Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze African Philosophy An Anthology .pdf
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Título: African Philosophy
Autor: Brown, Lee M. (Editor)
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New and Traditional Perspectives
Brown, Lee M. (Editor), Professor of Philosophy, Howard University
Abstract: This book features a collection of essays that seek to provide accurate and well-developed characterizations of the
epistemological and metaphysical concerns that shaped the conceptual languages and philosophical thought of sub-Saharan
Africa. A common theme between the essays is that a word shared by different cultures can have different extensions while
being taken to have the same sense. It is argued that the ability to appreciate or understand the conceptual languages of others
is influenced by the extent to which this content is viewed from the perspectives of the native users of the language. Among the
topics covered by the essays are conceptions of the person, truth, destiny, personal identity, and metaphysics.
During the past two decades, the idea of there being an African philosophy has undergone significant scrutiny. Criticisms have
largely come from three fronts. First, it has been alleged that philosophy is written and that since traditional African cultures
were rooted in oral traditions they could not produce philosophy. Second, it has been alleged that philosophy is rooted in
critical inquiry, and that since what is usually characterized as traditional African philosophical thought is associated with folk
wisdom or sagacious edicts, it is not philosophy. This objection has two components. It alleges that philosophy is rooted in
epistemology—in concerns about what it is to know that something is true—and that traditional African cultures have shown no
evidence of a systematic analysis of what could constitute knowledge. Similarly, it alleges that philosophy is also rooted in
metaphysics—in concerns about what it is for something to be true or to be real or to exist, and that traditional African cultures
have shown no evidence of a systematic analysis of metaphysical concerns. Third, it has been alleged that philosophical
concerns are universal and as such they are not specific to a culture, population, or location.
When carefully scrutinized, none of these criticisms proves fatal to the notion that there were philosophical perspectives within
traditional African cultures—at root the controversy is really about just that—or that there exists a philosophical phenomenon
that can be appropriately characterized as African. As in the case of other philosophical traditions tied to locations and
populations, African philosophy is the philosophy
that reflects the philosophical concerns that are manifested in African conceptual languages. Greek, Asian, and American
philosophies are notable philosophical traditions tied to locations and to conceptual concerns within their respective
populations. It will become obvious through reading the essays in this collection that African cultures were concerned with
epistemological and metaphysical issues before the infusion of Judaic, Islamic, and Christian religious perspectives and before
being influenced by Greek and Western ideologies in wider ways. It seems short-sighted to view philosophical thought as
beginning within Ancient Greek culture and to hold that those who do not come out of that lineage or who have different
concerns have no philosophical perspectives or have perspectives that do not merit scholarly consideration. Moreover,
epistemology and metaphysics are merely two of many areas that philosophy encompasses. Given the effects of colonial
oppression, postcolonial African cultures are very much concerned about the impositions of Western conceptions of ethics,
justice, fairness, rights, compassion, and humaneness. It is thought that in many respects, those conceptions appear to stand in
contrast to precolonial conceptions found in traditional African cultures. In addition, not all philosophical concerns are universal.
Some are local in that they are they language-relative. Such concerns may emerge in an effort to capture cultural idioms.
Concerning what counts as doing philosophy, the oral traditions that grounded the distribution of information within early
African cultures ought not to count against there being philosophical thought or philosophical perspectives within traditional
African cultures. Were we to be consistent and hold that traditional African thought cannot be philosophical, because
philosophical thought is thought that is written or is non-sagacious in character, we could not count Socrates, Buddha, or Jesus
as having engaged in philosophical thought. None wrote about what they taught or thought, and the general character of much
of what came forth from Buddha and Jesus was sagacious. Moreover, that which is characterized as sagacious does not simply
emerge without critical inquiry and significant reflection. One can find more probing discussions about the controversy in the
writings of Kwame Anthony Appiah, Joseph Asike, Richard Bell, Segun Gbadegesin, Kwame Gyekye, Paulin Hountondji, D.
A. Masolo, John Mbiti, Albert Mosley, V. Y. Mudimbe, Olusegun Oladipo, Tsenay Serequeberhan, Kwasi Wiredu, and
others. At present, this controversy has lost much of its luster and concerns of greater substance are currently being formally
addressed by African intellectuals.
This collection of essays addresses epistemological and metaphysical issues that are specific to the traditional conceptual
languages of sub-Saharan Africa. By “traditional” I mean “without the infusion of foreign influence—most notably without the
infusion of Judaic, Islamic, Christian, Greek, and Western conceptual schemes into sub-Saharan cultures.” The primary focus
of the collection is on traditional African conceptions of mind, person, personal identity, truth, knowledge, understanding,
objectivity, destiny, free will, causation, and reality. The collection encompasses metaphysical and epistemological concerns
from various traditional African folk philosophical perspectives. Among those perspectives are Akan, Azande, Bokis, Igbo,
Luo, and Yoruba. The contributors are: Leke Adeofe, K. Anthony Appiah, Lee Brown, Segun Gbadegesin, D. A. Masolo,
Albert Mosley, Ifeanyi Menkiti, and Kwasi Wiredu. Their perspectives, where appropriate, address current concerns in
Western philosophy of psychology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and
epistemology. The underlying intent is to bring Western philosophy into contact with traditional African folk philosophy in a
fruitful way—a way that will encourage and enable those from each tradition to learn from the other and by so doing, foster a
more humane understanding of how to see ourselves, each other, and the world at large.
The contributing authors must be thanked for fashioning their essays to accommodate the purpose of this book. My deepest
gratitude goes to Dr. David R. Kurtzman for his insightful feedback during the editing of the manuscript. I thank Prof. Frederick
Schmitt for encouraging me to undertake this project, and the reference librarians Dr. Lorraine Haricombe, Dr. Alfred Kagan,
and Joan M. Barnes for their assistance in my compiling the bibliography of source material of epistemological and
metaphysical perspectives in African philosophical thought. I thank Julia M. L. Brown for contributing her interpretative artistry
to the cover of this book. I also thank the University of Illinois, Howard University, and the Daihonzan Chozen-ji for supporting
1. Introduction: Seeing through the Conceptual Languages of Others 3
2. Akan and Euro-American Concepts of the Person 21
3. Truth and an African Language 35
4. An Outline of a Theory of Destiny 51
5. Personal Identity in African Metaphysics 69
6. The Concept of the Person in Luo Modes of Thought 84
7. Physical and Metaphysical Understanding: Nature, Agency, and Causation in African
Traditional Thought 107
8. Witchcraft, Science, and the Paranormal in Contemporary African Philosophy 136
9. Understanding and Ontology in Traditional African Thought 158
Department of Philosophy
K. Anthony Appiah
Department of Philosophy
Lee M. Brown
Department of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
D. A. Masolo
Department of Philosophy
University of Louisville
I. A. Menkiti
Department of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
University of South Florida
Seeing through the Conceptual Languages of Others
Lee M. Brown
Among the goals of this collection is to provide accurate and well-developed characterizations of some of the salient
epistemological and metaphysical concerns that have shaped the conceptual languages of sub-Saharan Africa. Another goal is
to enable readers to enhance their functional understanding and their appreciation of the epistemological and metaphysical
perspectives that have driven traditional African philosophical thought. Among the motives for striving toward such goals is
obedience to an ancient Western injunction. Socrates and Plato urged that we must know ourselves, and although those two
philosophers did not say so, one of the necessary routes toward self-knowledge is knowledge of others. Self-knowledge and
knowledge of others are coeval in human individuals, and this kind of knowledge leads us toward the recognition of the
importance of knowledge of other cultures. Moreover, seeing ourselves through the conceptual lenses of others enables us to
have a more informed view of ourselves, and the derived knowledge empowers us to enable others more appropriately.
Most of what has been made known through literature about traditional African philosophical thought emerged through
Eurocentric characterizations of African cultures. Those characterizations emerged primarily from the perspectives of Western
anthropologists and Christian-trained African theologians and clerics, who interpreted and translated traditional African
conceptual idioms into Western conceptual idioms. The process was either poorly informed or self-serving,
and much of what was characterized as African thought was a Western invention. The characterizations did not emerge by
viewing traditional African conceptual idioms through the conceptual lens of traditional Africans. Instead, Eurocentric languages
were superimposed upon African cultures without an informed or dedicated commitment to preserving the integrity of African
conceptual idioms, and without clear and accurate understanding of the underlying ontological commitments that grounded
those idioms. 1
Moreover, the institutionalization of racialism within Western cultures tainted honest efforts to be objective when studying
African philosophical thought. 2 The cultures of sub-Saharan Africa were viewed by Western colonizers and missionaries as
primitive, backward, and in need of radical reconstruction. In contrast to Western religions, traditional African religions were
viewed as grounded upon superstition and metaphysical fantasy, and the cultures on the whole were viewed as having little
value outside of the resources that could be extracted for Western use. Within Western cultures, those sentiments became an
institutionalized lens through which African cultures and Africans came to be viewed. Such sentiments were fostered by the
racist perspectives of well-respected philosophers such as Georg Hegel, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. Because of their
stature within the Western intellectual community, their stereotypes of the “essential dispositions” of Africans helped fuel
racialism and served to marginalize any intellectual activity by those of obvious African descent. Like most stereotypes, theirs
were far from accurate. That is to say, there is no causal link between the amount of melanin in an individual's body and in the
ability of an individual to waltz, to appreciate fine wines, to be ethical, or to engage in abstract reasoning. In brief, racialism is a
false theory. Moreover, people of African descent—not unlike any other population with a language—have long engaged in
philosophical thought, and their perspectives have much to contribute to many of the concerns that have plagued Western
philosophy for the past 2,500 years. Not taking seriously the philosophical concerns within other cultures can severely limit the
ability of Western philosophy to evolve or otherwise grow. Their having a sagacious format or their not being rooted in
Western ideology is no compelling reason for discounting their merit or their ability to enable Westerners to enrich their
common conceptual base. Significant growth often occurs when we look at ourselves though the lenses of others. Sometimes
that growth amounts merely to greater confirmation of existing perspectives, and that can be a good thing to have happen.
Other times, seeing
as do others precipitates a significant change in our own view, and if it is wisdom we seek that too can be a good thing to have
Philosophy begins with experience, and at some point, our experiences and emergent concepts become influenced by our
dispositions and by our beliefs about what is real, what is necessary, what is possible, and what is true. Our conceptual
language provides the format that structures how and what we come to understand as real, as necessary, as possible, and as
true. With the advent of new perspectives, challenges to older perspectives emerge that require clarification or resolution.
Reflections upon such concerns form a significant component of philosophical discourse, and in many respects reflecting upon
such concerns can be characterized as reflecting upon concerns that are universal. That which is real or necessary or possible
or true is universal, while that which is taken to be real, necessary, possible, or true may be otherwise. Given that philosophy,
as an activity, is the pursuit of wisdom, the concern of philosophy is acquiring knowledge and its implications regarding what is
real, necessary, possible, and true.
Our conceptual language provides the format that structures how and what we come to understand as real, as possible, and as
true. However, there are arenas in which language itself seems to fail us. This can occur when perplexities emerge because
language has fostered an implication that is not consistent with our intuitions, or because language does not accurately capture
or otherwise reflect what we have in mind. Concerning the latter, there are times when a painting or non-lyrical musical
composition can better capture what we have in mind than can words. Also, some concepts—“knowledge” and “game” are
notable examples—do not seem to be readily analyzable or amenable to being provided necessary and sufficient conditions for
appropriate usage. 4 Concerning the former, in opposition to perspectives in artificial intelligence, a thermostat is not conscious.
Also, no matter the clarity of the proof, the unending decimal fraction consisting only of an infinite number of nines proceeded
by a decimal point does not obviously designate the number one. 5
Just as the early adaptations of emergent populations to vastly different environments and ecosystems fostered the emergence
of biological diversity, they also fostered cultural diversity. The diversity in languages was reflective of what was needed for
adapting to specific environments and to existing cultural influences that had implications for efforts to adapt. Reflecting those
adaptations, the emergent cultures and their associated conceptual languages differed in ontological commitments, in how those
commitments were given an order, and in
what was viewed as most fundamental for grappling with issues of vital human concern: those concerns that impinged upon
one's quality of life and upon one's longevity and upon one's quest to find purpose and meaning in life. Accordingly, they also
differed in what could count as being known and how. Still, underlying those differences are ancient concerns about what is
real, what is necessary, what is possible, and what counts as knowing and what counts as truth. It is perhaps through viewing
the world through the conceptual lenses of others that we can realize a collective human experience and subsequently realize
significant progress in personal and in interpersonal human development. Having such a realization requires having a richer
understanding of the conceptual idioms of others.
Philosophers are those who seek wisdom, and to have wisdom one must have truth in hand and one must not only understand
why the truths are as such, but also see their implications for the rest of what is known and what is valued. Little wisdom can be
realized if one's perspectives are confined as were those of the challenged persons attempting to gain knowledge of the
elephant by touching only one part while being unwilling to learn from others. To appreciate the philosophical perspectives of
other cultures, one must come to understand those perspectives from the points of view of those who hold them. Granted,
unless one is intimately familiar with a culture, it is often difficult to appreciate or even to understand the how and why of the
ontological and epistemological commitments that ground the perspectives upon which a culture is built. But unless the effort is
made, one's knowledge is likely to be only superficial, and so little genuine appreciation will be realized. 6 This phenomenon is
not merely specific to cases where there are significant cultural differences. It is also prevalent within a culture when there are
incompatible variations in ontological and epistemological commitments. A brief example will show how this occurs even within
the natural sciences.
Significant technological progress has occurred when something previously dismissed or otherwise ignored was given full
hearing. One such case is when physical theory was in conflict with human experience, and human experience was
characterized as silly, self-indulgent, misguided, and delusional. It was not until the early 1980s that many otherwise very astute
engineers and physicists were able to hear differences between audio cables and between amplifiers with identical measured
specifications and performance characteristics. 7 According to physical theory, the human ear is not capable of detecting or
otherwise distinguishing differences in the quality of signals whose only difference
is distortion that is less than 0.05%. Accordingly, for any two functionally equivalent amplifiers whose distortion products
remained below 0.05%, there is no audible distortion or difference that can be discerned. 8 Similarly, since the measurable total
harmonic distortion products of audio cables is less than the residual of existing test equipment, 0.001%, the ear is not able to
discern any difference between functionally equivalent audio cables.
Still, avid audiophiles claimed to be able to hear differences between audio equipment that test results—in conjunction with the
associated theory—imply cannot be discerned. Moreover, many audiophiles claimed to be able to recognize specific audio
equipment solely on the basis of the audible distortions it added to reproduced music. Here we have a case where
well-entrenched and well-supported physical theories within the natural sciences tell us what is not possible, while personal
experience suggests otherwise. Those who believed the theories could not hear differences between equipment with the same
measured results, and they could not hear distortion contributed by equipment whose measured results were below the
threshold of theoretical audibility. However, in the late 1970s, a new method of gathering information about the distortion
products of audio devices was developed. That method showed that many amplifiers with measured total harmonic distortion
below 0.01% actually had transient intermodulation distortion products greater than 5%. Transient intermodulation distortion
was a new-found distortion. Its recognition showed that the dynamic performance of audio devices could not be reliably
discerned by using the existing standard methods. 9 Strangely, accompanying the acceptance of the more accurate method of
measuring distortion was an increase in hearing astuteness of those who had previously accepted the old theories. One of the
consequences of the new-found awareness by previous believers of the old theory is that amplifier and cable design changed
within the audio industry, and more musically accurate devices became available to the general public. Both Norwood Hanson
and Thomas Kuhn have aptly pointed out that what we are capable of seeing depends upon the beliefs we bring to our
experiences. 10 The richer our concepts, the more access we have to the objects that make up the universe. Seeing life through
the conceptual lenses of others can increase the depth and enrich the breadth of our conceptual scheme. Such growth fosters
the development of wisdom.
Among the more problematic concerns that emerge when deciding between theories from different cultural traditions is that
factors involved that make knowing which is true exceedingly difficult to discern. Unless we know what is intended by the use
of the words within a language, there is little chance of discerning whether any claims within the language are true. Concerning
the essays in this collection, although it is not explicitly stated, a theme common to all is that a word that is shared among
different cultures can have different extensions while being taken to have the same sense. This phenomenon is not consistent
with the tenet that sense determines reference. If we hold the latter to be correct, then we need to reevaluate our perspectives
on the extent to which a translation or reduction of one cultural idiom to another can be said to be complete or one of
synonymy. This brings into question the extent to which we can be sure that our understanding of the conceptual languages of
others is accurate, and that brings into question the appropriateness of making comparative judgments about the merits of the
philosophical perspectives of other cultures. This is not a tacit support of skepticism. It is instead a reminder that our ability to
appreciate or otherwise understand the content of the conceptual languages of others turns on the extent to which we are able
to view the content from the perspectives of the native users of the language.
In “Akan and Euro-American Concepts of the Person,” K. Anthony Appiah explores these issues from the perspective of
trying to discern conceptions of what it is to be a person when those conceptions are from different cultural traditions. His focus
is upon conceptions of the person within Western and within Akan traditions. He discusses six obstacles to realizing which of
the two traditional conceptions of the person is most accurate. In so doing, he notes that there may be no non–question-begging
way of comparing theories, since the theories themselves play central roles in our coming to understand how each is to be used.
In other words, how each is to be used determines the extensions of its concepts, and that condition plays a critical role in
determining the extent to which one theory can be said to map onto the objects subsumed by the other.
Even if question begging were itself not an issue, there still remain questions about how to discern which conceptualization is
most accurate, since each will fail to capture something of significance. There can also be cases when both are equally
accurate, but about different things, and the issue then comes to deciding what things most matter. As to what most matters,
discerning that often comes down to what is most valued by the reducing culture. If having powers to bring about changes in
others by casting spells is not significant within
a culture, then reducing talk about witches to talk about psychotics works well. However, psychotics do not have the powers
purportedly had by witches, so something fairly significant gets lost when witches become mere psychotics—people with a
specific kind of delusional perspective on life. There are at least two notable dangers with such reductions. First, they can
destroy components of a culture that are essential to the survival of the culture, and often what is gained by the reduction does
not offset the loss that results from the reduction. Second, replacement idioms typically have problems of their own and they
themselves are typically replaced in some future by something else. Such transitions get us further away from being able to
understand what was of significance in the original conceptual language, and that gets us further away from being able to
understand what was important to the people of the culture out of which the language emerged. This is perhaps most alarming,
since the fundamental questions that people are asking today are those that were asked scores of translations ago. Perhaps
were we better able to see how they grappled with their concerns, we could get a better handle on how to grapple with ours.
Such insights are nearly impossible when the other's conceptual language is not taken as seriously as our own.
In “Truth and an African Language,” Kwasi Wiredu compares conceptions of truth within Akan and Western languages. He
treats truth as a primarily epistemological rather than an ontological concept. Even so, he does not disregard the ontological
concerns that are part of epistemological inquiries. Although objects, situations, and their relations to, say, a person are the
subjects of that which is claimed to be true, when speaking literally, neither an object nor a situation nor a subject can be said
to be a truth. Wiredu views truth as something about that which is claimed to be reality. He argues that truth has to do with
judgments and that those judgments accord, in some sense, with reality. The focus of his essay is on the nature of the judgment
that is seen as essential for ascertaining truth.
Wiredu's essay provides an interesting and accessible tour of Frege's and of Tarski's criteria for something's being true. During
his investigation, he explores Western conceptions of truth, with a focus upon the correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic
theories of truth. The exploration then makes a transition to Dewey's characterization of truth as warranted assertibility, and
Wiredu subsequently shows how the concept of truth within the Akan language can be an aid to clear thinking about how to
come to know what can be characterized as truth. Wiredu suggests that a possible unification of the three
competing Western theories of truth can be realized by an infusion of the Akan conception of truth. However, he notes that
some philosophical problems are not universal, and that they are instead language relative and as such their existence depends
upon the peculiarities of the culture in which the language is rooted. He cautions us to be cognizant of this so that we will be less
prone to take language-dependent issues for universal issues. This exemplifies one variety of case in which a philosophy can be
one of a specific culture—when the concerns are indigenous to the cultural and linguistic idioms of a people.
