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The concept of a person held by a group of people is fundamental in understanding not only how a person within such framework of thought views himself but also how other matters such as the idea of being, morality, knowledge and truth that are essential for the ordering of the society are viewed. This is emphasized by the fact that such a concept encapsulates the role the society expects the individual to play for the attainment of an orderly society and this makes it inevitable for African Scholars to write on the conception of a person from the Africans perspectives. The Yoruba of south western Nigeria, a person is believed to be made up of three important parts. These are the “Ara” which is the material body, including the internal organs of a person; the “Emi” which is the life giving element and the “Ori” which is the individuality element that is responsible for a person’s personality. In Akan ontology, a person is also made up of three parts namely the “Okra”, the “Sunsum” and the “Honam” or “Nipadua”, representing the soul (or life giving entity), the spirit that gives a personality its force and body respectively.

                        CHAPTER ONE


          The position of a human person in the world we are is what gives meaning to our world. The human person governs and rules over other human persons, every communities and societies have human person occupying it and it can even be argued that the society exist because human person occupies it. This importance of a human person makes it an object of study for scholars to inquire into the ontological and normative conception of a person of which African scholars are not exempted. This chapter is divided into seven sections, the first section present an overview of metaphysics, which is necessary because African scholars do not exclude metaphysic in their account of a person. The second section discuss briefly on African conception of a person in general and the third section present an explanation of Akan conception of a Person from Gyekye and Kwasi Wiredu exposition.  The fourth section present an explanation of the Yoruba conception of a person according to some African scholars which are Bolaji Idowu, Barry Hallen and Shodipo, Olusegun Oladipo, Segun Gbadegesin, Kola Abimbola and Wande Abimbola. The fifth section is a comparative analysis of the African conception of a person and the western conception and the Seventh section is the comparative analysis of the Akan conception of a person and the Yoruba conception.


      There are disagreements on the nature of metaphysics. Philosophers attempt to give a definition to metaphysics has given rise to varieties of subject matter and approaches: This implies that there lies uncertainty as regards metaphysics. Despite the disagreement, two things can be deduced from the scope of metaphysics. On one hand, metaphysics is descriptive in nature, that is, metaphysics give account of what metaphysicians do. Secondly, by nature, it is normative, that is, it attempts to identify what philosophers ought to do when they engage in metaphysics.

       However, the term metaphysics is taken from the title of Aristotle’s treatises’. Aristotle himself never called the treatise by that name; but rather, the name metaphysics was conferred by the later thinkers who happened to be students under Aristotle.[1] Aristotle called the discipline (metaphysics) in his treatise ‘first philosophy’ or ‘a theology’ which aimed at wisdom. Aristotle also tagged this as ‘knowledge of first causes’.[2] The subsequent use of the title metaphysics makes it reasonable to suppose that what is called metaphysics is the sort of thing done in that treatise. Metaphysics is a discipline that centers on God as the first cause, unlike other discipline like economics ethics etc. whose end is directed towards human action. Moreover, metaphysics is not only interested in explaining the first causes but also in the study of ‘Being qua Being’.[3] Metaphysics tend to study being qua being from the perspective of their being ‘Being qua Being’ that exist. In other words, metaphysics considers things as beings or as existents and it tends to explain specific properties or features they exhibit so they are beings or existents. Metaphysics explains the concept of being and the general concepts like unity or identity, difference, similarity and dissimilarity that occur to everything that exist.

      In Medieval Aristotelian tradition, there is a dual characteristic of what metaphysics is: the Medieval believes that the two conceptions of metaphysics are realized in a single discipline. This single discipline aims at explaining the categorical structure of reality and to establish the existence and nature of divine substance on the other hand. Although, this view was rejected by the continental rationalist of the seventeen and eighteen century, this led to expansion of the scope of metaphysical enterprise. Meanwhile, the seventeen and eighteen rationalists agreed that metaphysics is identified and characterize the most general kind of things that exist and also agreed on the idea of the divine substance. The rationalists confronted this idea with an intellectual landscape which led to the ultimate emergence of a general map of metaphysics.[4]

      Contemporary philosophers that is, philosophers from the 20th century to the 21st century such as John Austin and A J. Ayer among others refers to the term ‘metaphysics’ as a branch of philosophy which is different from other branches of philosophy such as ethics, epistemology etc. Metaphysics as a branch of philosophy attempt to find answers to most general question such as ‘what is it’ that is, what kind of thing exist in reality. There is no general answer to this question; this led to disagreement on what object or thing exists in reality. Attempt to answer the question give rise to different theories in metaphysics. At this junction, I shall proceed by discussing metaphysics as a branch of philosophy, what it centers on ands the various questions it proposed as a discipline, which leads to the discussion on the concept of a person both in Western and African culture.


