INTRODUCTION TO HOUNTONDJI
The article printed below is extracted from African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, by Paulin Hountondji, which was
published by Hutchinson in June 1983. Hountondji was born
in the Ivory Coast, and received his Higher Education in
Paris, where he was a pupil of Althusser in the middle
1960s. He is now Professor of Philosophy at the National
University of Benin. His book is a collection of articles
(originally in French) covering such diverse topics as
Nkrumais~, negritude, and the goals of philosophical
thought, and includes a brilliant and moving study of the
18th-century German academic philosopher Anton-Wilhelm
Amo, who happened (although one would not know it from
his writings) to be African.
The overall purpose of Hountondji’s book is to explode
the idea that African philosophers owe allegiance to some-
thing called ‘African Philosophy’ – a supposed inarticulate
wisdom with roots deep in Africa’s past. Hountondji argues
that, on the contrary, philosophy must always be explicit,
argumentative and pluralistic and he shows (in several
articles including the one printed below) that ‘African
Philosophy’ arose, historically, from the work of European
missionaries and anthropologists, rather than from that of
African philosophers. He argues, therefore, that – paradoxically – it is only by adopting and adapting European philosophical traditions that Africans can acquire real intellectual independence.
The Radical Philosophy editorial collective is grateful
to Hutchinson Education for permission to reprint this
extract. The full book is published in a cased edition (09
151940 3) at 1:.12, and in paperback (09 151941 1) at 1:.5.50.
On ‘African Philosophy’
There are two ways of losing oneself: through
fragmentation in the particular or dilution in the
Aime Cesaire, Lettre
By ‘African philosophy’ I mean a set of texts, specifically,
the set of texts written by Africans and described as philosophical by their authors themselves.
Let us note that this definition begs no question,
since the meaning of the qualifier ‘philosophical’ is irrelevant – as is, indeed, the cogency of the qualification. All
that matters is the fact of the qualification itself, the
deliberate recourse to the word philosophy, and whatever
meaning that word may have. In other words, we are concerned solely with the philosophical intention of the
authors, not with the degree of its effective realization,
which cannot easily be assessed.
So for us African philosophy is a body of literature
whose existence is undeniable, a bibliography which has
grown constantly over the last thirty years or so. The limited aims of these few remarks are to circumscribe this
literature, to define its main themes, to show what its
problematic has been so far and to call it into question.
These aims will have been achieved if we succeed in convincing our African readers that African philosophy does
not lie where we have long been seeking it, in some mysterious corner of our supposedly immutable soul, a collective and unconscious world-view which it is incumbent on
us to study and revive, but that our philosophy consists
essentially in the process of analysis itself, in that very
discourse through which we have been doggedly attempting
to define ourselves – a discourse, therefore, which we
must recognize as ideological and which it is now up to us
to liberate, in the most political sense of the word, in
order to equip ourselves with a truly theoretical discourse
which will be indissolubly philosophical and scientific (1).
Archaeology: Western ‘ethnophilosophy’
A forerunner of ‘African philosophy’: Tempels. This
Belgian missionary’s Bantu Philosophy still passes today, in
the eyes of some, for a classic of ‘African philosophy’ (2).
In fact, it is an ethnological work with philosophical pretensions, or more simply, if I may coin the word, a work
of ‘ethnophilosophy’. It need concern us here only inasmuch as some African philosophers have themselves made
reference to it in their efforts to reconstruct, in the wake
of the Belgian writer, a specifically African philosophy.
Indeed, Bantu Philosophy did open the floodgates to a
deluge of essays which aimed to reconstruct a particular
Weltanschauung, a specific world-view commonly attributed to all Africans, abstracted from history and change
and, moreover, philosophical, through an interpretation of
the customs and traditions, proverbs and institutions – in
short, various data – concerning the cultural life of
One can readily discern Tempels’ motives. At first
sight they appear to be generous, since he had set out to
correct a certain image of the black man disseminated by
Levy-Bruhl and his school, to show that the African Weltanschauung could not be reduced to that celebrated ‘primitive mentality’ which was supposed to be insensitive to
contradiction, indifferent to the elementary laws of logic,
proof against the laws of experience and so forth, but
that it rested, in fact, on a systematic conception of the
universe which, however different it might be from the
Western system of thought, equally deserved the name of
‘philosophy’. At first sight, then, Tempels’ object appeared
to rehabilitate the black man and his culture and to redeem them from the contempt from which they had suffered
But on closer scrutiny the ambiguity of the enterprise
is obvious. It is clear that it is not addressed to Africans
but to Europeans, and particularly to two categories of
Europeans: colonials and missionaries (3). In this respect
the seventh and last chapter bears an eloquent title:
‘Bantu philosophy and our mission to civilize’. In effect,
we are back to square one: Africans are, as usual, excluded from the discussion, and Bantu philosophy is a mere
pretext for learned disquisitions among Europeans. The
black man continues to be the very opposite of an interlocutor; he remains a topic, a voiceless face under private
investigation, an object to be defined and not the subject
of a possible discourse (4-).
What, then, is the content of this Bantu ‘philosophy’?
I shall not try to analyse the whole book but will content
myself with a brief review of its main findings in order to
confront them with the real discourse of African philosophers themselves.
According to Tempels, Bantu ontology is essentially a
theory o.f forces: Bantus have a dynamic conception of
being, while the Western conception is static. For the
black man, then, being is power, not only inasmuch as it
possesses power, for that would merely mean that power is
an attribute of being, but in the sense that its very
essence is to be power:
For the Bantu (says Tempels) power is not an accident: it is more even than a necessary accident; it
is the very essence of being…. Being is power,
power is being. Our notion of being is ‘that which
is’, theirs is ‘the power that is’. Where we think
the concept ‘to be’, they make use (sic) of the
concept ‘power’. Where we see concrete beings,
. they see concrete forces. Where we would say that
beings are distinguished by their essence of nature,
Bantus would say that forces differ by their
essence or nature (5).
