The Notion Of The Human Person In Kierkegaard Vis-à-Vis African Individual

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The Notion Of The Human Person In Kierkegaard Vis-à-Vis African Individual

Chapter One

1.0 Introduction

There are diverse understanding of the concept of the human person among thinkers and philosophers. In this regard, Arthur C. Danto affirms that “Neither in common usage, nor in philosophy has there been a univocal concept of ‘person”[1].

But basically, the English word ‘person’ is derived from the Latin word, ‘persona,’ which can be traced to the Greek ‘prosopon,’ which in its original sense denotes the ‘mask’ worn by an actor. Later it came to refer to the role played by the actor or the dramatist, and finally to the human being as an actor on the stage of life; as Willaim Shakespeare says: Life is a stage where each person is an actor. Cicero used the term ‘person’ to denote an assumed appearance, a mark of distinction or dignity or a sum total of personal qualities.

Legally speaking, person denotes a subject of law, a being bound by law. This is evident in the Roman legal system where person designates cives Romani-the Roman citizen, a man who enjoys the citizenship (civitatis) or freedom (libertatis). In this sense, person refers to that being that possesses certain rights and conditions that make him capable of exercising them.

Nevertheless, the advent of the existentialist style of philosophizing brought about a kind of ‘Copernican revolution’ to the understanding of the human person in the history of Western philosophy. Kierkegaard, the “father of modern existentialism and the first European philosopher who bore the existentialist label”[2] paid particular attention to the concept of the human person. Just like Heidegger who pointed out the forgetfulness of ‘Being’ in traditional philosophy occasioned by the influence of science, Kierkegaard reacts against the forgetfulness of the concrete problems of the “thinking subject” in the history of thought. The early Greek philosophers were physicists, who had no direct concern about the human person. It was Socrates who first directed the attention of philosophy to the issues about man himself. After Socrates, the concrete problems of the human person were forgotten again until the dawn of existentialism.

Existentialism has been described “not as a ‘philosophy’ but rather as ‘a style of philosophizing’”[3]. It is a style that may lead those who adopt it to very divergent convictions about the world and man’s life in it. This diversity is obviously evidenced by a study of the thought of such existentialist thinkers like Kierkegaard, Sartre and Heidegger. Kierkegaard believes in the existence of God, Sartre denies the existence of God, whereas Heidegger neither affirms nor denies the existence of God. However, there are some strings of similarities in their general considerations of the business of philosophy and also in the understanding of the concept of the human person.

The first significant common feature of the existentialist philosophers is that they

begin from man rather than from nature. Existentialism is a philosophical movement concerned with the subject rather than the object. This is unlike idealism, which starts from the subject only as the “thinking subject”. For the existentialists, “the subject is the existent in the whole range of his existing”[4]. He is not only a thinking subject but also an initiator of action and a center of feeling. With regard to this, Sartre says, “Man’s existence precedes his essence.”5 He highlights that “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world and defines himself afterwards”6. Thus, the existentialists, unlike the traditional Western metaphysicians concentrate on problems that are directly related to human existence rather than on the abstract or speculative issues.

In relation to the “existing subject”7, the existentialists treat such themes as freedom, decision, responsibility, finitude, guilt, alienation, despair, death, the emotional life of man, problems of language, history, society, and being. Some of these matters, which are of great interest to the existentialists, have hitherto scarcely been regarded as appropriate themes for philosophy at all. However, it is in the exploration and development of these themes, drawn mostly from the affective elements in personal life that the existentialist philosophers have made their most important and characteristic contributions to philosophy.

The African equally has a well-developed view of the “existing subject”. For the African, the “existing subject’, that is, the human person is not alone in the exercise of his freedom, decision, choice, responsibility and so on. He is a being with-others. He is never an Island in the world of things and persons. Hence, John Mbiti has to say of the African man: “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am”8. Africans have a unitary world-view. These imply that while Kierkegaard’s individual, the “existing subject,” is highly individualistic, Africans make a further step of considering the individual not just as a selfish existing subject, but more as a subject existing among other subjects. In Heideggerian parlance, the African considers the human person as a “being-with”. It is this rather conflicting notion of the human person in Kierkegaard and the African that forms the crux of this investigation.

1.1 Statement of the Problem

The notion of the human person has been a matter of serious concern to the existentialist philosophers. But prior to the emergence of this movement, philosophers have neglected the matters concerning the concrete existing man. The pre-Socratic philosophers concentrated on the cosmological aspect of the world. It was Socrates who came and for the first time, directed the attention of philosophy to man. His belief is that all the physical existent exist only in relation to the existing subject. And this is correct. But no sooner had Socrates gone out of sight than the concrete problems of man in his environment were forgotten.

Philosophers deviated from the existing individual to the physical sciences. Philosophers over the ages have been philosophizing on abstract principles that have no direct relevance to the existing individual. This led to the depersonalize, dehumanization and objectification of the human person. Man was no more regarded as a dignified being but rather considered in relation to the function he was able to perform. This frightening erosion of human values and the abysmal depreciation of the dignity of the human person reached its apogee at the dawn of the twentieth century technological advancement. To be particular, the absence of the ‘person’ as an existent in the philosophy of Hegel woke Kierkegaard from his ignoble slumber and brought forth the birth of existentialism.

Hence, it was kierkegaard’s rebellion against Hegel’s dissolute pantheistic contempt for the individual that became the ‘point de depart’ of contemporary existentialism. Thus, Kierkegaard insists on “studying man in his radical singularity and individuality, a man who is constantly faced with making momentous decisions that spell the difference between authentic and inauthentic existence”9. He considers the individual’s lived experience in its unrepeatable uniqueness. Existentialism therefore abhors any attempt at objectification or universalization of that which eminently is singular and belongs to the individual.

Now, there is a relevant question to be asked: Does the Kierkegaardian existentialism have any room for the other individuals? Or, does every individual have to face his world of existence alone? The attempts to answer the questions will definitely brings us face to face with either the convergence or divergence between kierkegaardian and the African notions of the human person. How to solve this problem is the basic problem we are posed to grapple with.

1.2 Purpose of Study

The purpose of this study is a comparative analysis between kierkegaardian view of the human person and the African view. This, when done, will hopefully go a long way in helping us know what an authentic person should be. The work attempts an integration of the Western view of the human person represented by Kierkegaard, and the African conception. Hence, rejecting the depersonalization, objectification and dehumanization of man, we come to know really what the existing individual actually is.

1.3 Scope of Study

This work is not going to exhaust all that Kierkegaard treated on the existing individual. But as space allows, his major view of the individual as a free human agent who is able to choose his actions and take responsibility for his choices and decisions will be considered. This will be juxtaposed with the African notion of freedom, choice and decision of the existing individual.

1.3 Methodology of the Work

The problem before us is not a metaphysical one, but an existential one. Therefore, I will apply the method of existential and comparative critical analysis of what the authentic self should be-drawing from Kierkegaardian and African conceptions. Man will be considered not only as a thinking subject, but also as an existing subject.

1.5 Division of Work

This work is divided into five chapters. The first chapter tries to give the general introduction to the work. Herein, the problem to be tackled, the purpose, scope, methodology and the division of the work are given. In the second chapter, we shall attempt the review of literature on the notion of the human person from the inception of critical philosophy in Ancient Greece till the contemporary age. An exposé of Kierkegaardian notion of the human person is given in chapter three, whereas the African concept of the individual in highlighted in chapter four. In chapter five, we shall attempt the juxtaposition of the Kierkegaardian and the African person. This will be an evaluation of both views and finally, a conclusion on what the authentic self should be from the perspective of the researcher.

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Thus far in this work, one necessarily must discover some points of convergence and divergence in the exposition and treatment of our subject matter, that is, the Kiekegaardian versus the African notion of the human person.

The existentialist philosophers are generally concerned with man as a subject; not only as a thinking subject but also as a free acting agent. So, man for them as a free acting agent. So, man for them is man-in-the-world and not the self-enclosed ego of Descartes. Avoiding the self-enclosed consciousness of Descartes, Gabriel Marcel insists that those spiritual activities of man such as hope and love and fidelity, which involve the relationship of person to person reveal the subject as essentially ‘open’, not self-enclosed77. Man, therefore, as considered by the existentialists, is the concrete human person, not an abstract epistemological subject. At the same time, he is considered through a particular perspective, namely as a free, self-creating and self-transcending subject. By “self-creating”, it is meant that what man becomes depends on his freedom, on his choices”78. As a self-transcending subject, man transcends himself, in the sense that he is not identified with his past. He is never satisfied with his given situation, but strives to go beyond himself. According

Jasper and Marcel, man is also the self-transcending subject in the sense that he cannot only enter the sphere of personal communication with other human beings, but also affirm his relationship with the Transcendent, that is, with God.

In Kierkegaard, like in other existentialists, we see man as a free agent not as in the scientific analysis performed by the physiologist. Rather, he tries to illuminate human freedom and its implication with a view to promoting authentic choice. Thus, Kierkegaard drew attention to what it means to be an existing individual, above all, to what it means to be a Christian. By man’s free choice, he is separated from the ‘crowd’ and attains authentic existence in a way which cannot only be theorized about.

