At 80, Ghanian Philosopher Paulin J. Hountondji is one of Africa’s greatest modern thinkers

Late Ghanian Philosopher, Paulin Hountondji
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Paulin Hountondji, the anointed enfant terrible of African philosophy. And Hountondji’s personal collection

When renowned Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu passed on in early 2022, Paulin J. Hountondji was left alone to adopt the mantle of “Africa’s greatest living philosopher”. With one possible exception – Congolese philosopher and historian of ideas, V.Y. Mudimbe.

Hountondji’s long and gallant campaign to establish and disseminate an African philosophical voice is noteworthy.

His first book was African Philosophy: Myth and Reality published in 1976. It introduced an unapologetic and counter-intuitive African presence into the supposedly scientific annals of world philosophy. This paradigmatic entry includes a generous critique of the work of the hitherto forgotten 18th century Ghanaian philosopher, Anton Wilhelm Amo. It is also an intricate metaphilosophical critique and a strident evaluation of Kwame Nkrumah and Nkrumaist ideology.

His second book, published in 2002, was The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa. It revisits his earlier doctoral dissertation on the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl. It examines his engrossing trajectory as an African engaged in philosophy on the global stage.

Much of the work is also devoted to replying to critics. This includes the late Olabiyi Yai. But Hountondji has nothing but affection for the contributions of Congolese-born philosopher Valentin-Yves Mudimbe and Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Hountondji comes across as the anointed enfant terrible of African philosophy. This is even more so than Wiredu and the equally revered Mudimbe. He has criss-crossed various metropolitan capitals spreading the mantra of African philosophy. He paradoxically denounced the discourse of ethnophilosophy as a colonialist (pseudo) disciplinary invention. At the same time he promoted philosophy’s innate scientism and universalism.

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Establishing modern philosophy within the continent
His academic career began in the early 1970s in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire in the cities of Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. He then returned to his country, Dahomey (now Benin Republic) in 1972.

The following year he was instrumental, alongside other continental colleagues, in founding the Inter-African Philosophy Council. He was also crucial in establishing early important journals on philosophy within the continent. They include the African Philosophical Notebooks. And the council-affiliated Consequence: Review of Inter-African Council of Philosophy.

Part of the effort in establishing modern philosophy on the continent entailed forming trans-regional organisations. Sadly, these have withered with the exception of the African Philosophy Society. Hountondji has supported it by granting it legitimacy and serving as a keynote speaker at its events.

Ideologically and theoretically, Hountondji’s version of philosophical universalism and Africanity would have been a very hard sell for any other philosopher – except for Hountondji himself. His stature has only seemed to rise. Indeed his support for a Euro-Amer-defined philosophical universalism did not seem emancipatory in an age of decolonisation and postcolonial despair. Philosophers were expected to reveal there ideological stances. These were meant to be anti-imperialist and pro-masses in orientation.

During this period African philosophers were also expected to get their hands dirty. This meant getting off the high horse of theory and abstraction to partake in the onerous and messy task of nation-building.