Humanity: African Thought
Humanity: African Thought
While reason tells us that it is obvious to anyone, irrespective of his or her background, that humans are bipedal, featherless creatures, other characteristics we attribute to humans are not always so obvious. Also, while we all appear to assume that humans are creatures who have minds, in contrast to other creatures, it is not quite obvious what is meant by "mind" or what happens at death to the elements that constitute the essential elements we attribute to humanness. Less obvious still are the social characteristics that we consider primary to humans. Questions regarding human nature, personhood, or the self continue to form the core of metaphysical inquiries. As a result, there are not only multiple constitutive views about human nature, but also questions about whether humans, like other beings, can be said to have an ideal or perfect nature that they already have or aspire to have under certain circumstances. These nonobvious ideas about how we think of the essence of humankind define the differences and similarities in the various beliefs that make up various traditions throughout the world, whether they are cultural traditions passed down from one generation to the next, or intellectual ones shaped by a combination of inherited beliefs with systematic conceptual accounts. Yet, despite these differences, all such beliefs are compatible with the wider thesis that underlies them, namely that all natural kinds have essences.
There are variations in African beliefs as well as in contemporary African philosophical thought regarding how these essences are endowed in humans. Some believe that humans acquire much of what defines the course of their life from a deity or that deity's emissaries, thus adopting a fairly deterministic view of human nature. The Yoruba people of West Africa believe that the human person, èníyán, is constituted of several elements, supreme among which is orí, the determinant of destiny. The others are ara, okán, and emí. The god Olodumare delegates tasks to his emissaries, the lower divinities under him called orisas, and they oversee the various elements that are then "assembled to construct" selves, the èníyáan, with their individual identities. According to Segun Gbadegesin, a Yoruba-born philosopher who has explicated many of these matters, "Ara is the physico-material part of the human being [and] includes the external and internal components" (1991, p. 28). Because èníyán denotes personhood beyond mere biological identity and selfhood, the Yoruba rebuke selfish people by saying that their views stop at their ara, meaning that they ignore what really matters, namely their higher value as èníyán. It would therefore appear that ara refers to the material or physical individuality of every person. Also physical is okán, the element believed to be responsible for the organistic functions of the body, like pumping and circulating blood throughout the system. But it also has attributes that are not entirely physical, because, according to Gbadegesin (p. 32), the Yoruba make references to people keeping their inner thoughts in their okán. Again, although it is believed to be material in nature, it is also regarded as the element responsible for the emotional and mental states and functions of a person and indicates his or her conscious identity. In other words, "it is that from which thought originates" (Gbadegesin, p. 30). Emotional qualities such as bravery, love, hate, joy, sadness, and cowardice are attributed to okán. Emí is believed to be the life principle or vital spirit; it turns èníyán on (to life). Legend has it that the chief divinity Orìsà-nlá molded the body and then put emí into it to make it fully functional—speaking, walking, eating, and even thinking—although one thinks with okán, the mind, but without emí, even okán would not perform its thinking function. Emí, however, is also a kind of private consciousness: when one puts his or her mind (okán ) on some idea, it is emí that pictures the idea; it "looks" at it through okán. Emí does not require rest like the ara, the body. It is tirelessly always at work; thus, it is what travels and speaks to other people when ara, the body, is asleep. It is the dreamer. It is the conscious self. Yet, in the Yoruba modes of thought, all these human functions, including the decision-making activities of emí, are pre-destined by orí, the determinant of everyone's path in life. The Yoruba teach that, in life, humans are constantly striving to attain the good, because their emí learns about what is good and is drawn to it. If, however, the desires of emí are in contrast with the selection of their orí, their striving will be to no avail, as they will be destined to be controlled by the dictates of the superior element, the orí. By this token, in the Yoruba conceptual scheme orí is regarded as the most important aspect of life, for all endeavors of a person's life depend on this element and must be relied on to lead one through the complexities of life. People may not pay attention to the little things that occur in the course of their everyday life experiences, but significant ones, such as big fortunes or calamities, will often raise questions about fate. In this regard, ignorance of the future, that shield that the French social philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) called "the veil of ignorance," allows us to act as if we were free agents capable, so we believe, of creating the world—in terms of influencing history—by our false sense of freedom. It is this sense of false freedom that makes us agents generally, and moral agents in particular. Evidently, it can be a difficult task trying to reconcile the roles played by all the elements in the ensemble of èníyán, the plurally constituted self. What is clear is that there is an attempt to understand and account for all the characteristics exhibited by being human, both functionally and by constitution.
