Paulin Hountondji's "African Philosophy: Myth and Reality"



  1. Introduction
  2. Identifying the Problematic
  3. References

1. Introduction

The natural question that should have been asked is, is African Philosophy a myth or reality? The use of the conjunction instead of the disjunction is a curious approach. We therefore, ask can something be a reality and a myth at the same time? Myths, by definition, are unreal representations of the empirical world. They issue from imaginations, fancies and framed-up imageries which try to present a world that though appears real, is the counterfeit of the real, or often, the wish of the person making up the myth. In Africa, we have many myths to explain the origin of the world. For example, the myth of the man who left the sun because it was too hot only to find a more habitable place on the earth. We find that myths merely provide missing links or offer explanations where no scientific and clear ones exist, the imagined can take its place. They are often fictitious.

Can African philosophy be both myth and reality? Hountondji says yes African philosophy is a myth to the extent that it has not properly articulated its self-conscious frame work that is autonomously African. On the other hand, he firmly asserts that African philosophy is a reality as a body of literature whose existence is undeniable. What is not clear is whether he is referring to the body of literature that has grown as a result of the debate that has arisen as a result of what Professor Irele has described as “a significant moment in the intellectual response of Africans to the challenge of Western civilization”, or whether he is referring to the class of philosophical works done by African philosophers. For example, in his “An alienated literature,” he says, “By ‘African Philosophy’ I mean a set of texts, specifically a set of texts written by Africans as described as philosophical by their authors themselves. “The above quotation does not tell us who an African philosopher is, what constitutes the body of literature that can acceptably be termed philosophical, and what specifically makes the literature African. Is it author, content, methods or geographically dependent. Is it the area where philosophy is done that determines its cultural label or is it the cultural origin of the author?

2. Identifying the Problematic

Hountondji identifies a problematic and that is, that African philosophy does not lie where we have been looking for it. If found where we have been looking for it, it is a myth and if found where it is, it is a reality. And the fact that American philosophy today is both sought where it is, and where it is not, makes it both myth and reality. Hountondji’s task appears to be in the direction of showing that there can be transmutation from the mythical orientation of African philosophy to the realistic orientation. For Hountondji, African philosophy is not “in some mysterious corner of our supposedly immutable soul, a collective and unconscious world-view which is incumbent on us to study and revive”. Philosophy and African philosophy, for him, “consist essentially in the process of analysis itself”. His emphasis is that the ideological bend of our philosophic discourse is traumatized by its being made a politicized product. He counsels that only a liberation from these fetters of politics and ideology will truly launch African philosophy into the course of theoretical discourse which will be philosophical and scientific.

For Hountondji, philosophy is a continuum, a discourse, an intellectual inquiry, a critical study and a universal enterprise. It is against this back ground that he becomes worried about the business of ethnophilosophy. In his “An alienated literature”, he traces the archeology of ethno-philosophy and links it to the Western imperialistic, cultural and religious efforts to dominate Africa. He is particularly critical of the work of Placid Tempels titled Bantu Philosophy.

For Hountondji, Tempels is primarily a missionary and not a philosopher as such. Tempels does not possess the requisite credential to be called even a philosopher, talkless an African philosopher. He fails to qualify because he came for a different mission which was not to philosophize. He came loaded with Western categories coloured by Western spectacles. He could not have sufficiently imbibed the African traits within the short time of his missionary work. Not being an African, he could not have presented the African cause in the best light. This means that his limitations were smuggled into the picture he gave of the Bantu world-view-not being a shepherd of Bantu philosophy he could possibly have been hireling who will flee at the sound of danger, especially since he has nothing at stake. Hence, Hountondji describes his work, as an ethnological work with philosophical pretentions or rather “ethnophilosophy”. Hountondji coined this word to represent ethnological work, masquerading as philosophical work. He feels bad that African writers should use Bantu philosophy as a classical work on African philosophy and as a book for strong referral attention in reconstructing African Philosophy.

