CURRENT READING – HAPPINESS AND MEANING (CONTINUED)

Last time we saw how Susan Wolf considers a meaningful life as one that includes enthusiastic involvement in objectively worthwhile projects though she drops the word ‘project’ in her slogan: “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” Her examples include creating, promoting or protecting things of value, helping others, achieving a skill, even “communing with or actively appreciating what is there to be appreciated.”2

She proposes and responds to likely objections to her thesis. First is the question of philosophical justification of the designation ‘worthwhile.’ Her response is that no proof is possible, but clearly most of us believe in varying worth of projects or activities – for example counting blades of grass versus seeking a cure for cancer. Second she responds to the existential objections of human mortality, lack of divine origin of morality, and cosmic indifference. She thinks these positions represents an irrational obsession with permanence and grand significance. She admits assumption as her basis for worthwhile, but notes most skeptics concede there are better and worse ways to live, and the difference between their positions and hers may be primarily semantic. Third she responds to Richard Taylor’s description of subjectivity of self-interest raised in Good and Evil, where he suggests the subjective account of meaning is just that a meaningful life is one perceived by the individual as meaningful. Wolf does not like the circularity this entails so proposes an alternate account of subjectivity; the sense of ‘fulfillment’ as a particular kind of pleasure that confirms meaning via objectively worthwhile “cognitive content,’ even when not “best for me.”3

Wolf also concedes she is unable to prove that self-interest includes belief in the meaningfulness of one’s life through worthwhile activities, but contend most people intuitively agree once it is explained to them. In fact, Wolf claims the desire for meaningfulness is a defining feature of humanity vis-a-vis the brutes. It may even be considered self-evident.

Still meaningfulness, in her opinion, is not an instrumental good or merely the path to fulfillment, rather fulfillment is the confirmation of the meaningfulness of an activity. In her deconstruction of self-interest she crystalizes her position: much of what we do is neither out of duty nor fun, but instead meaningfulness. Nonetheless from a practical standpoint, meaning is inexact; we cannot and need not aspire to finding activities of the “greatest” meaning. At the end of the day meaningfulness often trumps self-interest.

I find Wolf’s thesis intriguing, first because I see few philosophers who challenge Aristotle’s belief that all human motivation distills down to the quest for happiness, and second because her method involves less logical proof and more intuition, consensus, reasonable argument, and human experience – the very building blocks of practical philosophy. But most importantly I detect in her theory of self-interest an affirmation that summum bonum for us is happiness and meaning.

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1Bonjour, Laurence and Baker, Ann (Editors), Philosophical Problems. Pearson Education, Inc., New York, 2005. ISBN 0-321-23659-9, pages 834-848.

2It seems this is operative in the case of relationship to ultimate reality, whether cosmic or divine.

3I discussed a comparable thesis in the post The Meaning of Life- Non-Physical Pleasure, on 9/14/20.

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CURRENT READING – HAPPINESS AND MEANING

“Self-interest is but the survival of the animal in us. Humanity only begins for man with self-surrender.” – Henri Frederick Amiel, 19th century Swiss philosopher.

In the continuing search for the definitive philosophical library, I have come across some remarkable books, but one of the most unusual was an unopened cellophane–wrapped textbook, with the intriguing title, Philosophical Problems. It is rare for me to purchase a book without at least looking through the table of contents, but I could not pass this one up because of its pristine condition and because on the front it says “instructor’s use only” and on the back it says “NOT FOR SALE.” That made me wonder what secrets it might contain, and I won’t deny I hesitated to open its packaging for several years. When I finally opened it, I found it really was simply an anthology, albeit of some truly great philosophical essays, with frequent teacher annotations. I suppose “NOT FOR SALE” meant not for sale to students, though this seems silly – what harm is done by giving students help in understanding complicated philosophical theses; and why should college professors require such help – seems oxymoronic to me.

Be that as it may, the 86 essays are superbly chosen. Examples include some of our old friends – Aquinas’ The Five Ways from Summa Theologica, William James’ The Will to Believe, selections from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and portions of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. But there are also many less familiar works such as Thomas Reid’s Direct Realism, Thomas Nagel’s What It Is Like to Be a Bat, and Robert Nozich’s The Experience Machine.

However, the most compelling one for me was Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life1 by Susan Wolf examining the relationship of happiness and meaning, what I identify as the summum bonum, to the good life.2 Wolf’s essay is complex, so I can only incompletely address her main insights. Her launching point for the discussion is the concept of self-interest, i.e. motivation by what is good for or minimizes bad for oneself. Her general thesis is that meaningfulness is an important element of a good life, hence ‘enlightened self-interest’ entails securing meaning in one’s life.

