Revue Africaine des Livres

Centre de Recherche en Anthropologie Sociale et Culturelle

The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Democracy, and Culture in Africa
by Paulin Hountondji Ohio University Press, 2002, 308 pp. + xxiv, $28 (paper) 

The work under review is a quasi biographical text by one of Africa’s most important post-colonial philosophers and intellectuals. Hountondji is known in Africana philosophical circles for having produced two important paradigmatic works representative of the attempted autonomy of Africa’s thinkers as they sought to come to terms with Africa’s experiences at the end of the colonial era. That era represented the culminating point of the clash of European and African civilizations dating from the fifteenth century. The expulsion of the Moors from Spain and the three hundred year Atlantic slave trade constitute key moments in this ongoing encounter.

The technological dominance of Western Europe, facilitated by its absorption of key elements of the Graeco-Egyptian civilization by way of the Arabo-Moorish presence in Spain, allowed it to create the conditions for a more rapid economic development than Africa and the Americas. The trade in human captives from West Africa and the ethnic cleansing of the Americas were the essential ingredients in this process.

There had to be intellectual justification for this new state of affairs; that task fell to the philosophers and other theorists of Western Europe. Thus was set in motion an intellectual trend which began with the musings of thinkers like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Darwin, de Gobineau, and others down to modern thinkers like Husserl and Toynbee. The received doctrine in Europe was that humanity comprised culturally and phenotypically discrete groups that could be ranked differentially in terms of cognitive and moral characteristics. The label of being cognitively and culturally immature was made against the colonized African as a means of explaining the technological level of the rural societies of Africa. Similar arguments were made against the indigenous populations of the Americas. 

The invention of the discipline of anthropology (as distinct from sociology) had as its function the study of non-Western peoples who were viewed in general as culturally distinct and even atavistic representatives of humanity. In this regard three new terms often found their way into the lexicon of the West to describe these studied representatives of humanity: primitive, tribal, and savage. It was Africa and its myriad peoples that served researchers like Malinowski, Levy-Bruhl, Evans-Pritchard, Frobenius, Coon, and others to make their careers. 
African culture was contrasted with that of a Europe anointed as the just inheritor of the Greek tradition, the source of philosophy, science, and rationality. The European (the Greeks were inducted into this fold a posteriori) was seen literally to represent the human archetype of rationality, humankind’s most cherished characteristic. This was the intellectual ambiance in which Hountondji found himself as one of the relatively few West Africans chosen to be exposed to and introduced to the French and European episteme.
The European claim was that the only acceptable path for the African was to evolve (hence the term evolué) by imbibing the mental products of Europe from Plato to Sartre by way of Descartes and Husserl. In the field of mathematics, there was Pythagoras’s theorem to be appreciated. In the field of literature, there was Racine, Molière and Corneille along with a long list of French literary luminaries. 

The implicit preface to the colonial pedagogy was that the mind of Africa was historically irrational; hence philosophy, the fount of rationality, was alien to it. Hountondji was exposed first, therefore, to thinkers like Husserl, then later to the contemporary thinkers, Althusser and Ricoeur. But such was Europe’s condescension while it served up its intellectual offerings that Africa’s intellectuals at the dawn of independence had to salvage themselves from the long congealed intellectual indictments of the Kants, Hegels and Gobineaus of Europe. In pragmatic terms, the seemingly intellectual vindication offered by La philosophie bantoue was argued for. Hence the birth of the idea of the contentious subdiscipline “ethno-philosophy”. 