The success achieved by Tempels, he acknowledged owes its strengths to the fact that it came at the time when the African image had suffered great humiliation and bastardization in the hands of Levy Bruhl who disseminated the view that Africans are of primitive mentality. Any view therefore, that accords the African image a worthier status, will no doubt be regarded as generous and welcome. The easy persuasion is to hold that Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy has come at the nick of time to rehabilitate the black man, his culture and to redeem him from the contempt into which he has fallen. Hountondji argues that on a closer look, it will be discovered that Tempels’ mission and enterprises is ambiguous and “Januse-faced.” It pretends to do one thing, but cleverly does another. When Tempels says “Bantu philosophy and our mission to civilize”, it becomes clear that there is no African interest in the matter, that the book is addressed to a European audience. Hountondji laments that “Africans are as usual, excluded from the discussion, and Bantu philosophy is a mere pretext for learned disquisitions among the Europeans, the black man remains a topic, a voiceless face under private investigation, an object to be defined and not the subject of a possible discourse.

Hountondji mentions that Tempels’ interpretation of the world-view of the Bantu people is cosmetic and unreal. He talks of the Bantu as having a dynamic conception of “Being” while the Western conception is static. For the Bantu people, “Being” is power while for the Europeans, “Being” is a subject different from power. Where the Westerner sees concrete Being, the African/or Bantu person sees concrete forces. Tempels discerns that there exists interaction of forces and also that there exists a hierarchy of forces based on the principle of degree of vitality. From this exposition, Tempels concludes that the Africans have a coherent ontological system. While at the same time concluding that a coherent ontological system is the ultimate foundation of the entire social practice of the Bantus. This already classifies the Bantus among the primitives, and so we are back to square one.

In what features as political criticism, Hountondji uses the view of Aime Cesaire to buttress his point. Cesaire had made his point that Bantu philosophy is an attempt to create a diversion. It diverts attention from the fundamental political problems of the Bantu people by fixing it on the level of fantasy, remote from the burning reality of colonial exploitation. Tempels merely diverts the attention of the suffering of the Belgian Congo. He merely counsels his imperialist mentors that the Bantu people will be more at home with the recognition of their spiritual values and their strong ontological system rather than the decent things of life. This shows the fact that there exist a hidden philosophical agenda. At the surface, it is to arouse the Bantus emotionally, then at the deep, it is to halt their philosophical and humanistic attempts to make any forward leaps.

Hountondji therefore decides the approach which has merely concerned itself with analyzing Bantu philosophy as a paradigm for African philosophy. It has set the stage for believing that there exists an imaginary, immutable, collective philosophy common to all Africans, although in an unconscious form. This Hountondji describes as ethnophilosophy, and takes it to be the bane of African philosophy.

The problem of the African philosophy is the deception that it is only by defining African philosophy into existence that it can have authenticity and the mark of credibility. In trying to do this, African philosophers found themselves entangled in the make-belief that there exists a collective philosophy of the African people. It is this unwritten zeal to create a philosophy for a people that gave rise to the issue of acceptability of African philosophy as philosophy. Hountondji puts the matter thus: “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 philosophy”.

Kagame though supports Tempels, but does so in a subtle way. He sees Tempels’s articulation of Bantu philosophy as showing that there exist a difference between intuitive philosophy and systematic academic philosophy. The areas where Kagame and Tempels agree centre around the conception of man, that is, the idea that man is indivisible, a simple unit as opposed to the European view that man is a compound of body and soul. The second area of convergence is that the idea of humanity is at the centre of the Bantu thought. But there is nothing that is in the perception of the world-view of the Bantu people which makes the conception peculiarly Bantuan. The problem with this approach, especially as we have in Tempels’ , is the tendency to undermine the dynamic nature of every philosophical world-view. There is the temptation to fall into the trap of “narrow particularism” whereby African philosophy is limited to the area that are more conspicuous to the eye of the person carrying out the research.

Kagame, however, takes a bold step by asserting that formal logic is the same in all cultures and that concept, judgment and reasoning have no Bantu, Eastern or Western specificity. Kagame accepts that the coming of the Western Bantu mode of thought has had both positive and negative impacts. Every culture has the capacity for assimilation. Kagame and Tempels however differ in some areas as the few points above have shown. His analyses, cancel the idea of immutability of philosophical principles. This means that it is wrong to look at any philosophy as being either dynamic or static. Every philosophy has its dynamic and static aspect depending on how we want to proceed in our analyses. At times, we can also fix our assumptions either along the line of dynamic or of the static. There is no essence of philosophy since essence is found in finality. The final point of philosophy has not been reached, the essence, to that extent, remains illusive.