–However, power so defined is not only a reality: it is
also a value. The Bantu’s entire effort is devoted to increasing his ‘vi tal power’, for all power can increase or
diminish. This again, Tempels tells us, is opposed to the
Western conception. As far as the European is concerned,
one either possesses human nature or one does not. By
acquiring knowledge, by exercising his will, be developing
in various ways, man does not become more human. On the
contrary, when a Bantu says, for instance: ‘I am becoming
strong’ or when he says compassionately t? a friend w~o
has been struck with misfortune: ‘Your vItal strength IS
reduced, your life has been eroded’, these statements are
to be taken literally as implying an essential modification
of human nature itself.
Another principle of this Bantu ‘philosophy’ is t~e
interaction of forces. This interaction, says Tempels, IS
not merely mechanical, chemical or psychic, but, more
fundamentally, it is akin to the metaphysical dependence
which links the creature to the creator (in this sense that
‘the creature is, by its very nature, permanently dependent on its creator for its existence and subsistence’).
Yet another principle is the hierarchy of forces. An
important one, this, since it is the foundation of social
order and, so to speak, its metaphysical bedrock.
At the top of the scale, we are told, there is God,
both spirit and creator.
Then come the forefathers, the founders of the various clans, the archpatriarchs to whom God first communicated the vi tal force.
Then there are the dead of the tribe, in order of seniority; these are the intermediaries through whom the
elder forces exert their influence over the living generation.
The living themselves, who come next, are stratified
‘not only by law but in accordance with their very being,
with primogeniture and their organic degree of life, in
other words with their vi tal power’.
Right at the bottom of the scale the lower forces,
animal, vegetable or mineral, are also said to be stratified
according to vital power, rank or primogeniture. Thus,
analogies are possible between a human group and a lower
animal group, for instance: ‘He who is the chief in the
human order “demonstrates” his superior rank by the use
of a royal animal’s skin.’ (This is the key to totem ism,
according to T empels.)
Stress is laid on the internal hierarchy within the living group, a hierarchy founded, according to Tempels, on a
metaphysical order of subordination. This order was in
jeopardy every time the colonial administration imposed on
a black population a chief who did not fit the norms of
tradition. Hence the protests of the natives: ‘So-and-so
cannot be the chief. It is not possible. henceforth nothing
will grow on our soil, women will no longer give birth and
everything will be stricken with sterility.’
Finally, as the ultimate crown of this theoretical edifice, Bantu ‘philosophy’ emerges as humanism: ‘creation is
centred on man’, and especially on the living generation,
for ‘the living, earthly, human generation is the centre of
all mankind, including the world of the dead’.
If it be added that the interaction of all these forces,
far from being haphazard, takes place according to strict
and immutable laws (of which Tempels formulates the
three most general), one is immediately aware of the miraculous coherence of this ontological ‘system’ – and of its
great simplicity. However, its author assures us that it is
the ultimate foundation of the entire social practice of
the Bantus, of all Africans and of all ‘primitives’ and ‘clan
This is all very fine, but perhaps too good to be true. One
is reminded of Cesaire’s massive criticism, grave in content, global in scope. While accepting some of Tempels’
points, Cesaire views his exposition as a politically oriented project and highlights its practical implications.
Cesaire’s criticism may be summed up in a sentence:
Bantu ‘philosophy’ is an attempt to create a diversion. It
diverts attention from the fundamental political problems
of the Bantu peoples by fixing it on the level of fantasy,
remote from the burning reality of colonial exploitation.
The respect shown for the ‘philosophy’ and the spiritual
values of the Bantu peoples, which Tempels. turns into a
universal remedy for all the ills of the then Belgian
Congo, is astonishingly abstract (albeit perfectly understandable in view of the author’s political lineage), compared with the concrete historical situation of that
country. Further, when it is considered that ‘the white
man, a new phenomenon in the Bantu world, could be
apprehended only in terms of the categories of traditional
Bantu philosophy’, that he was therefore ‘incorporated
into the world of forces, in the position that was his by
right according to the rationale of the Bantu ontological
system’, that is to say, as ‘an elder, a superior human
force greater than the vital force of any black man’ (6),
then the real function of Tempels’ much vaunted respect
for Bantu ‘philosophy’, and at the same time the relevance
of Cesaire’s criticism becomes apparent. The humanist
thinker throws off his mask and reveals himself as the
guardian of the colonial order, and his hazy abstractions
can be seen for what they are, concrete devices in the
service of a very concrete policy which is nothing less
than the preservation of imperialist domination. Cesaire’s
irony can now be fully appreciated.
Bantu thought being ontological, Bantus are interested only in ontological satisfaction. Decent
wages? Good housing and food? I tell you these
Bantus are pure spirits: ‘What they want above all
is not an improvement in their material or economic situation, but recognition by the white man
and respect for their human dignity, for their full
human value.’ In short, one or two cheers for
Bantu vital force, a wink for the Bantu immortal
soul, and that’s that. A bit too easy, perhaps? (7)
Yet Cesaire’s criticism left the theoretical problem
untouched, since, in his own words, his target was ‘not
Bantu philosophy itself, but the political use some people
want to make of it’. The idea that there might exist a hidden philosophy to which all Bantus unconsciously and collectively adhered was not at issue, and Cesaire’s criticism
left it unbroached. The theory has therefore remained very
much alive; in fact, it has provided the motivation for all
our subsequent philosophical literature. The history of our
philosophy since then has been largely the history of our
succeeding interpretations of this collective ‘philosophy’,
this world-view which was assumed to be pre-determined,
and to underpin all our traditions and behaviour, and which
analysis must now modestly set out to unravel.