Hountondji, while a lycéen, had developed an interest in Husserl that he refined while a student of Althusser in Paris. He had also become fully immersed in the long philosophical dialogue in Europe that was assumed to begin with Plato and Aristotle. It was the British philosopher, A.N. Whitehead, who once quipped that all Western philosophical writings were but footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. The problem with Hountondji’s immersion in the European dialogue among its philosophers is that Husserl’s philosophy was really about coming to terms with Kant and Newton. And Althusser’s writings was concerned with the rehabilitation of Marx after his banishment from the pantheon of post-Enlightenment thinkers in Europe. 
Hountondji, influenced by Husserl, saw a qualitative equivalence between philosophy and science (34). Philosophy in the European tradition constituted a set of writings in which epistemology was the constantly employed instrument to distinguish episteme from doxa. So for Hountondji, philosophy in the African context required that it be a set of written texts as a necessary precondition for serious consideration. This was the context for Hountondji’s first internationally stated paradigm claim expressed in “Remarques sur la philosophie africaine contemporaine” (Diogene 71, 1970). African philosophy was defined as constitutive only of those philosophical texts written by Africans and deemed as such by this group. Hountondji’s definition would necessarily exclude what he referred to as the unanimity expressed by the group thought embodied in the reported cosmologies of Africa’s ethnic groups. Thus, for Hountondji, La philosophie bantoue did not represent the philosophy of Africans but that of the Belgian priest, Placide Tempels, in his veiled project of presenting the people of Central Africa as subscribing to a metaphysical system that would not be incompatible with Christian conversion (89). Tempels’s template thus served as the basis for African ethno-philosophy (the term was not invented by Hountondji and Towa but is found earlier with reference to Nkrumah’s studies, as Hountondji himself avers). 

On this new paradigm were grafted the ideas of prominent scholars such as Alexis Kagame and John Mbiti. But the debate about the nature of African philosophy really got into high gear with Hountondji’s publication of a series of papers during the 1970s and 1980’s. There was spirited opposition from scholars such as Olabiyi Yai, Kofi Niamkey and Abdou Toure. The debate had to do with the nature of philosophy itself, including whether it should conform to its Western definition or otherwise (chapter 5, 162-195). The theoretical issue raised by Hountondji’s critics was whether his approach to philosophy was essentially Eurocentric with its insistence that genuine philosophy must belong to a written tradition driven along by individual master thinkers (180-81). His critics also made the important point that the term “philosophy” had multiple meanings and that any definition of it was necessarily cultural (177).
Yet, ironically, the vigorous debates engaged in by Hountondji and his critics constituted in themselves an important moment in the formulation of contemporary African philosophy. Hountondji recognized this point and for him this was proof that philosophy was about to take its first steps in the post-colonial era. Although claiming that African philosophy in its orthodox sense was about to be launched in the post-colonial era, Hountondji clearly rejects the idea that pre-colonial Africa was a cultural tabula rasa. As he put it: “Does this mean that precolonial Africa was a tabula rasa. Not at all. I was pleading for a less reductive approach, which sought to restore the richness, complexity, and internal diversity of our intellectual heritage instead, and in place, of this smaller common philosophical denominator that is proposed by ethnologists” (91).
I want to argue though that the two methodologies of African philosophy argued for by Hountondji and his critics were partially in error. And the reason would seem to stem from the nature and configuration of colonial pedagogy itself. The colonial paradigm imposed on Africa was that of a disjointed, non-literate, ethnic Africa stuck in an ahistorical time warp. It is for this reason that the study of Africa focused much less on a dynamic history than on anthropological study.

The term “philosophy” is of Greek origin (which does not mean, of course, that the activity it described did not take place before the era of the Greeks and in other places). In practice, it represents the efforts made by individual thinkers discussing singly or in groups the crucial questions concerning human sensory experience whether in the form of direct or indirect observation, pure reflection or pure sensation. Modern philosophy has coined terms such as epistemology, ontology, and axiology to handle these perennial questions. Briefly, philosophy in its orthodox mode was from its inception concerned with the question of claims to knowledge and how such claims may be justified. In this regard, philosophical inquiry consists necessarily of exercises in critical thinking. 
Maybe it was this approach to knowledge that prompted Europeans of the post- Greek era to totally discount their own long-standing oral traditions and folk beliefs in favour of the non-indigenous ideas of the ancient Egyptians of Africa and the Greeks of the borderlands of Africa and Asia. The same may be said about the religious beliefs adopted by the Europeans: they adopted but modified the metaphysical systems of Hebraic folklore which was fundamentally inspired by the African monotheism of ancient Egypt. 

