D A Masolo. Research in African Literatures. Volume 31, Issue 1. Spring 2000.
It is a little more than fifty years that African cultures have been the subject of open and widespread philosophical deliberation, and African philosophy has only more recently become a subject of academic learning, investigation and debate. Earlier, contributions of such African philosophers as Tertullian, Origen, St. Augustine, and, more recently, Anton Wilhelm Amo were mostly absorbed into philosophical discourses that addressed and went on to constitute significant aspects of the Western tradition in philosophy and related disciplines. But the end of European colonization of Africa in the twentieth century has enabled African scholars generally and philosophers particularly to pursue consciously and at times vigorously Africans’ cultural freedom. As we know and debate them today, several key issues in African philosophy are a critical part of the wider postcolonial cultural critique that has occurred across die disciplines. Many of these issues may continue to address what some continue to perceive as Africans’ need for total cultural independence. Africans’ practice of philosophy in the postcolonial period has made it possible to reconsider many philosophical issues and problems with the freshness of new comparative conceptual dimensions, making it possible for African philosophers to participate in a crosscultural philosophical discourse without sacrificing the independence of African modes of thought.
The past quarter-century has been a particularly productive period for African philosophy, especially because it has involved the voices of African thinkers more directly and in greater numbers than ever before. Most African universities have now established departments of philosophy that have grown considerably in human and intellectual resources. These departments have been either separated from their original alliances with religious studies or have been established anew as full-fledged academic departments. Several universities also founded philosophical associations, some armed with excellent journals that provided enrichment forums for philosophical discourse among African philosophers across the continent, for example, on the English-speaking side, second Order (based at the then University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University), Universitas (University of Ghana at Legon), and Thought and Practice (University of Nairobi) ; on the French-speaking side, memorable journals include Cahiers Philosophiques Africains/African Philosophical Journal (based at the then Université Nationale du Zaïre), Annales de la Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines (Université de Dakar), Koré, Revue ivoirienne de philosophie et de Culture (Université de Côte d’Ivoire). There were also journals that, following the institutional history of African philosophy, appeared to address especially their clerical audiences, such as Cahiers des religions africaines, Revue africaine de théologie, La Revue du Clergé Africain, thé Bulletin of African Theology, Zaïre-Afrique, and Mélanges de philosophie africaine. Other regular publications, like the Seminar series from the then Université Nationale du Zaïre (Semaine philosophique de Kinshasa), helped to promote and sustain a rich philosophical dialogue among African philosophers. Outside the continent, European-based journals like Présence Africaine, Recherches, pédagogie et culture, and Diogène spread the discourse across global borders. Discussion of African philosophy in mainstream philosophical journals in the West, whether by Africans or others, is most recent, but steadily growing. Also, new journals of African philosophy have recently emerged, for example, Quest, African Philosophy (formerly a newsletter of the US-based Society for African Philosophy in North America, SAPINA, whose acronym it shared), and African Philosophical Inquiry (University of Ibadan in Nigeria). Other renowned academic journals that do not focus directly on philosophy have also played important roles as platforms for philosophical debates with an African orientation, especially Transition and Research in African Literatures.
Together, these mediums have enhanced the visibly rapid growth experienced by African philosophy in the past decade or so. This growth has been particularly apparent in North America, where an ever increasing number of African intellectuals, among them philosophers, are entering the academy as professionals. The rise and visibility of Africa as part of the American academic practice has made possible the inclusion of African ideas and concepts into the repertoire of philosophy and variations in the expression of key elements of knowledge. In particular, philosophical essays with African orientation are now included in anthologies of both general introductory and specialized (subject-specific) texts. The Blackwell Companion series is a good case in point, especially The Companion to World Philosophies (ed. Eliot Deutsch and Ron Bontekoe, 1997) and The Companion to the Philosophers (ed. Robert L. Arrington, 1998). Currently, a new companion dedicated wholly to African Philosophy is under preparation. In addition, the recent Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara (ed. John Middleton, 1997) includes good African philosophy essays of a general expository nature. Of all these referential texts, one particularly deserves mention. For the first time, the recently published and promisingly authoritative Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes African perspectives and contributions to most entries of major philosophical ideas and concepts covering most of the conventional divisions of the discipline by geography, subject matter, major branches, and by history. This major and comprehensive inclusion of African perspectives in philosophy starts with the idea of philosophy itself. Credit for this unprecedented achievement goes to Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Ghanaian-born African philosopher who is one of today’s leading philosophers of culture.
At a time when the idea of culture and cultural analysis have taken a prominent position in philosophical discourse, Appiah’s work has generated much interest, making him the most visible and one of the most widely read African philosophers in North America today. His increasingly respected and admirably clear and succinct thinking is evidenced by the commanding authority with which he led and steered the African component of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy as one of the editors of the set. His solid grounding in philosophy is particularly seen in his well-noted In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (Oxford UP, 1992). More than his other work, In My Father’s House defines Appiah’s extensive philosophical discussions of matters related to Africa and African philosophy. From his works emerges a clearly important question for African philosophy: how to live with beliefs and attitudes based on and fed by politically attractive and influential yet philosophically flawed and scientifically false premises about human nature and cultural conditions. With analytically incisive arguments, Appiah has shown, for example, how the idea of “race” has influenced antagonizing perceptions and relations between peoples of the world despite the scientifically undefendable and philosophically unsustainable connotations of the beliefs related to its assumed facticity.
The difficulty is not just in making people see the arbitrariness of everything political about the idea of “race” and all else that irrationally flows from it, but also about making them accept that what is arbitrary is of less value than the pursuit of “Lux et Veritas,” that beautiful phrase that adorns many coats of arms of thousands of academic campuses throughout the world. Reason itself so frighteningly often appears to be arbitrary. One still stumbles on texts such as Stephen Theron’s Africa, Philosophy and the Western Tradition: An Essay in Self-Understanding (1995). According to Theron, reason is divine, and its manifestation could not have happened outside Christian revelation. If so, then, as he unabashedly claims, there may have been historical anticipations and aspirations toward it in both secular and non-Christian forms, but its true arrival happened in the Christian era, and its human recording only to Christian theology; and while some of these may have been germinations of the divine awaiting consummation in Christian theology, only the Greek intellectual tradition attained this divine fulfilment as it was absorbed into unity with divine revelation (14-15). According to Theron, some form of missionary liberalism, an outcome of one of rationalism’s departures from “the norm” that led to a generosity toward relativist pluralism, has led to the claim for the existence of an African philosophy, and wayward missionaries like Tempels have made it possible for people like Africans to think that their ways are part of the existing order-have made possible a world “where each people fiercely asserts its own tradition and dignity as identified with itself.” Such people, Theron claims, “cannot give up their traditions for the sake of truth, unless they be converted. Nor can they admit it when they do wrong and commit errors, as all do. In our presence, however, such people are shamed. That is why they do not like us, though they need us […]” (17).
