By Yoseph Mulugeta Baba (Ph.D.)*

Part VII

(Note: One has to read all my previous articles, to fully understand the current one!) 

Oromo Women Welcoming: The birth of a baby of either gender is marked by a traditional women-only dance which welcomes the infant into the world.
Oromo Women Welcoming: The birth of a baby of either gender is marked by a traditional women-only dance which welcomes the infant into the world.

The pseudo-epistemological assumptions embedded in both the “ethnophilosophical” and “universalist” approaches have been challenged by the hermeneutical school. (Tsenay Serequeberhan 1994: Passim; 2000: Passim; Theophilus Okere 1983: Passim; Okonda Okolo, 1991: 201-210; Raphael Okechukwu Madu 1992: Passim) Thanks to African philosophical hermeneutics, the essentialism of “ethnophilosophers” and the stereotypes of “professional philosophers,” have been shown to be unacceptable philosophical approaches to contemporary African philosophy. To use Tsenay’s philosophical assertion, African philosophical hermeneutics opposes both the particularistic antiquarianism of Ethnophilosophy and the abstract universalism of Professional philosophy. (Tsenay Serequeberhan, 1994, P.5) “What is unacceptable in both of the previous perspectives is that, in a strange sort of way, the seemingly contrary positions of Ethnophilosophy and Professional Philosophy implicitly share the ‘prejudice that views Africa as primitive and with a purely mythical mentality.’” (Ibid., P.6)

Thus, it must be noted that African philosophical hermeneutics neither rejects nor admits the views of either the “modernist” or “traditionalist” schools in their totality. Rather, it explicitly asserts the ways in which the very interpretations of philosophy provided by both “ethnophilosophers” and “professional” philosophers equally fail, such that their interpretations cannot be considered authentic interpretations of what the philosophical approach of contemporary academic African philosophy ought to be. On the one side, it dismisses the school of “ethnophilosophy” on the grounds that a culture and collective beliefs are not worthy of the title “philosophy”. Instead, the school asserts that collective and unconscious thought calls for hermeneutic philosophy. The main task of the hermeneutical school, as we know, is to explicate what is concealed via critical interpretation. “While taking culture as philosophy is a mistake, a philosophical reflection on culture is most relevant, the great difference being that, contrary to ethnophilosophy, hermeneutics remains distinct from the culture whose explication it is.” (Messay Kebede, 2004, PP. 118-119)

On the other side, the position of “professional” philosophy is rejected on the grounds that the particular experience of Africans turns into an explication of negative characteristics due to the use of a framework marked by uncritical acceptance of the Western paradigm of philosophy as a universal framework. Such a universalist approach attempts to endorse Western categorical-epistemic concepts rather than taking African tradition as its starting point. As Messay correctly asserts, “The hermeneutical philosopher takes seriously the historicity of human beings, arguing that philosophical reflection misses an essential dimension when it wanders away from the concrete conditions of life.” (Ibid., P. 119) Here, I shall single out three African philosophical hermeneutists who among others, explicate how and why these thinkers have posed a titanic challenge to both ethnophilosophical and universalist approaches.  

Theophilus Okere: To begin with, let us take Barry Hallen’s observation (Barry Hallen, 2002, P. 61) that Theophilus Okere is one of the earlier advocates of the hermeneutical approach to African philosophy. In his African Philosophy: A Historico-Hermeneutical Investigation of Conditions of its Possibility, Okere appropriates the hermeneutic nature of philosophy by arguing that all philosophical discourse must spring from non-philosophy. Okere explicitly states that non-philosophy “must stand for the non-reflected, that unreflected baggage of cultural background.” (Theophilus Okere 1983, P. 88) As such, philosophy should be rooted in a particular tradition having the non-philosophical features of lived experience. “All philosophical discourse is first and foremost an answer to problems and questions raised within questioning horizon which means always, a culture.” (Ibid., P. 64) It must be noted that this philosophical view of Okere, as Hallen has identified it, is imbedded with Gadamer’s “notions of the relativity of cultural and social contexts.” (Barry Hallen, 2002, P. 62)

Accordingly, Okere has challenged both the “ethnophilosophers’” and “professional philosophers’” views of philosophy. In regard to ethnophilosophical view, although he holds that the hermeneutical moment is the appropriation of non-philosophical roots without negating them, Okere, however, specifically mentions and rejects the philosophical works of Tempels, Kagame, and Mbiti. For him, “philosophy is really a manufacturing from raw materials of culture. It is an act of intellectual creation [sic] where the new creation is a meaning born from the melting of one’s total experience.” (Theophilus Okere 1983, P. xiv)

In a similar vein, Okere has explicitly dismissed the universalist definition of and approach to African philosophy. “Professional Philosophy”, he contends, imposes a foreign culture on Africa, which is to say the universalist notion of philosophy is not rooted in the historical and social realities of the African continent. Rather, it is “dictated by Western cultural and historical backgrounds.” (Ibid) The main implication is that a philosophical discourse that does not arise from and relate directly to the particular culture cannot be genuinely African.