In traditional Yoruba thought, a necessary condition for an individual to be a person is that it has taken on a destiny. In “An
Outline of a Theory of Destiny,” Segun Gbadegesin puts forth the thesis that when viewed under the guise of modern
philosophical rigor, the traditional Yoruba concept of destiny seems to bring with it more conceptual problems than its usage is
otherwise thought to help explain. His concerns are with an apparent inconsistency in held beliefs, within traditional folk African
culture, about what it means to have a destiny. Among those concerns is how one makes sense of the tenet that having a
destiny fixes one's life experiences with the tenet that one can be held responsible for one's actions. He is concerned also with
what it means to choose a destiny, and with whether it is appropriate to say of something that does not have a destiny that it is
a person. Associated with that concern is the issue of whether the person that emerged from the process of getting a destiny is
responsible for having its destiny and accountable for how it subsequently lives. Given traditional Yoruba perspectives on
personhood, something becomes a person only when it has chosen a destiny for its life. Since that process occurs during life in
utero, questions are raised about what it is that actually chooses a destiny. A person emerges only after the selection is made,
and life in utero is not the life of something that is typically thought to be capable of making quality-of-life decisions. He
contends that it is not wholly obvious that one can be held accountable for something that one did not do or for something for
which one lacked the required tools, and that both seem to be operative during the purported choosing of one's destiny.
One of the underlying concerns in Gbadegesin's essay is how best to account for holding a person accountable for behaviors
that he or she did not obviously choose. Grounding this concern are broader issues about the extent to which an individual can
be said to have willingly participated in something before becoming a person
and about whether such participation supports the having of a depth of consciousness and wisdom that is typically associated
with Plato's contention that individuals have knowledge while in utero. Gbadegesin specifically addresses related concerns
about reincarnation and about surviving as an ancestral spirit after death. Since essential to being a person is the having of a
chosen destiny, and since it is not wholly obvious that a chosen destiny is a thing that can survive the death of a body, it is not
wholly obvious that the person who was fashioned by its destiny can survive in spiritual form after death. This is problematic in
large part because destiny is not viewed as something that is by nature spiritual and because on some traditional
conceptualizations, since destiny and ori are the same—or in the least, destiny is contained in the ori—when the ori dies, so
dies the destiny. “Ori” in Yoruba is usually translated “head,” but clearly these translation issues are closely interrelated. A
Westerner usually does not speak of the head's dying apart from the body's dying, except when talking in metaphor. There are
other perspectives on this issue and some are discussed in depth in “Understanding and Ontology in Traditional African
Thought” and in “Personal Identity in African Metaphysics.”
The concerns with which Gbadegesin wrestles are weighty, and they have significant implications for Western concerns about
having free will in light of determinism. Also, efforts by Western theologians to reconcile omniscience with free will are fraught
with similar difficulties. It is Gbadegesin's contention that believing in destiny is not irrational and that the Yoruba concept of
destiny deserves more investigation before any such charges can be made justifiably. He suggests that viewing one's life as
having a destiny gives it purpose and direction and that since one's destiny can be made more to one's liking through known
types of practices, the quality of one's life can be joyous and fruitful even though it is fundamentally determined before birth.
Perhaps most interesting about the kind of destiny that Gbadegesin seems to embrace is that it is flexible, in the sense that it can
be influenced by those who approach life in a manner that is respectful of the phenomena that are ultimately responsible for the
formation of destinies. Still, as traditionally conceived, the notion that individuals have destinies is problematic, but it is no more
problematic than the free-will–determinism problem, and it raises no more difficulties than are raised by fatalism within some
protestant traditions. I leave it to the reader to discern whether said perspectives are any less compelling than those associated
with efforts to reconcile free will
with either determinism or omniscience. With respect to either of these two phenomena, that which is fixed by omniscience or
by deterministic chains is not amenable to being altered. Hence, in light of either, it can be said that one's belief that one could
have done otherwise can be viewed as illusionary as another's belief that one's actions are destined. The truth of the matter is
still not known, and perhaps the discussions contained in Gbadegesin's essay will promote less jaundiced perspectives when
evaluating the merits of conceptual languages that are different from one's own.
In “Personal Identity in African Metaphysics” Leke Adeofe explores some of the issues involved in discerning what it is to be a
person within the context of a Yoruba metaphysical worldview. Those issues are viewed in light of Western conceptions of
personal identity. His concerns are: What is the nature of persons? What is it for a person to be the same persisting entity
across time? What relationship, if any, exists between an individual's first-person subjective experiences and our objective
third-person perspective? Adeofe's primary focus is on the extent to which his characterization of the Yoruba theory of reality
has provided integrated responses to personal identity questions. He characterizes Yoruba thought as having a tripartite
conception of persons, while arguing that it does not fall prey to criticisms that have plagued notable Western conceptions of
persons. Variants of the continuity and persistence theories that are associated with Kant, Descartes, and Hume are discussed
in light of Yoruba conceptions of persons. Adeofe also explores the Lockean idea of linking social roles to personal identity
and suggests that the Yoruba characterization provides a more promising conception. He argues that the Yoruba conceptual
language provides a tested conception of human existence that is sufficient for clarifying personal identity concerns within
D. A. Masolo's “The Concept of the Person in Luo Modes of Thought” begins with a characterization of salient influences of
European colonialism on traditional conceptual idioms of Luo modes of thought. He discusses what he sees as external cultural
impositions that function as obstacles to acquiring an accurate understanding of ontological commitments in traditional African
cultures. His early focus is upon what Rosalind Shaw, V. Y. Mudimbe, and others have characterized as the European
construction of previously inexistent realities in traditional African ontology. Those constructions are characterized as inventions
that emerged through the imposition of Eurocentric taxonomies on African cultures. Also discussed are contributions of
European anthropologists and European-trained African theologians and clerics to the translations of traditional African cultural
idioms into Eurocentric idioms. Masolo suggests that their characterizations were self-serving and inaccurate and that the
subsequent infusions into colonial and postcolonial African cultures have distorted African cultural idioms and have given
Westerners inaccurate characterizations of the ontological commitments within traditional African cultures.
Masolo goes into great detail to distinguish traditional African conceptual idioms from those presented as African via
Eurocentric interpretations. Although there is discussion of the colonial influences upon ethical and political perspectives within
traditional African thought, Masolo's discussions are primarily focused on concerns in the areas of metaphysics and
epistemology. Therein, he focuses upon conceptions of personhood and personal identity. He contends that in many African
systems of thought, conceptions of individual identity often exceed the confinement of the two Cartesian categories—mind and
body—that are offered by Westerners to explain individual capacities to think and act in objectively discernable ways. Masolo
notes that Jackson and Karp and Wiredu and Gyekye have argued that several African communities think of personhood as
constituted of several more categories. 11 He suggests that this raises questions about what constitutes human agency and about
how various senses of responsibility can be used to explain both everyday and extraordinary occurrences.
In keeping with such concerns, Masolo examines the concept of jouk that is found among the Southern (Kenya) and Central
(Uganda) Luo. He focuses upon the implications of the concept for understanding what constitutes personhood, for grounding
the principles of moral discourse and judgment, and for determining the principles of social geography of the Luo world. He
discusses the similarities and the differences between Luo, Yoruba, and Akan ontological commitments and claims that they are
notable. It is claimed that each ontology has efficacy within each of the cultural domains. In addition, Masolo suggests that
within each culture there is a firm commitment to the belief that underlying the experiential world is a reality that gives order to
our experiences. In concluding, Masolo suggests that perhaps by focusing upon that which is substantially common to all, we
can develop a more fruitful perspective for solving some of the problems that are still dominating concerns in Western
Ifeanyi Menkiti adds another dimension to the concerns raised by Masolo. Menkiti argues that the ontological commitments
traditional African cultures are not grounded upon supernaturalism. He suggests that characterizing the theoretical posits within
traditional African cultures as supernatural posits infuses Western idioms into traditional African conceptual languages. In
“Physical and Metaphysical Understanding: Nature, Agency, and Causation in African Traditional Thought,” Menkiti sheds light
upon a flawed but deeply entrenched Western perspective that has significantly influenced how the ontological commitments
within African cultures have been viewed. Within Western cultures there exists the tenet that traditional African conceptual
schemes are pre-theoretic and hence lack the foundations that are required for explaining natural phenomena. That perspective
is offered to account for the flawed position that those belonging to traditional African cultures do not understand natural
phenomena because African perspectives on how and why phenomena occur are rooted in mere superstition and metaphysical
fantasy and as such lack the theoretical grounding that permits a genuine understanding of how and why phenomena occur.
Understanding natural phenomena requires seeing the phenomenon to be explained and the phenomenon offered to explain it as
being subsumed within a theoretical framework. For causal explanation, the event to be explained and that which caused it
must be linked by a true generalization—one that makes sense within our conceptual scheme. From a Western perspective,
claiming that the man died because a spell was cast upon him makes no sense when the man was drowned by a crocodile.
Without its making sense, no genuine understanding takes place, and it is because of the inability of Westerners to achieve an
understanding from the offered explanations within traditional African cultures that African cultures are viewed as not having an
understanding of natural phenomena.
The claim that a cast spell caused a person's death is viewed as evidence for believing that traditional Africans are superstitious
and that their ontological commitments are not amenable to the kind of empirical grounding that is required for theory formation
and for subsequently explaining natural phenomena. Menkiti challenges this perspective and argues that traditional African
culture is largely misunderstood. To that end he argues that it is not rooted in supernaturalism and that its metaphysics are
empirically grounded. He provides compelling reasons for Westerners to acquire a more informed perspective on traditional
African thought, and he suggests that there is much that Westerners can learn from traditional African thought that will better
enable solving salient philosophical concerns within
Western culture. Particularly noteworthy about Menkiti's discussion is his bringing to light how one's ontological commitments
determine what can be seen and valued. It is not only our physiology—our hard wiring—that determines the limits of our
experiences, it is also our worldview. Just as boiling water can rid it of contained bacteria that cause illness, boiling water can
rid it of contained demons that cause illness. This is not to say that demons and bacteria are one and the same. It is also not to
say that they are radically different. It is to say merely that each, in a sense, is a characterization of the same phenomenon and
that it is often our uninformed responses to those characterizations that determine how we view and treat those whose
expressed ontological commitments differ from our own. Perhaps by acquiring a better understanding of why demons are
viewed as harmful while germs are not and of why germs are viewed as harmful while demons are not, we can acquire a better
understanding of human nature and of our propensity to posit only the unobservables that make sense to us, during our efforts
to account for the phenomena that perhaps reside in all of nature, but are only noticed within specific conceptual schemes.
In “Witchcraft, Science, and the Paranormal in Contemporary African Philosophy,” Albert Mosley explores the traditional
African philosophical foundations that have given rise to current perspectives on the supernatural within contemporary African
philosophical thought. He argues against the comparative Western tenet that while Western ontology is grounded upon facts
about nature, traditional African ontology is rooted in mere metaphysical fantasy. Mosley objects to critiquing African ontology
outside of the contextual framework that gives it structure and meaning. Moreover, it can be argued that almost any effort to
analyze concepts outside of the scheme that provides the foundations for their meanings will result in unjustifiable biases. This is
the case even within modern science. For example, in, How the Laws of Physics Lie, Nancy Cartwright suggests that when
taken literally, almost all the laws of nature are false. If she is correct, and the law statements that science offers as true are
otherwise, how ought we to proceed when attempting to access the extent to which a purported relationship between types of
events obtains? Having such information is often important when assessing what to believe or do within specific situations. In
fairness to Western science, when a law statement is assessed outside of the boundary conditions that fashion the arena in
which its claim purports truth, that law statement can be said to be too broad—to be saying more than what would have been
otherwise understood were the boundary conditions made obvious.
The gas laws of Charles and Boyle reflect the behavior of ideal gases, and as such, one is not likely to realize the precise
predicted value of the gas laws when using gases that are not ideal. Similarly, when building an electronic circuit with resistors,
one should not be surprised when the results fail to follow Ohm's law. Most resistors are not linear and as such they have
capacitance or inductance, and either can affect current or voltage in ways that are not reflected by the stated value of the
resistor. Still, accurate and reliable circuitry is designed on the basis of physical theories that employ law statements that
characterize relations that are not as precise as found readily in nature. The success of such projects is rooted in there being an
understanding of the specifications of the objects over which a universal generalization ranges. For example, without reservation
we can apply the general rule that unless one is very skilled at differentiating types of mushrooms, picking a mushroom from the
wild and eating it is dangerous. While it is not true that all wild mushrooms are lethal, it is true that most mushrooms of specific
types cause death when ingested.
Given the apparent looseness in how seemingly exceptionless generalizations are interpreted and subsequently used, we can
perhaps say that those who embrace the laws of nature understand that there is variability within the types of relations that law
statements characterize and that when that variability is considered, the resultant claim by a subsuming law statement is true.
For example, we can say with certainty, that were the value of the resistor 1 ohm at all frequencies, then the current for any
applied frequency would be 1 ampere for an applied 1 volt potential. However, when a resistor has an associated parallel
capacitance, there will be frequencies where current flow will be greater than 1 ampere for an applied 1 volt potential. Also, as
a matter of practice, where the current is greater than 1 ampere for the same applied voltage, one can deduce that a
capacitance or inductance is associated with the resistor and one can deduce its value—all things considered.
It seems safe to say that accepting law statements within science as true requires some degree of generosity. Can such
generosity be extended to the law statements and theories within traditional African culture that make use of magic, witchcraft,
and incorporeal spirits to account for observed phenomena? Mosley argues that it should, and that implies—if he is correct—
that it can. However, it is not wholly obvious that the generosity can be extended. The law statements that emerge from
Western science are rooted in empirical inquiry. They
are testable and confirmable. The generalizations that emerge from positing magic, witchcraft, and incorporeal spirits are not
obviously testable or otherwise confirmable through empirical methods, and hence it can be argued that there is no obvious
viable basis for assessing their truth. Mosley's essay tackles this problem, and his arguments are in many respects compelling.
When one looks at his position in light of Western religious tenets, his position has even greater plausibility. Much of Western
religion is rooted in faith—where to have faith is to believe without empirical evidence. Mosley argues for a more inclusive view
of both knowledge and the scientific enterprise wherein non-experimental evidence and societal perspectives factor into how
research is to proceed and into what can be discerned as true and as justification for accepting a proposition as true.
In “Understanding and Ontology in Traditional African Thought,” I discuss how the ontological commitments within modern
Western culture can be viewed as no less problematic than those within traditional African cultures. Each posits unobservable
entities to explain the experiential world, and in neither is there ready access to those posits that are held as grounding or as
otherwise determining what is experienced. I look at the conceptions of persons in each tradition and suggest there is something
of significance that each tradition can learn from the other. Concerning what is meant by “person,” upon careful scrutiny it
becomes apparent that “person” as used in Western culture is not coextensive with “person” in traditional African culture. What
would be called a person in Western culture might not be called a person in African culture, while what would be called a
person in African culture would be called a person in Western culture. The asymmetry speaks to telling difficulties associated
with capturing African conceptual language within Western conceptual language—with replacing African conceptual language
with Western theoretical idioms. It speaks also to the need for caution and perhaps charity when making judgments about what
should count as significant or as well grounded when evaluating conceptual schemes that are not one's own. 12 Concerning the
view that traditional African ontology is rooted in mere superstition or metaphysical fantasy, a careful viewing will reveal that
Western ontology can be characterized similarly. It is not simply obvious that one rather than the other has a firmer foundation.
Moreover, there seems to be something of significance that African ontology can lend to Western conceptual language during
efforts to account for how a person's mind can affect its body and for
how something can be the same throughout its existence. According to traditional African thought, all persons are in some
sense physical, and it is that aspect of personhood that can lend explanatory efficacy to the Western practice of attributing
causal efficacy to incorporeal beings and to the associated spiritual world that plays a fundamental role in grounding Western
culture. When we consider that our best science tells us that matter and energy are in principle interchangeable, that E=MC 2,
the traditional African characterization of ancestral spirits as quasi-material seems far less fantastic than might initially be thought
by someone who is being introduced to the philosophical perspectives in traditional sub-Saharan cultures.
It will be evident to the careful and sympathetic reader that the purposes of the authors represented in this book are less
polemical than they are irenic. It is among our aims to provide the opportunity for a new dialogue between practitioners of
varying methods of accomplishing philosophical tasks. And it is with the hope that increased understanding of each other will be
the result of that dialogue, that each of us has rendered these contributions to the study of humanity and its nature.
1. Ontological concerns are concerns about what makes up the furniture of the universe—the stuff, if you will, that we count as
real as opposed to imaginary or fictitious. By definition, unicorns are not real—they cannot exist as actual objects in the world
in which we live. Even if a single-horned horse were excavated, it could not be a unicorn. If we are speaking and writing
literally, the occurrence of a unicorn is neither likely nor biologically possible in the world we inhabit. An ontological
commitment is a disposition to accept and a willingness to use specific conceptual idioms or characterizations of reality as true
of the world in which we live.
2. Racialism is the theory that human races exist and that the biology that gives rise to the phenotypes that permit racial
classification also gives rise to essential qualities such as intellectual, spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic dispositions. Racism is
racialism accompanied by the belief that one's membership in a particular race makes one biologically superior to those in
another race. Typically, accompanying that belief is the belief that one's racial superiority gives one the right to oppress those
believed to be racially inferior. Neither theory is true.
3. This is not intended as an exhaustive list of philosophical concerns.
4. For concerns about what counts as knowledge, see discussions of “the Gettier Problem.”Edmund Gettier's essay, “Is
Justified True Belief Knowledge?” first appeared in Analysis 23 (1963). For concerns about what counts
as a game, see Ludwig Wittgenstein's discussions about the definition of “game” in Philosophical Investigations. For results
that at least partially challenge Wittgenstein's view, see various works of Alan Ross Anderson and Omar Khayam Moore—in
particular their work on autotelic learning environments, in numerous publications.
5. An offered proof that 0.99999…equals 1.0:
b. 3/3=0.99999…Both sides of the previous equation were multiplied by 3.
c. 1=0.99999…3/3 in the previous equation was reduced to 1.
The underlying assumptions here are that the fraction 1/3 is equivalent to a never ending series of threes preceded by a decimal
point and that the expression “1/3” and the expression “.33333…” are different names for the same number. The concern
about equation c is that the contained expressions refer to different numbers—that there is a number between the numbers that
each expression mentions.
6. If, for example, one wants to acquire an appreciation for what it is to be in a state of starvation, one cannot do so by merely
coming to know what is meant by the word “starvation.” One must have a sensitivity for what it is to be without food and to
have no access to food for more than, say, a week. Fasting and starving are not the same.
7. In brief, under the guise of the audio industry standards for measuring the performance of amplifiers, two amplifiers can be
said to have the same gain-bandwidth products when their output signals are equal for any input signal at any frequency. They
can be said to have the same harmonic and intermodulation distortion characteristics when their distortion products are the
same for all input signals at any continuous frequency or combination of continuous frequencies. Unless specified, when
speaking about distortion, the reference is to total harmonic distortion, THD, or to intermodulation distortion, IMD.
8. I do not know whether a difference of less than 0.05% can be discerned by the human ear. It seems to me that it can when,
for example, one amplifier has a distortion of, say, 0.09% and the other 0.045%.
9. The new method of measurement showed that the audible distortion characteristics of state-of-the-art audio devices cannot
be reliably evaluated by using continuous or steady state signals (sine waves and square waves) as the source to be measured.
Music, for the most part, is a series of pulses, and steady state measurements do not tell us much about how a device handles
10. Norwood R. Hanson, Patterns of Discovery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1958); Thomas S. Kuhn, The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).
11. Michael Jackson and Ivan Karp, Personhood and Agency: The Experience of Self and Other in African Cultures,
Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology 14,
Uppsala University (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991); Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye, Person and
Community (Washington, D.C.: CRVP, 1992).
12. See Donald Davidson, “Radical Interpretation,” in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon
2 Akan and Euro-American Concepts of the Person
K. Anthony Appiah
I propose to begin with a little analytical philosophical “apparatus,” even though a hatred of—or at any rate a distaste for—such
“technicality” may discourage some readers. So before getting down to the apparatus, I would like to say that I believe it is
going to be helpful in addressing a question that is far from a technicality: namely, what is being lost when African conceptual
languages are increasingly replaced with theoretical idioms from the West. I am going to suggest that it is far from obvious that
this is a good thing: and not for nationalist reasons but for universalist ones.
Comparing Theories: Preliminaries
Sometimes we are faced with two ways of thinking that seem to be in competition with one another—I will call them theories—
and we want to decide which we prefer. What it is for theories to be in competition can sometimes be straightforward: they
may make predictions about the same sorts of things and those predictions may be different, and so they are about the same
subject matter and they cannot both be right about it. It can be less than obvious, however, in real cases, in what sense two
theories deal with the same subject matter. For the theories are likely to use different languages—they will have different
theoretical vocabularies, different concepts—and some of what is said in the vocabulary of one theory, T, may be about
things that, for example, T1 does not refer to at all. Why do we think that Mendel's genes and our talk of sequences of
nucleotides in DNA molecules deal with the same subject matter? For, as it happens, almost nothing that Mendel thought about
genes is exactly true of DNA sequences. Why do we call some people in some societies “medicine men” or “witch doctors,”
which assumes that they are aiming to heal diseases, as opposed to say protecting your mbisimo (spirit) from the assaults of
mangu (witchcraft); as was the case in Zandeland according to E. E. Evans-Pritchard?
