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The Contesting Memory of African Philosophy

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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‘In my view, a worthwhile African philosophic reflection must necessarily be a hermeneutic or interpretative reflective-reflexive exploration of our contemporary African socio-political situation. Of course, one can also philosophize—interpretatively engage—Africa’s religious, artistic, etc., traditions and this would be, in and of itself interesting, but not relevant! Not relevant, because what has become worthy of questioning in Africa today is the systemic collapse of society.’

Democracy, for example, is not an alien concept. Many African societies/communities, in precolonial Africa, practiced differing forms of democratic self-rule, village democracy, democracy of elders, etc.’

A destructive reading of Kant, Hegel, or Marx is not merely a negative undertaking. It is also a positive project of separating the “wheat” from the “chaff.” And so, a destructive reading of Marx is aimed at appropriating, in the context of the present and within our ontic situation, his theory of alienation; likewise, for Hegel and Kant: Hegel’s idea of Sittlichkeit, or Kant’s conception of “perpetual peace.

Tsenay Serequeberhan’s work has a double focus (Continental and Africana philosophy) and is centered on social-political questions and concerns, broadly conceived. He is presently working on a book-length manuscript exploring our postcolonial “effective-history” (Gadamer), to be titled Thinking the Present. here he discusses an Africanist perspective on the Western philosophical tradition, why take a hermeneutical approach to philosophy, what African philosophy is, the importance of the impact of colonialism on African philosophy, why African philosophy must be a hermeneutic or interpretative reflective-reflexive exploration of our contemporary African socio-political situation,  the ‘destructuring possibilities of African philosophical thought’, Hegel, Kant, Hountondji, professional philosophy, and what ‘return to source’ and ‘reclaim our human identity’ mean.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Tsenay Serequeberhan:  I have always, even as a child, wondered about what made things “tic.” And so, having done an undergraduate degree in political science, I decided to go on and pursue higher degrees in philosophy. Also, at the time, the end of the 70s of the last century, the political situation in my country of origin (Eritrea) was undergoing a very complex and difficult experience. We were fighting a war of liberation (1961-1991) against a country, Ethiopia, that was supported directly and/or indirectly by both super-powers. In this sense my philosophical concerns arose out of anxiety for the wellbeing and the future of my country of origin. And so, philosophy is for me always connected with politics.

African Philosophy

3:AM: You approach philosophy, and in particular African philosophy, from a hermeneutical perspective, a tradition that you place Heidegger as being an important (though personally odious) figure. So, can you first say why you think a Heideggerian and Gadamerian hermeneutics is the best approach to contemporary African philosophy, especially given that it is a tradition heavily indebted to a specific Eurocentric and Germanic orientation in its beginnings?

TS:  In responding to this question, I would like to begin by pointing out the obvious. From an Africanist perspective—of any strip—most of the European philosophical tradition is rather odious. Indeed, as I have shown, by exploring destructively the historical-political perspectives of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, the views of these icons of the Occidental tradition are saturated with a Eurocentrism which they take to be consubstantial with the humanity of the human as such. And it is not only them. If one is willing to do the detailed destructive leg-work, one will see that the Occidental tradition is grounded on a metaphysics that privileges the Christian West. By contrast, Heidegger (his personal and odious political blunders not withstanding) articulates a question—the being question— that systematically undermines this tradition by putting it into question and pointing out that it, this tradition, has forgotten/covered-over what it means to be.

Now, an African philosophical perspective, that takes itself seriously, must engage the question of being—i.e., what to be means—for contemporary Africa, since colonialism, above all else, destroyed the differing modes of African being-in-the-world. Indeed, the struggle for African freedom (which presently has achieved only the status of formal independence) is aimed at precisely this; reclaiming the African experience of being from within the context of our contemporary world. This is what Amilcar Cabral means by “return to the source.” This too is what Frantz Fanon is calling us to when he insists that we must invent our freedom. Remember, this is how The Wretched [Damned] of the Earth ends—one of the most important works of contemporary African philosophy.

