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Article abstract: Through a critique of “ethnophilosophy” and an endorsement of a critical, “scientific” understanding of philosophy, Hountondji compelled a reassessment of traditional African philosophy and an examination of the relationship among philosophy, science, and development.

Early Life

French West Africa, during Paulin J. Hountondji’s youth, was still under colonial rule by Europeans. The Ivory Coast, Dahomey (now Benin), and other nation-states such as Senegal and Guinea were territories of France, moving toward independence. French influence, linguistic and cultural as well as political, remained strong: Talented African students were caught between empire and independence. Hountondji graduated from secondary school in 1960, the year Dahomey gained its independence, and following a long tradition, he continued his education in France.

In Paris during the 1960’s, Hountondji absorbed the Marxist combination of revolutionary socialist politics and “scientific” philosophy. He graduated from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in 1966 with a degree in philosophy and did doctoral work under the guidance of the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. His doctoral thesis, on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, was completed in 1970. Both Husserl and Althusser understood philosophy as a science. For Husserl, the role of philosophy was to give a precise and systematic description of immediately given phenomena, thus avoiding speculation and ensuring certainty. For Althusser, philosophy was the critical identification of the object of each specific science and the understanding of the conditions, especially socioeconomic, under which the science produces its distinctive object. These perspectives are not identical, but both emphasize that philosophy is the method of critically understanding the creation of knowledge.

Life’s Work

Hountondji began his academic career in France, teaching at the University of Besançon from 1967 to 1970. His fundamental concern, however, was not merely to teach philosophy or even to practice neo-Marxist critical theory but rather to introduce to Africa an understanding of philosophy appropriate to problems of development. Accordingly, Hountondji quickly returned to the continent of his birth, holding university positions first in Zaire and from 1974 at the National University of Benin in Cotonou.

While in Zaire, at the National University at Lumumbashi, Hountondji began his work as an “activist philosopher.” In 1972, he founded Cahiers Philosophiques Africains (African philosophy journal), and in 1973, he became the executive general secretary of the Inter-African Council for Philosophy. His purpose in these endeavors was twofold: first, to provide continent-wide communication among philosophers and thus aid the professionalization of the discipline in Africa; and second, to advance his own understanding of philosophy as critical and scientific. He had already begun to articulate that understanding in a series of lectures and articles that, after being revised and supplemented, formed the basis of African Philosophy: Myth and Reality.

During this period, Hountondji became involved in the politics and administration of Benin. Benin (then Dahomey) had become independent in 1960; however, its political situation was completely unsettled during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Brief periods of highly factionated civilian rule were punctuated by a series of military coups. Finally, in October, 1972, Major (later General) Mathieu Kerekou seized power.

Kerekou’s Beninois revolution transformed political and economic life. Over the next several years, Dahomey became Benin, recalling the power of a precolonial empire. Much of the economy was placed under state control, and existing political parties were replaced by Kerekou’s Parti de la Revolution Populaire du Benin. Marxism-Leninism was proclaimed as the official state ideology. Hountondji’s exact role in the revolution is impossible to determine, but some facts are known. In 1973, he published a book on the revolution, and in 1974, he became a professor at the National University. His philosophical leanings were clearly Marxist, and some of Hountondji’s educational suggestions, as described in African Philosophy, were implemented in Benin. It should be noted that Hountondji’s writings emphasize the need for political freedom if philosophy and science are to flourish and that Benin’s revolution, while ultimately unsuccessful in establishing socialism, was relatively nonrepressive.

By the mid-1970’s, the first phase of Hountondji’s philosophical thinking was complete. The publication of African Philosophy established his position as the leading critic of “ethnophilosophy.” As an Althusser-educated Marxist, Hountondji had learned to read any philosophic statement as an emanation of its socioeconomic situation. He therefore placed ethnophilosophies—that is, representations of “traditional African philosophy”—in the context of African development or, more precisely, African nondevelopment. To Hountondji, ethnophilosophy legitimized and even celebrated an Africa that was precolonial, colonial, or some combination of the two and that was far inferior, in technological terms, to European and other Western nations.

To end that inferiority, a revolution was needed—a philosophical, not political, revolution. The pivot of that revolution, for Hountondji, was understanding that only critical philosophy is able to distinguish genuine from spurious science. Because genuine, or natural, science is empirical, methodical, and experimental, only science “liberated” from tradition and prejudice by critical philosophy could lead to development. Therefore, the conditions for development were the critique of ethnophilosophy by critical philosophy; the consequent replacement of mythical, magical, metaphysical ethnophilosophy by critical philosophy; and the endorsement by critical philosophy of empirical natural science and Marxist political economy. Hountondji believed the political revolution would quicken the process of replacing the traditional and developing the modern.

For Hountondji, ethnophilosophy was the rival of critical philosophy. He considered it a weak, inferior pretender to the status of “philosophy” although it existed on the same logical level as genuine philosophy. It was therefore necessary and appropriate to attack ethnophilosophy in order to start the argument about “African philosophy” and to drive ethnophilosophy from the intellectual field. Ethnophilosophy was, in good Marxist fashion, to be relegated to the junkheap of history. In the future, broadly speaking, science—not myth—would form African minds.

