Tsenay Serequeberhan Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Employing intellectual tools fashioned by phenomenology, existentialism, and, especially, hermeneutics, Serequeberhan sought to articulate a postcolonial African philosophy rooted in the “lived experience” of African political liberation.

Early Life

Tsenay Serequeberhan has a dual parentage, natural and political. He is the son of his father, Serequeberhan Gebrezgi, and his mother, Assegedetch Aradom; however, Serequeberhan is also the child of Eritrea’s protracted struggle for freedom and self-determination. Less than four months after his birth, Eritrea, on September 11, 1952, was federated with Ethiopia, largely as a result of the geopolitical interests of the United States. The union was not one of equals. The Ethiopian regime, under Emperor Haile Selassie, repeatedly violated the terms of the federal agreement. Finally, on November 14-15, 1962, Eritrea was annexed and made a province of Ethiopia.

Resistance to Ethiopian domination and movements for Eritrean liberation began even before the 1962 annexation. During the early and mid-1950’s, students became increasingly militant, partly in conjunction with armed liberation movements such as the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM), established in 1958, and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), formed in 1961. Secondary school students, including Serequeberhan, were often involved in protests and demonstrations. The ideological orientation of the activists became increasingly Marxist, especially after the demise of the ELM and the subsequent splintering of the ELF and its ultimate replacement by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in the early 1970’s.

However, Serequeberhan pursued a philosophical rather than directly political path. He left Eritrea to continue his education in the United States, a center of overseas Eritrean activism. He received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of Massachusetts at Boston in 1979. His undergraduate specialization suggests the continuation of his early Eritrean political focus, as does his membership in the Eritrean Mass Association for Independence. However, events in Ethiopia during the late 1970’s hinted at the difficulties of a strictly Marxist approach. The Haile Selassie regime had been overthrown in 1974 by the Provisional Military Advisory Committee, called the Derg. A period of chaos ensued, ending in February, 1977, with a coup led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu, employing massive military aid from the Soviet Union, attacked and scattered the EPLF, which had been on the verge of success in Eritrea. A Soviet-backed Marxist regime in Ethiopia had decided that a Marxist-oriented liberation movement in Eritrea was no longer “progressive.”

Life’s Work

Serequeberhan’s change in focus from political science to philosophy signaled the start of his search for intellectual foundations to assist in the support of African political liberation. Political developments in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and other African nations during the 1970’s and early 1980’s revealed the limitations of Marxism as a political philosophy. Marxism was European in its origins and Eurocentric in its outlook. It was abstract and “totalizing” in its social, economic, and political analyses, dogmatic in its philosophical presuppositions, and deeply involved in superpower rivalries and the Cold War. Despite its faults, for Serequeberhan and many other African political intellectuals Marxism remained of some use, especially in its emancipatory aspirations and its critical, dialectical approach. However, it was far more modern European than African and therefore more neocolonial than postcolonial.

Serequeberhan’s first attempts to develop an African political philosophy consistent with indigenous liberation movements occurred within the context of African philosophy. When Serequeberhan began his graduate work in philosophy at Boston College in about 1980, African philosophy fell into two categories: ethnophilosophy and professional philosophy. Broadly speaking, ethnophilosophers were Christian missionaries and their African students who understood philosophy in terms of traditional African religion; professional philosophers were Marxists for whom philosophy was to be scientific. To the minds of Serequeberhan and some other young African philosophers, this debate was both anachronistic and irrelevant to contemporary African realities. It was repeating, to no useful purpose, the nineteenth century European argument between religion and science. Implicitly, the terms of the debate merely relegated Africa and Africans to philosophical nonexistence.

These critical considerations squarely pose Serequeberhan’s problem: How—that is, in what terms—is Africa to have philosophical existence? The answer that he returns is deceptively simple (and therefore requires some extended discussion): Africa is to have philosophical existence in terms of existence. Which is to say that Africa is to have philosophical existence in terms of post-Nietzschean philosophies of experience, existence, and historicity. Also, Africa is to have philosophical existence through (reflection on) the practical process of liberation from colonial and neocolonial subjection. In other words, Africa will move from nonexistence (or dependent existence) to (autonomous or self-determining) existence by “making itself” in the process of “making history.” This history—or more accurately, these histories—will be political, and the existence that they provide will be both historical and philosophical. The comprehensive process, therefore, will be “historical African political philosophies.”

In the early 1980’s, Serequeberhan began the detailed studies required for the realization of this ambitious philosophical project. He drew primarily on historical/philosophical and contemporary/political sources. He worked with an eye toward demonstrating the partial utility of continental European thought for the predicament of neocolonial Africa. He was convinced that Africa must liberate itself, but he grasped the important truth that the...

(The entire section is 2526 words.)