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Personhood in African Thought


What is a person? Two basic types of considerations are apparent in African answers to this question. The first is ontological, the second ethical. Ontologically a person is a combination of a physical constituent, namely the body and a set of two or in some cases three constituents of a rarefied character requiring careful elucidation.

The nonbodily constituent on which all the accounts of personhood seem agreed is what might be called the life principle. This is thought of as an entity whose presence in the body means life and its absence death. The Akans call it okra, the Yoruba emi, and the Nuer, roughly, yiegh. By common agreement it derives directly from God himself. Indeed the Akans are explicit that it is a speck of the divine substance. As metaphorically and often literally understood, this entity or an ontologically analogous one goes before God to take leave of him before coming to the world to be born of man and woman. It is at this meeting that God apportions the prospective person's destiny.

The Yoruba account of this meeting is the most dramatic of all. For them, unlike the Akans, it is not the life-giving constituent, like the Akan okra or Yoruba emi, but another non-bodily entity called the ori-inu that receives the apportioned destiny. It stands before God and proposes a destiny, which God either confirms or refashions. Or it kneels before God and has a destiny affixed to it. Either way, the apportionment is ultimately God's own. Moreover the destiny, which is the outline of one's earthly career, is doubly sealed, for on its way down to the world the individual encounters God's gatekeeper, who typically asks, "Where are you going? … What are you going to do?" To which the individual replies with a recitation of the destiny just assigned. The gatekeeper then says "To," which Bolaji Idowu translates as "It is sealed." Idowu comments, "And so the person passes into the world with his destiny doubly sealed" (p. 174).

This doctrine is widely received, though not universal, in Africa. Okot p'Bitek (chap. 9) argues that the Central Luo do not have a place in their worldview for a predetermined destiny. Wherever entertained, however, it is significant as indicating the moral uniqueness of every human individual, but it is also the source of some of the deepest problems at the intersection of morals and metaphysics. The African mind has been sorely challenged to fathom how an individual can be held responsible for his or her conduct if what he or she does is in fulfillment of a divine plan. Furthermore, even though it is generally supposed that the destiny assigned by God is unalterable, various African peoples are known to seek the help of "specialists" to rectify a dreary destiny.

Some writers on African thought, such as Idowu, content themselves with the observation that "the paradox involved in this two-sided conception is accepted by the Yoruba without question" (p. 183). Kofi Opoku writes similarly with regard to the Akans. It is, however, possible that the apparent inconsistency, euphemistically described by Idowu as a "two-sided conception," is due to the fact that what one is dealing with is the confluence of a variety of unnamed sources amalgamated into a strand of the oral tradition. Kwame Gyekye (1995) and Kwasi Wiredu (1996) offer further suggestions. But the priority here is to elucidate the ontological character of the nonbodily components of personhood. In addition to those already noted, the Akans, for example, speak of sunsum, which may be rendered as that which is responsible for an individual's personal presence. This seems to be thought of as a kind of entity. The tali of the Lugbara seems to be a similar conception.

In general the nonbodily constituents of personhood, as conceived by African peoples, number at least two. How do they compare, ontologically speaking, with the analysis of personhood best known in Western philosophy, namely that a person consists of body, mind, and soul, with the soul usually, as in René Descartes, identified with the mind? In both the African and the Western conceptions, all the items named are regarded as entities. But the similarity ends there. The elements of the African inventory of human personality are conceived as material, save only that they are supposed to be exempt from the ordinary laws of optics and dynamics. If such entities are, for convenience, called quasi-material, then the contrast might be expressed as follows. The nonbodily components are, as a rule, conceived as quasi-material in Africa, while among thinkers of a Cartesian predilection they are thought of as spiritual, in the sense of being immaterial, nonextended.

The quasi-material orientation of African thought is especially apparent in notions of the afterlife, which are often heavily laden with material imagery. On the present interpretation, this marks a fundamental difference between the many African and Western systems of ontology. Whereas the categories of material, quasi-material, and immaterial entities are widespread (though not universal) in Western ontologies, only the material and the quasi-material are admissible in the African counterparts (Wiredu, 1996, pp. 52, 55). This interpretation of African thought is not uncontested (see Gyekye, 1995, pp. 85, 89). Still it is interesting that, on the quasi-material interpretation of the nonbodily aspects of personhood, it is an ontological mistake to identify any of them with the Western concept of the soul.

According to the foregoing account, a person, in African thought, consists of a body combined with quasi-material entities that account for its animation and for its destiny and other marks of uniqueness. Nothing has been said of mind. But this is not a mindless omission. Africans do not appear to construe mind as a kind of entity. Certainly the Akans do not. For them, mind is the capacity to engage in various activities, such as perceiving, reasoning, feeling, talking, and dancing. (For more on this conception, see Wiredu, 1987; for a contrary view, see Gyekye, 1995, chap. 6.) To the question as to what is the basis of this capacity, the answer is implicit but unmistakable. In Akan discourse it is the amene (the brain). The Yoruba too cite the opolo (the brain) as the seat of the human power of reasoning. They also, presumably metaphorically, invoke the okan (the heart) as the seat of will and emotion. In this, Bantu thought resembles closely that of the Yoruba. In his exhaustive study of the concept of personhood entertained by the Bantu peoples of Africa, Alexis Kagame, a Rwandan philosopher and linguist, found that the Bantu generally think of a human person as consisting of a body, an animating force (which he describes metaphorically as "shadow"), a principle of intelligence, and finally, the heart, which is not thought of as a pump. According to Kagame, the Bantu, exactly like the Yoruba, also speak of the heart as the seat of will and emotion.

In whatever way one looks at African conceptions of personhood then, mind, though not generally conceived as an entity, is accorded a high degree of importance. The topic of mind moreover brings up the second basic type of consideration discernible in African thought about personhood. Mind is crucial in a special way in the definition of personhood. In the normative part of the African conception, a person is not just an individual of human parentage. To ascend to the status of a person, an individual has to have attained a certain degree of moral maturity and social responsibility. This obviously is a matter of the quality of one's mind.

Probably every conception of a person has the notion of a certain degree of moral competence annexed to it. This is certainly the case in English language discourse. But among many African peoples, such as the Akans and the Yoruba, such a notion is not additional to the concept of a person; it is an integral part of it. The comparison may be illustrated with the following anecdote. At the conclusion of the peace conference between the freedom fighters and the white settlers of present-day Zimbabwe that led to independence in 1980, Kenneth Kaunda, then president of Zambia, wishing to pay the highest compliment to Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister of Great Britain, for her contributions to the success of the negotiations said to her that she was very much a person. Not wishing to be considered (presumably by the Western press) as the author of the greatest understatement of the century, he hastened to explain that in his language to be said to be a person was praise indeed. Without this clarification, Western observers, he must have thought, would have had to be excused immeasurable puzzlement. On the other hand, any Akan journalists present would have been pleasantly surprised to discover that the concept of a person in the president's language was, in this respect, exactly the same as their own.

But this linguistic clarification needs amplification. The word for a person in Akan, for example, is onipa. This carries an ambiguity. In one sense it means simply a human being; in another it refers to a human being of a certain moral and social status. Even the most elementary sense of context, however, suffices to disambiguate. An individual, for example, who is by reason of confirmed laziness or waywardness unable to hold down a job long enough to make worthwhile contributions to the welfare of the family and community would be said not to be an onipa (person). But if one kills such an individual, one has killed an onipa (a human being), and there will be severe consequences. Any human being, according to the traditional understanding, contains an element of divinity and is, on that ground alone, entitled to life, liberty, and an ample dispensation of natural rights (Wiredu, 1996, chap. 12).

A similar circumspection is necessary regarding the status of children. In the normative conception, a child is not yet a person, not having reached the time of the requisite maturity in moral thinking and social action. But there is not here the criticism that would normally be intended of, say, a constitutionally wayward adult. The adult has taken the test of personhood and failed; the child is not yet due for the test and deserves the kindest solicitude. Even in the case of the adult, criticism is reformative in intent and soon gives place to concerted efforts at helping the individual achieve or regain personhood.

The following propositions therefore should not seem paradoxical. Personhood, to the African, is not something one is born with. It is something one has to work for and something at which one can fail. Furthermore there are degrees of personhood, and its lower gradations can shade off into nonexistence in the life of a human individual. Life then, on the African conception, is a struggle for personhood.

One might now ask what accounts for this conception among Africans. The answer is quite simple. African societies are, famously, communalistic. The individual is brought up, from the beginning, with a sense of belonging and solidarity with an extensive circle of kith and kin. The basis of this solidarity is a system of reciprocity in which each individual has obligations to a large set of other individuals. These are matched by rights owed him or her by the same number of individuals. Living amid the reality of this reciprocity, one soon begins to see oneself as presupposing the group. This is the mainspring of the normative conception of a person.

In contemporary African philosophy the locus classicus of the normative conception of a person is Ifeani Menkiti's "Person and Community in African Traditional Thought" (1984). But the anthropologist Meyer Fortes had already in the 1940s noted the normative character of the concept of a person held, for example, by the Tallensi of northern Ghana. Wiredu's independent interpretation of the Akan concept of personhood as normative is in total agreement with Menkiti's main position on this matter. John S. Mbiti's now classic remark that the African individual "can only say 'I am, because we are'" may perhaps be called Africa's communalist answer to Descartes's Cogito; it is only one step away from the normative conception as outlined above. Gyekye's (1997) "moderate communitarianism" is, broadly speaking, an interpretation of normative personhood, and Gbadegesin is also sympathetic. These are some of the signs that the normative conception of a person, preached and practiced by the African ancestors, may perhaps become a source of insight and commitment for the larger community of contemporary African philosophers as well, possibly, as others.

Kwasi Wiredu

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - Indifferentism