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Communitarianism in African Thought

Menkiti On Communitarianism, Gyekye On Moderate Communitarianism, Bibliography

This essay explores representative Africanist thought on personhood and community, highlighting especially the debate between Ifeanyi Menkiti and Kwame Gyekye on communitarianism, defined generally as relating to social organization in small, cooperative, partially collectivist communities. The general debate on these issues in Africa can be traced to important studies of personhood and psychology in African life and thought championed by French ethnologists and British and American social anthropologists as well as African scholars in different fields. The groundbreaking work, La notion de personne en Afrique noire, edited by Germaine Dieterlen (1973), which grew out of the French ethnological tradition, inaugurated a vigorous debate on personhood that has bearing on questions of individualism and communitarianism. In his insightful 1986 essay, "The Person and the Life Cycle in African Social Life and Thought," Paul Riesman explored Africanist literature relevant to personhood, individuality, and community. Riesman argued that the Marcel Griaule school developed interest in personhood and community and that scholars such as Griaule and Dieterlen underscored concepts of individuality and community. In British social anthropology, Meyer Fortes grounded his studies of personhood in customs, behavior, and personality. Other scholars focused on the powers of a person's obligations and social roles as well as on conflicts, legal systems, and individual responsibility.

The 1987 Uppsala symposium "African Folk Models and Their Application" also addressed personhood and personal experiences. Introducing the book published after this conference, Ivan Karp argued: "Quite simply, persons sometimes experience themselves in a human way, sometimes in a Lockean way, and sometimes, as in the case of positivist social scientists, as Kantian transcendentalists. However, these modalities of experience should not be reified and then debated as competing epistemologies. Rather they should be seen as descriptive of the varying ways human beings experience the world according to widely varying needs and interests" (Jackson and Karp, p. 17). Victor Turner's studies also called attention to individuality. Jean Comaroff argued that there was widespread conception of an "essence" of the person, whose soul was not a privatized interiority but a being-in-the-world. Ellen Corin argued that societies do not always overshadow individuals because certain modalities allowed an individual to particularize to defend himself or herself from "'collectivizing' pressure of the clanic image" (p. 146). Michael Jackson also highlighted individuality in the phenomenological approaches, and V. Y. Mudimbe approached the subject from the viewpoint of inequality of power.

Since 1950 the Africanists Elinore Bowen, Mary Smith, Sarah LeVine, and Marjorie Shostak have articulated person-hood, individuality, self-consciousness, and self-identity in community. Philosophers Ifeanyi Menkiti of Nigeria and Kwame Gyekye of Ghana have brought the debate into sharp relief by articulating positions on individualism and communitarianism. Menkiti has articulated a communitarian ethos, while Gyekye has defended a balanced perspective, which he calls moderate communitarianism. Gyekye has pointed out that the debate on individualism and the community in Africa affects the way people think of philosophical and moral issues. Philosophically, the debate probes whether an individual stands on his or her own and does not depend on the community or the individual is naturally embedded in social relations and a community. The moral concerns explore whether individual rights are primary and cannot be violated for any reason or people should instead pursue the common good.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cluster compound to Concupiscence