Thus, unfortunately or not, we have no idea of how or what the ancestors of Hume or Kant reflected on or thought about. In other words, we have no record of an European ethno-philosophy. Julius Caesar in his pan- European campaigns did not travel with itinerant “anthropologists”; nor did the Moors while in Spain seem to demonstrate any inclination to study the cosmologies of the indigenous Europeans they came in contact with, viz. the Visigoths, Saxons, Celts, etc. For, after all, the Moors knew writing while the Europeans did not.

The thesis that I maintain is that, if one accepts Hountondji’s definition of philosophy as encompassing a written and systematic tradition, then Africa had its own longstanding written and systematic traditions. The ethnophilosophers, in seeking rightfully to establish an African cognitive infrastructure for African philosophy, had in reality a whole written historical tradition to work with. As C.A. Diop has pointed out, there was an indigenous written philosophy in ancient Egypt. And in post-Pharaonic times, the seminal ideas of the Egyptian philosopher Plotinus (he was born in Lycopolis in Upper Egypt) constituted the source of the equally seminal ideas of Augustine. Recall that Plotinus is viewed in the West as the founder of neo-Platonism and that medieval philosophy in the West owes its founding to the ideas of Augustine. Students of a written African philosophy would also have to include in their history of African philosophy the metaphysical writings of members of the Axum school of ancient Ethiopia (Zara Yakob, the seventeenth century philosopher, comes to mind). And in the African Middle Ages, the influence of Ibn Khaldun was recognized for his study of history and other social sciences. One cannot also overlook the ideas of Ahmed Baba of Timboktoo who wrote systematically on jurisprudence, ethics, logic and social philosophy. Furthermore, the writings of Songhay scholars Kadi and Sati are extant and have already been translated into modern languages.

The ethno-philosophers could have looked in this pan-African direction and sought to translate and comment on the texts written by the above-mentioned authors. If Placide Tempels, an obvious colonial of European origin, could be viewed as central to the postcolonial paradigm of ethnophilosophy then why not Ibn Khaldun? This pan-African approach, of course, would not negate the need for Africa’s philosophers to explicate and analyze the metaphysical concepts, ethics and legal concepts of Africa’s particular ethnicities, if merely to refute the strictures of Hegel and others. European thinkers, by contrast, have not sought to explore their own indigenous cognitive traditions or ethno-philosophies which were assumedly put in place over a period of some twenty thousand years.
One might compare this with the fact that “philosophy” in Hountondji’s sense of the term was a very recent import into Europe. There is much accuracy in the claim that “philosophy” in that sense began in Europe some five  hundred years ago with the advent of Descartes. I mentioned above that the case of the Greeks is somewhat problematic.

Despite Hountondji’s reservations concerning research in ethnophilosophy, he seeks nevertheless to bridge Africa’s contemporary research in modern science with its traditions of what he calls endogenous knowledge. The recently published text Endogenous Knowledge testifies to this (249). Hountondji also discusses with verve Africa’s extraverted and marginalized condition with respect to the world’s production of knowledge. This condition is discussed in the last chapter (chapter 7) with references to the centre-periphery thesis argued by Samir Amin of the Dakar school. The belief that decolonisation would put an end to Africa’s extraverted state, merely by applying the invention of others, was erroneous according to Hountondji (231). This is where Hountondji’s threefold role for philosophy in Africa comes into play. This task consists of critique and ideological analysis, followed by the creation of appropriate tools for the solving of real problems that are “masked by the pseudo-problems of the reigning mystification” (204).

While scientific analysis is ultimately about the acquisition and application of epistemologically certifiable knowledge about the sensory world, philosophy’s role is meta-scientific in the sense of seeking to ascribe meaning to what humans come to know. One moment in this quest for meaning was instanced in the “quarrel of ethno philosophy”, as Hountondji puts it (207). In fine, Hountondji’s text is to be understood as the testimony of an African mind wrestling with the impact of the imposed physical and mental contingencies of an itinerant European colonialism.


Lansana KEITA


Pages 30-31

Africa Review Of Books / Revue Africaine Des Livres

Volume 1 N° 1, Octobre 2004