PERSON AND COMMUNITY IN AFRICAN THOUGHT
KWAME GYEKYE Accra
There has been a great deal of misconception about both the metaphysical and social status of the person in African thought. One of the consequences of this misconception is that the relation of the person to the community has been misconstrued, or rather given some incorrect interpretations. Menkiti, for instance, maintains that the African view asserts the ontological primacy, and hence the ontological independence of the community. This means that the reality of the person is secondary and derivative. He says that "as far as Africans are concerned, the reality of the communal world takes precedence over the reality of the individual life histories, whatever these may be".' From the supposed primacy of the reality of the community, Menkiti infers: (i) that in the African view "it is the community which defines the person as person, not some isolated static quality of rationality, will, or memory"," (ii) that the African view sup-ports "the notion of personhood as acquired"," and (iii) that "As far as African societies are concerned, personhood is something at which individuals could fail ...".4 He infers the notion of an acquisition of personhood also from the use of the pronoun it "in many languages, English included", to refer to children and new borns.' Menkiti's views on the metaphysic of the community vis-à-vis that of the person are, in my view, entirely mistaken, stemming as they do from assumptions or premises that are false, or disputable, to say the least, as I will point out presently.
The metaphysical construal of the person in African thought, such as Menkiti's, which makes the community more real than the individual person has a parallel in the conceptions of the social status of the person held by some scholars, both African and non-African. Or, is it the case that the social conception of the individual's status is a logical consequence of the metaphysical? The social conception holds that the African social order is communal through and through; this conception seems, in consequence, to ignore or denigrate the idea of individuality in African social thought and practice. Thus the advocates of the ideology of African socialism such as Nkrumah, Senghor and Nyerere who, in their anxiety to find anchorage for their ideolog-ical choice in the traditional African ideas about society, argued that socialism was foreshadowed in the traditional African socio-economic thought and practice, pointing especially to the idea and practice of communalism. Thus, Nkrumah observed that "if one seeks the socio-political ancestor of socialism, one must go to communalism ... In socialism, the principles underlying communalism are given expression in modern circumstances."6 And Senghor also opined that "Negro-African society is collectivist or, more exactly, communal, because it is rather a communion of souls than an aggregate of individuals".7 These statements clearly suggest the conviction of these African leaders or scholars that the African social order, in the traditional setting, was communal, and would, for that reason, easily translate into modern socialism. Hence the euphoric and unrelenting pursuit of socialism by most African political leaders for two decades following the attainment of political independence. The status of the individual person in African social thought and practice, however, is hardly mentioned, acknowledged or explored in the writ-ings of these African leaders, with the possible exception of Senghor who made the following observation: "The individual is, in Europe, the man who distinguishes himself from the others and claims his autonomy to affirm himself in his basic originality. 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 ..."8 Despite this observation of Senghor's, however, one does not find any extensive analysis in his writings of the place given to the individual in African social thought.
Thus some interpretations both of the metaphysic of the person and the status of the individual person in the African social order accord primacy to the community vis-à-vis the individual person: metaphysically, the reality of the person is held as secondary to the reality of the community; socially, the individual is held as less significant, or rather his status has been diminished, while that of the community augmented and made more prominent. My intention in this paper is to argue that such interpretations are mistaken. Due to my own limitations, for purposes of an in-depth analysis, and in order to avoid unnecessary generalizations, I will dwell mainly on the sources of the thought of the Akan, the largest ethnic group in Ghana.
1. Ontological Status of the Person
In the preliterate cultural setting of Africa's historical past, ideas - whether metaphysical, social, ethical, political or what have you - were given conceptual formulation in proverbs (or fragments), folktales, artistic and institutional expressions. The proverbs, as I have argued in detail in my book An Essay on African Philosophical Thought, are not unlike the fragments of the early ancient Greek philosophers in respect of the laconic and elliptical linguistic forms in which they are expressed. The ancient Greek fragments were a collection of sayings, and because of their philosophical content or relevance, they were utilized by later thinkers in the reconstruction and resurrection of early Greek philosophy. The same philosophical use, I have claimed, can be made of African proverbs and sayings.
Consider the fragment "All persons are children of God; no one is a child of the earth" (nnipa nyinaa ye Onyame mma; obiara nnya asase ba). It can be inferred from this fragment that a person is conceived in Akan thought as a theomorphic being, having in his/her nature an aspect of God. This is what the Akan people call okra, soul, described as divine and as having an antemundane existence with God. The okra is held as constituting the innermost self, the essence of the individual person. A human person is thus metaphysically conceived as more than just a material or physical object. As a child of God, a person must be held as intrinsically valuable. The intrinsic value of every person implies that just as God is an end in Himself in the macrocosmic perspective, so is a person an end in himself or her-self in the microcosmic perspective. As an end in himself/herself and therefore, as self-complete, I doubt whether it makes sense to speak of the community as conferring personhood (or selfhood) on a person
Identified more with the soul, a person was conceived as a unique individual, complete in its being: thus, the fragment, "antelope's soul is one, duiker's another" (esono otwe ne kra na esono dabo ne kra). In Akan conceptions each person is unique, because each soul is unique. Ontologically, then, the individual person must be self-complete in terms of his/her essence, for it requires nothing but itself in order to exist (except for the fact the he/she was held as created by God). If this is so, it cannot be the case that the reality of the person is derivative and posterior to that of the community. It would not therefore be correct to maintain that the notion of personhood is conferred by the community; neither would it be correct to assert that the definition of personhood is a function of the community.
The inference Menkiti draws for the notion of an acquisition of personhood from the use, according to him, of the neuter pronoun it to refer to new-borns and children but not to adult persons, is most probably incorrect for a number of African languages. It is surprising that an inference based on the characteristics of a non-African language is being regarded as having serious implications for African thought! Menkiti should have examined the neuter pronoun it on the basis of some African languages. What he says about the pronoun it does not at all apply to the Akan language; in fact the pronoun it does not exist in this language for animate things. Thus: "he is in the room" is translated in Akan as owo dan no mu; "she is in the room" as owo dan no mu; and "it (referring to a dog) is in the room" also as owo dan no mu. However, it exists for inanimate things. Thus, the answer to the question, "where is the book?" will be, ewo dan no mu, that is, "it is in the room". Since the Akan pronoun o applies to all the three genders (strictly only to a part of the neuter gender, though), it would follow, on Menkiti's showing, that not even the adult or oldest person can strictly be referred to as a person! For the answer to the question, "where is the old man?" (if we want to use a pronoun) will be owo dan no mu, that is, "he/it is in the room". Clearly then the neuter pronoun in the Akan language for animate things makes no commitment to the ontological status of its designatum. A child or baby will be as much a person as an adult or a grey-haired old man. The argument that it, used of children (in the English language), implies that they are not yet persons therefore collapses, for the Akan "it" (=o), as we have observed, is used also of adults and older people. Are those older people persons or are they yet to acquire their personhood?
Menkiti also thinks, but wrongly, that the relative absence of ritualized grief over the death of a child in contrast to the elaborate burial ceremony and ritualized grief in the event of the death of an older person, also supports his point about the conferment of ontological status.' It is not true that every older person who dies in an African community is given elaborate burial. The type of burial and the nature and extent of grief expressed over the death of an older person depend on the community's assessment, not of his/her personhood as such, but of the dead person's achievements in life, his/her contribution to the welfare of the community, and the respect he/she commanded in the community. Older persons who may not satisfy such criteria may in fact be given simple and poor funerals and attenuated forms of grief expressions. As to the absence of ritualized grief on the death of a child, this has no connection whatsoever with the African view of personhood as such, as alleged by Menkiti. It stems rather from beliefs about the possible consequences for the mother of the dead child of showing excessive grief: one belief, among the Akan people, is that excessive demonstration of grief will make the mother infertile, as it will make her reach her menopaus prematurely; another belief is that the excessive show of grief over the death of a child will drive the dead child too far away for it to reincarnate, and so on.
