THE ONTOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF "I" AND "WE" IN AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY
JOSEPH M. NYASANI Nairobi
One of the most distinctive features of African philosophy is the element of sociality which, in many cases, has given rise to such concepts as African personality, African identity, African solidarity and many other virtues that attest to the humanistic character of man and his fellow men. Virtues like patience, optimism, mutual sympathy and empathy are eminently characteristic of the African way of life and certainly point to a peculiar mode of existence that extends the realm of the individual potentialities to embrace the life of others and their concerns. In fact this mutual concern, the lifeblood and backbone of the African sociality, has been recognized variously by many writers on African communalism such as Edwin Smith, Senghor, Kenyatta, Sekou Toure and many others.
Senghor and Sekou Toure have, in my view, described the African way of life in an appropriate manner by insisting, in the words of Senghor, that: "Negro African society puts more stress on the group than on the individual, more on solidarity than on the activity and needs of the individual, more on the communion of persons than on their autonomy."' Almost re-echoing Senghor's assessment on what he calls "a community society", Sekou Toure describes it even more appropriately in the following manner: "Africa is fundamentally communocratic. The collective life and social solidarity give it a basis of humanism which many peoples might envy. These human qualities also mean that an individual cannot imagine organizing his life out-side that of his family, village or clan."2
More recently an eminent Zairean philosopher, Tshiamalenga Ntumba, propounded and interesting social philosophy existing in parts of Zaire which he called the philosophy of Bisoite. This philosophy in essence is an attempt to return to the wider ontological significance of the Ego (1) or the subject in the light of the "other-ness". Thus the Lingala word "biso" which in its ordinary usage means "us" or "we" has been converted into a substantive to convey the meaning of "usness" or even "we-ness".
The ontological meaning of this word, Ntumba contends, precludes the Western conception of person which accords primacy to the "me" at the expense of the "us". Thus he writes:
"La categorie grammaticale de personne est ainsi definie a partir de moitie: c'est le primat du Je ou du Moi sur le Tu, sur le Nous et surle 'Je-Tu'. Notre these que cette philosophie de la moitie (Memeite) inderacinable en Occident, s'oppose a la philosophie de la Bisoite (Tetuite) egalement inderacinable en Afrique. La c'est le primat du Moi, ici c'est le primat du Nous."'
It seems professor Ntumba arrives at this conclusion on Bisoite upon attempting to give a rational explanation into the anthropocentric/ sociophenomenon of sociality as characterizes African societies. In attempting such an explanation, Ntumba sees sociality as a dialogical ideal community which, in the Western tradition, is characterized by the kind of intersubjectivity that accords primacy to the "I" in its interaction with the "You" where such a community, in the African tradition, ought to be seen strictly in the context of "Bisoite" which focuses on the "We" in interaction with "Us" in a symbiotic relation-ship whereby the "I" and "You" are absorbed as dialogical partners in the interiority of the "Us".
In professor Ntumba's Lingala/Baluba ontology, the primacy of the "Us" makes it possible for the Africans to speak in such a puzzling language of communal involvement. Thus, for example, where in Western tradition, one would ask the question: "how was your trip to Holland?" the African tradition would ask: "how was our trip to Hol-land?". Where the English would say: "I shall accompany you" the Bisoite society would say: "we shall accompany you on the trip." And where the English would ask: "are you coming with me?" most African languages would say: "are we coming with you?" Indeed even a simple statement like: I am sick, the communalistic tradition would put it this way: we are suffering.
Now these are not mere linguistic embellishments or dramatic styles of expression peculiar to African languages but an authentic expres-sion of mutual concern and personal involvement in the fate of others. This attests to the communalistic nature of the society which, in the words of Ntumba, signifies that "being sick, being feeble, being happy, being strong etc., is not a solitary, solipsistic and individualistic but always and at the same time a destiny concerning primarily the 'Us'".4 He concludes in saying:
"Bref, l'etre-avec tous et tout ou la Bisoite est premiere par rap-port a toutes les relations consacrees par l'histoire et la culture. Cet' 'etre-avec' est toujours et originairement un 'etre-la'. l'un implique l'autre, tandis que l"etre-absolu' est une abstraction sol-ipsiste et non-bisoite."'
This point is brought out even more explicitly by other scholars like Ruch and Anyanwu who go a step further to argue thus:
"The whole African society, living and living-dead is a living net-work of relations almost like that between the various parts of an organism. When one part of the body is sick the whole body is affected. When one member of a family or clan is honoured or successful, the whole group rejoices and shares in the glory, not only psychologically (as one would rejoice when one's local soccer team has won a match) but ontologically: each member of the group is really part of the honour."'
This being with all and with everything in the African ontology, strongly characterizes and distinguishes African philosophy from the Western philosophical systems whereby the individual and the reality of the individual enjoy a distinct status of autonomy vis-a-vis the non-self. In contradistinction to the reality and autonomy of the individual, the Bisoite society derives its full realization and autonomy from the community in a way that one might rightly contend that because the community exists, the individual exists also. This contention should however be interpreted cautiously since it could convey the impression that the individual as such does not exist or even count since he is kind of submerged in the reality of "others". On the contrary the Bisoite society believes that the individual exists not exclusively for himself but for others as well in the sense that his independent existence would neither be a reality nor a factor in the absence of concurrent forces of the community. For in the commun-ity the individual can claim his individuality and personal autonomy. Thus in the words of Senghor:
"The member of the community society also claims his autonomy to affirm himself as a being. But he feels, he thinks that he can develop his potential, his originality, only in and by society, in union with all other men."'
In a society where man finds his full dimension, in a community, there is this inevitability that that society will display such values as solidarity, togetherness and strong family ties connecting both the living and the dead. This society of living and living-dead is intrinsically a network of relations stretching out in a vertical and horizontal manner and in a hierarchical order. It is a vital union which professor Mulago aptly describes as:
"A relationship of being and of life of everyone with descendants, his family, his clan-brothers, his ascendants and with God, the ulti-mate source of all life; an analogical ontical relation of everyone with his milieu, with his foundations, together with everything they contain and produce, with everything that grows and lives in it. We might say that the 'vital union' ... is the vital link which unites between themselves, vertically and horizontally, the living beings and deceased; it is a vivifying principle in which they all share."'
This vital ontological mystical union, observes professor Ruch, "is the ontology of the African and especially of the Bantu mythical conception of existence. It is characterized by a vision of totality in which beings, which perceived as distinct are nevertheless ontologically and intimately related with each other. This relationship or relatedness leads to a world-view which puts a greater emphasis on the active and passive links between beings than on the beings thus linked. The concern is more immediately with the current that passes through the network than with the individual powerpoints. It is in this sense that we have qualified the African mythical conception as primarily a dynamic philosophy."'
In the foregoing pages, we have attempted to give a general survey of authors who have dealt with the African sociality in one way or another in their works. And we have also seen that that sociality consists or manifests itself in acts of submersion or self-surrender of the "I" to the "We". Now this mode of existence being an inevitability and in fact a conditio sine qua non in appreciating and understanding the African world-view, postulates an inquiry into its ontological underpinnings. And here I hasten to say that despite abundant literature and relative unanimity on the curious phenomenon of the natural self-surrender element, there seems to be a serious lacuna in all this otherwise commendable endeavours of failing to go deeper into the problem and to propose a metaphysical explanation of this mode of behaviour. In my view, most of the explanations have tended to revolve around the socio-anthropological aspect of the problem and thus avoid focusing on the metaphysical of the problem. In fact this state of affairs in the beginning tended to prompt a number of African philosophers to divert their attention and to dissipate their energies in a long and protracted debate about African philosophy, its nature and its makers. Hountondjis, somewhat unkind words against the ethnophilosophy tradition is a case in point whereby he seems to lament over the inability of the African philosophers to address themselves to the metaphysical itself.
Whereas it is recognized that anthropological descriptions of the African way of life can be an important source of philosophical data, they cannot however pretend to usurp the place of a real philosophy of the African peoples. Now that the challenge has been taken up, there seems to be a significant shift in the general approach of African philosophy that basically seeks to delve into some kind of serious exploration of the ultimate principles of the African philosophical experience. Ntumba's Bisoite and Gyekye's Akan conceptual scheme are some of the few pioneers in this direction who are trying to articu-late and to seriously address the metaphysical in the African philosophy.
With the above background, we may then ask: what is it that makes the African seek refuge in the "others" or rather surrender himself to the fate of the community? Why does each individual African believe that he exists by virtue of fact that others exist? Why is the community prior and supreme vis-a-vis the individual? Why does the individual derive his full social reality from the reality of the community? We have already alluded to the answer although we have not elaborated it. In a broad sense then we can say that a part of the explanation can be found in Aristotle when he asserted that man is by nature a social animal. However, this seems to be a blanket observation that applies to every human race. As a matter of fact it applies, mutatis mutandis, to all species of animals since nearly all of them are gregarious by nature.
This notwithstanding, the African reality demands even more such a mode of social existence. The reason for this contention should provisionally provide a clue as to what constitutes the ultimate explanation of this peculiar mode of existence among the Africans. The African like everybody else, is a social animal except that his sociality is both unique and transcendental. In the African mythical world, it is conceivable that the first Africans that ever were and ever lived in a social setting have not actually passed out of existence. They arc here, so to speak, with us as invisible spirits strongly involved and always influencing us in getting us to conform to the tradition that they themselves forged or inherited.
Furthermore, in this mythical conception of reality, the death of a tradition or the falling into disuse of some positive traditional norms is invariably accompanied by the loss of vital life-force that must always regenerate itself in the cycle of unbroken chain of horizontal and vertical relationships. Thus my own individual life-force is not mine by right or by nature but a gratuitous conferment from the ex post facto reality of those who already enjoyed it and who jealously safeguard it for purposes of continuity, social cohesion, social harmony, social and physical integrity and for the sake of realizing the teleological good of human (African) existence - the Mitsein in perpetual communion and perpetual vitality. Just like the soul and body enter into a psychosomatic relationship with each other and engage in interactive processes, so is the life of the Africans with their invisible spirits. Their world is characterized by an extended psychosomatic relationship whereby the body (the living) must interact with the "non-living" (the spirits of the ancestors). Thus life seems to be interpreted monistically and in a manner according to which reality (the being with life-force) is continuously rendered dynamic and self-regenerating and whereby it generates gratuitous values of mutual concern, mutual sustenance and mutual harmony. The whole ontological edifice therefore seems to rest on one common base - the mutual participation in the life-force as pre-ordained by tradition.
In this state of things my existence is not entirely my own nor can I perpetuate it in total disregard or defiance of others' concerns without incurring a damnation or actually losing some life-force. This loss of vital force either in the form of spiritual distress or in the form of somatic ailment at once attests to the validity of the dynamic nature of the existential reality of the African situation that controls the actions and behaviour of men and subjects them to what we might call a set of objective morality that is inherently self-censuring and self-sustaining.'º Thus each member of the community is born, so to speak, into a pre-ordained moral regime to which he is supposed to have indirectly subscribed either through parental or ancestral participation in what we might call the communal ontological good - the being at peace (in perpetual reconciliation) with nature, the perpetuation of the social conditions of harmony and the maintenance of the vital ontological union with the non-living."
In the mythical world of the African, my ideas, my motives - in general all my actions, deeds and omissions - are mine only when and as long as they are still inchoate. Their realization however is invariably brought about by subjecting them to the community yardstick in such a way that one might even argue that the individual's ideas are really never his own except in as far as they occur as irrealizable phantasms. They become real and manifest only after undergoing a thorough sifting through the general conscience. Thus you will find that in the African social setting, the individual will always measure his or her contemplated course of action against the general or public conscience. In this state of things, he will always reason thus: what will the public say after my accomplishing such and such an action and hardly what shall I say to myself after doing such and such a thing.
What in essence the above implies is that the individual's endeavours and even his private initiative to a certain extent are strongly pre-determined and must, in any case, conform to the established norms of the community (the We) unless they happen to be aberrational and inspired by evil spirits."
