Anton Wilhelm Amo or Anthony William Amo (1703 – ca. 1759) was born in what is now Ghana, taken to Europe, and became a respected philosopher and teacher at the universities of Halle and Jena in Germany. He was the first Sub-Saharan African known to have attended a European university.
Amo was a Nzema (an Akan people). He was born in Awukena in the Axim region of Ghana, but at the age of about four he was taken to Amsterdam by the Dutch East 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. Whatever the truth of the matter, once he arrived, he was given as a present to Anthony Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, to whose palace in Wolfenbüttel he was taken.
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 (1717–1721) and at the University of Helmstedt (1721–1727). It is also believed that he would have met Gottfried Leibniz, who was a frequent visitor to the palace.
He then went on to the University of Halle, whose Law School he entered in 1727. He finished his preliminary studies within two years, his dissertation being: “The Rights of Moors in Europe”. 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.
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 Απαθεια of the Human Mind 2.1)
Philosophical career and later life
He returned to lecture in philosophy at Halle (under his preferred name Antonius Guilelmus Amo Afer) and in 1736 was made a professor. From his lectures there 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 that of philosophers such as John Lockeand 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. Unfortunately, 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 (such as Christian Wolff) who campaigned for greater academic and social freedom.
Amo himself was subjected to an unpleasant campaign by some of his enemies, including a public lampoon staged at a theatre in Halle, and 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 where his father and a sister were still living, and 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 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 Fort Chama in Ghana.
He is cited in “De la littérature des nègres” (1808) of l’Abbé Grégoire.