Contested Memory

In this regard, for me, African philosophy is inherently political and informed by an interpretative exploration (i.e., hermeneutics) of the existentiality of human existence within the confines of the ontic actuality of the African experience of our European dominated world. The hermeneutics of African philosophy or African philosophical hermeneutics, in other words, is focused on articulating—out of the praxis of the anticolonial and anti-neocolonial struggle—the possibility of reclaiming the being of African existence that was mangled and substantially obliterated by colonial subjection. This, at least, has defined my efforts, since my graduate school days, as documented in my dissertation titled: The Possibility of African Freedom: A Philosophical Exploration (Boston College, 1988).

3:AM: A question that is raised by African philosophy is exactly what we’re talking about: is it an ethnographic and antiquarian documentation of ethnic African world views or a systematic philosophical exploration of the problems and concerns of present day Africa? Can you say something about this division and why you think the dichotomy this presents is in your view false? What’s wrong, in your view, with ethnophilosophy, and what’s wrong with the professional philosophy view opposed to it?

TS: In my view ethnophilosophy, which by the way, is a pejorative term coined by Paulin J. Hountondji, is nothing more than the documenting (and that is why I refer to it as the documentary orientation in African philosophy) of traditional African world-views regarding differing aspects of the human experience/existence. Now, when Tempels published his book Bantu Philosophy in 1945 and thereby displaced Lévy-Bruhl’s rather myopic idea of “primitive mentality,” he accomplished something essential and interesting and beneficial for the African anticolonial struggle, focused on the process of expelling the colonizer and reclaiming itself. But that is as far as it goes!

Philosophy is not equal to world-views. But, any world-view or mythical or religious or intellectual creation/construction has—internal to itself and at its core—a hermeneutic moment. The lived moment of a reflexive interpretative invention and inventiveness. This is what we must reclaim. For Marcien Towa this is the core aspect of what he refers to as “our generic human identity.” The capacity to institute culture and actualize history. In other words, a la Heidegger, one can affirm that “our generic human identity” is, indeed, our Dasein: Our openness to being in and out of which we function as varied openings, or varied and variegated open-nesses, i.e., lived avenues in and through which what is shows itself.

Now philosophy, as an interpretative-inventive process, in conjunction with lived practical-activity (praxis) is an indispensable moment/facet of this “human identity.” As I have argued, in various texts, this is what we must reclaim. Professional philosophy, in its critique of ethnophilosophy dumps “the baby with the bath water” because it fails to realize that any philosophic undertaking occurs within a specific horizon, i.e., a specific culture-history. It gets implicated in the Eurocentrism of the West by insisting that philosophy is basically Western or European.

In looking at our traditions we need to reclaim the inventive process in and through which traditions/heritages institute themselves. And so, we need to pay attention to our sedimented past (ethnophilosophy), but only as a critical reflective point of departure for thinking our contemporary problems within and out of our lived context. In this regard a “library of ethnophilosophy,” a kind of intellectual history of our varied peoples would be helpful to our philosophic efforts. For philosophy—African or otherwise—is always concerned with “the manner of one’s life” (Plato’s Republic, Grube trans., 329d). It is an ongoing critical and dialogical interpretative sifting of lived existence and the conceptions, ideas, and values that sustain it. And so, if we are to avoid, in African philosophy, Thrasymachus’s shame-faced “blushing” (Ibid. 350d), in my view, it is imperative that we engage the concerns of life that matter most to the present. For Africa is a Continent that is hemorrhaging its young… losing its future…

Our Heritage

3:AM: Why do you say the cultural experience of colonialism and neo-colonialism is so important for African philosophy?

