God Gone Astray



by Justin E. H. Smith

There is an observation sometimes made in connection with the history of philosophical reflection on the nature of human distinctness, that language has moved in, in the past few centuries, to fill a role that had previously been taken up by belief in a divinely implanted soul. We allow the faculty of language to play a role in defining what is most excellent about human beings in part because appeals to the inherence of an immortal, eternal, immaterial principle that makes us what we are have, to put it bluntly, fallen out of fashion. While for the most part the soul now has a greatly reduced place in contemporary philosophy, a reduction that was already well under way in the 19th century, nonetheless language is often invoked in ways that suggest that it is this faculty that gives us our own share of divinity, as the soul once did. Thus the poet Paul Valéry evocatively describes language as “the god gone astray in the flesh.”

This continuity is of interest to us in connection with the work of Alexis Kagame and others, already introduced, on the inherent philosophical character of natural languages, such as those of the Bantu family. Kagame is a scholar somewhat in the tradition of Hjelmslevian linguistics, and he believes that there can be no philosophy without linguistics. He is also a Catholic priest, and is working on Bantu philosophy in a respectful and critical relationship to the Belgian missionary Placide Tempels, who in 1945 published the influential study, La philosophie Bantoue.

Tempels was convinced that all truly ‘primitive’ peoples had a clear and distinct concept of the supreme being, and that from this concept flowed a full command of logic and ethics that were a reflection of the divine reason and goodness. “The faith of really primitive peoples in the supreme being,” Tempels writes, “lies at the root of all the religious conceptions current among semi-primitives: animism, dynamism, fetichism, and magic.”[1] The purportedly lowest-grade forms of belief that anthropologists had long associated with ‘primitive’ peoples were in fact only a degradation of a once pristine grasp of a truth that differed little from the one the Christian missionaries had come to share. Thus the work of the missionary was not so much to convert as to remind the native inhabitants of their real ontological commitments.

Here Tempels is echoing a standard liberal theological approach to Christian missions in the non-Christian world that had begun to emerge already in the 17th century, and one of whose most lucid exponents was G. W. Leibniz. In the Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese of 1714, for example, Leibniz argues that the ancient Chinese seem to have had a clear concept of God, but that in the recent era they had allowed themselves to be blindly governed by law and tradition to the extent that they had forgotten the basic truths they had known long ago. Again, proselytizing is thus understood not as conversion, but as inducing a sort of cultural anamnesis that reminds us all, Christians and pagans alike, of our shared commitments.

For Leibniz, too, even those cultures that have forgotten the eternal and divine truths that are the patrimony of all humanity nonetheless produce abundant traces of these truths, perhaps subconsciously, in their texts, their oral traditions, and their everyday language. It is in this connection that Leibniz imagines, in the New Essays concerning Human Understanding of 1704, how the future course of the study of human wisdom will develop. “When the Latins, Greeks, Hebrews and Arabs shall someday be exhausted,” he writes,

the Chinese, supplied also with ancient books, will enter the lists and furnish matter for the curiosity of our critics. Not to speak of some old books of the Persians, Armenians, Copts and Brahmins, which will be unearthed in time so as not to neglect any light antiquity may give on doctrines by tradition and on facts by history.[2]

With these textual traditions mastered, Leibniz thinks that the real work will have just begun: “And if there were no longer an ancient book to examine, languages would take the place of books, and they are the most ancient monuments of mankind.”[3]

Kagame, like Leibniz, believes that languages, in this case Bantu languages, are the most ancient monuments of mankind. And like Tempels, Kagame believes that the ancient monument of Bantu natural language contains markers of ontological commitments that are shared among all speakers of these languages, including commitment to the reality of God. Kagame summarizes the categorial system of Bantu thought by noting that the most general category is designated by the root -ntu, meaning ‘being’ or ‘existent’ or ‘something’.[4] There are in turn four most basic categories of being: muntu (existent with intelligence, or ‘person’, also the source of the European corruption ‘Bantu’); kintu (existent without intelligence, or ‘thing’); hantu (localizing existent, or space-time); kuntu (modal existent, or the manner of being of an existent).[5] This is all part of what Kagame describes as Bantu general metaphysics. There is also a special metaphysics of the ‘Pre-Existent’, which is the primary cause of all existents, and which is not included in the categories just outlined.

