An African Philosophy of Personhood, Morality, and Politics
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An African Philosophy of Personhood, Morality, and Politics

Motsamai Molefe

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An African Philosophy of Personhood, Morality, and Politics

Motsamai Molefe

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About This Book

This book explores the salient ethical idea of personhood in African philosophy. It is a philosophical exposition that pursues the ethical and political consequences of the normative idea of personhood as a robust or even foundational ethical category. Personhood refers to the moral achievements of the moral agent usually captured in terms of a virtuous character, which have consequences for both morality and politics. The aim is not to argue for the plausibility of the ethical and political consequences of the idea of personhood. Rather, the book showcases some of the moral-political content and consequences of the account it presents.

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© The Author(s) 2019
Motsamai MolefeAn African Philosophy of Personhood, Morality, and Politics
Begin Abstract

1. Introduction

Motsamai Molefe1
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Motsamai Molefe


African PhilosophyAgent-centred personhoodDignityOptionsPatient-centred personhoodPersonhoodRights
End Abstract
This book is part of the overall project of contributing to the development of the discipline of African philosophy . Specifically, its contribution will be in the branches of moral and political philosophy. To achieve this goal, I build on those philosophical contributions in African philosophy that focus on the normative idea of personhood . I single out the normative concept of personhood as the foundational moral category to theorise about African moral and political thought. I do so for two reasons: firstly, the idea of personhood is arguably the most salient moral notion in the tradition of African philosophy. This view implies that the idea of personhood is one of the most important indigenous axiological resources; it requires our earnest philosophical consideration if we are to articulate a robust monistic moral and political theory . Secondly, I am attracted to this idea because there are facets of it—specifically in the moral and political branches of philosophy—that remain under-explored in the literature (details of which, I will provide below). I believe that the philosophical development and elucidation of these facets will contribute to the aim of articulating the robust monistic theory I seek.
This book, therefore, focuses on the under-explored and under-developed moral and political facets of the idea of personhood. My ultimate aim is to have the idea of personhood inform a fully fledged moral-political theory. 1 I am partially motivated to do so by one of the leading scholars of African philosophy , Kwasi Wiredu’s (2009: 16) observation that:
The philosophical implications of the normative conception of a person are legion, and we will not pursue them here.
In this book, then, I intend to pursue some of the ‘legion’ moral and political implications of the idea of personhood. To give the reader a bird’s-eye perspective of the philosophical issues that constitute the focus of this book, I structure this introductory chapter as follows: since my central focus is the idea of personhood, I begin by providing conceptual clarity regarding the view of personhood relevant to the discussion. I do so because the idea of personhood is ambiguous (see Wiredu 1992; Ikuenobe 2006a). To eschew this ambiguity , I distinguish four distinct concepts of personhood in the literature, which many scholars of African moral thought do not handle with the dexterity characteristic of philosophy. I then proceed to identify some of the interesting and recent developments in the literature on personhood that I deem relevant. I do this literature review for the sake of identifying (some of the) gaps that constitute the focus of this book. Next, I proceed to specify the moral and political issues that constitute the focus of my discussion. I conclude this chapter by outlining the structure of the entire book.

The Concepts of Personhood in African Philosophy

I identify at least four concepts of personhood in African philosophy . Two of these concepts are metaphysical and the other two normative. The first metaphysical notion of personhood pertains to facts that constitute a thing called a human being; it is a specification of the biological classification of human beings as a species—Homo sapiens. For example, imagine that one is hunting, and when about to shoot is notified: ‘Don’t shoot, that is a person!’ 2 It is this notion of a person that Kwame Gyekye (1992: 108) seems to have in mind when he makes the following comment:
What a person [human being] 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. One is a person because of what he is, not because of what he acquires.
Here, Gyekye refers to the notion of personhood in which one is a person (human being) prior to any process of socialisation or acquisition of habits/character. Since a person (human being), in this sense, cannot be defined by what he acquires, this implies that there are certain ontological facts that constitute a person qua human nature that have nothing to do with any social or cultural factors. Scholars of African thought refer to the philosophical inquiry that speaks to what defines a person qua human nature in terms of the “ontological” or “descriptive” notion of personhood (Wiredu 1996: 159; Ikuenobe 2016: 144; Oyowe 2014a: 46). The ontological notion of personhood is concerned with specifying the descriptive features that constitute human nature. Commenting on this concept of personhood, Ikuenobe (2016: 118) states that:
A descriptive conception of personhood seeks to analyse the features and ontological make-up of an isolated [human] individual.
Just as philosophers are apt to give metaphysical accounts of the mind, of time, place, God and so on, with regard to this notion of personhood, the task is to specify the ontological properties that constitute human nature . Scholars will differ in terms of whether they take human nature to be a function, entirely, of physical stuff or a combination of physical and spiritual properties (Kaphagawani 2004). For an instructive example of the philosophical debate regarding the metaphysical/ontological conception of personhood in African philosophy , the reader may consider the debate between Kwasi Wiredu (1995) and Kwame Gyekye (1995), where they offer competing conceptions of human nature in the Akan culture .
The second metaphysical notion of personhood involves issues pertaining to the nature of personal identity. The debates in African philosophy regarding the idea of personhood qua personal identity draw their influence from debates between liberals and communitarians in the Western philosophical tradition. There, the debate pertains to the role, if any, the community plays in accounting for the socialisation and development of personal identity (Neal and Paris 1990). On the one hand, ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Front Matter
  3. 1. Introduction
  4. 2. A Conceptual Mapping of Personhood
  5. 3. An Exposition of Personhood as Moral Theory
  6. 4. Personhood: Partiality or Impartiality?
  7. 5. Personhood and Options in African Moral Thought
  8. 6. Personhood and Dignity in African Philosophy
  9. 7. Personhood as a Political Theory of Duties
  10. Back Matter