Kwame Gyekye. The late Emeritus Prof. Gyekye died at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital on April 13, after a short illness at the age of He spent 40 years of his lifetime researching and imparting knowledge to students at the University of Ghana. Emeritus Prof.
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The Akan word onipa is an ambiguous term, sometimes referring to a member of a biological species and sometimes referring instead to a human who has attained a special kind of social status Wiredu According to Wiredu, this dual meaning reflects an important conceptual distinction between a human—a biological entity—and a person—an entity with special moral and metaphysical qualities.
One is either a human or one is not—there is no such thing as becoming a human. In contrast, personhood is something for a human to become to different degrees through individual achievement. A person—taken in its fullest sense—is therefore an individual who, through mature reflection and action, has both flourished economically and succeeded in meeting her often weighty responsibilities to her family and community.
The distinctive qualities of this concept of persons as interpreted by Wiredu are brought out when contrasted to the analysis of another leading African philosopher, Kwame Gyekye, who takes issue with this graduated conception of person. That is, we are human persons before we are anything else and it is the human person that matters from the moral point of view.
According to Gyekye, it is our essentially human capacity for reason—not other fortuitous or accidental predicates—that serves as the basis for moral worth. In this respect, one cannot point to such accidental characteristics as height, gender, age, marital status, or social class as basis for personhood: [W]hat a person acquires are status, habits, and personality or character traits: he, qua person acquires and thus becomes the subject of acquisition, and being thus prior to acquisition process, he cannot be defined by what he acquires.
Gyekye is quick to note that there are some Akan expressions and judgments about the life and conduct of people that appear to give the impression that personhood is something that is acquired or bestowed upon one in virtue of taken responsibility in the community.
In fact, a person of high moral standards or conduct would be described approvingly as oye onipa paa—literally, she is a real human person. For Gyekye, personhood is prior to and independent of such acquisitions.
To conceive of personhood as a continuous property capable of degrees is to confuse conventional notions of status—a highly variable quantity—with the notion of personhood, a constant for all human persons. Akan linguistic conventions distinguish infants from full persons on the basis of their lacking intellectual and moral maturity. This aspect reflects the continuous character of personhood stressed by Wiredu.
Yet the infant or onipa is also accorded a baseline level of respect by virtue of her possessing the okra. In that respect, an infant is entitled to the respect due to any other human, regardless of age, or capability. The significance of humanity, he argues, is that it is a necessary albeit not a sufficient condition for personhood. To acquire self-respect itself, one must build upon that basis to achieve greater degrees of moral agency, and in so doing, achieving greater degrees of personhood.
The difference in status between those possessing merely the okra and those who have achieved a higher degree of personhood can be thought of in terms of the difference between the quality of moral agency and degrees of moral responsibility.
Think again, for example, about the concept of a human being. As explicated by Wiredu, what makes an entity a human being is simply his or her possession of the okra. The normative implication of possession of the okra or the capacity for rationality is that the entity is entitled to an irreducible respect matched by irreducible rights—like the negative right not to be killed unjustly, or the positive right to be given what is needed to sustain life.
The social bases of personhood supplement this minimum level of inherent respect. In this wise one can say that all persons are human beings but not all human beings are persons. At bottom, all human beings are potential moral agents. This is a status capacity for rationality and morality that a colt cannot be accorded because even a horse cannot become a moral agent. An infant can. The implications of the two-tiered view of personhood presented by Wiredu are nicely illustrated by Akan practices following the death of an infant.
Despite the obviously tragic circumstances of such a death, no funeral ceremonies are permitted in Akan society for infants. Thus, the death of a child is not a time for mourning. Instead, parents are expected to behave normally and cheerfully. The different treatment accorded to deceased adults and children is a manifestation of what we can refer to as the Akan theory of selective reincarnation, a view that postulates that otherwise deserving humans who have failed to fulfill their potential for achieving a higher degree of personhood a second chance in the world.
