Paulin Hountondji, a philosopher from Benin whose critique of colonial-era anthropology helped transform African intellectual life, died on Feb. 2 at his home in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city. He was 81.

His death was confirmed by his son, Hervé, who did not cite a cause.

As a young philosophy professor on a continent that was throwing off the colonial grip in the 1960s, Mr. Hountondji (pronounced HUN-ton-djee) rebelled against efforts to force African ways of thinking into the European worldview. Himself steeped in European thought — he was the first African admitted as a philosophy student at the most prestigious school in France, the École Normale Superieure — he developed a critique of what he called “ethnophilosophy,” a concoction of Europeans.

His work has shaped the study of philosophy in Africa ever since. It became a kind of second declaration of independence for Africa — an intellectual one this time — in the view of the African philosophers who have followed Mr. Hountondji. It was “very important and very liberating,” the Columbia University philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne said in an interview.

In his introduction to the book “Paulin Hountondji: Leçons de Philosophie Africaine,” by Bado Ndoye (published in 2022 but not yet translated into English), Mr. Diagne called him “the most influential figure in philosophy in Africa.”

A modest man who spent his career teaching in African universities, mostly at Benin’s national university, with brief forays into the turbulent politics of his small West African coastal homeland, Mr. Hountondji knew that there was something amiss in efforts by Europeans to tell Africans how they should think about their place in the universe.

He also knew that the emerging strongman rule of the 1960s, with its enforced groupthink, spelled trouble for the continent. He found the roots of that idea of collective thought — wrongly considered a natural attribute of Africans — in the “ethnophilosophy” that he so strongly criticized.

Armed with his work on the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, in his late 20s and early 30s Mr. Hountondji undertook to confront head-on “Bantu Philosophy,” a book by a Belgian missionary priest, Placide Tempels, that for nearly 30 years had set the tone for African philosophy.

When Father Tempels, an ecclesiastical rebel who lived for decades in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, published “Bantu Philosophy” in 1945, it was seen by a first generation of pre-independence African intellectuals as groundbreaking. It purported to restore intellectual dignity to a continent viewed as “primitive” in the colonialist worldview.

Contrary to European belief that Africans were incapable of abstract thought, Father Tempels suggested that they actually did have a philosophy, a way of seeing themselves in the universe.

But in a series of essays beginning in 1969 and collected in the book “African Philosophy: Myth and Reality” (published in 1976 in French and in 1983 in English), Mr. Hountondji set out to demolish the Belgian priest’s work as no more than ethnographic musings that ultimately bolstered colonialism.

In a series of essays collected in the book “African Philosophy: Myth and Reality,” Mr. Hountondji set out to demolish the work of the Belgian missionary priest Placide Tempels, which for decades had set the tone for African philosophy.Credit…Riveneuve

Whether or not one agreed with Father Tempels’s central thesis — that for the “Bantu,” or African, “being” means “power” — his whole approach was flawed, Mr. Hountondji argued. Philosophy can’t emanate from a group, he wrote, but must be the responsibility of individual philosophers, an idea influenced by Mr. Hountondji’s knowledge of Husserl.

But that responsibility was absent in Father Tempels’s largely anonymous band of “Bantus,” he said.

In a memoir, “Combats Pour le Sens: Un Itineraire Africain” (1997), published in English in 2002 as “The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa,” Mr. Hountondji rejected “the construction, as a norm for all Africans, past, present and future, of a form of thinking, a system of beliefs, which could at best only correspond to an already determined stage of the intellectual journey of Black peoples.”

So, Mr. Hountondji wrote, “what was thus presented as ‘Bantu philosophy’ was not really the philosophy of the Bantu, but of Tempels, and engaged only the responsibility of the Belgian missionary, having become, for the occasion, the analyst of the ways and customs of the Bantu.”

These thoughts had the effect of a bomb in African intellectual life. Mr. Hountondji was criticized for elitism, for “Eurocentrism” and for rejecting Africa’s oral traditions. But these criticisms soon fell by the wayside, and today his “critique of ethnophilosophy enjoys canonical status in contemporary African philosophy,” Pascah Mungwini wrote in his 2022 survey, “African Philosophy.” He called it a “philosophical masterpiece.”

