Yaw Nsarkoh: I remember Paulin Hountondji…

Yaw Nsarkoh, former Executive Vice President of Unilever

I never met Professor Paulin Hountondji, yet he influenced my thinking in many profound ways; through his recorded lectures, his interviews and several of his published works. Paulin was a profound thinker, unapologetic and fearless when he was convinced about something. He often drew attention to the fact that he was a stammerer, in humorous ways. But a few minutes into listening to Hountondji, the clarity of his thinking, the elegant provocativeness of his literary technique, the integrity of his positions, and the pure courage of his convictions, would make you forget he had quite a bad speech impediment. I have often cited Paulin Hountondji's engaging public speaking as an encouragement to young stammerers who count themselves out of this art.

The distinguished Beninois philosopher, Professor Paulin Hountondji, passed away while I was waiting for a reply to a WhatsApp message I had sent him. It was a clash of cymbals in my firmament, indeed a lightning bolt, when the news of his death reached me two days after the event.

Of the many things I remember him for, not least was his unyielding stance on charlatans. A neo-Marxist himself, one quite fond of Nkrumah, if you bother to study his writing in full, he could be scalding about the betrayal of the masses by so-called Marxist presidents of the post-independence era. Sekou Toure, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, Matthieu Kerekou and others, sometimes even Nkrumah, were excoriated by the philosopher who was not afraid to open any doors in search of the truth.

Many of his words, uttered long ago, still ring true today. I produce a few for those who never studied Hountondji:

  1. " … it is equally clear that it is not enough to proclaim oneself a Marxist to be one; that official declarations of authority - even and especially if that authority calls itself revolutionary - must be assessed in the light of its real practice; that the major problem in the sphere of political analysis is to know not so much how a regime defines itself as what objective function this self-proclaimed definition has in the political game which the regime is playing; that beyond the declaration, real or feigned, of appropriation of Marxism, the concrete role which it is made to play and, in a word, the way in which it functions: is it an agency of liberation or enslavement, a catalyst of energy or an ideological opiate, theoretical matrix of political and scientific debate or monologue of power, language of the masses or mystifying discourse carried on behind their backs?"
  2. I found Hountondji's dismissal of Kwame Nkrumah's CONSCIENCISM, especially the first edition, with a single wave of his strict and firm hands, particularly hilarious:

" It is true that at one time Nkrumah persuaded himself that he had effectively invented a new doctrine which he called 'consciencism', this strange neologism being intended to indicate the novelty of the system. But the illusion was short-lived, and it is important to note that Nkrumah reconsidered his position to the extent that all his works after CONSCIENCISM bear witness to a patient and systematic re-examination of the ideological assumptions of his earlier works. And this self-criticism was initiated even before his fall from power…"

  1. "I also continue to regard as suspect a critique which, in order to discredit a work, seeks to discredit its author. This expedient was adopted by many of the critics of Nkrumah after his fall. Bereft of political arguments, they relied on a purely psychological portrait of Nkrumah as maniac, megalomaniac, paranoiac and so on. Psychologism in political analysis is a sure sign of lack of political arguments: it is no wonder that it should be the favourite mode of argument for petty thinkers and all those who have literally nothing to say about politics."
  2. For the charlatan Marxist presidents, like Sekou Toure of later years, Hountondji would say, they were guilty of "verbal loyalty on the one hand, visceral hostility on the other."
  3. "It is not language but practice that determines whether a person or a regime is objectively on the right or on the left. And we are beginning to realize that practice can follow very different principles from those officially proclaimed - indeed, that such a gap is the rule rather than the exception and can lead to terrible tragedies. The most revolutionary ideology can be put to an objectively reactionary use, and individuals or regimes which claim to belong to the left do not necessarily do so. In every case we must look beneath the internal and external propaganda, beneath official statements at international congresses, and analyse the nature of mass participation in public affairs and the people's real capacity to control the power machine and not merely applaud it."
  4. "In an excellent Marxist critique of the Nkrumah regime Bob Fitch and Mary Oppenheimer have shown the wide gap that existed between the international reputation of the regime, universally regarded as one of the most left-wing in Africa, and its political and economic practice. I would almost say that the same sort of study is imperative today in all those African states that call themselves revolutionary. We would then be able to see why these regimes are so often judged differently according to whether they are seen from outside, through their official propaganda and international declarations, or from inside, through the weight and concrete methods of their oppressive and repressive apparatuses."
  5. "We failed to develop this heritage, and now we are powerless to prevent it from being taken over shamelessly by completely cynical and reactionary political groups, aided and abetted, it is true, by those of us for whom dialectics is a subtle way of justifying their own impatience and thirst for power. THERE IS A DANGER THAT THE TIME MAY SOON COME WHEN, IN THE NAME OF MARXISM, WE WILL BE FORBIDDEN TO READ MARX"

Point Number 7 will be my last Hountondji quote in this piece. Upon the death of the distinguished professor, I was startled by how few in my generation of Africans - outside those who had formally studied philosophy - had heard about the great Hountondji. Paulin insisted on rigour, he did not suffer those who would substitute metaphysics for philosophy gladly.

The rants and prattle of shamans, abbes, marabouts, witchdoctors and charlatan prophets, even when their conclusions were right, by accident, did not qualify as philosophy for Paulin. He stood tall against the efforts by ethnographers to create a false homogeneity of African thought systems, insisting that debate and critical reviews that led to pluralistic approaches were superior, and should be encouraged among Africans.

There is much more I could say about Emeritus Professor Paulin Hountondji, a true scholar. But for now, if I have succeeded in getting even one more person interested in the large body of work he left behind, my job is done. If we no longer think as a people, we will face extinction eventually, yet many say the time for thinking is over. Our systems of honour lean too much towards political actors in Africa, people of learning are soon forgotten. Which is why, were there to be a name change for the University of Ghana, and I pray there is not, a sitting president can dare to overlook a man like Reverend Professor C.G. Baeta's contribution, in favour of his (the president's) granduncle, a politician.

Someday, in this lifetime, may it be possible for me and many others to attend a major memorial of the colossal intellectual contributions of Paulin Hountondji, and of all the great African philosophers of his generation, whether they agreed or not. May those who are gone ahead now find rest.

Yaw Nsarkoh,
12 May 2024.

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