The rest of Theron’s book belongs with Hegel, whom he praises (12), with Hitler’s Nazi Germany, which he defends against Chaka, the Sotho people, and the Communist Russians (93), and with apartheid and colonialism, which he defends (97-111) as higher forms of justice and humanism. His commentary on African philosophy indicates that he has not been reading much since the mid-eighties-and if he did, that he cared little to understand the nature of the discussions African philosophers were engaged in at the time. His portrayals of Wiredu in terms close to the description of a pragmatic relativist (16) or of Gyekye as an ethnophilosopher (16) are quick indicators that this is neither an understanding of African philosophy nor a manner of doing any philosophy at all. No idea, thought, or thinker is acceptable to Theron unless it or he starts by acclaiming the Christian God through self-denial. In the end, Theron believes he has been able to demonstrate the narcissism of African philosophy. The irony is obvious. Appiah warns us that racism, in whatever form, cannot be rational (28-46). Those who read Theron will strongly agree with Appiah.
While the instruments mentioned earlier have all helped propel African philosophy onto the world stage, the works of some individual Africans have shaped more particularly how African philosophy has been perceived and received on the world stage. Since the publication in 1983 of the English edition of Paulin Hountondji’s African Philosophy; Myth and Reality, African philosophy has found increasingly greater audience in the English-speaking academy, particularly in the United States. Hountondji is not only one of the most prolific African philosophers, but also one of the best and most widely read, and perhaps one of the most controversial. His work may be best known for his critique of what has gained both notoriety and currency as “ethnophilosophy.” Launched by a methodology pioneered by Placide Tempels, ethnophilosophy itself gained currency among African and Western Africanist intellectuals, mainly theologians, as a handy tool that spoke to the dignity of African cultural values in a world known for its skepticism about African goodness. The convergence of the secular political and cultural movements of the liberators, on the one hand, and of the new missiological strategies necessitated by the decline of the once vast and powerful empire of the Christian mission Church, on the other hand, enabled the resuscitation of non-Western cultures to self-expression. Tempels’s idea of a Bantu philosophywas born from this wider historical context. The Church found a way to both its own self-renewal and its indigenization into local idioms. The notion of merging the universal into the particular became a philosophical project, first with Alexis Kagame, and thereafter with a growing number of African philosophers and theologians. By the time Hountondji’s text came onto the scene, skepticism regarding the relations between the universal and the particular was already clearly underway. While embracing but also radically refining Tempels’s thesis, Kagame identified the local abode of universal philosophy in the structural complexity of local languages, arguing that structure incarnated the categories of being in their entirety as listed in Aristotelian metaphysics. Hountondji’s objection to this view was both scathing and instructive. He argued that the project produced what was only ethnophilosophical at best, driven by the ambition to merge what were otherwise in oppositional relation to each other-the ethnographical and the philosophical. The former is collective and passive, its claims anonymous while the latter is dialectically located in a radically different kind of rational process. Indeed, that the conceptual categories into which reality, or Being as its most abstract form, appears in the ordinary language as learned by children for communication seemed to be an overdone exaggeration of Kagame’s ethnophilosophical method. Hountondji insisted that the claim of ethnophilosophy was reduced to a nondisciplinary status as it was stripped of its character as a formal practice. This appeared to set ethnophilosophy apart from the academic sense of philosophy as an academic discipline born out of a deliberate reflective practice guided by specific learned rules of the game. It is obvious from this that the exponents of ethnophilosophy were taking advantage of the convoluted character of the idea of philosophy itself, confusing the two related but separable orders of the discourse: the general reasons and commitments for which people do and believe certain things and the very different activity pursued as an academic discipline by departments of philosophy within academic institutions.
Hountondji’s insistence was therefore not that there cannot be philosophy in the first order, but that ethnophilosophers were wrong in continuing to obfuscate the separation between the two orders by blunting the divide in their writings, an effort evidenced by the volume of works on collective cultural beliefs as philosophy. Philosophy, he vehemently argued, does not dwell within collective beliefs, practices, and other behaviors waiting only to be discovered and redescribed for the world. He insisted further that ethnophilosophy had not been aimed at an African readership as a true philosophical discourse among Africans should be-rather, ethnophilosophy was directed at the satisfaction of a Western audience, particularly the less or completely non-intellectually oriented one.
Hountondji’s sharp, scathing, and uncompromising critique of ethnophilosophy soon earned him the accusations of occidentalism, idealism, elitism, and aristocratism. In response to such critiques, Hountondji observed that “ethnophilosophy has moved to another level where it develops a theoretical defence by attempting a grounding or conceptual justification of its claim that what it does is indeed what is appropriate for Africans in these times” (Occidentalism, Elitism” 4; emphases in original).
The critiques of Hountondji were varied, ranging in their tones from populist rhetoric to seemingly serious personal attacks. The former was adopted by sociologist Abdou Touré and the latter by Koffi Niamkey. Ironically, he himself was accused of uncritically adopting and demanding of Africans a European idea of philosophy, itself an elitist idea and practice by its exclusiveness. These general lines of reproach were adopted also by Olabiyi B. Yai and Pathé Diagne. European intellectuals too, eager to protect philosophy in rather familiar manners as an exclusive or essential property to Europeans, followed suit. But while there has been a need, purely intellectual, to respond to the genres of European sophism, such as Hegel’s and Heidegger’s, which tend to mix the idea of philosophy into a core of European spirit, Hountondji believed that ethnophilosophy in the style of Tempels and his disciples was not the right response. In his view, occidentalism is not constituted by a demand for conceptual rigor when analyzing crucial issues in one’s experience. Rather, it “is the ideological thesis claiming that philosophy should, rightfully and by a mysterious necessity, be of European essence.” Such ideology is sheer fantasy and also includes LévyBruhl’s claims regarding “primitive mentality,” and Husserl’s on the Papuas. In his view, Eurocentrism is constituted by a discourse parallel to that which defines itself, as a rival, in the form of Afrocentrism in North America especially. In Hountondji’s view, occidentalism is not eliminated by finding in Africa those modes of intellectual creation that are regarded as being the same as those of Europe. Nor will African intellectual productions be given value by merely making claims for them, or by blowing them out of proportion. Their value must come from making of them effective tools for shaping Africa’s future rather than making of them impoverished and simplistic forms of thinking. Vigorous thought is seen in the multiplicity of its currents, some of which may be even antagonistic among themselves. Contrary to the wishes and abstractions of ethnophilosophers, real African thinking portrays such multiplicity.
The accusation of elitism is even more rhetorical, stating that by refusing to recognize the relation between their own philosophical productions and their social positions by giving ownership of thought to the masses, African philosophers of Hountondji’s school of thought were espousing hegemonic-elitist postures. Such statements made it possible for those who, seeking advantages for themselves out of the then fashionable ideological alignments, were often eager to identify those others who qualified as the “enemies of the people.” Philosophy had for a group of African leaders acquired a class-determining value. Ironically, it never occurred to any of these “guardians of the masses” that their own critique was grounded in European philosophy and ideology. As Kwasi Wiredu observes in his own recent work, discussed below, “it is not unknown for, say, an African Marxist to chide another African, who [supposedly] betrays a sympathy for some non-Marxist Western conception, with domination by Western thought on the ground that, as Marx showed, the truth was something different. It hardly seems to be an item of vivid remembrance in the consciousness of such an African that, as far as it is known, Marx did not hail from any part of Africa!” (Cultural Universals 151). In a similar manner, Hountondji’s critics to whom he responds appear to forget that Gramsci, whose notion of the masses as intellectuals they evoke in criticizing Hountondji’s elitist Westernism, was indeed a European whose thought was grounded in the analysis of the dynamics of European societies. In addition, Hountondji responds that “Marx and Engels would also be elitist intellectuals, since such a work as German ideology is from beginning to end a declaration of the rupture with what they scornfully call ‘ideology”'(“Occidentalism, Elitism” 21).
