itself to be a culture's philosophy. But again, the prime directive of 'default philosophy' insists --incessantly-- that the study of philosophy is something quite distinct from the study of culture. I suspect, therefore, that anyone who participates in this incessant chant while at the same time never questioning the place of African philosophy in a philosophy programme's curriculum either has simply not thought too much about the issue, or is prudently keeping quiet.
I believe that the best way to level the field is not to come up with different rules for different continents as to what is to count as philosophy, nor yet to exaggerate the systematicity or Europeanoid 'rigor' of scattered non-European authors, but rather to drop the vain illusion that in the European case philosophy is not also a culture-bound activity. The history of the unfolding of Spirit has more to do with the history of the printing press and of the growth of global trade networks (in both cases Asian innovations) than it does with some distinctly European spark of genius. If pressed, few today would explicitly speak in terms of Spirit, but this just makes their position all the more lamentable: we are left with an implicit commitment to something to which we would never --unlike the people, Hegel and cohort, who thought it up in the first place-- willingly commit ourselves when it is made explicit.
The view I am defending places philosophy squarely on the side of unicorn motifs rather than on the side of wagons or gunpowder, and in this way absolves us of the need to explain why it does not diffuse in the same way as other universally useful innovations. It also relieves us of the need to uphold an awkward double standard for what is to count as philosophy. If we understand philosophy as inherently 'ethnophilosophical', that is, as a set of cultural variations on a range of beliefs about nature, the self, etc., which humans qua human cannot help but have, and which may be written down and systematized, but need not be, then the apparent deficiency of oral traditions dissolves. The distinguishing feature of Western philosophy, on this approach, turns out to be not some greater clarity or depth of thinking that emerged in Europe (or, better, Eurasia) but not elsewhere. It is instead a by-product of the way certain, principally Asian, technologies, above all writing and the reproduction of written texts, are incorporated into a society. The minds of non-literate pastoral peoples are exactly the same as those of seminarians mastering Thomistic doctrine; the difference is that the pastoral people's minds have different prostheses to support and to mirror their thoughts.
A revealing parallel case is law: does law begin with Hammurabi, and receive its first mature expression in the Roman period? Or were these milestones simply the explicitization of something that was already there, that cannot not be there wherever there is a society that is organized in some way or other according to a set of --perhaps unspoken-- rules and prohibitions? Is a written legal code the coming-into-being of a new way of thinking, or is it the transfer of a familiar way of thinking into a different, external storage medium? If we follow an anthropologist such as Jack Goody (particularly in his Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society), it is entirely the latter of these, and accepting that this is so enables us to think about, say, Roman law, in fruitful scientific comparison to, say, Hausa law (generally called Hausa 'custom'). And similarly with philosophy.
I strongly suspect that philosophers are unable to accept such a conceptual shift in the way they think of the Western philosophical tradition relative to the 'Restern' traditions because they are still implicitly attached to a quasi-Hegelian conception of philosophy as the unfolding of the European Spirit. But until they do accept this shift, it will remain entirely unclear why they act as though they are happy to see African philosophy gaining increasing representation in the discipline. Now to my mind we should be studying the history of Western philosophy in no way differently than we might approach Yoruba cosmology (and this is in large part because I think that writing is only a prosthesis to thought, and not the confirmation of the specialness or particular profundity of a literate society's style of thinking), but I believe there is a serious problem when we set out from an implicit definition of 'philosophy' according to the cultural and historical peculiarities of the European tradition, and then try to see if we can find anything in other parts of the world that approximates to this tradition. I can in fact think of nothing better for philosophers to do than to undertake a comprehensive comparative study of the different ways different peoples carve up the world, but this is a far cry from what we are doing when we permit philosophy to remain Western by default, while indulging here and there in the token representation of negatively defined 'non-Western' traditions.