2024-02-05 15:41:46 UTC
(updated tribute from 2022 - they got his age wrong)
When renowned Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu passed on in early 2022, Benin’s Paulin J. Hountondji was left alone to adopt the mantle of “Africa’s greatest living philosopher”. With one possible exception – Congolese philosopher and historian of ideas, V.Y. Mudimbe. Now Hountondji himself has passed on at the age of 82.
The celebrated Beninese philosopher, politician and academic’s long and gallant campaign to establish and disseminate an African philosophical voice is noteworthy.
His first book was African Philosophy: Myth and Reality published in 1976. It introduced an unapologetic and counter-intuitive African presence into the supposedly scientific annals of world philosophy. This paradigmatic entry includes a generous critique of the work of the hitherto forgotten 18th century Ghanaian philosopher, Anton Wilhelm Amo. It is also an intricate metaphilosophical critique and a strident evaluation of Ghanaian liberation leader and president Kwame Nkrumah and Nkrumaist ideology.
His second book, published in 2002, was The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa. It revisits his earlier doctoral dissertation on the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl. It examines his engrossing trajectory as an African engaged in philosophy on the global stage.
Much of the work is also devoted to replying to critics. This includes the late Olabiyi Yai. But Hountondji has nothing but affection for the contributions of Congolese-born philosopher Valentin-Yves Mudimbe and Kwame Anthony Appiah.
Hountondji came across as the anointed enfant terrible of African philosophy. This is even more so than Wiredu and the equally revered Mudimbe. He criss-crossed various metropolitan capitals spreading the mantra of African philosophy. He paradoxically denounced the discourse of ethnophilosophy as a colonialist (pseudo) disciplinary invention. At the same time he promoted philosophy’s innate scientism and universalism.
Establishing modern philosophy within the continent
His academic career began in the early 1970s in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire in the cities of Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. He then returned to his country, Dahomey (now Benin Republic) in 1972.
The following year he was instrumental, alongside other continental colleagues, in founding the Inter-African Philosophy Council. He was also crucial in establishing early important journals on philosophy within the continent. They include the African Philosophical Notebooks. And the council-affiliated Consequence: Review of Inter-African Council of Philosophy.
Part of the effort in establishing modern philosophy on the continent entailed forming trans-regional organisations. Sadly, these have withered with the exception of the African Philosophy Society. Hountondji supported it by granting it legitimacy and serving as a keynote speaker at its events.
Ideologically and theoretically, Hountondji’s version of philosophical universalism and Africanity would have been a very hard sell for any other philosopher – except for Hountondji himself. His stature only seemed to rise. Indeed his support for a Euro-Amer-defined philosophical universalism did not seem emancipatory in an age of decolonisation and postcolonial despair. Philosophers were expected to reveal their ideological stances. These were meant to be anti-imperialist and pro-masses in orientation.
During this period African philosophers were also expected to get their hands dirty. This meant getting off the high horse of theory and abstraction to partake in the onerous and messy task of nation-building.
In other words, they had to take concrete measures to justify their sociopolitical existence and relevance.
Hountondji did eventually become a nation-builder. He held two ministerial portfolios in the early 1990s in Benin Republic. After emerging from the torrid political battles geared at consolidating Benin’s fledgling democracy, he returned to academia. There he resumed his unfinished investigations into strictly philosophical matters.
The enfant terrible of yore had transformed into part of the venerable old guard. This comprised Wiredu, Peter O. Bodunrin and late Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka.
He also became a highly sought and favoured guest at philosophical gatherings all over the world.
He continued to publish his research on the state of scientific and philosophical knowledge in Africa. And his stutter did not prevent him from sharing his invaluable insights on his diverse areas of expertise.
Franziska Dubgen and Stefan Skupien in their 2019 book on Hountondji argue for his acceptance as a universal thinker. This is fair enough. But it is always useful to remember that Hountondji popularised a few vital concepts and subjects with a distinctly African flavour.
Notable among them are the inevitable critique of ethnophilosophy, a repudiation of unanimism, an assessment of Nkrumaism, the rehabilitation of Amo and the searing indictment of scientific dependency. There is also the recent concept of endogenous knowledge. This might indeed be considered as an endorsement of the ethnographic potentials of philosophy, on the one hand, and the valorisation of local knowledges, on the other.
Universalism versus particularism
Philosophically, Hountondji’s work is characterised by an ever-present contestation between universalism (epistemic) and particularism (endogeneity). He avoids a neat resolution simply because it is a tension that animates what is considered to be philosophical.
The source of the particular is invariably African. For its part, the universal is ostensibly defined as western. This equation has the possibility of inaugurating an evident relativism which stands to be repudiated. This is particularly true given the transcendent dimension of Hountondji’s thought. Indeed the philosophical transcends the limitations of the particular.
The relation of Hountondji’s work to decolonial thought was re-emphasised at a 2022 workshop at the University of Cape Town. In an era of decolonial theorising, Hountondji found himself conveniently lumped with a range of contemporary thinkers. These include Walter Mignolo, Andre Lorde, Gayatri Spivak, Hamid Dabashi, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Achille Mbembe.
Undoubtedly, this diversifies the canon of critical theory. It also ensures Hountondji’s continuing relevance.
In view of these varied insights and contributions, Hountondji can be praised for a life well-spent, in the service of African systems of thought.
This article was updated to reflect Hountondji’s passing.
(more obits, in French)