Thus no distinctions as to the ontological status of persons can 'oe made on the basis of the nature and extent of ritualized grief over the death of a child or of an older person. A human person is a person whatever his/her age or social status. Personhood is thus not acquired or yet to be achieved as one goes along in society. What a person acquires are habits and character traits: he/she, qua person, thus becomes the subject of the acquisition, and is not fully defined by what he/she acquires. One is a person because of what he/she is, not because of what he/she has done or acquired. Thus the contrast Menkiti wants to establish between the African and the Western views of the nature of being by describing the former as "processual"'º or "some sort of ontological progression"" and the latter as "static"11 is, in my opinion, misguided.
Let me state at this point that Menkiti's interpretation of the notion of personhood in African thought would have serious consequences for the rights that younger persons, including children ought to have. If children are not yet persons, then they could be denied rights such as would naturally be possessed by persons - such as adults. But we know for a fact that children not only ought to have rights but that they do have rights. Let us once again refer to the Akan fragment: "All persons are children of God; no one is a child of the earth." Note that this fragment makes no distinction between younger and older persons; it speaks of all persons; it does not suggest either that babies or younger people are not children of God. Secondly, this fragment has moral overtones, for there must be something intrinsically valuable in God for the insistent claim to be made that everyone is His child. A person, inasmuch as he/she is a child of God, must also be thought of as of intrinsic worth and ought to be accorded dignity, respect and importance. From this it can be inferred that a per-son has moral rights which are anterior to the community, rights that are therefore not conferred by society, but are concomitant to the notion of personhood. Children have rights because, like adults, they are persons.
2. Nature of Community
A human community is of course a community or a group of persons. For, when we talk of community we are talking primarily of persons linked by interpersonal bonds, biological or otherwise. This means that without persons and therefore interpersonal relationships, there will be no community, and this means in turn that it is the reality of the community that is dependent and derivative, the community not having a life of its own. This fact immediately takes away the right of the community to pontificate on the reality of the person and to define and confer personhood on the human being.
The upshot of my critical examination of Menkiti's interpretations or analyses is that on both factual and conceptual grounds it is a great mistake to maintain that personhood in African thought is a processual notion, that it is something to be acquired or achieved, that it is something conferred by community, and that the being of a person is secondary and therefore non-autonomous. I have deployed facts and arguments that are intended to negate Menkiti's assumptions and conclusions. My reading of the indigenous sources suggests the conviction that in his/her nature a person is a complete individual and that this ontological completeness does not suffer diminution in consequence of his/her entry into, or membership of, the community. It is this fact that does not seem to have been duly recognized by some scholars who are given to harping on the communal or collective nature of African societies, ignoring the status of the individual. I shall return to this shortly.
3. Person in Community
I wish to emphasize, however, that the ontological completeness of the human person is not by any means to be regarded as paralleled by social completeness. In the social context the individual person is not complete. To say that the human individual is self-complete in its being does not in any way imply that he/she can be conceived as essentially without relations to other human individuals. Just as the community does not have a life of its own ontologically, so has the individual person no life of his/her own socially. For, even though complete in his/her nature, the human person has needs and hopes which can be realized only within the community of other persons. Socially, then, he/she remains incomplete.
In Akan philosophy the human person is conceived as originally born into a human society, and therefore as a social being right from the outset. This conception is expressed in the fragment, "When a person descends from heaven, he/she descends into a human society" (onipa firi soro besi a obesi onipa kurom. It is held that the human being is created by the Supreme Being in heaven [soro]). Created in heaven, the reality of the person is prior to, not derived from, the community. However, the person who "descends" into a human community can-not live in isolation, for he is naturally oriented toward other per-sons, and must live in relation with them.