      Philosophy is originated from two ancient Greek words ‘philo’ and ‘sophia’ which means ‘love of wisdom’. Philosophy consists of four branches: epistemology (known as theory of knowledge), logic (this deals with reasoning), ethics (this deals with moral behavior) and metaphysics (this deals with nature of what exist).

      The word ‘metaphysics’ is difficult to define. As a result of that, the twentieth century philosophers replaced the term with word ‘meta-language’ and ‘meta-philosophy’ because they viewed it as that branch of philosophy that study what goes beyond (physical or visible). Metaphysics deals with questions about reality which cannot be answered by scientific observation and explanation.[5] However, in western philosophy (philosophy done in the west), metaphysics is the study of the fundamental nature of ‘what is it’, ‘why it is’ and ‘how can it be understood.  It deals with questions like ‘what is that thing that exist’? What is reality? Does free will exist?( Free will is the doctrine that the conduct of human beings expresses personal choice and is not simply determined by physical or divine forces)[6], is there such a process as cause and effect? And does abstract concept like ‘number’ exist.

      There are three traditionally branches of metaphysical inquiry: Ontology: the word is derived from the Greek term ‘on’ which means reality and ‘logos’ which means ‘study of’. Ontology is that branch of philosophy that deals with the study of nature of reality; what is it, how many ‘reality’ are there. What are its properties? Etc. Theology on the other hand, is that which treats truth of faith concerning God and His works, it centers on the question; does gods exist, what a god, is, what a god wants. Third is universal science which involves the search for principal things such as the origin of the universe, fundamental law of reasoning.


     There is a deep rooted tendency in human mind to seek and explain what constitute the universe. The question of ultimate reality is a regular question, which reoccurs in philosophy. The term ultimate reality can be defined as that which is held to be the ultimate source of all things. The question about what constitute reality was addressed by the ancient Greek philosophy. The western philosophical tradition began in ancient Greece in the sixth and fifth century B.C. As the first philosophers, they emphasized unity of things and rejected mythological explanations of the world. The first sets of philosophers were from Ionia. They sought the material principle of things, and the mode of their origin. Greek thought is untied from popular and mythological pre-conceptions about the nature and origin of the universe. Greek philosophers attempt to solve the problems of the universe by reason only, as opposed to the acceptance of purely magical or theological explanations. The Ionian is represented by Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes.

      Thales postulated water or moisture as the originative substance from which the universe evolved. He explained that water exhibits itself naturally without any apparatus of scientific experiment. Anaximander identifies the first principle as an undefined, unlimited substance (aperion), out of which the primary opposites, hot and cold, moist and dry, became differentiated. Lastly Anaximenes postulated air (which in Greek means both air and mist or fog) as the primary substance. However, there is disagreement between the materialist and idealist on the nature of what exist in reality. The former holds that all things in reality are made up of matter, and the knowledge of the material world is acquired through experience while the latter holds that reality consist of idea that is, idealist emphasized the idea character of all phenomena.[7]


      The concept of being in Greek philosophy from permenides to Aristotle, and then in a more mechanical way from the stoics to Plotinus, relies upon the preexisting disposition of the language which in Greek underline the doctrine of being, substance, essence, and existence, and existence. ‘Being’ in Greek thought denotes sonic single, permanent, unchanging, fundamental, reality, to which is habitually opposed the irregular change and variety of visible things. The question on what reality is made of, denotes the most fundamental need of human mind. To understand a thing is for that thing to be conceived as been identical in nature with something else that we already know. The knowledge of reality at large is embedded in the understanding that each and every one of the innumerable things which makes up the universe is at least identical in nature with other things. The early Greek thinkers successively attempted to reduce nature in general to water, then  by another to air and another to fire, until they finally discover the primary substance of reality to be made of ‘being’. Being is a generic term which represents all existing things.[8]