In a new preface to the recently issued second edition of African Philosophy, Myth and Reality (1996) Hountondji repeats some of these responses to critics, but he also gives good and timely clarifications of a number of issues that became the chief targets of criticism of the first (1983) English edition. (The original French edition of this book, Sur la ‘philosophie africaine’: Critique de l’ethnophilosophie, dates back to 1977; Paris: François Maspero). In the new preface, Hountondji explains in particular his ambition and vision for the continent’s future that had led to his strong rejection of ethnophilosophy in the first edition. First, he again criticizes the idea and practice of ethnophilosophy because its very characteristics constitute a form of intellectual self-imprisonment. In his critique of the “Témoignages” texts, a collection of supportive statements by leading French and French-speaking African intellectuals published by Présence Africaine in 1948 as a prelude to its own edition of Tempels’s book La philosophie bantoue, Hountondji maintains that ethnophilosophy’s self-portrait as a form of philosophy that is impersonal, implicit, unanimous, and uncritically descriptive in the third person constituted a contradiction. Most of the authors claimed in their essays that what Tempels had described as the Bantu mode of thinking about Being was indeed a philosophy. Writing against both Tempels and Tempels’s defenders in the “Témoignages,” Hountondji had claimed that such authors were involved in self-contradiction since they knew well that what Tempels had presented was not “philosophy” in the sense in which they themselves knew and practiced it. Writing not long after Hountondji’s 1977 text, I explained that the authors of the “Témoignages” were perhaps not as self-contradicting as they appeared, since their concern was not so much to affirm the philosophical nature of Bantu thought as it was to celebrate primitivism, which had become a trendy way of demonstrating that the existentialist search for Being was part of raw and unsophisticated existence. Tempels’s book was simply an exposure of this primitive level of human presence that, for some of them, like Marcel and Tempels himself, was a yearning for something greater and yet to be revealed. The second edition of African Philosophy: Myth and Reality gives Hountondji the opportunity to explain himself unequivocally: “I meant to value discourse and the history of discourse as being the only possible place where philosophy appears” (ix).
Since 1977-the year Sur la ‘philosophie africaine’ was published-the vigor of ethnophilosophy-at least in its original form-has been blunted somewhat, thanks in part to Hountondji’s critique. That decline has led to more discursive approaches to defending African values. But the blunting of ethnophilosophy was also occasioned in part by the general decline in descriptive-or old-fashioned-modes of practicing cultural anthropology that had provided ethnophilosophy with its initial impetus, thus prompting the appearance and history of the term “ethnophilosophy” itself.1 The critiques of ethnophilosophy, traceable back to Tempels’s own missionary colleagues and running forward through Crahay, Eboussi-Boulaga, and Hountondji himself, have now, however, justified a new preface for the second edition of African Philosophy: Myth and Realty. Indeed, both the preface to the second edition and other recent work help to reveal that Hountondji is not and never was an enemy of Africa’s indigenous knowledge systems. Furthermore, he has become one of the strongest and most visible and audible defenders of indigenous knowledges. Several of his writings published over the last two decades address two basic forms of malaise in African knowledge production: its dependency on Western science and institutions, and its foreign-orientedness-what he calls “mental extroversion” (see “Producing Knowledge”). But readers will remember that this critique of Africans’ preorientation in their choice of topics, methodology and audience dates as far back as his seminal essay of 1970. In addition, his idea of “knowledge as capital” expresses the view that endogenous knowledges ought to be the runway for launching the flight to development and independence (see Les savoirs endogènes). The ideas can be found also in the following publications by Hountondji: “Scientific Dependence in Africa Today,” 1990; “Recapturing” in The Surreptitious Speech, 1992; and “Producing Knowledge in Africa Today,” 1995. His point is that in most areas indigenous knowledges are in dire need of critical renewal.
As a successful response to critics, the new preface establishes itself and re-establishes the entire text as a new terminus in the discursive process, thus pointing in the very direction that his original critique of ethnophilosophy had suggested as the proper nature of philosophical practice-that is, a discursive activity rather than an established body of truths. And so the reality of African philosophy leaps from myth to reality. Hountondji had placed emphasis on the idea of knowledge as dialectically grounded, and on the idea of philosophy as a form of “discourse and the history of discourse,” presenting discourse, in both its internal structure and dialectical historicity, as an absolute necessity for the development of critical philosophy and scientific culture as a whole. Although writing is comparatively more privileged in the promotion and sustenance of this role of discourse, it does not follow, as some critics misconstrued Hountondji to be claiming, that oral literature generally loses importance, or that the oral expression of philosophy-philosophical “orature”-is in particular disqualified as an expressive form of philosophy. Yet its appreciation requires qualification. More important, Hountondji now explains that the idea of discourse raises pertinent questions in the “sociology of knowledge in the countries of the periphery, entailing an increasing interest in the anthropology of knowledge and issues in the politics of science” (African Philosophy viii). This idea of philosophy as part of a wider sociological process provided the threads linking Hountondji to the Althusserian reformulation of Marxism, and clearly accounted for his consciousness that “one definitely cannot overlook the demand that philosophy should, directly or indirectly, enable its practitioners to understand better the issues at stake on the political, economic, and social battlefields, and thereby contribute to changing the world” (African Philosophy xiii). This is a strong statement, particularly for Africa. The insistence on the theory of science in particular, and on the sociology of knowledge generally-understood here as dialectically propelled through critical engagement with problems of life-leads Hountondji to the critique of Africa’s intellectual and scientific dependence on the outside world, and to the postulation of the value of Africa’s own local knowledges.
In various publications appearing in between the two editions of African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (e.g., “Recapturing”), Hountondji has, by use of the dependency theory inaugurated in the seventies by Immanuel Wallerstein, André Gunder Frank, and Samir Amin, been advocating the termination of the dependency syndrome that defines Africa as a mere laboratory for testing theories developed abroad, or as a mere field for collecting raw data and materials for research and industrial centers in the metropolies of the West. His point is that needs for advancement in scientific and technological capacities do not dictate dependency. While not opposing fair international trade and transfers of knowledge and technological goods, he maintains that every society is developmentally best served by focusing on the enhancement and improvement of its existing knowledge, skills, and institutions. In Africa, he argues, there already exists a basis for establishing relationships between recent advances in scientific research and local knowledge systems. He considers in particular the rise and improvement of ethnoscience and its different specifications such as ethnobotany, ethnozoology, ethnomedicine, ethnopsychiatry, ethnolinguistics, and so on as pierres d’attente for the development of knowledges with direct roots and relevance in Africa.