As a result, most African philosophers have misunderstood themselves. While they were actually creating new
philosophemes, they thought they were merely reproducing
those which already existed. While they were producing,
they thought they were simply recounting. Commendable
modesty, no doubt, but also betrayal, since the philosopher’s self-denial in the face of his own discourse was the
inevi table consequence of a projection which made him arbitrarily ascribe to his people his own theoretical choices
and ideological options. Until now African philosophy has
been little more than an ethnophilosophy, the imaginary
search for an immutable, collective philosophy, common to
all Africans, although in an unconscious form (8).
From Temples to Kagame: continuity and discontinuity
Such is the mainstream of African philosophy, which I must
now endeavour to describe. Reference to Tempels enables
us from the outset to see its essential weakness, to which I
shall return. But fortunately there is more to African philosophy, even in its ethnophilosophical vagaries, than the
mere reiteration of Bantu Philosophy.
In the first place, its motivations are more complex.
The aim is no longer to furnish European settlers and missionaries with an easy access to the black man’s soul,
raised to the status of unwitting candidate for ‘civilization’
and Christianization. African philosophers aim to define
themselves and their peoples, in the face of Europe, without allowing anybody else to do it for them, to fix and
petrify them at leisure.
Moreover, even if this attempt at self-definition maintains the fiction of a collective philosophy among our authors, they nevertheless show genuine philosophical qualities
in the manner in which they claim to justify this fiction.
The severe rigour of some of their deductions, the accuracy of some of their analyses, the skill which some of them
display in debate, leaves us in no doubt as to their status.
They are certainly philosophers, and their only weakness is
that the philosophical form of their own discourse has been
created in terms of a myth disguised as a collective
One example will suffice to illustrate this point:
Kagame. La Philosophie bantu-rwandaise de l’etre, expressly
and from the outset, establishes its point of view in relation to Tempels’ work as an attempt by an autochthonous
Bantu African to ‘verify the validity of the theory advanced by this excellent missionary’ (9). Nor can it be denied that the Rwandais priest is often in accord with the
Belgian missionary, particularly where we are concerned
The idea of an immutable, collective philosophy conceived as the ultimate basis of Bantu institutions and
culture, recognized more or less consciously by every
Bantu. ‘Philosophical principles,’ writes Kagame ‘ •.• are
invariable; since the nature of beings must always
remain what it is, their profoundest explanation is
And again, concerning his
‘sources’ of information: ‘We shall have to resort to a
kind of institutionalized record…. Even if the formal
structure of these “Institutions” is not the expression
of a philosophical entity, it may be shown to be a direct consequence of a mode of formulating problems
which lies within the purview of philosophy.’ (10)
Let us note, however, that Kagame is here much
more subtle than Tempels. Unlike the Belgian missionary, he is duly wary of attributing to his fellow
countrymen a philosophical system in the full sense of
the word, with clearly and logically defined articulations and contours. All he admits to is a number of
invariable ‘philosophical principles’ that give no indication of forming a system; and he willingly speaks of
‘intui tive philosophy’, as opposed to academic, systematic philosophy.
The idea that European philosophy itself can be red2
uced, in spite of its eventful and variegated history,
to a lowest common denominator, namely the
Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy. In fact, this second
idea explains the first, since it underlay and triggered
off the strategy of differentiating African ‘philosophy’
from European philosophy.
On the other hand, as far as the content of this
Bantu ‘philosophy’ is concerned, there are undeniable
convergences between Kagame and Tempels, especially
as regards the Bantu conception of man.
The idea that man is indivisible, a simple unit, and
not, as the Europeans believe, a compound of body
and soul. Thus, Kagame tells us that there is no word
in Kinyarwanda to denote the soul, at least as long as
the individual is alive.
The idea that God, and not the natural parents, is the
real begetter and author of individual destinies.
The idea that people’s names indicate their destiny.
Above all, the idea that humanity is at the centre of
the Bantus’ thoughts and preoccupations, to such an
extent that other beings are conceived solely in opposition to it, as negations or inverted images of their
own natures as thinking beings: things (ibintu in
Kinyarwanda) are by definition beings deprived of intelligence, as opposed to humans (umuntu. pI. abantu),
which are defined as the intelligent being.
As against these similarities, Kagame does part
company with Tempels (without expressly saying so) on a
number of very important points.
In the first place, his method, which is founded on
direct linguistic analysis, differs from Tempels’. Among all
the ‘institutionalized records’ of Bantu culture, Kagame deliberately emphasizes language and its grammatical structure (11). Hence perhaps the exceptional value of his book.
Kagame nags us – and in doing so renders us signal service with the disturbing reminder that we might think very differently if we made systematic use of our mother tongues
in our theoretical work. Indeed, the R wandais philosopher
is much more sensitive than was his Belgian predecessor to
the contingency of language and the inevitable rooting of
even the most abstract human thought in a world of preexisting meanings.
More rigorous in method, Kagame’s analysis is also less
ambi tious in aim. It is offered to us expressly as a ‘monograph’, valid only for a specific geographical and linguistic
area: R wanda and its close neighbours. This is a far cry
from Tempels’ rash generalizations, with their claim not
only to open wide the doors of Bantu philosophy but also to
hold the key of all ‘primitive’ thought.
