A distinction, initially very sharp but progressively less distinct, must be drawn between the philosophical and the political contexts of The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy. Philosophically, the context is an academic struggle between approaches to “African philosophy.” Specifically, an “ethnophilosophical” orientation, which researched and elaborated “traditional African wisdom,” generated an opposition by “professional philosophy.” Professional philosophers, working in the Marxist and neo-Marxist traditions, emphasized a “scientific”—quantitative, technical, and historico-materialistic—approach to reality.
The political context is African decolonization. After the European powers withdrew, willingly or otherwise, the immediate euphoria of independence gave way to a growing awareness of Africa’s subordinate status. A connection was soon made, especially by professional philosophers, between a continuing colonialism and the nonscientific, religious psychology attributed to Africans by ethnophilosophers. Conversely, the “scientific” philosophers saw their own views as progressive. However, as self-proclaimed Marxist regimes came to power across the continent and, at best, imposed Western notions of “development” on Africans, a third generation of African philosophers began to suspect that the “scientists” were themselves neocolonial. Tsenay Serequeberhan is a leading member of that third generation.
The structure of The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy is as follows. After a relatively short introduction and before a brief conclusion, the book is divided into four quite distinct chapters. The first chapter interprets the contemporary historical situation in Africa as neocolonial, the second conducts a lengthy critique of the schools of African philosophy, the third considers the situation of the colonized in Africa, especially in terms of violence and counterviolence, and the fourth discusses contemporary liberation movements, including the political thought associated with them, as the “lived historicity” of postcolonial Africa. Overall, the movement of the text is from neocolonial to postcolonial, from subordination to liberation, and from the “horizon” of the old discourse to that of the new.