Hountondji has reworked the concept of ethnophilosophy along the lines of his emphasis on “local knowledge.” But to say that there has been some “reworking” of the former position is to claim some justification for the critiques. There had been some excesses in the critique of ethnophilosophy that appeared to leave no room for a positive engagement with the ordinary, thus leaving the impression that philosophy was the contrary of the “ordinary” rather than its clarification, analytically or synthetically. In particular, Hountondji’s critique of the “Témoignages” appeared to give the impression that “the philosophical” and “the ordinary” had little, if anything, to share. At the same time, his very Marxist position would hardly allow the rift. In fact, Hountondji argues that “no philosophy, however new, ever appears ex nihilo, every philosophical doctrine is a reply to foregoing doctrines in the double mode of confirmation and refutation or, better still, as a call for further developments, an appeal for future confirmation or refutation, so that every philosophy looks forward and backward, to the inexhaustible history of the discipline” (89). Hountondji’s writings emphatically call for the return of the African subject, a responsible subject who will chart out and take responsibility for and control of his or her own intellectual, social, political, scientific, and economic destiny.
Hountondji’s critics could suggest that this position was not spelled out with clarity in the previous edition, nor in some of the previous critiques of ethnophilosophy (such as the essays of 1970 and 1971, “Remarques” and “Le problème actuel”), and he too admits now that lack of unequivocal clarity and emphasis may have been responsible for the misunderstandings that ensued from that first English edition of the work. Yet, by contrast, it was already a remarkable reworking of the original French original.
Hountondji’s recent focus on local knowledges as the basis for politically meaningful and locally sustainable development is related to what he perceives as the imbalance in the global politics of producing, distributing, and consuming knowledge. Knowledge, he says, is the basic capital for sustainable development in any society. But to become legitimate starting points for the production of developmentally relevant knowledge and skills, Africa’s local knowledges must be subjected to critical and constant appraisal and modification. Africa’s development must begin with net growth in its knowledge, especially scientific knowledge. The fact that a large number of African peoples inhabit a world built on a “dual language,” he argues, is reason enough “for a renewed effort to integrate and think together these two [traditional and recent or old and new] forms of rationality.”
Thus, although Hountondji places emphasis on the categories of “scientific” and “modern” as advanced developmental stages in the dialectical transformation of knowledge and technological means, and insists that as Africans we need to transform our world toward these levels, he is also arguing that the terms “scientific” and “modern” need not mean “foreign,” nor that the desire for them means the desire for what is not African. To be beneficial, scientific knowledge must be critically appraised and applied diligently, relevantly, and appropriately in the diagnosis and solution of problems. This process can be achieved by either developing scientific knowledge from a society’s existing resources, or by appropriating and adapting knowledge and skills imported from abroad. And the worth of knowledge is measurable only by its capacity to effectively provide responses and solutions to the questions and problems that led to its presence in the first place. The terms scientific and modern can then only mean the best researched and latest available of the investigative methods, findings, and products of the day. And in turn, as products of a historically growing process, such methods, findings, and products should be made possible by a past from which they issue, and should, in ideal circumstances, be improvements or advancements over that past. A conceptual position calling for greater adherence to accurate knowledge with its attending benefits hardly lends itself to the accusation of scientism and elitism, of which Hountondji has been accused. Nonetheless, Hountondji laments that perhaps his manner of expressing these ideas in the first edition gave room to the possibility of misconstrual.
The idea of “Third Worldism,” also called the dependency theory of peripheral societies, comes from three major sources in the seventies: the Brazilian Andre Gunder Frank, the Egyptian-born Senegalese Samir Amin, and the German-born American Immanuel Wallerstein, all political economists who more than three decades ago launched the view that there was no development in postcolonial economies as imagined in the pursuit of this post-World War II invention-the categorization of non-Western economies as “developing,” since such economies could not, in the dominant shadow of Western economies under which they operated, attain the characteristics assumed in the idea of “development.” Third World economies, choked by the strangleholds of imperialism, were led in the opposite direction-toward underdevelopment. In that relationship, the real benefits of Third World economies remain fatally outward-oriented; they do not generate self-serving or endogenously capitalizable knowledge. Borrowing this view, Hountondji, like Mudimbe (see The Invention), calls for an endogenous approach to the development of an African order of knowledge.
For over three decades now, Kwasi Wiredu’s crystal-clear yet provocative thinking has provided some of the key philosophical issues for much of the debate in African philosophy, especially his Philosophyand an African Culture (1980). Wiredu has now given us another collection of meticulously written and argued essays under the title of Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective (1996). One of the outstanding accomplishments of this important book is Wiredu’s ability to reflect on philosophical issues from both Western and African-specifically Akan-perspectives. He expands the analytic field of the references and meanings of terms and concepts in ways that both reveal conceptual contrasts between intellectual traditions from diverse cultures and suggest fresh views on old unresolved and problematic theories and doctrines. In so doing, Wiredu reveals his admirable ability to think comparatively about the universal character of philosophical issues without giving up the specificity of local knowledges and frameworks. Such an approach indirectly supports pluralism, that is, the view that there are competing evaluative points of view with compelling merits of their own that all ideally can and should recognize. For Wiredu, however, the notion of pluralism must be used cautiously so as not to imply any sort of incompatibility in the conceptual and communicative diversity among human communities. His strong and pervasive view is that the human species is universally bonded in all those things that matter for the species, such as norms of thought and communication among and between all humans cross-culturally and cross-nationally. This book, like the foregoing one, locates African philosophy with other traditions at the center of a universal philosophical debate without drawing demarcations.
Wiredu’s contribution to the discipline of philosophy, and to the movement of African philosophy in particular, has been widely noted and enjoys a great deal of respect. Because the discussion of the cognate concepts of “universals” and “particulars” sheds light on the conceptual and theoretical nuances that relate rationality and communication, either within or across cultures, the text will be a useful resource to philosophically minded anthropologists, political scientists, and, of course, scholars in literature. Furthermore, in a world more eager to draw boundaries of differences between populations, this is a happily refreshing text that speaks strongly, eloquently, elegantly, and, on the whole, compellingly, in defense of a basic unity of the human species. In fact, the basis of Wiredu’s notion of cultural universalism is a panpsychologism, the view that the cognitive capacity and process (es) through which knowledge and other forms of consciousness are generated, and which is the very basis of the idea of mind, are the same in all members of the human species.
In this work, Wiredu responds to several critics of various matters presented in his earlier Philosophy and an African Culture. Wiredu had been criticized for overwhelmingly characterizing philosophy as a universal endeavor at the expense of Africans’ claim to specificity and difference. It is not hard to detect the older and even the more recent reformulations of that criticism. We called it ethnophilosophy at one time, but more recently it has re-emerged as a specific brand of Afrocentrism. Wiredu responds to both by arguing that cultures are simultaneously particular and universal. The entire first part of the book is dedicated to defending the view that cultural universals are not only possible, but do in fact exist. The case is developed first by deploying considerations about the nature of meaning presupposed by the very possibility of human communication. In chapter two, “A Philosophical Perspective on the Concept of Communication,” Wiredu argues that if the nature of communication is to share meanings or significations, these must be objectively accessible to all people engaged in communication. In his view, the history of philosophy is fraught with mistakes regarding what is meant by the idea that “meanings are objective.” Platonism, and conceptualism after it, presuppose that because meanings are objective, they must be “entities” of some sort, existing separately and independently of human minds. In an argument similar to Aristotle’s thirdman argument against Plato’s theory of forms, Wiredu contends that if meanings were entities, they could not be explained, as doing so would regressively require recourse to a third entity, ad infinitum.