Moreover, it is obvious that Kagame, while he joins
with Tempels in asserting the existence of a collective
Bantu philosophy, carefully avoids confining it within a
narrow particular ism. On the contrary, he more than once
emphasizes its universal aspects, by which it is linked with,
among others, European ‘philosophy’. For instance, he tells
us that ‘formal logic is the same in all cultures’ and that
concept, judgement and reasoning have no Bantu, Eastern
or Western specificity. ‘What is expressed on this subject,
in any language of Europe or Asia, America or Africa, can
always be transposed into any other language belonging to
a different culture.’ (12)
Kagame is also peculiarly sensitive to those transformations of Bantll ‘philosophy’ which result from its contacts
with European culture. To him these transformations appear
profound and significant, whereas Tempels believed that
‘acculturation’ could never impart more than a superficial
veneer. Thus, the Rwandais philosopher warns us: ‘You will
not find, in our country at the present time, more than a
few people who have not corrected their traditional views
on the world and on the heroic style of the past.’ (13) In
particular, he insists at length on the innovations introduced by the missionaries into the vocabulary and even the
grammatical structure of Kinyarwanda (14). In this he
shows himself sensitive to the internal dynamism and capaci ty for assimilation of his own culture – so much so that
he himself gives us the facts with which to refute his own
initial methodological assumption, posing the immutability
of philosophical principles.
Such divergences are important and would suffice to
differentiate Kagame’s work clearly from Tempels’. But
beyond these formal differences even more striking is the
fact that the two authors, while both postulating the existence of a constituted Bantu philosophy, give different
interpretations of its content. Thus (although his criticism
remains general and is not directed overtly at Tempels)
Kagame in fact rejects the fundamental thesis of the
Belgian missionary, according to which the equivalence of
the concepts of being and power is the essential characteristic of Bantu thought. It is true that the Rwandais priest
also recognizes a difference between the Aristotelian concept of substance and kindred concepts in Bantu thought.
This difference is that the ‘philosophy of Europf”an culture’
tends to conceive being in its static aspect, while the philosophy of Bantu culture prefers to consider its dynamic
aspect. But he states that this is only ‘a slight nuance’, for
the two aspects remain complementary and inseparable in
any mode of thought:
In both systems, indeed, there are inevitably a
static and a dynamic aspect at the same time.
1. Any structure, considered apart from its finality, must appear static.
2. If you then consider a structure as having an
end, as being structurally oriented to action or
being used for an end, that structure will present
its dynamic aspect.
It therefore follows that if the philosophy of
Bantu culture is called dynamic, it must be remembered that it is in the first place static. If the
philosophy of European culture is described as
static, it must not be forgotten that it is in the
second place dynamic. Let me summarize these two
correlative aspects in a double axiom:
1. Operational predisposition presupposes essence.
2. Essence is structured in terms of its finality.
While Tempels is not mentioned, the target of this
critique is clear. But this is far from being the only divergence between Kagame and T empels. Many others occur in
their interpretations of Bantu ‘philosophy’, even though
they both suppose this ‘philosophy’ to be constituted and
pre-existing, confined once and for all in the African’s
eternally immutable soul (Tempels) or at least in the permanent essence of his culture (Kagame). Who is right? Which
is the better interpretation? The choice is the reader’s.
Perhaps he will wish, in order to form his own opinion and
close the debate, to return to the evidence itself and take
cognizance of the original text of African ‘philosophy’,
that secret text so differently interpreted by T empels and
Kagame? This is what one usually does in Europe (and even
Asia) when, in the name of intellectual integrity, one studies an author or a doctrine with a view to arriving at one’s
own conclusion in the face of the ‘conflict of interpretations’ (16). Only a return to sources can enlighten us. It
alone can enable us to discriminate between interpretations
and assess their reliability or simply their pertinence.
Unfortunately, in the case of African ‘philosophy’
there are no sources: or at least, if they exist, they are
not philosophical texts or discourses. Kagame’s ‘institutionalized records’, or those which Tempels had earlier subjected to ‘ethnophilosophical’ treatment, are wholly distinct
from philosophy. They are in no way comparable with the
sources which for an interpreter of, say, Hegelianism, or
dialectical materialism, or Freudian theory, or even
Confucianism are extant in the explicit texts of Hegel”
Marx, Freud or Confucius, in their discursive development
as permanently avaUable products of language.
I can foresee an objection. Of course I know that
among Kagame’s ‘institutionalized records’ the products of
language occupy a large place (proverbs, tales, dynastic
poems and the whole of Africa’s oral literature). I shall
even add that Kagame’s work is so exceptionally interesting precisely because of his extraordinary knowledge of the
traditions, language and oral literature of Rwanda (17). But
the point is that this literature – at least as it is presented
by Kagame – is not philosophical. Now, scientific method
demands that a sociological document is interpreted first in
terms of sociology, a botanical text (written or oral) first
in terms of botany, histories first in terms of historiography, etc. Well then, the same scientific rigour should
prevent us from arbitrarily projecting a philosophical discourse on to products of language which expressly offer
themselves as something other than philosophy. In effecting
this projection, Kagame – and Tempels before him, along
with those African ethnophilosophers who followed suit (we
Seven Ways of Selling Out/Daniel Foss and Ralph Lark in
Identity Formation and Social Movements/Richard Weiner
In Defense of Revisionism/Gene Grabiner
Hegemony and Education/Philip Wexler and Tony Whitson
Social-Clinical Case Discussion/Bill Glover, Bruce Smith, Eli Zaretsky
Sexism and the Hidden Society/EdwardJones
Notes/Russell ]acoby, [lene Philipson, Ed Silver
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are less interested in the European variety (18» – committed what Aristotle called (and Kagame himself is rather
fond of invoking Aristotle) a metabasis eis allo genos, i.e. a
confusion of categories (19). This leaves readers with no
means of checking their interpretations. As the evidence
derived from the ‘institutionalized’ – but not philosophical ‘records’ is inadequate, readers are brutally thrown back
upon themselves and compelled to recognize that the whole
construct rests on sand. Indeed, Kagame, in spite of the
very attractive qualities of his analysis and the relative
accuracy of some of his sequences, has remained on the
whole the prisoner of an ideological myth, that of a collective African ‘philosophy’ which is nothing but a revamped version of Levy-Bruhl’s ‘primitive mentality’, the
imaginary subject of a scholarly discourse which one may
regret Kagame did not apply to something else.