Still, as I say, we can find ourselves in situations where we have to choose between two ways of thinking and talking about a
situation, and, to put it at its most practical, we can judge that looked at in the T-way, we should do A, and looked at in the T 1
-way, we should do A 1, and we cannot do both. And so, somehow, we go with T. Notice that this practical dilemma does
not force us to choose between T and T 1 absolutely: for it may be that in other circumstances, where T recommends doing B
and T1 recommends doing B1, we would go with T 1. And it might be that proceeding in this way, things turn out just as we
wanted. (Thus, T might be the theory of our Western-trained allopathic doctor and T 1 might be the view of our herbalist: and
when it is headaches we take aspirin and not herbs, and when it is infertility we take herbs and not surgery.) Still, practical
dilemmas of this sort can lead one to reflect on the question whether one should prefer T to T 1 over all, or, more likely, whether
there is not some new picture, T *, that explains why we should do A in one case and B 1 in the other. And such a question urges
on us the ranking of theories overall: in this case a search for a T * that ranks above both T and T 1.
Even when we are clear that two theories are about roughly the same things, we will usually need more than this to help us
decide how to rank them. For usually it is hard to say exactly what it is for the theory to get things right because we use
theories for so many different purposes. (Medical theories are used for everything from trying to understand what has
happened to us, to deciding what therapies to use, to deciding whether we are in the right frame of mind to make a decision.)
If we knew what we wanted theories and their correlative concepts for, we could line them up against each other and compare
their performances. There would still be no guarantee that we could rank any two theories that came along because the things
we wanted them
for—their uses, let us say—might be diverse and incommensurable. So one theory, T, might do very well on one criterion, C 1,
and another, T 1, do much less well; but then with respect to some other criterion, C 2, T1 might be the winner. If we did not
know which of these criteria mattered most, this would leave us still unable to rank them. Even if we thought that, on balance, C
mattered more than C 2, there would still be the need to decide how to trade off a small win on C 1 against a big loss on C 2.
And, once again, if we did not know how to do this, we would be left without a ranking again.
Some people think we do not need to worry about the problems created by multiple criteria because there is only one serious
criterion for assessing theories and that is truth. One trouble with truth as a criterion is that it can be too undemanding. There
are lots of little unimportant truths, vaguely stated, that are not worth collecting. Surely we want not just the truth but the truth
about something that is worth having the truth about: and that takes us straight back to multiple criteria, since it is generally the
case that what is important depends on many things.
Another trouble with truth is, it does not seem to come by degrees: most of our theories get some things right and some things
wrong. Overall, then, they are wrong, since the only way to be right is to get everything right. (Well, not everything, exactly: a
theory needs to get everything right that it says anything about at all. If a theory says nothing about apples, it cannot be the
whole truth, but it could be the whole truth about oranges.) And once we grasp this, we see that, until a theory comes along
that just gets the whole truth (about something interesting)—and this is an event for which I do not recommend holding your
breath—what we need is some notion of closeness to the truth, verisimilitude. But now we are back with the problem of
multiple criteria: for (once we have some sort of measure of distance from the truth) a theory can be close to the truth in some
respects and far from it in others, and so we are going to have to trade off relative success in some areas against relative failure
in others. (For it is not likely, in general, that T will get right everything that T1 gets right and then get some things right that T1
gets wrong. If that were the situation, the choice would, of course, be easy.)
The fact that what theories provide is verisimilitude (which is a favored way of not being strictly true) is already built into the
ways we make and use them. Idealizations abound: and to say that a theory idealizes is to say either
1. that its claims are close to the truth or
2. that it ignores some factors that are, in fact, significant, at least sometimes, and would get
things pretty much right if those factors were taken into account, or
To suppose that an idealization is of type (1), you need to have a measure of distance from the truth, which is easy enough if
what the theory predicts is some measurable quantity, like velocity or the proportion of offspring that will have black eyes and
red fur; here you may say that a theory, T, is closer than a theory, T 1, in what it says about the measurable quantity if the value,
v(T), that T ascribes to it is close to the actual value, v, than the value, v(T1), that T 1 predicts. But lots of theories do not
predict things of that sort: one predicts that A will happen, another that B will. C happens, which is neither A nor B, and there
is no real sense in which A is closer to C than B is, or vice versa. (I predict your mother will buy the dahlias. You predict she
will buy the roses. She buys the cactus. Who is closer to being right?) To suppose that an idealization is of type (2) is once
again to face the question of what is significant, which will, once more, depend on what your aims are.
So, to summarize, here are some of the obstacles to deciding which of two theories is better.
1. They are about overlapping subject matters or it is hard to say whether they are about the
same thing; that is, there is a problem about the sense in which they are in competition with
2. We do not know what criteria to use in comparing them.
3. We do, but the criteria point in different directions and we do not know how to weigh their
1. They are about overlapping subject matters or it is hard to say whether they are about the
same thing; that is, there is a problem about the sense in which they are in competition with
4. We have a criterion, verisimilitude, but one of the theories is closer in its predictions in some
areas and the other is closer in others, and we do not know how to decide which area
matters more (or by how much) and so we are back with problem 2.
5. We have a criterion, verisimilitude, but the theories differ in ways that mean the notion of
relative distance from the truth is not applicable.
Let me mention one more problem that can arise because it will matter in what follows. That problem is:
6. that the two theories themselves play a role in our understanding of what their uses are: and
so there may seem to be no non–question-begging way of comparing them.
(So, to return to the debate between healers I mentioned earlier, our herbalist might well tell us that the infusion we have been
taking every night has strengthened our chi, while the Western doctor says that the antibiotics we did not take would have
killed off the bugs by now. If you are comparing these two points of view as views about health, how can we find a way of
saying what health consists in that does not beg the question of who is right?)
Theories of the Person in Particular
Every society has at least one collection of ideas that I am going to call a theory of the person. A theory of the person is a
collection of views about what makes human beings work. It will include views about why people do things: in America we
speak, for example, of fear, hope, belief, intention, desire, envy, lust, and kindness when we are trying to explain behavior. But
it will also include views about what people need for survival: food, for example, or air or light or family and friends. And it will
usually put all this together in a way that involves some account of the relations between the events inside people that make
them act and the bodies that do the acting. Westerners currently do this in terms of talk about minds and brains; for we think
that fear and belief and hope and the like are largely housed in people's brains (though we also think that some forms of
excitement have to do with hormones like adrenaline, which act not only on the brain but also elsewhere in our bodies). But in
other societies it has been not the brain but the breast that has been thought of as the home of many of the most important
states that make people act—so it was, for example, in the societies that produced the Homeric epics and the Hebrew Bible;
and breath was for both those societies the name of an animating principle that explained why people's bodies sometimes acted
under the guidance of inner states and sometimes (when dead) behave like other inanimate things.
A theory of the person is not something that the people in the society will necessarily think of as separate from their views
about many other matters. For people interact, of course, not only with each other, but also with a world, both social and
natural, around them; and
are also widely believed to interact with the sorts of spirits, gods, and the like that we are inclined to call “supernatural.” So,
simply asking someone how they explain the things people do or what people need for survival is not generally guaranteed to
produce a well-organized body of prepared doctrine.
Nevertheless, the readers of this book will be familiar with the assumptions about how people work that are among the shared
operating assumptions of most people in Europe and North America; and they will also be aware, too, that there are in their
own countries people whose theories of the person contain some less orthodox elements. (There are people around, for
example, who think that the state of the heavens when we are born helps to explain why we do what we do or that some
people are sometimes “taken over” by other [dead] people for whom they act as mediums.) But there will be no guarantee that
you will know about a fully fledged account from an African culture; no guarantee, in particular, that you will know about the
picture of persons that was the normal view a century ago in Asante—where I grew up—and is still strongly present in the Twi
language that is spoken there.
So let me give you a brief sketch of that theory, that picture of how people work, before I turn to the question of how we might
decide whether to prefer it to the sort of Western view with which you are probably familiar.
Asante Theories of the Person
Naturally, a theory of the person is hard to isolate from the general views of a people about the world—social, natural, and
supernatural—in which they live. So it will help to have a broader context within which to place an Asante theory of the person.
But in order to make any sense of Asante life, it is necessary to say a little about social organization. For, as we shall see, many
ritual acts of a religious nature have components that appear to be modeled on other social acts and the conception of social
relations amongst people informs the notions of relations with other sorts of beings.
As social anthropologists often discover, some of those things that we take most for granted within one culture cannot be
assumed in another. And so it is when we come to consider the organization of the family in Asante. For Asante is a matrilineal
culture: children belong to the families of their mothers. If we call a group of living
people who share common descent through the female line a matriclan, we can say that the Asante family is a subgroup of the
matriclan, usually consisting of a group with a common ancestress in their grandmother or great-grandmother. This group is
what is usually referred to as the “abusua.”
The head of the family is typically a child's maternal uncle—his or her mother's brother—but it may be a great-uncle, a nephew,
or a brother. For the senior male member of this group need not be the eldest member. This head of the family holds property
in trust for the whole group and is responsible for the maintenance and the behavior of its members. This property descends in
the matriclan, again typically from uncle to nephew (sister's son) though there are a number of exceptions to this rule. (Thus, for
example, jewelry passes from elder to younger females in the matriclan and a hunter's gun may pass to his son.)
Wider than the matrilineal family is the maternal clan, which is also called the abusua or nton. There are seven or eight clans
into which all of Asante is divided: but the functioning group for most people consists of fellow clansfolk who live in the same
village or town. Associated with the nton are a number of taboos: restrictions on food, for example, or on the utterance of
certain words. Membership of this maternal group is held to flow from the fact that a person's body (nipadua) is made from
the blood of the mother (the mogya) hence the abusua is sometimes called the bogya. The other two components of a person
are the sunsum (individual spirit) and the okra of which the former—the sunsum—derives from the father at conception, and
the latter, a sort of life force, is sent to a person at birth from Nyame, the high god, and departs the body only at the person's
last breath (and is sometimes, as with the Greeks and the Hebrews, identified with breath). (The child also acquires at birth a
“day-name,” the name for a male or female child born on that day of the week.) Despite the primary descent group being
matrilineal, Asante people also belong to a paternal clan, called the ntoro, which also has its associated taboos. These taboos
are seen as arising out of the fact that the members of the ntoro have souls that share a common source, and similarities of
personality between father and son are held to derive from this inherited sunsum.
Both abusua and ntoro were traditionally exogamous: that is, it was incestuous to marry a member of the same matriclan or
patriclan. Since, therefore, my father's sister or brother is bound to marry someone who belongs to a different ntoro (for I and
my father's siblings are in
the same exogamous patriclan) and may quite possibly marry someone who is not in my mother's (and therefore my) matriclan,
there is no barrier to my marrying my paternal cousin. To marry your mother's sister's child, however, would be incestuous: you
belong to the same abusua. To someone who is used to seeing the children of the siblings of either parent as cousins,
distinguishing between one group as being totally prohibited in marriage and another as not only not prohibited but also
sometimes encouraged is no doubt confusing. But it must be remembered that a child's mother's brother is very often the head
of his or her family. He or she may actually live in the maternal uncle's household and be brought up with the children of other
maternal aunts. To marry within this group would, in effect, be like marrying a brother or sister—indeed my mother's sisters I
call “mother” and their children I call by the same term I use to call my siblings.
In sum, then, according to Asante traditions, a person consists of a body (nipadua) made from the blood of the mother (the
mogya); an individual spirit, the sunsum, which is the main bearer of one's personality; and a third entity, the okra. The sunsum
derives from the father at conception. The okra, a sort of life force, departs the body only at the person's last breath; is
sometimes, as with the Greeks and the Hebrews, identified with breath; and is often said to be sent to a person at birth, as the
bearer of one nkrabea, or destiny, from Nyame. The sunsum, unlike the okra, may leave the body during life and does so, for
example, in sleep, dreams being thought to be the perceptions of a person's sunsum on its nightly peregrinations. Since the
sunsum is a real entity, dreaming that you have committed an offence is evidence that you have committed it, and, for example,
a man who dreams that he has had sexual intercourse with another man's wife is liable for the adultery fees that are paid for
Comparing Asante Theories with “Western” Ones: Ramsey Sentences
Now it is very natural to contrast this theory of the person with another, broadly disseminated, one, much influenced by
Western philosophy and science, in which a person is a body with a mind that resides in a brain. There are disputes about the
exact relation of the mind to the brain and about whether the former is capable of disembodied existence. Many Europeans and
Americans—and Africans—believe that the departure of the mind from the body is death; and
that the mind, released from the body, renamed the “soul,” survives somehow, perhaps even somewhere. This seems like a
different theory—sunsum and okra are dual non-bodily entities, for example, while the mind is one—and so we are now faced
concretely with one of those situations whose abstract characterization I began with, where we might want to make a choice.
Let us call the broadly commonsense Western view, W, and Akan common sense about the person, A.
How are we to characterize what is at stake in the choice between A and W? I suggest we can adapt an approach developed
by the British philosopher Frank Ramsey. The details do not much matter here, but the idea is straightforward enough. Take,
first, A. Collect all the claims that A makes. Identify all the terms in it that aim to refer to entities—sunsum, okra, and so on—
not recognized by W. (For the moment, I will put aside issues of translation: I assume that we can identify many terms in
Asante Twi and English that have the same meanings.) For each such term introduce a distinct variable and replace that term
with its variable. What you now have is something a bit like A, but without any of the words that are in dispute between it and
W. So, for example, where you once had, as part of A, the claim that the okra leaves the body at death, you have the “claim”
that x leaves the body at death; and for the claim that the sunsum travels during dreams, you have the “claim” that y travels
during dreams. (I call these “claims,” in scare quotes, because, since “x” does not yet have any function explained, saying that x
does something, so far tells you nothing at all over and above that x does something.) Of course there are many, many such
“claims” about x and about y. You can now capture the distinctive content of A by saying that it holds that there exists an x and
a y such that…; and write down the conjunction of all the “claims.” You have now constructed a Ramsey sentence of A, where
all the terms in A that do not correspond to terms in W are treated as theoretical, and all other terms as observational. What
that sentence says is, in essence, that there exists an entity that behaves in the way that Akan people believe the sunsum
behaves, one that behaves in the way they think the okra behaves, and so on. Let us call the Ramsey version of W, W R.
You can now do the same for W. If A does not recognize the word “mind,” then replace it with a variable; if A does not
believe in the “unconscious,” replace it with another. And now we can make the Ramsey version of A, A R.
What you have now is a couple of theories, A R and W R. Here are some important facts about the relations between them.
1. They share all the concepts that are shared between Akan and Western theories of the
2. They make different predictions about how people will behave: If I recall a dream of meeting
you, then my sunsum met your sunsum last night, and you and I ought to recall the same
dreams, for example; but that is not a consequence of W R.
3. They entail the existence of different states and entities.
The first strategy I suggested in such a case would be to decide what the two theories are for and then to see if we can decide
which of them does that thing better. Well, what are A and W for? One reasonable answer, as I also said, might be: many
things. But of those potentially many things one in particular suggests itself as central, and that is understanding—and thus
anticipating—how people will behave under the various circumstances that they encounter. If we could agree on a way of
characterizing behavior—the things people do—and context (the circumstances they encounter), there is then an obvious way
of comparing the two approaches, available in recent Anglo-American philosophical tradition.
So How Does the Comparison Go?
I argued at the start that there were half a dozen problems that might arise in the course of theory comparison. The first
obstacle, I said, was that there might be a problem about the sense in which A R and W R were in competition with one other.
But if we could see the two theories as attempts to explain and predict behavior, then we could compare them over that
domain, provided we could describe (a good deal of) behavior in non–question-begging terms that did not commit in advance
to one way of looking at things or the other. I do not think that most Asante people would think of talk of the interior states of
people as simply a way of predicting and explaining behavior; that is not surprising, given that most Westerners would not think
of their theory of the person that way either. After all, it seems more natural to describe much of what is going on here as
attempts to describe the behavior of the sunsum, for example, which is not at all the same thing as describing the behavior of a
person. And, similarly, most people in the United States do not think that references to, say, “love,” are just ways of helping to
explain and predict what their lovers will do. They care about whether they are loved, not just about
whether their loved ones will behave like lovers. (I shall return to this point again later.)
But even though the users of A R and W R do not think of them behavioristically, we might be interested in the question of which
did better by this criterion. It is, after all, an intrinsically interesting question who gets more of the behavior of more people right.
Here we move out of the realm of conceptual into more obviously empirical matters. But I rather suspect the answer to the
question who does better, will turn out to be something like this: people who use A R are better at predicting the behavior of
other users of A R; and those who use W R do better with other W R users. There are at least two reasons why this is likely to be
so. One is banal: people know more about the people in their own society than they do about people in others. The other is a
little deeper. One of the reasons people act the way they do is because they have the theories of the person that they do. You
are more likely to behave like a preference-maximizing utility consumer after doing an introduction to economics. Whereas, if
you are an A R-user, you are more likely to believe your sunsum met your boyfriend's last night, even if you do not remember it
at first (especially if he gives you that flashing smile because, unlike you, he does remember his dreams). You may thus end up
behaving as AR predicts.
One consequence of these facts—neither of them, I think, very profound—is that the choice opting for A R over W R will have
among its consequences that we come to think of ourselves and others differently and thus behave differently.
Now both of these theories get many, many things wrong from the point of view of behavior prediction. Both get many things
right. And, of course, while the class of things that one gets right (like the class that it gets wrong) overlaps with the class that
the other gets right (or wrong), they are not coextensive. Sometimes one does better, sometimes another. It is hard, I think, to
make an overall comparison. Furthermore, if our criterion is truth, neither does very well, even over the limited domain of
behavior. That makes the suggestion that we should base our decision on which one gets the most truth about behavior seem
eccentric at best.
We have reached my second obstacle: not knowing what criteria to use. It is not that there are no standards (beyond truth)
against which to test these pictures of the person, but that there are many.
One obvious further criterion is something like “truth to introspective experience.” Do I sometimes feel as if someone else has
control of my body? 2 If so, does W R have anything to say about why I feel like this? If not, that suggests that, for these
purposes, A R does a better job.
Another is consilience with the rest of what we believe about the natural world. There is no doubt that contemporary natural
science does a terrific job of managing, explaining, and predicting many things in our world; better, I think it will be
acknowledged by most Asantes, than many of the older theories that were developed in Asante. To the extent that one of our
theories of the person is easier to fit into that broader picture, that might be thought to weigh in its favor.
At this point, however, we have reached a situation (which I labeled obstacle 3 at the start) where we have a bunch of criteria
that point in different directions and we do not know how to weigh their relative importance. And it is at this point that some
will want to insist that the right thing to do is to turn to verisimilitude and ask, head on, which of the theories is closer to the truth.
Here we meet my obstacle 4. For, as we have seen, it is likely that one of the theories is closer in its predictions in some areas
and the other is closer in others, and we do not know how to decide which area matters more (or by how much) and so we
are back with trying to find criteria independent of verisimilitude. We also face obstacle 5: for the theories differ in ways that
mean the notion of relative distance from the truth is not easy to apply.
How to Proceed?
I have not made a very serious effort actually to overcome my five obstacles because, as I said, the issues are heavily empirical
(and, I should add, the tests have mostly not been done). But I have also not made much of an effort because, as I mentioned
at the start, there is a sixth obstacle to theory comparison, which I put by saying: “The two theories themselves play a role in
our understanding of what their uses are: and so there may seem to be no non–question-begging way of comparing them.”
Now, here is the problem in the particular case of A R and W R. All my discussion so far, in terms of criteria for assessing the
theories, has involved discussion of such matters as evidence, belief, and purposes. When you are trying to decide whether to
adopt a theory, you are asking what grounds you will act on, for what purposes; what you will
be willing to believe and the like. But purposes and beliefs are among the sorts of thing that theories of the person are about. In
particular, to return to an earlier example, if my purpose is to discover whether you love me, the content of what matters to me
is specified in part by the very theory that I am trying to evaluate.
If I am right, it is not at all easy to see what non–question-begging arguments can be given for preferring AR to W R (or vice
versa). As a result, giving up on our Asante concepts of the person is going to be premature, at best. Given that they have
functioned successfully in the management of social relations for a long while, they are, at least, good for something. And, since
social relations in Asante continue to strike both Asante and non-Asante people as having some attractive features, giving up on
concepts that are clearly somehow partially constitutive of those relations needs to be justified by something better than the
thought that our theories (like everybody else's) are incorrect. To give them up would be to give them up in exchange for
something else. It is hard to see what argument could be made for such a wholesale substitution over the development of new
insights within the existing framework. This will be worthwhile not only for us in Asante—improving theories in various respects
is always desirable, by definition; the question is what counts as an improvement—but also for people generally. For, just as
some useful discoveries—that you can make some sad people less sad with Prozac—developed within WR, there is no reason
to doubt that different useful discoveries could be made within A R. In the long run, it will turn out, I am sure, that people will
decide there is no sunsum; but I am equally convinced that eventually we shall lose our belief in the mind.