She starts with Derek Parfit’s theories of motivations of self-interest; (1) Hedonistic – felt quality of one’s experience, (2) Preference – good as our wants (e.g. posthumous fame), and (3) Objective List – items valued for neither positive experience nor mere preference, but as good in themselves. Her argument is that meaningfulness is of the last type. She then defines  a meaningful life as one with active engagement in worthwhile projects, where active means excited or gripped involvement (as opposed to boredom or alienation) and worthwhile implies at least partial independence of subjective preferences.

(continued next post)

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CURRENT READING -The Philosopher’s Magazine – Who is a meaning of life for?

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy”- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

The second quarter 2020 issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine1 includes an essay with the intriguing title Who Is a Meaning of Life For? by Elijah Millgram of the University of Utah. This is quite timely as I begin to delve into the question of what a meaningful life is by permitting a preface to that section.

Millgram begins by recalling a comment by Gisela Striker, a historian of ancient philosophy, that she hoped life didn’t have a meaning, because it would be too oppressive. Millgram transposes this into a more than rhetorical proposition; perhaps “we shouldn’t simply take it for granted that we want meaningful lives.”2 He begins with the example of John Stuart Mill (on whom he wrote a book) who made his life’s meaning ‘the Utilitarian Enterprise’ but eventually felt himself trapped by it.

By comparison, Millgram posits Friedrich Nietzsche who in The Gay Science suggests one’s ‘purpose for existence’ can be achieved by finding an interpretation that covers what one has already done. Here the goal is to lock everything down through ingenuity and inventiveness so that one’s entire life in all its meaningless detail is reconfigured into a unifying purpose which one can then embrace in conformity with Nietzsche’s metaphysical theory of ‘eternal return.’  But Milligram thinks such an artistic reconstruction of one’s life ultimately reflects Nietzsche’s rock bottom cynicism as to whether reality matters at all.

In brief then, J.S. Mill sees meaning as guiding action and Nietzsche sees it as reconciliation. Alternatively the desire for a meaningful life can viewed as a prison or a fanatical delusion.  Millgram offers a third option, the denial of the need for a meaning of life, concluding with the perplexing question, “What do I want it [a meaning of life] for?”3

I would reply that perhaps Millgram is conflating the meaningful life with  the purposeful life. I believe the reason we want to find purpose is because it is one of the four components of the meaningful life. The other three are contentment, virtue, and resolution of one’s relationship to ultimate reality. Each of the four is difficult to achieve, but all are worthy of attainment. And why do we want these? Well, because they compose the summum bonum of happiness and meaning. The next section on this site will investigate all of them  and answer Millgram’s question.

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1Garvey, James (editor), The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 89, 2nd  Quarter 2020.

2Ibid., page 50.

3Ibid., page 54.

 

 

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CURRENT READING – EPISTEMIC DEFEATISM (CONTINUED)

Last time I reviewed Dr. Robert Pasnau’s essay Snatching Hope from the Jaws of Epistemic Defeat where he discusses radical skepticism and offers his response -the hopeful affirmation of evidence-based credence – arguing the goal of finding truth and avoiding error is trumped by the importance of being able to live a full life within the bounds of uncertainty. I enjoyed reading his article and appreciate his solution to the problem of skepticism, but today I wish to offer an alternative to mere hope.

It seems to me the practical philosopher should not choose wholeheartedly to embrace propositions based on credibility alone. Rather I think we must choose courses of action within our uncertainty that offer the best outcome should we be wrong, that is, pragmatic conduct. I offer three examples of increasing uncertainty.

First, absolute evil – take for instance whether the blinding of innocent animals is good or evil. While this seems self-evident, the radical skeptic may derive an argument I cannot that this action is justifiable or desirable. Pragmatically however, I choose not to blind innocent animals as there is no apparent value to me as a person; the choice not to commit this apparent evil has no untoward consequences.

Second is the near certain proposition that i should try to make a good life for myself within the limit of not interfering with this goal for others. I may be wrong; in fact, making a good life for myself may be impossible, but by attempting I have only the possibility of making a good life for myself in which case my life is good, or failing in which case I am no worse off than if I thought I should not make a good life for myself. Pragmatism succeeds again (although hope might here as well).