      Africans conceived everything as ‘being’. African belief that for anything to exist there must be a reason behind it, though man may not know the reason why, but they all serve a purpose. ‘Being’ is therefore conceived as the whole range of existent things. Africans have a hierarchy of ‘being’: God, ancestors, spirit, witchcraft or magic of certain ends, man and plants.[9]

     In the ‘force thesis’, Placide Tempels conceive a being’ from the perspective of a force, that is, he used the force thesis to explain African conception of being[10]. Henri maurier in a similar vein suggested vitalism[11]: the idea that living organisms are fundamentally different from non living entities because they contain some non physical element or are governed by different principle than inanimate things. In other words, vitalism holds that living entities contain some fluid, or a distinctive spirit.[12] According to maurier, vitalism is viewed as most appropriate in understanding the African conception of ‘being’. Africans believe that whatever happens cannot go unnoticed by the omnipresent eyes of the supreme deity (God), who oversees and regulates what goes on in the universe. In other words, God is both actuality and infinite while humans are infinite and limited. For Africans, ‘being’ form an obscure tie of reality, but what is of importance to Africans is how things are holistically or the interconnections that exist among particular ‘being’.  


In philosophy, the word ‘person’ refers to various concepts. Plato, one of the leading philosophers of the western tradition as recorded by Makinde, held the belief that things in the world are created by a world designer who, like an artist, fashions matter into images of the idea. God (olodumare in Yoruba belief) is the creator of everything including man. The western thought identify a person as body and soul.[13]


Plato attributes the entire creation of man to the ‘soul of the universe’.[14] He is interested in the soul than the body that is why he attached importance to the soul in his theory. Plato’s explanation, failed to account for how human body was formed but instead proceed to the explanation of the soul. He argued that soul was first created before body was formed, this idea of Plato contradicts the African traditional account; Yoruba account to be precise. In Plato’s theory, the soul is divided into parts which are: Appetite: this part of the soul consists of innumerable desires for various pleasures, comforts, physical satisfactions, and bodily ease. The temperament or the spirited: This is the part of human soul that love to face and overcome great challenges, it steel itself to adversity, and that of love and honour. Reason: this is the part of human soul that thinks, analyzes, rationally weighs opinions, and tries to gauge what is best and truest overall.[15] Plato regards the reasoning part of human soul as the highest part; because the rational part controls the other two parts (temperament and appetite). For him, the rational part of the soul is simple, has no part, therefore, it is indestructible and immortal. However Aristotle objects Plato division of the soul, he argued that the parts identified by Plato are nothing but different activities of a single person.[16]


      Descartes affirms that he exists. He is in search of that which constitute him, that is, his essence or nature. The tern ‘essence’ or ‘nature’ refers to properties without which a thing will no longer remain what it is. There are however one property of every substance, which constitutes its nature or essence. This is supposed to be permanent, never changing and both are necessary and sufficient to establish the existence of a thing with certainty. In other words, to know what actually defines a person; Descartes adopt the method, being a substance dualist, he holds that two things exist: physical (body) substance and mental (mind) substance.[17] Each substance has its own essence or an essential trait that makes it what it is. According to Descartes, the essential trait of mind is consciousness while body is extension.[18] To him what defines a person is the consciousness (mind) and not extension (body). He affirmed it in his datum ‘cogito ergo sum (‘I think therefore I exist’).[19] With this argument, Descartes proposes that the very act of thinking offers a proof of individual human existence. He affirms that there must be an ‘I’ that exist to do the thinking. Although, he is uncertain of things that exist but he is sure of the fact that he thinks and that which thinks exist. To him, thought and reason are essence of humanity, he also assert that a human would still be a human without hand, hair or face. This implies that non human possess hand, hair or face but one thing is that no human without reason or rationality.

      However, Anton Wilhelm Amo argued that the mind cannot exist outside the body or independently of the body. To Amo, a person cannot said to be nothing but a thinking thing. According to Amo, there are two essential parts of man: mind and body, he is of the view that a living person is necessarily both thinking and a sensing being. The thinking belongs to the mind while the sensing belongs to the body. Descartes tend to group both the ‘I’ and self as an immaterial substance, meaning that the grouped mind and body as an immaterial substance. Amo’s response is that mind is spirit by that he mean: “whatever substance is purely active, immaterial and always gains understanding through itself (i.e. directly), and act from self motion and with intention in regard to an end and goof which it is conscious to itself’[20] He argued that human mind is an immaterial substance, which ‘inhere’ in the body arises from Amo’s conception of human mind as purely active and of sensation as purely passive. Sensation is necessarily bound up with materiality, whilst mind is, in its very essence immaterial.


