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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 born in Awukenu, a small village near Axim, in western Ghana. The Axim region, where his family lived, was in Dutch hands, trading in gold and slaves. Amo was of the Nzema people, known for their strong, unique culture.

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).

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, 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.) 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 (1736, Treatise on the Art of Philosophizing Soberly and Accurately), which runs to 208 pages. Part of the book was devoted to prejudices.

Amo moved in 1739 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.

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 that "Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites."   

Although Amo had close friends, including Moses Abraham Wolff, his student at Halle, and the young Gottfried Achenwall, who became a famous statistician, he still remained an outsider in whatever city he lived. 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."

Possibly disenchanted by the racism and discrimination he had experienced and witnessing increasing unsympathy toward liberal ideas, Amo sailed in 1747 to his native Ghana. According to some sources, he returned as a passenger on a slave ship. Amo settled in the Axim area, where his father and one sister were still living, First he was welcomed as a traditional doctor but in 1753 David Henri Gallandet, Swiss-Dutch physician and ship's surgeon, who visited him noted that Amo lived like a hermit. According to a report, he was moved by the Dutch in the 1750s to Fort San Sebastian in Shama. It has been also alleged that he worked as a goldsmith. Little is know of Amo's later years in Ghana and his literary work, that he might have done. Amo died probably in Shama in 1759.

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." 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 has also established an annual Anton Wilhelm Amo Prize.

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

For further reading: 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); African Intellectual Heritage: A Book of Sources, ed. by M.K. Asante and A.S. 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 (The Rights of Moors in Europe)
  • De Humanae Mentis "Apatheia" Seu Sensionis ac Facultais Sentiendi in Mente et Earum in Corpore Nostro Organico ac Vivo Praesentia, 1734 (On the Apatheia of the Human Mind)
  • De Arte Sobrie et Accurate Philosophandi, 1736 (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)

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