Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reading Hountondji

Paulin Hountondji's "African philosophy : myth and reality" was his first, and most controversial, book - and to a large extent it's still definitive of his philosophical project.
In it he defends the idea that there can be a genuine African philosophy, but without resorting to the hysterical myth-mongering of the so called "Afrocentricist" scholars. I don't deny that there may be something to their claims, and there certainly is some evidence that classicists have "white washed" the early history of Greek philosophy - and hence philosophy in general. The debate around the early history of philosophy is very emotional, but we can expect it to become less so as more classicists and philosophical historians do decent scholarly work in this direction. This is a topic for a different time. There is, however, no question that Africans have contributed to the history of Western philosophy, and not only in the 20th and 21st centuries. Two important, and immediately recognizable, historical Africans being St. Augustine, and Anton Wilhelm Amo (Amo's story itself is fascinating, taken from Ghana as a child, given a top notch European education, eventually rising to become a respected professor of philosophy - there is a chapter dedicated to Amo in Hountondji's book).

The question of African philosophy

One of the most central (though now moribund) questions of African philosophy for at least the last sixty or seventy years, has been whether, and to what extent, African philosophy exists. This isn't as paradoxical as it may fist seem - or, perhaps more accurately - this isn't as unusual as it may seem. Western philosophy routinely questions it's own essence and it's own existence - as Roger Scruton likes to point out, the question "what is philosophy?" seems to be one of the most important questions in philosophy. Philosophers are often puzzled about the exact nature of their business, and on more than one occasion some philosopher has predicted that philosophy is on it's way out or, in fact, died a long time ago. We shouldn't be too surprised, then, that African philosophy should take up the question of whether or not it exists as a central concern.

This is what Hountondji addresses in his book - the question of whether African philosophy exists. His answer is, in short, "yes it does, but not where you thought it did".

In order to understand his answer we need a little historical context. When Hountondji first took up his pen, "African philosophy" was supposedly explored and explicated in a vast ethnological literature initiated, more or less, by the Belgian missionary Placide Tempels' book "Bantu philosophy". This ethological literature and style of inquiry - which Hountondji calls "ethnophilosophy" - is based on the premise that there is a unanimous, static, generally unarticulated, "philosophy" underlying and animating African thought and Action, and the goal of these ethnological studies to to make explict what was implicit in folk tales, idiomatic expression, art, and so on.

This conception of philosophy is the "myth" of Hountondji's title - he flatly rejects ethnophilosophy as being philosophy in any serious sense. Even without the theoretical framework Hountondji develops throughout his book, one can understand his indignation. To compare what is at best a "folk philosophy" to the highly technical, theoretical disciple that is Western philosophy is condescending, to say the least. Less condescending would have been to flat out deny that philosophy per se had not developed as a discipline in Africa at all (this, however, would not be entirely true - a quick look at the history of Islamic philosophy in Africa should be enough to at least suggest this claim's falsity).

Briefly, Hountondji believes that ethnophilosophy's dual appeal to both Western scholars and African nationalists was because of it's tendency to emphasise the idiosyncratic aspects of African thought and culture. He says :

"Everybody was happy: not only the conventional nationalists (and their accomplices, the 'progressive' European anthropologists or intellectuals), for whom cultural authenticity coincided with an exclusive revaluation of the past, but also the traditional ethnologists, who were quite prepared to trade the word 'mentality' for the word 'philosophy' as long as the adjective 'primitive' remained and the structure was regarded as immutable, ahistorical, and inert"