Kagame himself seems to have been aware of the difficulty, for he felt compelled, in order to render the idea of
a collective philosophy plausible, to assume, at the beginnings of R wandais culture, the existence and deliberate
action of ‘great initiators’, intuitive philosophers who are
supposed expressly to have formulated the principles of
Bantu philosophy at the same time as they founded the
institutions of that society (20). But it is easy to see (and
Kagarne himself can hardly have been taken in) that this
assumption is gratuitous, even mythological. Moreover – and
this is more serious – it does not even solve the problem
but rather encloses us in a vicious circle. The alternatives
are as follows. Either Bantu ontology is strictly immanent
in the Bantu languages as such and contemporaneous with
them (which Kagame expressly recognizes, since he infers
this ontology from the grammatical structures of
Kinyarwanda), in which case it cannot have been taught by
‘initiators’, who would have had to express themselves in
these Bantu languages; or this philosophy really was taught
at a particular point in time, and in this case it is not
coeval with the Bantu languages but is a historical stage in
Bantu culture, destined to be overtaken by history.
Either way, Bantu ‘philosophy’ (21) is shown to be a
myth. To destroy this myth once and for all, and to clear
our conceptual ground for a genuine theoretical discourse these are the tasks now awaiting African philosophers and
scientists. I will now seek to show briefly that these tasks
are in fact inseparable from political effort – namely, the
anti-imperialist struggle in the strictest sense of the term.
The unshackling of discourse
I have quoted Kagame only as an example. Despite his undeniable talent and his powerful theoretical temperament
(which so brilliantly distinguishes him from some ethnophilosophers), it seems to ‘ne that his work simply perpetuates an ideological myth which is itself of non-African
Unfortunately, Kagame is not alone. A quick look at
the bibliography suggested in note 1 is enough to show how
mych energy African philosophers have devoted to the definition of an original, specifically African ‘philosophy’. In
varying degrees, Makarakiza, Lufuluabo, Mulago, Bahoken,
Fouda and, to a lesser extent, William Abraham remain
caught in this myth, however scientific and productive
their research (remarkable in some cases), sincere their
patriotism and intense their commitment may have been
Theirs is clearly a rearguard action. 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
wishes to distinguish onself 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 his part, the Other (in this case the European, the
former colonizer) didn’t mind a bit. From the outset he
himself had instinctively created a gap between himself and
the Other (the colonized), as between the master and his
slave, as the paradigmatic subject of absolute difference
(23). But eventually, as a gesture of repentance, or rather
to help allay his own spiritual crisis, he began to celebrate
this difference, and so the mysterious primitive ‘mentality’
was metamorphosed into primitive ‘philosophy’ in the hardpressed master’s mystified and mystifying consciousness.
The difference was maintained but reinterpreted, or, if one
prefers, inverted: and although the advertised primitive
‘philosophy’ did not correspond to that which the colonized
wished to see recognized, at least it made dialogue and
basic solidarity possible.
It was a case, says Eboussi aptly, quoting
Jankelevitch, of ‘doubly interpreted misinterpretation’, in
1 Here is a minimal bibliography: W. Abraham, The Mind of Africa (Weidenfeld &:
Nicolson 1962); Jean-Calvin Bahoken, Clairieres metaphysiques africaines (Paris:
Presence Africaine 1967); Aime Cesaire, Discours sur le colonialisme (Paris: Editions
Reclame 1950; Several reprints by Presence Africaine); Alioune Diop, ‘Niam M’Paya
ou de la fin que devorent les moyens’, preface to I. Tempels, La Philosophie bantoue
(Paris: Presence Africaine 1949); Fabien Eboussi-Boulaga, ‘Le Bantou problematique’,
Presence Africaine, no.66 (1968); Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs (ParisSeuil 1952); Frantz Fanon, Les Damnes de la terre (Paris: Maspero 1968);
BasiJe-Juleat Fouda, ‘La Philosophie negro-africaine de I’existence’ (unpublished
doctoral thesis, LeJli, Faculte des Lettres, 1967); Ale xis Kagame, La Philosophie
bantu-rwandaise de I’etre (Brussels 1956); Francoise-Marie Lutuluabo, Vers une
theodicee bantoue (Tournai: Casterman 1962); Francoise-Marie Lutuluabo, La Notion
luba bantoue de l’etre (Tournai: Casterman 1964); Vincent Mulago, UrlV1Sage
africain du christianisme (Paris: Presence .lfricaine 1965); A. Makarakiza, La
which the victim makes itself the executioner’s secret
accomplice, in order to commune with him in an artificial
world of falsehood (24-).
