Philosophy Project Topics

A Critical Assessment of J.S Mbiti’s Africans’ Conception of Time

A Critical Assessment of J.S Mbiti’s Africans’ Conception of Time

A Critical Assessment of J.S Mbiti’s Africans’ Conception of Time

Chapter One

Discovering or Extending the Future Dimension of Time

Under this sub-heading, Mbiti acknowledges that African people are discovering the future dimension of time. This is partly because of Christian missionary teachings, partly because of the Western type of education, together with the invasion of modern technology. These on the secular level have led to national planning for economic growth, political independence, extension of education facilities and so on.

The discovery and the extension of the future dimension possess great potentialities and promises for the shaping of the entire life of African peoples. If these are harnessed and channeled into creative and productive use, they will no doubt become beneficial because it would lead to national development. However this can get out of control and precipitate both tragedy and disillusionment.




This chapter aims at looking at the views of scholars on the conception of time both from the Western and African thought. In this chapter, I attempt to compare and contrast conception of time from these two conceptions, as well as scholars from African and Europe.

 Time Orientation in Western Culture

The conception of time as a philosophical discourse in Western culture could be traced to the famous Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who once compared his idea of time to a boy playing games. He regarded the boy not as an ordinary boy, but as a king who rules the game ( as quoted by Hippolytus, in ‘Refutation of all Heresies’, IX,9,4, fragment 52, and as translated in a book entitled ‘Reality’, 1994 by Carl .A. Levenson p.10). Thus, his interpretation of time is that human beings are subordinate to time, and time itself is the real King which plays the dominant role in absolute conception of time in Western Culture is deeply rooted in Western Civilization. Ever since the ancient Greek era, time was being perceived as a physical aspect of life. For instance, Plato, in his explanation of the cosmos, acknowledged that ‘everything in the world of becoming comes and passes, but never really is'(28a). He had classified the world into two categories: the world of form and the world of appearance. He conceived the world of appearance to be unreal, as they are mere representations of the world of form.  The world of form is the real existence. Aristotle, in his famous book, Physics (book 1:A, 184a-192b, chapter two), explained time as a measurable object in motion. Unlike Plato, he began the by enquiring into the authenticity of the physical world and further inquiries into the physical, objective, and features of time.

Furthermore, the philosophers and scientists after the Renaissance period took the same Aristotelian suit, and they thought of time as a kind object in linear motion. While Scientists such as, Galileo and Newton regarded time as a certain quantity which was used to calculate the object in motion. Philosophers, at that time, such as Descartes and Locke, interpreted time from a physical aspect. Newton’s perception of time became most influential and far-reaching. In his famous book Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Newton emphasized the concept of absolute time. Consequently, the physical interpretation of absolute time as the object in motion has been the main time orientation in Western Civilization.

More so, the physical time orientation of Newton and Aristotle was also reinforced in the process of Western Industrialization. Munford argues that, the first characteristic of modern machine civilization is its temporal regularities. He stressed further that time is often considered to be something definite, absolute, and valuable, which is often used in measuring profit and even achievement.

The physical interpretation of absolute time, in the linear motion, together with the industrialization progress, helps cultivate the future time orientation in most countries of Western world. For example, the American people often think that they can control time themselves, especially the future. Edward T. Hall used his idea of M-time to buttress this feature of Western cultural time orientation. Hall argues that M-time has its own advantage and according to Hall, M-time people concentrate on job, take time commitment seriously, adhere to plans, and are concerned about not disturbing others. Hence, M-time culture places more emphasis on efficiency and promptness. However, it may be argued that life is itself in constant motion and people often consider time to be wasted unless they find something doing. M-time people who are under the great pressure of time are often controlled by the invisible hand of time.

Hence, time orientation in Western culture could be traced to the history of civilization of the Western countries which stated with the Greeks, through the Renaissance era to the present time. This time orientation has contributed to the ways Westerners approach things and situations.


The questions about the persistence of time has been shown to be persistent in Western culture although it seems highly paradoxical to suggest that time is unreal and that all statements that surrounds its reality are highly erroneous.  I shall attempt to discuss the works of scholars, such as St. Augustine, F.H. Bradley, and J.M.E Mctaggart.

Augustine begins his inquiry about the existence of time by noting that God, as the Supreme Being made time itself.  For him, there are no times that are external without God. He, therefore, proceeds to explain what time is. What is time?   How can someone easily and briefly explain it?  And can someone be sure that he or she understands it when he or she speaks of it?

He argues that if no one asks him what time is, he knows what it is. But if   he wishes to explain the meaning of time to another person, he does not know what to say. However for him, if there were no changes in time, there would be no past time or future time; and if there were no changes, there would be no present time.

So, how it is that there are two kinds of time, because the past is even no longer and the future now not yet. If the present has always been, then it will not be time because change is essential to time. And if we can express time as that yet to be experienced (i.e. future), and past time, then how do we attribute something as: This is or to say something presently exist.

For St. Augustine, time is that or something a person knows but he or she cannot explain it. Even if we speak of it, we do not understand what we speak of. It is only God that understands time because he is the maker of time. He argues that there are two kinds of time. There is nothing like present because time involves change but the present time has always been.

