- Ethnophilosophy, Comparative Philosophy, Pragmatism:Toward a Philosophy of Ethnoscapes
In this essay I would like to reflect on the place of philosophy within a "globalized" world and reconsider its status as a phenomenon that is potentially linked to a "local" culture. Whenever we question the authority of "general" truths and we look for ways of integrating "local discourses" into the overall construction called "global philosophy," we come across the old idea of "ethnophilosophy." Far from suggesting ethnophilosophy as a model for the philosophy of the future, I intend to rethink certain themes of ethnophilosophy and contrast them with disciplines such as "comparative philosophy" and pragmatism. I will sketch an approach that I believe to be appropriate for the development of philosophy in times of globalization.
One of the negative undertones of the term "globalization" is that it is seen as a uniformizing and flattening power that eliminates existing cultural differences. On the other hand, there is an important side effect of globalization represented by those movements acting against it, stressing the importance of "localization" or "regionalization." Ethnophilosophy, in spite of its outdated origin and its potential dangers, remains interesting as an intellectual model as long as it is not formulated in a radical fashion. When it is formulated in a radical fashion it has to face the reproach of relativism and of enclosing itself in a cultural sphere that it declares to be inaccessible to others.
Ethnophilosophy: A Renaissance?
Ethnophilosophy was developed in Africa in the 1960s, although its origin can be traced back to a book on Bantu philosophy by the Belgian missionary Placide Tempels. In this book, published in 1946, Tempels tried to conclude with the view that primitive peoples have neither ontology nor logic and are unable to recognize the nature of being or even of reality as such. Tempels was looking for an ontology colored by "local" cultural components but also by language,1 and he made a serious attempt to build a philosophical system based on Bantu thought.
What followed were endless controversies about the nature of African philosophy that made of "ethnophilosophy" a stream of thought much richer than its name might allow one to suppose. A part of its stimulating power can perhaps be traced to the ambiguity of Tempels' approach: on the one hand it could easily be dismissed as paternalism or the attempt to force African philosophy into the straightjacket of European concepts, while on the other hand the expressed desire to give "ethnic" [End Page 153] philosophy a new role within the international hierarchy of the philosophies was immensely attractive. Be that as it may, Tempels' book became the real manifest of "ethnophilosophy."
Another point at issue that spurned internal ethnophilosophical discussions was the question whether African philosophy is advanced by an entire people (that is, by a collective) or by individual philosophers. This question (which does not arise in Tempels' book) was first taken up by the Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji,2 who claimed that ethnophilosophy is no philosophy at all because it remains indifferent toward individually critical, that is, typically philosophical, approaches. Related debates touch upon fundamental questions concerning the meaning of "collective thinking" or the nature of philosophy as such.3
However subtle the points may be that emerge from these discussions, for the outside observer ethnophilosophy appears to be a kind of anthropology (whose premises it continues to share) with an incorporated interest in metaphysical questions. Its opposite is "conventional" Western philosophy, which persistently explores truth with the help of a single, individual mind, aiming at the crystallization of a truth relevant for everybody. What matters for ethnophilosophy is the truth brought forward by a certain way of life of a group of people that can be found on the "inside" of a culture and that can exist independently of any considerations of those things that exist on the outside. Ethnophilosophy is radical in the sense that it not only aims to reestablish, through its opposition to the all-intruding "international" philosophy, its own philosophy within the borders of a certain nation; going much further than many of today's opponents of globalization would dare to go, ethnophilosophy thinks of philosophy...