My last example comes from the plot line of The Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna, the protagonist, must decide between his duty to his side in a battle where the opposing side includes his friends, teachers, and even family (alternatively you may consider choosing the union side in the American Civil War). It appears impossible to determine whether duty to some of our friends and family is ethically correct compared to avoiding harm to others of them– here we have almost no level of certainty. The pragmatic solution is to do both. While we have a duty to provide service to our side, we can choose service that does not entail harming others – we can choose to be medics, or unarmed messengers, staff personnel, or other non-combatants – many of which involve opportunities for the epitome of heroism and sacrifice.

The reason I took on the project to develop practical philosophy from the teaching of the great thinkers was to offer ethical balance in conduct within the framework of a life full of uncertainty. Hope is a valuable human emotion, but a meaningful life requires virtue, and that demands we factor in the uncertainties in reality. In that sense I would consider myself, following Pasnau’s lead, a pragmatic epistemic defeatist, although I dislike the term.

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CURRENT READING – EPISTEMIC DEFEATISM

 Snatching Hope from the Jaws of Epistemic Defeat1

“Hope is the only God common to all men; those who have nothing more, possess hope still.” – Thales of Miletus

At the suggestion of a subscriber, I read this 17 page essay by Professor Robert Pasnau (University of Colorado at Boulder) published in 2015 in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association. It can be accessed at https://spot.colorado.edu/~pasnau/inprint/. He defines ‘epistemic defeatism’ as “the view that we have no good evidence for the truth of any proposition.”1 His goal is to untangle it from related views and establish its independence from questions of knowledge. He traces strict skepticism back to Pyrrhonism with its cardinal doctrine that for every good argument there is an equal opposing argument forcing the lover of truth to suspend judgment in all affirmations of knowledge. The Pyrrhonists offer at least seven challenges to formulations of certainty: illusion, perpetual variation, disagreement, cultural relativity, infinite regress of premises, circularity of arguments, and groundless assumptions.2

Pasnau divides skepticism into two branches: ‘weak’- which concedes beliefs are based on evidence that is insufficient for certainty (e.g. Descartes), and ‘strong’- which denies any belief is based on ultimately reliable evidence (e.g. Hume).  He thinks this latter case of epistemic defeatism, is more interesting philosophically. Strong skepticism is usually ignored or refuted a reductio, that is, since we obviously have knowledge, epistemic defeatism must be absurd, but he thinks other responses – reliabilism, default to truth, language game theory, changing context theory, consequence-based belief, and coherence – are better.2

While he maintains that knowledge need not be identical with certainty, he is intrigued by Hume’s arguments that our firmest beliefs lack even probability, contending that “…what could possibly be of greater philosophical significance than the thesis that, in the final analysis, we have no good evidence for the truth of any proposition?”3 He considers various approaches such as rational expectation, probability, antirealism (e.g. Berkeley), divine knowledge, and evidentialism,  but thinks none is ideal .2

He eventually comes to Augustine and Al-Ghazali who rely on divine inspiration or faith, but he finds problems with this position such as what happens when faith clashes with evidence, questions of degrees of knowledge to accept on faith, and the risk of epistemic chaos.

Instead he sees the crux of the claim to knowledge as the tension between our fear of being wrong and our hope of being right. Based on credence – one’s attitude regarding the chance of a proposition’s obtaining – one may choose to be optimistic and confident while abandoning the concern about being certain. He admits this ‘hopeful defeatism’ may not count as knowledge, but it does recognize “we care about many things other than truth and falsity- inasmuch as we want to live rich, engaged lives.”4 I am reminded of William James’ essay The Will to Believe.

However, I believe there is a stance more reasonable to the practical philosopher which is the subject of my next post.

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1Journal of the American Philosophical Association/ Volumes 1 / Issue 2 / June 2015. Page 257.  Note: I refer to this as ‘radical skepticism’ in my last two blogs.

3As there is not room in this essay even to summarize these, I leave it to the interested reader to go to the source.

3Ibid., page 262.

4Ibid., page 274.

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CURRENT READING – FINDING WISDOM (CONT’D)

Next in The Good Old Liberal Consensus, Daniel A. Kaufman examines wisdom in the political realm as described in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Briefly they inform the ‘liberal consensus’ which is based on the theory that the clashing of people’s interests and aims is inevitable, that the state is a neutral referee, and that an individual’s pursuit of good should be unmolested except when obstructive to another individual’s pursuit of good. From this foundation, four key principles arise: (1) the purpose of the state is to allow the individual to pursue his idea of the good, (2) thought and speech should be free, (3) the state should err on the side of free speech, and (4) engagement with those with whom one disagrees should take the form of discourse not personal attack. These principles are supposed to be sustained by the collective recognition that unanimous agreement on policy is implausible and that one’s political allies cannot be in power forever. However, in his opinion, this wisdom is being undermined by both the Right and the Left.

Last Valerie Tiberius entertains a more psychological sense of wisdom through the contemplation of a single adage, also her essay’s title: Live Each Day as If It Were Your Last. The power of this advice is its tendency to alleviate worry and excuse perfectionism. More generally it encourages the development of perspective that aligns emotions with what really matters. She places it within Aristotle’s practical wisdom or phronesis, the use of reason to apply knowledge to decision-making. But Tiberius suspects this proverb may not do justice to what really matters. She references Doing Valuable Time: The Present, The Future, and Meaningful Living by Cheshire Calhoun who divides one’s time into four parts: (1) “primary spending” – things done for their own sake (e.g. time with friends), (2) “entailed spending” – instrumental activities (e.g grocery shopping, studying), (3) “norm required” – compliance with societal norms (e.g. legal duties), and (4) “filler spending” – such as actions when waiting, unmotivated, or tired. Meaning comes mainly from primary spending while things we value require significant entailed spending.  Her conclusion is that one can take the ‘last day’ perspective sometimes, but not at all times – wisdom then is the ability to shift one’s perspective as circumstances require.

Interestingly the essays look at four distinct levels of wisdom – personal, psychological, societal, and political – quite a breadth for the limited size of this forum. Wisdom is revealed to be virtue first, but also preparedness, freedom, and perspective. Aristotle suggests a still higher category, ‘speculative wisdom’, the philosophical knowledge of metaphysics and theology, as opposed to the others he calls ‘prudence’. I love these many facets of wisdom, but distill from it the blending of a coherent understanding of reality with ethical conduct.

1Garvey, James (editor), The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 87, 4th Quarter 2019, pages 82-105.

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CURRENT READING – FINDING WISDOM

“To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” – Henri Frederic Amiel, 19th century Swiss philosopher.

 

 

 

The Forum in the fourth quarter 2019 issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine is titled Finding Wisdom, and consists of four essays – a total of only 18 pages of reading. In the introduction, we learn this project arose in response to letters requesting more practical philosophy. The authors are two men and two women professors of philosophy who were asked to take up a single philosopher or school.

Massimo Pigliucci’s piece, Wisdom: What Is It? examines the Stoic tradition. Following Socrates’ thought that wisdom equates to virtue as it is the only intrinsic good that cannot be used to do evil, Seneca offers the corollary: “Virtue is nothing else but right reason.” Such reason can be defined as “fitting expertise” in the “art of living.” Pigliucci suggests three tools for mastery of this art: (1) reading biographies of persons to emulate (e.g. Cato), (2) review of theoretical treatises (such as Seneca’s On Anger), and (3) study of practical books (e.g. Epictetus’ Enchiridion). From these we learn the cardinal virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and practical wisdom which allow us to center our lives with a moral compass to achieve arête, the best way of living.

Catherine Wilson follows with Epicurean Wisdom wherein subjective pleasure and the avoidance of psychological and physical pain and deprivation are seen as the highest human goods when paired with the avoidance of selfishness and harm to others. This doctrine historically urges one to avoid unnecessary political and social involvement preferably by living in a communal setting with like-minded individuals. Wilson sees this as a problem for modernity as most of us do not wish to withdraw from society; instead she extrapolates the following lessons for contemporary living: (1) oppose oligarchy legislatively, (2)  seek not eternal youth and longevity nor fear death and inevitable deterioration, rather prepare for them, (3) support justice defined as the prevention of harm,  and (4)  deploy utilitarian governance as the societal expression of Epicureanism.

(continued next post)

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CURRENT READING – AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY – PART III

African Philosophy –Myth and Reality  _ ANALYSES

“When philosophy is regarded in the light of a series of abstract systems, it can be said to concern itself with two fundamental questions: first, the question ‘what there is’; and second, the question how ‘what there is’ may be explained.”– Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism.