What does that mean in this context? Simply that contemporary African philosophy, inasmuch as it remains an
ethnophilosophy, has been built up essentially ~
European public. The African ethnophilosopher’s discourse
is not intended for Africans. It has not been produced for
their benefit, and its authors understood that it would be
challenged, if at all, not by Africans but by Europe alone.
Unless, of course, the West expressed itself through
Africans, as it knows so well how to do. In short, the
African ethnophilosopher made himself the spokesman of
All-Africa facing All-Europe at the imaginary rendezvous
of give and take – from which we observe that ‘Africanist’
particularism goes hand in glove, objectively, with an
abstract universalism, since the African intellectual who
adopts it thereby expounds it, over the heads of his own
people, in a mythical dialogue with his European col-‘
leagues, for the constitution of a ‘civilization of the
So it is no surprise, then, if this literature, like the
whole of African literature in French (and, to a lesser
extent, in English) is much better known outside than inside
Africa. This is due not to chance or to material circumstances only but to fundamental reasons which proceed
from the original destination of this literature.
Now the time has come to put an end to this scandalous extraversion. Theoretical discourse is undoubtedly a
good thing; but in present-day Africa we must at all costs
address it first and foremost to our fellow countrymen and
offer it for the appreciation and discussion of Africans
themselves (26). Only in this way shall we be able to promote a genuine scientific movement in Africa and put an
end to the appalling theoretical void which grows deeper
every day within a population now weary and indifferent to
theoretical problems that are seen as pointless.
Science is generated by discussion C!nd. thrives on it
(27). If we want science in Africa, we must create in the
continent a human environment in which and by which the
most diverse problems can be freely debated and in which
these discussions can be no less freely recorded and disseminated, thanks to the written word, to be submitted to
the appreciation of all and transmitted to future generations. These, I am sure, will do much better than we have.
This, obviously, presupposes the existence of freedom
of expression, which in varying degrees so many of our
present-day political regimes are endeavouring to stifle.
But this means that the responsibility of African philosophers (and of all African scientists) extends far beyond
the narrow limits of their discipline and that they cannot
afford the luxury of self-satisfied apoliticisrn or quiescent
complacency about the established disorder unless they
deny themselves both as philosophers and as people. In
other words, the theoretical liberation of philosophical discourse presupposes political liberation. We are today at the
centre of a tangle of problems. The need for a political
struggle makes itself felt at all levels, on all planes. I shall
simply add that this struggle will not be simple and that
clarity as well as resolve are needed if we are to succeed.
The future is at stake.
Dialectique des Barundi (Brussels 1959); Alassane N’Daw, ‘Peut-on parler d’une
pensee africaine?’, Presence Africaine, no.58 (1966); Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism
(Heinemann 1964); Leopold Sedar Senghor, Nation et voie africaine du socialisme
(Paris: Presence Africaine 1961); Leopold Sedar Senghor, Liberte I. Negritude et
humanisme (Paris; Seuil 1964).
The reader may also wish to include the present book and some earlier articles of
mine: ‘Charabia et Mauvaise Conscience: psychologie du langage chez les inteJlectuels colonises’, Presence Africaine, no.61 (1967); ‘Pourqoui la theorie?’, Bulletin de la
Commission Inter-africaine de Philoso hie Societe Africaine de Culture, no.3 (Paris:
Presence Africaioe 1969; ‘Le Probleme actuel de la philosophie africaine’, in Contemporary Philosophy. A Survey, ed. Raymond Klibansky, vol. IV (Florence: La
Nuova Italia Editrice 1971).
I have cited only African authors, in accordance with my definition of African
philosophy. Non-African Africanists are not included. It is for the readers to judge
whether I am justified after they have read the book.
But I have included West Indians like Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon. They are
African of the Diaspora, and although they are not, and do not claim to be, philosophers, they afford us the means of conducting a fruitful political criticism of a
certain form of philosophy.
To be complete the list should also include all the doctoral theses and other similar works by African students and researchers in philosophy, even if they bear on
the most classical European authors, for they are works of philosophy by Africans.
Our ‘naive’ definition of African philosophy as a set of texts enables us to see the
internal discords of that literature, torn between a tragic renunciation of African
allegiances on the one hand and imprisonment within an ‘Africanist’ ideology, itself
of non-African origin, on the other. The only reason, therefore, for not citing texts
in this category is that I have not been able to make an exhaustive inventory of it
or even a representative choice.
Finally, North-African literature is omitted for material reasons alone. It is, of
course, an integral part of African literature in general, although it constitutes a
comparatively autonomous subset, no less than the black African literature on which
we focus here. One day it would be useful to investigate systematically the problem
of the real unity which underlies the obvious differences between these two literatures.
Rev. Father Placide Tempels, La Philosophie bantoue, translated from the Dutch by
A. Rubbens (Paris: Presence Africaine 1949). A first translation had been published
in 1945 by Editions Lovania, Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi). Presence Africaine has
recently printed its third edition, which says a good deal! References are to the
Cf. Tempels, La Philosophie bantoue:
A better understanding of the field of Bantu thought is equally necessary for
all those who are called upon to live among the natives. Therefore this first
concerns colonials, but more especially those who are charged with the administration and justice of the Blacks, all those who wish to see a fruitful
development of clan law, in short all those who want to civilize, educate,
raise the Bantus. But if this concerns all colonials of good will, it is
addressed more particularly to missionaries. (p.l?)
In the last resort, this is perhaps the basic vice of ethnology in general (and not
only of ethnophilosophy). Levy-Bruhl’s work at least had the merit of displaying, in a
naive and clumsy way, how ethnological discourse has always depended on an ethnocentric attitude itself dictated by a concrete historical situation (‘primitive’ societies were in fact always societies dominated by imperialism). From this point of
view, Levy-Bruhl’s belated self-criticism in his Carnets is far from being as radical
as is sometimes supposed, for it retains the central notion of ‘primitivity’ and fails
to explain the reasons for his earlier misconceptions.
