Tag Archives: Bantu Philosophy

“How ‘to talk religion’? Of religion? Singularly of religion today? How dare we speak of it in the singular without fear and trembling, this very day?”

Derrida 2002. Acts of Religion, p. 42.

This Derrida quote was above the abstract I sent in for the 23rd ISAPS conference, recently held in Vienna. My paper was titled “Bantu Philosophy” and the problem of religion in intercultural philosophy today. Going by the comments and questions after presenting my paper, I think I succeeded to bring some fresh questions to the debates on Bantu Philosophy, the 1945 publication by Placide Tempels, a Franciscan missionary in what then was called the Belgian Congo. Tempels’ book, which first appeared in Dutch and was later translated to French and English, kicked off the many debates on the existence and nature of African philosophy. Is philosophy localized, or universal? Was his presentation of a culturalized ontology a well-meant first attempt at intercultural dialogue, or can it not be taken outside of the colonial context in which Tempels worked? Or could both be true? In my presentation I wanted to go into another matter: Tempels’ attempt to sketch a solution to the loss of religiosity in what he called the age of industrialization – in the colonialized part of Africa where he lived as well as in Europe.

Although he culturalized ontology, Tempels still spoke of religion in the singular – a thing which we nowadays find hard to do, according to Derrida. Now there is much talk of religions, in the plural: we speak of the dialogue of religions, or their confrontation. To talk of religion, in the singular – to ask whether there is any meaning in religion as such, seems an obsolete question. Especially in philosophy. This would imply, namely, to discuss religious anthropology in a transcultural manner: to ask what human beings share in terms of religious desire. Tempels now, did exactly that. For him, ‘Christian doctrine’ was about receiving as a reality ‘the strengthening of life’. For him religion was all about

‘the aspiration towards the strengthening of life, the raising of it, the taking of it into the supernatural, its participation in the constant intensification and internal growth of our life through union, living union, with God.’ (80)

This rather unusual wording of what he saw as the essence of Christian religiosity he derived from his construction of what he saw as ‘Bantu ontology’ – which would be an ontology of ‘vital force’. In his view the people he had come to live amongst in the Congo had understood life, human life, and life in general, as a continuous possibility of intensification or decrease in vital force. Cursing another is meant to decrease his vitality, blessing her or him does the oppositie. Tempels’ initial motive to investigate and describe what he saw as original Bantu culture had sprung from his observation that all missionary work in Africa had actually failed, as European culture was brought over to African peoples in its new, materialistic and spiritually empty version, while religious teachers had never tried to understand the soul of those they aimed to convert, and therefore had not really conversed with them.

In the end however Tempels made an unusual double hermeneutical move – to first interpret what his African interlocutors taught him in terms of a metaphysics of life force, and to secondly reinterpret in its terms the languishing catholic metaphysics of salvation. This made him take Christ as the enhancer of life force per se, and as the counterforce in an age which, he feared, was about to empty the human person (African and European alike) of its soul, seeing progress solely in terms of industrialization and economic expansion. This was not just a hermeneutical circular movement avant Gadamer, as it simultaneously upheld the neo-scholastic claim to metaphysical knowledge of ultimate divine reality. Thus Tempels culturalized and contextualized what was supposed to sustain and transcend the contingent phenomenal world.

In my presentation I asked whether we should see this in the light of his confused non-professional philosophy (Tempels just took the two years of philosophy required in the study for the priesthood), or whether in the end his work contains elements for an answer to Derrida’s question: how to speak of religion without fear and trembling. If it does, perhaps some light can be shed in the discourse which only speaks of religious difference, without seeing how religion should be analyzed in a contextualized manner – as intrinsically related to the political and economic struggles that disturb our present times.

If we follow that road we could see that any philosophical search for truth (post – cultural relativism) has to move through analyses of the political and the economical. In Tempels work we see the beginnings of such a move – where he relates religion (in the singular: be it Christianity or traditional African religiosity) to the historical situation of industrialization and colonization – a situation that advertizes itself as civilization, but Tempels doubts this. He tries the idea whether it might not be better in a sense for Europeans to let themselves be taught by those they allegedly came to civilize.

‘We get the impression that these masses want to rise from their alleged lowliness, clothing themselves in the knowledge of their own lore and in their conception of the world; and thus standing before and looking down upon the small group of Westerners […]” (73).

