Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Wynter and Decolonization

  • Elisabeth Paquette
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_476

Sylvia Wynter: An Introduction

Sylvia Wynter is an Afro-Caribbean theorist, born in Cuba in 1928 and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. Growing up in Jamaica, she witnessed anticolonial mass movements during the early 1940s. In 1947, Wynter moved to London, England, to study modern languages at the University of London, King’s College, majoring in Spanish with a minor in English. She taught at the University of West Indies in Jamaica before moving to the USA and teaching at the University of California, San Diego, and then Stanford University, where she is currently Professor Emerita. While at the University of West Indies, Wynter taught in the Hispanic Literature Department, and then, in San Diego, she taught primarily in the Department of Literature. She also served as the Chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department as well as Professor of Spanish in the Spanish and Portuguese Department at Stanford University (Wynter 2000). Prior to her employment at the University of West Indies, Wynter was a performer, both as an actor and a dancer. It was not until she left England and returned to Jamaica in 1957/1958 that Wynter began writing. Her first publication is a play entitled Under the Sun, coauthored with Jan Carew, which she later turned into her one and only novel entitled The Hills of Hebron (1962).

Wynter on a Western Conception of Man

A critical turn in Wynter’s writing took place in the late 1960s. A central feature of this critical turn, and in her decolonial project more generally, was her reconceptualization of what it means to be “human.” In “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom” (2003), Wynter offers a critique of the concept of “Man” that has its origins in the Enlightenment era. Her critique is focused in part on a Judeo-Christian concept of the “human” that preceded the Copernican Revolution and a concept of “Man” that followed during the Enlightenment period, as well as the differences that mark these two eras. According to Wynter, following the Copernican Revolution, we find in the Enlightenment era a concept of Man that presupposes reason – via the new role of science – as its founding idea while purportedly assuming a kind of universality. Both the conception of the human and the conception of Man are representations of what it means to be human within these specific geopolitical contexts. At the same time, these geopolitical contexts – constituted by the fluctuating influence of religion and science – are sites of knowledge production. Thus, for Wynter there is a connection between the representation of the experience of being human (or what it means to be human) and the production of knowledge (or what counts as knowledge). The Enlightenment conception of Man is particularly important for our considerations because, according to Wynter, it continues to dominate a Western geopolitical context. For this reason, much of Wynter’s discussion of pedagogy and her decolonial critique interrogate this conception of “Man.”

In “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being,” Wynter demonstrates the various ways in which Man is problematic. Broadly speaking, for Wynter Man is constructed through a binary that presupposes the existence of, and simultaneously the creation of, its negation. We can think of this as the concept of Man as constituted through a conception of nonMan, or similarly put the rational subject is premised on the existence of a nonrational subject (see also McKittrick 2015, Chapter 4, and Wynter 1995). As a result, the experience of what it means to be human, reified in the representation of Man, is founded upon the presupposition a group of persons that are excluded from the category of human and rationality. The implication is, therefore, that the rational characteristic of this Enlightenment concept of Man is in fact not universal, as it purports to be, rather it is dependent upon an Other that is effaced from humanity. In addition, Wynter argues that the construction of the rational subject (Man) is bound up with European expansionism and colonization of parts of Africa and the Americas (Wynter 1995).

Wynter’s Methodological Practice and Decolonization

Notably, a methodological practice is also intrinsic to Wynter’s project of reconceiving what it means to be human. As noted by Katherine McKittrick in Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (2015)

[Wynter’s] work speaks to a range of topics and ideas that interweave fiction, physics, neurobiology, film, music, economics, history, critical theory, literature, learning practices, coloniality, ritual narratives, and religion and draw attention to epistemological ruptures such as the secularization of humanism, the Copernican leap, Darwinian modes of biological representation, Fanonian sociogeny, the 1960s (pp. 1–2) (Fanonian socioegeny is in reference to the works of Frantz Fanon (1925–1961))

This interweaving of topics forms the backdrop of Wynter’s methodology, a key proponent of her performance of the decolonization of pedagogical practices. Her method is dependent upon two central features: epistemic disobedience and a disenchantment of discourse. “Epistemic disobedience” is a pedagogical practice of engaging in a critical analysis of academic knowledge production both in terms of the content produced and the method through which the content is produced. Second, “a disenchantment of discourse” refers to an alternate method of knowledge production. Both of these concepts will be developed below in relation to Wynter’s overall decolonial theory. It is important to note that while many of Wynter’s writings revolve around a reconception of humanness, she does not provide her readers with the content of this category. Rather, for Wynter the experience of being human is a practice. This entry will culminate with a brief account of how these concepts are relevant to a theory of pedagogy.