The African man equally sees free choice as what makes an individual. Man is not the metaphysical man for the African. He is an existential man living together with his brothers here. He makes his choices. It is in the free choice of the African man that his notion of the human person differs from that of Kierkegaard and some other existentialists. We see the juxtaposition of both views shortly.

Kierkegaardian Person Versus The African Individual

Kierkegaard fought the system of thought that carried objectivity to an extreme. He wanted to bring subjectivity to assume its rightful place. In a bid to achieve this, he ignored the role of objectivity in existence. He identified authentic existence with a total and complete immersion in the practice of Christianity. Christianity for him, “protests every form of objectivity; it desires that the subject should be infinitely concerned about himself”79. Thus, by his lone choice, the “authentic man” separates himself from the “crowd”, leaves his sensuous life when it is unsatisfactory and chooses the ethical life; when unable to live the ethical life unaided, he succumbs to God in utter subjectivity. This is authentic existence for Kierkegaard, as is done in true Christianity. In such subjective union with God, truth is found, he maintains.

By this Kierkegaardian view, he has neglected utterly the existence of other individuals. This is an outright individualistic notion of the individual. A Christian who is infinitely concerned about himself is never a good Christian. Arguing against this Kierkegaardian view, P. Atueyi says, “though objectivity should not be the definitive character of one’s personality, to argue that objectivity is useless and could be done without in a meaningful human society does not stand the test of criticisms”80. According to him, there cannot be peaceful co-existence without some form of agreement between individuals. But the Kierkegaardian “authentic person” has no room for other persons as he moves towards union with God. This view of the human person is just like the biblical Cain whom when asked about his brother Abel, says that he is not his brothers keeper. He is infinitely concerned about himself.

In African, on the other hand, we see a unitary world-view. There is communal living. Every individual cares for the welfare of others. The individual, as a free agent, makes his free choices in consideration for others. One has to consider if one’s choices will hinder the progress of other members of the community. A choice that is made against the community is null and void.

Freedom for the African man is freedom-with. Both Kierkegaard and the Africans see freedom and choice as a characteristic of the authentic individual. But while Kierkegaardian freedom, and even pragmatic freedom lay emphasis on ‘individual’ as a subject of choice, the African highlights ‘individual-with-others” as the focus of freedom. The African in his characteristic “man-with-others” chooses for the community while choosing for himself. He puts the communal interest alongside his own while making his free choices. He does not just choose in isolation from others’ considerations.

This helps us to distinguish between ‘self-choice’ and ‘self-collective choice.’ Self-choice tends towards self-seeking and personalism while self-collective choice is altruistic and largely communalistic. At the root of the modern tendency to corruption in both public and private enterprises lies self-choice-a choice conditioned by self-interest. So, Kierkegaardian view of choice, as a major characteristic of the human person, can lead to corruption, selfishness and individualism, for his notion of freedom and choice is self-centered while that of African is community-centered.

Leadership for the African is by consensus. A general opinion is sought before any serious decision is taken. Thus, the Africans recognize some kinds of objectivity in peaceful co-existence, for no man is an island, nor are all men equally gifted. It is in some kind of inter-subjective relation that different kinds of ideas are harmonized for the good and progress of man. Man is a social being. In African special type of socialism (communalism), no individual’s suggestion or contribution is neglected. Kierkegaard could not recognize this.

Furthermore, we see in Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” an unreasoned choice. This notion of choice can be irreconcilable to an atheist. Africans do not make an unreasoned choice. The African man weighs the pros and cons of his actions before he chooses. An action that may bring disharmony is avoided while good actions are embraced. Instead of an unreasoned leap unto God, the reasoned choices of the African man and his ability to conform to the norms of the community are a pre-requisite for a perfect union with God. African community is a communion of unity with God, man and other spirits. Being in peaceful co-existence with the community shows that one is in peaceful co-existence with the ‘whole’. This accounts for the reason why a person who used to foment trouble in the African community while alive is not buried at death. Such a person is thrown into an “evil” forest. This is a sign that the person is neither in union with the “living dead” in heaven, nor with the “Living living” on earth. So, reasoned choice is necessary for the African man, who is to choose the type of life that he wants to live. Whichever way one chooses, one faces the consequences therein.

In Africa, there is no leap from one stage to the other. It is not feasible that every individual must leap chronologically from one stage to the other as Kierkegaard postulates. The African person is harmonized. He synthesizes the sensuous, the ethical and the religious way of life. The much one is able to abhor the sensuous, and embrace the ethical deliberately for the sake of the community, such a person is considered good. There is no chronological leap from one stage to the other in Africa. All the stages are harmonized in every individual. A person in communion with the “whole” today may change to be bad tomorrow and thus separates himself from the “whole”. In like manner, a bad person can change tomorrow and be incorporated into the “whole”. So, for every individual to move chronological from the aesthetic stage to the religious stage is not possible.