The Akan artistic symbol of the chain is a symbol of human relationship. The meaning of the symbol, in the words of the famous late Ghanaian artist, fs as follows: "we are linked together like a chain; we are linked in life, we are linked in death; persons who share a common blood relation never break away from one another"." The symbol depicts unity and interdependence, the idea of each person as a unit in the chain. This symbol is thus intended to indicate the funda-mentally relational character of the person and thus the interconnections of human individuals in matters of their basic needs, wants, hopes and expectations. Hence it expresses a philosophical theory of man and society - that of the interdependence of human persons, and society as constituted by the real relationships between individual human beings. These real relationships are not only intrinsically good - good in themselves, but they bear some teleological overtones, as they are held as productive of consequences that are worthwhile for the individual and the community.
Despite his/her ontological
completeness, the individual person's capacities, talents and dispositions are
not sufficient to meet his/her basic needs and requirements. The reason is formulated
in the fragment, "A person is not a palm tree that he/she should be self-sufficient"
(onipa nnye abe na ne ho ahyia ne ho). Because the human individual is not self-sufficient,
he would necessarily require the assistance, goodwill and the relationships
of others in order to satisfy his basic needs. Another fragment makes it pretty
clear that "the well-being of man depends upon his fellow man" (obi
yiye firi obi), a fragment that is logically related to, or is the consequence
of, others such as "One finger cannot lift a thing", "The left
arm washes the right arm and the right arm washes the left arm", and "If
the lizard is a blacksmith, the monitor does not lack a cutlass". The reasons
for the existence of the community are thus patently clear: the limited character
of the possibilities of the individual - a fact that diminishes the individual's
self-sufficiency, the need to emphasize the value of collective action, mutual
aid and interdependence, and the need for a comprehensive framework for the
full realization of the individual's potentials, needs, and aspirations. The
community (or, communitarian) life - at any rate of the kind espoused in African
thought - thus maintains that the good of all determines the good of each, or,
put differently, that the welfare of each is dependent upon the wel-fare of
all. It follows from this that the success of the individual per-son's life
is linked with his identifying himself/herself with the community. What emerges
then is an organic relation between the individual person and the group (that
is, the community). This organic relation has given rise to several questions,
false impressions, invalid inferences, and outright condemnation of the communal
system of social arrangement.
3.1. Sociality and Autonomy of the Individual Person
The already-quoted Akan fragment, "When a person descends from heaven, he descends into a human society" underlines human social-ity, the idea that community or social life is natural to the human per-son. What this means is that the human person has a natural proclivity to join with, or relate to, other human persons and to participate in the life formed from such relationships. Even though such relation-ships are necessary, they are, nevertheless, to be regarded neither as prior to, nor independent of, the beings (that is, persons) that estab-lished them. While the persons are autonomous the relations that link them are non-autonomous. So that Menkiti's view of "an ontological independence" in respect of human society'4 is certainly misleading.
It must be noted, however, that having relations with other human persons does not diminish or subvert the ontological completeness of the individual person, neither does it rob him of his personal autonomy. The notion of relational character (in respect of persons) is not logically incompatible with the notion of personal autonomy. Those who think differently on this suppose that there is an antithesis between the two - that is, the individual and society. Perhaps it is undeniable that the organic character of the community as held in African social thought and practice is more pronounced, the interpersonal bonds between persons much stronger. Consequently, community life is real, becoming the focus of the activities of the individual members. From this phenomenon, some scholars have concluded that the relational character of persons is so excessively stressed and its limits pushed to such extremes that the social role and status of the community in African social thought are augmented, resulting in the diminishing of the status of the individual person who, in the sequel, is bereft of initiative, personality identity and originality. Individuality, it is erroneously supposed by others, is smothered by communality.
Thus, Burke, for instance, maintained that communal values "tend to submerge the individual personality, within the collectivity"." Much earlier Adolphe Louis Cureau had written of the Congo: "The village as an extension of the family, compels its citizens to strict communism, to dependence upon one another, and a fusion which reduces everyone to the same level and submerges personality and originality."" Such interpretations which give the impression that the African social doctrine of communalism denigrates or devalues individual personality, initiative and originality are wide of the mark on both conceptual and empirical grounds.