A starting point he [Okere] shares in common with most hermeneutical philosophers in and of Africa generally is the conviction that European imperialism and colonialism violently and profoundly disrupted Africa’s social, cultural, and political continuity and integrity. One benefit of a hermeneutic approach, therefore, is that the fabric of African societies – which sometimes mix the indigenous and the European, the “traditional” and “modern,” in an unfortunate or unpromising manner – can be interpreted so as to single out what aspects or elements of the mélange are to be valued and reaffirmed as a sound basis for a progressive African social, political, and cultural heritage that will be a worthy tribute to that remarkable continent. (Barry Hallen, 2002, P. 61)

Tsenay Serequeberhan: According to Odhiambo, one of the astute exponents of hermeneutical approach to African philosophy is Tsenay Serequeberhan. (F. Ochieng-Odhiambo, 2010, P. 205) In The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy, the latter contends, the failure at stake in contemporary African philosophy is “the politico-existential crisis interior to the horizon of post-colonial Africa which brings forth the concerns and originates the theoretic space for the discourse of contemporary African philosophy.” (Tsenay Serequeberhan 1994: P. 18) Tsenay’s salient point is that “the European ‘civilizing mission’ has left present-day Africa in a rather precarious situation.”  (F. Ochieng-Odhiambo, 2010, P. 205) Put simply, the current crisis of Africa is the consequence of the colonial project of Europe. In his words:

Thus, the present-day African realities are constituted partly by the hybrid remnants of the colonial and pre-colonial past – as embodied at every level in the ossified neocolonial institutional forms of contemporary Africa and in the pathologically negative self-awareness of Europeanized Africans – and partly by the varied forms of struggle aimed at actualizing the possibility of an autonomous and free Africa in the context of the contemporary world. These struggles, furthermore, are not homogenous in their ideological or theoretic orientation. (Tsenay Serequeberhan, 1994, P. 22)

Therefore, the task of contemporary African philosophy is to address this “enigmatic and paradoxical inheritance of African ‘independence’: the situation of the present.” (Ibid.) As Barry Hallen has observed, Tsenay “appears to have a fairly low tolerance for other methodological approaches to African philosophy.” (Barry Hallen, 2002, P. 65) The latter unconditionally appropriates hermeneutical philosophy by arguing that:

It is only by hermeneutically plowing (i.e., turning over) and radically subverting the theoretic space of the post-colonial African situation, with the concrete historicity of our own most distinctive existential actuality that African philosophic reflection can be part of the practical and theoretic effort aimed at concretely reclaiming the freedom and actuality of the continent. (Tsenay Serequeberhan, 1994, Pp. 22-23)

Tsenay thus totally emphasizes the interpretive character of philosophy. As Imbo has correctly interpreted:

For Serequeberhan, therefore, only a hermeneutical approach that takes lived experience as its starting point is capable of making any substantive contribution to African philosophy. The hermeneutical approach becomes imperative in postcolonial Africa because the specific needs of the time are the struggle for liberation from neocolonialism, the struggle to become human by contesting subordination, repression, and social exploitation. It is the struggle to reclaim the continent’s history even as that history is being made. (Samuel Oluoch Imbo, 1998, P. 28)

For Tsenay, for instance, “political ‘neutrality’ in philosophy, as in most other things, is at best a ‘harmless’ naiveté, and at worst a pernicious subterfuge for hidden agendas.” (Tsenay Serequeberhan, 1994, p. 4) Hence, Tsenay strongly asserts that philosophy ought to be in service of liberation. For him, as Ochieng’-Odhiambo has correctly observed, “the discourse of African philosophy should be directly and historically linked to the demise of European hegemony (colonialism and neocolonialism) and aimed at fulfilling, or completing this demise. It should be a reflective and critical effort to rethink the African situation beyond the confines of Eurocentric concepts and categories”. (F. Ochieng-Odhiambo, 2010, P. 205, 205) Tsenay’s “definition of African philosophy is set in the context of a continent grappling with the problem of how to go about the business of liberating itself from European cultural, economic, linguistic, political, and ideological violence.” (Samuel Oluoch Imbo, 1998, P. 28)

After all, for Tsenay, “philosophy is inherently and in its very nature a hermeneutics of the existentiality of human existence.” (Tsenay Serequeberhan, 1994, PP. 117-118)  The bottom line is thus “beyond this double ‘blockage’ by occlusion (Ethnophilosophy) and exclusion (Professional Philosophy) contemporary African philosophy is concretely oriented toward thinking the problems and concerns which arise from the lived actuality of post-colonial ‘independent’ Africa.” (Ibid., 7)

