Anton Wilhelm Amo Under Erasure? Lecturing on an Im/Possible Otherwise

The ANTON WILHELM AMO LECTURES have been organised annually since 2013 at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg by the Research Clusters “Society and Culture in Motion” and "Enlightenment, Religion, Knowledge“. They feature internationally acclaimed scholars presenting their ongoing research on themes connected to or emanating from the work of Amo. The AMO LECTURES draw inspiration from Jacques Derrida’s concept “under erasure”, crossing out a word while keeping it legible in order to signal its inadequate yet necessary nature: they use the academic format of a “Lecture” named in honour of Amo while putting the term under erasure in order to highlight its ambiguous existence as both the means for critical reflection and – metonymically standing in for the Western epistemic formation itself – the potential object of such critique.

Excerpt from Amo's nostrification application to the Philosophical Faculty of Jena. In: W. Siegmund-Schultze et al. (Eds.), ANTONIUS GVILIEMUS AMO AFER AUS AXIM IN GHANA, Halle (Saale), Band Faksimiles, p 276.

The Life and Works of Anton Wilhelm Amo

Anton Wilhelm Amo is considered to be the first and for a long time the only Afro-German academic scholar and philosopher. According to the biographer Ottmar Ette (2020: 14-17), Amo was born around 1700 in what is now Ghana and was enslaved as a child. Via Amsterdam, he ended up as a “human gift” from the Dutch West India Company at the court of the Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, where he was baptised “Anton Wilhelm” in 1708[1] using the first name of the Duke and his son, respectively (Mabe 2020: 15). When arriving in Wolfenbüttel he was already called “Amo”, which some hold to be a patrilineally transmitted African name (Menn/Smith 2020: 4), whereas others regard it as a then-popular Latin-derived name imposed on enslaved Africans at the Dutch fort in today’s Ghana (Mabe 2020: 13-14). The very name “Amo” thus embodies and symbolises the spanning and traversing of a hierarchically structured, overdetermined, yet polysemic Afro-European space, simultaneously identifying an original thinker of the early Enlightenment and signifying a larger post/colonial predicament.

While being on record for serving as an African court servant – a “Kammermohr” (Firla 2002) – Amo also received his first formal education in the context of the court in Wolfenbüttel, including literacy in Latin, even though the details of his schooling remain in the dark (Ette 2020: 28-29; Menn/Smith 2020: 18-19). Documentary evidence shows him enrolling in 1727 at the University of Halle at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Law Faculty, where he completed a first disputation in 1729 (Menn/Smith 2020: 19). This legal disputation De iure Maurorum in Europa (“On the Rights of Moors in Europe”) is considered lost, if it ever was written down. However, a contemporaneous summary indicates that it engaged with ancient Roman sources about the enfeoffment of kings of “Moors” under the Roman Emperor, thus deriving legal implications for the rights of free and enslaved Africans under Roman Law practiced in Germany in the 18th century (Menn/Smith 2020: 1-2, 10-12). Evidently Amo was well versed in canon law as well as in various secular legal forms, natural law and legal history, enabling him to examine the legal position of people of African descent in these contexts. However, little is known about this disputation, which – as Jacob Emmanuel Mabe (2020: 18) points out – anticipated important Pan-Africanist and postcolonial debates around the rights of humans under conditions of structural inequality and oppression.

In 1730, Amo moved to the University of Wittenberg where, within weeks, he was admitted as Magister allowing him to teach while further pursuing his own studies.[2] Continuing his work in philosophy, Amo also expanded into numerous related disciplinary fields. Notably, he studied medicine with influential physicians shaping the future direction of his scholarship that became increasingly situated at the intersections of philosophy, medicine and anthropology (Ette 2020: 59). In 1734, he received his doctorate in philosophy for defending his major philosophical work De humanae mentis apatheia (“On the Impassivity of the Human Mind”). With this inaugural dissertation, Amo made an original, radically dualist medico-philosophical contribution to the debate on the relationship between body and soul: By mens humana – the human soul – he refers exclusively to the spiritual soul of the Aristotelian tradition, which is distinct from the sensitive and vegetative soul and even more strictly separated from the body. In fact, he sees the latter two parts of the soul as functions of the body itself. Rather than using “apatheia” in the stoic tradition emphasising abstention from the emotional overvaluation of non-moral goods, Amo conceptualises this Greek term differently, namely as an “impassivity” of the human mind: sensation and the power of sensing are seen as belonging to the body rather than the human mind, as the latter cannot be acted on by sensed objects. For this reason, Amo also denies the soul the ability to feel because of its immateriality (Menn/Smith 2020: 3-4, 101-111).