African thinkers had been freed from an immemorial set of beliefs to which European thinkers like Father Tempels, and the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule, had chained them.

“What the Belgian Franciscan was offering was really a system of collective thought, which was supposedly a positive African attribute,” Mr. Hountondji told Radio France Internationale in a 2022 interview. “This is not the sense of the word ‘philosophy.’”

Mr. Hountondji “wanted the purity of the idea,” Mr. Diagne said. “What had to be cleared away was all the picturesque of ‘anthropology.’’’

In the early 1970s, Mr. Hountondji taught philosophy at universities in what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country was then “living under the boot of a general,” Mobutu Sese Seko, who used “traditional ‘philosophy’ to justify or hide the worst excesses, the most atrocious human rights violations,” Mr. Hountondji wrote in his memoir.

Mr. Hountondji’s “refusal of the unanimist message” in the Zaire of General Mobutu, as Mr. Diagne put it, echoed his rejection of the missionary Father Tempels, who, like the general, suggested that Africans all spoke with one voice.

These reflections on autocracy and the enforced political support it entails influenced Mr. Hountondji’s reluctant entrance into public life in Benin, where, as a professor at the National University, he had chafed under the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of Gen. Mathieu Kérékou. What Mr. Hountondji called General Kérékou’s “regime of terror” ended after a 1990 national conference of Benin citizens summoned by the general unexpectedly turned against him.

Mr. Hountondji was invited to the conference and immediately zeroed in on the central issue, to the displeasure of the general’s subordinates: whether the gathering could decide the country’s future. Mr. Hountondji’s was the “only legitimate and possible solution,” the historian Richard Banegas wrote in “La Démocratie au Pas de Caméléon” (2003), his political history of Benin.

Mr. Hountondji’s side won, and Benin became a democracy — for a time. Mr. Hountondji unexpectedly found himself minister of education in the new government, from 1990 to 1991, and minister of culture and communication from 1991 to 1993.

He was unsuited to political life, his son, Hervé, said in an interview, because “it was out of the question for him to shut himself up in a political party.” Mr. Hountondji wrote in his memoir that one day he would develop his thoughts on “the cynicism, the hypocrisy, the daily lies, which make up daily political life.” He never did.

He went back to teaching at the national university, now the Université d’Abomey-Calavi, where he was to remain for the rest of his career.

Paulin Jidenu Hountondji was born on April 11, 1942, in Treichville, now part of Abidjan in Ivory Coast, to Paul Hountondji, a pastor in the Methodist Church, and Marguerite (Dovoedo) Hountondji.

He received his baccalauréat (the equivalent of a high school diploma) at the Lycée Victor-Ballot, a school where the country’s elite were educated, in Porto-Novo, Benin’s capital. He went on to earn a degree in philosophy from the École Normale Superieure in Paris in 1967 and his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Paris under Paul Ricoeur, with a thesis on Husserl, in 1970.

As a student in Paris in the first days of African independence, Mr. Hountondji wrote, he grew disturbed by the willingness of other African students to paper over the crimes of one of the continent’s new heroes, the Guinean dictator Sekou Touré, who was to wind up driving much of his country into exile.

Mr. Hountondji taught philosophy at the National University of Zaire in 1971 and 1972 before returning to his native Benin. From 1998 until his death he was director of the African Center for Advanced Studies in Porto-Novo.

In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Flore, and his wife, Grâce (Darboux) Hountondji. Two former presidents of Benin spoke at his funeral in Cotonou on March 1.

In later years, Mr. Diagne said, Mr. Hountondji “believed he had gone too far in his radicality” in his earlier skepticism of African oral traditions.

Yet he remained firm to the end that Europeans should not be doing the thinking for Africans. “There’s a colonialist point of view that all Africans agree with each other, and have the same way of thinking,” Mr. Hountondji told French radio in 2022. “The colonialist view is insensitive to the plurality of opinions in an oral civilization.”

Flore Nobime contributed reporting from Cotonou.

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