Legacy of Paulin Hountondji, Prominent African Philosopher

Tributes had been pouring out following the death of Paulin Hountondji, who passed away on recently at the age of 81. According to his brief biography, Hountundji was born on April 11, 1942 in Ivory Coast. He was educated in France at the prestigious Ecole Normal in Paris and received his doctorate in philosophy in 1967. He soon became one of Africa’s prominent philosophers and published a number of books revolving around his critique against what he called ethno-philosophy and the attempt to portray it as a universal portrait of African philosophy. Hountundji maintained that there ethno-philosophy was the fabrication of European intellectuals to denigrate African philosophy that should be viewed as a combination of Western tradition together with a critical appraisal of traditional African world views.

I heard or read about Paulin Hountundji back in 1976, during the seminar on African philosophy that took place here in Addis Ababa. The seminar took place at Africa Hall, which was the appropriate place for the occasion for the symbolic value it had. A seminar on African philosophy could not be held anywhere else. It concluded with the participation of the most prominent intellectuals and philosophers that took part with financial support from UNESCO, if memory does not fail me. Among the scholars who took part in the conference, I still remember people like Jhon Arthur from Ghana, Paulin J. Hountundji from Benin, Pierre Claver Okoudjou from Benin, Naimkery Koffi from Ivory Coast, Cheik Anta Diop from Senegal and others.

From Ethiopia, participants included prominent historians, linguists and philosophers such as Elizabeth Workeneh, Hailu Fulas Tadesse Beyene, Claude Sumner, Alemayehu Moges, Hailu Essaias, and Fekadu Gedamu among others.

Many of them have passed away while the few remaining ones must have aged or are in retirement. There were some 34 participants at the seminar which was led by the late Professor Claude Sumner. Looking back to those days when philosophy was one of the academic subjects that attracted intellectual attention not only in Africa but also in Europe and the United States, one can perhaps say that the emergence of philosophers like Pauline Hountondji can be considered a breakthrough. Hountondji appeared at a time when the debate around African philosophy raged within and outside the continent.

Africa has produced many philosophers whose works reflected the quest for an African philosophy. Almost all of them have been trying to show the world in general and Europe in particular that Africa had indeed a philosophy or philosophies of its own. They fought hard to settle the question whether anyone could speak of African philosophy per se. The alternative was to stick to the Hegelian verdict that denied Africa being able of even knowing what philosophy was all about. Among the most prominent and best known philosophers of the 20th century, one can perhaps site the late Senegalese president Cedar Leopold Sedar Senghor statesman, poet, and philosopher of negritude.

Senghor was one of a group of African and West Indian students in Paris who inaugurated a movement in the 1930s that was later dubbed négritude. “The movement is characterized by its reversal of the colonialist portrayal of things African as evil, subhuman, or, at the least, inferior to all things European. Négritude proclaimed all things African superior to all things European.

Even in color symbolism, négritude asserted that black is more beautiful than white, and soft, dark night is preferable to harsh daylight.” For several decades this movement exercised a powerful influence over Francophone black literature. Negritude was not only about identity. It also contained the seeds of an African philosophy of liberation or one strand of African political philosophy.

Although Negritude is generally considered an artistic movement, one cannot deny the philosophical undercurrent that serves as its bedrock even though the latter was not systematically developed. Likewise a philosophical undercurrent can be discerned in the literary works of Wole Soyinka, in the political writings of Amilcar Cabral, Steve Biko’s ‘Black Consciousness Movement’ has already a philosophical touch as expressed in one of his famous sayings: “Being black is not a matter of pigmentation—being black is a reflection of a mental attitude.” Read mental attitude as meaning consciousness.

Hountondji is different from the above-indicated African ‘political philosophers’ because he had taken the search for this African philosophy as his main career to which he had devoted his time and intellectual resources. The debate around issues of African philosophy are not as serious as during the 1970s and the following decades. The new generation of African philosophers also tend disregard his contribution to African thought while his works are generally considered important contributions to modern African thought by African thinkers.

