On Epistemic Decolonization: Praxis Beyond Metaphors

By Rafael Vizcaíno

Over the last few years, the “decolonial turn” has swept across the academy in calls to decolonize methodologies, curricula, canons, universities, and more. Emerging primarily out of intellectual debates in Latin America and the Caribbean but also encompassing currents in the Anglophone world, such as Indigenous Studies and Critical Ethnic Studies, this wave of scholarship has brought to a precise level of theoretical reflection the struggle for decolonization advocated by Third World anti-colonial revolutionaries such as Frantz Fanon (2004). This is not done with the suggestion that the decolonization of knowledge has somehow now superseded the decolonization of social, political, or economic structures. On the contrary, the originality of this new paradigm arises in large part from its assertion that processes of colonization did not end with the formal departure of colonial powers – if they even left to begin with! Instead, the decolonial turn expands the scope of colonization to scrutinize its internal logic and ever-adjusting afterlives, alluding to the fact that the struggle for decolonization remains largely unfinished today – as Nelson Maldonado-Torres has put it (2011).

Such decolonial approach is challenging the most foundational assumptions of what it means to study and to produce knowledge, modifying the terms under which academic practice takes place in the university and beyond. As a philosopher, I aspire to contribute to it by advancing the decolonization of philosophy, by which my colleagues and I have meant the dismantling of the Eurocentrism that has shaped the discipline and practice of philosophy since its inception in the modern university (2018). This is a project that demands accounting for the contributions of marginalized philosophies throughout human history, and, as Michael Monahan has recently put it, demonstrating that there are other ways of doing philosophy besides those currently endorsed by the European canon (2019, 13). This involves recognizing that philosophy has been done all around the world in as many ways as the possibility of expression allows, from oral, poetic, and literary traditions, to other forms of artistic and embodied expression.

At the heart of the decolonization of philosophy one thus finds a confrontation of conceptual frameworks. This is what is captured by the more specific notion of “epistemic decolonization.” However, such challenge is not done from a position of defensiveness or resentment, which is why it entails neither the uncritical rejection of the canon nor the naïve affirmation of what has been left outside. Rather it is one that consist in the willingness to be vulnerable to the insights of others, as David Kim has argued (2019, 46). It consequently requires the cultivation of a certain kind of epistemic humility as “an awareness of the limits and contingencies” of one’s beliefs and commitments, in the words of Amy Allen (2016, 76). In my own research and teaching, I conceive of epistemic decolonization as the pedagogical moment of self-reflexivity where one learns with and from what has been disavowed in the colonialist unfolding of modernity. It is more than learning about something in so far as one is deeply transformed by the openly intersubjective process of learning with and from what takes place beyond my self and world. It is effectively the restoration of a process of learning that was not allowed to take place due to the active agency of coloniality.

To be sure, decolonization is “not a metaphor,” as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have powerfully put it (2012). Because colonization is a process that involves a combination of many violent elements (genocide, enslavement, exploitation, the appropriation of natural resources, the imposition of new customs, and more), decolonization cannot be reduced to an academic discourse that ignores or indefinitely defers addressing the connection to such concrete and violent conditions. “When metaphor invades decolonization,” Tuck and Yang write, “it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future” (2012, 3). This is to say that any academic discourse that is self-aligned with the task of decolonization must concern itself with the concrete and materials conditions of colonization. If the academic discourse is disconnected from these matters, as Nayantara Sheoran Appleton asserts, then one might be much better off without the “decolonial” label in the meantime or altogether.

Paradoxically, the theoretical character of the discipline of philosophy is part of what makes epistemic decolonization so complicated, as the centrality of theorization constantly runs the risk of “resettling theory” at the expense of the broader praxis of decolonization. In such resettlement, epistemic decolonization would fail to connect to the concrete and materials conditions of colonization, becoming metaphoric in the problematic connotation indicated by Tuck and Yang.

To avoid such metaphorization, the self-reflexivity of epistemic decolonization then must not lose sight of how epistemic decolonization is not an end in itself but part of a broader praxis of decolonization that extends beyond epistemology, philosophy, and the university. While this is clearly bound to look differently for people across distinct contexts and positionalities, epistemic decolonization at its core needs to connect thinking and the mind to the concrete material conditions of decolonization. An example of such relinking can be seen in the centrality given to land and geography in much decolonial work, especially that rooted in Indigenous Studies. At the level of method, for instance, Glen Coulthard’s notion of “grounded normativity” is a land-based perspective of Indigenous self-determination that has provided a devastating critique of the politics of recognition in Canada (2014, 13). At the institutional level, the Caribbean Philosophical Association and its fitting motto “shifting the geography of reason,” has continuously carved a space to collectively build alternative models of what philosophical practice looks like beyond Europe.

In connecting to the concrete and materials conditions of colonization, epistemic decolonization would not take place in an isolation that risks irrelevance. When done authentically, epistemic decolonization is instead in alignment with a broader praxis of decolonization. It connects both theory with practice and the part with the whole. I think of this as the decolonial “eleventh thesis:” philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to decolonize it.



Allen, Amy. 2016. The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Coulthard, Glen Sean. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Fanon, Frantz. 2004. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York, NY: Grove. Original edition, 1963.

Kim, David Haekwon. 2019. “Alterity, Anelectics, and the Challenges of Epistemic Decolonization.” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 57 (Spindel Supplement):37-62.

Maldonado-Torres, Nelson. 2011. “Thinking Through the Decolonial Turn: Post-continental Interventions in Theory, Philosophy, and Critique – An Introduction.” TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1 (2):1-15.

Maldonado-Torres, Nelson, Rafael Vizcaino, Jasmine Wallace, and Jeong Eun Annabel We. 2018. “Decolonising Philosophy.” In Decolonising the University, edited by Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nisancioglu, 64-90. London, UK: Pluto Press.

Monahan, Michael J. 2019. “Editor’s Introduction.” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 57 (Spindel Supplement):5-15. doi: 10.1111/sjp.12347.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (1):1-40.


IMAGE CREDIT: Jelili Atiku, Otura Gangan, Iwori Gangan, enamel on paper,  61.5x 45cm, 1999.


Rafael Vizcaíno is a scholar of Latin American and Caribbean philosophy, especially decolonial thought. He is currently revising a manuscript that examines decolonial critiques of secularism and is also editing a special issue of the CLR James Journal that explores the relevance of spirituality to decolonization. Starting September 2020, he will be Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at DePaul University. See his website for more information.