Many recent ethnologists have tried to practise a neutral ethnology, free of
value judgements and of racism and ethnocentrism. This intention may be praiseworthy in itself, but it does not prevent ethnology, as a type of discourse, from
resting, as much as ever, on an ideological foundation. Ethnology (or anthropology,
or whatever we care to call it) always assumes what it wants to prove, i.e. a real
distinction between its object and that of sociology in general, the essential difference between ‘primitive’ (or perhaps ‘archaic’) societies and other societies. On the
other hand, it also attempts to abstract from the real power relationship between
these societies and the others – in other words, imperialism. In any case, it is clear
that the societies selected for study by anthropology are in fact always dominated
societies and that the scholarly discourse of the anthropologist has meaning only in
a scientific debate originating elsewhere (in the dominant classes of the dominating
societies) and in which these peoples do not participate. More detailed analysis is,
of course, necessary here.
Tempels, La Philosophie bantoue, pp.35-36.
Discours sur le colonialisme, 4th ed. (Paris: Presence Africaine 1962), p.44.
This applies, of course, to only one of the currents of African philosophy. A glance
at the bibliography above will show that it has always provoked contestations within
African philosophy itself (within African philosophical literature) and that it coexists with other currents, though these are relatively insignificant.
9 Kagame, La Philosophie bantu-rwandaise de i’etre, p.8.
10 ibid., pp.17-33.
11 Kagame presents his analysis as a reflection on the particular structures of the
Kinyarwanda language. These structures are seen as delineating a kind of articulation of reality, a sort of grid through which the Rwandais perceives the world.
Hence the idea of constructing a table of Bantu ontological categories, doing for
Kinyarwanda what Aristotle, according to Kagame, did for Greek. The results of the
inquiry are by no means unattractive. Kagame proposes four Bantu metaphysical
categories, which he aligns with Aristotle’s in the following table:
1 Umuntu (pi. abantu): man, being
endowed with intelligence
Ikuntu (pi. ibintu): thing, being
This table calls for a number of remarks:
The first two categories fracture the unity of the Aristotelian concept of substance and make it appear irremediably ambiguous. Man nd tings are not part
of the same genus but constitute two radically different genera. More accurately, man is the originary category in relation to which things are thinkable.
These, by definition, are non-man, ibintu, beings without intelligence (a category which includes, let us not forget, minerals and vegetables as well as
The originary concept of man can only be defined in tautological terns. Man is
the sole species of a unique genus. This is why Kagame can write:
Some Europeans have taken great pleasure in the ‘naivete’ of the Bantus,
when asked ‘Umuntu ni iki?’ (‘What is man?’). Called upon to give a definition of the being endowed with intelligence … our Bantus, after much
embarrassment, ended up by answering: ‘Umuntu, ni umuntu nyinel’ (‘Man,
precisely, is man!’), which meant something like this: ‘By formulating the
question, you have yourself given the answer, and it is impossible to explain further! You have stated the genus and the unique species! What
would you answer if you were asked: ‘What is the rational animal (i.e.
man)?’ (ibid., p.118).
We may ask ourselves, however, to what extent the Bantus’ embarrassment described here is not due rather to the intrinsic difficulty of the question asked (the
most difficult of all questions, after all). The average European would certainly
have been equally embarrassed and would have answered no less ‘naively’ than the
Bantu, even though European languages enable the concept of man to be divided
into simpler categories.
But perhaps the most serious difficulty concerns the interpretation given by
Kagame of Aristotle’s project (which inspired him). No doubt Aristotle’s ontology was
connected with the structures of the Greek language, but this should not lead us,
surely, to underestimate the originality of his project, which was intended not so
much to explore the actual structures of the Greek language as to transcend all
such contingencies by grounding language in a universal and necessary order.
ibid., particularly pp.64-70.
The reader may have recognized here the title of a book by Paul Ricoeur, Le Conflit des interpretations (Paris: Seuil 1969). Without any doubt, the problem of
African ‘philosophy’ refers us back to the problem of hermeneutics. The discourse of
ethnophilosophers, be they European or African, offers us the baffling spectacle of
an imaginary interpretation with no textual support, of a genuinely ‘free’ interpretation, inebriated and entirely at the mercy of the interpreter, a dizzy and unconscious freedom which takes itself to be translating a text which does not actually
exist and which is therefore unaware of its own creativity. By this action the interpreter disqualifies himself from reaching any truth whatsoever, since truth requires
that’ freedom be limited, that it bow to an order that is not purely imaginary and
that it be aware both of this order and of its own margin of creativity. Truth is
attainable only if the interpreter’s freedom is based on the nature of the text to be
interpreted; it presupposes that the text and the interpreter’s discQurse remain rigorously within the same category, i.e. the same univocal field. Aristotle’s doctrine
of the ‘genera of being’ means just this.
Cf. Kagame’s other works, particularly: La Poesie dynastique au Rwanda (Brussels
1951); Le Code des institutions politigues du Rwanda precolonial (Brussels 1952);
Les Organisations socio-familiales de i’ancien Rwanda (Brussels 1954).
