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Research in African Literatures 35.4 (2004) 160-170

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Philosophy and the Postcolonial Condition in Africa

Harvard University
The Struggle for Meaning By Paulin Hountondji. Trans. John Conteh-Morgan. Foreword by Anthony Kwame Appiah. Athens: Ohio UP, 2002. xiv + 308 pp. ISBN 0-889680-225-6.

Paulin Hountondji is acknowledged as the most prominent figure in the debate on African philosophy, which has been, without question, the central theme of African intellectual expression in the postindependence era. He came to attention with the publication in 1976 of Sur "la philosophie africaine," a collection of essays spanning some ten years which had appeared in various journals and in which he developed a systematic critique of "ethnophilosophy," a term that he employed to designate the efforts by several scholars, beginning with Placide Tempels's Bantu Philosophy (1949), to derive philosophical content and meaning from the belief systems of various African peoples. The English translation of Hountondji's collection, published in 1983 under the title African Philosophy: Myth or Reality, was widely acclaimed and won the Herskovits award of the African Studies Association the following year. It was reissued in 1996 in a second edition, with a new preface by the author.

The present book, which represents a sequel and a complement to the 1976 collection, needs to be placed in its institutional context in order to understand its structure and to appreciate its significance. It belongs to a category of French academic texts without a parallel in the English-speaking world: a book-long essay written to supplement previously published works, with a view to the award of the higher State doctorate degree (Doctorat d'Etat). This category of works emerged in the early seventies as a result of reforms to the French educational system introduced after the events of May 1968. Previously, the State doctorate degree was awarded on the basis of a massive thesis that took years—indeed the best part of the candidate's professional life—to prepare. This degree was the sole determinant for entry into the upper levels of the French academic establishment and for advancement within it; in fact, French academics could not take credit for work they published before they had obtained the state doctorate degree with a standard thesis. With the post-1968 [End Page 160] reform, the absurdity of the prevailing system was finally recognized and eliminated, so that it became possible to submit one's published writings for consideration toward the award of the Doctorat d'Etat.

An important condition was, however, attached to the new procedure. The candidate now had the obligation to write a substantial essay reviewing his or her own previous research and publications, thus placing them in a comprehensive intellectual perspective. This exercise necessarily entailed an account of the candidate's academic career and development, as a background to the review that was required of his or her work. In the case of the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who was one of the first to take advantage of the new procedure, the essay he wrote took the form of an intellectual autobiography and a statement of his philosophical positions: indeed, the essay was published under the title Positions (1976). Hountondji's book under review here was written to satisfy the same conditions for the award of the new State doctorate in France as Althusser's. It bears another relation to this work, however, for Althusser was one of Hountondji's teachers at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS), at the rue d'Ulm, in Paris. It was as a scholarship student at this institution (practically a graduate college, something like All Souls College at Oxford) that he prepared for and obtained the highly competitive degree of Agrégation in Philosophy. It is worth noting that another of his teachers at ENS was Jacques Derrida, the originator of the literary-cum-philosophical movement known as "Deconstruction." The impact upon his own development and his work of these two towering figures of recent intellectual life in France—as indeed in the Western world generally—is reflected in...


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