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African Humanism, Decoloniality and Alternative Ontology

Lecturer: Augustine Obi

Originally Taught: Summer School 2023

On the opening page of Critique of Black Reason, and in his Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization, the African philosopher and critical theorist Achille Mbembe asserts that ‘Europe is no longer the centre of gravity of the world.’ ‘As a matter of fact,’ Mbembe continues, ‘the destiny of our planet will be played out, to a large extent, in Africa.’ Exploring the complexities in decolonisation, Mbembe interrogates the philosophical, political and the overall intellectual heritage of African humanism, arguing that what gives African humanism its exceptional appeal is ‘the message of joy in a great universal future (which it) equitably opens to all peoples, all nations, and all species’. Mbembe retraces the critique of Western metaphysics, suggesting that its imperial frame — a racialized and racializing vision of singularity/alterity — must be ‘decolonised’ and ‘dis-enclosed’ in order to inaugurate a kind of alternative ontology, a project of what Mbembe finds in Fanon, called ‘the rise of humanity,’ ‘a humanity that is not given,’ and one which African humanism already embodies. But what exactly is African humanism? Is it possible to propose African humanism without reinforcing hierarchies among varieties of humanism or even perpetuating ‘the same logic of the colonizer’ which invalidates the existence of the other? If the western metaphysical subject must be decolonised and dis-enclosed as Mbembe proposes, what would this ‘decolonisation’ and ‘dis-enclosure’ look like? What exactly constitutes an alternative ontology?

This short course will attempt to explore these questions of African humanism, decoloniality and alternative ontology. Drawing primarily from the insights of Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason, Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization, and Jean-Luc Nancy’s view of Being as singular-plural, the course attempts to sketch out what constitutes a balanced or responsible decolonial thinking. Ultimately, the course aims to provoke a discourse around decoloniality of Being by using African humanism as an example of how the racialized other has always registered and articulated an otherwise ontology that puts the rhetoric of the western metaphysical subject on trial. It seeks to explore how Jean-Luc Nancy’s view of Being as singular-plural and Mbembe’s notion of cosmopolitan vision for the future of humanity underscore a true vision of decolonisation and how this vision opens up a space for an alternative ontology.


To be begin, we consider the different theories that were constructed to justify the denial of humanism from African people as seen in the celebrated works of Immanuel Kant, Baron de Montesquieu, David Hume, and Hegel. This will lead us to explore how African philosophers have repudiated this epistemic injustice through their invention of African philosophical thoughts mostly found in discourses such as Ubuntu, Negritude, Pan-Africanism, Bantu Philosophy, African concept of morality and justice, African concept of time, amongst other discourses. Though these African philosophical thoughts are yet to be fully developed like the western cathedral of thoughts, the challenge here is for us to be inspired by the frontiers of knowledge that African humanism is opening for the rest of the world, and how these discourses call for a redefinition of the African subject and at the same time point us to the other ways of philosophizing.


  • Dismas A. Masolo, African Philosophy in Search of Identity, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Chapter 8, "'Tradition' and 'Modernity': The Role of Reason", (1994), pp. 194-246.
  • Placide Tempels, Bantu Philosophy, Paris: Présence africaine, (1959).
  • Senghor, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Nationhood and the African Road to Socialism, transl. by Mercer Cook. Paris: Présence Africaine (Original edition by Présence Africaine, 1961).
  •  John S Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, New York: Anchor Books, Chapter 3, "The Concept of Time as a Key to the Understanding and Interpretation of African Religions and Philosophy", (1969), pp. 19-36.
  • Michael Onyebuchi Eze, ‘Humanism as History in Contemporary Africa,’ in Taiwan Journal of East Asian Studies, 8:2 (December 2011), pp. 59-77.
  • T. Metz & J. Gaie, ‘The African Ethics of Ubuntu/Botho: Implications for Research on Morality’, Journal of Moral Education, 39:3 (2010), p. 275.


Understood as an ontological claim to a shared humanity, ‘ubuntu’ has gained wider recognition amongst African philosophers as the term that encapsulates the core of African humanist ideology. Lecture three will attempt to delineate the different contours of the concept of ubuntu, paying particular attention to its origin, how it foregrounds black subjectivity, and the ontological and socio-political elements that constitute this African relational philosophy. After exploring the origin and constitutive elements of ubuntu, we will turn to the perennial debates which often attend the Africanist notion of humanism, with particular focus on those arguments that have all coalesced to configure ubuntu as the ground from which African humanism emerges and develops.


  • Ifeanyi Menkiti, ‘Person and Community in African Traditional Thought’ in African Philosophy: An Introduction, R. A. Wright (ed) (Lanham: University Press of America, 1984).
  • Leonhard Praeg, ‘Essential building blocks of the Ubuntu Debate; or: I write what I must,’ South African Journal of Philosophy, (2017) 36:2, 292-304.
  • Micheal Onyebuchi Eze, Ubuntu: Ideology or Promise?” in Exploring Humanity: Intercultural Perspectives on Humanism, National University of Taiwan Press: 247-259
  • Motsamai Molefe, Critical Comments on Afro-Communitarianism: The Community Versus Individual, in Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions, (January-June 2017) 6:1.


One of the questions that has often attended African humanist ideology or ubuntu is: If ‘a person is a person through another person,’ does this person also make allowance for the humanity of a stranger? In other words, is it possible that ubuntu can promote a narrow view of relationality, one which essentialises community and deploys it as a vehicle to advance tribal hierarchies that invalidate the existence of the other?  In this fourth lecture, we will see how this exclusionary sense of community does not only haunt African humanist ideology, but also pervades the whole of western philosophical tradition. Specifically, we will extend Achille Mbembe’s concept of the ‘seeing power of race’ in Critique of Black Reason to explore how the same racialized and racializing vision of singularity/alterity that underpins western philosophical tradition, and its formation of the modern world can be reinforced when African humanist ideology denies the existence of the western other.



Having seen how an undiscerning absorption of western philosophical tradition and African humanist ideology can lead to the reinforcement of the same repudiated logic of dehumanisation, lecture five will explore what provides for a responsible decolonial thinking. Building on Jean-Luc Nancy’s interpretation of Dasein as irreducibly ‘singular-plural’ and Achille Mbembe’s project of ‘nonracialism’ and ‘dis-enclosure,’ we show how a true decolonisation is consistent with the reimagination of ubuntu or African humanist ideology as an African gift that speaks to the Fanonian emancipatory project of ‘the rise of humanity,’ — ‘a humanity that is not given, but instead ‘pulled up and created over the course of struggles.’ We will conclude the lecture with some comments about the significance of decolonisation for the inauguration of an alternative ontology that seeks to understand the ways sexuality, geography, gender, race, and coloniality shape knowledge production, and how these different subjectivities can engage in dialogue and consider themselves as gifts to be exchanged.


  • Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular-Plural in Being Singular Plural, Stanford: Stanford University Press: 2000a.
  • Jean-Luc Nancy, Shattered Love in Inoperative Community, ed Peter Connor, Minneapolis: Minneapolis University Press, (1991), pp. 82-109.
  • Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-Enclosure in Dis-Enclosure: The Destruction of Christianity, New York: Fordham University Press, (2008), pp. 158-62.
  • Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, Johannesburge (2017).
  • Achille Mbembe, Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization (2020).
  • Minka Woermann, ‘Postcolonial Thinking and Modes of Being-With Others,’ Etica & Politica / Ethics & Politics, XXII, 2020, 3, pp. 833-848
  • Nelson Maldonado-Torres, ‘On the Coloniality of Being,’ Cultural Studies 21:2, 240-270.