Sociability in African Thought

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Sociability is a descriptive term that refers to the relational or interactive disposition and condition from which persons, as individuals, are said to derive their identity and status. According to this view, humans are regarded as beings whose defining characteristics, like reason, and its manifestation in cognitive, moral, and language capacities, are said to arise from the social conditioning of human life. Although this communalistic principle underlies African philosophical endeavors as well as African people's practical orientations to social, moral, and political values generally, the concept has received only meager attention and treatment by African intellectuals and remains to be finely articulated and applied openly in metaphysical, epistemological, political, and ethical analyses of Africans' experiences. This lack of a robust presence of the relational view of the world in African theoretical culture is in spite of the vigorous claim by African political leaders like Léopold Sédar Senghor (19062001) and Julius Nyerere (19221999) in the early 1960s that "African socialism," an idea they claimed was based on traditional African communalism, was the moral flag of a distinctly African ideological framework and the key to a collective African socioeconomic growth. Benefiting from both the political (independence) and religious (post-Vatican II and ecumenical) fervors of the time, emerging African theologians and philosophers, like Vincent Mulago (1924) and John S. Mbiti (1931), defended this view, arguing that the Christian Church had much to learn from the communalistic African cultures in its quest toward self-definition as a community or family of believers. More recently, African philosophers, especially Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye, both of Ghanaian origin, have published works that crucially and compellingly place African communalism back at the center of a distinctly African point of view to philosophical visions.

The idea of human sociability is metaphysical, but it is founded on the observation of the biological human dependency of new members of the species on other and older members for their security, growth, and flourishing. The observation of this basic human condition leads to the idea that humans can attain the full development of the characteristics and properties that make them specifically human, or persons, only by depending on each. By education and imitation, humans learn from each other and acquire the capacity to competently function and behave as members of the species. Thus one is born biologically human but only socially does he or she become a person. It can be argued upon this view that although human nature is bestowed upon us by the biological constitution of the species, it is the communicative activity among us that sets in motion the development and flourishing of our cognitive and moral capacities. Thus our capacity to develop our basic human competencies is governed by our disposition to be sociable. It is in this sense that sociability becomes a metaphysical condition, because the distinguishing properties of the species depend on, and grow from, it.

While sociability is recognized in all cultures as a universal condition for the growth and flourishing of human capacities, some cultures go further by making such a condition the basis for advancing the belief that values that promote communal interests are superior to those that promote individual ones. Dominant ideas about individual selves, or persons, and about how they relate to others in society are the basis of vast differences in value systems of different societies and cultures as reflected in their respective sociopolitical and economic organizations, as well as in the principles upon which their moral systems and ethical theories are built. While cultural systems that give prominence to the rights and liberties of the individual tend to define individuals in terms of their inherent personal attributes and capacities, those that put emphasis on the community tend to prefer relational models of personhood. In the latter, individuals are considered as links in genealogical chains within which they bear responsibility for the furtherance of their respective families and lineages. They are part of larger communal or social subjects that have rights just as individuals do. Cognitively and morally, individuals in relational models of society become part of the social quest toward ideal common goods such as truth and moral good. Because of this communalistic standpoint, one notices in these cultural systems or traditions a signification skepticism toward objectivist epistemological theories, as well as toward the idea, pivotal to the Kantian moral scheme in Western philosophy, of universal moral right that is knowable, directly and independently, by individual minds. By contrast, it is argued from the African communalistic view that epistemological truths and principles of moral right are ideals that we become aware of only in social contexts. Kwasi Wiredu, arguably the most senior and prominent African philosopher of the early twenty-first century, argues (1980, 1996) that epistemological truths are only opinions whereas the principles of moral right, while pursuing the golden rule, are arrived at by way of sympathetic impartiality. In other words, cognitive truths are neither part of the structural condition that makes experience possible nor are they the function of the mechanistic functioning of such structure. Truth is the idea, entailed in the nature of the assertions about our experience of the world, that it indeed be as we claim we perceive it. And it is hard, very hard, and perhaps impossible, for any one person to estimate such truth-value of their own assertions of their experiences without comparing them with those of other people, for every truth is always someone's truth. Truth, according to this view, is opinion. Similarly, as the estimation of the morally obligating nature of certain actions upon us, the idea of duty is not a structural property. Rather, it is a value that we know (become aware of) in social contexts as we attempt to harmonize our individual interests with the interests of others in society. Thus the communalistic view of morals provides the Kantian golden rule with a base, a social base. According to this view the construction of morals requires both the objective rationale and the subjective motivation.