Epistemic Disobedience

According to Walter Mignolo, in “Sylvia Wynter: What Does It Mean to Be Human?,” Wynter is not attempting to overturn existing systems of knowledge. Rather, through her critique she is attempting to change the way in which knowledge is produced and knowing is constituted. At the same time, however, Mignolo claims that “Wynter is not proposing to contribute to and comfortably participate in a system of knowledge that left her out of humanity (as a black/Caribbean woman), but rather delink herself from this very system of knowledge in order to engage in epistemic disobedience” (McKittrick 2015, p. 106). Thus it would seem that for Wynter, in addition to offering a critique of how knowledge is produced, she is also attentive to her own positionality (as an academic) in relation to systems of knowledge production.

While epistemic disobedience is not a concept Wynter herself employs, it nonetheless provides a manner through which one can understand Wynter’s methodology. Generally, epistemic disobedience refers to an approach to the study of knowledge; more specifically it addresses questions pertaining to how knowledge is produced, what counts as knowledge, and what certain constructions of knowledge perpetuate.

There are various ways in which Wynter performs epistemic disobedience of the production of knowledge. In “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being” and “1492: A New World View” (1995), two of Wynter’s most foundational essays, Wynter investigates specific representations of what it means to be human, and the structure that gives rise to, or produces, such representation. For instance, the production of Man (or the rational subject) discussed above already presupposes what counts as knowledge. In a circular fashion, “Man” presupposes that knowledge can only be produced by rational subjects, yet rationality is attributed only to select groups of persons (ex. colonizers, persons with property, men). Accordingly, groups of people who are not considered rational are thereby excluded from humanity and are thus considered incapable of producing knowledge. As a result, knowledge has a very specific structure that Wynter claims is bound up with colonial conquest (see Wynter 1995, 2003).

Epistemic disobedience is evident in Wynter’s methodology as well. In “Sylvia Wynter: What Does It Mean to Be Human?,” Mignolo states:

Under the rules of the epistemic cannon, and according to its racial mandates, if you have been classified in/as difference, then you are required to submit and to assimilate to the cannon or remain outside. Wynter does not follow either of these pathways. She instead engages what I call the decolonial option, a practice of rethinking and unraveling dominant world view that have been opened up by Indigenous and black and Caribbean thinkers since the sixteenth century in América (with accent) and the Caribbean. The decolonial option does not simply protest the contents of imperial Coloniality; it demands a delinking of oneself from the knowledge systems we take for granted (and can profit from) and practicing epistemic disobedience. (2015, pp. 106–107)

Methodologically speaking, Wynter pushes against disciplinary boundaries, challenging the establishment of such boundaries. For instance, in “But What Does Wonder Do?” (1994), Wynter emphasizes the importance of developing a relation between what she calls “scientific language” and “literary language.” For Wynter, literary texts and cultural contexts inform and impress upon the biological and neurobiological process of the human animal. Drawing upon the words of David Bolm – who states that “meaning directly affect[s] matter” – Wynter underscores the importance of interdisciplinary discussions in order to provide a richer understanding of the human experience (1995, p. 3). (One way to conceive of the way that meaning can affect matter is to consider the manner in which the body becomes more rigid when racial slurs are uttered at a person of color, or how a glare in the crowd causes one to hunch over or stand up straighter.)

In many cases, scientific and literary disciplines are brought into conversation in her work. For instance, in “Columbus, the Ocean Blue, and Fables that Stir the Mind” (1997), Wynter provides an account of the role of literature in neurobiology. In addition, in “Ethno or Socio Poetics” (1976), Wynter draws from the work of Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, two Chilean cellular biologists, who offer a method through which to understand cellular identity as self-enclosed and self-constituting. Wynter utilizes Maturana and Varela’s discussion for the purpose of reconceiving what it means to be human as an identity that is similarly self-enclosed and self-constituting. In this same essay, Wynter draws upon the work of philosophers, critical theorists, and statesmen, such as Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, for the purposes of achieving a reconceptualization of being human.

Demetrius L. Eudell’s essay, “Come on Kid, Let’s Go Get the Thing,” advances a similar conclusion. According to Eudell, Wynter adapts Fanon’s thesis in Black Skin, White Masks, whereby what it means to be human cannot be determined solely through natural sciences and physical laws alone. Rather, the experience of being human is a process that is “culturally and socio-situationally determined, [while also having] physicalist correlates” (McKittrick 2015, p. 236). This method of weaving together what are often thought of as radically distinct disciplines, as well as distinct systems of acquiring and producing knowledge (here the socio-cultural and the scientific), is evident in almost all of Wynter’s essays. The desired effect of both the subject of investigation and the method employed by Wynter is to resist, destabilize, and offer an alternative to the ways in which knowledge is produced.