But denying that meanings are entities does not make nominalism right. While rightly denying that meanings are entities, the exponents of nominalism went on to eliminate the category of signification from semantic analysis altogether. For Wiredu, the objectivity of meaning, and hence the universality of communication, lies precisely in the difference between signification and reference, a crucial difference that nominalism overlooks. Still, Wiredu’s argument is problematic in its apparent tendency to mistake for universality, in the wide realm of what can be conceptualized and also be communicated, what is in fact only the flexibility of ordinary languages to accommodate new meanings conveyed by other people, especially when they speak in and through other languages. The debate is not new; in fact, it has been one of the most visible preoccupations of twentieth-century philosophy, and Wiredu’s contribution to it is not only elegant, it also adds an interesting African tone.
Wiredu’s book raises two basic issues. One is the question of his materialist-monist view of human nature in contrast to the dualist view. There are two tiers to this issue: one is the general status of the theory, that is, monism as such as distinct from pluralism in regard to the nature of personhood or self. The other subpart of the issue is whether the Akan beliefs regarding the nature of the person are reducible to monistic materialism. These two issues are certainly quite a theoretical challenge to African philosophers who might be inclined to believe that numerous expressions in African languages and beliefs regarding the nature of the self tend to suggest that human capacities or faculties that regulate human agency, cognitive and moral alike, are not quite reducible to extensions of the operations of the body (Cultural Universals 35). The second major issue is whether or not, as Wiredu argues (ch.3-4), the variations of beliefs and practices that constitute human cultures are really only superficial to the underlying unity of the species as he claims they are. In his view, “the dualistic conception of body and mind, which is often attributed to Africans, in fact, presupposes a mode of conceptualization that ill-coheres with African traditional thought habits which are frequently empirical, as distinct from empiricist” and “this and other issues in the interpretation and evaluation of the Akan concept of a person, remain matters of controversy among Akan philosophers” (see “Akan Philosophy” 139).
Indeed, Anthony Ephirim Donkor’s African Spirituality: On Becoming Ancestors, also a recent study on the Akan conception of a person, points to a much more complex and plural Akan conception of personhood. According to him, the constituents of personhood in the Akan system of thought can be classified under two distinct categories: those capacities that are passed through the genetic processes of biology, and those that point to the divine (spiritual) nature in humans. The goal of leading a virtuous worldly life, he explains, is to earn one admittance to “the immortal community of ancestors called Nananom Nsamanfo. This model is predicated on a theory of the personality that has its ontological basis in God (Nana Nyame), and the archetypal woman and her children who constituted the ideal abusua or matrikin”(4). Ephirim-Donkor’s work provides evidence of the rich body of texts on Akan modes of thought that make an enviable resource for philosophical reflection already illustrated in the works of W. E. Abraham, Kwame A. Appiah, K. A. Busia, J. B. Danquah, and Kwame Gyekye, to mention but a few. So it is somehow surprising that with such a richness in available resources, Ephirim-Donkor discusses the concept of the person with only minimal reference to such data. The work is written from an evangelical backdrop, with the goal of illustrating how the Akan concept of the person, in its relation to their sense of the ideal life as “predicated upon the God-given existential purpose called nkrabea [destiny] “ (4), fits into the wider scheme of the religious world view. For this and perhaps other reasons, it would appear to be selectively convenient for Ephirim-Donkor to confine himself to those references that lend support to his dualist exposition. Overall, it is an interesting work to read alongside the other Akan texts.
The “postscript” of Wiredu’s book provides excellent rejoinders to some of the critics of earlier versions of some of the papers published in this collection. These rejoinders are useful in confirming two important premises that I consider to run through all the essays. These premises can be summed up as follows: first, that philosophy, which is tied to the idea of conceptual disputation, would be fatally impaired if there were no universals to allow such communication as takes place both within and across various cultures of the world. Second, that everyone generally and philosophers especially should avoid the pervasive but false view that specific cultural expressions and perspectives support relativism rather than universalism. Wiredu argues that a careful examination of the meanings of cultural expressions of moral values, for example, quickly dispels the view that such expressions also claim a limitation in their application. The moral principle of sympathetic impartiality helps in the assessment of the universal character of such claims.
An excellent collection of writings by Akan philosophers is now available thanks to the edited work of the young Akan philosopher Safro Kwame, Headings in African Philosophy: An Akan Collection (1995), which brings together essays of diverse convictions on topics such as “Philosophy and Traditional African Societies,” “Metaphysics,” “Logic and Epistemology,” and “Moral and Political Philosophy.” This text joins the growing number of anthologies that provide primary reading texts so much needed for classroom use, including Richard Wright’s African Philosophy: An Introduction (1984), Guttorm Floistad’s Contemporary Philosophy, A New Survey: Vol. 5, African Philosophy (1987), Tsenay Serequeberhan’s African Philosophy: The Essential Headings (1991), Albert Mosley’s African Philosophy: Selected Readings (1995), Parker English and Kibujjo Kalumba’s African Philosophy: A Classical Approach (1996), Emmanuel Eze’s Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader (1997). It is to be noted that another work, P. H. Coetze and A.P.J. Roux’s The African Philosophy Reader, has recently been added to this list.
Another work that executes philosophical analysis comparatively across cultural borders is Barry Hallen and J. Olubi Sodipo’s Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophy, reissued in a new edition (1997), with a new foreword by W. V. O. Quine and a new afterword by Barry Hallen. Originally published in 1986, the book raises, from a specific African context, some of the major questions for today’s American philosophers. In its methodology, this work brings to the fore concepts that have been widely attributed to the Kenyan philosopher Odera Oruka, namely, the philosophically significant and sensitive concepts embedded in the elucidation of traditional knowledge by cultural experts. Hallen and Sodipo went further than Oruka in regarding their chosen cultural experts, the onisegun of the Yoruba, as parallel colleagues with whom they could and did hold discussions and debates on the philosophical implications of some of the concepts featuring prominently in their teachings and practice as healers, particularly when these are compared to their counterparts in English. Their book is a faithful transcription of these discussions. In the absence of linguistic competence beyond the native or adopted speakers of our languages, the doors to a fruitful philosophical enterprise among Africans will remain only thinly and frustratingly open. Yet we must encourage it, and that endeavor must begin with the work of Hallen and Sodipo, although Godwin Sogolo, an Ibadan-based Nigerian philosopher, rightly suggests in his Foundations of African Philosophy that there is more to philosophy than establishing comparatively exacting meanings across linguistic boundaries, as in the Hallen and Sodipo study.
Kwame Gyekye, of Ghana, writes in Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience (1997) that philosophical problems abound in Africa not only because of the historical incidence of colonialism but because historical change in the sense of endurance in different spatio-temporal circumstances is reason enough to consider how the past fares in new and different times. Thus, while there is nothing inherently good or bad about past or present, the crafting of a system of values and social orders that meet their goals depends on how people frame their understanding of issues before them, how they define problems, and how they design and execute solutions.