We gather from Chinua Achebe's fiction, Things Fall Apart, that, like the Yoruba, the Igbo, also of West Africa, believe that human destiny is controlled by one's chosen Chi. For them, however, life is made much less deterministic by human amnesia, which makes us forget the dictates of Chi we chose before birth, and so we strive to attain goals in life as if we were free. The amnesia accounts for human courage and diligence in setting and pursuing goals, making life worthwhile until constant and inexplicable failure drives one to seek divinatory counseling and explanation.
The above examples indicate other interesting characteristics of Africans' conceptualization of human nature. Among these is the view of human agency and responsibility, namely, that there are two levels at which we perform in the process of executing those matters that pertain to our specific kind. On the surface, we are free enough for our consciousness to deliberate and execute its duties according to the rules and principles demanded by the various circumstances of human experience, including the acquisition and application of knowledge appropriate to different domains. Yet, both collectively and individually, and unknown to us in specific terms, we are bound by some type of predestination; what we do is actually regulated by and is in line with the dictates of our inner nature as bestowed on us by the divinities. This consideration raises the question of whether humans act freely or are pre-destined to act the way we do. As Achebe indicates in the novel, questions of this nature arise in those instances when we realize that, despite our unfailing diligence and self-application to tasks, either all or a significant portion of our actions yield negative results. We also observe that others succeed with far less effort where we fail, despite what we reckon to be great and right effort. We are then led to infer that we have a fate that runs contrary to our desires and aspirations. It is this that leads Igbo people to infer that their Chi has a different and unalterable destiny for them.
African thought oscillates between these two metaphysical views about human action. The Luo of Kenya, a people who are deeply monistic in their metaphysics of things and of humans, laugh at the idea of predestination, especially when this is attributed to some distant deity beyond time and the world. In their view, most human efforts, if well executed, should yield their intended results. The failure of people's aspirations and goals is the result of either of two causes: one's own lapses, or the actions of another, ill-intentioned person who knowingly and clandestinely undermines other people's plans. Such a person is a jajuok, one who is morally crooked and so wishes others ill, going out of his or her way to see that those they do not like or are jealous of do not succeed in their endeavors.
A major question and the source of a major difference among African philosophers concerns whether the ideas about the various elements in human nature as just described do actually articulate multiple substances which, together in some kind of union or relation with each other, make up person-hood. Contrary to the preceding pluralist claims, other African philosophers opine that such names are no more than mere conceptual distinctions of the different functions of an otherwise singular and physical constitution of the person.
This view, championed principally by the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu, contends that such names as èmí, okán, and so on, as used in Yoruba belief, and arguably present in the conceptual schemes of several other African communities, are no more than indications of different functions of the same complex material body. This physicalist view proposes that, in African conceptions, for anything to be claimed to exist, it must occupy space; hence nothing can be claimed to be a separate entity that, in conjunction with others, makes up personhood unless all of them, like the body, can be shown to either actually occupy or be capable of occupying a physical space distinct from the body with which they are believed to be in union.
According to Wiredu, it would be ridiculous, among the Akan of Ghana, to think or imagine a clear-cut dualism, à la René Descartes (1596–1650), that posits mind and body as distinct from each other in such a way that one can operate independently of the other. Thus, the claim, "I think therefore I am," turns out to be logically untenable for the Akan. To be sure, mind is not physical in the same measure as the body is, so it is neither an appendage of the body nor identical with it, but it is a functional (responsive) property of the specifically human body by means of which it learns cognitively to respond to its surroundings. The body manifests it in the instance of perception of both self and the external world, although its objects and contents are ordered and given shape gradually through communication. It is brought into existence by the functions of the body while its objects and contents are given order through communication. Thus, mind is a quasi-physical thing, just as the glow in a light bulb is the physical property of the type and arrangement of energy-conducting wires.