The problem with ethnophilosophy

Hountondji sums up his argument against ethnophilosophy in the maxim "philosophy is a history, not a system". This is meant to capture some important aspects of the practice of philosophy as he sees it. Hountondji is not denying that there are important systematic elements to the practice of philosophy - that goes hand in hand with his generally professionalized view of the practice. What he is denying here is the claim made for African "philosophy" by the ethnophilosophers - namely, that there is a systematic structure that can be captured and explicated in precise, quasi-philosophical, language and that expresses all there is to be said about "African philosophy". This leads into his defining Philosophy structurally as history - as an ever changing dialogical process that can never be captured and finally defined. This is something that will ring true with anyone who knows even a little bit of the history of Western philosophy - every generation someone comes along who thinks that they have said all that there is to be said about philosophy, that their system of thought is the pinnacle, that it encompasses anything of worth in it's historical predecessors' systems, and that it it speaks in advance, as it were, for any future philosophies. Then comes along the next guy who puts the former champ in his place and erects his own system on the smouldering foundations.
Wittgenstein is a wonderful example of this process at work. When he came back to philosophy after spending a little time building houses and generally mucking about, he took on himself and set to work to demolish the philosophy that he developed in his youth.
If we're comfortable with defining philosophy as such, then the African philosophy posited by the ethnophilosophers is not "philosophy".

If African philosophy isn't to be found in the various manifestations of traditional African culture - where the ethnophilosophers seem to be getting "African philosophy" - where is it to be found? Hountondji sees it as being made up of the very ethnophilosophical works that he sees as being so wrong-headed and misguided - He reads the ethnophilosophical literature written by Africans as products of original philosophical thinking on the part of the authors, not as explications of pre-existing philosophical systems.

To what end?

His metaphilosophical ruminations lead him into some dodgy territory - for example, following his teacher Althusser, Hountondji sees all great philosophical revolutions as in some sense being a function of scientific revolutions. This is a reflection of Hountondji's notion of philosophy as being primarily an activity whose aim is to reflect on science. This seems to be a rather arbitrary truncation of philosophy in general, at the very least unfairly relegating Ethical and Aesthetic reflection to the philosophical sidelines. Hountondji attempts to explain the cause of philosophical revolutions through his strong linking of philosophy and science - In his view scientific revolution explains the periodic irruption into the history of philosophy of new philosophical insights and positions. But this link with science is not the only way of explaining this kind of irruption - for instance, one could appeal to the, admittedly deeply unfashionable, notion of "genius", or - a more contemporary version of the same idea - Bloom's notion of the "Strong poet". Hountondji's makes no real attempt to cash out his claim about the deep links between scientific and philosophical progress. Without any hard evidence, how are we to decide between his Althusserian thesis and the notion of genius or "strong poet"?

Hountondji's linking of philosophy with science is motivated by a pragmatic bent to his thought, and this does, to some extent, shed some light on some of the oddities in his metaphilosophy. He wants to see progress in Africa, and he sees the way to progress is through science. He wants to see a flourishing scientific community in Africa that is not dependent on the North, but which engages the North on Equal footing, as equal partners in the universal scientific dialogue. The problem is that this aspect of his thought bubbles up to inform his definition of philosophy per se. This isn't something I'd ordinarily have a problem with, except that he doesn't acknowledge that he's structured his entire metaphilosophy to "promote" scientific growth - I doubt that he's unaware of this bottom-up influence, he's way too self-conscious in general to miss that. Regardless, once one is aware of this progressivist dimension, some of the difficulties in his position start clicking into place and making sense. But the fact that it isn't explicitly acknowledged means that his ruminations on the history of philosophy straddle uneasily between prescription and description.

To this end

"African philosophy : myth and reality" is a gem of a book, and an especially important book for Africa and Africans. In my remarks above I don't think I've stressed it's primary virtue nearly enough.
This book is a testament to rational thinking and questioning.
The issues that Hountondji raised with his book have made him deeply unpopular in some African philosophical circles. Regardless he pressed, and presses, on undeterred. His primary aim is progress in Africa, and progress for Hountondji isn't about reclaiming the "spiritual power" of Africa - it's about people having enough to eat, having governments that don't slaughter their citizenry, medicine, research centrers, and access to education. Hountondji sees these the only way to solve these problems to stop bothering ourselves with pseudoproblems and start getting something done. This is the sense one gets reading Hountondji, a desperate sense that something must be done now, and - in Africa - it's a breath of fresh air.