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In the seventy-five years before World War II, Africa was colonized, in large part by European missionaries. These Catholic and Protestant Christians penetrated deeply into Africa geographically, psychologically, and not least, philosophically. Therefore, when “African philosophy” was noted or recorded, the work was done mostly by religious men, either European missionaries such as Placide Tempels or their African pupil-successors such as Alexis Kagame and John S. Mbiti. Of course, these men emphasized the religious dimensions of African life and philosophy, and perhaps because they were adherents to a single religion, they also portrayed the unity of that religious-philosophic outlook across sub-Saharan Africa. However, from the perspective of those trained in a rigorous, secular philosophical tradition, African philosophy was little more than neocolonial ideology. Colonizers or their Christianized students were placed in the privileged position of representing African intellectual reality. They represented that reality as largely unrelated to economic and political (material) conditions. Paulin J. Hountondji, an African educated in French neo-Marxism, sought to redress this imbalance with a vigorous attack on “ethnophilosophy” in his critical work African Philosophy.

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African Philosophy is divided into two parts, “Arguments” and “Analyses.” Evidently, this was an editorial decision intended to balance the book in number of chapters (four in each part) and in pages per part. However, both chapter 8, “True and False Pluralism,” and a fifteen-page “Postscript” are much more arguments than analyses of individual African philosophers. Thus roughly three-fourths of the work is Hountondji’s attack on ethnophilosophy and his defense of critical philosophy. With the exception of the “Postscript,” all the material had been published in some form before being revised and collected as African Philosophy.

Philosophy Defined

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Despite being a collection of articles, the work possesses remarkable unity. Its unity is due to the simple fact that, in essence, it is an argument about one word, “philosophy.” Hountondji, Marxist though he may be, is completely the modern French philosopher, that is, the Cartesian, in departing from a single “clear and distinct” idea. This idea is that, in “science,” words have a precise, unequivocal meaning. Above all, philosophy, as word, as discipline, and as practice, has a precise meaning, because philosophy is the fully conscious, intentional, critical examination of all discourses that claim to be knowledge. Because critical examination presupposes the most careful study, it follows that any discourse being critically examined must first be stabilized in writing.

All sciences, then, but especially philosophy, must be textual. This textualization—that is, the representation in writing of traditional African philosophy—is precisely what the ethnophilosophers accomplished. Tempels’s Bantu Philosophy (1959) might be considered the first text in this philosophical subdiscipline. Hountondji rejects this idea on several grounds. First, African philosophy must be authored from inside, by Africans, but Tempels is a European, doing “European science.” Alexis Kagame’s La Philosophie bantu-rwandaise de l’être (1955; the Bantu-Rwandese philosophy of being), authored by a Rwandan, is more legitimately African philosophy—because it is African. However, strictly speaking, in two senses, it is not philosophy. At most, such a reconstruction is a presentation of traditional wisdom, not of critical analysis. Additionally, these ethnophilosophical representations presuppose an “unconscious” unanimity among all Africans on the nature of things. The ethnophilosophers hold that there is one and only one traditional African philosophy.

Ethnophilosophy and Philosophy

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Hountondji’s position is that the African philosophy of the ethnophilosophers is a myth and that the ethnophilosophers are the mythmakers. Their myth is not about indigenous African gods and goddesses or spirits and heroes, who have a kind of reality for many traditional, noncritical Africans. Instead, the myth of the ethnophilosophers is Africa. Africa is presented exotically to Europeans and other Westerners as a simple, soulful place whose inhabitants, equally simple, are nearly devoid of economic and political concerns. The myth of Africa and Africans is, in essence, neocolonial ideology. It serves, Hountondji believes, two oddly related purposes. First, it elevates Europe over Africa intellectually and technologically and thus implicitly justifies European dominance. Second, African soulfulness restores spiritual health to materialistic Europeans, even as they continue to control Africa in the name of civilization and development. In sum, ethnophilosophy is the very “finest” sort of ideology: It makes the conqueror feel both morally justified and spiritually redeemed by the conquest.

Ethnophilosophy, then, is both bad philosophy and, if politically influential, bad ideology. Nevertheless, from Hountondji’s perspective, it serves two necessary purposes. First, insofar as ethnophilosophy is authored by Africans, it marks the beginning of a textual tradition of African philosophy. Again, it is important to be “clear and distinct” on this point: Any given expression of ethnophilosophy is the view of some philosopher, not of Africans in general. Second, ethnophilosophical texts give the critical philosopher something with which to work. They are thus indispensable to the initiation of philosophy as a historical process.

Ethnophilosophy is a very halting first step. It is not true scientific discourse, nor is it even a systematic compilation of what has traditionally passed for “science” in Africa. (Hountondji does not use the term “ethnoscience” in African Philosophy.) Nevertheless, ethnophilosophy is the beginning of that profound transformation from oral cultures to literate civilizations in Africa. In a word, it straddles the border between myth and science.

With writing, science becomes possible. It is no longer necessary to devote the bulk of a society’s intellectual energy merely to remembering. For Hountondji, every oral culture is dominated by the fear of forgetting: This obsession renders such a society not merely traditional but dogmatic. However, once writing takes hold, the mind is able to “look down” on what it thinks it knows. It can regard its knowledge critically, as something both secured in writing and open to inspection. At this point, true philosophy begins to exist. Philosophy is, in a sense, the highest form of science, because it scrutinizes every established body of knowledge. However, philosophy is not wisdom. Neither is it merely science. Instead, philosophy is a process that restlessly and endlessly examines and criticizes any organized discipline that claims to be knowledge.