On its face, the theory of selective reincarnation may appear to be nothing more than a curious feature of Akan cosmology. As presented by Wiredu, however, it is part of a general process of making moral agents. Appreciating the role of selective reincarnation among the Akan thus requires acknowledging the whole process by which morally responsible agents come to be, as well as how individuals become motivated to be moral.
Critical to this appreciation is the understanding that the entity underlying this process exists beyond the life of a physical human being. At the other end is the Akan ancestor, the culmination of the process of becoming a person whose memory serves as a moral exemplar to the living that guides the moral journey of the Akan. Those who become ancestors are those who, through their imagination, intelligence, and empathetic identification with their fellow human beings, excel not in spite of but because of all the challenges that are put before them.
He argues instead that any such explanation of Akan social and linguistic conventions must presume the personhood of even the youngest human: [A] human person is a person whatever his age or social status. Personhood may reach its full realization in community, but it is not acquired or yet to be achieved as one goes along in society.
What a person acquires are status, habits, and personality or character traits: he, qua person, thus becomes the subject of acquisition, and being thus prior to the acquisition, he cannot be defined by what he acquires. For Gyekye, then, differences with respect to personhood cannot account for the difference in how the Akan deal with the death of infants and adults.
He prefers instead to account for these differences in terms of the utilitarian value of cultural practices such as the different treatment of the deaths of infants and adults. The most obvious reason for the difference, according to Gyekye, is that the size and magnitude of death celebration depends on the social status of the deceased individual. This is not to say that Gyekye denies the role that the idea of reincarnation plays for the Akan in the formation of persons. For him, however, the idea of reincarnation and of the graduated concept of personhood is less a factual account of personhood than a moral narrative, such as the ones postulated by Aquinas, Kant, Bentham, and John Stuart Mill to explain and justify moral precepts.
The central narratives of Western moral philosophy such as the social contract provide vivid images that motivate individuals to act in certain ways. In the same way, the Akan narratives of reincarnation and personhood serve to reinforce socially valuable traits and practices such as cooperation and industriousness.
From this perspective, the sage Akan elders who insure death celebrations for full persons grasp what a casual onlooker might often overlook—namely, that the most important effects of a death celebration are on the onlookers, rather than the deceased. What might be called the expressive content of public action—the message to the Akan community conveyed by the ritual and symbolic performance, the public utterances of the Akan leaders—is the most important effect of such ceremonies.
These ceremonies are a powerful symbolic mechanism for both expressing and shaping the values and beliefs of the Akan people. Thus, the Akan may abstain from mourning a rapist or a murderer to express their collective abhorrence of the offending act. Achieving Personhood The criteria for achieving personhood in Akan society are based on two kinds of considerations. The first is the natural fact that we tend to care for our kin and feel responsible for those with whom we are in close reciprocal relationships.
According to Wiredu, in Akan society marriage and procreation are a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of personhood. A series of events in the lineage, such as marriage, births, illnesses and deaths, gives rise to urgent obligations.
Individuals failing to meet these standards attract opprobrium. As a literal rendition from the Akan language, this expression could simply mean that the person is not doing her part. Along with activity in community projects is involvement in civic rituals such as fellowship associations, rotating credit groups, extended family gatherings, secret societies, hunting groups, village watch groups, and civil militia groups that have face-to-face meetings. Everyone takes mental note of those missing from such events and repeated foot-dragging during community work is rebuked.
Although the emphasis is on negative scoring, when individuals score very high they receive community titles that, on their death, bestows upon them special honors from other members. These departed individuals are treated as living on in a social sense, reincarnated in the ancestral world where they continue to guard the living.
While there is no limit to how high one can rise on the scale that indicates degrees of personhood achieved, there is a limit to how far one can fall. The fall ends there, because all individuals possess an okra which sets a lower bounds on how far they may descend on the scale of personhood. In this sense all humans have moral value that entitles them to basic dignity and unconditional rights whether they have attained personhood or not.
Yet this close relationship hardly implies that the communal structure is the only factor the individual is required to consider in analyzing these goals. According to Gyekye, [I]ndividual persons as participants in the shared values and practices, and enmeshed in the web of communal relationships, may find that aspects of those cultural givens are inelegant, undignifying or unenlightening and can thoughtfully be questioned and evaluated.