1. These notions are to be found in the writings of R. S. Rattray, who was the first ethnographer to give a written account of
Asante ideology; and they can be confirmed by discussion with people in Asante today; see R. S. Rattray, Ashanti (London:
Oxford University Press, 1955), 46. They are discussed also by Wiredu in Richard Wright, African Philosophy: An
Introduction, 3rd ed. (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984), 141 and Kwame Gyekye in “Akan Language and
the Materialism Thesis,” Studies in Language 1.1 (1977):
237–44; and also in his African Philosophical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
2. In the epilog to In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992),
I described a moment when I certainly felt this way.
3 Truth and an African Language
Since my thinking about the meaning of truth has been conditioned by both a formal training in Western ideas and an originally
informal education in an African way of thinking, I would like in this discussion to work my way through both environments. I
start from the Western angle.
We all, not unlike St. Augustine in the matter of time, understand very well what truth is until we are asked for a philosophical
elucidation. Trivially, truth is what is so. But what is the nature of the what and of the being so? Thus interrogated,
philosophers are quickly driven to a Babel of theories.
Consider the first of these two enigmas. It is agreed on all hands that it is an item of discourse rather than a slab of reality that
may or may not be so. The question is: “What exactly is the unit of discourse that is susceptible of those characterizations?”
Some say it is a sentence, others that it is a proposition, and still others that it is a judgment, a claim, a belief, or different from
all these, that it is an idea. Frontal onslaughts on this issue have seemed, traditionally, to get bogged down in logical and
ontological obscurities. Let us therefore try an indirect approach, utilizing a thought of Tarski with what might, perhaps, be
considered an un-Tarskian intention. It was a basic part of Tarski's “semantic” theory of truth that any definition of truth that
had any pretense of material adequacy must of necessity imply all equivalences of the form
“Snow is black” is true if and only if snow is black.
The intuitive persuasiveness of this suggestion consists in the fact that it depicts at once with clarity, simplicity, and
concreteness the basic logical form of the idea of something being so. The semantic unit enclosed in quotes illustrates a
something whose being so is exemplified by the second component of the equivalence. But to depict the logical form of an
idea is not to explain it. And it may justly, therefore, be said that even with all the supplementary elaborations and refinements,
Tarski's completed theory provides a rigorous depiction of the logical form of truth predication but not an elucidation of its
philosophical import. (Actually, in at least some of his moods Tarski himself was not averse to this minimal, if not minimalist,
construal of his construct. 1) The logical depiction, to be sure, may be a tremendous achievement in itself. But if explanation is
our objective, then it is obvious, by the same token, that what we need is some account of the epistemic status, or, if it comes
to that, the ontological significance of the two sides of the equivalence.
In particular, it should be quite clear that some such account of the second component is necessary from our (premeditated)
variation on the actual sentence employed by Tarski in his equivalence. As is well known, Tarski's equivalence in his 1944
article 2 was,
“Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.
Because readers are likely to think that snow is, in fact, white, they are likely to perceive the second component of the
equivalence as having the status of a revelation rather than a judgment from some point of view or perspective. But there is
nothing sacrosanct about Tarski's particular example, and our particular substitute example has the following significance.
Since, by all appearances, snow is not black, the standing of the second component in our chosen instance of Tarski's
equivalence is easily seen to be, not revelatory but, on the contrary, essentially perspectival. This is reinforced by a simple
structural consideration: The equivalence ‘“Snow is black” is true if and only if snow is black’ logically implies the conditional ‘If
snow is black then “Snow is black” is true.’ From this it is plain that the thought that snow is black, which held the position of a
consequent in the equivalence and now serves as an antecedent, is just that, a thought. But it is a thought that stands in a
certain relation with the thought that occurs in the other component (of the equivalence or the conditional, as the case may be).
The nature of this relationship is the most important issue in the theory of truth. It turns out, not surprisingly, that the traditional
theories of truth in Western philosophy may be
seen as involving varying responses to this demand. To see the problem in this way is already to demystify it. Here are the
resulting schemata of demystification.
(1) Correspondence theory:
a. “p” is true if and only if it is a fact that p.
b. Instance: “Snow is Black” is true if and only if it is a fact snow is black
(2) Coherence theory:
a. “p” is true if and only if it coheres with our system of beliefs that p.
b. Instance: “Snow is black” is true if and only if it coheres with our received system of beliefs to hold that snow is black.
(3) Pragmatic theory (in Dewey's formulation):
a. “p” is true if and only if it is warrantably assertible that p.
b. Instance: “Snow is white” is true if and only it is warrantably assertible that snow is white.
These proposals are, of course, merely, suggestive until explanations are supplied for the concepts of fact, correspondence,
coherence, warranted assertibility, and “our” system of beliefs, an undertaking that, in each case, has proved to be studded
However, an interesting affinity between the coherence and pragmatic theories already leaps to the eye. In both theories, truth
is a matter, not of the reference of a sentence, but of its logical and cognitive affiliations. In both theories, moreover, as I shall
suggest later, the litmus test for truth amounts to the same thing, when properly conceived. By contrast, the correspondence
theory, in so far as it goes beyond schema (1), seems to suggest that a true sentence is one that, by itself and as a whole, bears
a certain relation to something noncognitive. It is clear why a typical correspondence theorist will not be content with that
schema. To take the given instance of the schema, both of its two components, namely, ‘“Snow is black” is true’ and ‘It is a
fact that snow is black’ look, structurally, too much like claims, and would therefore be thought to be apt to communicate the
impression that the correspondence relation is “merely” a relation between propositions. On the contrary, the message of the
theory seems to be that the equivalence schema holds only because a true sentence refers to a “nonlinguistic” reality. More
interestingly, the referring seems often to be thought of as isomorphic in the manner of a picture. A sentence is true if and only if
it accurately pictures the given portion of reality, point for point. The Wittgenstein of the Tractatus is famous for the picture
theory of propositions (among other things). In fact, it does not begin with him. It only reaches its reductio ad absurdum with
A veritably pictorial conception of the correspondence relation is already present in Russell's Philosophical Essays:
When we judge that Charles I died on the scaffold, we have before us (not one object but) several objects, namely, Charles I
and dying and the scaffold. Similarly, when we judge that Charles I died in his bed, we have before us Charles I, dying, and his
bed.…Thus in this view, judgment is a relation of the mind to several other terms: when these other terms have inter se a ‘
corresponding’ relation, the judgment is true; when not, it is false.
In his later thinking, as in Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits and My Philosophical Development, Russell did not
abide by the ontological literalness of this account, though he never abandoned the correspondence theory. He retained to the
end the idea that truth has to do with the reference of our judgments to reality. The same idea is found in Austin's
over-conventionalized formulation of the correspondence theory. According to him, “A statement is said to be true when the
historic state of affairs to which it is correlated by the demonstrative conventions (the one to which it ‘refers’) is of a type with
which the sentence used in making it is correlated by the descriptive conventions” (my italics). 4 Reference, it seems fair to say,
is the basic semantical idea of the correspondence theory. But it is also its basic defect. Pictorial reference merely aggravates
the problem. So let us just consider reference. Quite evidently, reference is an indispensable category in the analysis of
meaningful discourse. Our utterances, inscriptions, and gestures are, in themselves, merely physical occurrences. Their human
interest is due to the fact that they frequently signify something. What they signify may direct our attention to objects or
situations or to the products of abstraction or of the imagination. Involved here are the categories of sign, signification, and
reference (objectual or otherwise). Thus, the sign “table” signifies a table. It does not, of course, signify a particular table, but
rather the idea or concept of a table. It is this idea that refers to the particular table before which I am sitting. The association of
the sign with the idea is a purely conventional relation. Languages other than English and its derivatives employ other signs for
the same purpose. But, given this significational investiture, it is no longer a matter of convention whether in the present “historic
state of affairs” I am sitting before a table or a rock. In other words, there is nothing conventional about whether the concept of
a table applies or refers to the object before which I am sitting.
“Table” then, has signification and reference. Moreover, it has an objectual reference; that is, what it refers to is an object or
something having to do with objects. By contrast, there are signs, such as “moral concepts” whose signification refers, not to
objects, but to concepts. 5 In this case the referents are such concepts as ‘honesty,’ ‘impartiality,’ ‘justice,’ etc. By still another
contrast, “unicorn” has signification but no reference, since (by all the zoological, as opposed to the mythological, reports) there
are no such quadrupeds.
We will have occasion to recur later to the foregoing analysis of reference. But one thing to notice at once in all this is that what
refers or fails to refer is the signification of a sign or concatenation of signs, not a statement. The signification of a sign is a
meaning, an idea, a concept (simple or complex). We might therefore recast our previous statement by saying that it is a
concept rather than a sentence or statement that may or may not refer. Consider the sentence, “The table in the room is
brown.” (For my purposes here, I will use “sentence,” “proposition,” “assertion,” “statement,” and “judgment”
interchangeably.) It is clear, even pre-analytically, that the sentence makes the claim that the concept “brown” applies to, or
refers to, the table in the room. It is clear, at the same level of reflection, moreover, that to say that the sentence itself refers to
the brown table is to embark on an incoherent multiplication of words. For it would amount to saying that the claim that the
concept “brown” refers to the table in the room refers to the table in the room. It makes sense to say that a concept refers to
an object or situation; it does not make sense to say that the claim that the concept refers to the object or situation itself refers
to the object or situation.
More technically, a declarative sentence, which is what “The table in the room is brown” syntactically is, typically contains
some form of a finite verb that gives it the force of a declaration, a contention, a claim. This aspect of a sentence cannot refer
to anything outside the sentence; it is what makes the mental process being symbolized a declarative propositional attitude. In
our example it is equivalent to answering “Yes” to the question “Is the table in the room brown?” This “yes” element
corresponds to what makes the difference between the idea of the table in the room being brown and “The table in the room
is brown.” The early twentieth-century English logician W. E. Johnson called it the assertive tie. 6 Let us just call it the assertive
or declarative element. In inquiry the arrival of the assertive element indicates the concluding phase of the process. An inquiry,
by the way, need not be a grand
enterprise; just looking to see whether the table in the room is brown is as good an example of inquiry as any. Let us call the
participial formulation that results from subtracting the assertive element from a sentence its ideational content.
Our point now is that it is the ideational content of a sentence that may or may not refer, not the sentence as a whole. The
assertive element does not contribute to the referential relation; it merely declares it (positively or negatively). To suppose, as
the correspondence theory does, that a sentence as a whole may refer is to mix the declarative function with the referential
relation. This is the basic error of the correspondence theory of truth.
Let it be noted that the objection being urged against the correspondence theory (as commonly understood) is not that it
wrongly talks of the correspondence of something linguistic to something nonlinguistic. The claim of correspondence, as should
be clear from our discussion above, is a claim of reference. That it is possible for our linguistic formulations to refer to objects
or situations or states of affairs is not only a presupposition of any theory of truth that is even slightly more perspicacious than
utter madness, it is also the basis of any sort of meaningful discourse. Unless our thought and talk sometimes referred to objects
and situations—let us call these collectively reality—the least of our infelicities would be an enforced inability to communicate.
More ominously, we would not even survive as human beings. Transitions from the linguistic to the nonlinguistic and also from
the linguistic to the linguistic are the commonest thing in discourse. The second type of transition is apt to escape too referential
an approach to the concept of truth, such as is encouraged by the correspondence theory. That kind of transition is exemplified
in our discussion of reference given above by the transition from the notion of moral concepts (as signification) to specific
moral concepts such as honesty, impartiality, and justice (as referents). I will return to that second transition in due course. But
it is important to be clear about the importance of the first type of transition. The concern for truth is, in many spheres of
cognition, a concern with the reference of our thought to reality. The correspondence theory is not at fault in insisting on this.
The problem with that theory consists in misconceiving the nature of the structures of thought involved in the referring relation;
which is what we have explained above.
In terms of the explanation just alluded to, it would be recalled, it is the ideational content of a sentence, not the sentence itself,
that may or may not refer to reality. It might be thought that this is semantical
caviling. After all, so might go the reasoning, we could establish the convention that a sentence refers to reality if and only if its
ideational content refers to reality. This is actually close to some ways of talking about reference in ordinary discourse. But,
philosophically, this could be seriously misleading, unless it is borne in mind that while it would be only by convention that a
sentence may be said to refer, it is not by any manner of convention that the ideational content of a sentence may be said to
refer. It is by the very nature of thought and things that this latter is so.
But a much graver consequence can flow from speaking incautiously of the reference of sentences. One is led in that way to
suppose that what we do in inquiry is to try to figure out whether sentences or statements, antecedently available to us, refer to
reality or not. The model of inquiry operative here is what I have previously called the shopper's model of belief-formation. 7 It
is as if beliefs were displayed on hangers in a belief store and epistemic customers just needed to select ones with suitable truth
In fact, however, we do not always start an inquiry with a sentence proposed for our consideration. And even when such a
sentence is to hand, it does not, for the given inquirer, have the force of a commitment. This is something that fixation on
Tarski-type equivalences has helped to conceal from many philosophical seekers after truth. In the equivalence ‘“Snow is
white” is true if and only if snow is white,’ we seem to be supplied with a sentence due for truth inspection. But, actually, the
quotation marks around it eliminate its assertive force, which is only restored by the “is true” attached to it. This process of
restoration, hypothetical in the context of the equivalence, standardly, marks the conclusion of the given inquiry. Tarski and his
followers and even non-followers in many cases did not notice all this. Consequently, it has seemed as if in asking the question
of truth we are always in possession of a sentence corresponding to the first component of a Tarski equivalence.
On the contrary, a little attention to the conditions of inquiry should make it clear that frequently we start inquiry without an
antecedent suggestion. Often inquiry is provoked by a question, a problem, a puzzle, and we are thrown upon our own
imaginative resources in generating competing ideas out of a sense of the given situation. That idea which, of all those to hand,
leads to a solution of the problem is the one that brings us to truth. To obtain a solution is simply to be able to conclude an
inquiry with a warranted judgment, by the lights, of course, of the given inquirer.
But notice that the logical syntax of that prosperous outcome of inquiry is not that of ordinary truth predication but of judgment
construction. (The significance of the word “ordinary” here will emerge later.) In other words, the result attained is most
naturally formulated not as “P is true,” since, by hypothesis, there was no “P” to be evaluated, but simply as “P.” Such a “P” is,
however, structurally more laden with information than the “p”s and “q”s of truth-functional logic. These range over functions,
not judgments, and I adopt here the convention of representing them by small letters. As a variable, “p” is merely a function. It
is the function that takes the values “truth” when “truth” is assigned to it and “falsity” when “falsity” is assigned to it. In itself it is
value-free, incomplete, in the language of Frege, unsaturated. Accordingly, in prose it can only, as the Frege of the
Begriffsschrift indicated, stand for a participial phrase, such as “The circumstance that unlike magnetic poles attract one
another” (Frege's example). In the early Frege, and rightly so, the function “p” does not stand for a declarative sentence, such
as “Unlike magnetic poles attract one another.” Such a semantic unit is only obtained by assigning the value “truth” to the
function. 8 Thus P=df. Tp, which in our present symbolism is the result of assigning the truth-value “T” to the function “p.” Note,
therefore, that the function is of a participial character. Syntactically, exactly the same is the case with the ideas that propel
inquiry, as noted earlier; they are participial explorations of relevant possibilities. For example, in a particular inquiry, the idea of
unlike magnetic forces attracting each other may be the driving force. Hence, the assignment of a truth-value to a function
corresponds, intuitively, to the construction of a warranted judgment from an idea in the process of successful inquiry.
Dewey called truth in this sense warranted assertibility. In essence, if not in idiom, this conception of truth is basic also to the
pragmatism of Pierce and of James (in his fleeting moments of rigor). Truth in this sense is internal to the constitution of
warranted judgment. It may be called truth in the primary sense. Given a truth determination in this sense, a corresponding
truth predication is automatic when the appropriate judgment is proposed for consideration. That is, if our inquiry has already
warranted the truth-value assignment that converts the idea of unlike magnetic forces attracting each other into the
judgment “Unlike magnetic forces attract each other,” then we are automatically in a position to greet this sentence with the
comment “It is true.” It is at this level that truth discourse takes the form ‘P is true.’ Since there is a comparison of judgments in
the picture, we may speak here of
a comparative concept of truth. This is the nature of truth in its ordinary, garden variety, though without the primary variety it
will not exist.
In the primary sense truth, for any judicious pragmatism, is the ‘idea,’ that works (i.e., that leads to the solution of the problem
under investigation), not the belief that works, which latter, if it were proposed, would be but a recipe for wishful thinking.
Studying the “consequences” (Dewey's word) of an idea, for example, of Smith having stolen the missing eggs, for the
investigation of the matter of some stolen eggs may enable us to crack the mystery. In that case, we are brought to the position
of being able to assert warrantably, “Smith stole the eggs.” The idea, in this instance, has worked, and the “working” was a
cognitive process. On the other hand, whether the belief that Smith stole the eggs will work for (the happiness) of Smith's
grandmother, for example, is of no cognitive interest for the inquiry concerning the eggs, though it could have quite ramifying
psychological consequences. Truth, then, has to do with the cognitive utility of ideas in inquiry (ideas being understood in the
technical sense explained earlier), not with the impact of specific beliefs on human fortunes. This was one of the most important
points made by Dewey in his magisterial review of James's Pragmatism. 9 .
Another point that has needed to be made is that to be warranted is not necessarily to be true except from an identical point of
view. This rider disables an objection treasured by critics of the Deweyan theory of truth. 10 It is often pointed out that a
proposition warrantably assertible at its time of birth may be conclusively shown to be false at a later time. Even so, we still
can, at that latter vantage point, recognize the statement to have been warrantably assertible. From this it is thought to follow
that a statement can be both warrantably assertible and false, contrary to Dewey and followers. But here there is a non
sequitur, which thrives on inattention to a subtlety about tenses. No statement has been shown to be both warranted and false.
The warrant belongs to a past point of view, the falsity to a present one. The statement was warranted but is now no longer so.
We can, indeed, from our vantage point say that the statement was false even though it was warranted. But to say that a
statement was warranted does not necessarily commit one to it.
Truth, however, entails commitment. Thus, commitment is what truth has over and above warrant. To say that something is (or
was) true is to assert not only that it is or was warranted but also that one is committed to it. Tense then makes a difference.
“Was warranted” does not imply “is warranted,” but “was true” implies “is true” (provided, of
course, that we are dealing with complete statements). This excess of meaning that truth has over warrant consists in nothing
more mysterious than commitment. This element of commitment is what the rider just mentioned adds to the idea of warrant in
the pragmatic equation. Thus, the definition is not “‘p’ is true=df. ‘p’ is warrantably assertible” but rather “(‘p’ is true) s1 =df. (‘p
’ is warrantably assertible) s1 ” where the identical subscript indicates an identical point of view. I have used ‘s’ to stand for
“standpoint “ or “point of view.” This is a subtlety that Dewey does not discuss, leaving room for cavils.
The objection to the pragmatic theory on the grounds that a proposition can be warrantably assertible without being true is also
encouraged by a well-entrenched tendency for people to elevate their own current perspectives into Olympian truths. Thus, a
Deweyan pragmatist will be informed that a belief such as that the world is flat may have been warrantably assertible in the long
past but is now known not to be true. The lesson hereby offered is that truth is distinct from warranted assertibility, since some
warrantably assertible propositions are, on this showing, false. Apart from obliviousness to the requirement of the identity of
point of view discussed in the previous paragraph, it is clear that such criticism fails to notice that the statement that the earth is
not flat is simply our current perspective. It is warranted by the best scientific thinking of our time, but it is not categorically
different from a belief. So, if it is a truth, then that “truth” is, in actual constitution, a belief; and like all human cognition fallible.
Proper epistemological modesty, accordingly, would enjoin the recognition that just as the best accredited beliefs of an earlier
time may become refuted errors of our time, our own best beliefs may be similarly overtaken by advancing time. If this is so,
then we can say that the time will, to be sure, can, never come when we shall be in possession of truths, as distinct from
warranted beliefs. Either, then, truth is warranted assertibility or it is a certified impossibility. On the other hand, such fallibilism
seems frequently to be eclipsed in the human consciousness when the occasion is the contrasting of our “truths” with the false
opinions of earlier epochs.