There is no single term for the pre-existent that could directly translate the word ‘God’, though there are indeed many partial synonyms, functioning as proper names, in particular Bantu languages (e.g., Mulungu in ChiNyanja, Nzambi in KiKongo). ne may nonetheless make explicit a sort of Bantu theory of the ‘divine names’, in the manner of Dionysius the Areopagite, by analyzing the numerous ways in which diverse aspects of the Pre-Existent are named and discussed in Bantu natural language: Likatonda (the Great Creator), Limdimi (the Great Guardian), Limgalizi (the Great Benefactor), and so on.[6]

According to Kagame, the concept of transcendance is logically prior to all the other divine names. One can derive from actual use of natural language a commitment to the view that the Pre-Existent is “not a Being, that is to say an essence.” When ethnographers attribute to the Bantu the view that there is a supreme being in the European sense they are committing a heresy from the Bantu point of view, since they affirm “that the Pre-Existent arose from what exists, that it is not Eternal, that it is subject to movement.” Thus, again here, Kagame interprets the implicit theology of Bantu natural language as comparable to the apophatic theology of Greek figures such as Dionysius, in that God is beyond being and non-being, but is nonetheless the ultimate cause of everything that falls within this basic opposition. God is, to the extent that he may be spoken of in human language, nyamuzinda or ‘the beginning and end’, leza or ‘all-powerful’, kalaga or ‘pre-eminent’, and so on, but all of these predicates, again, rely on the basic, primitive commitment to the view that God cannot be part of the general metaphysics of the category theory.[7] God is not, in sum, an –ntu.

We do not need to enter into the details of Kagame’s subtle and exhaustive study. What is important here is simply to gain an appreciation for his methodology, and to grasp the significance of his effort to extract a category theory, and to delineate its boundaries and describe what lies beyond it, simply from the way people talk, from their grammar and vocabulary. In effect, Kagame is doing exactly what Leibniz had anticipated we would someday have to begin doing in order to have a truly exhaustive account of the variety of human wisdom. Ethnophilosophy, on this understanding, is no less philosophy than is the study of canonical texts.

Again, though, the ontological commitments that Kagame is able to extract from natural language look perhaps too much like the commitments he himself already had at the outset of his study. It would be a remarkable thing, indeed, if the Bantu had spontaneously converged on the same basic understanding of God as had certain late antique Greek Christians working under the broad influence of a Platonic metaphysics. Like Tempels, Kagame is dismissive of the elements of Bantu thought that had been classified by earlier ethnographers as ‘primitive’, and he sees his denial of the centrality of ‘fetishes’ or of ancestor worship in Bantu culture as a crucial part of his defense of their (and also his own) dignity and equality to all other human beings.

Like Leibniz and Tempels both, Kagame thus conceives the difference between Christian tradition and pagan cultures as one simply of clarifying our real ontological commitments and coming to see that we in fact already believe the same things, that we all have an equal share in the truth in virtue of our descent, as children of God, from the same first parents. What is particularly striking here is that these old theological ideas should survive so robustly into 20th century plaidoyers for the integrity and sophistication of traditional, non-textual knowledge systems, not just on the part of European missionaries, but also of figures such as Kagame, who are working with the very sophisticated technical apparatus of 20th-century linguistic philosophy, and who see themselves in effect as mediators between the intellectual traditions of Europe, on the one hand, and indigenous culture on the other.

Must one, however, take recourse to the vestiges of the prisca theologia tradition, the idea that all human wisdom flows from the same source, in order to find a compelling way of speaking of the philosophical traditions of historically non-textual cultures such as those of the Bantu-speaking peoples? Does the turn toward natural language as the vehicle and so to speak the ‘text’ of ethnophilosophy allow to endure too much of the older conception of human beings as bearing, in their immortal souls, marks of a singular divine creation?

What the present case study strongly suggests is that the expectation that there should be such a thing as Bantu philosophy at all may be seen as a sort of naturalization, in this case in terms of natural language, of the theological anthropology that helped to support and rationalize the early modern Christian missionary endeavor. That is, one way of understanding the expectation, that every culture has a latent philosophy waiting to be drawn out by someone brought up in the explicit and self-conscious tradition of Philosophia, is that it is a survival of the old idea that every tribe, no matter how far it has wandered and how forgetful it has become, still carries an inkling of the true knowledge of God. Are we, then, forced to concede that ‘philosophy’ is in fact coextensive with ‘Philosophia’, and that any attempt to extend it further is to fail to take the intellectual traditions of non-European peoples on their own terms? This is a question to which we will be returning frequently…

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website. Excerpted from a draft of Justin’s forthcoming book, The Philosopher: A Short History.


[1] Placide Tempels, Bantu Philosophy, Paris: La Présence Africaine, 1959 [1945], 20.

[2] Leibniz, Die philosophischen Schriften, V, 318.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alexis Kagame, La philosophie Bantu comparée, Paris: La Présence Africaine, 1976, 121.

[5] Kagame, La philosophie Bantu comparée, 122.

[6] Kagame, La philosophie Bantu comparée, 131.

[7] Kagame, La philosophie Bantu comparée, 152.