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.


Like any philosophical work, The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy is most fundamentally conceptual and definitional. The leading concept is that of “hermeneutics.” Following philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer, Serequeberhan understands hermeneutics, or interpretation, as the most characteristic human activity. Those things that are distinctly human are not given to us directly. Instead, they must be understood within a (largely implicit or unspoken) context. In any given situation, that context is our “horizon.” The “situatedness” of any and all horizons constitutes their “historicity.” It follows that, for human beings, “to know” is to understand “hermeneutically” and “historically.” Further, because all knowledge is given symbolically, usually linguistically, understanding occurs in and among human communities. Any other claims to knowledge—individual, transcendental, absolute, and so forth—are based on insufficient reflection concerning the conditions of knowing.

To understand hermeneutically the “discourse” of African philosophy, then, is to place it within its “horizon.” This placement requires, according to Serequeberhan, the use of another hermeneutic concept, “misunderstanding.” Despite its name, misunderstanding is helpful because it sets hermeneutics in motion and engages its interpretative powers. In the African situation, it is “liberation” and “freedom” that are misunderstood. Instead of being representations of reality, where “freedom” means genuine self-determination, these terms are “estranged.” That is, they do not reflect the lived experience that gave rise to them originally. In contemporary African discourse, “independence” obscures what Serequeberhan bitingly calls the “lethargic inertness of neocolonialism.”

This interpretation establishes the horizon of African philosophy as neocolonial. However, it is important first to identify the ground of Serequeberhan’s interpretation. That ground is experiential; the experiences in question are, above all, those of ordinary Africans. They know that they are not free because the dimensions of freedom do not include being brutally oppressed, starved, and murdered. Serequeberhan pulls no punches here. He regards many, perhaps most African regimes as criminally incompetent—an incompetence resulting from their dependence on outside powers rather than their own people. Simply put, African rulers have not been required to govern well because they have been able to survive while barely governing at all.

“Ethnophilosophers” and “Scientists”

For Serequeberhan, African philosophy reflects this dependent, neocolonial political situation. Like African governing elites, African philosophers are dependent on external “sources.” For the “particularistic antiquarianism” of the missionary ethnophilosophers, including Placide Tempels, Alexis Kagame, and John Mbiti, that source is ultimately colonial Christianity. For the “abstract, scientific universalism” of, above all, Kwame Nkrumah and Paulin J. Hountondji, the source is neocolonial Marxism-Leninism.

Serequeberhan interprets and critiques these views at length, especially those of the authoritarian, developmentally oriented “scientists.” The most extended and interesting criticism, however, is of Leopold Sedar Senghor, the Senegalese poet, philosopher, and statesman. Although Serequeberhan considers Senghor’s views to be basically ethnophilosophical, he acknowledges that Senghor’s “essentialist particularism” is not identical to the particularistic antiquarianism of the missionaries. In plainer language, the ethnophilosophers are discussing traditionally religious Africans; Senghor views Africans in terms that are contemporary, existential, humanistic, and communal. Certainly, Senghor does contend—although quite noncontentiously—that there is an essence to “Africanity.” However, the issue, for Serequeberhan, is whether Senghor’s construction of African identity/character is other than an implicit, unconscious acceptance of European racism. This racism, Serequeberhan charges, inclines Senghor to characterize Africans as intuitive rather than analytical, mystical not empirical, and so forth. For Serequeberhan, these characterizations confuse historical contingencies with essences and thus are neocolonial.

As mentioned, the tone of Senghor’s writing is mild, tolerant, even gentle. It is in sharp contrast to both the tone and substance of Frantz Fanon’s work, which Serequeberhan considers in discussing violence in the third major section of The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy. Because, as Serequeberhan points out, a discussion of violence is unusual in a philosophical work, Fanon’s argument must be examined very carefully.


The important hermeneutical concept of “historicity” is central here. The historicity, or the social-historical Being, of African peoples was violently interrupted by the European incursions. In other words, European violence and subsequent colonization violently interrupted the very temporal existence of Africans. In a colonized situation, Africans ceased to make, and thus to have, their own history. They became, to use Fanon’s (and Aimé Césaire’s) term, “thingified”—that is, mere biological organisms stripped of those history-making activities that make us human beings.