To state, as Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha does in his article in the Encyclopedia Brittanica , that Tempels remained bound to a colonial outlook because he saw Christianity as superior to traditonal African religion is too fast a conclusion to my view. His Christianity did not speak (as traditionally was done in European religious discourse) of salvation of the eternal soul, but of a continuous intensification and internal growth of life through union with God – which to my view is a Christianity which had been transformed through its contact and dialogue with ‘Bantu philosophy’ – with his observation that ‘there is to be found in the depths of the Bantu soul an aspiration, an irresistable allurement towards an infinite strengthening of life.’ (81) This is not just a reformulation of traditional Christian ‘talk of religion’ – it is quite another talk. Of religion, across cultural and theological difference, positioned over against what Tempels saw as the false progress of industrialization and the only materialistic ‘development’ through colonialism.



I am a slow thinker. Very slow. The older student who mentored me and my fellow first year philosophy students in 1980 told us to be happy with our choice: while in mathematics one had to do one’s important work before thirty (as the young brain is best in solving difficult mathematical problems), a philosopher most likely would produce his best work after fifty. He was right. Well, I don’t know whether I will produce much work, but he was certainly right that after fifty one finally has read enough to make meaningful concatenations, see the deeper lying problems and work out a more or less original view. So….

…only after having written my post on Teilhard de Chardin, and while rereading Norman Lewis’ The Missionaries, did it suddenly dawn on me why The Savage Mind had felt like a liberation when I discovered it in, I think 1979. I must be honest: this book I got also from my father’s library, as I had The Phenomenon of Man. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ structural anthropology provides, I see now, nothing less than an alternative for evolutionary schemes in cultural studies. Lévi-Strauss opposes the view that hunter-gatherer peoples (or those who do some very limited subsistence farming) are less developed than those peoples who live in villages and cities, and live from farming, trade and industry. They are not stuck in an earlier phase of evolution, they are contemporary with us, who live modern lives.

Of course this liberated me, as I always had felt something to be wrong with the evolutionary scheme which was proposed to me as a child to understand human ways of life. Because next to being exposed to the children’s books on evolution, the visits to prehistoric caves, and the collection of ossified bones in the living room, I read children’s novels on ‘savage’ peoples who lived in jungles – and who did not appear to be more primitive than us. On the contrary: the ‘Indians’ were masters of moving through the forest without noise, and they lived in peaceful, harmonious societies, inspired by contacts with the spiritual world. If they were backward in technology, they were ahead of us in those aspects, for which I admired and envied them.

Lévi-Strauss now offered a model to study those peoples by fitting their cultural expressions in patterns of variation and opposition, instead of judging those expressions according to their measure of backwardness. And he gave his work the provocative title (in French) ‘Savage Thinking’ – which made his work one of the earliest tokens of what Latour has called ‘symmetrical anthropology’ – as it stuck the opposite adjective on modern cultural expressions: tamed thinking. As ‘they’ were like the wild beasts (as missionaries and colonialists often thought), ‘we’ are nothing but domesticated humans. Rather dull, obedient, uniform, like our cows who have no names but numbers.

There is an earlier writer who tried to be symmetrical in his approach – not an anthropologist, but an amateur philosopher who founded what has been called intercultural philosophy: the missionary Placide Tempels, who used an even more provocative title for his 1946 book Bantu Philosophy – granting the Bantu people, who were considered a primitive people by his religious colleagues and  the colonialist entrepreneurs and politicians in Africa, not only thinking but philosophy! But Tempels was a lucky exception of his kind (and still of course criticized for writing from a Eurocentric frame of mind), who tried to do right to the culture he encountered. And although Lewis has been criticized for romanticizing his travel stories a bit, his biting criticism of the role of missionaries in the genocidal activities of the large companies clearing the jungles in South America from people to have a free hand in destroying and mining the land, and his analysis of the unfeeling attitude of modern capital and its slaves toward ‘the wild’ are too convincing to ignore.

There is a connection between evolutionary theory and the destruction of, say, the Amazon – between the lack of general interest in aboriginal peoples and our consumption of cheap consumer goods. This is not only bad because it violates the principle of justice, the extinction of the wild also robs the world of  the knowledge of alternative ways of living, not so much peaceful and primitive ones, but perhaps in a lot of respects superior ones (if one wants to cling to progressionist language…).

Tempels (1906-1977) was a Belgian Franciscan missionary who worked in what was then called Belgian Congo

Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was an important paleontologist and a Jesuit.

Claude Lévi- Strauss (1908-2009) was a cultural anthropologist who introduced structuralism as a method of research in his field.

Norman Lewis (1908-2003) was a novelist and travel writer, who wrote some groundbreaking journalistic reports on the genocidal activities under which the Amazonian Indians suffered.

Books mentioned are, chronologically:

Placide Tempels, Bantu Philosophy, originally published in Dutch in 1946.

Teilhard de Chardin The Phenomenon of Man, originally published in French in 1955.

Claude Lévi-Strauss The Savage Mind, originally published in French in 1962.

Norman Lewis The Missionaries, originally published in 1988.