This understanding of genuine philosophy presents the sharpest contrast with ethnophilosophy. Assuming the existence of a single, coherent statement of African philosophy that truly represented the worldview of all Africans, this would be doctrine, not philosophy. In Hountondji’s opinion, what has made Europe powerful and progressive and Africa subordinate and static is that, for Europeans, philosophy is a history. Moreover, it is a history that includes science and politics. Philosophy rests on the various sciences, but it does not take them for granted. Instead, it subjects all limited or dogmatic formulations to searching criticism, in the process establishing a continuing, progressive history. For this process to proceed, political freedom, especially freedom of criticism, is necessary. No religious, scientific, or political dogma can be permitted to silence critical philosophy.

Politics and Philosophy

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It is within this framework that Hountondji explains both the “Analyses” included in African Philosophy and the relationship between philosophy and politics. An article on the work of Anton-Wilhelm Amo, an eighteenth century African-German philosopher, and two pieces on the writings of Kwame Nkrumah, the twentieth century Ghanaian philosopher and political leader, are intended to begin the process of creating a history of African philosophy. Not surprisingly, Hountondji’s reading of Amo and Nkrumah is especially alert for signs of ethnophilosophy; he finds none in the former but regrettable elements of it in the latter. The implicit message seems to be that Africans do philosophy best when they are philosophers first and Africans a distant second.

The critical reading of Nkrumah is in keeping with Hountondji’s position on the relation between philosophy and politics. He draws a fine but very significant distinction between “political theory” and a “theory of politics.” It is not completely clear whether political theory (or philosophy) is the combination of politics and philosophy or the subordination of philosophy to political purposes. What is clear is that political theory entails a loss of autonomy for both philosophy and politics. Each is “infected” with things extraneous to it—politics with irrelevant (and, for Hountondji, unreal) metaphysical issues, philosophy with the ideological baggage of politics. “Political philosophy,” then, is all but indistinguishable from ethnophilosophy.

A theory of politics, on the other hand, is a legitimate and worthwhile philosophical contribution. Here again is the clarity and distinctness of Hountondji’s most fundamental thesis: Philosophy is philosophy only when it functions critically. In this instance, philosophy should ruthlessly, and fearlessly, expose all the tricks of the political trade. It should especially discern and discuss the ways in which politics uses ideology to mystify and mislead. In this philosophical critique of politics, the contrast with science is always implicit and often explicit. Science deals with what is real, the material world and its processes; politics, like ethnophilosophy, dwells mostly in the realm of the imaginary.


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Additional Reading

Althusser, Louis, and Étienne Balibar. Reading Capital. Translated by Ben Brewster. London: Verso, 1979. First published in French in 1968. Althusser wrote parts 1 and 2. A difficult, densely argued work but indispensable for understanding Althusser’s shaping of Hountondji’s notion of “science.” Chapter 7, “The Object of Political Economy,” is a brief, reasonably accessible summary statement.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A subtle, interesting work by a leading Anglo-African professional philosopher, writing here in a mode quite sympathetic to ethnophilosophy. Hountondji is interpreted conventionally, with no attention to his later writing. Winner of the Herskovits Award for 1993.

Apter, Andrew. “Que Faire? Reconsidering Inventions of Africa.” Critical Inquiry 19 (Autumn, 1992): 87-104. Developed from a 1989 African Studies Association roundtable in which Hountondji took part. Apter attempts to bridge the gap between ethnophilosophy and critical philosophy by arguing that traditional Yoruba cosmological rituals were implicitly critical of power holders.

Bell, Richard H. “Narrative in African Philosophy.” Philosophy 64 (July, 1989): 363-379. An argument that the understanding of African philosophy should include narrative palaver as well as texts, and a partial endorsement of Hountondji’s work as belonging to the dialectical rather than universalistic branch of critical philosophy.

Chachage, C. S. L. “Discourse on Development Among African Philosophers.” In African Perspectives on Development, edited by Ulf Himmelstrand et al. London: James Currey, 1994. A brief, very useful discussion of five phases in the development of African philosophy. Hountondji’s work is placed in the fourth phase, which is then treated critically by the fifth.

Floistad, Guttorm, ed. African Philosophy. Vol. 5 in Contemporary Philosophy: A New Survey. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987. A collection of papers reflecting Hountondji’s distinctions, categories, and criticism.

Imbo, Samuel Oluoch. An Introduction to African Philosophy. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. An excellent introduction to African philosophy. Hountondiji’s universalism is positioned against Leopold Senghor’s Negritude.

Mudimbe, V. Y. The Invention of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Usefully places Hountondji in a sociological context but repeats the standard “antiethnophilosophy” interpretation without noting Hountondji’s insight into Africa as invented. Contains an extensive bibliography. Shared the Herskovits Award for 1989.

Senghor, Leopold Sedar. On African Socialism. Translated by Mercer Cook. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964. A clear, thoughtful statement of African political philosophy by Senegal’s poet-statesman. Sharply criticized by Hountondji for its “soft, humanistic, communal socialism” in contrast to the “scientific” Marxist variety.

Serequeberhan, Tsenay, ed. African Philosophy: The Essential Readings. New York: Paragon House, 1991. May be usefully compared with the Floistad volume because it reflects a later, more critical orientation toward Hountondji’s work.

Serequeberhan, Tsenay. The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1994. A work in the dominant, postcritical mode of African philosophy in the 1990’s. Hountondji’s work is read as Eurocentric and neocolonialist, out of touch with both African Marxism and the sentiments of the “indigenous masses.”

Tempels, Placide. Bantu Philosophy. Translated by Margaret Read. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1959. First published in French in 1945. For Hountondji, the prime example of “ethnophilosophy.” It was to redirect the path of African philosophy that Hountondji subjected Tempels’s work to scathing criticism.

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Critical Essays