The Akan people of West Africa have developed a system of metaphysics, epistemology, and moral philosophy with a special focus on personhood.
Is your inner life what makes you, you? Or is your identity about connecting to your community? How can West African philosophy help us think about the self? This week, we’ll be thinking about Akan Philosophy, specifically its conception of personhood.
Akan philosophy is a centuries-old tradition from West Africa of discussing big topics like the meaning of freedom, and the most ethical way to live, and what it means to be a person. Like any group of philosophers, Akan philosophers have plenty of debates and disagreements among themselves. But when it comes to being a person, there are some common themes.
In the Akan tradition, being a person involves contributing to your family and community: participating in local rituals, doing important work, and getting married and having children. This was pretty shocking to my American sensibilities: why should anyone have to get married and have children just to count as a person? Shouldn’t there be space in our communities for single people?
But this is less shocking when you remember that we’re talking about a conception of personhood that arose in a particular West African cultural context. If you wanted to translate Akan values for contemporary America, you’d probably have to think about what “family” and “community” mean over here. In the cultural context I’m used to, there are plenty of ways to contribute to your community without being a parent: you can take your nephews and nieces to a ballgame, work in a soup kitchen on weekends, or even teach the next generation.
Another possible criticism of the Akan conception of personhood challenges the concepts of family and community themselves. Should we really be defining ourselves in terms of others? That seems great when you live in harmony with the people around you, but what happens when you try to disagree or criticize them? Could your personhood be taken away?
The philosophers Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye argue that a dissenter can still count as a full person on the Akan conception. Such a person is still in dialogue with the values of their community. And such a person is also valuable: wouldn’t it be worse if the community did morally questionable things without reflecting on itself?
Even setting aside worries about critics and dissenters, you might still be worried about Akan philosophy’s emphasis on contributing to the community. What about people who can’t contribute, either because they’re disabled, or maybe they never got a proper education? Do they count as less worthy of personhood?
Philosophers disagree about the answer, but I like Kwasi Wiredu’s approach: you have to adjust for people’s level of opportunity. Someone who overcomes obstacles and makes a small contribution to society could count as more of a person than someone who makes a big contribution, but only because they started out with every privilege.
All this talk about society might make you wonder what Akan philosophers have to say about people’s inner lives. In his book on African philosophical thought, Kwame Gyekye devotes a chapter to this question. He writes that on the traditional Akan view, each human being is composed of three parts: the okra, which roughly translates as “soul”, the sunsum, which roughly translates as “spirit”, and the honam, which roughly translates as “body”. The okra is an essence that is the same in all humans, while the sunsum is different in different people, and explains why we have different personalities.
Mapping this picture onto any particular Western philosophical scheme is fraught. Is it like the views of Plato and Freud, which say that human beings have three parts? Or is it more like Descartes’s theory, which says that we’re composed of a body and a mind, and we need some explanation of how they interact? Are some of the different Akan words just ways of picking out the same thing?
I’m very much an amateur when it comes to Akan philosophy, so I don’t have all the answers. I’m excited to get the expert opinion from our guest this week, Ajume Wingo from the University of Colorado at Berkeley.
Image from Muséum de Toulouse, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons