Paulin J. Hountondji Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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...

(The entire section is 2518 words.)