A Disenchantment of Discourse

A disenchantment of discourse could be considered as one of the primary aims motivating epistemic disobedience. In “On Disenchanting Discourse” (1987), Wynter provides an account of what it means to disenchant discourses and the manner in which such work is possible. Briefly, she states that to disenchant discourses is to disrupt the “episteme or fundamental arrangements of knowledge,” insofar as knowledge practices perpetuate a specific world view (p. 208). If we recall the discussion of Man noted above, we can think of world view as here referring to a rational world. Or, prior to the Enlightenment, Wynter notes that the world was organized via a conception of the human that was based in a belief in a Judeo-Christian god. In both cases, there is a strong connection between not only discourse and knowledge production but a world view as well. In fact, discourse, knowledge, and world view, according to Wynter, are in many ways mutually constituting.

In line with her method of epistemic disobedience, Wynter aims to “disenchant” discourse, which means “to introduce and integrate…several ‘new objects of knowledge’ which cannot meaningfully exist within…our present ‘fundamental arrangements of knowledge’” (1987, p. 207). In other words, to disenchant discourses is to open up the production of knowledge to “objects of knowledge” that might not obviously fit with the already existing structure of knowledge.

At the same time, these new objects of knowledge cannot emanate from the arrangement of knowledge they seek to unsettle, they must come from what is distinct from this arrangement. For this reason, a “disenchantment of discourse” is dependent upon what she calls the “liminal” position or similarly what she calls “minority discourse.” Wynter states “The role of Minority Discourse…is [a] calling in question which impels our going beyond the boundaries of our present episteme into a new constitutive domain of knowledge that we have called a science of human systems” (1987, p. 240). Her concepts of minority discourse and liminality are developed in a number of essays. For instance, in “The Ceremony Must be Found” (1984), Wynter defines liminality as ones “experience [of] a fundamental contradiction between their lived experience and the grammar of representation which generate the mode of reality by prescribing the parameters of collective behaviors that dynamically bring that ‘reality’ into being” (p. 39). But in addition, in “Beyond Liberal and Marxist Feminisms” (1982) (drawing upon the work of Asmaran Legesse), Wynter states that “it is the liminal category who ‘generates conscious change by exposing all the injustices inherent in structure” (p. 36) (see also Wynter 1984, p. 39). The new objects of knowledge through which the disenchantment of discourse is possible cannot arise sui generis; instead it is the liminal category or the liminal position that makes such objects of knowledge possible. In what way is this position locatable? Liminal refers to a subject position that exists outside of or at the limits of what can be thought from a dominant subject position. For instance, in the example above of what it means to be human in the geopolitical context that followed the Copernican Revolution, humanness was represented as the rational subject. The rational subject is, therefore, the dominant subject position. In addition, in “1492” Wynter describes the manner through which indigenous populations of the Americas or those persons who were enslaved and brought to the Americas were attributed nonrational or less rational subject positions. These subject positions are held in opposition to the dominant subject position (the rational subject) existing as outside to the fundamental arrangement of knowledge and as such are liminal subject positions. That said, according to Wynter, liminality can provide a view from which to both understand a fundamental arrangement of knowledge and to disenchant them.

Minority discourse refers to a kind of knowledge production that can emanate from these liminal positions. At the same time, minority discourse cannot disenchant discourses if it is held at the margins of discourses. Correspondingly, a “‘minority discourse’ can not be merely another voice in the present ongoing conversation or order of discourse” (Wynter 1987, pp. 207–208). In other words, the advantage of a liminal subject position, over and against a dominant subject position, is that the liminal provides a point of view which can serve to shift/disenchant a fundamental arrangement of knowledge that produces these liminal positions by introducing new objects of knowledge.


While Wynter does not provide an explicit account of pedagogy, both the form and the content of her work provide useful insights for theories of pedagogical practices. For instance, Wynter’s discussion of minority discourse provides an explicit account of how departments that are currently marginalized (such as African and Afro-American Departments) should be located within a university. Epistemic disobedience can also be understood as a pedagogical practice to the extent that disciplinary boundaries should be not considered static, but should continue to be challenged. In addition, Wynter’s decolonial critique of knowledge production continues to be important for educational institutions. Not only are these institutions accountable for what counts as knowledge and who is capable of providing such knowledge (i.e., the figures of study and faculty/instructors) but, in addition, educators should also be attentive to the manner in which academic knowledge production can limit valuable expressions of the experience of being human.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyYork UniversityTorontoCanada