Okonda Okolo: In agreement with Theophilus Okere, Okonda Okolo demonstrates the interpretation of culture and tradition as the starting point of philosophical discourse. Right from the outset, he clearly demonstrates the need and importance of a hermeneutical approach to contemporary African philosophy. “In Africa”, contends Okolo:

The interest in hermeneutics…arises out of the reality of crisis: a generalized identity crisis due to the presence of a culture–a foreign and dominating tradition–and the necessity for a self-affirmation in the construction of an authentic culture and tradition. The crisis, on the strictly philosophical plane, is the expression of a problematic that oscillates between a naïve ethnophilosophy and an unproductive criticism [i.e., Professional Philosophy]. To the imperious need for an authentic and African philosophy, hermeneutics seem to give a positive response.(Okonda Okolo, 1991, 201)

Hence, the fundamental task of philosophy is to interpret and appropriate these notions in the context of a people’s historicity. African philosophy must thus be grounded in the African tradition. For Okolo, “African tradition is the text of our reading.” (Ibid, P. 204) Interestingly enough, he is quick to ask then, “What is a text?” He answers, “One should not limit the text to a written text. We have to retain the lesson of contemporary hermeneutic theories and extend the sense of a text to include all verbal concatenations [[enchainement]] and all that offers itself to be read, that is to say, tradition as the whole.” (Ibid)

However, Okolo rejects the view that any text or tradition can pass as philosophy without a careful analysis or a call for discrimination. “The tradition, essentially defined as transmission, constitutes a hermeneutic concatenation of interpretations and reinterpretations. To read our tradition is nothing like climbing the whole chain of interpretations all the way back to its originative starting point; rather, it is to properly recreate the chain in actualizing it.” Ibid, PP. 204-205) Accordingly, the meanings of any particular tradition need to be constantly interpreted and reinterpreted or continuously reappraised within the cultural and historical context. In this way, any tradition can be either “eliminated” or amended by different individuals at different epochs of history and in different historical contexts.

Tradition therefore does not inhibit invention or change, because new interpretations are made as a natural and normal part of making Tradition meaningful to the people who inherit it. Because of this, those societies will inevitably either eliminate or amend traditions as time passes and/or reinterpret them so that they again become newly relevant to the present tradition. (Barry Hallen, 2002, 63)

According to Okolo, the interpretation of tradition ought to be carried out with a view to taking back control of one’s destiny. In the African context, the notion of destiny represents the history of a people, or of a culture, in the world – not a symbol of determinism. As Hallen has correctly observed, “it represents the people’s past, present, and future and whatever sense of identity they create and then recreate for themselves on the basis of reinterpreting and reinventing Tradition(s) over the passage of time.” (Ibid., P, 64) And as such, Africans must be in control of the destiny of their own people, and against European economic, cultural, linguistic, ideological, or political violence. For Okolo, therefore, the African hermeneutical situation is “that of the formerly colonized, the oppressed, that of the underdeveloped, struggling for more justice and equality.” Okonda Okolo, 1991, P. 208) At the end, he explicitly asserts and concludes that “it is the African tradition itself that ought to assure the hermeneuticity, the philosophicity, and hence the Africanity of a determined practice.” (Ibid., P. 206)

It should be clear from the foregoing discussion that the hermeneutical school strongly affirms the viability of the hermeneutical approach to deal with the unfulfilled emancipation of the African continent. As has been pointed out, the practitioners of hermeneutic philosophy have rejected other philosophical approaches being used in contemporary African philosophical discourse. According to these thinkers, unlike other philosophical approaches, which they surmise are a covert strategy for the reassertion of Western paradigms, hermeneutic philosophy can provide a useful tool for the analysis of (post)colonial African experience.

(to be continued)

Note: The responsibility for the articles is entirely mine.



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*Yoseph Mulugeta Baba received his B.A; M.A; and Ph.D degrees in Philosophy from the CUEA. His research areas include Metaphilosophy, Oromo Philosophy, Continental Philosophy, Post-colonial African Political Philosophy, and Postmodernism. His book, entitled: Metaphilosophy or Methodological Imperialism? The Rationale for Contemporary African Philosophy with Reference to Oromo Philosophy is forthcoming (CUEA PRESS). He can be reached at

Author’s Previous Articles

The Oromo Concept of Reality or Dhugaa-Ganama, Part I
The Oromo Concept of Reality or Dhugaa-Ganama, Part II
The Oromo Concept of Reality or Dhugaa-Ganama, Part III
The Oromo Concept of Reality or Dhugaa-Ganama, Part IV
The Oromo Concept of Reality or Dhugaa-Ganama, Part V
The Oromo Concept of Reality or Dhugaa-Ganama, Part VI

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