It is not surprising, then, that Hountondji’s attention was drawn increasingly to the question of science. During the 1980’s, he published a series of articles inquiring into the status of science in Africa. A substantial portion of his argument is continuous with that of African Philosophy: African science remains underdeveloped and dependent in relation to that of Europe and North America. Further, this lack of development is the analog and perhaps even an aspect of African economic underdevelopment.

On the other hand, Hountondji was having important second thoughts about ethnophilosophy and about what “science” is. (Alternatively, it may be argued, he was engaging in dialectical analysis.) He made two very important intellectual moves during this period. First, his basic countercategory to critical philosophy became “ethnoscience” rather than ethnophilosophy. Second, ethnophilosophy, in effect, descended a logical level; that is, ethnophilosophy became one of the ethnosciences, together with ethnobotany, ethnolinguistics, and so on.

The cumulative effect of these two moves was close to a conceptual revolution in Hountondji’s thought. Ethnophilosophy as an ethnoscience is no longer in direct competition with “true,” critical philosophy. Additionally, ethnoscience now assumes the same status as “genuine” Western science in relation to philosophy. This formal equality is not necessarily substantive equality: In any given area and for any given purpose, Western science may (or may not) be more valid and useful than ethnoscience. However, in Hountondji’s estimation, the ethnosciences of precolonial Africa have provided valid knowledge and have proven themselves useful. They also represent a possible counterforce to African dependence on Western science. In this revised view, the task of philosophy remains formally the same: to evaluate the status of any given body of knowledge as science. Now, however, critical philosophy regards the ethnosciences much more dispassionately; that is, it no longer automatically dismisses them but instead inquires systematically into their validity and utility.

It is obvious, then, that Hountondji’s later understanding of the term “science” had broadened considerably. This change had not occurred in a political vacuum, in Africa generally or in Benin specifically. During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the newly independent African nations were viewed as “developing countries.” Development was expected to be fairly rapid, to be along Western economic and technological lines, and to result in “modern societies.” However, these anticipated changes have not occurred in any uniform fashion, leading to critical reconsideration of the concepts of “development” and “science.”

Hountondji’s movement away from Marxist orthodoxy is connected with the decline and demise of Kerekou’s regime in Benin. That regime succeeded in providing much-needed political stability, surviving until 1990, but it failed to provide either social harmony or economic development. Increasing dissatisfaction and unrest were catalyzed by the worldwide liberalization movement of the late 1980’s. In Benin, a National Conference, held in February, 1990, declared itself sovereign. The People’s Republic of Benin ceased to exist, and a new, republican constitution was overwhelmingly approved in December, 1990.

The new regime included Hountondji. He became minister of national education in the transitional government of 1990 and continued in that post in the provisional government of 1991. With the new constitution fully, if not always firmly, in place, Hountondji became minister of culture and communications in 1992. He remained in the government until 1994, when he returned full-time to his university position. While in office, Hountondji helped put in place policies long espoused in his writings, including raising educational standards and teaching the various sciences in a variety of native languages. The latter policy, however, was opposed by parents who believed that their children were comparatively advantaged by instruction in French and was changed. Hountondji’s writing includes a qualified acceptance of this “liberal democratic” repudiation of one aspect of ethnoscience.


In the early 1970’s, Hountondji was a young philosopher with a clear mission—or so it seemed. He wanted to be a driving force in making Africans philosophically mature, that is, capable of understanding the world in terms of scientific and dialectical materialism. The critique of ethnophilosophy was, in its larger dimensions, a critique of all African traditionalism and thus of “underdevelopment” in all its aspects. The critique was timely. Many educated Africans wanted development to occur as quickly as possible. Hountondji’s critical philosophy offered a means of sweeping away presumably outdated assumptions and institutions. Critical philosophy was contemporary and thus, for Africa, the wave of the future.

However, critical philosophy was in a paradoxical position. On one hand, its very essence is standing apart from everything subject to its critical scrutiny (which, as Hountondji insists, requires a political regime supportive of free inquiry). However, on the other hand, critical philosophy attacked ethnophilosophical traditionalism and, at least implicitly, promised development. It thus opened itself to evaluation by political and economic standards. Simply put, if modernizing Marxist regimes failed politically or economically, critical philosophy would probably be judged to have failed along with them.

This paradox or contradiction is evident throughout Hountondji’s career and reveals itself in critical responses to his work. Hountondji moved between academic and administrative positions, in effect attempting a conjunction as old as classical Greek political philosophy, the uniting of philosophy and political power. Greek philosopher Socrates believed this union to be highly improbable; however, in any case, it is certain that political office mitigates the pure Socratic critical posture that Hountondji values. Additionally, critics have seen in the failure of Marxist regimes such as Benin’s reasons both to reject critical philosophy and to associate its practitioners with an elitism ignorant of or opposed to the situation of the “African masses.”

These problems and criticism should be given due weight, but Hountondji’s considerable achievements remain. He set out to initiate a discussion of the nature of African philosophy and succeeded brilliantly. In critical philosophy, he provided a model of intellectual activity attuned to practical development. In his political and administrative work, he helped put this model to a practical test in an African society. Having discovered through experience some of the weaknesses of this critical scientific model, Hountondji reformulated his early rejection of ethnophilosophy into a position quite respectful of African ethnosciences. Throughout his career, he was the engaged philosopher willing to question his own strongly held critical positions in the light not merely of historical reality but also of the opinions of other thoughtful human beings.

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. 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.”

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.

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.