By reserving for individuals at least the potential for responding to or rejecting the communal consensus, Gyekye locates a source of identity that is in some meaningful way independent of any particular society. These moral reformers may stand against the communal values but the ones that may make an impact and be selected for reincarnation as an ancestor is one that give reasons to reject or revise values that persuade the community. Responsibility and Free Will An important condition for achieving personhood is that the agent has the ability to act on the basis of rational reflection.
Wiredu concludes that once the cause of the unpredictable behavior is determined, irresponsibility may change into nonresponsibility, for in the Akan philosophy of person, where there is free will there is responsibility. Since there is a merit component to personhood, it is relevant to talk of the distribution of the opportunity of achieving personhood so as to secure respect over and above the threshold respect that is due to human beings in virtue of their status as human beings.
Goods like positions of prestige that are conferred to individuals who have achieved personhood are limited by their very nature, but given equality of opportunity, no person should be denied from the outset the chance to secure those goods.
Here, then, is a tension, for what does the society do to those who are born handicapped or crippled in such a way that they are not in the position to achieve personhood in ways that able bodied people can?
What happened to Shijuruh born in a family of thieves and in a neighborhood full of burglers? Surely, Shijuruh did not choose to be born in that family much less in the neighborhood and this may affect his performance in an attempt to achieve personhood. In other words how does one account for equality in unequal circumstances? Wiredu explains that, for example, an adult who behaves erratically or in an immature manner would be presumed to have failed to be a full person.
If the individual changes his or her behavior, that inference may be revised. In making this judgment, the community will be changing irresponsibility to non-responsibility. This is the way the Akan has for equalizing background conditions of individuals in their attempt at dealing with the difficulties of equality in unequal circumstances. Personhood and Social Status Many commentators agree with Gyekye that the essential ingredient of a human is what the Akan refers to as okra.
There is, however, some disagreement over the nature of okra. According to Gyekye, the okra is that which constitute the innermost self, the essence, of the individual person. The expression is intended to emphasize that okra is identical with life. It is explained as a spark of the Supreme Being. Of pivotal importance to their disagreement is the normative implication of the presence of okra.
The normative implication is that okra bestows on its possessors basic irreducible respect matched by basic irreducible human rights. Like Wiredu, Gyekye recognizes that there are standards for which individual persons aim that have an important role in how people think of themselves and their place in society. But it must be noted that what the individual would be striving for in all these exertions is some social status not personhood.
Even if at the end of the day he failed to attain the expected status, his personhood would not for that reason diminish, even though he may lose social respect in the eyes of the community.
Instead, then, of treating persons as a kind of individual that admits of degrees, Gyekye employs criteria of personhood that are quite independent of individual aims and actions. He maintains that, while persons may differ with respect to how they are treated in a community, this difference is a matter of the social status accorded each, not facts about their status as persons.
Conclusion Personhood defined in terms of social achievement and personal relationships aptly serve to establish those networks conducive to creating the flow of information and obligation necessary for the promotion of communal trust.
So conceived, the Akan notion of personhood helps to support social cooperation and provides a framework superbly suited to resolving collective action problems.
The Akan have fashioned a means of motivating individuals to contribute to the social good while still insuring that the moral value of even the most unproductive individual is retained. Abraham, W. Things Fall Apart Oxford: Heinemann,
Akan Philosophy of the Person
Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience Kwame Gyekye Abstract This book offers philosophical interpretation and critical analysis of the African cultural experience in modern times. In their attempt to evolve ways of life appropriate to our modern world culture, African people and their society face a number of challenges; some stem from the values and practices of their traditions, while others rise from the legacy of European colonialism. Defending the cross-cultural applicability of philosophical concepts developed in Western culture, the book attempts to show the usefulness of such concepts in addressing a wide range of African problems. Among the is
Emeritus Prof. Kwame Gyekye: Ghanaian philosopher passes on