Gyekye’s opening chapter is important for several reasons. In Africa more than anywhere else, academic philosophy had to struggle to prove its worth and relevance to political establishments and leaders who were all too eager to explain it away in the name of the urgency of development programs. According to Gyekye, it would be hard to think of a comprehensive significance of the idea of development that does not include an intellectual tradition. As Abiola Irele said in his superb introduction to Hountondji’s African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, “the technical and theoretical debate about African philosophycan be seen to turn, in reality, most essentially upon the question of what intellectual direction to give, in this day and age, to a continent beset by a multitude of problems” (30). Gyekye gives a refreshing and balanced view of perceptions of society that were once considered as diametrically opposed as squares are to circles.
Although some recent scholarship and political ideological expressions have seen communitarianism as a radical and essentializing opposition that separated Africans from Westerners’ assumed individualism, Gyekye argues that, even conceptually, communitarianism cannot be radically opposed to libertarianism. He argues that the emphasis of several Africans of the communalist school upon the community as the location for proper moral and ontological development of the person is often misleading, writing that traditional expressions indicate full recognition of the primacy of the individual in society, although such expressions note clearly diat humans exhibit a limitation in self-sufficiency that is remedied by their social nature. Although the development of personhood takes place within a cultural milieu defined as a communal way, at the same time each individual stands alone and carries individual burdens of responsibility. Regardless of approach, individual and community appear to be conjoined in a constant relation. While libertarians hold that the role of sociopolitical institutions should be to protect the just rights of individuals, communitarians hold that such institutions should, besides protecting already existing rights, also help define and implement new goods on behalf of society. Communitarians further argue, as Gyekye does (47), that such institutions are themselves common goods and perform common good roles, and that libertarians exaggerate individuals’ capacity to inculcate deep, extensive, and consistent concerns for the well-being of others without the help of sociopolitical institutions. For Gyekye, community provides the context in which individuals develop their various human capacities. But he also rejects what he calls extreme or radical views on the status of the community according to which African cultures uphold the primacy of the community at the almost total expense of the individual. Gyekye finds that in that outlook, individuals become “persons” in degrees commensurate with their incorporation into their various communal groups.
Against what he sees as the false assumptions of libertarians that communitarianism is inconsistent with individual rights, Gyekye argues, like Wiredu, that focus on the common good does not necessarily amount to the denial of the rights of individuals. But the differences between Gyekye and Wiredu regarding where they locate within Akan knowledge the basis of the (intrinsic) universality of human dignity are an interesting indication of their respective spiritualist and materialist leanings. While Gyekye turns to the Akan religious expressions of the divine origin of all humans, Wiredu points at the Akan consideration of the basic social, physical, and material requirements for human life. In conclusion, Gyekye makes an excellent defense of moderate communitarianism.
Failure to adopt ways that are appropriate to the coming of democracy is, according to Gyekye, attributable to Africa’s own leaders. Like Wiredu, Gyekye argues that democracy based on a broader consensus rather than a mere majority is the better way for Africa to go. He too argues against the representative (parliamentary) system as a sufficient form of democracy where the latter is understood as government “by the people” and “of the people.” Both aspects of democracy are more commensurate with moderate communitarianism of indigenous African societies than with Western representative democracy. In its structure and process, the representative system, both argue, is anything but democratic in the given senses since it operates on the basis of either a simple majority in some cases (like elections) or a two-thirds majority in others (as in the requirements to pass crucial legal statutes). Yet despite this preference, according to Gyekye, the claim is not that communitarianism is more favorable to democracy than are individual-based social and moral systems. Either can generate authoritarianism, just as each bears the capacity for democracy if the political features identified with indigenous African systems are applied as public political morality.
Mere change of attitude is not enough to build durable foundations for nation-building. Beyond the moral foundation there needs also to be a legal foundation. Gyekye is certainly right that nation-building in the sense of nation-state will need a process that takes into account both communitarian and liberal principles, moral and legal bases; the former by transferring the values of the cultural nation to the nation-state, and the latter by introducing and upholding, through the separation of powers within the state structure, the values of basic equality for all before the law. And none of these is really new to the history of Africa’s statecraft.
In light of my explanations of Hountondji above, I think Gyekye is wrong in attributing “ambivalence and confusion [to Hountondji’s] perception of the status of the African cultural tradition in the modern circumstances of the African people”(236). Clearly, Gyekye has either not read Hountondji carefully, or chosen and separated a passage from the rest of Hountondji’s argument against ethnophilosophers. Sometimes, perhaps, such misrepresentation is part of a discipline that depends so much on interpretative understanding of claims and arguments. Fortunately, the rift between Gyekye and Hountondji over the usable African past is hardly deep. Like Hountondji, Gyekye (esp. 244 ff.) laments the overemphasis at the traditional level on religious and mystical beliefs and knowledge (based on agentive causation) at the expense of scientifically and technologically significant knowledge-which Hountondji has called ethnoscience and ethnotechnology or ethnotechniques, respectively. Also, both agree that the constant or sustained spirit of inquiry will alone revive or establish the force that drives growth of knowledge. To Hountondji, all knowledge, including science and philosophy, is defined and driven by the same probing spirit of inquiry. Finally, I like Gyekye’s position on how Africa’s pasts and presents are or not to be blended. There are some aspects of African life that need firm and normative action. These are to be found mostly in the public arena such as in the administration of law and justice to the equal benefit of all. Other changes will come more gradually, as with the gradual but certain disappearance of polygamy. Yet of course it is not always the case that some value or practice is good or better only because it is new or “modern.” Quite a good amount of what goes for European modernity, Gyekye observes, was, as is well known in the realm of “modern European art,” in fact brought in from distant traditional cultures abroad. Modernity is the reworking of the familiar into new and changing times and conditions.
The problem of tradition and modernity, then, is not so much about the competition between what is African, on the one hand, and what is typically European, on the other. It is simply about change, even if colonialism and the general influence of Western cultures have provided the most historically visible examples and idioms for expressing the ruptures, conflicts, and oppositions that change and new transitions inevitably make bare. Again, perhaps unknowingly to Gyekye, there is a fundamental agreement between his view (273-97) and Hountondji’s on modernization as a concept that is not conceptually linked with Europeanization. Hountondji has recently argued (see his “Recapturing” and Combats), strongly, that proper development in Africa can only start from what is already available and with the view of containing it within Africa itself. This modernity must be Africa’s own creation. What this means, then, as V. Y. Mudimbe writes, is that every modernity is, from an existential point of view, a form of “cultural ‘hybridation’ witnessing to contemporary dynamics of dialogues between peoples and histories” (Tales of Faith xii). Hountondji’s thesis, a legitimate outcome of a combination of lessons taken from Louis Althusser and Georges Canguilhem, is that one cannot think of science, in its structure and history, as alienated from the structures and histories of the societies within which they become alive and take shape. In summary, Gyekye has written an excellent book that will be an indispensable teaching tool in African social philosophy, for readers of both African intellectual history and philosophy.
