In this essay I will compare and contrast the different perspectives of self, person and personhood from various cultures across Africa, answering the age-old questions within metaphysics as well as philosophy: “What is a person? What elements constitute being a person? ; and “Could one be a person without personhood? ” Nature The Akan philosophers Wiredu and Gyekye agree the okra (soul) is the innermost self of the person, but disagree whether the nature of the okra is a material or immaterial substance.
Wiredu insist the okra is different from the Western philosophy’s perceived soul, because to the West the term soul refers to "a purely immaterial entity that somehow inhabits the body. The okra, by contrast, is quasi-physical. " (1) The okra for Gyekye has the same concept of a soul as in other metaphysical systems and proclaims that "a crucial aspect of Akan metaphysics is the existence of the world of spirits” (2a). Gyekye insists “the okra and sunsum are immaterial substances and they survive death as a "spiritual unity"(2b) where Wiredu suggests sunsum is not an entity but a manner of being, which perishes at death.
Principle of life The sunsum as the "activating principle" and okra as the "principle of life" is unclear. The Yoruba’s ori, like the okra, is the determinant of personality, where the emi is the active principal of life. The Akan’s perception of okra is regarded as the active life principle supplied by the deity, as well as the bearer of destiny, where the Yoruba’s emi, which is the equivalent of okra, is not the bearer of destiny. Personhood
The words of John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" (3) sums up the road to personhood. Mbiti (4) argues that “in traditional life, the individual does not and cannot exist alone except corporately.... He is simply part of the whole", and describes a social-centric view of personhood in which society creates the individual. Tempels agrees that “this concept of separate beings, of substance... hich find themselves side by side, entirely independent one of another, is foreign to Bantu thought. " (5) Human being Kagame claims that humans beings are complete animals "from the moment he exist in his mother's womb", "when a name has been given" or “ from the moment he puts reason to good use” (6) but for Wiredu everyone is born a person. However personhood is something you may achieve making some more person than others on fulfilment of one's obligations to self, household and to community. 7) For Geykye “a human person is a being who has a moral sense and is capable of making moral judgements” (8a) and does not agree with the personhood debate because “what the individual would be striving for in all his/her exertions is some social status, not personhood. ” (8b) Conclusion After colonialism Africa provided descriptions on what a person is in the African context but the authentic descriptions were lost in order to compensate for Aristotle's "man is a rational animal".
It unified African educated philosophers and created a second tier by adding the word "hood" to "person". The English language creates translation issues because it is unable to effectively define African concepts as passed down amongst generations. The words of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech stress the essence of African culture as it emphasises the role which the community plays in order for a person to be able to define him-/herself.
Kwasi Wiredu The concept of mind with particular reference to the language and thought of the Akan Contemporary Philosophy: A new survey. Vol 5: African Philosophy, ed G. Floistad (Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1987) pg. 161
Kwame Gyekye Concept of a person An essay on African philosophical thought, revise,d edition, ed Kwane Gyekye (Temple university press, Philadelphia, 1995) pg. 86,87
Kwame Gyekye Concept of a person An essay on African philosophical thought, revise,d edition, ed Kwane Gyekye (Temple university press, Philadelphia, 1995) pg. 98
John F. Kennedy This speech was delivered by John F Kennedy at his inauguration in Washington on January 20 1961.
John S. Mbiti Ethnic Groups, Kinship ; the Individual African Religions and Philosophy, 2nd edition, ed. John S Mbiti (Oxford: Heineman, 1989), pg. 106.
Father Placide Temples Bantu Philosophy "La Philosophie Bantoue", ed. Dr. A. Rubbens (Elizabethville: Lovania, 1945), pg. 58.
Alex Kagame The Shadow Thesis Reading in contemporary African Philosophy, ed Dr P Mungwini, Dr MLJ Koeane, Mr ESN Mkhwanazi (UNISA: Pretoria, 2012) pg. 91
Kwasi Wiredu An Akan perspective on human rights The African Philosophy Reader, Second Edition, ed PH Coetzee and APJ Roux (Routledge: Londen, 2003), pg 315
Kwame Gyekye Person and community in African thought Reading in contemporary African Philosophy, ed Dr P Mungwini, Dr MLJ Koeane, Mr ESN Mkhwanazi (UNISA: Pretoria, 2012) pg. 29
Kwame Gyekye Person and community in African thought Reading in contemporary African Philosophy, ed Dr P Mungwini, Dr MLJ Koeane, Mr ESN Mkhwanazi (UNISA: Pretoria, 2012) pg. 30