Menkiti’s Life “Menkiti was born in Onitsha, Nigeria. He came to the United States to attend Pomona College and went onto Columbia and New York universities for further studies. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard and has taught at Wellesley for more than 30 years. He teaches courses in the area of medical ethics, philosophy of law, philosophy and literature and African philosophy. He has produced two previous collections of poetry, Affirmations (1971) and The Jubilation of Falling Bodies (1978). Published widely in African and American journals, including Philosophical Forum, Harvard Educational Review and Journal of the American Academy of Religion, his poetry has been read on National Public Radio and has received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.” Source: http://www.wellesley.edu/PublicAffairs/Releases/2005/0428052.html http://www.wellesley.edu/PublicAffairs/Releases/2005/0428052.html
Vocabulary perduring (3) dictum ontology (re. being) epistemology (re. knowledge) plenitude (5) ontological progression (7) ontological status (9) circumscribe (22) sine qua non (23) metaphysics (re. reality) atomic (27)
Activity: 7 minutes On the following slide there are seven concepts from Menkiti’s essay. In groups of 2-3 persons, work together to understand one of these concepts. As you do so, find one or more quotations to support your answer. You will report to the whole class. If you finish your group’s concept in the time provided, move on to one of the other concepts.
Key Concepts 1.Society Persons (esp. 28) 2.The role of language (3-11) 3.Minimal and maximal views of the person (6) 4."the processual nature of being" (5) 5."a qualitative difference...between old and young" (7) 6.ethical maturity—a key difference (14-17) 7.personal immortality vs. collective immortality (11-12)
Existentialism “Sartre was the only self-declared existentialist among the major thinkers. For him the central idea of all existential thought is that existence precedes essence. For Sartre there is no God and therefore no fixed human nature that forces one to act. Man is totally free and entirely responsible for what he makes of himself. It is this freedom and responsibility that, as for Kierkegaard, is the source of man's dread.” Source: http://0- www.xreferplus.com.library.winthrop.edu/entry.jsp?xrefid =4272380&secid=.-&hh=1http://0- www.xreferplus.com.library.winthrop.edu/entry.jsp?xrefid =4272380&secid=.-&hh=1
Existentialism’s Key Points There is no God at the core of existence. The universe is indifferent to human beings. The ultimate reality is not consciousness (Descartes) but existence. Existence precedes essence (meaning). We are completely free to determine own meaning through decision and action. We make decisions based on what brings meaning, not necessarily on what is rational. We are completely responsible for creating our lives’ meaning.
Existentialism vs. Africa Similarities: –Both view "personhood, or selfhood, as something acquired" (21); –and "existence does precede essence" (22). Existentialism: –"emphasis on individuals solely constituting themselves into selves" (22); –"man's freedom...from all determining factors, including even reason" (22). –Infant/child and adult have equivalent ontological status. African thought: –Developing selfhood is related to life in community; –infants and children are NOT equal to adults—there is "a qualitative difference" (7). Summary: next slide.
Summary: Existentialism vs. Africa “In the light of the foregoing observations, I take it then that the African view of human personhood and the Existentialist view should not be conflated. Even though both views adopt a dynamic, non-static approach to the problem of definition of human selfhood, the underpinning metaphysical assumptions diverge significantly. Above all, whereas in the African understanding human community plays a crucial role in the individual’s acquisition of full personhood, in the Sartrean existentialist view, the individual alone defines the self, or person, he is to become. Such collectivist insistences as we find in the African world-view are utterly lacking in the Existentialist tradition” (25).
Existentialism Albert Camus is an existentialist.
Camus It is a story about the choice Sisyphus can make between “melancholy” and “happiness” (par. 7). True, it is absurd to be happy in the face of eternal torment, but existentialism’s point is that one makes meaning as one goes along. Meaning, happiness, and well-being are not external constructs; they arise from within us. We choose them—a function of point of view.
More on Camus Absurdity arises from “accomplishing nothing” (par. 4). Heroism relates to joy, happiness, and meaning. One is an absurd hero for concluding that all is well despite failure. Absurdity and happiness lead to each other and reinforce each other. Consciousness makes Sisyphus tragic, but it also marks his triumph. Sisyphus’s actions make his fate: it is “created by him” (par. 9). Existentialism: “the wholly human origin of all that is human” is a matter of individual acts of creation, not a societal function as in Menkiti’s text.
Community What is the difference between the African and the Western conceptions of community? See pars. 26-27.
Community Western thought: –Community is “a mere collection of self-interested persons”; –a community is “the aggregated sum of individuals comprising it” (26). –A community is a “random collection of individuals” and a “non- organic bringing together of atomic individuals into a unit more akin to an association” (27). –The emphasis is on individual rights. African thought: –Communities are “collectivities” that have “an organic dimension to the relationship between the component individuals” (27). –The emphasis is on duty.
Three Types of Communities How would you illustrate each type? “random collections of individuals” “constituted human groups”: “a non- organic bringing together of atomic individuals into a unit more akin to an association than to a community” “collectivities”: “there is assumed to be an organic dimension to the relationship between the component individuals”
Large-group Discussion We now need to evaluate Menkiti’s stark distinction between Western culture and African culture. Is the difference as stark as he believes? In other words, do some of the characteristics that he attributes to African culture also characterize American culture? See next slide.
Do you find any of these supposedly African characteristics in America? “language and its associated social rules” (3) “a long process of social and ritual transformation” (5) “rituals of incorporation” (6) “the older an individual gets the more of a person he becomes” (7) “initiation at puberty time” (10) Ethical maturity as a part of personhood (14) Animal rights’ challenge to personhood (19) Society personhood (29)
Please Note The items on the previous slide can help you generate paper topics.
Final Question Could it be that Menkiti takes a binary (either/or) approach to cultural difference when it would be more appropriate to suggest difference in degree as in a continuum? In other words, is it possible that he has produced a cultural version of the fallacy of false dichotomy? Isn’t it possible to take a maximalist view of personhood and still have rituals of incorporation? END