The same tendency to privilege our own opinions lies behind the contention that some propositions can be true while not being
warrantably assertible. What would a concrete instantiation of this alleged possibility look like? If we bear in mind the
requirement of the identity of point of view, implicit in Dewey's pragmatism and explicit in mine, then our task would be to
imagine a situation in which one and the same proposition is held, from one and the same point of view
to be true and yet not warrantably assertible. Since “‘p’ is true” implies ‘p,’ what we have here is somebody asserting ‘p’ and
avowing also that the assertion of ‘p’ is not warranted. But if it is not warranted, why assert it? No account seems available
except in terms of pure arbitrariness. The arbitrariness here consists in seeking to insulate one's belief from all scrutiny. The
strategy seems to be that if it can be made out that the belief is true independently of any basis or warrant then no questions of
justification would be admissible. The plan, however, carries its inconsistency on its face. At least the legitimacy of the strategy
itself is unprotected against inquiry. It is perhaps out of some manner of recognition of this that even those who claim to know
that God exists without any sort of rational reflection, nevertheless, claim to know “by faith.” Their belief is thus, allegedly, not
unwarranted, being “based” on faith. Their belief, in other words, is supposed to be warranted by faith. The examination of this
kind of warrant, however, does not belong here.
Before leaving the question of true propositions not warrantably assertible, it should be observed that warranted assertibility is
not the same as provability. If it were, truth would be scarce in empirical life. The stuff of rational discourse is made of
experiential and experimental reasoning as well as deductive ratiocinations.
The foregoing account suggests the following dual resolution of our first enigma, which concerned the nature of that of which
truth (or falsity) may be predicated. If the subject is truth in the primary sense, our earlier discussion indicates that what is
susceptible to it is an idea in the sense of the ideational content of a given judgment. On the other hand, if the concern is with
truth in the comparative sense, the object of truth predication is an antecedent statement or judgment. But it is one not initially
emanating from the point of view of the inquirer of the given moment but from that of the instigator of the given inquiry. (This
point of view, by the way, may be of the same person, at an earlier time.) This resolution of the first enigma also delivers us
from the second, which is about the notion of being so. It is easy to see, in light of that resolution, that being so consists, in
regard to the primary concept of truth, in an idea's being warranted in rational inquiry, and, in the comparative sense, in a
judgment under review being found to be similarly warranted.
This discussion carries the seeds of a possible unification in the three contending theories of truth noted above. Revisit the
coherence theory for a moment. It cannot be pretended that coherentists, historical or contemporary, have been irresistibly
persuasive in explaining
what coherence is. Yet the coherence that conformity to the canons of rational inquiry confers on the cognitions of a rational
person may be all the coherence needed. If so, the coherence theory coheres nicely with the pragmatic one. Both theories are
founded on the notion of rational inquiry. But rational inquiry is in large part an interaction with the world, external or internal,
and a principal aim of thought is to attain satisfactory reference to it. It can never be overemphasized that in our referential
inquiries our aim is to gain, for our thought, reference to reality. Attaining truth means that the appropriate conceptual constructs
in our thinking have reference to reality. The feeling that the coherence or the pragmatic theory construes truth as a relation
between “mere” propositions betrays a severe misapprehension about the nature of inquiry. Inquiry is not or, at any rate, need
not be the arbitrary spinning of “propositions,” unconnected with those proddings of experience called problems. A proposition
warranted in rational inquiry is frequently the result of the observation of nature and experimentation upon it. Talking, then, of
the coherence of a proposition with our system of beliefs or of its warranted assertibility is often talking of what actually obtains
out there in the world.
Thus, suppose that, for example, “Kaunda is an African” is a warranted judgment. Even by a basic analysis of predicative
language, the sentence might be interpreted as saying that the object named by the word “Kaunda” satisfies the sentential
function “x is an African” (shades of Tarski). Following Frege, 11 we may call ‘x is an African’ a concept and read the sentence
under discussion as saying that the concept of being an African applies or refers or corresponds to the object named. This
secures for us, when generalized, a basic elucidation of referential sentences, which must account for a very large percentage of
the sentences we live by. The thought here is that to say that a sentence of this kind is warranted is to say that its conceptual
content applies or refers to a portion of reality. This reference relation is the legitimate meaning of correspondence. It may be
all the correspondence we need in truth here.
However, not all judgments are referential. Nor are all referential judgments objectual. Both points are evident in the analysis of
reference given earlier. To take the second first, consider the statement “All moral principles are universalizable.” This is
referential, even if hypothetically. But it does not envisage reference to any object or objects out there. Its possible referents
are conceptual. Consequently, the veritable fixation on the transition from the linguistic to the nonlinguistic endemic to the
correspondence theory ill coheres with
examples of this kind. The situation is even worse when we come to statements that are not referential at all. Take a sentence
like “Out of nothing comes nothing” and try to apply Austin's correspondence definition of truth to it. 12 The incongruities
involved in the exercise are, evidently, due to the inapplicability of notions like “historic state of affairs” and “demonstrative
conventions” to such an example. Not surprisingly, Austin was uncomfortable with examples of this kind.
The reader might want at this stage to ask, “If the correspondence theory suffers from this and all the other defects alleged in
this discussion, then why is it so plausible on the face of it?” Any answer must start with an acknowledgment of the plausibility
of the correspondence theory. This plausibility is due partly to a misconception, partly to a misidentification, and partly to a
linguistic peculiarity of English and kindred languages. The misconception consists in construing the frequent need for our
concepts to refer to reality as the need for our sentences to fulfill the same function. This misconception contributes to the
apparent plausibility of the correspondence theory because the need itself for some reference to reality in our thought is
genuine. This matter has been already discussed above at some length.
The misidentification in question consists in the precipitous identification of the correspondence theory with the Tarski-type
formula “‘p’ is true if an only if p.” In fact, that is contrary to Tarski's own view of the equivalence. As far as he was
concerned, this equivalence with, indeed, his entire semantic theory of truth was neutral with respect to the various
epistemological theories of truth. Tarski was right, for, as seen early on in this discussion, the equivalence is common to all the
three theories of truth to which reference has been made above. This is why it is not quite correct to say that Tarski's theory is
an attempt to provide a logically rigorous reconstruction of the correspondence theory. All three theories are, in effect,
interpretations of the equivalence. The plausibility of that equivalence, therefore, cannot rightly be attributed to the
correspondence theory in any proprietary way.
One step in the interpretation of the equivalence in the direction of the correspondence theory is represented by the formula ‘“p”
is true if and only if it is a fact that p.’ As I noted earlier on, this particular equivalence is likely to be thought by many
correspondence theorists to be in need of supplementation. Historically, the supplementation supplied has invoked the idea of a
referential relation between a true proposition and a fact. At peak, this relation metamorphoses into one of picturization.
Nevertheless, the leaner formulation seems frequently to do duty for the correspondence theory
as a whole. In that scenario the correspondence theory acquires considerable plausibility. But that plausibility, as will be shown
later, lacks universality. It depends on the peculiarity of the English language and its cognates.
Thus, we have the following interesting situation. The formula under discussion certainly expresses an undeniable semantic
relationship between the notions of truth and fact, even if its epistemological and ontological reaches are shrouded in
controversy. Certainly, nobody moderately instructed in English will be tempted to deny it. Besides, it is conceptually
informative in a philosophical way, since it elucidates the connection between two notions very fundamental to communicative
discourse. Yet, when the formula is translated into a radically different language, such as my own mother tongue, namely, the
Akan language spoken in parts of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, it reduces to an uninformative tautology, sans all philosophical
pretences. This trivialization of the formula arises from the fact that in Akan the notions of truth and fact may be rendered by
means of one notion, namely, the notion of what is so, nea ete saa. The sentence ‘“p” is true’ may be expressed as ‘“p” te saa’
and “It is a fact that p” as Nea ete ne se p. The expressions (e)te saa and nea ete ne se are just grammatical variants for
rendering the idea of being so. 13 In the upshot, the Akan version of the formula amounts, roughly, to saying something like ‘“p”
is so if and only if what is so is that p,’ which is an unconcealed tautology. To be sure, all tautologies are splendid truths. But
some are conceptually informative, and others are not; and certainly this one is not. From it therefore, no philosophical
enlightenment can be anticipated.
What the foregoing shows is that, although the equivalence “‘p’ is true if and only it is a fact that p” is correct and
philosophically interesting in English, it is truistic in Akan but of no philosophical interest. One might seek to evade this
conclusion by suggesting that if the Akans do not have different verbal formulations for fact and truth, all that this may mean is
that the Akan language is not expressively adequate to the task of rendering these concepts. The following is a simple reason
why this will not do. If the equivalence being discussed holds in English, then whatever can be expressed in English in terms of
“is true” can be expressed in terms of “is a fact.” Since at least, by hypothesis, one of these expressions can be rendered in
Akan, it follows that whatever can be expressed in English by any one of these two concepts can be expressed in Akan. An
even more substantive conclusion follows: If one of the two notions can express every
thought that can be expressed by anyone of them, then, beyond grammatical niceties, what we have is a duality without a
difference. If so, the particular form of the correspondence theory represented by the equivalence under examination is not an
option in the theory of truth in any language like Akan.
This brings us to an interesting intercultural fact about philosophical problems and theses: Some of these are culture relative, or
more specifically, language relative; their existence depends on the peculiarities of some culture or cultures. When the
determining factor is language, I have called this dependency tongue-dependency. 14 Of such a nature is the equivalence thesis
relating truth to fact, and the language involved is English. Probably, all languages generate some tongue-dependent problems
and theses. It therefore behooves every philosopher, whatever his or her language, to watch and pray lest he or she confuse
tongue-dependent issues with universal ones.
The foregoing is not an advocacy of relativism. Tongue-dependent issues do have a universal intelligibility with respect to their
home languages. Moreover, some may be important in their native environments. When that is the case, this fact can be
appreciated by not only native speakers but also non-native ones. Moreover, any philosopher working in a second language is
well advised to apprise him- or herself of the provenance of those problems in relation to that language. Although, both
tongue-dependent and universal problems require the attention of all concerned, the latter are of more importance from a
transcultural standpoint. 15 Because of the historical influence of Western languages and philosophies in Africa, African
philosophers have a special need of the intellectual circumspection just mentioned. With respect to the correspondence theory,
this discussion shows that this circumspection can only come of careful attention to our various vernaculars in philosophical
1. Alfred Tarski, “The Semantic Conception of Truth and the Foundations of Semantics,” Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research (1944). Reprinted in H. Feigl and W. Sellars, eds., Readings in Philosophical Analysis (New York:
Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1949) and in many other anthologies.
3. Bertrand Russell, Philosophical Essays (London: Allen and Unwin, 1966), 153. I have quoted and commented on this
formulation in “Truth in the Akan Language” in my Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).
4. J. L. Austin, “Truth,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Suppl. 24 (1950). Reprinted in George Pitcher, Truth
(Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964).
5. It is usual to speak of the reference of a sign rather than the reference of the signification of a sign. However, this seems to
encourage some people to proceed as if signs in themselves can refer. The artificiality of our diction is motivated by
premonition of such an error.
6. W. E. Johnson, Logic (New York: Dover, 1964). First edition 1921.
7. Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 213.
8. Gottlob Frege, Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, trans. Peter Geach and Max Black
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1960).
9. John Dewey, “What Pragmatism Means by Practical,” in Essays in Experimental Logic (New York: Dover, 1916).
10. Another objection, even more prestigious than this, was urged by Rudolf Carnap in his “Truth and Confirmation.” (See H.
Feigl and W. Sellars, Readings in Philosophical Analysis [New York: Appleton-Century-Croft, 1949].) The argument is
this. By the law of excluded middle, every proposition is either true or false. If “‘p’ is true” means “ ‘p’ is warrantably
assertible,” then, given any proposition, either it or its negation is warrantably assertible. But this is incorrect, since there are
propositions whose truth or falsity we do not know. In fact, a decade before Carnap wrote, Dewey, in effect, forestalled this
objection in his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1938), by pointing out that the logic
of inquiry is three- rather than two-valued. There is the true, the false, and the problematic.
11. Frege, Translations from the Philosophical Writings, chap. 2 “Function and Concept.”
12. If this example is too metaphysical for you, take “Two plus two equals four.”
13. I have discussed this translation in “The Concept of Truth in the Akan Language” in Cultural Universals and Particulars.
The Akan classicist and philosopher J. T. Bedu-Addo does not accept it, but his own translation of “It is a fact that” supports
my claim that in Akan both “It is a fact that” and “It is true that” are rendered in terms of the same notion. According to him,
“the best translation of the English sentence [‘It is a fact that it is raining’] is: Eye nokware se nsu reto. (Literally, ‘it is true that
it is raining’).” See “On the Concept of Truth in Akan,” in Philosophy in Africa: Trends and Perspectives, ed. P. O.
Bodunrin (Ile-Ife, Nigeria: University of Ife Press, 1985), 76. Notice that in this translation the same phrase Eye nokware se
translates both “It is a fact that” and “It is true that.”
14. See, e.g., my Cultural Universals and Particulars, chap. 7, p. 101ff.
15. That there are universal problems is easily understood (ibid.).
4 An Outline of a Theory of Destiny
In “Destiny, Personality, and the Ultimate Reality of Human Existence: A Yoruba Perspective,” “God, Destiny and Social
Injustice: A Critique of a Yoruba Ifa Belief,” and African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary
African Realities, I grappled with the concept of destiny as it features in Yoruba philosophical discourse. My approach in
those essays has been to situate the concept in the contexts in which it gets applied and to draw the philosophical implications
of its usage in such contexts. In this regard, one cannot shy away from its ethnological foundation, its religious-spiritual
dimensions, and its socio-political consequences. In this essay, I will pursue the discussion further, paying particular attention to
some objections that have been raised since the appearance of the first two essays.
My contention is the following: The Yoruba concept of destiny is a complex one. It may be suggested, as some have, that this
complexity is probably the source of the problems that scholars have identified with it. If we are able to understand its
complexity, the argument may proceed, the problems might dissolve, and the objections that have been raised against it may
turn out to be unwarranted. While I agree with the first part of this observation, regarding the complexity of the concept, I do
not share the optimism of the latter part. It is simpleminded enthusiasm and unnecessary nationalistic fervor to try to patch up
problems that are quite obvious from the vantage point of philosophy. At least, so I will argue.
Odu Corpus and Two Stories
In the Odu Corpus, there are at least two references to the concept of destiny as it features in traditional Yoruba philosophy,
and I do not think one needs a serious argument to support the claim that there is no better starting point for this discussion than
the literature of Ifa. The concept of destiny has its raison d'être in Ifa. But, of course, the clarity of its treatment of the concept
is another matter.
In Ogbegunda, the story of how ori is chosen in orun (heaven), and its irrevocability once chosen, is told. It is the story of
three friends—Oriseeku (the son of Ogun), Orileemere (the son of Ija), and Afuwape (the son of Orunmila). Obatala had
finished molding their physical bodies, and they were ready to go to the house of Ajala, the heavenly potter of ori, to choose
their ori. The three friends were warned by their friends to go directly to the house of Ajala and not to break their journey for
any reason. While the other two friends took this advice seriously, and went straight to the house of Ajala, the third, Afuwape,
decided to first see his father before going to choose his ori. Oriseeku and Orileemere got to the house of Ajala first and
picked the ori of their choice, and proceeded straight to the earth. Afuwape got to his father and met with a group of divination
priests, divining for his father. These diviners advised Afuwape to perform some sacrifice so that he would choose a good ori.
He did, and he went his way to the house of Ajala. Though he met some obstacles on the way, he overcame them all,
apparently due to the sacrifice he had performed. He chose a good ori, with the help of Ajala, and he was able to succeed in
life. His two friends, Oriseeku and Orileemere, did not make a good choice and were never successful in life. The choice of
each was a burden to the end of their lives.
The second reference is in Ogunda Meji, an Odu, which confirms the importance of ori to a person. In the story each of the
gods (major and minor) is asked if he or she is willing to follow his or her devotee to the grave, to literally die with his or her
devotee. None of them is willing, not even Orunmila, who then concludes that it is only a person's ori that can go with him or
her to the grave. Literally, “ori” means head, and the conclusion is therefore literally true: The head of a dead person is never
cut off before the person is buried. But it is also meant to be an idiomatic truth: Ori is a god, just as Ogun or Oya. But more
than this too, the Yoruba believe that a person's ori is his or her paramount god. Therefore the story concludes that no orisa
a person without the consent of the person's ori; and we should therefore leave other orisa alone and worship only our ori.
In these two stories, we have the conundrum of the concept of destiny. I can identify at least seven fundamental questions that
have to be addressed to make sense of the concept. First, is the choice of ori, the same as the choice of destiny? Second, is
there really a choice involved? Third, does the concept of responsibility have a role in the explication of the concept? Fourth,
does the concept allow for connection between destinies, for instance, between mother and daughter? If so, does this happen
by accident or by design? Fifth, how does the belief in reincarnation affect the concept of destiny? Sixth, is there only personal
destiny or is there also communal destiny? Seventh, what is the significance of destiny, and is the belief in destiny rational? I will
address each of these questions as a basis for a coherent theory of destiny.
Ori and Destiny
Ori, in Yoruba language, means head. What has it then to do with destiny? Ori is an important part in the makeup of the human
person. Emi and okan are the others. Ori, like okan, has a dual character. It refers to the physical head, which is considered
vital to the physical status of a person. It is, for instance, the seat of the brain. But when a typical Yoruba person talks about ori
, he or she is more often than not, making reference to a non-physical component of his or her person. For there is a
conception of an ori, in which it is believed to be the bearer of a person's destiny as well as the determinant of personality.
How does this element come into the picture?
There is a common agreement in the tradition and in its literature about the makeup of the human being. According to this
tradition, the human being is made (created?) by the combined effort of Obatala, the maker of the physical body, and
Olodumare, the Supreme Being, who gives emi, the life force or soul. Emi is a nonmaterial force responsible for life. Its
presence ensures life and its absence means death. But the emi is itself immortal, and it may reincarnate in another body. The
problem this belief raises for the concept of destiny will be discussed later. Okan, the other component of the human person,
also has a dual nature. It is at times material and at others nonmaterial. In its former nature, it is the heart; in its latter nature, it is
the mind, as a center of consciousness responsible for thinking, desiring, wishing, deliberating,
etc. As such, its contents include ero (thought), ife-okan (desire), eru (fear), etc. 2
After Olodumare has put the emi in place, the newly created body-plus-emi proceeds to the house of Ajala, the potter of ori,
to acquire an ori, as in the case of the three friends referred to earlier. (Figuratively, we may imagine Ajala's house as a
compound in the palatial block of Olodumare and the fashioning of persons as a division of labor between the three: Obatala,
Olodumare, and Ajala). It is not without reason that Obatala is referred to as eleda (maker) and Ajala is referred to as alamo
ti n mori (the potter who makes the ori). Ori is the bearer of each person's destiny. This is not the same as the physical head;
though, for a reason that has to do with the important role of the latter in the life of a person, it is taken as a symbolic
representation of an inner head, which is then taken to be the bearer of destiny. This inner head is ori-inu, or simply ori.
Therefore, though ori is not identical with destiny, it is its bearer, and as such, the remote controller of a person's life.
Destiny is the preordained set of outcomes of life, wound and sealed up in the ori. Every human being is believed to have an
allotment, and it determines what they will be in life. It determines the general course of life. Ori is its bearer and receptacle,
and therefore its controller, hence the rationale for the claim in the second story that no orisa blesses a person without the
consent of his or her ori. For since ori controls destiny, and since destiny is the allotment of a person in life, even if one
performs sacrifice to the orisa, there is no guarantee unless one's requests are compatible with one's destiny.
An objection has been raised against treating ori as an entity by itself. It is suggested that ori is merely another term for destiny,
and that, as such, it “means quite little more than that some things are unavoidable by virtue of our birth and circumstances of
life.” 3 The problem with this way of interpreting the concept is that it abandons the structure of the belief in favor of a
“contemporary” account. This is clear from his argument that “as classical responses to the need to account for personhood,
these explanations (from Yoruba Ifa verses) cannot be foisted on contemporary Yoruba thought as changes have been
necessitated by new experiences.” 4 What Bewaji seems to be missing is this: If we are reviewing a traditional account, we must
state the belief as it features in the system before we attempt any credible critique in light of “new experience.” Or must we
impose our own belief on the traditional belief system even when we resist “foisting” a traditional account on contemporary
thought? But this is what he has done, especially in his accounts of ori, emi, and destiny. For
him, ori is destiny. But ori is not a spiritual entity. Therefore ori is not the bearer of destiny, and the embodied emi is the
chooser of destiny. But if ori is destiny, then emi is the chooser of ori. Now, Bewaji also argues that a person could not have
had emi or life or soul prior to conception. And since emi (in his account) chooses destiny, it follows that no destiny could have
been determined prior to conception. Finally, for Bewaji, emi cannot survive the demise of the body. Therefore no one can
have a built-in destiny to join any ancestors after death. 5 Obviously, this interpretation is an attempt to modernize the concept
of destiny. Even as such it fails, because Bewaji has to be able to locate emi in the makeup of a fetus for his account to make
“modern” sense. And of course, to be consistently modern, he has to provide an account of how, where, and when this emi
I find Bewaji's position puzzling, to say the least. On the one hand, he objects to my interpretation of the traditional belief
because he thinks that I accept the mythical account of tradition. Yet he wants to impose a “modern” account on the traditional
source of the belief—to give it a modern twist. On the other hand, however, when I criticize the belief in its traditional form in
my “God, Destiny, and Social Injustice,” Bewaji also has problems with my critique because, according to him, it is from a
modern liberal perspective, while he would rather take into account “the religious-pragmatic alternatives” in Yoruba thought.
