Paulin J. Hountondji. The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture, and Democracy in Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002. xxiv + 308 pp. $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-89680-225-4.
Reviewed by Charles Verharen (Department of Philosophy, Howard University)
Published on H-Africa (May, 2003)
Paulin Hountondji and Philosophy's Career as a Strict Science in Africa
Paulin Hountondji and Philosophy's Career as a Strict Science in Africa
"Hountondji? But he is ... white!" Alexis Kagame (p. 165).
Paulin J. Hountondji is one of the most important figures in the history of Africana philosophy and his Struggle for Meaning must rank as one of the most important texts to come out of that tradition. The French subtitle best expresses the work's essence: Un Itineraire Africain (An African Journey). A great virtue of the work is its narrative quality. Anthony Appiah, in his foreword, claims that it is not a memoir, but it must certainly count as an intellectual autobiography. The great drama of the book is that Hountondji, in Appiah's words, "is identified in many minds with a sort of eurocentrism" (p. xi). Hountondji famously insists that philosophy, whether in Africa or anywhere else in the world, must be comprised of texts written by individuals rather than a "unanimous worldview" (p. xi). In this reading Hountondji becomes a philosopher who cannot "tear himself away from the Europe of his education," a philosopher who imposes his own Western paradigm for philosophy on African philosophy (p. xi). Hountondji takes this book as an opportunity to refute that categorization with the vivid details of his own intellectual development. He is so African-centered, in fact, that he deliberately chose not to continue his research on European phenomenology lest he duplicate the fate of seventeenth-century Ghanaian philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo whose scholarly work in Germany "could only be part, from beginning to end, of a non-African theoretical tradition that ... exclusively belonged to the history of Western scholarship" (p. 73). With the Kenyan humanist Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Hountondji rails against "the extraverted nature of all European-language African discourse," which is an intellectual production grown in Africa for consumption by non-Africans (p. 73). In Hountondji's mind, the location of his research must "in no way exclude Africa. On the contrary, Africa must constitute its center, its point of departure, and, where applicable, be its primary beneficiary" (p. 74).
Nevertheless, in his preface Hountondji portrays his critique of African ethnophilosophy as an "intellectual liberation" that removed the "taboos" preventing Africans from engaging in research on non-African ethics, aesthetics, theories of knowledge, and politics (p. xvii). Liberated by his African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, African researchers "could once again claim, without a bad conscience or false sense of shame, the duty to truth and the desire for apodictic [absolute] certainty that are both integral to any true research. The philosopher, in particular, could once again assert a claim for universality ... by clearly acknowledging his vocation to enunciate propositions that are valid across frontiers, that are true to all, at all times and in all places" (pp. xvii- xviii). Hountondji intends The Struggle for Meaning to show the "unity and the evolution" of his critique of ethnophilosophy, and to reveal his "concerns that inform" the critique (p. xviii).
The roots of the rift between his own self-image as African-centered and his critics' projection of a Eurocentric persona are to be found precisely in those concerns and he reveals them in recollections of his earliest education in philosophy. The French instructor at his lycee in Benin insisted that "'philosophy has to be learned.' No question of innate knowledge, of hereditary wisdom. One had to work" (p. 3). At the Sorbonne, Jacques Derrida and Paul Ricoeur saturated Hountondji in Husserl's work. Louis Althusser introduced him to philosophy as a "theory of science" that defines science's "real procedures in order to give them conceptual clarity" (p. 11). His examination committee at the University of Paris--for his doctoral dissertation on Husserl--included Ricoeur as supervisor, Suzanne Bachelard, and Emmanuel Levinas. Derrida's influence not withstanding, Hountondji committed himself to Husserl's idea of "philosophy as a strict science" (p. 30). Husserl went so far as to imagine that a new science of logic might create a Leibnizean universal calculus, a "theory of theories" that could in Hountondji's words "limit the surprises of history, the uncontrollable plurality of future theories, and the unpredictable development of knowledge" (p. 71). So committed was he to the idea that philosophy could attain absolute certainty that Hountondji could not bring himself to agree with Bachalard and others that Husserl's dream of philosophy as a "super- science" had foundered on the rock of Godel's theorem (p. 72). Uneasy about how to take his research on Husserl further in that climate of uncertainty and concerned about the relevance of his research on Husserl to Africa, Hountondji "postponed, if not definitively sacrificed" that research (p. 75). But he could not abandon Husserl's conviction that philosophy must be on the path to absolute certainty. And because culture is a matter of how things are with humans rather than how things must be, philosophy is not to be discovered in culture, but only in philosophy itself. Philosophy may begin in culture, but it must abstract itself from culture to reach certainty. A culture, whether Greek or African, may inspire a philosopher, but the philosopher's work, like the physicist's or mathematician's, must be an abstraction from culture.
It is Hountondji's conviction about the nature of philosophy, then, that separates his self-image as African-centered from his critics' portrayal of him as Eurocentric. In Hountondji's view, philosophy cannot be the worldview that serves as the rudder and engine of a culture. One cannot be a philosopher simply by inspiration, by inhaling the life of a culture or by taking a culture in a new direction. That is the work of an artist, not a philosopher. One can become a philosopher only by abstraction, by criticism and refinement of ideas about existence, unity, goodness, truth, and beauty. In the very best case, a philosopher's work may give us a greater control of our experience, through the artifices of logic, mathematics, and science. But such control is not the point of philosophy, only its aftereffect. Hountondji concludes his remembrance of his education in philosophy with the stark admission that his critique of ethnophilosophy "draws ... from the long study of Husserl, and beyond him, of the entire tradition of Western philosophy, some of its weapons, bearings, and conceptual instruments" (p. 75).
The lines between Hountondji and his critics are clearly drawn. On Hountondji's account, philosophy's method is the result of thousands of years of refinement. Like its fellows, mathematics and physics, philosophy is a high-status discipline, honed to perfection in only a few cultures. Calling himself a Kantian, Hountondji starkly claims that philosophy simply cannot answer the kinds of culturally sensitive questions pre-Kantian philosophers traditionally posed for themselves. Responding to his Nigerian critic Olabiyi B. Yai, he lists "two ways of 'expecting more from philosophy than it can give.' The first consists in expecting it to provide answers to metaphysical problems about the existence of God, human nature, the immortality of the soul, and other questions of this nature. I did not hesitate to affirm that Kant had definitively dealt with this kind of illusion" (p. 191). The second false expectation of philosophy is to look for philosophy's "answers to political, economic, and social problems: answers that propose recipes for national liberation, the emancipation of exploited classes and nations--in short for the revolution" (p. 191). Clearly an end to the illusion, a critic might respond, that Marx was a philosopher! Not so, declares Hountondji, announcing that Marx's famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach in The German Ideology does not claim that "philosophy itself can transform the world," but rather that Marx is calling "for a move away from philosophy to a concentration on the practical tasks of transforming the world" (p. 191).
Herein lies the heart of Hountondji's conflict with his critics. The conflict cannot be about the importance of Africa for Hountondji as an African philosopher. He gave up his research on European philosophy to concentrate on philosophy in Africa. The real conflict is about the nature of philosophy. With Appiah, Hountondji argues that philosophy can be neither the instrument of revolution nor even the guide to life. Philosophy does not consist of worldviews or armatures of culture. With Husserl, Hountondji defines philosophy as the theory of science that gives science an ever more powerful foundation through the practice of abstract critique. Hountondji's critics agree that philosophy must be a critique--yet a critique not simply of the abstractions of science but also of the paths of our lives, our cultural forms of life, our worldviews. A culture is the perfect expression of a philosophy because its members cannot escape self-critique. A philosophy expressed in a culture, even an "ethnophilosophy," must count as an exhibition of philosophy's dual nature: a guide to life, and a critique of that guide. History is, of course, replete with examples of cultures that have not been sufficiently self-critical to continue their existence, but that must count as a plea for more criticism rather than a denial of its existence. Hountondji's critics recognize the power of philosophy over life, and look for inspiration from African cultures to change the ways that we live--in Africa and more generally in a world peopled by the first African diaspora tens of thousands of years ago. Hountondji certainly recognizes the importance of power. In the last few lines of his preface he says that from one end of his "African Journey" to the other, "hovers ... a concern about the future of Africa that in the end becomes quite explicit: it is a political concern, political in the strictest sense of the term" (p. xx). As Malcolm X pointed out, politics in the strictest sense is a matter of power. And the real source of power is not the ballot or the bullet, as Malcolm had it, but the philosophy that led humans to think that elections or guns were grand ideas. Hountondji's "political concern" in the end is a philosophical concern, and his Struggle for Meaning is an extraordinary account of philosophy in action. It was, after all, Hountondji's philosophy that drove him out of Europe and back to Africa. He has exercised that philosophy in the lifelong pursuit of a politics, even a politics of the philosophy academy in Africa, that may transform Africa and the world.
In the penultimate chapter Hountondji reaches for a reconciliation with his critics. Like Alain Locke, he proposes that African researchers should examine the real "facts of culture" to consider the true nature of ethnophilosophy--a living, changing dynamism, rather than a rigid, unanimist tradition (p. 205). In the end he takes his "quarrel" with ethnophilosophy to be rooted in the cultural relativism that he links to Protagoras' attack on universal rationality. In the African ethnophilosophy attacked by Hountondji, a concept of an unchanging African culture rather than man becomes "the measure of all things" (p. 206). At the conclusion of a brilliant comparison of ethnophilosophy with ethnoscience, Hountondji makes a plea for a reconstituted ethnophilosophy to serve as "the common foundation of the ethnosciences, the system of theoretical and methodological ... presuppositions that makes them possible" (p. 212).
In the end, Hountondji and his critics can, at least, agree that the "great issue at stake in the critique of ethnophilosophy is the liberation of the future" (p. 125). Philosophy's objective is freedom, and political freedom only follows conceptual freedom. That conceptual freedom is the whole point of philosophy for Hountondji. Philosophy is a discipline "whose goal is precisely to go beyond the results in a search for better ones" and philosophers above all "must have the courage to make a fresh start" (p. 127). The final point of a critique of ethnophilosophy is "the improvement of the quality of life in Africa" (p. 155). Hountondji's critics cannot find much to disagree with in his research project for the future. He asks: "How can civil society be strengthened? How can democracy be anchored in everyday life? ... How can the state be reformed? ... How can fear be overcome, and how can it be ensured that in this small corner of the globe ... dictatorship and arbitrary rule become things of the past forever?" (p. 265).
This review cannot begin to do justice to the nuances and flow of this book. Hountondji's descriptions of Husserl and Heidegger as "Eurocentrists" deserve to be examined in detail (p. 141). He skewers Heidegger's claim that "Western-European philosophy" is a "tautology" with wry humor (pp. 275-276). On the matter of technical details, it must be said that the book contains a number of bibliographical errors. The voluminous bibliography of Hountondji's work (nearly four pages of citations) contains no history of the publication of African Philosophy: Myth and Reality. Only the second edition is cited, not the original publication in French in 1977 and the English translation in 1983. A 1983b entry with no 1983a citation indicates the material was lost in preparation. Likewise his Endogenous Knowledge should be cited as 1994a but it is omitted; again, there is a 1994b entry. A citation for one of Hountondji's quotes is missing on p. 91, and a quote on pp. 126-127 is misattributed to a Hungarian translation of quite another work. Nonetheless, these errors will be easily remedied in a second edition that the book richly deserves. In the end, the work is indispensable for scholars in Africana intellectual history and philosophy.
. Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
. L. Harris, ed., The Philosophy of Alain Locke (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989).
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Charles Verharen. Review of Hountondji, Paulin J., The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture, and Democracy in Africa.
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