TS:  The experience of colonialism for Africa was above all else destructive. Broadly speaking, colonialism had three different effects on the colonized. Extermination (in the Americas), political-military imposition without substantially affecting the indigenous cultures and traditions (Asia), and political-military imposition and the substantial destruction/hybridization/contamination of the indigenous heritage (Africa). And so, to be meaningful, the end of colonialism in Africa must not only expel the foreign occupier (what we have achieved, thus far) but reclaim our human capacity to institute and actualize history. In other words, we must go beyond mimicking or imitating the West and as Cabral and Fanon suggest we must re-invent ourselves into existence.

We must “return to the source” from within and out of the concerns of the present. This is what Fanon suggests in the conclusion of The Wretched [Damned] of the Earth. To decolonize cannot mean only to expel the colonizer but to re-institute that which the colonizer obliterated. Conceptualized in this manner the anticolonial and anti-neocolonial struggle becomes a creative process of re-claiming differing modes of existence, and in this sense, it is an enriching process of humanity recovering itself.

In other words, colonialism was a systematic process of “cultural-historical species” extinction, its reversal must then be a process of re-claiming—as much as possible—and reconstituting that which the colonizing Occident destroyed (i.e., made extinct) when it was still in the firm grip of its solipsistic and narcissistic conception of itself as co-equal with the humanity of the human, as such.

3:AM: How would you characterize the theoretic and lived realities out of which proper African philosophy is produced? Is there a connection between the discourse of the liberation struggle and contemporary discussions of African philosophy?

TS:  In my view, a worthwhile African philosophic reflection must necessarily be a hermeneutic or interpretative reflective-reflexive exploration of our contemporary African socio-political situation. Of course, one can also philosophize—interpretatively engage—Africa’s religious, artistic, etc., traditions and this would be, in and of itself interesting, but not relevant! Not relevant, because what has become worthy of questioning in Africa today is the systemic collapse of society. As I noted in my response to your question earlier, Africa is a continent that is profusely and on an ongoing basis and in an accelerated manner (since the 60s, the decade of independence) hemorrhaging its youth to the world—is this not a crucial question? a worthy question?

In other words, if Socrates questioned values (i.e., what is piety, justice, courage, etc.,) it is because in his day and age, because of many factors (not least of which was the Peloponnesian war), these terms had become slippery and problematic. In Africa today, what is problematic are not our intricate and complex traditions—religious or artistic or otherwise—but the simple affairs of politics that are systematically undermining life and making us all perpetual migrants, refugees.

This is what is worthy of questioning. The discourse of the liberation struggle must be critically sieved and explored. This is the task, in my view, of the contemporary practice of African philosophy. Otherwise, soon enough, we will all become the “boat people” of the Mediterranean…

3:AM: How does hermeneutics help theorize the possibility of African freedom, which you call Being, from the African liberation struggle?

TS: Hermeneutics—philosophy—is inherently an ongoing inventory of all the traces that have sedimented in us and which constitute our being (Gramsci) and as such it is a “hateta.” This Ge’ez word designates a process of detailed critical questioning. Now, for me, contemporary African philosophy as an offshoot of the theorizing and practical struggle that has secured the present-day independence of Africa, must be an ongoing hermeneutic exploration of our possibilities. It must be a systemic reflective sifting and sieving of our heritage—colonial, precolonial, and postcolonial—in view of our future possibilities, to be secured in freedom and democracy.

Democracy, for example, is not an alien concept. Many African societies/communities, in precolonial Africa, practiced differing forms of democratic self-rule, village democracy, democracy of elders, etc. This needs to be critically explored, amended, modified, and systemically re-appropriated within the context of our present needs and concerns. This is a task, among other things, of a contemporary African philosophic reflection.

The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy

3:AM: How do you characterize the emancipatory possibilities in your hermeneutical explorations and in particular the ‘destructuring possibilities of African philosophical thought’?