For “de-thingification” to occur and interrupted African history (or histories) to resume, colonial violence must be countered by decolonizing violence. Serequeberhan is understandably equivocal in arguing the case for counterviolence. The colonized do not choose violence; it is a condition of existence imposed upon them by the colonizer and by the very nature of the decolonizing “historical process” itself. The process of colonization and decolonization is violent. However, it appears that virtually all of European philosophy and European history is also violent. Then, does violence begin and end with “Europe”? Or, is all history, and therefore all peoples who would make history and thus possess historicity, similarly violent? In other words, contrary to many of the premises of hermeneutics, is there a universal (violent) “human nature,” which is the condition (and price) for possessing “historical human Being”?

Serequeberhan does not explicitly raise these traditional, difficult questions of (Western) political philosophy. Situationally, African liberation necessarily requires violence; Senghor’s “subordinate passivity” freezes Africans into an ahistorical, neocolonial existence.


The question of liberation, discussed in the fourth and final major section, begins with consideration of the fundamental “fracture” in neocolonial African societies. That fracture is between Europeanized urban intellectuals and professionals and the rural peasant and nomad masses that have been subjected to but have not internalized European control.

Both of these groups have become historically disabled, but the condition of the Westernized African is considerably more impaired. The rural people have merely had their indigenous histories interrupted by colonialism. For the most part, they are frozen in time. However, the urban intellectuals have more or less willingly adopted an external, alien history as their own. They are thus further from indigenous “sources” than the “uneducated masses” are. Nevertheless, the educated urbanites have the advantage of extensive familiarity with the modern “outside” world to which all contemporary Africans must adjust.

The differing perspectives of rural and urban Africans might be understood as “ethnophilosophy” and “professional philosophy,” respectively; and their conjunction as a “synthesis” of the perspectives. However, Serequeberhan resists this interpretation, and not only because he understands both perspectives as neocolonial. He presents a lengthy passage from the French philosopher Michel Foucault, in which Foucault argues that “liberation” properly understood...

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Deconstruction and Reconstruction

The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy concludes with a brief but important discussion of the distinction between the “deconstructive” and “reconstructive” challenges facing African philosophers. Deconstructively, the last residues of colonialism must be eliminated. For Serequeberhan, this requires that both of the traditional types of African philosophy—ethnophilosophy and professional philosophy—be treated hermeneutically and revealed as neocolonial. The implication is clear, although scholars and practitioners of African philosophy have not yet fully realized its impact: The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy is a new kind of discourse in African philosophy.

However, deconstruction is considerably less important than reconstruction. The more fundamental intention of The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy is to liberate African philosophy. In this endeavor, it is the intellectual, literary equivalent of contemporary African political liberation movements (whether directed against European or African subjugators). However, African philosophy is not merely the analogue of African politics; liberated African philosophy is an outgrowth and consequence of a new “horizon,” a genuinely postcolonial, liberated African politics.

Serequeberhan expresses his reconstructive purpose in terms of the “lived situatedness” and “lived present” that hermeneutics discloses. This may and, to realize its fuller impact, should be said more simply. The reconstruction of African philosophy literally brings philosophy to life. This does not mean that formal—and therefore antiquarian or foreign—philosophy is taught to ordinary Africans. On the contrary, professors and other bureaucratized intellectuals must understand practically the real concerns of everyday living—if, that is, horizons are to be fused.

The new, reconstructed type of African philosophy alluded to in The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy, then, is African practical philosophy. In practical philosophy, there is a meeting of the concerns of elites and the masses, rulers and ruled. Previously separated concerns move toward commonality. Practical philosophy is political philosophy and, because common, democratic political philosophy. The implication, and thus the potential impact, of The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy is assistance in the development of African political communities.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Cabral, Amilcar. Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings. Translated by Michael Wolfers. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979. An extensive collection of Cabral’s theoretical and practical writings, which have been a major influence on Tsenay Serequeberhan’s thought. Includes an introduction by Basil Davidson and very useful biographical notes.

Connell, Dan. Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1993. An eye-witness account by an American journalist of the EPLF’s long struggle for Eritrean independence. In addition to the reportage,...

(The entire section is 472 words.)