Thursday, 25 August 2011

African Philosophy: Myth and Reality

African Philosophy
by Paulin J. Hountondji
Introduction by Abiola Irele
 "Hountondji . . . writes not as an 'African' philosopher but as a philosopher on Africa. . . . Hountondji's deep understanding of any civilization as necessarily pluralistic, and often even self-contradicting as it evolves, is simply magisterial. . . . This is a precious gem of a book for anyone who wishes to reflect on civilization and culture." —Choice

In this incisive, original exploration of the nature and future of African philosophy, Paulin J. Hountondji attacks a myth popularized by ethnophilosophers such as Placide Tempels and Alexis Kagame that there is an indigenous, collective African philosophy separate and distinct from the Western philosophical tradition. Hountondji contends that ideological manifestations of this view that stress the uniqueness of the African experience are protonationalist reactions against colonialism conducted, paradoxically, in the terms of colonialist discourse.
Hountondji argues that a genuine African philosophy must assimilate and transcend the theoretical heritage of Western philosophy and must reflect a rigorous process of independent scientific inquiry. This edition is updated with a new preface in which Hountondji responds to his critics and clarifies misunderstandings about the book's conceptual framework.

The African intellectual: Hountondji and after
Omedi Ochieng, Radical Philosophy

Every thought, however original it may be, is to some extent shaped by the questions that it is asked.
- Paulin J. Hountondji, The Struggle for Meaning
One of the characteristic features of African philosophy is that it tends to pose epistemological questions in terms that preserve their dialectical entanglement with questions of agency. In what follows I will examine the kind of knowledge articulated and contested by Paulin Hountondji, arguably the most influential African philosopher alive, and, in particular, the kind of habitus1 that Hountondji has argued must normatively proceed from a commitment to the sort of knowledge he champions. My definition of ‘African philosophy’, as will be clear from the discussion below, follows from Gramsci’s definition of the intellectual. As Gramsci points out, whereas everyone in some sense is an intellectual, not everyone in a society has the function of performing intellectual work.2 One is designated an ‘intellectual’ by processes of recognition and credentialling that are inflected by power relations. By ‘African philosophy’, then, I mean discourses produced by those interpellated as African philosophers by institutions of power such as schools, ‘universities’ and the media. This article will closely map the contours of Hountondji’s thought as it offers a particularly fruitful starting point from which to understand the topography of African philosophical debate more generally.

Born in Abidjan in 1942 and educated in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure in the mid-1960s at the height of Althusser’s influence, Paulin Hountondji is one of the most lionized and influential in the African intellectual landscape. Not entirely paradoxically, however, there is also probably no philosopher who has been as much reviled within African philosophical discourse. This is largely traceable to Hountondji’s confrontation with a school of thought that he has derisively dubbed ‘ethnophilosophy’. Ethnophilosophers like Placide Tempels and Alexis Kagame had asserted that African philosophy, in so far as it existed, consisted in communally shared, anonymous (because collective) beliefs. Hountondji charged that ethnophilosophy reiterated Eurocentric caricatures of Africans as members of a herd-like mob, devoid of the capacity to think as independent individuals. His critics in turn shot back that Hountondji was a Western stooge, even a Trojan Horse for a second, post-colonial mission civilisatrice in the African continent.
Hountondji carved out a place in the field of African philosophy largely on the strength of his major work, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (1976).3 Twenty years later he published an intellectual memoir translated as The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa (1997).4 The term ‘intellectual memoir’ may be misleading. The book’s original French subtitle, Un itinéraire africain (An African Journey), offers a better description of it as an attempt to retrace and explain his intellectual development.5 After an initial discussion of his own intellectual inheritance and influences (notably Husserl and Althusser), much of the book consists of Hountondji’s attempt to defend his work from the veritable cottage industry that sprang up in response to his critique of ethnophilosophy.


1. Pierre Bourdieu defines habitus as ‘systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them.’ Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 1990, p. 53.
2. Antonio Gramsci, ‘Intellectuals and Education’, in The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916–1935, ed. David Forgacs, New York University Press, New York, 2000, p. 304.
3. Paulin Hountondji, Sur la ‘philosophie africaine’, Maspéro, Paris, 1976; translated by Henri Evans as African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, Indiana University Press, Indianapolis, 1983; hereafter abbreviated as AP.
4. Paulin Hountondji, Combats pour le sens: un itinéraire africain, Editions du Flamboyant, Cotonou, 1997; translated by John Conteh-Morgan as The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa, Ohio University Press, Athens OH, 2002; hereafter abbreviated as TSM.
5. Kwame Anthony Appiah, ‘Foreword’ in TSM, p. xi.