Why then does the African want, so to speak, hide behind the shield of a larger group? Or, why does he prefer to be absorbed by what some people might regard as an impersonal "We"? There are many reasons which touch on the personal security, humanistic considerations and also the whole ontology of social existence that require active participation in the realization of the general good and, by implication, that of the individual.
If we consider the aspect of security, again we must admit that all men the world over are driven to seek personal security through integration with others or at least to find some kind of guarantee of their own personal security by contributing to acts that promote public welfare. This in itself is a universal behaviour that can hardly be said to be peculiar to any one race. As we alluded earlier the principle had been recognized by great thinkers like Aristotle and others. But then it is one thing recognizing a principle and quite another implementing or applying that principle in its minutest details. Consequently, I am tempted to contend that the African situation falls in the latter category. And why this is so, is the real issue.
My own private hypothesis leads me to resort to a psychological explanation as an answer. And when I resort to the psychology of man as a possible explanation, I must also content that the psychological disposition of men can never be uniform in all races. Some people tend to be more prone to psychological stresscs than others, while others draw significantly from their own private psychological dispositions.
The African's self-surrender to the "we" is the result of an inveterate psychological disposition largely born out of a hostile environment in which he finds himself. Traditionally, Africans found themselves occupying a territory fraught with all kinds of dangers and enemies, physical and psychological. The jungles of Africa and their terrifying natural hazards were themselves enough to inspire fear compelling individuals to draw together in order to combat them on a united front. The individuals looked to each other for security against marauding wildlife or against tempestuous wild downpours or against inter-tribal wars. Thus a sense of collective security had to be developed in order to cope with the hostile environment. Gradually this inevitable attitude that I cannot exist or I cannot make it all on my own without commending myself to the other or others had to grow naturally.
There is no gain saying that the African fauna and flora have significantly shaped the African thinking, their worldview, their mythical conceptions and even their personality. The mythical world of the Africans is populated with all kinds of spirits, animals and plants which often play the roles of human beings and which inspire fables that are full of human wisdom. From a purely accidental hostile situation, an element of mutual concern in the form of solidarity, togetherness, brotherhood and extended family structures began to take concrete shapes. This was greatly reinforced by the existence of natural ties of blood relationships which, in the African context, appear to be an endless spiral of ontological connections.
The African caught up primarily in a web of criss-crossing blood relationships and in a constantly hostile environment has succeeded to adopt a unique optimism about life and to set aside any possibility of despair for his destiny. In that state of affairs, moreover, the African has succeeded to adopt an attitude that regards his fellow men as protagonists in his personal fate. Thus an authentic form of humanism has developed in the process which takes account of and projects the intrinsic ontological values of man not as a distinct individual existential instance but as an indispensable instance of the social reality (regarded as a totality) which alone makes sense as long as it is considered as conglomerate totality.
The individuality of the individual in the totality therefore is absorbed into a larger individual which, in this case, is the community, the clan, the tribe etc." There is so to speak, a natural fusion between the "I" and "We" that is characterized by acts of community involvement and acts that reveal the sociality conscience of the community. This is a form of authentic humanity that is heald by professor Beck in his article on Evolution, Mensch und Menschlichkeit. He writes:
"Das Entwicklungsziel: 'Menschlichkeit' bedeutet die volle Ver-wirklichung dessen, was in der Wesensstruktur des Menschen als Lebensform vorgezeichnet ist. Eine anthropologische Analyse dieser Struktur fixiert vor allem die Sinnaspekte der Individualität und der Sozialität, durch die der Mensch als personale Leib-Geist-Einheit zugleich auf sich und auf andere bezogen ist: Er erreicht seine individuelle Identität nur, indem er sich zum Andern öffnet und ihn als Mit-Menschen akzeptiert."14
Notwithstanding the many positive aspects of the sociality of the Africans that is firmly founded on the positive submersion of the "I" in the "We" there could be some negative implications which relate to the denial of certain existential aspects of life generally regarded as cardinal in the Western ontology. I am thinking, for example, of the focus on the individual by the Existentialist philosophies of the West and the moral responsibilities ensuing from free human actions. This already creates a problem for a Western philosopher in understanding the African personality and the African worldview. First and foremost, the absorption of the "I" into the "We" does not mean that an individual ceases to incur responsibility for his own misdeeds. It merely means that his misdeeds undermine the social edifice of tranquillity, harmony and order and as such hinder the attainment of the community's social and ontological ideals. Thus the individual wrong-doer assumes responsiblity not as a detached element from the whole but as an element within the whole itself. Whatever negative aspects that this curious philosophy of sociality might evince, it has certainly succeeded to keep generations of Africans in a genuine state of cohesion, mutual dependence and humanistically healthy. The world could look to Africa for the principles of social harmony and interdependence especially now that there is a world-wide movement to return to the roots of humanity and humanism.
