Paulin J. Hountondji (1942 – 2024): A tribute to a great thinker
It is with profound sorrow and a sense of great loss that the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) received news of the passing of eminent Beninese philosopher, Professor Paulin Hountondji, on 2nd February 2024. Born on April 11th, 1942, Professor Hountondji became a towering intellectual figure and distinguished scholar who shaped the discipline of philosophy by advancing unparalleled insights and elaborating new thinking in the field of ‘African philosophy’. His contributions alongside the works of the late philosophers Kwesi Wiredu, Kwame Gyekye, and Henry Odera Oruka gave meaning and depth to the key debates that were happening among Africans who engaged in elaborating the question of philosophy in Africa.
Professor Hountondji’s profound intellect and dedication to the advancement of scholarship has left an enduring impact on the African intellectual landscape. He provided bold leadership at a critical juncture in Africa’s intellectual history by challenging conventional wisdom on ‘African Philosophy’, thus playing a pivotal role in shaping the discourse on and in philosophy in Africa. His seminal explorations on that matter include an analysis of the myth and realities of the existence of African philosophy in the book “Sur la “philosophie Africaine” :critique de l’ethnophilosophie” (1976). This work, which was translated into English as “African Philosophy: Myth and Reality” (1983) catalysed robust debate, and has continued to influence and inspire myriad African thinkers in the decades since.
Professor Hountondji’s intellectual journey intertwined with CODESRIA in the 1990s, where he engaged in a ground-breaking project supported by the Council that culminated in the publication of his influential 1994 book, “Les Savoirs Endogènes : Pistes pour une Recherche” translated as “Endogenous Knowledge: Research Trails” (1997). According to Prof. Tade Akin Aina, under whose guidance the book was published, “Prof Hountondji was a self-assured, committed and courageous trailblazer.” Prof. Hountondji nurtured his relationship with CODESRIA, immersing himself in the intellectual and governance affairs of the Council. He was, for instance, a resource person to the 1999 African Humanities Institute convened at the University of Ghana-Legon by Professor Kofi Anyidoho and directed by Professor Kwame Gyekye. Convened under the theme “African Philosophy”, the laureates of the institute were exposed to the long-standing debates around ethnophilosophy. Prof. Gyekye had just published his Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience and Prof. Hountondji was on hand to celebrate the books’ departure from the ethnophilosophical approach. Ultimately, Prof. Hountondji not only identified the massive extraversion of knowledge about Africa but also questioned how African Studies could be understood as African given such massive extraversion.. He attempted to fill that gap of extraversion with complementary work on endogenous knowledge. It is now widely acknowledged that his enduring legacy in the work he did with CODESRIA would best be captured through notions of ‘extraversion’ and ‘endogenous knowledge.’
Professor Hountondji was later elected as a member of CODESRIA’s Executive Committee at the 10th General Assembly held in Kampala, Uganda in 2002, and served as Vice-President of CODESRIA under the Presidency of Zenebeworke Tadesse (2002 – 2005). He continued to engage the Council after he left the Executive Committee, making invaluable contributions to the Council’s pan-African mandate of promoting research and fostering intellectual engagement within the social sciences and humanities. To this day, his contributions within the CODESRIA and the broader epistemic community remain immeasurable.
His commitment to the pursuit of knowledge was unwavering as exemplified by his lifelong dedication to learning. Even after achieving academic and intellectual acclaim, and long after obtaining a doctorate from the University of Paris-Nanterre in 1970, Professor Hountondji remained a lifelong student, continuing on to earn his doctorat d’Etat at l’Université Cheikh Anta Diop under the supervision by Professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne. The text of his doctorat d’Etat, published as “Combats pour le Sens: Un Itinéraire Africain” in 1997, and later translated into English in 2002 as “The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa”, has also become a classic text in the study of philosophy.
In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Professor Hountondji served briefly in the government of the Republic of Benin, holding roles as the Minister of Education from 1990-1991 and then as Minister for Culture and Communications from 1991-1993. His legacy of political service continued even after he resigned in 1994 to return to teaching. He was a professor of philosophy at the National University of Benin and also served as director of the African Centre for Advanced Studies in Porto-Novo, Benin.
The Council extends its deepest condolences to Professor Hountondji’s family, friends, colleagues, and the entire academic community both in Benin and beyond. It was an honour, indeed a privilege, that Professor Hountondji dedicated such generous time and intellectual skill to CODESRIA. Not only does the Council feel the privilege, but it also is happy to share in the legacy he left behind. To honour his legacy, CODESRIA will remain steadfast in its commitment to nurturing critical engagement and championing the pursuit of knowledge within the social sciences and humanities. As we bid farewell to a luminary, may his intellectual flame continue to inspire generations to come.