An independent Thinker – Paulin Hountondji

When going against the grain is one’s natural tendency, living in harmony with one’s surroundings is a challenge. When ‘everybody’ says I should read book X, or see movie Y, the chances are strongest I will not go and read it, or go and see it. Such an almost anarchistic tendency makes learning also difficult, because one is suspicious towards the very phenomenon of the teacher.

So when I was finding my way in this new field of African Philosophy, ever since I read Heinz Kimmerle’s Mazungumzo, in 2003, I had this same tendency to find my way through obscure articles and not-so-well-known books, instead of working my way straightforwardly through the classics of the field – such as the works of Oruka, Wiredu, and Hountondji.

I also had a problem understanding – years ago – why Hountondji had criticized Bantu Philosophy by the missionary Tempels so strongly, as the ‘othering’ undertaking of a colonial mind. Back then I had not yet realized the flaws in the French and English translations of Tempels’ work, nor had I fully understood the context in which African philosophers since the days of Tempels had been working – how much work it had taken to undo the colonial heritage – by criticizing, discussing, dialoguing, which has made many among them the masters of these philosophical arts in our times.

And now, last week, having read so much more, and therefore having become more humble in my opinions, I finally went to listen to a lecture by the teacher of decades – to be a student once more.

It was in Leiden, Pieter Boele van Hensbroek had organized his trip, and the Africa Studies Center was so kind to host the lecture. The topic of the afternoon was religion, politics, the state, the law – all set in the specific history of the Methodist Church in Benin. I heard later that some were surprised that the philosopher who had earlier stressed that African philosophy has a universalist intention, like all philosophy, and should not be seen as local and cultured, now focused so much on such a ‘local’, specific topic, bringing out a religious point at the end, that God can never be finally known by human beings.

The most localized remark Hountondji made was how the Catholic Basilica in Ouidah is built right across the House where snakes are revered, suggesting that traditional African religion is just as important, if not more important to life as it is, than the imported Christian and Muslim religions. Still he did not focus on the traditions, which might have satisfied the curious Dutch public, always fascinated by an ‘exotic’ story. They got mostly history, and conflict, and a philosophical weighing of interests of humans in society, that should bring us mostly to valuing the law over personal interests.

In the end it was a ‘universal’ weighing of arguments on the occasion of local historical facts – showing his listeners that it was time now to follow him to what is of interest to us all in these times – to not forget that the perseverance of human values takes work, and courage, and persistence of us all.

Now there was a possibility as well have a photo taken with this independent thinker who had helped shape African philosophy by critically discussing its scope and aims, and who carried within him many decades of experience with our world, with reflecting, and with teaching. A student of Wageningen University who had come to listen too was so kind to take it. Here it is.

Paulin Hountondji with members of the Dutch research group African Intercultural Philosophy

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