The only stages one can find in Africa are the different rites of passage. These rites designate when a person from one stage of life moves to another. These are merely maturity rites. There are such rites as naming ceremony rite, puberty rite, ozo title taking (as in Igbo culture of Nigeria), burial rites and so on. These rites help the African man to know when he is expected to bear the responsibility for his actions. A rite which initiates a person into another stage of life initiates the person into new responsibilities. For Kierkegaard and indeed, all existentialists, freedom and choice has no demarcation. Every individual is free. But Africans accord freedom to people when they have reached the age of reasoning. A child, for instance, lacks moral perception. Most often, children have the tendency towards self-centeredness in action, a tendency to see the world exclusively through their own vantage point. A puberty rite in Africa helps to bring to the awareness of an individual that he/she is not longer a child. At this stage, the person is held responsible for his/her actions and is expected to begin to contribute his/her own quota to the well-being of the community. Choice is therefore not meant for children who are morally unintelligent. Jean Paul Sartres identification of man with freedom accords children and adults the same amount of freedom. This is not correct. A child does not yet know his right and left very well. So, he should not be judged the same way an adult is judged. Full personhood for the African, is reached at adulthood and diminishes at death. By the rites of passage, Africans show when a man / woman should bear the consequences of his free actions.

The human person defines himself alone in Kierkegaard. In Africa, the individual in defined by the community. This does not mean depriving the individual his/her rights, but that the individual is defined to the much he/she is able to live in peaceful co-existence with the community. Thus, priority is given to the duties with individuals owe to the collectivity. The community is a prescriber of norms. It is in an on-going human community that the individual sees himself as man. Kierkegaard even talked about ethics without other individuals. Morality deals with how positively or negatively ones actions affect other. Ones actions are good when they do not offend others, and bad when they offend others. So, there cannot be any use for ethics in the absence of other individuals.

In the light of the above observations, I think it would be accurate to say that whereas Kierkegaardian definition of the human person (as a free-choosing-subject) is minimal, African definition (as a free-choosing-subject-with-others) is maximal. A choice without consideration for others is selfish and individualistic. Such a choice can render the human condition precarious.

The Kierkegaardian view of morality and truth as subjective is different from what we find in Africa. If morality and truth are subjective in this world, there will be chaos everywhere. Every individual is unique and has his/her own idiosyncrasy. In the absence of some kind of inter- subjectivity in the world, there would be no harmony and progress in the human society. The African man believes in Igwe bu ike, that is, unity is strength. It is when we bring our conflicting ideas together, that we can arrive at a synthesis and harmony. Thus, truth and morality cannot only be from the individuals perspective, for the individual is not in a lone world. No man is an island. But Kierkegaardian man seems to be one.

Finally, it must be emphasized that though there are some points of convergence between Kierkegaardian notion of the human person and the African notion, African view contrasts in significant measures with that of Kierkegaard. Just like the Heideggerian being-with and the community man of G. Marcel and K. Jaspers, African man is a product of the community. This African community is not the type that does not recognize God, but a community where God is at the centre. It is not merely a social community, but a community springing up from the African unitary world-view. It is a community of union both with the living and the dead-a community of communal love, caring and peaceful co-existence. It is an egalitarian and an altruistic community where everybody is accorded his/her full right and freedom (with others). In such a community, man is one with the community and at the same time, does not loose his individuality. The African person is defined in this kind of community.

The Authentic Self

The authentic self for me, is the free active agent (subject), who chooses his course of action reasonably in consideration for others. He cannot be a lone man. This is individualism. Rather, he cares for others as for himself, and in union with others moves towards the perfect other-God. He is not only a self-enclosed thinking being, but an existential being in touch with concrete reality. He is discreet as well as a community man. That is, he makes his free decisions alone, but in consideration for others, such a man will be in union with both his fellow men and with God. He is a happy man.


Having gone through the African notion of the human person and that of Kierkegaard I have come to realize that Africans have a rich understanding of the human person. African person recognizes the presence of other persons, while Kierkegaardian person does not. Man, we must know, is not a lone animal. Kierkegaard is a man. Therefore Kierkegaard is not a lone animal. Failing to acknowledge other men in his understanding of the authentic person is a serious omission on the side of Kierkegaard.

There are also other varied understandings of the human person by other philosophers. But any understanding of the human person that does not take into account the well-being of the concrete man in his environment, and does not promote communal peaceful co-existence should re-examine its stand. Any philosophy that does not fight for the betterment of man in his social environment has lost its target. Such neglect may leave man to face the worst. I therefore advocate that the African notion of the individual be imbibed and lived out in all human society. Such way of life is enriching. When this is done, the objectification, dehumanization and depersonalization of man will hopefully cease.

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