Communitarianism in African Thought
Menkiti On Communitarianism
In "Person and Community in African Traditional Thought" (1984), Menkiti argued that, in Africa, the community had priority over the individual. He distinguished between Western views, which generally hold that a person is a lone individual, and African views, in which a person is defined "by reference to the environing community," quoting John Mbiti's statement, "I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am," to support his thesis (p. 171). According to Menkiti, "as far as Africans are concerned, the reality of the communal world takes precedence over the reality of individual life histories" (p. 171). Thus the communal ethos has ontological and epistemological precedence. Menkiti also defended the communitarian view on biological and social grounds because the individual comes from a common gene pool and belongs to a linguistic community: "Just as the navel points men to umbilical linkage with generations preceding them, so also does language and its associated social rules point them to a mental commonwealth with others whose life histories encompass the past, present, and future" (p. 172). Menkiti stated emphatically that personhood is defined by community and not by qualities such as rationality, will, or memory.
Menkiti underscored his views of personhood by affirming a processual, or procedural, mode of being in African thought in which an individual becomes a person through social and ritual incorporation. Menkiti conflates the facticity of personhood with quality. He does this by distinguishing between muntu mutupu (a man of middling importance) and muntu mukulumpe (a powerful man, a man with a great deal of force). It is not clear why both persons cannot hold the status of "person," even though one is "middling" and the other is already great. Menkiti rejects the Western minimalist definition of a person, "whoever has a soul, or rationality, or will, or memory; the African view is 'maximal'." Menkiti uses the word maximal to indicate that the African view of personhood includes other criteria and is not limited to soul, rationality, or will. Since personhood is achieved, not endowed, in Africa, one could fail at achieving it. There are rules governing social rituals of incorporation that are designed to help the individual attain selfhood. The older an individual becomes, the more of a person that individual becomes. Menkiti quoted an Igbo proverb, "What an old man sees sitting down, a young man cannot see standing up," to support his claim that personhood is a quality acquired as one gets older. While this proverb hints at differences of perspective between older and younger individuals, it is not implicit that personhood is an acquired quality. Opponents might agree with Menkiti that a youth has a different point of view from that of an older individual but might also affirm, in contrast with Menkiti's views, that both are persons.
Menkiti defended the communitarian ethos by arguing that people use the neuter pronoun it to refer to a child rather than the personal pronouns him or her because the child has not yet attained personhood. He also stated that when a child dies, the funeral ceremonies are brief. However, when an older person dies, elaborate funeral celebrations take place because the older individual has achieved personhood and has now become an ancestor who lives among the people. In general, when one dies, he or she ceases to be a person. At the beginning of life, an individual who has no name will work toward personhood, and at the end of life, that individual loses personhood because he or she has departed for the next world. The departed ones may be referred to with the neuter pronoun it because their contact with the human community has been severed.
Thus it is clear that people at both ends of life are not persons because the young have yet to attain personhood while the dead have completed their development. "It is the carrying out … [of] obligations that transforms one from the "it"-status of early childhood, marked by an absence of moral function, into the person-status of later years, marked by a widened maturity of ethical sense—an ethical maturity without which personhood is conceived as eluding one" (Menkiti, p. 176). Meyer Fortes also argued that, among the Tallensi, "No one can be certainly known to have been a full human person until he is shown, at the time of his death, to have been slain by his ancestors and therefore to deserve a proper funeral" (1987, p. 257).
But Menkiti's view that brief mourning periods indicate the degree of personhood of the deceased is contested. Elias Bongmba has argued that funeral rites of children among the Wimbum are brief and sad for reasons that do not reflect a child's status as a person but because the Wimbum people mourn the fact that the young person has not lived life fully. They take personhood for granted but consider the death of a young person rkwi bipsi shu, meaning "death that has spoiled the mouth." This means that the death of a young person shocks and numbs the appetite for food or drink, which people consume when an elderly person dies (Bongmba).
Menkiti cited John Rawls, who argued that justice is owed a moral personality, "a potentiality that is ordinarily realized in due course," to support his claims that individuals acquire personhood as they carry out their obligations (Rawls, pp. 505–506). However, one could argue that Rawls emphasized moral potential and not personality. Whereas for Menkiti personhood is acquired when one develops and carries out moral acts, Rawls's position is that an individual who is already a person has the potential of becoming a moral person. Menkiti rejected Jean-Paul Sartre's definition of individualism because it stipulated unconditioned freedom and choice, which Sartre assumed was available to all. The African view is that such an idea of freedom is wrong because it ignores the community, which plays an important role in the life of the individual. According to the Africanist view, Sartre was wrong to place children and adults on the same level of choice. Finally, Menkiti rejected Western views that the community is a collectivity of self-interested individuals. This makes the community an aggregation of separate individuals. In Mbiti's phrase "I am because we are," the "we" is not additive "but a thoroughly fused collective we" (Menkiti, p. 179). African societies thus emphasize duty, while Western societies emphasize rights.