F.H. Bradley attempts to inquire about time and its characters to check whether it belongs to reality.  He argues that it seems not strange to consider time under a spatial form. This spatial form is often regarded to as a stream which has the “future” and “past” as components which presumably do not co-exist but the way people talk of it, is as if they did.  However, time, conceived in this way, is open to certain objections. One of the likely objections is that time itself is understood in many ways. For some, time is a relation; and on the other hand, it is not a relation. If you take time as a relational duration, Bradley contends that it is not time at all.

What then is time? Time is in fact a relation between “before” and “after” in one; and without this diversity it is not time.  There is no unity in the conception of time, and anything that is beyond this diversity of “before” and “later” is no time.

Can time relations (i.e. past, present and future) be explained separately independent of each other?  Or do time relations exist? Is “now” or “present” simple and indivisible? Definitely not: For according to Bradley, time implies before and after, and by consequence of diversity. However, we have always experienced “now” in diverse aspects: past and future. Those experienced events are past” while those that are yet to be are “future”. If there is no duration, then we cannot talk of something having beginning or end.  Duration could be conceived as a number of relations of time itself.

Hence, time will be the relation of the present time to a future time and past time; this relation is not compatible with any diversity or unity. The existence of time is ambiguous. Time perishes in the endless process beyond on outside time itself and in the end not discoverable.

Mctaggart begins his essay, Unreality of Time, by observing that there is nothing that can possess the attributes of being in time.  It seems paradoxical to him, to assert  that time is unreal, and that all the assertion about its  reality  are pronounced however, for every human  being, his  experience is best  known to him or  her through  introspection,. But Mctaggart believes that there is nothing that seems to exist that is temporal, and therefore time is unreal.

Time involves change and this change can be used in explaining time positions which could either be earlier than some or later than some of other relations. This relation of later and earlier may be called B Series. This is because any of these two, either the first is earlier than the second, or the second is earlier than the first.

Another time position is past, present, or future. This distinction are not permanent, because an event that is now present was future and will be past which of these time relations is essential  to time?  This is merely because the time position of B Series seems objective and permanent while the A series is subjective and a constant illusion of our minds.

He supposes that it could be universally admitted that time involves change. For him, there could be nothing if there is no time, and if anything changes, then all things change with it, because the change of a thing, must change other things, and so the relational qualities. If B series can constitute time without A series then it implies that we can talk of time without A series. He uses the analogy of alphabet N in the English alphabetical order to explain his point that B series cannot constitute time. Take for instance “N” has M as its earlier alphabet and alphabet O as the later alphabet. This will always be and it has always been because it is an order.  N will thus always be in B series. Hence by this and granted that this analogy is true then B series itself constitutes time. N will always have a position in a time series, and always had one. However, if change as presupposed by Mctaggart is essential to time, then B series as in the analogy of alphabet N does not constitutes time.





J.S Mbiti’s Africans’ conception of time could be viewed as composition of events which must be experienced. In other words, human experience cannot be isolated from the explanation of time in Africa because for time to exist, it must be lived through. In explaining Africans’ conception of time, Mbiti explains that what has not taken place or what has no likelihood of an immediate occurrence falls into the category of No-time. More so, what is certain to occur or what falls within the rhythm of natural phenomena is in category of Potential time. Mbiti concludes that Africans conceive time in two ways, that is, past and present and the concept of future does not exist in Africa.

In this chapter, I shall endeavour to critically examine his position on Africans’ conception of time.  This is because there are some significant issues of contextualization, myth analysis, terminology and categorization, generalization, and linguistic analysis that must be carefully evaluated. This and some other issues arising from Mbiti’s position on Africans’ conception of time will be discussed subsequent sub-headings below.

Chapter Four

General Conclusion

J.S Mbiti had set out to refute some of the prejudices against African traditional religion by Westerners who compared African traditional religious concept with Christianity which came as a result lack of indebt study of African religion leading to hasty conclusion. Also, another part of Mbiti’s objectives was to discuss African conception of time as the key to our understanding of basic religious and philosophical concepts of Africans. His belief was that the study of time might enhance our understanding of thoughts, practices, values and designs for living of African peoples.

This essay focused on an attempt to critically examine his position on Africans’ conception of time. He had explained that time in African conception is of two dimensions. That is, time in Africa thought, time exist as a long past (zamani) and a present time (sasa). He conceives this because for him, time exists as an ontological phenomenon which must be experienced.

Moreover, I have divided this essay into three chapters. In chapter one an attempt was made to explain Mbiti’s idea on Africans’ conception time. The emphasis was on the chapter three of his book entitled, Africans’ Religion and Philosophy.

In chapter two, a comparison was made to explain time in Western thought from the Pre-socratic time, to the modern time, and also the African conception, especially from Yoruba culture of South- Western Nigeria, and the Hehe culture from south-central Tanzania.

In chapter three, an attempt was made to critically examine Mbiti’s generalizations, terminologies and categorization, his linguistic analysis, Myth analysis, as well as the possible epistemic problem which may be implied from Mbiti’s claim. Nonetheless, an attempt was made to see the relevance of Mbiti’s claim.

In conclusion, this essay has attempted to show that Mbiti’s claim is inadequate to represent the general conception of all African cultures. This is because there are over one thousand languages all over African continent, and for Mbiti to have generalized based on his idea of two Kenyan cultures is to reach a hasty conclusion. It should be noted that a crucial aspect of Mbiti’s objectives was that the understanding of Africans’ conception of time, could be used in understanding what we may call African philosophy. But this essay concludes that this claim by Mbiti is false.


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