African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities

By Segun Gbadegesin | Go to book overview

2
ENIYAN: THE YORUBA CONCEPT OF A PERSON

In this chapter, we are concerned with the issue of human existence. I would like to address the question 'what is a person'? Deriving either from introspective reflections or from observations of life, this question is a crucial one which any rational human being is bound to raise at some point. That some traditional thinkers in African cultures must have raised such a question should be obvious from an examination of the traditional conceptual schemes. I will limit myself here to the Yoruba traditional thought, while drawing out similarities and differences through comparison with the Akan conceptual scheme. The reason for this should be obvious. I have an intuitive understanding of the Yoruba language; and this makes it easier for me to investigate the conceptual scheme derived from it. Second, the problem created by generalization for all traditional African societies has been demonstrated by several studies and should be avoided. However, a comparison of the Yoruba and Akan views on these issues is perfectly in order, fortunately because there are philosophical studies of the Akan conceptual schemes on the same subject. 1

The Yoruba word for person is ènìyàn. However, ènìyàn, has a normative dimension, as well as an ordinary meaning. Thus it is not unusual, referring to a human being, for an observer to say "Ki i se ènìyàn" [(He/She is not an ènìyàn]. Such a comment is a judgment of the moral standing of the human being who is thus determined to fall short of what it takes to be recognized as such. I will come back later to the requirements of being, morally speaking, an ènìyàn. In the language, greater emphasis is placed on this normative dimension of ènìyàn, perhaps more than is placed on the concept of person in English language. For

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