African thought, whether traditional or more recent, does not view the idea of basic selfhood of all individuals as conflictual with what it upholds about community. In its constitution and realization, the self is enhanced and made possible by the communal condition of its flourishing, but it does not become inferior to the community by virtue of this dependency on it. Any view that sharply separates the two as mutually exclusive would be the result of the failure to see the pivotal mutual dependency between the two categories as logically, metaphysically, and practically related. Subjectivity is essentially intersubjective or relational, inasmuch as one can be empirically conscious of oneself only as one individual among many and must thus posit the freedoms and rights of self as commensurate with the freedoms and rights of others. Egoism and other principles of self-centeredness can thus develop only at the point where one loses sight of the superior common good that conditions and informs individual claims thereon, for common goods are, like human rights, those goods that are required equally by all as a means to leading life worthy of human beings. For example, apart from abuses for which African leaders became notorious over the first four to five decades of Africa's independence from colonialism, traditional virtues are unequivocal on matters of human rights. Every person has a right to life irrespective of their age, gender, or their occupation in the community. Likewise, the traditional political and moral lores taught that every adult person has the right to those basic means, like land and their opinions, by which an adult is not completely one unless they can, respectively, fend for themselves and their dependents, as well as contribute to the growth of the community through the expression of their opinions. Because these rights are considered to be at the very foundation of what it means for everyone to be fully human, every individual has the right to demand these rights from their community as much as the latter has the duty to guarantee them for all its members. It will not escape the notice of many that this is one area in which African governments have made significant deference to traditional systems in matters of communal land use by limiting the jurisdiction of contemporary statutory law over some land tenure procedures. According to this view, the community protects the rights of the individual as much as the individual preserves the common good by respecting the rights of all other individuals with whom she shares basic equality in the eyes of the community.

African thought holds, therefore, that individual freedom must be externally limited if a community of free individuals with equal rights is to be possible, and demonstrates that a just political order is a demand of reason itself, since the principles of political and moral right are functions of generalizations made out of the practical experience of mutuality. The Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Gyekye uses Akan proverbs to illustrate the view that in African thought moral and political principles underscore the centrality of the idea of community while simultaneously upholding a relative status of individuality. According to him, "The view seems to represent a clear attempt to come to terms with the natural sociality as well as the individuality of the human person. It requires recognizing the claims of both communality and individuality and integrating individual desires and social ideals and demands" (1997, p. 41).

In their zeal to chart a sociopolitical path that was commensurate with their understanding of a full sense of postcolonial independence that included the recovery of cultural values deemed useful to the project, the first generation of African political leaders ideologized this communality into what they referred to as African socialism. It is significant to note that different brands of doctrinaire socialism were rife at the time African leaders were campaigning against colonial domination and therefore they may have been influenced in their choice of terminology (like the word socialism ) to characterize this African virtue. However, the key texts in that generation of political thought, including the works of Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, both now deceased but renowned political and ideological leaders in the continent in their times, seem to indicate that their reference was to the communalism that Gyekye describes. In On African Socialism, Senghor says of the centrality of African idea of community: "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. Ours is a community society" (pp. 9394). For Senghor, this communalistic "attitude" is an axiomatic foundation that clearly distinguishes Negro-Africans in their moral and sociopolitical value-systems from such others, like the European systems, for which society is an "assembly of individuals. " Thus for Senghor, as for the Martinican poet and political leader Aimé Césaire (1913), with whom he jointly coined the term negritude, communalism was a major and distinctive characteristic of "being Negro-African."

Like Senghor, Nyerere too believed that communalism was such a distinguishing mark of African cultures that it ought to be the guiding ideal of postcolonial politics. Nyerere gave it a new name, Ujamaa, a (Swahili) term recovered from the traditional social and moral systems to express the view that lasting good stems from recognition of the basic interdependency and ultimate unity of all human endeavors and goals. The distinguishing marks of Ujamaa were that it was communitarian rather than collective, democratic rather than totalitarian, homocentric rather than materialistic, and that it was founded on the primacy of law rather than on the dictatorship of class. In Ujamaa: The Basis of African Socialism, Nyerere says, "it is the attitude of mind, not the rigid adherence to a standard political pattern, which is needed to ensure that people care for each other's welfare" (p. 1).

See also Person, Idea of the ; Personhood in African Thought ; Society .


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. Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflectionson the African Experience. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Masolo, D. A. "Western and African Communitarianism: A Comparison." In A Companion to African Philosophy, edited by Kwasi Wiredu.

Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2004. Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. 2nd ed. London: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1990.

Mulago, Vincent. "Christianisme et culture africaine: apport africain à la Theologie." In Christianity in Tropical AfricaStudies Presented and Discussed at the Seventh International African Seminar, University of Ghana, April 1965, edited by C. G. Baeta. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.

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Senghor, Léopold S. On African Socialism. Translated with introduction by Mercer Cook. New York and London: Praeger, 1964.

Wiredu, Kwasi. Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.

. Philosophy and an African Culture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

D. A. Masolo