Conceptually, communality cannot be opposed to individuality, for after all the well-being and success of the group would depend on the unique qualities of its individual members - that is, on the intellectual abilities, talents of various kinds, characters, dispositions, share-able experiences, etc. of each individual person. If communalism were to fail theoretically to provide free rein for the development, full realization and exercise of the individual's unique qualities, it would be an inconsistent social theory, for it would, as it were, be sawing off the branch on which it was going to sit. However, communalism, as conceived and understood in Akan or African social philosophy, is a consistent theory, one that is not opposed to the fundamental interests of the individual. To participate in activities or enterprises that would enhance one's own good as well as the good of others is surely not to have one's identity and personality submerged, lacerated, or ignored by the group.
At the empirical level, the communalist doctrine caters for the social, material and psychological or mental well-being of the individual member of the community. In the communal social order it is impossible for the individual to feel socially lost or insignificant; on the contrary, the individual feels socially worthy and important as his/her role and acitivity in the community are appreciated. The individual also benefits materially from the succour and goodwill of members of the group. Having grown up in a communal society myself, I can testify to numerous cases of younger people from poor homes who would not have been able to obtain secondary (high school) education - let alone higher education overseas before the establishment of local universities - but for the financial and other kinds of assistance given by some members of the group. Would these be cases of the group's submerging an individual's personality, originality and talent? Wouldn't these rather be cases of the group's providing much-needed opportunities for the full realization and exercise of an individual's talents and aspirations and hence the development of his/her personality? It is known for a fact that the success of an individual member of the group is regarded as redounding to the honour and fame of the group to which he/she belongs. This is a reason why the necessary opportunities would be provided by members of the group for the development of the individual's talents and potentials.
I wish to provide further evidence and arguments to demonstrate the falsity of the impressions such as are conveyed by scholars like Burke and Cureau. Let us consider, to begin with, the ideas expressed in the following fragment: "The clan is like a cluster of trees which, when seen from afar, appear huddled together, but which could be seen to stand individually when closely approached." This fragment has been explained in the following way: "If one is far away from a cluster of trees, he sees all the trees as huddled or massed together. It is when he goes nearer that he recognizes that the trees in fact stand individually. The clan (group) is just like the cluster of trees."" The fragment gives the impression that the community or group is a mere abstraction, a mental construct, not a reality. This is not so, however, for the cluster of trees is real, implying that the community is a reality, even though this does not mean by any means that its reality takes precedence of the reality of the individual. The fragment makes it clear that individuality cannot be diminished or subverted by the reality of the community or the social group. The fragment implies further that the individual has a separate identity, and that, like the tree, the individual is separately rooted, possessing an autonomy and uniqueness. Just as the tree is not in any way sucked up by the cluster, even though some of its branches may touch those of other trees (thus the relational character of the individual trees), so the individual is not in any way absorbed by the cluster, that is, the community. Thus com-munality is not conceived in African/Akan social thought as squeezing out individuality. This fragment, like others similar to it in con-tent, clearly expresses the idea that individual persons, even in a communal setting, have identities, characters and wills of their own.
The idea of individual identity and autonomy is expressed equally clearly also in the Akan art motif of the "siamese" crocodile: a crocodile with two heads but a single stomach. The proverb connected with this symbol says that, although they have a common stomach, they always struggle over food. This artistic symbol, when explored more deeply, will be found to articulate the uniqueness of the individual and his/her relationship to the society. The presence of two individual heads is worth noting. The head in the symbol emphasizes individuality: it is an expression of the will, interests, tastes, desires and passions of the individual; it indicates the desire of the individual for self-expression. It is the desire and attempt of individuals to express themselves, to satisfy their own needs and interests that lead to conflicts in society. However, there is no suggestion in Akan thought that such social conflicts are inevitable or permanent, if individuals in a society realize that, after all, their interests cannot be essentially different and that they stand more to gain than to lose if they comprehend the notion of the common good - symbolized by the single stomach - allow themselves to be guided by it, and work towards its realization.