The presence of disparity in the interpretation of the Bantu philosophy and by Tempels and Kagame, goes to show that there is nothing like pre-existing philosophical material that is uniquely African. There are always many perspectival insights as there are philosophers. Hountondji concludes “Kagame, inspite of the very attractive qualities of his analysis and the relative accuracy of some of his sequence, 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’. “Hountondji’s position is that philosophy can only thrive in an atmosphere that guarantees freedom of discourse and debate. It is only by so doing that the scientific spirit can be inculcated, nurtured and allowed to blossom.

In his “History of a Myth”, we witness that identification of the source of the controversy we have in the attribution of philosophy to African mode of thought. This problem has to do with the definition of philosophy. The definition of philosophy could be seen from theoretical and ideological angles. According to the ideological meaning, philosophy is any kind of wisdom, individual or collective; any set of principles presenting some degree of coherence and intended to govern the daily practice of a man or a people. In this vulgar sense of the word, everyone is naturally a philosopher and so philosophy applies to every society. Philosophy properly speaking, for Hoiuntondji, is a theoretical enterprise like algebra, geometry, mechanics, linguistics, etc. He detests the idea of an unconscious philosophy.

For him, “philosophy is not different from any of the sciences and it is the very essence of science to be constituted by free discursion, by the confrontation of hypothesis and theories created by the thoughts of individuals and reaching total convergence through reciprocal amendment”. If this is the case, it is absurd to talk about a collective, immutable and definitive philosophy abstracted from history and progress. The first definition of philosophy, that is, the ideological, is the conception often taken by African philosophers and for Hountondji this has led to a misconception of the whole enterprise of philosophy. He says that by our trying to defend our civilization at all costs, we have petrified and mummified them. In this mad rush to Africanize a brand of philosophy, all attention is focused on African enthnographical studies. Every other study in other areas of study is regarded as mere parenthesis of which we must feel ashamed. Ethnographic discourse has by the very token been reduced to philosophic discourse, and vice versa. African studies have become passing episodes in the theoretical tradition of Western peoples. We have played into the hands of the Western people by leaving the worthy philosophic discourse which we are engaged in at the universal plane only to be bugged down by what already the Western people know better than we do, the histories of ancient empires, folklores, wise savings, etc.

Hountondji’s persuasion is that the question whether African philosophy exists is irrelevant and a diversionary trap to entangle the native African philosopher. He goes on to say, “I observe that it does exist by the same right and in the same mode as all the philosophies of the world in the form of literature”. He opines that African philosophy has been suppressed, deliberately ignored and misunderstood. The impression one gets from what Hountondji is saying is that, African philosophy is as old as Africa in philosophy, that is, traceable to when the African started to reflect about their environment or at least as old as when Africans started to reflect about their environment, or at least as old as when Africans got integrated into the mainstream of Western, of call it world philosophizing. For philosophy is not culture bound rather it is culturally neutral.

An African doing some philosophy on Hegelian system is doing African philosophy and if perchance he finds himself philosophizing on a matter that has African relevance, he is at the same time doing African philosophy. African philosophy is any universal discourse mirrored through the African mind – set or geared to meeting African socio-political, economic and intellectual needs. What makes it African, one would suppose is the presence of a preponderance of African input and output in terms of who is philosophizing on what, why and for what purpose. The Africanness is determined by the input of the discursive thinking. For Hountondji, the adding of the prefix ‘African’ to philosophy does not for that reason alter the universal application of the term philosophy. The universality is always preserved. This does not mean that the questions asked must be the same or the themes of discourse similar, but there is need for similarity in form. All leopards have their distinguishing marks in their skin. So is philosophy in its method, approach, depth, logic and dialectic. What makes philosophy can be seen with the philosophical eye but cannot be expressed. Philosophy has that essential unity that characterizes it, as in other, and every specific, disciplines.

In another vein, Hountondji agrees that African philosophy could be found in the enormous literature that has been devoted to the problem of African philosophy. He however frowns at its being limited to mythological exploitation, that mind-set, that rigour, that adeptness set aside for mythological exploitation can usefully be applied elsewhere and this is what in substance will blossom African philosophy and not the mythical, fictional ‘Gerrymandering’ that has occupied the ethnographers and “not to the fiction of a collective system of thought, but to a set of philosophical discourses and texts”. Hountondji is displeased at the insinuation that African philosophy exists only as an unconscious phenomenon that is experienced but not thought, known but not expressed. Africans are presented as of necessity incapable of doing any thing about their world-view, they can only recognize it after it is fashioned out by the Western mind, but cannot themselves fashion it.

Again, there exists the problem of our not being able to follow what is universally the case, and for want of recognition, we go for what is cheap, unenthusing and unphilosophical, we become content, when the Western mind endorse what we have done. In more ways, we have fallen into this Western trap. As Odera Oruka points out: What may be a superstition is paraded as African religion, and the while world is expected to endorse that it is indeed a religion but on African religion. What in all cases is a mythology is paraded as African philosophy, and again the white culture is expected to endorse that it is indeed a philosophy but an African philosophy. What is in all cases a dictatorship is paraded as African democracy, and the while culture is again expected to endorse that it is indeed so but on African democracy.

The above view shows our utter helplessness, dependence, lack of confidence, lack of credibility and our total inconsequentiality in intellectual matters. The dangers here are two-pronged. The first is the tendency to obviate this inferiority complex through undue assertiveness and prodigality. The other danger is to unwittingly or wittingly indulge in letting anything to pass for African “this” or “that”. It appears that terms are forced to miraculously change their meaning as soon as they have something to do with anything African. It ought not so to be. When we do this, as Hountondji points out, we are acquiescing in the ‘myth of primitive unanimity’ or ‘theoretical consensus’ (that is, that there is agreement in all areas of life in primitive societies).

Hountondji appears to have concluded by saying that the geographical variable is indispensable. He therefore says that ethnophilosophy is not African philosophy and for that reason should not be taken too seriously in reconstructing African philosophy. They rather fall under the history of African literature in general. Tempels’ work. Bantu philosophy (partly because its author is a Westerner and more concretely because it is addressed to the European matter), cannot be regarded as African philosophy. It belongs to European scientific literature, just as anthropology is an embodiment of Western science. African philosophy includes all those philosophies which address the African problem, for the African people and by the African people. It also includes all the authentic research into Western philosophy carried out by Africans. African philosophy therefore need not to mention the issue of the existence or non-existence of African philosophy. We need not term it “African this” or “African that”. It only needs to be done by the African, for the African. For example, we have Kwame Nkrumah’s Consciencism, J. E. Wirendu on Kant and his work on “Material implication and the concept of truth.”

He concludes by saying that “African philosophy exists, but it is not what it is believed to be. It is developing objectively in the form of a literature rather than as implicit and collective thought, but as a literature of which the output remains captive to the unanimist fallacy.” However, there are signs of a new spirit being injected into it. What is needed is that a free, rigorous, dialectical discourse be embarked on by African philosophers to meet the challenges of existence, intellectually and otherwise.

However, one should conclude by saying that Hountondji’s arguments are interesting, yet leave many questions unanswered. Our intention is not to proffer a critique of Hountondji’s views, but as we have done thus far, to present them.


Brelsford, W. V., Primitive Philosophy, London, John Bale Sons and Damelson, 1935)

Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, (London, Hatchinson and Co., Publishers, 1983)

Mason, F. T., “Towards an Agenda for Philosophers in Africa Today” in Uche, University of Nigeria Journal of Philosophy., Vol. 6, 1982

Ifesieh, E. I. (ed). Okolo on African Philosophy and African Theology,(Enugu, CETA Nig. Ltd., 1990)

Tempels, Placid, Bantu Philosophy, (Paris, Presence Africaine, 1949)

Wright, Richard, (ed), African Philosophy: An Introduction. (New York, University Press of America, 1984)

Oruka, O. H., Mythology as philosophy. In A. Granes and Kai Kresse (Eds.). Sagacious reasoning. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1997

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