Another excellent work that complements Gyekye’s discussion of the usefulness of the “modern”-“traditional” dichotomy as categories for understanding Africa’s cultural landscape is by Godwin Sogolo. Like Gyekye, Sogolo argues that such distinctions, although intellectually pervasive in European scholarship, do not prove that what is labeled “modern” is qualitatively better than or opposed to what may be categorized as “traditional” as the works strongly but mistakenly assume. The mistake, he argues, appears to stem from the rather arbitrary belief that European values are always to be regarded as being “newer,” and “better” than non-European values by the simple fact that they are European. In Sogolo’s view, it has come to pass that such an assumed disjunction is now known to be nonpertinent, logically or practically. His book focuses on identifying, defining, analyzing, and discussing the various intellectual domains in which the assumption of the superiority of European values led to negative knowledge of Africa, such as observed in the areas of religion (where the superiority of Christianity was presupposed in the missionary enterprise); in logic (where the assumed universality of Aristotle’s idea of formal logic was applied, by Lévy-Bruhl and the evolutionist anthropologists, as evidence of Africans’ “pre-logical” mode of thought); in science (where the contrast between scientific explanations on one hand and beliefs in witchcraft on the other led to the mistaken assumption of the essentializing differences between European and African); and in moral thought (where the idea of the autonomy of the individual in Western modes of thought led to the view that Western moral thinking was superior to African traditional moral systems that are similar, in that view, to structural arrangements found in animal groups; according to this view, while Western moral thought reflects the complexity of modern society, African traditional ones reflect a mode of life of a lower biological stage). In this book, Sogolo assesses the rational foundation of all these assumptions that also form the backdrop of the oppositional dichotomization of “modern-European” and “traditionalAfrican.”
According to V. W. Mudimbe, Africa’s modernity is the result of the tumultuous historical events of several centuries that have reflected and reflected upon the historical transformations of and in African societies. Mudimbe takes another journey into the making of Africa’s modernity in his Tales of Faith, this time selecting the Christian mission as an agency for the project of modernization through conversion. Again, as before, Mudimbe makes the subtle claim that disciplines are not immune to the ideologies under whose wings their objects become determined and their objectives acquire specific historical significance. It is under the powerful influence of the objects of Western disciplines and of Western ideologies that gave them their specific objectives in the context of Western expansion, that African modernity became an event and its character took form: hybridized, métisé, as both state and process.
Neither philosophical nor scientific disciplines are neutral ratiocinations. In the final analysis, all knowledge is good or bad depending on how it serves us in our quest to conquer or, negatively, helps to protect us from the conquest of others or from feeling too bad about it. Knowledge helps us in continuing to want and to express what we believe to be good about us. It is the basis of our relation to ourselves and to Otherness, whether it is the world or other people. Knowledge is therefore inextricable from the idea of power. History of ideas is partly the history of how people, as individuals or as groups, react to and participate in the shaping of power in which they believe or are made to believe they have a stake. For this reason, tracing the history of knowledge and its relation to the institutions of power, in its advancement or resistance, may come down to biographical histories, with all their successes and failures, tragedies and celebrations. Political history and the history of disciplines intersect and converge. To make sense of events in human and social history, we must look into the epistemological mutations that have shaped them and the politics that have provided the context of their possibility.
Tales of Faith: Religion as Political Performance in Central Africa is a difficult and complex text, full of layers of textual weavings that many readers will find hard to pull apart. It is further evidence of an unmatchable level of erudition and breadth of knowledge in the history of ideas. The book is divided into four chapters: “God’s Inflections-On the Politics of Interpretation”; “Erasing the Difference of Genesis”; “The Practice of Misunderstanding”; “Acculturation-An ‘Espace Métissé.’”
Chapter one, which examines the idea of religion as situated in the arbitrary interpretation (containing) of reality, provides the theoretical basis for the rest of the book, starting from the view, reminiscent of elements of Berkeley’s and Hume’s metaphysics and epistemologies, that the world as we “know” it is just that-a constructed second-order entity, inseparable from the constructive agency of the subject in which facts, if there are any such things at all, must be prior to subjectivity and hence unknown, unknowable, unspeakable and meaningless. But the world of knowledge, in its multiple representations, progressively has been given objectivist definitions in which certain interpretations, their premises, and methodologies have been privileged over others under the pretense that such premises, in the sciences and in religion, present the world as it really is. Analyses of different representations of the world have then confused discourse for reality itself, strongly speaking of their characters on the same organic and biological levels. Thus, even “religion and its practices are seen as parts of an evolving totality and are apprehended as organisms that have a beginning, an evolution, and possible transmutations subsumed in betterments: animism, polytheism, monotheism” (Tales of Faith 16). This representation of religion as a specific interpretative discourse not only lays the foundation for cultural politics, it camouflages the political nature of its own beginnings. But look at what has happened in the use of religion as a meter for determining who are and who are not “true primitives.” The history of the definitions and uses of this term clearly shows how it has been manipulated to fit specific objectives in the study of similarities and dissimilarities between human societies. Yet despite anthropologists’ admission of the ambiguity of the term, they also have continued to assert that “the primitive” remains the object of their discipline. Briefly, Mudimbe writes: “’ [A] true primitive society’ cannot be but an invented, constructed, and pure perfection” (21). The political and disciplinary alliance between colonialism and Christianity, and between colonialism and anthropology then completes the power-knowledge relationship in the practice of conversion and of African anthropology (see 148-54). In a dialectical negation of the anthropological creature, we can observe, then, the emergence of Afrocentricity, a movement that, in Mudimbe’s words, “conceives its goal from a position that claims to render a genuine reality of an African history and its cultures” (30). The oppositional relation so created apropos the “real African self is critically expressed by Mudimbe by contrasting the goals of both anthropology and Afrocentricity as aberrations of the nonfixity of existence and of cultures. While selves are dialectically grounded as existentially expressed by Sartre, cultures, as the modes of this grounding, are essentially projects, Mudimbe argues.
There is a double sense here to which Mudimbe himself also refers. On one hand, both the anthropological and the Afrocentric projects, in their respective claims to determine the “true identity” of an African self, fail to see themselves as practices in the knowledge-power game. In other words, they claim to fix that which cannot be fixed. On the other hand, in spite of their doubtful-because tiiey are fictional-assumptions and assertions, the oppositional relation of their claims and goals sets the very dialectical terms of representational politics as condition and practice. In this sense, Afrocentricity could be, in spite of itself, a politically rational choice (35). But the opposition between past and present is not only applicable to the practice of articulating the historicity of human experience. Past and present have become, in the course of such articulation, the categories for drawing sociocultural differences between peoples and for charting and describing change, or for demanding and imposing it. By adapting LévyBruhl’s theory of difference into a historical framework, anthropologists have tried to theorize sociocultural differences in evolutionary terms and by using religion as one of the indices of evolutionary difference between peoples and cultures. Religion thus becomes an explanatory model for accounting for general beginnings and for differences in temporal mobility from such beginnings. Accordingly, paganism is contrasted to Christianity through the assumption that while it represents stagnation in primordiality, Christianity represents the historical distancing from it by virtue of its elevation to an assumedly superior cognitive level comparable with that of the sciences of the abstract. The Western obsession with the politics and articulation of difference at the beginning of the twentieth century accounted for and justified colonization, Christianization, and anthropology. But a different map started to emerge between 1950 and 1960, in beginning to interrogate and to modify the previous political and epistemological assumptions of colonialism, Christianity, and anthropology. The signifying outcomes of this turnaround are well known in the politics of independence, in the new and anti-Lévy-Bruhlian anthropological approach inaugurated by the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and in the emergence of the movement of “Black Theology.” What is significant and worth noting about them, however, is their models, which draw similarities, connections, and adaptations rather than polarized differences. More recently this reversal means that “[now] it becomes possible to speak of, analyse and understand every culture, individual and language from the rationality of their own norms, internal rules, and within the logic of their own systems. In African studies, the shift meant a radical passage from mapping the difference of an ‘invented’ genesis to the mapping of cultural individualities” (Mudimbe, Tales of Faith 40).
