Anton Wilhelm Amo

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Anton Wilhelm Amo
Bornc. 1703
Diedc. 1759
Other namesAntonius Guilelmus Amo Afer
EducationUniversity of Helmstedt
University of Halle
University of Wittenberg
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
InstitutionsUniversity of Halle
University of Jena
Main interests
Philosophy of mind
Notable ideas
Critique of Descartes' philosophy of mind[1]

Anton Wilhelm Amo or Anthony William Amo (c. 1703 – c. 1759) was a German philosopher originally from what is now Ghana, of Akan ethnicity. Amo was a professor at the universities of Halle and Jena in Germany after studying there. Brought to Germany by the Dutch West India Company in 1707 as a child-slave, and given as a gift to Dukes August Wilhelm and Ludwig Rudolf von Wolfenbüttel,[2] he was treated as a member of the family by their father Anthony Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Amo was the first African-born person known to have attended a European university. In 2020, Oxford University Press published a translation (into English) of his Latin works from the early 1730s.[3]

Early life and education[edit]

Plaque to Anton Wilhelm Amo, quadrangle, Wittenberg University

Amo was a Nzema (an Akan people). He was born in Axim in the Western region of present-day Ghana, but at the age of about four he was taken to Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company. Some accounts say that he was taken as a slave, others that he was sent to Amsterdam by a preacher working in Ghana. The truth of the matter is that he was given as a "present" to Anthony Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, to whose palace in Wolfenbüttel he was taken.[4]

Amo was baptised (and later confirmed) in the palace's chapel. He was treated as a member of the Duke's family, and was educated at the Wolfenbüttel Ritter-Akademie (1717–21) and at the University of Helmstedt (1721–27).

He went on to the University of Halle, whose Law School he entered in 1727. He finished his preliminary studies within two years, titling his thesis Dissertatio Inauguralis de Jure Maurorum in Europa (1729). This manuscript on The Rights of Moors in Europe is lost, but a summary was published in his university's Annals (1730). For his further studies Amo moved to the University of Wittenberg, studying logic, metaphysics, physiology, astronomy, history, law, theology, politics, and medicine, and mastered six languages (English, French, Dutch, Latin, Greek, and German). His medical education in particular was to play a central role in much of his later philosophical thought.

He gained his doctorate in philosophy at Wittenberg in 1734; his thesis (published as On the Absence of Sensation in the Human Mind and its Presence in our Organic and Living Body) argued against Cartesian dualism in favour of a broadly materialist account of the person. He accepted that it is correct to talk of a mind or soul, but argued that it is the body rather than the mind which perceives and feels.[5]

Whatever feels, lives; whatever lives, depends on nourishment; whatever lives and depends on nourishment grows; whatever is of this nature is in the end resolved into its basic principles; whatever comes to be resolved into its basic principles is a complex; every complex has its constituent parts; whatever this is true of is a divisible body. If therefore the human mind feels, it follows that it is a divisible body.

(On the Ἀπάθεια (Apatheia) of the Human Mind 2.1)

Philosophical career and later life[edit]

Amo returned to the University of Halle to lecture in philosophy under his preferred name of Antonius Guilelmus Amo Afer. In 1736 he was made a professor. From his lectures, he produced his second major work in 1738, Treatise on the Art of Philosophising Soberly and Accurately, in which he developed an empiricist epistemology very close to but distinct from that of philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume. In it he also examined and criticised faults such as intellectual dishonesty, dogmatism, and prejudice.

In 1740 Amo took up a post in philosophy at the University of Jena, but while there he experienced a number of changes for the worse. The Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel had died in 1735, leaving him without his long-standing patron and protector. That coincided with social changes in Germany, which was becoming intellectually and morally narrower and less liberal. Those who argued against the secularisation of education (and against the rights of Africans in Europe) were regaining their ascendancy over those who campaigned for greater academic and social freedom, such as Christian Wolff.

Amo was subjected to an unpleasant campaign by some of his enemies, including a public lampoon staged at a theatre in Halle. He finally decided to return to the land of his birth. He set sail on a Dutch West India Company ship to Ghana via Guinea, arriving in about 1747; his father and a sister were still living there. His life from then on becomes more obscure. According to at least one report, he was taken to a Dutch fortress, Fort San Sebastian in Shama, in the 1750s, possibly to prevent him sowing dissent among his people. The exact date, place, and manner of his death are unknown, though he probably died in about 1759 at the fort in Shama in Ghana.


Amo is cited in Abbé Grégoire's De la littérature des nègres (1808).

In August 2020, in a context of 'decolonization' of place names following the murder of George Floyd, the German capital Berlin decided to rename its Mohrenstraße to "Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Straße" in his honor.[6]

On 10 October 2020, Google celebrated him with a Google Doodle.[7]


  • Dissertatio inauguralis de iure maurorum in Europa, 1729 (lost).
  • Dissertatio inauguralis de humanae mentis apatheia, Wittenberg, 1734.
  • Disputatio philosophica continens ideam distinctam eorum quae competunt vel menti vel corpori nostro vivo et organico, Wittenberg, 1734 (Ph.D. thesis).
  • Tractatus de arte sobrie et accurate philosophandi, 1738.


  1. ^ Wiredu, Kwasi (2004). "Amo’s Critique of Descartes' Philosophy of Mind". In Wiredu, Kwasi: A Companion to African Philosophy. MA, USA, Blackwell Publishing. pp. 200–206.
  2. ^ Loutzenhiser, Mike (September 17, 2008). THE ROLE OF THE INDIGENOUS AFRICAN PSYCHE IN THE EVOLUTION OF HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS. iUniverse. pp. xiii. ISBN 978-0595503766.
  3. ^ Menn, Stephen; Smith, Justin E. H. (2020-09-05). Anton Wilhelm Amo's Philosophical Dissertations on Mind and Body. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-750162-7.
  4. ^ Wirth, Nikolaus. "Amo, Anton Wilhelm". BlackPast. Retrieved 15 November 2018.
  5. ^ Lewis, Dwight (2018-02-08). "Anton Wilhelm Amo: The African Philosopher in 18th Europe". Blog of the APA. Retrieved 2021-06-04.
  6. ^ "Mohrenstraße wird in Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Straße umbenannt". RBB (in German). 21 August 2020. Retrieved 21 August 2020.
  7. ^ "Celebrating Anton Wilhelm Amo". Google. 10 October 2020.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • An extensive archive of materials by and about Amo can be found at
  • The Latin original of Amo's Dissertatio inauguralis de humanae mentis apatheia, Wittenberg (On the Impassivity of the Human Mind), 1734 (State Library of Berlin)
  • Amo scholar Dwight Lewis provides a concise account of Amo's life and work which can be found on the American Philosophical Association blog: APA Online.
  • The Oxford University Press translation and biography, by Stephen Menn and Just EH Smith: