The Revolutionary African Philosopher


Paulin Jidenu Hountondji died at the age of 81 on February 2 at his home in the coastal
city of Cotonou in his home country of Benin. Although he had some short academic
appointments elsewhere, and some forays into politics, he spent most of his
career teaching philosophy in Benin. He became a revolutionary figure in African philosophy.

From a European philosophical purview, he had impeccable credentials. He was the first African to study philosophy at the École Normale Superieure, and he went on to write his dissertation on Edmund Husserl under Paul Ricoeur at the University of Paris. Despite his classical European philosophical training, he was celebrated in his lifetime for radically altering the debate on the nature of African philosophy.  

The emergence of African philosophy was fraught. After the colonial self-serving and racist denigration of the continent as “darkest Africa” and consequently bereft of reason, African philosophical activity was met by the former colonial powers with a mixture of incredulity and condescension. The former camp could scarcely countenance that there could be such a thing as African philosophy. If philosophy produces universal truths that are the same everywhere, then calling it “African” was irrelevant. If one nonetheless insisted on a distinctly African content, then it was not really philosophy and more like folkways or a wisdom tradition. 

African philosophy entered the world stage by reluctantly spending years trying to establish both that it existed and that it mattered as philosophy. It was forced to devote its formative years to establishing its philosophical bona fides.  

What the philosopher Peter O. Bodunrin (of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria) wrote over four decades ago exemplifies this long formative era: “Philosophy in Africa has for more than a decade now been dominated by the discussion of one compound question: Is there an African philosophy, and if there is, what is it? The first part of the question has generally been unhesitatingly answered in the affirmative. Dispute has been primarily over the second part of the question, as various specimens of African philosophy presented do not seem to pass muster.”

There were already well-meaning but nonetheless condescending efforts to establish that there had long been African philosophical activity. Perhaps the most influential attempt to do this was by the Belgian Franciscan missionary Placide Tempels, who worked for almost three decades in what was then called the Belgian Congo.

In 1945 Tempels published La philosophie bantoue (translated into English as Bantu Philosophy in 1959), arguing that the analysis of Bantu languages revealed that Bantu-speaking peoples regard being itself as force. Bantu culture was consequently inherently philosophical. Strikingly, Tempels did not consider the deaths of millions of Bantu-speaking peoples in the brutal Belgian rubber extraction economy to be of pressing philosophical relevance to them. 

If one were to reverse the gaze, however, and examine the European philosophical traditions, one would concede that the Bantu language is of great interest to a philosopher, but that does not mean that it is philosophy. Did Socrates think like all the Athenians? Is that why they put him to death? Did Spinoza think like all the other Jews of Amsterdam? Is that why they excommunicated him?

Hountondji dramatically intervened into the absurdity and arrogance of this situation. In his most famous work, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (published in 1976 in French and in 1983 in English), he rejected the ethnographic myth that one can derive the philosophy of a people simply by recording their shared cultural practices. 

Even if sharing a cultural practice is not the same as critically reflecting upon it, it is not the case that there are cultural and linguistic groups where everyone thinks in unison. Who are these people who never disagree with or challenge each other? Approaches like the one exemplified by Tempels’ ethnographic yet uncritical study assume “an imaginary unanimity” and “the action of a collective system of thought.” Hountondji called this canard “the dogma of unanimism.” 

On this point, Hountondji saw eye-to-eye with another celebrated African philosopher, V. Y. Mudimbe, who had been born in the former Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Mudimbe distinguished the “practice of philosophy” from the tacit operation of a worldview. The latter may be of interest to a philosopher, and it may reflect the vestiges of a philosophy, but it is different from the “intellectual practice of philosophy” which “works on” worldviews. 

It is easy to appreciate Hountondji and Mudimbe’s point that there was never a culture in which every citizen was a sage. Philosophy itself is possible because we do not all think alike. It is an exceptional activity, engaged in the critical evaluation of a culture’s received beliefs and values.

Hountondji defended this insight throughout his long philosophical career. In The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa (1997, and translated into English in 2002), he objected to “the construction, as a norm for all Africans, past, present, and future, of a form of thinking, a system of beliefs, which could at best only correspond to an already determined stage of the intellectual journey of Black peoples.” As late as 2022, Hountondji complained on French radio that “there’s a colonialist point of view that all Africans agree with each other and have the same way of thinking.” 

After this critique of “unanimism,” however, Hountondji argued for African contributions to philosophy which, despite possible differences in content, would “refer back to the essential unity of a single discipline, of a single style of inquiry.” Philosophy  transcends cultural particulars, despite originating within them.

Hountondji retained a sense of philosophy that he had learned from Husserl, as well as from his teachers Ricoeur and the Marxist structuralist, Louis Althusser. Although he was later to soften his position, this disposition made him initially suspicious, for example, of a reliance on African oral traditions as a philosophical resource. Philosophy was first and foremost a radical yet shared production of distinctively philosophical knowledge.

It is fair to ask if the countercultural impulse of philosophy could actually result in a disciplinary unity to philosophical inquiry. The philosopher E. Wamba-Dia-Wamba (of the University of Dar Es Salaam) took this worry one step further. How does philosophy criticize its own ensnarement in colonial values? After all, “the theory of resistance against imperialism is often expressed as antiphilosophy, a permanent critique of philosophy by the masses of African people who view philosophy as the theory justifying the oppressive hierarchization of the colonial state power.”

Hountondji was certainly well aware of this danger, and it is at the heart of his defense of philosophy as relentlessly critical of the status quo. For example, the need to be first and foremost an African assumes the gaze of the colonizer before whom one must justify oneself. Exclusively African philosophy is not philosophy for Africans. It has “been built up essentially for a European public.” African philosophical thinking, like all philosophical thinking, has its roots in its culture, languages, and political, economic, and ecological challenges and opportunities. But it is also inherently cosmopolitan. This is the dance between particularism and the broad world of global philosophical exchange. 

Hountondji argued that the global demand for the authentic African past demotes African thought to an imaginary and unconscious unity allegedly shared by all Africans. As such, it denies Africans the possibility of developing a critical and cosmopolitan engagement with their own traditions. They over-identify with them in theIR desire to be altogether different from their former colonizers. 

Hountondji writes: “The quest for originality is always bound up with a desire to show off. It has meaning only in relation to the Other, from whom one wants to distinguish oneself at all costs. This is an ambiguous relationship, inasmuch as the assertion of one’s difference goes hand in hand with a passionate urge to have it recognized by the Other. As this recognition is usually long in coming, the desire of the subject, caught in his own trap, grows increasingly hollow until it is completely alienated in a restless craving for the slightest gesture, the most cursory glance from the Other.” 

For Hountondji, African philosophy is not the collective wisdom emerging from some fantastically pristine origin. “By ‘African philosophy’ I mean a set of texts, specifically the set of texts written by Africans and described as philosophical by the authors themselves.” This gesture strikingly refuses to link philosophical activity to the fantasy of a continent-wide way of thinking. Philosophy, with its restless critical questioning, engages the heterogeneity of thought within and without Africa. 

The “African” in African philosophy is a difference that really makes a difference, but it is not trapped in an imaginary consensus. Rather than an ethnographic invention of Africa, it insists that African philosophy is the critical and cosmopolitan activity of Africans. With such philosophical interventions, Hountondji left us with a wider and more dynamic world. 

Jason Wirth is chair of the department of philosophy at Seattle University.

Jason Wirth
Jason Wirth
Dr. Jason M. Wirth is chair and professor of philosophy at Seattle University. He works in the areas of Continental philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, the philosophy of art, environmental philosophy, and Africana Philosophy. 


  1. Very interesting story. Notable how open Seattle University is to European and world philosophy (especially phenomenology), a rarity among American universities mostly locked into English and American linguistic traditions. Also notable is the growing interest in the world’s philosophic traditions. Makes me wonder if Seattle’s global-city role might be as a center for world thought and culture.


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