At that time, advocates of an African philosophy were few and far between while the opponents of this idea were many simply because for a long period of time the view that Africa had no philosophy to speak of and the detractors that sprouted on around this assumption were under the influence of the well-known Hegelian denial that Africa was not part of modern history and part of what he called the Absolute idea and as such could not develop a philosophy of its own.

Paulin Hountondji has written three major books on African philosophy namely, “African Philosophy: Myth and Reality”, “The struggle for Meaning” and “Combats pour pour le Sens” (Combats for the feelings). In African Philosophy, “is not in some mysterious corner of our supposedly immutable soul, a collective and unconscious world view which is incumbent on us to study and revive. Philosophy and African philosophy for him, “consist essentially in the process of analysis itself.”

According to another opinion, “The philosophy that is fostered by the African cultural experience, tradition and history is referred to as “African Philosophy” Thus, there is always the spirit of African philosophy, a spirit of philosophical and spiritual orientation that emphasizes coexistence with nature rather than conquering and collectivism.”

In his first book, Hountondji “attacks a myth popularized by ethno-philosophers such as Placid Temples and Alxis Kagame that there is an indigenous, collective African philosophy separate and distinct from Western philosophical tradition. Hountondji contends that ideological manifestations of this view that stress the uniqueness the African experience are proto-nationalist reactions against colonialism conducted, paradoxically in terms of colonialist discourse.”

African philosophy was not much known at that time. Ethiopian philosophy was even unthinkable. So, whenever some academics raised these topics, they considered both philosophies underdeveloped; looking at African philosophy through the distorted and biased prisms of Western philosophical paradigms.

It all boiled down to showing how African philosophy was undeveloped or useless something that amounted to the same a Western academic criticism of its “backwardness”. This is what is called the Eurocentric view on African philosophy, which is based on the assumption that Africans can’t have a philosophy of their own, a view that was further elaborated during European colonialism.

Tsenay Serequeberhan, an Eritrean academic who published a collection of philosophical essays on African philosophy quoted Jacque Derrida, a French philosopher of Algerian descent, who said that, “Metaphysics-the white mythology which resembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, his own logos, that is, the mythos of idiom, for universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason.”

As such, he searched for African philosophy in the post-colonial period is a rebellion against this Eurocentric bias that colonialists used to justify their colonial conquests in the name of “civilization” or as a civilizing project. In his essay entitled, “Is there an African Philosophy?”, Innocent Onyewuenyi says that, “The Africa that is portrayed in books by Western ethnologists and historians is the Africa of savage Africans who did nothing, developed nothing, or created nothing historical.

The man who brought out African and Ethiopian philosophy from darkness to light was Professor Sumner who used his time of academic isolation to articulate the basic premises of Ethiopian philosophy that centered on Zara Yakob and his disciple Wolde Hiwot.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were many African academic philosophers who lectured or wrote about African philosophy, but none of them had developed a systematic study of this philosophy. Professor Sumner was the first to unearth what he called “the philosophy of man” from under the centuries old rubbles of African traditional thoughts and brought it to international attention; thereby turning it into a respectable field of philosophical inquiry.

It was largely after Claude Sumner’s books were published and attracted so much attention that African philosophers took African philosophy seriously and somehow disputed the Western bias that prevailed for so long concerning the non-existence of African or Ethiopian philosophy. According to one source, “The greatest contribution of Claude Sumner is as such found in proving the existence African philosophy through his studies of Ethiopian philosophy,

Such a study identified oral, written, adaptive elements in Ethiopian philosophy.” This is to say that Professor Sumner did not directly study the philosophies of African people everywhere but he studied Ethiopian philosophy and through it he logically inferred the existence and substance of African philosophy at large.”

However, the major issues of African philosophy that should provoke informed debates nowadays should be how to develop African philosophy in a way that would accelerated the spiritual and material renaissance of the African man and the building of a modern African civilization based on its ancient traditions, value systems, literature and anything that touches upon African thinking and African being in the broadest sense of the terms.



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