After the introduction and his arguments regarding authentic African philosophy, Hountondji analyzes two African-born philosophers. The first is Anton-Wilhelm Amo an 18th century Ghanian who went to Europe at age four likely to be trained as a preacher. He ended up a master of philosophy in 1730 and taught for at least ten years and wrote at least four philosophical treatises. He eventually moved back to Ghana where the last record of him was a meeting in 1753 with David Henri Gallandet, a Dutch physicist and ship’s doctor, who found him living as a hermit with the reputation as a soothsayer.

Hountondji critiques Amo’s Dissertatio de humanae mentis apatheia (On the Impassivity of the Human Mind) where Amo argues the mind is neither the seat of sensation or the faculty of sensation (a passive function) consistent with the human mind as active, insensible, and free of passion, like the divine mind. But the human mind turns sensation into ideas which are only the mediative knowledge of things, representations, or reactivated sensations. This leads to an ironic difference in kind, not simply degree, from divine spirit whose impassivity is a perfection, whose thinking is creation, whose understanding of reality is direct. Non-passivity of spirit becomes a ‘transvaluation’ on passage from God to man.

But when Hountondji asks what in this work is African, his answer is nothing. Written in Latin for Europeans with no African audience or partners, Amo is the victim of the painful isolation of his historical situation. In the end, his works are instructive as demonstrating the need to “put an end once and for all to the monstrous extraversion of our [African] theoretical discourse…”1

Hountondji’s second example is Kwame Nkrumah, a contemporary American-trained philosopher, who became the political leader of Ghana. His works are mainly political philosophy focused on anti-colonialism and pan-Africanism. In his youth he embraced the non-violent approach of Ghandi and the politics of socialism, arguing that traditionally Africa society had the form of egalitarian communalism; therefore the movement to socialism would be smooth and without class struggle. Over time he came to see overturning neocolonialism, imperialism, and class inequality required armed resistance.

In his most famous work, Consciencism, Nkrumah sees philosophy as the instrument of ideology. He espouses a materialist metaphysic – the priority of matter which generates mind through a ‘categorical conversion’- defined as a process through which a given reality generates a reality of higher category. God, if he exists, is then a higher form of matter. From this metaphysic, he develops an egalitarian and humanistic ethic strongly influenced by Kant, and a political ideology of self-determination and socialism – all of which are closely interlocked and form a collective philosophy for all of Africa.

Hountondji criticizes this so-called Nkrumaism at several levels. First the metaphysic itself seems implausible. Second political justifications need to be political and economic rather than metaphysical. Third Hountondji denies the possibility of a collective African philosophy – rather sees a pluralistic debate and dialogue in conjunction with science as the best course for African philosophy.

Hountondji closes his amazing book with a reiteration of his key points: African philosophy must be based on (1) true internal pluralism, not a supposed primitive unanimity or an acculturation, (2) free dialogue,  (3) living rather than studying African culture, and (4) placement in the terrain of science. I suspect he would agree that in fact these principles apply to philosophy everywhere even if it took the experience of Africans to demonstrate them to the rest of us.

 

1Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy – Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33229-X, page 130.

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CURRENT READING – AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY – PART II

African Philosophy –Myth and Reality  

“Philosophy not only exists within history, like a substance in a container, but is itself a second-order history borne by empirical history, a productive process (producing something as yet undefined) a progress. In this sense philosophy does not have a history; structurally, it is history itself.” Paulin J. Hountondji.1

After the introduction to the subject of the traditional but erroneous concept of African philosophy as ethnophilosophy, Hountondji formulates his arguments for an authentic African philosophy through three essays prepared in 1969, 1970, and 1973. Be prepared for some fascinating reading!

He starts by telling us what philosophy is not: cultural anthropology, mythology, folklorism, oral literature, poetry, stories, a collective worldview, popular notions, proverbs, or even traditional wisdom. Rather philosophy is a discipline or a science, like algebra or linguistics, based on hypotheses and theories. It derives from the confrontation between individual thoughts through free and open discussion and debate. It is an intellectual effort to know, understand, and think out doctrines.

For Hountondji, philosophy is always in a sense a metaphilosophy2,3 developed by reflecting on its history with new thinkers feeding on the doctrines of their predecessors (and contemporaries). In the case of African philosophy, he feels it is best when directed to an African public, although it can include debates on Western philosophy.

His thoughts crystalize into three main points:4

1)   Philosophy is not a system, but a history.

2)   It moves forward by leaps and bounds, or revolutions.

3)   African philosophy may today (June 1973?) be going through its first mutation.