That individuality is well understood in Akan social thought comes out also in the well-known Akan fragment, "the clan (group) is merely a multitude" (crowd: abusua ye dom). The fragment does not reject the reality of the group as such; but it stresses the idea that the individual cannot always depend on the clan or the group for every-thing, but should try to be independent and be responsible for him-self/herself. The fragment is thus intended to deepen the individual's sense of responsibility for oneself. Thus it repudiates social parasitism, which is rejected also in the popular Akan saying, "Life is as you make it" (obra ne woara abo). The "you" here is of course the singular pronoun. The meaning of the saying is that it is not the group that will organize one's life for him/her despite the assistance that one may get from other members of the group. It is the individual who, in the final analysis, ought to strive for his/her interests, welfare and happiness. There is no suggestion in Akan thought, however, that the individual should practise ethical egoism.
The individual's sense of responsibility for oneself is in fact expressed explicitly in the maxim, "it is by individual effort that we struggle for our heads", (ti wopere no korokoro). This underlines the idea of individual effort as a necessary condition for struggling for our interests, and needs. The notion of competition (pere: struggle) is implicit here, a notion that is clearly allied - perhaps conceptually - to individuality.
I have tried to show in this lecture that Akan social thought holds that the human person is complete in his/her nature, and that he/she is a unique individual, with particular interests, wills and desires, capacity and dispositions for self-expression, and with ability to think and act autonomously. Akan thought maintains also that this individual per-son is by nature a social being, so that he/she has a natural proclivity to relate to other persons. Interpersonal relationships are thereby formed, and it is these interpersonal relationships and connections that constitute a community. In its being, therefore, the community is secondary to the being of the persons. The being or reality of the individual person takes precedence over that of the community.
African conceptions about the ontological and social status of the person vis-a-vis that the community have been misconstrued and distorted by most scholars, African and non-African, simply because the assumption has always been that the African society is communal and collectivist through and through, an assumption that is not wholly correct as it ignores individualist elements in African social thought. What Akan/African social thought attempts to do is to integrate individual desires and social ideals; it attempts, that is, to integrate and keep in creative balance individual uniqueness and social participation. It is this kind of perspective on the nature of human society which, according to Akan thinkers, would most effectively conduce to the social, material and mental liberation of the individual person.
l. Ifeanyi A. Menkiti, "Person and Community in African Traditional Thought",
in. Richard A. Wright (ed.), African Philosophy. An Introduction. Lanham
1984', p. 171.
2. Ibidem, p. 172.
3. Ibidem, p. 174; also p. 178 and 179.
4. Ibidem, p. 173.
5. Ibidem, p. 173.
6. Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for
Decolonization and Development with Particular Reference to the African
Revolution. London 1964, p. 73.
7. Leopold S. Senghor, On African Socialism, transl. Mercer Cook. New York
1964, p. 49.
8. Ibidem, p. 94.
9. I.A. Menkiti, "Person and Community in African Traditional Thought",
Richard A. Wright (ed.), op.cit., p. 174.
10. Ibidem, p. 172.
11. Ibidem, p. 173.
12. Ibidem, p. 172.
13. Kofi Antubam, Ghana's Heritage of Culture. Leipzig 1963, p. 160.
14. I.A. Menkiti, op.cit., p. 180.
15. Fred G. Burke, "Tankanyika: The Search for Ujamaa", in: William
Friedland/Carl G. Rosbert (eds.), African Socialism. Stanford University
Press, 1964, p. 207.
16. Adolphe L. Cureau, Savage Man in Central Africa: A Study of Primitive
Races in the French Congo, transl. E. Andrews. London 1915, p. 270.
17. J.A. Annobil, translated from his book Mmebusem Nkyerekyeremu (Proverbs
and Their Explanations). Cape Coast 1971, p. 29.
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