European ethnophilosophy is still going strong. No wonder, if one remembers the
praise lavished by a philosopher of Bachelard’s rank (followed in this by Albert
Camus, Louis Lavelle, Gabriel Marcel, Chombard de Lauwe, Jean Wahl, etc.) on a
book as equivocal as Bantu Philosophy (cf. no.7, 1949) ‘Temoignanages sur La Philosophie bantoue du Pere Tempels’, Presence Africaine, no.7, 1949). So, if we want to
break out of the vicious circle of ethnocentric prejudice, must we indiscriminately
praise any work, whatever its quality, which attempts, equivocally, a problematic
rehabilitation of the black? The most serious aspect of the matter, in the case of
the European philosophers (I mean the genuine ones), is that they flagrantly flouted
the theoretical implications of their own philosophical practice, which obviously
rested on responsible thinking, on theoretical efforts on the part of the individual
subject, and so excluded the reduction of philosophy to a collective system of
The healthiest European reaction to Tempels’ enterprise remains, as far as I
know, that of Franz Crahay’s ‘Le Decollage conceptuel, condition d’une philosophie
bantoue’ (Conceptual take-off: a precondition for a Bantu philosophy), Diogene,
no.52 (1965). We shall return to this and explain its limitations.
But more complete, more systematic and of exemplary lucidity, in my view, is the
remarkable critique by the Camerounian Fabien Eboussi-Boulaga, ‘Le Bantou problematique’, Presence Africaine. no.66 (1968).
It may be worth adding that my criticism of Tempels, and also the article by
Eboussi, is aimed in no way at the man but at his work, or rather at a particular
idea of philosophy which has unfortunately become dominant since his time and
which, if it is not destroyed once and for all, is likely to stifle any potential
African creativity. All I want to do, therefore, is to clear the ground for a philosophical practice worthy of the name, based on rigorous scientific practice, and at
the same time to provide a new reading of existing African philosophical literature
and, by ridding it of its ethnophilosophical illusions, to show that this theoretical
practice has actually already begun and needs only to liberate itself and to recognize its autonomy and its possible functions in a new Africa.
It would be an entirely different matter, of course, if Kagame had succeeded in providing philosophical texts by African sages or in transcribing their words. His interpretation would then have been founded on actual philosophjcal discourses, universally accessible and verifiable.
This perhaps indicates an urgent task for present African philosophers: the systematic transcription of everything that can be recorded of the discourses of our
ancestors, sages and scholars who are still alive.
But here again, one must distinguish. The thought of an African sage, even if he
purports to be the spokesman for a group, is not necessarily that of all the individuals in that group, and still less that of all Africans in general. Also, if such discourses are to be transcribed, it should not be only for the sake of advertising them
for the possible admiration of a non-African public but, first and foremost, so that
they can be scrutinized by all contemporary Africans. In any case we can be grateful to Marcel Griaule for having so faithfully recorded the words of an Ogotemmeli
(cf. Marcel Griaule, Dieu d’eau. Entretiens avec Ogotemmeli, Paris: Editions du
Chene 1948). A transcript of this kind by a European ethnologist is infinitely more
valuable than all the arbitrary fabrications by other ‘Africanist’ Europeans about
the African soul or the Bar,tu world-view and all those impressionistic sketches of
‘Dogon wisdom’, ‘Diola philosophy’, etc.
At present I confine my discussion to the Bantu area, for the simple reason that
it seems to have produced the most abundant philosophical or ethnophilosophical literature of African origin; and it is in this kind of explicit discourse that African
philosophy must be sought: elsewhere we shall find nothing but the mirages of our
desires, the fantasies of our regrets and nostalgias.
La Philosophie bantu-rwandaise de i’etre, pp.37, 180, 187 and passim.
The reader will have immediately understood the discriminative (i.e. conceptual) use
I make of the following terms: philosophy (without quotation marks) in the proper
sense – a set of explicit texts and discourses, a literature intended as philosophy;
‘philosophy’ in an improper sense, as indicated by the quotation marks – the collective, hypothetical world-view of a given people; ethnophilosophy – a research resting,
in whole or in part, on the hypothesis of such a world-view and the attempt to reconstruct a supposed collective ‘philosophy’.
These, of course, are not at issue. Some of the authors mentioned are extremely
instructive, and Africans will gain by reading them. My critique, I repeat, is not
negative; but it is natural to demand more of those who have already given because
we know they could do better.
This is the real meaning of Levy-Bruhl’s work. Cf. La Mentalite primitiveand other
texts of the kind; cf. also all the ideological discourses collected by Cesaire in that
inspired anthology of follies, the Discours sur le colonialisme.
F. Eboussi-Boulaga, ‘Le Bantoue problematique’, Pr6sence Africaine, no.66 (1968).
The phrases rendez-vous du donner et du receivoir, civilisation de l’universel, etc.,
are, of course, favourite expressions of Senghor.
Here lies the inadequacy of the analysis offered in Franz Crahay’s ‘Le Decollage
conceptuel, conditio in d’une philosophie bantoie’. The ‘take-off’ has already taken
place. All people think conceptually, under all skies, in all civilizations, even if
their discourse incorporates mythological sequences (like that of Par men ides, Plato,
Confucius, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kagame, etc.) and even if it rests wholly (as is nearly
always the case) on fragile ideological foundations, from which, of course, it must
be liberated by critical vigilance. In this respect, there is nothing exceptional about
But Crahay ignores the real problem, which is the choice of interlocutor and the
destination of the discourse. Mythical or scientific, ideological or critical, language
is always forced by social discussion to improve itself and to pass by successive
leaps through all the levels of consistency and rigour. The main task in Africa is to
subject language to social discussion and to allow it to develop its own history
through writing and its necessary complement, political democracy.
We are, of course, considering science not in terms of its results (as a system of
constituted truths) but as a process, as an actual search, as a project which takes
shape within a society and which is always greater than its provisional findings.