1. Leopold S. Senghor, On African Socialism. Transl. Mercer
Cook, New York
1964, pp. 93-4.
2. Sekou Toure in: Presence Africaine. Nos. 24 and 25, February-May 1959.
3. See Tshiamalenga Ntumba, "Langage et Socialite: Primat de la 'Bisoite' sur L'inter-subjectivite", in: Recherches Philosophiques Africaines, vol. II. Faculte de Thbologie Catholique, Kinshasa 1985, p. 83.
4. Recherches Philosophiques Africaines, op.cit., p. 70.
5. Ibid., p. 71.
6. E.A. Ruch/K.C. Anyanwu, African Philosophy. Rome 1984, p. 143.
7. See L. Senghor, On African Socialism, op.cit., p. 94.
8. See V. Mulago, "Un Visage Africaine du Christianisme: L'union vitale Bantu face a l'unitd ecclesiale", in: Presence Africaine. Paris 1965, p. 117.
9. E.A. Ruch/K.C. Anyanwu, African Philosophy, op.cit., p. 160.
10. Some authors like D. Nothomb have gone so far as to suggest that while the indi-vidual's actions should positively contribute to the climate of harmony of the group, strictly speaking there is no purely personal morality and that in the sense what we might say what an individual does has no importance in itself, but only on account of the deleterious influence it is likely to have on the group and on the various forces of nature which ensure the group's survival: rain, health, fertility ... etc. Cf. D. Nothomb, Un Humanisme Africain: Valeurs et Pierres d'attente. Bruxelles 1965, p. 240 sq.
11. African societics have been described somewhat naively by Western anthropologists as being too pacifist or too submissive. This is sweeping in the sense that the generalisation does not take into account the structural fabric, matrix and scope of the actual ontological presuppositions of the African's social existence. An objective assessment should reveal that the African caught up in the web of criss-crossing relationships which alone afford him personal security and hope, cannot in fact help behaving in a manner he does since the pacifist or submissive attitude is the external manifestation of the existential condition of communal life and mutual harmony.
12. In the African ontology there is a widespread belief in evil spirits which inspire some people to destabilize the order and harmony in the community and thus deprive it of its natural life-force. According to Mbiti the evil spirits are personified by witches and sorcerers. They are anti-social and always act in a manner diametrically opposed to the normal and natural flow of the life-force. Cf. J.S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy. New York 1970, pp. 194-203. The good spirit according to Idoniboye is the animating, sustaining creative force of the universe. It is what gives anything its individuality. Cf. D.E. Idoniboye, "The Idea of an African Philosophy: The Concept of 'Spirit' in African Metaphysics", in: Second Order, vol. II. No. 1., p. 85. See also K. Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought. The Akan Conceptual Scheme. Cambridge 1987, pp. 123-28.
13. It should be noted that in participating in the larger individuality, the individual does not thereby cease to be an individual. He merely subordinates or rather lends his individuality to the community because the same community posits as the raison d'etre of his own being there (Dasein). The individual, so to speak, reveals his own individuality indeed his own being through the community and stays in the commun-ity right to his grave. Every person born into the community also dies for and in the bosom of the community.
14. Cf. Heinrich Beck, "Evolution, Mensch und Menschlichkeit",
Universitas. Jg. 40, 1985, p. 613.
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