Well, I find it interesting that one can coherently reject a “mythical account” and at the same time take seriously a
Ori, Destiny, and the Problem of Choice
How does a person get his or her destiny? Is it by choice? Or is it by imposition? There are various conflicting accounts in the
interpretive literature, due largely to the existence of numerous accounts in the traditional literature, including the literature of Ifa
itself. One has to pay attention to all in the interest of full understanding, even if it leaves the puzzle largely unsolved. Three
accounts stand out: ayanmo, akunleyan, and akunlegba. Others are either variants of these three or synonyms for destiny.
Thus, ipin and kadara are synonyms for ori. They are not alternative ways of getting destiny as Bewaji appears to think. So I
Literally, ayanmo means “that which is chosen and affixed to one.” Here we have an idea that destiny is chosen and affixed.
We do not, however, have an idea of who does the choosing. It is either the deity or the human. If it is the deity, then the
problem of choice does not arise. But the problem of responsibility arises. For, if I do not myself choose my destiny, and it is
chosen for me, what right does anyone have to blame me for being what I have been predestined to be without any input from
me? If I do the choosing, the problem arises about what kind of choice it is that an unconscious entity makes. I will go into this
Akunlegba literally means “that which is received while kneeling.” Here, destiny is conceived as the portion that is imposed on
one, most likely by the deity. One just receives it, and one has no choice in what it turns out to be. In this conception of destiny,
the problem of choice does not arise, but the problem of responsibility can be raised.
Akunleyan means “that which one kneels down to choose.” Here it is the human entity that makes a choice of a particular
destiny. In the first story, this is the model of destiny that is used. Afuwape and the others make their choices. One could
picture the procedure this way. The body-plus-emi entity goes to the house of Ajala. There are numerous ori-inu (inner heads)
with various destinies sealed up in them. The body-plus-emi entity looks around the room before making a choice of one. In
the Afuwape story, we are told that Afuwape was looking for one that is beautiful on the outside. But Ajala helped him to pick
a good one. This is the consequence of his having performed the sacrifice as recommended by the divination priests. In any
case, the emphasis here is on choice, and this is what creates the problem of choice. How so?
Choice presupposes freedom and the availability of genuine alternatives. None of these conditions is present in the case of the
“choice” of destiny. The body-plus-emi entity is unfree, since he or she has to have a destiny. So he or she cannot avoid
making a “choice” and cannot walk away. Second, this entity is unfree to choose in the sense that the entity has no personality,
without which it is impossible to
have preferences of life patterns. Destiny is what confers personality; for it is what confers tastes and preferences, important
elements of personality. But without a specific personality, one has no basis for choice. Third, this being has no full information
to make a choice. There is no recitation of what is in each of the ori. So this being has no basis for comparison between them,
without which it is impossible to make a real choice. Finally, there are no genuine alternatives, since there is no way of
differentiating in any intelligent way between the ori, at least as far as their real essence is concerned. On the outside, each ori
looks exactly like the other. With all these observations, it appears clear that the concept of choice is problematic when applied
to the choice of destiny. 6
Another objection has been raised against this interpretive analysis of the problem of choice. While many scholars have
identified this as a problem for the concept, Bewaji sees it as a “straw-man argument.” For he thinks that we see it as a
problem because we have not focused on all the available alternative accounts. One such available account, according to him,
is adayeba, which does not presuppose choice, because it focuses on “the material conditions of existence.” He actually thinks
that this is what I mean when I spoke about the existential situation, “the reality of existence.” According to Bewaji, “Adayeba
indicates that you have no control over where you are borne [sic], whether your parents are Hausa, Ibo, Nupe, or
Yoruba…whether you are born into wealth or poverty.” 7 Obviously, there is a confusion here. This is not what adayeba
means in the context of destiny. Adayeba is no more amenable to study than akunleyan, which is its first half, and it is
unforgivably mistaken to suggest that adayeba “discusses the material conditions of birth, parentage, socio-economic and
political relations of persons…to forge a destiny.” 8 There is simply no notion of adayeba isolated from akunleyan. Therefore,
if the latter is a failure, as Bewaji suggests, 9 so must be the former.
Indeed, Bewaji himself later confirms that adayeba is never used in isolation. It is always used as a precis for a longer
statement: akunleyan, oun l'adayeba; a daye tan, oju nkan gbogbo wa (what we chose kneeling is what we come to meet
in the world. But when we arrive in the world, we become impatient with our lot). What this means is simply that the destiny
that one chooses before coming into this world is what becomes one's lot in the real world. Therefore, the reality of existence
cannot be isolated from the previously chosen destiny. Though he comes close to this understanding of the full statement,
Bewaji does not appreciate its full significance. That is, it only confirms
the problem of choice as a real one. This is why he could go on to suggest that adayeba can be “empirically analyzed to see
how much one has made of one's circumstances” but that it “has failed to feature in philosophical discussions by African
scholars” with “a liberalist background or pretensions to democratic attitude.” 10 What exactly does this mean? A liberal scholar
will be interested in a defense of free choice and suspicious of imposition of lots as it is in the case of akunlegba (received
while kneeling). But it does not then mean that such a scholar will ignore akunlegba, since it can help focus the problem of
responsibility. This has been my own focus in treating this account of how destiny is received, and it is only appropriate to turn
to it now.
Ori , Destiny, and Responsibility
If destiny is really not a product of a genuine choice, as must be the case when we look at akunlegba (received while kneeling)
as the source of destiny, the question arises as to the appropriateness of praise or blame. Is a person responsible for what he
or she has not really chosen? Yet, the traditional Yoruba do not shy away from praising and/or blaming people for their actions.
How then does one reconcile the apparent inconsistency? It should be easy if individuals are truly responsible for the choice of
destiny. Then it would make sense to praise them or blame them. Thus, it may be argued that the car-jacker chose his
punishment along with his choice of his car-jacking profession. But if the choice was not his, and it was imposed on him
(through akunlegba), then there is a problem that cannot be brushed aside. There are two approaches to the issue.
From one perspective, destiny is not a cut-and-dried phenomenon, and it is alterable. Indeed the average Yoruba acts as if
destiny is alterable. Therefore, even if a bad destiny has been imposed on one, one has a responsibility to try to change it for
better. Divination for a newly born baby about its future prospects is the direct means of doing this. The rationale is that the
diviner has the power to discern the destiny of everyone, and to do something about an unfavorable destiny. Since the
procedure is available to everyone, the argument is that whoever does not take advantage of it is to blame for any problem he
or she may have in life, not the initial destiny. Yet this conclusion does not take into consideration the fact that even after all is
said and done, an unfavorable destiny may not go away, or at least so does the belief go. For is it not true, in the language of
ayanmo ko gboogun? That is, destiny does not succumb to medicine. The question then must be faced: Why do the typical
Yoruba refuse to accept an unfavorable destiny only to end up accepting the fact that a bad destiny cannot be altered? Second,
why do the typical Yoruba proceed on the assumption that a good destiny may be negatively altered by the machinations of
others, and never give up this assumption, but continue to arm themselves against evil doers? The answers to these questions
are at the heart of Yoruba philosophical thought. As a prelude to an answer to the first question, we have to note the following.
A typical Yoruba has an optimistic attitude towards life. He or she is born into a family that is loving and caring. He or she also
knows that the gods are there for protecting and prospering the individual. Therefore, the first attitude to life is one of optimism.
Secondly, the divination process never comes up with a purely negative prediction for a client. The logic of divination is to
predict in such a way that the goodness of life's prospects is not permanently blocked out. Thus, even if a diviner “sees” a
problem, he puts it in positive light and may recommend sacrifice. For instance, the diviner is not expected to say: “You are
destined to die.” Rather he would say, “You are advised to perform xyz sacrifice to avert an untimely death” or “you are
advised to avoid going on a long journey for xyz number of days to avoid an accident.” These examples show that even the
diviner brings forth the optimistic aspect of the belief in destiny. It is therefore this attitude that informs the behavior of the
people, and why they proceed on the assumption that all is well. However, suppose that even after the sacrifice against
untimely death, the client still dies in a mysterious circumstance. Here the recourse is made to the fact that it has always been his
or her destiny, and it cannot be avoided. Yes, it does not in practice lend itself to resignation, but if one puts together the two
phases of the process: the first initial optimism and the second hands up recourse to helplessness, it would appear that an
uncharitable critic may sense an inconsistency, where a sympathizer senses pragmatism.
A second approach is even more problematic, since it proceeds on the assumption that a bad destiny may be the result of the
individual's own character subsequent to the imposition of an otherwise good destiny. Thus, a person destined to be a
successful surgeon may turn out a failure because of his or her laziness and fraudulent activities, and a case like that deserves
blame. In other words, destiny only guarantees the potentials, not the actualization of a life prospect. The latter
depends on the efforts of the individuals, hence the emphasis on ese (leg) and owo (hand) in the elaboration of the concept.
The leg and the hand are the symbols of hard work without which a good destiny cannot come to fruition. Yet the problem is
only partially resolved by this approach. For if one can make sense of destiny as it pertains to success or failure in respect of
career or wealth, it does not appear that the same answer will do for misfortunes that have no noticeable source in a person's
character. This is the case with an innocent victim of earthquake or flood, and one cannot blame such a bad destiny on the
character of the victim without further assumptions about an earlier life.
The Interconnectedness of Destinies
The very idea of destiny suggests that there must be some connection between the destinies of various peoples: mother and
child, spouses, friends and relations. For the child whose destiny is to die at infancy is born to a family whose destiny it is to
mourn its child. Therefore, one can assume that each of the parents must also have chosen (or received) a related destiny. And
by extension, could it also mean that every member of a particular community chose related destinies, at least to the extent that
significant events in the lives of each would have impact on others. For one thing, the queen's destiny is to rule her people,
whose destinies include being ruled by this particular queen. Could it also not mean that the car-jacker's destiny includes the
choice of his victim whose destiny then is to be robbed and perhaps killed by this particular person? This insight about the
interconnectedness of destinies may be a reflection on the traditional communal mode of living among the Yoruba and may
provide an intellectual rationale for the political appeal to the notion of a common destiny when it suits political leaders.
Individual and Communal Destinies
Individual destinies determine the outcome of individual lives. Destiny is the meaning of a person's existence—the purpose of
existence. However, this personal life purpose cannot be separated from the communal reality of which the individual is only a
part. This is due in part to the interconnectedness of destiny discussed above. However, it is also due to the fact that the
purpose of individual existence is intricately linked with the purpose of social existence and cannot
be adequately grasped outside it. While confirming the personality of an individual, destiny also joins each one to the
community, and personality becomes meaningful by appeal to destiny and community. In any case, destiny is itself a community
concept, a means for the community to provide its members with meaning. In the final analysis, a person is what she is in virtue
of her destiny, her character, and the communal influence on her.
But what does it mean to say that destiny is the purpose of existence? Simply put, an individual's destiny is what he or she is
supposed to live for. I have argued elsewhere that destiny is like a message to be delivered. The deity sends the message
through each person, and it is the person's own contribution to the totality of the good in the community in particular, but also in
the universe. Conceived in this way, there is bound to be raised the problem of apparently bad or even wicked destiny, for
example, the car-jacker's destiny. How is that supposed to promote the totality of the good in the universe? It appears that one
cannot consistently maintain the view that destiny is to promote the good, and acknowledge the fact that some destinies are
The Akan view, as interpreted by Kwame Gyekye, avoids this dilemma. For according to that view, God imposes destiny, and
it is always good. The occurrence of evil in the world is then attributed to the existence of wicked people. However, as I
argued in African Philosophy, the problem here is that the three theses by Gyekye cannot be consistently maintained. The
three theses are: God imposes destiny; destiny is always good; destiny is unalterable. If we add to these theses the obvious fact
that there is evil in the Akan community—people die prematurely; natural disasters are real forces that the people contend with
—then it becomes clear that one of the three theses must be false. Gyekye admits that the path of a person may be “strewn
with failures, either because his or her own actions, desires, decisions, and intentions or because of the activities of some
supposed evil forces.” 11 If these evil forces are human, then their own apportioned destiny must be bad, which means there is
bad destiny. Or if they originally have good destiny, which was changed, then it means that destiny is alterable. If they are
natural forces, then again, there is bad destiny.
Destiny and Reincarnation
Two other important related beliefs of the Yoruba are the beliefs in immortality of the soul and reincarnation, and it is necessary
how the belief in destiny fits into these two. The Yoruba seek three goods in the world: ire owo, ire omo, ire aikupari iwa—
the good of wealth, the good of children, and the good of immortality. The latter is, for them, the most important, because it is
the crown of existence (iwa). Aiku is immortality. The belief is that bodily death is not the end of one's life, for the soul lives on
in a different plane of existence. This soul (emi) may then reincarnate in a different form of existence at a later time. Thus, a
dead parent may reincarnate in the form of a child to her daughter or granddaughter. With respect to the belief in destiny, this
belief in immortality and reincarnation raises a number of questions. First, how does one conceptualize the connection between
the original destiny allotted to the original person in her first life and the new destiny in her second life? Is it the same destiny
that is only temporarily suspended at death, or indeed is this death one phase of the entire long destiny that has to be “lived”
out. Or does the first destiny lapse at the first death, and a new destiny chosen at each reincarnation? It does not appear that
much thought is given to this puzzle in the traditional philosophical speculation about destiny.
We could try to see how the various options fare. First suppose it is the same first destiny that extends over all the “lives” of the
person. It would follow that one is not really dead until all the details of one's destiny are worked out in the various lives.
Indeed, some of the mythical stories, which illustrate the belief, suggest something to this effect. There is, for instance, the story
of the young man. As he was about to go into the world for the first time, he recited his destiny for the sealed approval of
Olodumare, the Supreme Being. His destiny was to go into the world, live to a youthful age, have a girlfriend, fix a date for the
wedding, and on the wedding day, he would go into the bush to ease himself and would be bitten by a snake. Then, as he put
it, “I would come back.” In other words, he would end his life in this way. In this account of the matter, reincarnation is just the
continuation of the same life. But if so, there would be no need for the choice of a new destiny. “I would come back” would
then have to be followed by a further narrative on what will happen next. Perhaps “then, I would stay a little bit and go back to
be born into my original father's family again.” This would account for the phenomenon of abiku, born to die children.
But suppose the person has a different allotment of destiny at each reincarnation. Then can it be said that the same person is
reincarnating after each death? This would raise a serious problem regarding
the meaning of being the same person. For if it is true that one's personality is really determined by the kind of destiny one has,
then each new round of destiny chosen by the emi would appear to turn out a different person provided the destiny chosen is
not identical. So even if this time around, this new being were brought into the world through the same mother as before, it
would not mean that it is the same person. It all boils down to what a person is, and in the tradition, a person is a combination
of ara (body), emi (soul or life force), and destiny (kadara or ipin).
The Significance of Destiny: Addressing the Question of Rationality
The belief in destiny has a special place in the worldview of the Yoruba. Like the conception of cause and chance in terms of
personal idioms about the activities of gods and spiritual entities, the belief in destiny fits perfectly well into the traditional system
of belief. Furthermore, if one explores it carefully, one would discover the rationale for the belief. There is no doubt that the
belief serves a purpose, to assure human beings that they have a role to play in the world (even if it is an assigned role), that
they are not by themselves (because their role has been endorsed by the deity), and that the meaning of their lives is encoded in
the message of destiny. Therefore, people should not worry unduly about failure; but since destiny is an indication of
potentiality, they should also not be complacent. The belief also suggests to us that the Yoruba have some anxiety about
situations beyond the control of anyone and are keen to provide some cushion for the rough and tumble of life.
From the foregoing paragraph, one may conclude that the belief in destiny has its rationale. But a further question is in order: Is
the belief rational? This is the question posed by the late Peter Bodunrin in his classic “The Question of African Philosophy.” As
he puts his argument:
showing why a people hold a particular belief is not sufficient to show that the belief is rational. Given any social practice one
can always find a reason for it. An explanation of an event in terms of the motives of a person or a god is rational only if
evidence is given for the existence of the person or god, or sufficient reasons given why their existence must be assumed and
arguments adduced as to why the person or god should
be supposed to be implicated in the particular event. Surely, to show that a belief arises from emotional needs, if this is in fact
true, can hardly be construed as having shown it to be rational. 13
Bodunrin's point is that a traditional belief, like any other belief, must be evaluated from a philosophical point of view. No one
can fault this demand. All that we have said about destiny providing meaning for people's life may be true, the question must still
be posed, how rational is the belief? This may be addressed from various perspectives. I will identify three: First, is the belief
coherent? That is, are its internal components consistent with one another? Second, is the belief consistent with other beliefs the
people hold about the world? Third, is the belief (theory) compatible with reality (practice), as we experience it?
To the first issue, from the earlier discussions, it seems obvious that there is a tension between the various components of the
belief in destiny. On the one hand, there is a tension between the idea of a predestined life and the idea of an individual having
responsibility for his actions. It is similar to the belief in determinism and free will. If we assume a changeable destiny, then we
may draw an analogy between destiny and weak determinism, which is consistent with free will. One may then suggest that
destiny is also compatible with responsibility. But this only moves the problem of incoherence to another arena. Here it is
instructive to quote from Barry Hallen:
A Yoruba will say that once destiny is “fixed” by Olorun it cannot be changed. It must take place. Nevertheless on other
occasions the same person will say that it is possible to “miss” the destiny one has been apportioned, in the sense of becoming
confused and lost during one's lifetime and doing things for which one is not at all suited. Or an external force can interfere with
one's destiny. Neither of these is entirely consistent with the belief that once destiny is fixed, it is unalterable and must take
This surely appears to be an example of inconsistently held beliefs within a single structure of belief, and as far as Bodunrin is
concerned, it must be seen and evaluated as such. But Hallen does not; hence Bodunrin's objection to Hallen. For Hallen, the
inconsistency is only there if we look at the Yoruba belief from the perspective of a Westerner. He sees the various beliefs that
may be called upon when an explanation is required as comparable to
the various partitions that are ranged along the wings of a stage and may be swung into position depending upon the demands
of the next
scene. Each partition corresponds to a certain belief. There are other belief-panels in the wings that would be inconsistent with
it if they were brought into play simultaneously. But this does not happen (except in very exceptional circumstances) because
when a certain kind of problem occupies stage centre the same partition is always moved out to serve as its explanatory
Bodunrin is not pleased with this approach, which he sees as “a good account of why the Yorubas do not find it odd to live
with inconsistent beliefs.” But, as he puts it, “Hallen's account can hardly be construed as showing that the Yorubas hold
consistent views on destiny as expressed in their concept of ori; rather his account explains why the Yorubas do not see any
inconsistencies in their belief system. But this does not remove the inconsistency.” 16 On this issue, I think Bodunrin is right. This
is the position I argued for in “God, Destiny and Social Injustice,” which Bewaji characterizes as a liberal position. But it does
not require an ideological orientation to identify a logical flaw in a belief system. Of course, I am not implying that one cannot
find arguments to remove the inconsistency.
The question is what kind of argument is there to remove the apparent inconsistency? The question of the belief in the
alterability of destiny is fundamental to the theory. The issue we have raised with it is whether this belief is compatible with the
idea of a fixed and unalterable destiny. Now, one way out of the apparent dilemma is to see the belief in an unalterable destiny
as fatalism and to argue that this is not the Yoruba position. Many scholars have argued this way. Thus, Moses Makinde has
drawn a distinction between strong destiny, which he identifies as fatalism, and weak destiny, which he identifies as the Yoruba
concept of ori. If fatalism is unalterable, weak destiny, as in ori, is not. Therefore, the argument goes, there is no inconsistency
in the belief. Another argument is that even the strong notion of destiny is open to alteration as far as the Yoruba are
concerned. According to this interpretation, the concept of ase (special divine words) is superior to that of ori or ayanmo
(destiny) because it issues from Olodumare. The point here then is that Olodumare can effect a change through ase once a
supplication is made and accepted. The fact that the Yoruba act as if they believe that destiny is alterable would seem to
support this interpretation.