Despite the contradictions, African Christianity has been crafted out of the missionaries’ careful manipulation of the African space and body. While continuing to regard almost everything African as representative of evil, the missionaries plotted carefully to isolate and subject tender-aged Africans to a transformative process that changed them at the very foundation of their attitudes and mannerisms, that is, in the basics of their moral, political, economic, social, epistemological, and linguistic apprehension of the world around them, and of the control and uses of their bodies. By means of a rigorous pedagogical method and itinerary, these new values were imparted through the strict regimental training camps of the seminaries. Unknown to and unintended by the missionaries at the time, the very military structure of these camps would produce a strongly militant negation of its very project. This negation, according to Mudimbe, is witnessed in the writings of Africans such as Ferdinand Oyono, Mongo Bed, and Fabien EboussiBoulaga, all products of the missionary training camps. In other words, if conversion had been calculated by the missionaries to produce humanity in the African signified by his unfailing acceptance of and conformity to the Christian ways, the outcome was the exact opposite, as had been feared by some suspecting missionaries and colonial administrators. The missionary grid was erected on the conviction that to be successfully converted, to embrace Christianity in its full humanity and historicity, the pagan must void his/her past; change from paganism must be viewed as analogous to a creation ex nihilo in which the missionary himself assumes a divine role in the making of his creature (see, e.g., Eboussi-Boulaga). But, if Sartre’s rendition of the nature of being in freedom is correct, then the projected African of the missionaries was not to be. His best characteristic is, in Sartrean terms, “a freedom thematized as what is not.” In his/her rebellion, the missionary’s African proves the missionary wrong for oversimplifying or taking him/her for granted. As a player in a world where facticity has no sense in itself except for the politics of self-interest to which it may become instrumentally useful, Africans cannot take themselves or their cultures for granted (Mudimbe, Tales of Faith 64-67). What matters, in other words, is not whether or not there is anything at all, but what the assumptionsabout whether or not there is anything at all, and about what we think there is-can do to our relational initiatives towards Others. (Observe Appiah’s critique in his In My Father’s House of the idea of the scientific facticity of “race.”) Like Appiah, Mudimbe narrates the failure and absurdity of an assumed facticity of being African, or anything for that matter, as evidenced by the event of conversion. Yet Christianity has had relative success in its conversion project, not because its agents managed to “create” or “mold”Africans from the void of paganism into a determinate other, but because, as part of a larger sociopolitical discourse and dynamic, it made possible the emergence of a different consciousness, a different subjectivity located in the “experience of métissage.” Caught in between his past, the terminus a quo, and an unaccomplishable end, the terminus ad quern of the missionizer’s dream, the (métisé) subject always is what he/she is not, and not what he/she is.
The stage of métissage (which Mudimbe directly focuses on only in the latter part of the book, pp. 145-204) presents a familiar story. It is paradoxical, as can be seen in the religious, political, and socioeconomic discourses which emerge from and define it. Although it marks a break from its past in accordance with the goals of controlled acculturation, it is also a selective embrace of that past and a negation of the revolutionary leap it was meant to be. It is therefore a cause of fear and frustration for those whose designs it eludes. In religion particularly, it merges, through the memory of ancestral traditions, paganism with Christianity. It marks the emergence of African traditional religions as a field of a new and pertinent-scholarly and public discourse. But this recovery is mediated by the new Christian iconography, and vice versa: “From this viewpoint, Christian practices of conversion now witness particular ways of structuring and articulating expressions of the same basic and universal revelation” (73). In general terms, the eruption of local voices within the ecclesiastic empire of Rome direatened the Roman hierarchy with a possible partition. The possibility of the birth of a Third Church was seen to be imminent. Not only was the papacy of Rome in question, but for a while the legitimacy of Rome’s claim to the control of the modes of religious experience appeared to be in doubt. And the coincidence of this turnaround with the major political-economic theory of underdevelopment in the same period signaled a widespread uprising against the West on the religious, political, and economic fronts of its imperial conquest. The need to make God a relevant idea in a world growing in all manners of inequalities and ascending levels of poverty had taken a radical liberational turn. It had, by virtue of grounding the assessment of this relevance on the dynamics of everyday life concerns and need to confront poverty, become an existential issue. Liberation Theology, Black Theology, and African Theology shared similar existentialist tones, and it did not matter whether they were different, or only variations of the same thing. A god who is abstract, removed from people’s particular concerns, especially from the concerns of the poor and the oppressed, is an irrelevant god.
According to Mudimbe, attempts to make the language of god relevant to specific contexts can be either radical and deep, like that of the Cameroonian theologian and sociologist Jean-Marc EIa, or it paradoxically subvert while simultaneously also retaining the grids of a framework, as has happened in the ethnotheological writings of Tempels’s disciples (Tales of Faith 77-87). Notable among these disciples are Alexis Kagame and Vincent Mulago. Rather than questioning the relevance of the reapientum (that which is received as a scientific “object”), their task has been limited to that of analyzing the particularized and relative structures of the receptaculum (receptacle) as a way of proving his docilitas (teachability). Thus, for them, the universal and ahistorical character of Being can find location or incarnation in particular yet legitimate indigenous categories. By doing this, they aimed to argue that salvation was not limited to the historical experiences of the Church in the West, but also strengthened the basic premise of the missionizing ideology: the possibility of “generating a new culture, a perfect image, of the Christian West by implanting the Church faithfully in all its demands in terms of doctrine, structures, rituals and traditions” (Mudimbe, Tales of Faith 93). Their works identify and define the “stepping stones” for such implantation. The practice of defining the “stepping stones” was synonymous with ridding them, in a strongly apologetic fashion, of their devilish or pagan connotations always suspect to Western eyes. One observes in these works the depths of the contradictions from the dual European process of colonizing and missionizing: the ability to simultaneously proclaim the autonomous alterity of the particular while also submitting it to the very (European) forms, re-dressed as universal, which the proclaimed alterity desires to overthrow in the first place. Ethnotheology and philosophy are in this sense, in Mudimbe’s view, a successful culmination of a missiological program inaugurated in 1919 by the papal encyclical of Benedict XV, Maximum Illud. Out of it something new emerged, and it is different from both what it is a transformation of, its past, and the complex causes of its transformation. It is “an espace métissé, a function of “the conjunction of colonialism, anthropology and Christianity (Tales of Faith 145, 149-50).
It is difficult to write a conclusion to this text. It is itself a text without an end, without a conclusion. But through it, those who take pleasure and exercise patience in tracing the theorized nuances of biographical journeys will enjoy the autobiographical search of the threads of self-constitution. But above all, those who choose to do so will be using these same threads to map out the larger fabric of African space of which they themselves form a part. No reader can fail to have such deep engagement with this text.