Success and Criticism

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

African Philosophy fulfilled Hountondji’s intention: It revolutionized the subdiscipline. It was recognized immediately as a major statement, and its author became the leader of the “antiethnophilosophers.” In a positive vein, a new school in African philosophy emerged, that of “professional” or “rationalist” philosophers. Hountondji became one of the most prominent African philosophers. Influence was accompanied by honors. African Philosophy shared the Melville Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association in 1984.

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African Philosophy also succeeded in a deeper sense. One of Hountondji’s theses in the book is that African philosophy is in fact pluralistic, but that this pluralism is concealed by the ethnophilosophical pretense of unanimity. Hountondji’s clarity on both “real” philosophy and “reality” forced every self-respecting African philosopher to take a position in relation to critical philosophy. Of course, the positions articulated varied widely—which is, no doubt, what Hountondji anticipated. Pluralism became a reality in African philosophy. Soon additional schools that went beyond ethnophilosophy and critical philosophy came into existence.

Because Hountondji took aim so very clearly at ethnophilosophy, not surprisingly, Hountondji’s views were targeted by others. A fair amount of the criticism was, if not strictly personal, directed largely at Hountondji’s sociological situation. Critics said Hountondji was a European-educated intellectual who had been thoroughly assimilated to non-African ways. As a result, his views are Eurocentric, elitist, and out of touch with the reality of ordinary African lives. Moreover, the sort of top-down, authoritarian Marxist development that Hountondji advocates goes against the communal African grain and has proved to be unsuccessful. Naturally, this sort of criticism refuses to tackle Hountondji using his own terms—terms that sharply separate philosophy and politics. On the contrary, it assumes that he is doing primarily political philosophy and that the criterion of evaluation in this field is practical success or failure.

This criticism returns the discussion to the essential question raised by African Philosophy: Is a nonideological, nonpolitical understanding and practice of philosophy possible? Or, as Hountondji himself is inclined to acknowledge, does every philosophical stance carry with it political implications? Assuming the latter to be true, the question may be rephrased as follows: Should the philosopher, as a matter of moral principle, conduct each inquiry and analysis in a manner as self-consciously open and dispassionate as possible? Hountondji’s response in African Philosophy—a response that links science and philosophy, if not necessarily modernity—is in the affirmative.

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