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Good and Beautiful: A Moral-Aesthetic View of Personhood in African Communal Traditions

12 February 2016


I articulate an African view of personhood that combines beauty and goodness–aesthetic and moral features. I discuss the idea of communalism, which provides the social and moral values and belief system that give meaning to this view of personhood. I use ideas from some African ethnic traditions, or some people’s account of these traditions, as examples to illustrate this view. The similarities in these examples from different ethnic traditions indicate that it is reasonable to characterize this view as a common theme that may plausibly represent many African cultures. This essay does not seek to provide an anthropological descriptive view, but a plausible philosophical stance on how we ought to understand the idea of personhood in African cultures. I do not suggest that all African cultures or traditions have exactly the same view or that they hold this view in the same way, extent or degree. Obviously, there may be minor differences that do not alter the essence of the view.

Many of the authors quoted in this paper who have written on African philosophy use the phrase, ‘African culture’, ‘African tradition’, ‘African view’ or ‘African society’. Thus, it has become commonplace in African philosophical circles that when the prefix ‘African’ is used in the literature on African philosophy, it does not imply that Africa is a monolith or that its traditions are static. There is a recognition that some traditions have changed or are changing. The use of ‘African tradition’ usually indicates a generalizing theoretical abstraction about some enduring and dominant similar themes or ideas in many African traditions. It is also meant to contrast ‘African’ with ‘Western’ traditions, and to also respond to Western critiques of Africa as a group. It is used in a similar way in which the prefix ‘Western’ is used in the literature. This notion of ‘Western’, which is replete in the literature, does not suggest the West is a monolith, but rather, a reference to some similar dominant themes in Western thought.


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