      The concept of a person or personhood has drawn the attention of great scholars in Africa philosophy. In Africa thought, there is more to the conception of a person than what is been explained in the western thought. In African thought, the idea of a person occurs in different stages and secondly, the idea of a person consists of more than the usual two elements given by the western thought to be soul and body


      According to, Gbadegesin, the word for a person in Yoruba is ‘eniyan’, but he observes that this term has both a normative and a literal meaning. The former indicates the moral standing of the human being who is thus determined as [either] falling short [or living up to the expectations] of what it takes to be recognized as such. In other words, the normative concept of a person evolves from the way in which man is understood in a given community in terms of his relations to other living beings and his role among other men.[21] Examples of this are social status of the individual and societal value.  In Yoruba language, greater emphasis is placed on this normative dimension of eniyan than is perhaps placed on the concept of person in the English language. ‘Eniyan’ in Yoruba conception consists of four elements: the ara, okan, emi, and ori.[22] The ara is a physical-material part of the human being. It includes the external and internal components: flesh, bone, heart, intestines. The Yoruba regard it as fruitless and pointless to articulate the nature or essence of the body. Nor do they consider significant the question whether or not a person is all body, Gbadegesin argued that “it appears too obvious to them that there is more to a person than the body”.[23]

      The second element of eniyan is okan. Idowu’s view as recorded by Ademuleya, is that okan literally means the heart. In the physical sense, the heart is closely connected with the blood. But for the Yoruba, the heart is more than a blood machine: it is the seat of emotions and of psychic energy. Thus a brave man is said to possess a strong heart ‘o lokan’ and if a man is known to be weak in his thought and action, the Yoruba would say ‘ko ni okan’(he has no heart).[24]

The third component of eniyan is emi. It is nonphysical, the active principle of life and the life-giving element, put in place by the deity.[25] . It is also construed as part of the divine breath. It has been argued that it has an immaterial and independent existence; and others, that it is merely a principle or force which brings about various activities and actions in human beings.

    Lastly, the fourth element of the eniyan is the ori. Ori refers to the physical head and, given the acknowledged significance of the head in comparison with the rest of the body, ori is considered vital even in its physical character. However, the dual nature of the ori lies in the fact that it is recognized as the bearer of the person’s destiny as well as the determinant of personality that is ori determine the worth and essence of a person in the material world.


                 The Akan concept of person seems to be in agreement with the Yoruba concept of a person. From the Akan perspective, a person is composed of three fundamental elements:  nipadua [body], okra [life-giving entity], and sunsum [that which gives a person’s personality]. The okra is the innermost self, the essence, of the individual person, the individual’s life, for which reason it is referred to as okrateasefo, that is, the living soul, the embodiment and transmitter of the individual’s destiny [fate: nkrabea], the spark of the Supreme Being [Onyame] in man. The okra is, according to Gyekye, described as divine and as having an ante-mundane existence with the Supreme Being. Wiredu on the other hand claims that on the grounds that in Western philosophy the term okra refers to a purely immaterial entity that somehow inhabits the body. According to Wiredu, the okra, by contrast, is quasi-physical. That is, it is not physical or not perceivable by the naked eye, while Gyekye translated okra to mean soul.[26]

    The second component of a person in Akan thought is sunsum. This is described as that which is responsible for the total effect communicated by an individual’s personality, that is, the basis of human personality. There seems to be confusion in Gyekye’s account of okra and sunsum. On one hand, sunsum is responsible for thought in the narrow sense as ratiocination (reasoning), and at the same time, it is the “activating principle in the person”. On the other hand, Gyekye also says that okra is the principle of life of a person. According to Gyekye, what Sunsum does as the “activating principle” is unclear since okra is also regarded as the “principle of life”. However, in the Yoruba conception, emi as the activating principle that brings the body to conscious existence and its departure from the human being is death. The third, and apparently less controversial, component of a person in Akan thought is honam or nipadua (body), which is the flesh, bones, and blood of which humans are made at the material level.

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