By the first point, he means that philosophy is not a finished system of absolute truth, but a historical dialectic. But that history is discontinuous, a zigzag, often shifting suddenly through revolutionary thinking. His examples of revolutions in Western philosophy include Descartes’ revolt against Scholasticism, Kant’s critique of existing dogmatism in response to Hume’s skepticism, and Marx’s materialism as revolt against Hegel’s idealism. However Hountondji adopts Louis Althusser’s theory that philosophical revolutions follow scientific revolutions, and as such philosophical discourse must be modeled on scientific discourse.

Now science depends on writing, the recording of discovery. Here we find the linchpin of authentic philosophy. Oral traditions demand preservation via repetition often leading to dogmatism; written documents do the remembering, and instead questioning and rebuttal are encouraged. Philosophy then must be based on written documents in order to enable criticism and debate. This also answers the question as to whether philosophical fragments from the oral tradition can be authentic – the answer is yes, but the process begins at the precise moment of transcription. Nonetheless above all “African philosophy is inseparable from African science.”5

His third point is the utterly critical one; at last we see the direction Hountondji is taking. African philosophy is emerging from its Western ethnophilosophical fog, and his generation of philosophers, being the first, will initiate and define African philosophy. They will be the Platos, Aristotles, Zenos, and Epicuruses of the first authentic African philosophy. Imagine the excitement he and his colleagues feel as, integral parts of, in his own beautiful words, “that groping, endless history, that unquiet, forever incomplete quest we call philosophy”6 

Our next and final post on Hountondji will look at his analysis of two major African philosophical works.

 

1Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy – Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33229-X, page 101.

2Ibid. Page 63.

3Metaphilosophy is the philosophy of philosophy, essentially the attempt to answer the question: “What is philosophy?”  See Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8 page 589.

4Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy – Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33229-X, page 71.

5Ibid. Page 106.

6Ibid. Page 64.

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CURRENT READING – AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY – PART I

African Philosophy –Myth and Reality 1

“…Bantu ‘philosophy’ is shown to be a myth. To destroy the myth once and for all, and to clear our conceptual ground for a genuine theoretical discourse – these are the tasks now awaiting African philosophers and scientists.” – Paulin J. Hountondji.2

In my search through the philosophy section of my local used book store I came upon this book with its intriguing title. Mr. Hountondji is (or was) Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Benin, Cotonou and former Minister of Culture and Communication and Special Advisor to the Head of State of Benin, a small former French colony and then Marxist state, now a republic in western Africa. He was a visiting professor at our local university in 2008. The edition in my possession is part of a series called  African Systems of Thought.

In the preface, Hountondji sets down his perspective. First he follows Plato in that philosophy is the study of episteme (truth) not doxa (opinion). Philosophy cannot be inferred from culture and linguistics, so-called ethnophilosophy. Rather he defines African philosophy as literary works written by Africans and self-identified as philosophy. He also resists the idea of absorbing philosophy into politics.

A bit of history is instructive here. The science of anthropology arose in the 19th century against the backdrop of European colonialism and missionary work in Africa and elsewhere. In the traditional Western view, Africans were seen as ‘primitives’ and thought to have contributed very little to human ideas and civilization. By the 1920s, there was a movement to pluralism and relativism, and an attempt to revise the Western understanding of African philosophy. The main problem was the lack of written texts;  researchers were forced to extract philosophy from African culture and linguistics. Placide Tempels, a Belgian missionary, published his very influential book, Bantu Philosophy, in 1945. In it he distills from his observations the following:

“I believe that we should most faithfully render Bantu thought in the European language by saying that the Bantu speak, act, live as if, for them, beings were forces. Force is not for them an adventitious, accidental reality. Force is even more than a necessary attribute of beings: Force is the nature of being, force is being, being is force.”3

This seems, to me, incredibly powerful, and even complementary to the philosophy of Schopenauer (will) and Nietzsche (the will to power), but Hountondji and other Africans debunk it as mere European projection, especially as a means to enhance Christianization of Africans. Nonetheless later European and African intellectuals (such as Leopold Sengher, Alexis Kagame, and even Hountondji himself) expand on Tempel’s formulation or expend a great deal of energy on its refutation. Left unresolved is the question of the place for an alternate dynamic ontology of being as force in contrast to the classical Aristotelian static ontology of being as substance.

However, at the end of the day, I deeply respect the intellectual ideal that  all people develop their own philosophy through dialectic. We pick up with Hountondji’s arguments for an authentic African philosophy next time.

 

1Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy – Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33229-X. This book is featured on the list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century.

2Ibid. Page 44.

3Ibid. Page 16.

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