Maasai Concepts of Personhood: The Roles of Recognition, Community, and Individuality

International Studies in Philosophy 34 (2):57-82 (2002)
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Abstract

There has been a debate, popularized by Ifenyi Menkiti and Kwame Gyekye, regarding philosophical understandings of the human person in Africa. The debate revolves around the saying "So and so is not a person." Gyekye convincingly argues that the saying is a manner of speech, intended to be a moral evaluation of a person's actions. Menkiti, however, goes further and suggests that many of the African conceptions of a person are based on a dynamic understanding of the self. Similar findings were made of Maasai concepts of personhood in the study done by Patrick Dikirr. The "potential self" is not given but is always being constructed by one's deeds and one's relations. While it is certainly a romanticization to imagine Africans as harmoniously communal in contrast to the "isolated individuals" who supposedly inhabit the West, nevertheless, for a Maasai one gains self-identity and status to a large extent through one's relations to other persons and to animals. However, the paper illustrates the many ways in which Maasais still emphasize individual achievement and thought, debunking notions of African "group-think" and conformity. The paper then draws on Axel Honneth's insights into "recognition" to note the extent to which Maasai recognition of each other prevents the community's capitulation to the value system of other ethnic groups in Kenya or Western influence.

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Gail Presbey
University of Detroit Mercy

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