Ifeanyia A. Menkiti's "Person and Community in African Traditional Thought"








Background on Minkiti:




Relation of African thought to Existentialism:



Discussion Questions:

  1. Does Menkiti accurately assess the person-community relationship in our country?  What are some images “of the lone individual” in our culture that support or contradict his point? 
  2. Menkiti asserts that “language and its associated social rules” foster a sense of community in traditional African society.  Cannot the same be said of our culture as well? 
  3. He also attributes “a long process of social and ritual transformation” to African culture as if we lack identity-related rituals in our own culture (132).  These “rituals of incorporation,” he says, involve “the overarching necessity of learning the social rules by which the community lives," including rituals "of initiation at puberty time” (133).  Again, he is writing about traditional African society, but we too develop in our knowledge of social rules through ritualistic activities, do we not?  How might identity formation in America--contrary to Menkiti's sense of our culture--be “processual” and/or ritualistic? 

  4. Menkiti associates “personhood” with “ethical maturity.” Echoing other thinkers, he states that “the transgression of accepted moral rules gives rise not just to a feeling of guilt but to a feeling of shame" (135).  In your opinion, does the same association of personhood and ethical maturity obtain in our culture?  What do the things Menkiti mentions--transgression, moral rules, guilt, and shame--have to do with this issue?

  5. Menkiti brings up the issue of animal rights and states that “the domain of animals is bound to undermine, sooner or later, the clearness of our conception of what it means to be a person” (135).  Do you agree or disagree?  Why?

  6. Naturally, the article raises the issue of freedom.  If one’s identity/personhood depends on connections to community, can one be free nonetheless?  On the other hand, is it possible to be an isolato and still be constrained?  In your opinion, what is the essence of freedom?  Does it really have to do with being a part of a community (or not)?  Try to come up with examples to support your points.

  7. Find out more about Existentialist Philosophy and try it on for size.  Does it fit?  Why or why not?

  8. Does the African American community emphasize community over individual or the reverse?  In other words, does the development of personhood echo Western culture or African culture?