In 1736 Amo was admitted to the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Halle as a lecturer. While teaching in Halle, he completed a final and much more extensive work in 1738, Tractatus de arte sobrie et accurate philosophandi(“Treatise on the Art of Soberly and Accurately Philosophising”). In this magnum opus, Amo unfolds his own teaching after providing an overview of the traditional fields of knowledge. He conceives of philosophy as the continuous quest for wisdom beyond intellectual dishonesty, dogmatism and prejudice as well as the perfection of human beings in all areas, from natural existence to eternal happiness. In addition, Amo criticises those contemporaries who see philosophy only as an act of theoretical understanding without any connection to its practical side and pragmatics. For Amo, philosophy is essentially working on the virtue of wisdom – and this proves its worth in action. In this respect, philosophy cannot be reduced to pursuing purely theoretical knowledge. It also has an inescapable practical relevance (see Mabe 2020: 43-67).[3]

In 1739, Amo left Halle for the University of Jena, where he started teaching a broad spectrum of subjects, including physiognomy, chiromancy, geomancy, astrology and cryptography (Ette 2020: 119). Little is known about the following years. Racist hostility in a mocking poem cast shadows over Amos' situation around 1747. During this time, he is said to have left Germany for West Africa. Until at least 1753 he lived in Axim in what is now Ghana, where the Swiss traveller Henri-David Gallandat reported meeting him as a locally respected philosopher, astrologer and soothsayer (Menn/Smith 2020: 2). Later, Amo moved, or possibly was moved, to the Dutch-controlled Fort San Sebastian in Shama, where his tombstone can be found noting the year of death as 1784 (Brentjes 1976: 66-69).

Matriculation entry A.W. Amo. 9 June 1727 (University of Halle), UAHW, Rep. 46, Nr. 3.

Reception and Legacy of Anton Wilhelm Amo

With the departure of Amo from Jena, his texts were relegated to the margins of European intellectual history, even if never entirely lost. As Stephen Menn and Justin Smith (2020: 2, 39-51) chart in much detail, scattered references to Amo can be found since the 18th century including, for instance, a discussion of his life and work by the philosopher and physical anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1787). This, in turn, was taken up by the French cleric and abolitionist Henri Grégoire (1808) who approvingly engaged with Amo’s intellectual achievements in his De la littérature des Nègres (“On the Literature of the Negroes”). Other abolitionists of this era equally drew on Amo as an exemplar counterproving prevailing racist stereotypes, as propagated for instance by David Hume (1994/1772: 86), that Africans had allegedly never made any noteworthy intellectual accomplishment.

Within the African and African American traditions of the 20th century, Amo emerged as an occasional reference, as in a passing mention by W.E.B. Du Bois (1939). Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanian political leader and Pan-Africanist thinker, in his influential 1964 book Consciencism engaged with Amo’s ideas in the attempt to conscript the latter as an early representative of Nkrumah’s own fusion of Marxist-Leninism and traditional African thought (see Menn/Smith 2020: 45-48). Within African(a) philosophy, some scholars, such as Kwame Gyekye, have denied Amo the label “African philosophy” (Gyekye 1987: 34), since he responded intellectually to contemporary European philosophers rather than African conceptual schemes, whereas others, such as Paulin Hountondji, have characterised him as an “African philosopher in Germany in the Eighteenth Century“ (Hountondji 1996: 111-130).

In Germany and especially at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg created in 1817 through the merger of the Universities of Wittenberg (founded in 1502) and of Halle (founded in 1694), Amo was rediscovered in 1916. Wolfram Suchier, a librarian in Halle at the time, brought Amo's memory to public attention again with an article in the Akademische Rundschau (Suchier 1916). He referred to Amo as a student and a “private lecturer” in Halle, Wittenberg and Jena and described him in racialising terms as a “Mohr” (“Moor”). Amo was presented as an outstanding person with an exceptional biography and thus brought out of oblivion.

According to Menn and Smith (2020: 48), the greatest single contribution to Amo scholarship – not only at Martin Luther University, but for the 20th century in general – was made by the East German scholar Burchard Brentjes. A university lecturer on the archaeology of the Near East in Halle since the 1960s, Brentjes was politically involved in organisations boosting solidarity between Eastern Bloc countries, the Arab world and decolonising states in Africa and beyond. A close friend of Nkrumah, Brentjes published a comprehensive collection in 1968 of facsimile reproductions, sources and studies on Anton Wilhelm Amo (Amo, A.W./Brentjes 1968). The latter is introduced as "Antonius Gvilielmus Amo from Axim in Ghana" and as a student, doctor of philosophy and Magister legens at the Universities of Halle, Wittenberg and Jena. A few years later, Brentjes (1975) characterises Amo as the “first African philosopher in European universities” as well as “the black philosopher in Halle”, as the subtitle of his small monograph indicates (Brentjes 1976; see also Brentjes 1977). In 1975, a bronze plaque dedicated to the memory of Anton Wilhelm Amo was also placed at the main campus of Martin Luther University (next to the street “Universitätsring”), identifying him as the first African student and lecturer in philosophy at the Universities of Halle, Wittenberg and Jena 1727-1747.[4]  In 1994, the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg started awarding the Anton Wilhelm Amo Prize annually for outstanding theses. And in recent years numerous activities – including workshops, conferences and series of talks – have been organised at Martin Luther University, engaging the work and legacy of Anton Wilhelm Amo.