The second issue has to do with whether the belief is consistent with other beliefs people hold about the world. A list of major
Yoruba beliefs about the world will include at least the following: There is God; there are orisas; death is inevitable; work is the
poverty; character is beauty; character is the king of all talismans; moderation is the source of honor and respect, and so on.
From this list of beliefs, can it be said that there is one that is inconsistent with the belief in destiny? Again it would appear at
first that the belief that orisas is the determinant of success or failure is inconsistent with the belief that work is the cure for
poverty. However, as observed above, the Yoruba acknowledge the importance of hard work in the realization of a good
destiny. This is why ese (leg) and owo (hand) are brought into the picture. The meaning of this is that both the hand and the leg
are important instruments in the realization of one's destiny. Therefore it would not appear that there is a conflict between the
two beliefs. With respect to character, it has also been observed earlier that one of the ways in which one's destiny may be
altered is through one's own character. Of course, one may raise the question, as in other cases, how is it that one's character
would contribute to the altering of one's destiny, since it is supposed to have been a component of the destiny in the first place.
I do not myself see an adequate answer for this in the structure of the belief.
The third issue is whether the belief (theory) is compatible with reality (practice) as we experience it. For instance, since the
theory (of destiny) suggests that one has a preordained allotment before coming into this world, one possible practical
implication is resignation. Yet in practice, no one adopts a philosophy of resignation. Does this suggest then that the theory is
incompatible with our practice? Again, one way of addressing this issue may be to call attention to the complexity of the theory
of destiny with its in-built correctives. Destiny does not even in theory imply resignation, one might argue, because there is the
notion of potentiality built into it. Therefore, destiny must be seen as a potential that still has to be fulfilled. Second, one may
argue that since destiny is only a potential, even in theory, one cannot consistently adopt a philosophy of resignation until one
has made the strenuous effort without success. But, of course, there are other beliefs in the system, which reject measuring
success in terms of wealth or position. Third, as discussed previously, it may also be pointed out that the theory of destiny
allows for the concept of ase with the consequence that even a strong notion of destiny is liable to alteration with the
involvement of Olodumare. Therefore, since the theory allows for this, it is apparently not inconsistent with the practical efforts
to avert failure. What is needed is a thorough analysis of the full logic of the theory. Then one can expect a better fit between
the theory and practice of destiny.
From the foregoing, it seems clear that the concept of destiny as it features in Yoruba philosophical discourse has good
potentials for a rewarding philosophical investigation. I have only attempted to raise some of the issues that call for further
analyses and investigation. I am sure that there is a lot more, and that even on those that I have tried to address here, there is a
lot more to be said and not a few objections to be raised. But I think it is clear that one cannot dismiss the concept as irrational
without further argument. It seems also clear that one cannot drive a wedge between the theory and the practice of destiny
without further argument. Finally, since the belief in destiny continues to feature prominently in the social lives of the people,
serious philosophical efforts will continue to be required to deal with the various issues that need to be resolved to move us
towards the formulation of an adequate theory.
1. Segun Gbadegesin, “Destiny, Personality and the Ultimate Reality of Human Existence: A Yoruba Perspective,” Ultimate
Reality and Meaning 7.3 (1984): 173–88; “God, Destiny and Social Injustice: A Critique of a Yoruba Ifa Belief,” in The
Search for Faith and Justice in the Twentieth Century, ed. Gene James (New York: Paragon Press, 1987), 52–68;
African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities (New York: Lang, 1991).
2. For an extensive discussion and defense of my account of okan, see my African Philosophy, chap. 2.
3. J. A. I. Bewaji, “Yoruba Concept of Human Destiny: Demystifying a Theory,” unpublished paper, n.d.: 28.
4. Ibid. 18.
5. Ibid. 21.
6. Gbadegesin, African Philosophy.
7. Bewaji, “Yoruba Concept of Human Destiny,” 28.
8. Ibid. 33.
10. Ibid. 29.
11. Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1987), 116.
12. Peter Bodunrin, “The Question of African Philosophy,” Philosophy 56 (1981): 161–81. Reprinted in Richard Wright,
African Philosophy: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984), 1–23. Page reference is
13. Wright, African Philosophy, 15.
14. Barry Hallen, “A Philosopher's Approach to Traditional Culture,” Theoria to Theory 9.4 (1975): 259–72. Cited in
Wright, African Philosophy, 16.
15. Ibid. 17.
17. Moses Makinde, “A Philosophical Analysis of the Yoruba Concept of Ori and Human Destiny,” International Studies in
Philosophy 17.1 (1985): 53–69.
5 Personal Identity in African Metaphysics
Pre-theoretic concerns about personal identity challenge us to provide a coherent and unified response to the following
questions: What is a person? What is it for a person to be the same persisting entity across time (or at a time)? How many
ontologically distinct entities constitute a person? What relationship, if any, exists between an individual's first-person,
subjective experiences and our objective, third person's perspective? African philosophy takes the challenge much more
seriously than Western philosophy. 1 In the former, unlike in the latter, plausible responses to one question are routinely
informed by plausible responses to others. In this essay, I explore the extent to which an African theory of reality has provided
integrated responses to the personal identity questions and build on those responses. My approach, partly descriptive and
partly imaginative, ought to be familiar; it has been borrowed from a tradition that dates back at least to John Locke. 2 What
emerges is a tested conception of human existence that is formidable enough to be explanatorily useful vis-à-vis personal
The Ontological Distinction
A tripartite conception of a person characterizes the African thought system. 3 A person is conceived to be the union of his or
her ara (body), emi (mind/soul), and ori (‘inner head’). Unlike ara, which is physical,
both the emi and ori are mental (or spiritual). This dichotomy might induce us to think of the African view as dualistic. But it
would be a mistake to do so, since ori is conceived ontologically independent of the other two elements. Thus, the African
view is properly thought of as triadic. 4 It is philosophically interesting that a person is a creation of different deities. Ara, the
body, is constructed by Orisa-nla, the arch deity; Olodumare (God or ‘Supreme Deity’) brings forth the emi; while another
deity, Ajala, is responsible for creating ori. Ara is the corporeal entity from head to toe, including internal and external organs,
and it becomes conscious with emi, which, apart from its life-giving capacity, is conceived as immortal and transmigratory. The
inner or metaphysical head, ori, the other non-corporeal entity, is the bearer of destiny and, hence, constitutive of personality.
Understanding the Distinction
Thus, within the purview of African metaphysics, a person is made up three elements, ara, emi, and ori. Since their ontologies
are logically independent of each other, the three elements are ontologically distinct and properly conceived as a triadic view of
persons. Ara refers not only to the whole body, but also its various parts. However, the metaphysics does not make clear how
much of a body is minimally needed for sameness (or continuity) of body. Presumably, our nontheoretical assumptions about
what sameness or continuity of body amounts to will suffice for our discussions. However, those nontheoretical assumptions
may include those that are peculiarly African, for example, the abiku or ogbanje syndrome, in which some children are
believed to continuously repeat life cycles. As evidence for this syndrome, Africans point to similarities of bodies involved to
posit bodily continuity between them. What is not clear is whether in these special cases, similarities in bodies are constitutive
of, not merely evidence for, bodily continuity. Emi is the mind/soul. Its presence is indicated by phenomenal consciousness, an
effect of divine breath that manifests (sort of) in breathing. We may note parenthetically that nonhuman creatures and plants
have emi. Injunctions are usually made not to maltreat nnkan-elemi, things “inhabited” by emi. This attitude, however, has not
led to Jainism. Emi is taken to be essential to having ratiocinative activities, but it is not endowed with person-like
characteristics as in certain Western traditions, for example, Descartes's. 5 Indeed, the Western view that where the soul goes,
there goes the person is not African, not
at first blush anyway. Some African philosophers, however, have described emi as “the most enduring and most important
characteristic of a person,” but there is no support within the African system of thoughts to understand this in a Platonic or
Cartesian sense. 6 That emi is considered most enduring might tempt us to think that for Africans ensoulment embodies
personhood much like in Western thought systems. But this temptation should be resisted for they also contend that emi has no
variable qualities, that is, emi has no distinguishing characteristics. 7 What emi does, it seems, is help ground consciousness.
Thus, while emi is most enduring and perhaps the most important element of a person, it is arguable that it encapsulates
personhood. Ori refers to both the physical head and the inner/metaphysical head, and the latter is sometimes referred to as
ori-inu to avoid ambiguity. Notice that Africans seem to think that there are metaphysical components of several body parts,
most notably, the head, the heart, and the intestines. But the metaphysical components of the latter two serve largely the
semantic function of conveying the roles of the relevant body parts in the proper bodily and psychic functioning of a person. 8
One philosophically interesting question then is why only ori has been elevated into an ontologically constitutive element of a
person. A plausible response is that ori, unlike other metaphysical components, is a deity in that, among other things, it is
considered worthy of worship and appeasement. 9 But this response is not satisfying: Why has ori, and not any other
metaphysical body part, been deified? Why is deification of ori not due to its ontological status rather than the other way
around? These are attractive quasi-logical inquiries, but I strongly doubt that they are promising enough for follow up. A more
promising and fundamental issue to pursue is whether ori is a deity as it is generally claimed. A useful distinction to explore here
is between an entity that is a deity and an entity towards which we only maintain what I will call a ‘deity stance.’ Some
substantial considerations make it plausible to think that ori belongs to the latter category. Consider, first, the following.
Suppose ori is really a deity. That everyone has ori makes each person a deity or possessor of one. But neither view
adequately represents the African view. The view that each person is a deity is attractive, but not African. It conflicts with the
African view that some individuals become deities on becoming ancestors; you cannot be becoming what you already are.
Second, the view of ori as both a deity and an ontological constituent of a person makes supplications by the person to Ori
supplications to him- or herself. This would be odd unless supplications in this context are taken as metaphorical
expressions of good wishes about oneself. Indeed, on this view of ori, it would be difficult to understand deferential attitudes to
ori as both a deity and an ontological constituent of a person. And since we are all agreed that ori is ontologically constitutive
of a person, it is more plausible to reject the view that Ori is a deity. Against the first consideration, an objector might argue
that Africans as a matter of practice posit a hierarchy of deities, and that Ori is a deity in and of itself does not conflict with the
belief that individuals become deities on becoming ancestors. That Africans posit a hierarchy of deities is true, but the transition
from one deity to another is alien to the African view.
The Thought Experiment
What is a person in the African view? This question is ambiguous between two different but related questions: What are the
constitutive elements of a person? What makes a person the same persisting entity across time? In response to the first
question, the constitutive elements are ara, emi, and ori. The task is to determine the extent to which this response would help
with the second but interrelated question about persistence. Suppose we become Cartesian, and conceive of the soul of one
person, Adler's, transferred to the soulless body of another. If ensoulment embodies personhood, Adler now has a different
body. (Locke, who does not think that the soul is immortal, would want Adler's brain transferred instead.) But do we have any
reason to think of the issue this way rather than a case of mental derangement or clairvoyance? This is the personal identity
issue in Western metaphysics. In reidentifying a person, do we trace the body or the mind? Generally, the mental (or
psychological) continuity theorists think that we are to trace the mind because the mind encapsulates all that is really important:
our hopes, fears, beliefs, and values. And if our mental life were to cease, we would have ceased to live. For them, we are
defined by the mental. Bodily continuity theorists, on the other hand, think that we are to trace the body. That way, they
reason, we respect the biological fact that we are basically organic beings, no matter what else we happen to be. Underlying
the issue here is the distinction between a person and a human being. ‘Person’ refers to the fact that we are social entities, ‘
human being’ to the fact that we are organic entities. The mental theorist emphasizes the first fact, the bodily theorist, the
second. Thus, John Locke, a mental theorist, assumes that if we successfully transfer, say, Adler's brain into John's brainless
the John-bodied person is now Adler. For the John-bodied person now exhibits the mental life of Adler. (Of course, there are
serious difficulties in imagining this kind of exchange, but let us put them aside till much later.) Lockean followers, for example,
Derek Parfit, have gone further by claiming that transfer of the brain is not necessary; what is important is securing Adler's
mental life in John's body no matter how that comes about. 11 What is important in these transactions, they argue, is that
relevant mental lives continue irrespective of how this is done.
Defending Continuity Theories
The mental continuity theory and the bodily continuity theory are the two main competing views, though some variants of the
former, and hybrid views of both, are sometimes considered interesting enough to merit separate discussions. 12 But, in general,
alternative views to the main ones are not encouraging. Suppose, for instance, the John-bodied person (after the transfer of
Adler's brain) is considered a new person altogether, that is, he is neither John nor Adler. The problem with this view is that it is
totally inconsistent with our understanding of human origins; new humans cannot, in our view of the world, come to exist as
described. To illustrate, suppose that two qualitatively identical pieces of paper are ostensibly turned into a slice of cheese and
a baby. Which transformation would we accept as real? Some might be inclined to claim that neither is real, but if we must
choose, it seems a lot more plausible to accept the paper–cheese transformation than to accept the paper–baby transformation.
This is because our metaphysical intuitions about human origins are so firm that we are prepared to discount what would
ordinarily count as empirical evidence to the contrary. Some objectors might argue that the John-bodied person is better
considered a new person, rather than a new human being. Their objection would be that our strong metaphysical intuitions are
about human beings, not human persons. Indeed, given our willingness to consider some nonhuman species persons, our
philosophical imagination is not stretched to consider the John-bodied person neither John nor Adler but a new person, though
not a new human being. The problem with this view is that the John-bodied person is peculiarly capable of performing any of
the roles formerly associated with Adler, the physical circumstances permitting. In particular, the John-bodied person is willing
to be held liable for promises,
obligations, and duties formerly defining of Adler's personhood. More perplexing would be the willingness of the John-bodied
person to follow up on the promises, obligations, and duties of Adler in accordance with Adler's own life plans. There is thus
no serious justification for claiming that the John-bodied person is a new person. The distinction between ‘person’ and ‘human
being’ is meant just for this: to preserve the practical value of our life plans and projects. Since Adler's life plans and projects
are successfully pursued by the John-bodied person, it seems more plausible to consider the John-bodied person Adler than a
new person, which is what the psychological continuity theorist claims. 13
There are good reasons, then, for the Western metaphysician to consider the psychological continuity theory and the bodily
continuity theory as the main competing theories of persistence of persons. The next task for the Western metaphysician as he
or she sees it is to determine which continuity theory is more plausible, and which variant of that is most explanatorily useful.
Some useful philosophical insights have emerged in that determination, and I will touch on the most promising, but, first, a
discussion of some tensions that undermine the whole issue of persistence in Western philosophy. Consider the Cartesian
dualist concerned about persistence. The Cartesian dualist claims that body and soul are the two ontologically irreducible
constituents of a person, with the soul being the essence of the person. Since for the dualist the soul is the person, the issue of
persistence is concerned with tracing the soul. Where the soul is, there goes the person. But surprisingly, neither of the two
main theories of persistence expresses this dominant view of most people. The more plausible the Cartesian theory seems, the
less plausible either theory of persistence. Notwithstanding degrees of psychological and physical continuities involved, if
persons are ensouled, it is the soul that underlies persistence. The soul by itself escapes tracing, but so much the worse for
personal identity theories, the dualist would claim. ‘Scientifically minded’ philosophers, as most Western philosophers are in
their professional lives, would claim that the Cartesian notion is not as plausible as its competing materialist views. What
Descartes teaches, they will argue, is the importance of our occurrent and dispositional mentation in personhood, which is
encapsulated in the
various psychological continuity theories. Materialists are right that psychological continuity theories make clear our inclination
and willingness to define ourselves by our mental lives. In that sense, then, the theories encapsulate the Cartesian insight that a
person is a thinking thing that, inter alia, doubts, understands, and denies. Of course, materialists are not all agreed on what
psychological continuity theories consist in. Some, for example, Derek Parfit, claim that the informational content of our
mentation is all that matters, irrespective of how that sameness of information is secured, either by the brain, computer chips, or
whatever. Some others, for example, Sydney Shoemaker, argue that sameness of information is valuable in persistence to the
extent that there is sameness of brain or a functionally analogous entity. 14 There is disagreement as to how much information
needs to be preserved for sameness of persons, but we may put all that aside here. Yet other materialists, for example,
Bernard Williams, would argue for a physical continuity theory: sameness of the body (with or without the brain, but preferably
with the brain) is necessary in preserving identity. Apart from the most obvious cases, these three ‘scientifically minded’
approaches deliver different judgments on issues of persistence, and there is considerable disagreement on which approach is
most plausible. Indeed, most of the discussions about persistence in analytic Western metaphysics turn on determining which
approach best reconciles our deeply rooted intuitions about the nature of persons with certain thought experiments about
persistence, though it is not always understood that way. In any event, all this, I hope to show, is much ado about nothing.
Persistence and the Nature of Persons
Consider again the Cartesian solution. Whatever else we might think about the solution, we must concede that it has two main
advantages over the continuity theories. First, it links its ontology of persons with its view of persistence. The soul is an
ontological constituent of a person and, on its view, sameness of the soul constitutes sameness of person. Psychological
continuity theorists are right in thinking that part of the attraction of same soul criterion is that it ceteris paribus preserves
sameness of mentation. But this is not all—its linkage between what we are, our whatness, and our persistence is important,
however difficult determination of the latter is. Without the linkage, what we are is one thing, our persistence, another. But
whatever disagreements we may
have about persistence, there is a pre-theoretic supposition that our persistence is about us and ought to preserve our whatness
. 16 Sameness of mentation does not provide the link; it perhaps constitutes evidence for our persistence, but it is silent on what
we are. Different but inconsistent ontological assumptions about us are possible with sameness of mentation criterion. This
partly explains the disagreement among psychological continuity theorists, hence, the desire of some of them to also emphasize
sameness of brain. But we are not our brains, however important that organ is in our proper functioning. Thus, in securing
Adler's occurrent and dispositional mentation in the John-bodied person, the latter does not then become Adler. Or, to put the
same point differently, that the John-bodied person is Adler violates our ontology, and the violation is not mediated by transfer
of the brain. Notice that I am neither claiming nor suggesting that we are organic entities. We are not our bodies, and in
general, I consider physical continuity theories much weaker than their psychological counterparts for the simple reason that
they uniformly fail to consider the practical importance we attach to personal identity.
The second main advantage of the soul is the apparent integrated unity that it provides our mental lives. Mental characteristics
over time, however similar and overlapping, would not by themselves constitute the mental life of an individual. Some
psychological theorists realize this, but apparently think that the brain could provide the cement. Although sameness of brain
provides evidence for psychic unity, it does not constitute it. David Hume, after first claiming that our identity is ersatz, realized
this when he lamented in the appendix of the Treatise that he could not find what binds the constant flux of consciousness and
sensations. 17 Hume finds it difficult to reconcile his atomistic principle that our perceptions are distinct and separate with the
psychic unity that seems to characterize us. The usual Humean relations of contiguity in time and space, and causality, would
not do here, since they are neither necessary nor sufficient for psychic unity. Hume's own radical empiricism prevents any
appeal to the soul, but Hume's failure as confessed to in the appendix is a failure of continuity theories.
First-Person vs. Third-Person Perspectives
Another tension that threatens discussions about persistence in Western metaphysics is the third-person perspective of those
discussions. Formulations of schemata for continuity theories, bodily or psychological,
neglect the first-person perspective: Adler is the same person as John if Adler is bodily or psychologically continuous with
John. The underlying assumption is that the continuities and, supposedly, personal identity, are objectively and, hence,
third-person verifiable. Yet concerns about, say, my personal identity, are about me, and one would expect personal identity
discussions to reflect this subjective aspect of the issue. The question then is what it is for a third-person, objectively
determinate entity (or cluster of entities or aggregate of parts or whatever) to nevertheless be me, and not someone else. For
continuity theorists, the challenge would be to identify what it is about my intentions, beliefs, desires, and other psychological
phenomena that make them mine. One possible solution is that all the psychological phenomena “supervene” on the workings
of my central nervous system, not someone else's. But this is not satisfactory enough, for we might ask what it is in particular
about my central nervous system that makes it mine. Another alternative route to generating the same issue is to posit a
distinction between my psychological phenomena and central nervous system, on the one hand, and between the central
nervous system and me, on the other. My psychological life, it seems, could have been sustained with a different but perhaps
structurally similar central nervous system. Moreover, we understand the claim that I could have had a different psychological
life (or body) and a different nervous system and still be me. That is, we understand what it is for me to be a subject undergoing
radical psychological changes and still be me: “Help! I am undergoing these terrible changes in my psychology.” Language use
is hardly decisive in these matters, but it seems reasonable to claim that the cry for help here is not tautological: My psychology
is undergoing these terrible changes in my psychology. Thus, focusing on psychological phenomena is, in general, mistaken.