The body, at least the human body, is a complex organ that responds to different stimuli to produce different "things." In Wiredu's view, the fault of claiming the constituents of personhood to be separate entities is not with the belief systems in which these ideas are found; rather, it is the failure to analyze the ideas received from tradition critically and sufficiently, a failure probably attributable to currents of cultural influences, such as Christianity, on both African scholars drawn into it and on foreign Africanists who read African worlds through the lenses of Western conceptual categories. Dualism originates from ancient Egyptian worldviews, from their belief that there is something divinely permanent and indestructible about human nature that, by ordinary everyday evidence, is also significantly physical.
Dualism was also clearly present in Greek thought by the fifth century b.c.e., before it became a pertinent issue in the systematic approach of the Socratic period. Later Egyptian thinkers of the Greco-Roman era helped to infuse Christian teachings with it, together with the doctrines of immortality and resurrection. These were assimilated, joining other dogmatic pillars of the Christian faith. According to Wiredu, the concepts of mind and body in African thought are not expressed as the polarized material-spiritual opposition found in Western thought. Rather, many African beliefs appear to indicate a quasi-physical conception not only of the mind, but also of the afterlife. The ancient Egyptian concepts of the afterlife clearly expected those who died to return to this life physically. According to this expectation, the dead wander away into the world of sunset in order to rise again one day, and African beliefs in the continuous "social" engagement between the dead and the living is an extension of this quasi-physical conception of personhood. Its foreignness to the Western Christian theory of the afterlife continues to indicate a sort of mystery within the system because of its incongruence with the clear Cartesian dualist principle to which Christian teaching tends to cling. The African influence on the Christian aspiration was never cleanly attained, and several "mysteries" considered crucial to Christian faith resulted from the failed merger of African beliefs with non-African aspirations (Masolo, 2004).
As a constituting element of human nature, mind, too, is a function of the social nature of humans. Mind draws its origin from and depends on communication. It is the human capacity to process meanings that are the core and formal object of communication: that is, the cognitive responsiveness of the human organism to its social surroundings and through society—from which the individual learns the theoretical and practical meanings—to the rest of the surrounding world in which such meanings are tested and applied. Perhaps emphasis on the social dimension of human nature separates African thought most significantly from other traditions. At both the personal and social levels, African thought reflects considerations and maxims that view the individual as socially embedded. Not only is mind, such a significant part of individual selfhood, considered to be socially generated, but its operations, like the determination of what is true and what is good, are played out in the social realm, thus defining knowledge, both cognitive and moral, as inherently social enterprises. In Cultural Universals and Particulars, Wiredu describes mind in the Akan conceptual scheme as "primarily the capacity to think thoughts, feel emotions, construct arguments, imagine things, perceive objects and situations, dream dreams of both night and day and so on" (1996, p. 126).
Like the Akan, the Luo think of mind as part of the biological functioning specific to humans. Mind is powered by chuny, the sustainer of biological life that all living things share, including plants. The human chuny is no greater than, nor superior to, that of a cornstalk or of a flower; they only perform different things in each case. Thus, in humans, chuny is the seat of thought, meditation, and imagination, but the acts take place in the head. Even the instinctive reactions of a dog are coordinated in its head by chuny. At death, the chuny stops or, as the Luo literally put it, disconnects its flow, and so all the animal operations cease and plants wither. In every case, it is said that the chuny has disconnected (chunye ochot ). Because chuny is the center of everything, when it is broken, such as happens at death, or when the core of an argument (chuny wach ) is shattered by a counterposition, total disintegration occurs.
In these Akan and Luo metaphysical examples, personhood emerges in the course of an individual human being's learning to respond to and participate in the social world of handling meanings through which the operations of mind are shaped in an ascending degree of complexity. But it is in African social theory that the communalist nature of person-hood has been best articulated. Modern African politics, as well as the more established indigenous political orders and systems of defining and managing kinship systems, emphasize every person's responsibility for the communal good as the end that everyone seeks, even when they may differ in their separate "ways" to it. Thus, although the immediate postindependence ideology dubbed "African socialism" has waned as the guiding ideological and moral norm for political and socioeconomic orders, the communalistic spirit that it reflected continues to drive Africans' value judgments. Sometimes such judgments are made spontaneously in response to needs of others in family circles, at other times they are consciously applied as political strategies for implementing public policy and programs. Thus, communalism continues to be present in the political and socioeconomic practices at various levels of society, despite the individualistic challenges it faces from capitalist economy and values.
If human nature is communally cultivated over time by enabling individuals to develop and to use their specifically human capacities within given sociocultural contexts, then it is reasonable to expect that the sustenance and improvement of the human condition will require no less than the provisions and circumstances that enable its attainment. Indeed, the idea of human rights agrees with and reasserts this expectation by stipulating, in effect, that every person deserves those provisions and conditions necessary for the quality of life commensurate with the moral status of humans. There appears to be, in the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, a hidden argument that the social nature of human life makes it imperative that the attainment and sustenance of those human rights be the result of active commitment by all. Thus, not only does every person have the right to life, but he or she also has the right to a quality of life that enables him or her, both as an individual and as a member of a group, to exercise the characteristics of his or her humanity fully, namely, to be able to perform, have, or enjoy those things that human beings perform and pursue to have or to become by virtue of being members of the species.
Understandably, the specifics and measures of these will, in diverse manners, be culturally determined and allowed under the guidance of right reason. Although philosophers no longer concur that reason, in its instrumental sense, is what distinguishes humans from other entities in the world, it is at least plausible to claim that the freedom of having and expressing one's opinion is still characteristically human. And, because such ideals are what every human being requires, they turn out to be the common goods that can be effectively realized only by reciprocal (intersubjective) recognition and respect among us. They are the foundations of the humane treatment of others as a social, if not a moral, ideal.
Ultimately, it is not difficult to see why the observance of human rights for all is important. Africans have borne witness to sufferings and other forms of humiliation associated with the denial of their human rights. Not only did colonialism strip Africans of their civil and political freedoms, it also tried to obliterate their historical identity by trying to destroy everything they had created in terms of material, intellectual, and religious traditions. As if these colonial calamities had not caused enough suffering, African people have, since independence, been subjected to civil wars and cycles of violence perpetrated on them by their own leaders and neighbors, resulting in the denationalization of millions constrained to live in refugee camps and other forms of makeshift settlements abroad. It is easy, therefore, to see how the postcolonial African state has been mired in contradictions. Ironically, not only did such leaders and other perpetrators of African genocide violate fundamental (common or universal) human rights of their victims, they violated, in the name of ethnic and personal interests, those very rights considered in African communalist thought to be most basic to the concept of humanity. Lessons from such experiences drive home the idea that the practice of mutual recognition and respect is likely to allow everyone to become, in turn, an active and competent participant in the production and consumption of the material, as well as the cognitive, moral, sociopolitical, economic, and aesthetic values on which specifically human life is based. Human beings can, therefore, be regarded as living an acceptable level of human life only if: they are accorded moral dignity and respect; they live a life of reasonable social and political freedom under adequate and appropriate social and political protection; they have the necessary means to live a life free of degrading or dehumanizing poverty; and they live a life that allows them free and reasonable cultural expression. To unduly deny, interrupt, or interfere with any of these rights with respect to other persons, groups, or nations, is to deny them their basic human rights, viewed as those rights every human being can claim as necessary for the expression of his or her humanity.
See also Authenticity, Africa ; Colonialism: Africa ; Communication of Ideas: Africa and Its Influence ; Communitarianism in African Thought ; Person, Idea of the ; Personhood in African Thought ; Philosophies: African ; Religion: Africa .
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Oxford: Heinemann, 1996.
Gbadegesin, Segun. African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities. New York: Peter Lang, 1991.
Gyekye, Kwame. An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. 2nd rev. ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1995.
Hallen, Barry. The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: Discourse about Values in an Yoruba Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Hallen, Barry, and J. O. Sodipo. Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophy. 2nd ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.
Karp, Ivan, and D. A. Masolo, eds. African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Masolo, D. A. "African Philosophers in the Greco-Roman Era." In A Companion to African Philosophy, edited by Kwasi Wiredu. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004.
——. "The Concept of the Person in Luo Modes of Thought." In African Philosophy: New and Traditional Perspectives, edited by Lee M. Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Wiredu, Kwasi. Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
——. Philosophy and an African Culture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Wiredu, Kwasi, and Kwame Gyekye, eds. Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies, I. Washington D.C.: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1992.
D. A. Masolo
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