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.
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.
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
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...
(The entire section is 1,983 words.)