Also, we understand that my complete physical and mental surrogate, capable of a life third-person qualitatively
indistinguishable from mine, would not be me. No amount of Parfitean intuitions about what presumably really matters “in
survival” will change these bare facts about me and my persistence. It is easy to determine how our intuitions might have gone
wrong. With Adler's brain successfully transferred into John's brainless body, we intuit that the John-bodied person is now
Adler. In this case though, the John-bodied person, too, thinks that he is Adler. That is, judgments from both the first-person
and third-person perspectives agree with each other. We assume that our objective, third-person judgment is correct, and that
the subjective, first-person judgment is correct to the extent that it concurs with the former. We think of
situations, say, hypnosis and false memory, in which the first-person's judgments are not reliable, and become further convinced
that subjective judgments by themselves are untrustworthy. But our assumption here is mistaken. There is nothing personal
about personal identity without the person. If there is no epistemic gap, so to speak, between a first-person judgment and the
person, then the judgment is the correct determination of identity, irrespective of any contradicting third-person judgment. Thus,
we cannot neglect the first-person perspective; it is central to personal identity.
Applying the Concept of Ori
My concern with personal identity is concern with my psychic unity, not my soul—unless I am worried about the possibility of
life after death. Concern with psychic unity is concern with the extent to which activities in my life fulfill a purpose. The purpose
in turn provides meaning to my life, and it is that meaning that evidences to me psychic unity, that my life is on track. Now, we
do impose purpose on ourselves. For example, I may decide to spend the rest of my life feeding the homeless. But this kind of
purpose and attendant psychic unity are second best. Notice that I could have made my purpose the harassment or killing of
the elderly, and my psychic unity could have been derived from this. Thus, self-imposed purpose and psychic unity may help to
calm the nerves, but what is needed is the purpose that emerges from a quasi-historical self-actualization. Self-actualization here
depends on our state of being and on the state of being we are yet to become, albeit with a ceteris paribus become. A life
lived consciously or otherwise in conformity with this state of becoming is a life on course, and the purpose that emerges from it
provides genuine psychic unity to the individual. Ori, understood as destiny, embodies the quasi-historical self-actualization.
Trees do not have ori, and neither do cats, dogs, and dolphins. My concern with my identity is with whether my life is on track.
It helps if my physical and psychological lives are not radically discontinuous, but this requirement is neither necessary nor
sufficient for my identity.
For greater perspicuity of issues involved, imagine a transfer of Adler's ori to John's physical head—without his ori, of course.
Since ori embodies personality, the moderating characteristics underlying an individual's social relations, John's new life should
now resemble Adler's former life. But what does ‘resemble’ mean in this context?
Two pictures suggest themselves. First is the Lockean picture: John is now capable of fulfilling the social roles of Adler, for he
now exhibits Adler's former mental life. Second is what I will call Abel's picture: John now has the characteristic fortunes (or
misfortunes) defining Adler's former life. The second picture is closer to the African view; the first would make ori functionally
isomorphic with the brain (or soul) in Western metaphysics, thereby undermining the philosophical basis for ori.
To sharpen the example, assume the following: Adler's former life had been enviable. His desires were nicely moderated. He
was successful in friendships, business, health, and in his communal relations. He could hardly do anything wrong. John's former
life was the exact opposite. He failed consistently in his endeavors. His sincere and worthy efforts to succeed and be perceived
differently came to naught. Indeed, John was not doing anything substantially different from what Adler was doing, but the
outcome for John had been consistently bad, and for Adler consistently good. Africans would ascribe the disparities in results
to their choices of ori. If we now suppose an exchange of ori between Adler and John, we would expect John's life to be
consistently worthwhile and admirable, and Adler's life consistently the opposite. The supposed exchange between Adler and
John exemplifies what we might call, broadly speaking, an exchange of personalities. With changes in a person's personality,
there are likely to be corresponding changes in the person's social roles; and with new social roles come new social identities.
This explains the motivation of the mental theorist in Western metaphysics in assuming there had been an exchange of persons
in cases involving an exchange of social
roles. Notice that the main objection to the mental theorist is that his or her solution violates our organic nature. The African
solution appears not to have done this. Human identity is preserved in the union of the body and the soul (emi). In ori resides
personality. A tripartite conception of a person allows for transferring the latter without violating ‘human beingness,’ at least not
in the way the bodily theorist finds objectionable.
A possible objection might be that an exchange of ori might not lead to an exchange of social roles, and that there would be no
basis then for thinking people have exchanged anything. To illustrate the objection, consider again the Lockean mentalist
approach. In transferring a brain from one body to another, our intuition that personhood is transferred in the exchange of
brains is based partly on the assumption that such a transfer would lead to exchange of social roles. But with an exchange of ori
, we need not assume an exchange of social roles. What an exchange of ori secures is a change in fortunes and self-realization.
A change in fortunes might lead to a change in social roles, but this need not be so. Thus, with the exchange of ori a person
may be suitable to perform only his or her former roles and tasks. The question then is why we must think personhood has
been transferred with the exchange of ori when there is no noticeable change in social roles.
The objector here incorrectly assumes that our concern with specific social roles underlies our concern with personal identity.
To be sure, our view of ourselves is to some extent manifested in the social roles we perform. This explains why social roles
may help to flesh out our intuitions about personal identity. Social roles help to make clear what is personal about personal
identity. However, our concern is not with specific social roles but with whatever roles we are involved in to be as enhanced as
possible. No specific social roles are constitutive of anyone's identity. Mental theorists are confused about this. They correctly
notice that we care about the continuity of our intentions, beliefs, and memories. They correctly assume that the reason for this
is because we care about the success of our projects. And since our intentions, beliefs, and memories are particularly suited for
our projects, they wrongly elevate the projects into the criterion of personal identity. They reason that our projects define us
and we are whatever can fulfill the projects under consideration. But if, as African metaphysics suggests, our concern with
personal identity is that whatever projects we are engaged in are to be fulfilled as well as possible, then it is a mistake to elevate
these projects into a criterion of personal identity as the mental theorists have done. The concern with the continuity of our
intentions, beliefs, and memories is a concern not with specific projects but with the successful completion of whatever projects
there are, as long as they contribute to our self-actualization. Thus, the mentalist intuition about the defining role of projects in a
person's identity cannot be used to undermine the view of ori as a constitutive element of a person.
Any credible theory of personal identity must be metaphysically and socially stable, and the two forms of stability must be
interconnected. By “stability,” I simply mean the ability to deliver consistent judgments. Metaphysical stability helps to explain
the unity of the self, so
to speak, that makes personal identity possible. Social stability helps to explain our socialized existence—our belief systems,
social character, and projects of value that seem to make our lives meaningful. A theory of personal identity is likely to be
stable in some form or another, but the challenge is to be stable in both forms in the same context at the same time with respect
to the same determinations. Continuity theories dating back to Locke's—including Hume's—are socially, but not
metaphysically, stable. Hence, their general inclination, despite varied reasons, is to think of the concept of a person as a
“forensic” notion. However, both forms of stability are linked in the concept of ori. Ori provides the needed metaphysical
support to our social existence; it helps to make our beliefs, character, and social projects really ours. With ori, our social
existence exemplifies a self-actualization process. That is, we know that the social projects we care about are those we ought
to care about, not just ones we fortuitously care about. The same with our beliefs, desires, and social existence in general;
things are the way they ought to be. Notice that the ability to engage in self-evaluation is worthy on its own, but it is a poor
substitute for self-actualization. 18 Being able to reflect and self-determine which social existence we want for ourselves is not as
desirable as knowing which social existence we ought to want. Indeed, what is attractive about being able to determine for
ourselves is that such a process promises to give us what we ought to want for ourselves.
The self-actualization process allows me to recognize a social life as mine, not my surrogate's. Notice that the recognition is not
dependent on the particular contents of the social life. The explanatory insight we gain through the concept of ori is
demonstrated when we consider the quagmire in folk wisdom about what makes an individual flourish. Most people concede
that material wealth does not make an individual “happy.” The same can be said for having a good job, friends, intelligence, and
an admirable character. We might be tempted to think that a life with all the characteristics is a “happy” one. Not necessarily
so. A moment's reflection shows that such a requirement is neither necessary nor sufficient for the individual to be “happy.” I
want to suggest that a “happy” life is one that is in sync with the individual's self-actualization process. The quagmire is due to
not having the concept of ori (or its functional analogue) as a mode of explanation in the cultural repertoire of the perplexed. Ori
provides an individual with a stable, truly integrated identity that is also first-person perspectival and self-concerned. And it is
this kind of identity that is able to provide unified responses to the identity issues with which I started the essay. 19
Many of the ideas contained herein were first presented in Boston at the 1994 APA Eastern Division Meeting under the
auspices of the APA Committee for International Co-operation. A subsequent refinement was presented in Kingston, Jamaica,
at the 1995 Annual Conference of the International Society for African and African Diaspora Philosophy and Studies.
1. Amelie Rorty, “Introduction,” in The Identities of Persons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).
2. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975),
3. My focus is on the Yoruba, an ancient traditional people of Nigeria. The Yoruba, perhaps more than any other African
group, have contributed greatly to the culture of the Americas. Their influence, in religious and metaphysical terms, extends to
Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Jamaica, and the United States. But there are similarities between their metaphysical system and that
of the Akan of Ghana. For an excellent but general discussion of the Yoruba concept of a person, see Segun Gbadegesin,
African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities (New York: Peter Lang, 1991),
27–59. For a brief look at the Akan system, see Kwasi Wiredu, “African Philosophical Tradition: A Case Study of the Akan,”
Philosophical Forum 24.1–3 (1992–93): 48–51.
4. As Gbadegesin duly points out, another term for ori is enikeji, which roughly translates “partner” or “surrogate.” He quotes,
with approval, Wande Abimbola's claim that ori is a divinity. I argue later in the essay that it is perhaps more accurate to claim
that the Yoruba maintain a “divinity stance” toward ori. That is, they only relate to ori as if it is a divinity.
5. Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. John Cottingham (New York: Cambridge University Press,
1986), 16–23. See M. A. Makinde, “An African Concept of Human Personality: The Yoruba Example,” Ultimate Reality
and Meaning 7.3 (1985):195.
6. Ibid. 196.
7. Ibid. 198.
8. This is one approach. Another is to think of the Yoruba as being in an objective-subjective participatory mode with the
body. Since she is not her body, a Yoruba ‘sees’ her body as an object, so to speak. But she also ‘sees’ her body as
intrinsically hers. The synthesis is a system that posits metaphysical components of bodily parts. For now, I choose the former
9. After all, the Yoruba do literally say that if we must choose between the orisa and ori, we are better off with the support of
10. Similar to Daniel Dennett's notion of intentional stance. See his The Intentional Stance (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT/Bradford
11. Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), Part 3.
12. See, e.g., Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 29–70.
Nozick calls his the closest continuer theory.
13. For a strong opposing viewpoint, see Marya Schechtman, “The Same and the Same: Two Views of Psychological
Continuity,” American Philosophical Quarterly 31.3 (July 1994).
14. Sydney Shoemaker, “Persons and their Pasts,” Identity, Cause, and Mind (New York: Cambridge University Press,
15. Bernard Williams, Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).
16. This is probably the point Marya Schechtman is making but within the Lockean tradition. Her acrobatic effort to save the
Lockean intuition fails. She guesses right that she needs a “substance-self,” but without ori (or a functional analogue) to work
with, her reading of Locke is too forced. See Schechtman, “The Same and the Same,” 202, 206ff.
17. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. P. H. Nidditch, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 633–36.
18. H. Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971).
19. A word on thought experiments. Since the publication of Kathleen Wilkes's Real People: Personal Identity without
Thought Experiments (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), it has become fashionable to be unduly skeptical about
the power of thought experiments to deliver reliable judgments about personal identity. For me, it is precisely because the
notion of a person is ordinarily too vague that we need thought experiments to make more precise the real issues.
Understandably, the more a thought experiment subsists on our background knowledge, the more we are likely to consider its
judgments firm and reliable. But that is the nature of the beast here and in many other things, too.
6 The Concept of the Person in Luo Modes of Thought
D. A. Masolo
A careful reading of the debates on the concept of juok reveals the heavy burden of colonial influence in our ways of thinking
about the world since the arrival of colonial institutions. Juok is a Luo concept, and it is usually translated as “soul” or “spirit.”
Some African philosophers have taken note and rightly warn against the failure on the part of African philosophers to critically
clean African thought of colonial superimpositions. Among such avant-garde thinkers is the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi
Wiredu. He decries the colonial legacy evident in representations of African thought as the function of “the historical imposition
of foreign categories of thought on African thought systems through the avenue of language, religion, and politics.” 1 In his now
classic text The Invention of Africa, V. Y. Mudimbe clearly charted the historical drama of the European construction of the
idea of Africa through the triple discursive enterprises in anthropology, mission work, and political domination. 2 It was
constructed under the shadow of the Christian paradigm. The early works of the first generation of African intellectuals reflect
this legacy in their use of the categories of European thought to explain and analyze African thought. It is to this mold of African
thought that Okot p'Bitek's and Bethwell Ogot's debates on the concept of juok clearly belong.
Concerning Okot p'Bitek, he is not the typical disciple of Western thought, yet he is neither a disciple of Mbiti nor Idowu. 3
Much of his scholarship was dedicated to drawing sharp opposition between African and Western thought and value systems.
By many measures
he was an uncompromising cultural nationalist, a characterization to which, I believe, both his scholarly and poetry works attest.
His famous satirical poems Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol are a scathing derision of Western cultures and of Africans who
have been blinded by them into rejecting their own heritage. But there is an irony to the significance of the intervention of such
critics like Okot p'Bitek: they double simultaneously as both insiders and rebels in the practice of postcolonial theory and
critique. It is not their mistake. It is the nature of the dialectic in the history of colonialism and its negating aftermath.
It is within this paradoxical standing of postcolonial theory that one finds elements of Western thought firmly rooted in Okot
p'Bitek's works, even as he viciously critiques the imposition of Western categories on African thought systems. P'Bitek's
critique focuses especially on the study of African religions and, by extension, on the entire discipline of social and cultural
anthropology. In African Religions in Western Scholarship, p'Bitek criticizes social anthropology as a typical colonial
discipline that was created as an appendage and justification of European expansionism. He characterized it as specializing in
the study of the “problems related to the culture and welfare of the less advanced peoples of [the] Empire.” Throughout
imperial Europe, programs for the study of the colonized peoples were hosted in the Royal Institutes, either of Anthropology,
as in Britain, or of Overseas Studies, as in Belgium. P'Bitek contends that anthropology was a colonial discipline and that its
language and conceptual framework were the representational tools of the colonizer and were irrelevant in independent African
institutions. According to p'Bitek, “Western scholars have never been genuinely interested in African religions per se. Their
works have all been part and parcel of some controversy or debate in the Western world.” 4 Similar sentiments recently have
been restated by a new generation of Western anthropologists, who view the old anthropological tradition as largely a
European self-projection through representing others as “that which the European self was not.” The works of Clifford Geertz,
James Clifford, Marcus and Clifford, Marcus and Fischer, and Johannes Fabian echo p'Bitek's contempt for cultural
anthropology. 5 Within the context of postcolonial theory, p'Bitek's critique aptly foreshadowed both the idea of the European
invention of Africa 6 and the calls for the decolonization of the mind such as one finds in the work of the novelist Ngugi wa
Thiong'o and of Wiredu. 7 Along with this general project, adds Rosalind Shaw, was the invention of “African traditional
religions” as the more “primitive” genre of religion as perceived through Judeo-Christian categories
of the West. 8 According to Shaw, “‘Invention’ critiques such as Mudimbe's would seem to apply with particular force to the
study of religion, given that the term ‘religion’ itself is absent from the languages of many of the peoples whose practices and
understandings we describe as their ‘religion.’” 9 Shaw's argument is not so much that terminologies cannot be adapted across
cultures to stand in for ideas similar to those for which a term may refer in its linguistic origin. Her objection is to the “invention”
of previously inexistent realities through the uncritical transfer of terms between possibly unrelated sets of categories of thought
and practice. In other words, the taxonomic archive of anthropology, by which we know and identify various aspects of
non-Western cultures, acquire their significance only from their comparative and derivative status vis-à-vis their Western
springs. Thus, she argues, “if we examine those traditions usually selected as ‘world religions’, we find that even if they have
little else in common, they have written texts, explicit doctrines, and a center or centers of authority, all of which have
characterized those religious forms which have been dominant in the West.” 10 Similarly, the so-called African traditional
religions were created, with the collaboration of Christian-trained African theologians, through the authorized translation of
Christian concepts and doctrines into indigenous African languages. That this practice took place and continues in a controlled
manner is evidenced by the controversies frequently precipitated by African clerics, like the former Zambian Bishop Emmanuel
Milingo. They were considered wayward when they proposed to incorporate “rejected” African concepts and practices (like
the acceptance of the idea of the existence of ghosts and the practice of their exorcism) into mainstream Christian liturgy.
The Status of Dualism in the Luo Conceptual Scheme
P'Bitek remains one of the sharpest critics of Western anthropology in Africa, especially of the Christian missionaries' use of its
conceptual categorization of African thought. In this p'Bitek sharply differed from B. A. Ogot who appeared to have been
enamored to Tempels's idea of an “African philosophy.” Like Tempels, Ogot sought to study jok as a key theoretical
(conceptual) linkage between, on the one hand, “African customary practices and institutions” and, on the other, “African ideas
of the universe, of existence, and of destiny—particularly
important if world religions such as Christianity and Islam are to have their roots in the African soil.” 11 According to Ogot,
there were “old” and “new” African beliefs and practices, the former “pagan,” and the latter owing their nature to the process
of Christianization and Islamization. Furthermore, he confided in the Western anthropologists to show “us [Africans] what can
be done with some of these concepts,” just like “Evans-Pritchard has recently shown in his analysis of the term kwoth which,
as I hope to show, is similar to jok in many respects.” 12
Both Ogot and p'Bitek concur that the concept of jok or juok could not simply be wished away, since it occupied a central
place in the Nilotic people's languages and conceptions of the universe. However, the two differed fundamentally in regard to
the meaning or conceptual nature of the term. Ogot first: in his view, which concurs totally with those of the anthropologists
who have studied the concept as it occurs in the languages, beliefs, and practices of several other Nilotic groups, “The term jok
or juok usually means God, spirit, witchcraft, ghost or some form of spiritual power.” 13 It is quite apparent from Ogot's
discussion of Lienhardt's, Howell's, and Thomson's studies of the Shilluk and of Evans-Pritchard's The Nuer that the
translations were significantly influenced by Christian categories. 14 The characterization of the Shilluk's senses of juok into two
levels of spirit (wei) and body (del) as the Shilluk version of the “trinity” is interesting if not altogether suspect of imposition on
them of non-useful foreign categories with new meanings. Lienhardt must have relied on the frequent and dispersed uses of the
term in Shilluk language to infer that juok was in everything and so must have been for the Shilluk the first principle, the ultimate
explanation for everything, and the necessary logical concept. 15 Lienhardt indicates further that the Shilluk distinguish the jok
mal (the jok up high, allegedly the heavenly jok or spirits) from the jok piny (the jok below or worldly spirits). The distinction
is attributed to Nyikang, the founder of the Shilluk nation according to Shilluk legend. Nyikang is also characterized as their first
ancestor. According to Lienhardt, this distinction indicated quite clearly that the Shilluk hierarchize the jok powers into divine
ones and worldly ones that derive from the former. Thus, he deliberates, the jok mal refers to the creative powers of God,
while the jok piny refers to the orderliness of the Shilluk world, especially their socio-political organization that Nyikang
oversees on behalf of the divine.
But the heaven–earth distinction alleged by Lienhardt and his fellow scholars is hardly a Luo conceptual distinction. The Luo
mal or malo in purely spatio-physical senses. Polo malo is where the clouds gather and birds fly. It is the “location” of the
stars, the most prominent among which is the sun, chieng'. Due to their relative size from the human position, other spatial
bodies only twinkle (mil) like fireflies in the night; they are twinklers, otide (plural for otit), but the sun, chieng', glares (chieng'
rieny). Although the Luo attach great importance to the sun, it is unlikely that they think of it as a deity or of its position as the
abode of supernatural entities. Polo malo merely means “up in the air” as opposed to on the ground piny. The sense
“identified” by Lienhardt appears newly introduced into Luo reference to indicate something close to the Christian “heaven” as
the binary opposite of “earth” in the Christian sense of “worldliness.” Thus rather than “identifying” in the Luo languages the
Luo use of the term “mal,” Lienhardt and his fellow European scholars were in fact imposing on Dholuo a new use of the term.
This imposition had some fundamental conceptual problems as the analysis of p'Bitek's notion of jok later will show. The Luo