The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture, and Democracy in Africa

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The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture, and Democracy in Africa. By Paulin J. Hountondji. Translated by John Conteh-Morgan, with a foreword by K. Anthony Appiah. Center for International Studies at Ohio University Research in International Studies, Africa Series, No. 78. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002. Pp. xxiv, 308. $28.00 paper.

How do we, at the level of ideas and their production, begin to understand, let alone explain, the transformations that took place in Africa in the twentieth century? What were the dynamics of these transformations? Do African traditional belief systems have a place in the explanation of these transformations? These are some of the questions that informed what one African philosopher recently defined as the problematics of universalism and particularism in African cultures, for the best part of the second half of the twentieth century.1 The questions are, in a word, about African philosophy and the search for its own identity.2 But what is identity all about if not the struggle for meaning, the subject matter of Paulin Hountondji's latest work?

Hountondji is both a constant presence and one of the most important figures in both the history and definition of African philosophy; indeed, his oeuvre is inseparable from the argument that African philosophy properly defined is no different from what the discipline is in other parts of the world: It is in Africa as elsewhere the product of individual intellectual labors rather than of a hypothetical worldview of collective wisdom derived from the interpretation of cultural data with little regard to history and change. First articulated in a series of essays in the late 1960s through the early 1970s as a critique of ethnophilosophy, this argument has come to provide the kind of framework philosophers needed to "search for truth in general" without the "geographical confinement" that had hitherto dictated that "only African values, African conceptions of ethics, politics, and aesthetics, the African theory of knowledge ... be studied" (p. xvii). This was nothing short of an "intellectual liberation" that drew the philosopher's attention to the fact that it was possible to "assert a claim for universality that is the foundation of his discipline, by refusing to yield to the temptation of cultural relativism ... and by clearly acknowledging his vocation to enunciate propositions that are valid across frontiers, that are true to all, at all times and in all places" (pp. xvii-xviii).

Though this critique had "a paralyzing effect" in that it prevented some philosophers from "exercising on African culture and experience their talents as analysts and philosophers," it had an enduring "liberating effect" that calls for an assessment of its impact on "intellectual productivity" in general, and on the "history of African philosophical research, and in the broader field of Africanist research" (p. xviii).

Though, in setting out to deal with these issues, Hountondji started off during his student days with research on Husserl's idea of "philosophy as a strict science" (p. 30), and though his lifelong engagement with ethnophilosophy "in a sense reflects this idea," he with time moved from Husserl's shadow, and thus from classical epistemology, to the exploration of two things. The move away from Husserl, especially the latter's presupposition that a new science of logic would eventuate itself into a "theory of theories," thus limiting "the surprises of history, the uncontrollable plurality of future theories, and the unpredictable development of knowledge" (p. 71), first moved Hountondji toward a quest for "the scientific and technological relations of production on a world scale, as well as the outline of a sociology of science in the countries of the periphery" (p. xix). Thus, though his critique of ethnophilosophy draws from the long study of Husserl and, indeed, of "the entire tradition of Western philosophy" (p. …