TS: The de-structuring possibilities of African philosophic thought are aimed at exploring and exposing short-comings, blind-spots, contradictions, and the untenable claims and suppositions of our traditions and inherited conceptions in order to “dig-out” and appropriate that which is of value, in our tradition, which has been preserved and also covered-over by them. A destructive reading of Kant, Hegel, or Marx is not merely a negative undertaking. It is also a positive project of separating the “wheat” from the “chaff.” And so, a destructive reading of Marx is aimed at appropriating, in the context of the present and within our ontic situation, his theory of alienation; likewise, for Hegel and Kant: Hegel’s idea of Sittlichkeit, or Kant’s conception of “perpetual peace.” The aim of a destructive stance is thus to appropriate while discarding—in view of our present and future hopes—that which we have as an inheritance.

3:AM: You see African philosophy as a practice of resistance to the ideas and conceptions that legitimated European expansion into Africa in the first place, as a critical and combative hermeneutics of our contemporary African situation. Some icons of Western philosophy are therefore subjected to this approach: can you say something about your approach to Hegel and the idea of colonialism in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right?

TS:  Hegel is one of the great thinkers of the Western tradition, and his Philosophy of Right (1821), is one of the most important texts of modern social-political philosophy. In this text Hegel, brazenly, justifies European colonialism as a manifestation of the Idea. In this regard, it seems to me, and not only with Hegel, that one must show how this is in contradiction to the claims of modernity. One must show how, beguiled by its own lofty conception of itself, the West justifies its global pillage in the name of civilization and Christianity. In doing this one exposes the interlinked actuality of philosophy with its lived milieu and, in so doing, creates the context in which one can think of the practice of philosophy as an act of combat. In this, the aim is to discard the justification of brutality and appropriate, for example, in Hegel, the idea of Sittlichkeit. And so, in this effort while critically de-structuring one also positively engages Hegel’s intent, i.e., to appropriate, within the context of the modern world, the Greek idea of society, i.e., Sittlichkeit.

3:AM: You also write about the Eurocentrism of Kant: can you sketch for us how you approach Kant?

TS:  Kant is also one of the great thinkers of all time. And as such, he embodies, at its highest level and in its ideal form, the desired self-understanding that modern Occidental humanity has of itself. And for this reason, he incarnates in a very blunt way all the shortcomings and “blind-spots” that constitute this humanity.

We need to expose his shortcomings, the incongruent and the contradictory, the untenable narcissism that has been theorized as the Occident’s desirable self-understanding, in order to appropriate what is of value in his thought. This is what I have tried to do in my reading of his historical and political writings. When I published “Eurocentrism in Philosophy: The Case of Immanuel Kant” (The Philosophical Forum, vol. 27, no. 4, 1996), Kant’s eurocentrism and racism were not popular topics of discussion. Today, things are more nuanced.

3:AM: Cornel West points out that to bracket Europe at all costs is itself a product of the African encounter with the West. Hegel and Kant (and Heidegger and Gadamer as well) are all philosophers whose ideas have been important for the hermeneutic tradition which you work in. How do you negotiate this pervasive aspect of your approach to philosophy which does seem clearly the approach of a Westernized African?

TS:  The world—as a whole—has been hybridized! Much of what The Occident values as the source of its strength and its contribution to humanity came to it from the Greeks via the Arabs. To recognize that one is Westernized is to accept a given situation, our lived facticity. This is not equal to being subservient! Senghor is a Westernized African and so are Cabral, Sembène, Nkrumah, Nyerere, and Lumumba. Senghor is subservient, while the latter five are not. What matters is what you do with what you have.

3:AM: And returning to the ‘Professional philosophy’ vs Ethnophilosophy dichotomy you discuss earlier, why doesn’t your approach count as a version of the professional philosophy? After all, it seems to draw on a well-established Western philosophical tradition familiar in many philosophy departments.

African Philosophy, Second Edition

TS: In my understanding the perspective of ‘Professional philosophy’ is grounded on the claim that philosophy, properly speaking, is constituted by the practice of the European tradition (Hountondji, Bodunrin). The hermeneutical perspective on the other hand, is grounded on the simple belief that, thinking in any language or culture is inherently interpretative—that the human being is an inherently interpretative being.