"To the memory of Anton Wilhelm Amo from Axim in Ghana The first African student and lecturer at the Universities of Halle-Wittenberg and Jena 1727-1747"
Commemorative plaque at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. (Photo: Martin Beitz, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


Renewing this local tradition of Amo scholarship and remembrance, the ANTON WILHELM AMO LECTURES have been organised annually since 2013 at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg by the Research Clusters “Society and Culture in Motion” and "Enlightenment, Religion, Knowledge“. They feature internationally acclaimed scholars presenting their ongoing research on themes connected to or emanating from the work of Amo. Dedicating a named lecture at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in honour of Anton Wilhelm Amo seems highly apposite, given that this was, after all, his alma mater: Amo studied and attended lectures here, worked here as a scholar and lectured extensively both in Halle and Wittenberg. What better way than to use the format of a public “Lecture” to take seriously Amo as a scholar and to “re-member” his academic legacy that, by and large, has been neglected? This gesture is in harmony with the recent impetus of scholarship paying increasing attention to the actual content of Amo’s work rather than primarily engaging his remarkable life as a form, treated mostly “as a datum to comment on the 18th-century discussion of the equality of the races, the origin of the human species, and slavery” (Heckmann 1990: 155). In this spirit, the ANTON WILHELM AMO LECTURES deliberately offer a space for engagements with Amo’s oeuvre – his specific ideas and interventions that have been under erasure in Euro-modern intellectual history for far too long.

At the same time, this can only be one aspect of the work that the AMO LECTURES can and should set out to accomplish. Menn and Smith’s well-intended proposal – to better leave the historical moment of Amo’s racist 18th-century lifeworld and form of life behind and “to pay attention to what Amo in fact has to say, to who he was and to the social world he inhabited” (Menn/Smith 2020: 3) – might ultimately be proposing false alternatives. While there is the danger of sliding into a tendentious tokenism, reducing Amo to an identitarian exemplar of a peculiarly racialised politics of academic work (rather than taking seriously the academic work of politics Amo set out to accomplish), there is another danger to miss out on the broader ethico-onto-epistemological conditions that historically shaped and perspectivised Amo’s work beyond the surface of its content (see also Hillgärtner/Kaczmarek 2021: 197). Put bluntly: in light of contemporary demands from within postcolonial and decolonial theories to delink from “modernity/coloniality” as a Western ethico-onto-epistemological formation writ large and universalised under colonial expansion (Quijano 2007/1989; Mignolo 2007; Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2018), the question arises as to what an extent the epistemic format of the “Lecture”, as a potential pars pro toto of that overall Western formation, operates merely within or truly beyond its limiting confines. In other words: in what ways does “lecturing” as a modality allow imagining and enunciating an alternative existence that transcends the limitations scripted into the historical conditions of possibility, both for Amo’s academic career and his contemporaneous and subsequent marginalisation and relative oblivion? Can a “Lecture” evoke, and bring into existence, the political potentialities of an otherwise – understood as a chiffre for both apprehending submerged forms of life that have persisted against all odds and for sensing that which may have been prefigured but not yet fully formed (McTighe/Raschig 2019)? Can “lecturing” deliver on “the will to be otherwise” (Povinelli 2012), possibly through reflexively teaching a lesson of the leçon (“lecture”)?

In order to keep open for reflection and discussion, within the forum of this series, the uncanny simultaneity of an absent-present potential for “lecturing” on an im/possible otherwise on, with, through and beyond Amo’s work, the AMO LECTURES take inspiration from Jacques Derrida’s concept of “under erasure”. Drawing on Martin Heidegger, Derrida (1997/1976) introduced the visual technique of crossing out a word while keeping it legible and in place – thereby putting it sous rature (“under erasure”) – in order to signal its inadequate yet necessary nature. In similar vein, the ANTON WILHELM AMO LECTURES use the academic format of a “Lecture” named in honour of Amo while crossing out the term and thus putting it “under erasure” in order to highlight its ambiguous existence as both the means for critical reflection and – metonymically standing in for the Western epistemic formation itself – the potential object of such critique. This way, the AMO LECTURES offer a space for reflection on, and a calling into being of, an otherwise that, it is hoped, is as pregnant with present and future possibilities as it is scarred with the impossibilities of the past.


[1] According to Stephen Menn and Justin Smith (2020:15 fn 38) who consulted the original chapel register, some works (e.g. Firla 2002: 56, Ette 2020: 14) falsely date Amo’s baptism to 1707.

[2] For discussions contextualizing Amo’s move from Halle to Wittenberg in the broader political and intellectual debates between pietism and early enlightenment philosophy at the time, see Ette 2020: 31-109, Mabe 2020: 31-42 and Menn/Smith 2020: 51-60.

[3] For recent engagements with Amo’s philosophy see: Ette 2020; Mabe 2020; Menn/Smith 2020 and Knauß et al. 2021.

[4] See Hamann/Schubert 2022 for a critical appraisal of Amo research and memorialisation during GDR times, mobilising the notion of “(post)socialist coloniality” to highlight the ambivalent colonial logics in the diplomatic relations between the GDR and the Republic of Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah and thereafter.


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