Given this interpretation of the being of human ek-sistence, philosophy is seen grosso modo as an ongoing interpretative exploration of the lived culture-history-language in which it finds itself. Out of the ontic particularity of each culture it actuates the common ontological ground that makes possible the reflective hateta of our ek-sistence, as beings open to the possible in that which is. ‘Professional philosophy’ as outlined by its pioneer (Hountondji, African Philosophy Myth and Reality, 1976) does not see itself, in this manner.

3:AM: As a take home, what does ‘return to source’ and ‘reclaim our human identity’ mean in this context? Once history has been reclaimed, what do we see?

TS: This question wrongly assumes that “history” is “reclaimed” once and for all! Living is a constant process of “returning to the source” of “reclaiming our human identity” in an ongoing way. This is what it means to live. And so, within the ambience of a sedimented and always already constituted culture-history-language, we each (each in his own way) appropriate or “return to the source” and/or “reclaim our human identity.”

In this process cultures and histories are constantly created and recreated and perpetuated overtime. Now, the formerly colonized in reclaiming her/his freedom does so by peeling away the imposed structures of the colonial experience. The aim, however, is not to reach some “authentic” “bedrock” but to reclaim those elements of life and culture—hybridized or not—that make possible a fruitful desirable life in the context of the present.

To give but one example: in the African context it would be desirable to reclaim the various forms of “village democracy” that existed in precolonial times, in the modern context. On the other hand, it would not be desirable to reclaim female genital mutilation. In reclaiming history what we are reclaiming is the creativity of our “human identity.” In reclaiming we always, and concurrently, engage ourselves in rejecting aspects of our traditions that are not useful or desirable given our present and our hopes for the future.To “return to the source” is to re-claim our openness to being within the ontic context of our lived cultures-histories.

3:AM: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about contemporary Africa?

TS:  Optimistic! Thus far, Africa has managed to achieve the status of formal freedom or independence, but still under a global neocolonial framework. The struggles to come will be struggles to reclaim our existence as Africans within the context of the contemporary world. These struggles will be much more local and very much focused on that which Cabral and Fanon emphasized: “return to the source” and inventiveness, i.e., inventively reclaiming elements of our heritage in view of contemporary concerns. And in this we will engage in a Gramscian “inventario,” critically sieving and sifting that which will be useful for our common future.

Beyond the obsession with truth—the heritage of Western metaphysics—the inventorying of the possible and the useful, for our shared future will be the task of philosophy and not only African philosophy. In this regard I refer you to the work of Gianni Vattimo.

3:AM: And some might push back against you and philosophy generally and say it’s useless. Why should people listen to the philosopher?

TS: Indeed! But we do not have a choice. To the extent that we are beings aware of our existence and who create/invent—within the limits of our cultural and historical horizon (itself a sedimented product of previous inventions/creations)—our lived existence, we must engage in philosophy. For, we must imagine the possible.

As Gramsci tells us, in his Prison Notebooks, the question is whether we will do so consciously/actively or haphazardly and under the influence of what has sedimented in us without the benefit of an “inventory.” Philosophy is this constant inventorying that arises, as Heidegger tells us, out of Dasein’s anxiety for its “to be.” And so, the question is not listening or not listening to “the philosopher” but engaging in thinking, for we are all philosophers. If we neglect this basic calling of our being, Others will think for us, impose limits on us, curtail our freedom…

3:AM: And finally, are there five books, other than your own, which readers here at 3:AM should read in order to go further into your philosophical world?

TS:

The Wretched of the Earth

1 The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon

Return to the Source

2 Return to the Source: Selected Speeches, Cabral

Volume 1: Prison Notebooks

3 Prison Notebooks, Gramsci

Truth and Method

4 Truth and Method, Gadamer

Being and Time

5 Being and Time, Heidegger

[Archive footage of interviewer with the first wave 3:AM ‘End Times’ series editorial board by Sir Lennicus Bibby]

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 12th, 2018.