Kwame Gyekye

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Kwame Gyekye (born 1939) is a Ghanaian philosopher, and an important figure in the development of modern African philosophy.

Gyekye studied first at the University of Ghana, then at Harvard University, where he obtained his Ph.D. with a thesis on Græco–Arabic philosophy. He has been a Fellow of the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and is a life-time Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Gyekye is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ghana, and a Visiting Professor of Philosophy and African-American studies at Temple University.

Philosophical views[edit]

Person and community[edit]

Gyekye challenges the view that in African thought, community confers personhood on the individual and thus the individual's identity is merely derivative of the community. He attributes this view to African philosopher Ifeanyi Menkiti, as well as socialist political figures like Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, Senegal's Léopold Senghor, and Tanzania's Julius Nyerere.

Instead, Gyekye argues that African thought ascribes definite value to the individual. He cites an Akan proverb, "All persons are children of God; no one is a child of the earth" in support of his argument that a person is conceived as a theomorphic being, having in their nature an aspect of God. This soul (known as okra to the Akan) is described as divine and originating with God. Thus, he argues, a person is viewed as more than just a material or physical object, but children of God, and therefore intrinsically valuable. This intrinsic value, it is argues, makes nonsense of the view that the individual's value stems solely from the community. Similarly, he argues that the person is conceived as a unique individual (as in the proverb "antelope's soul is one, duiker's another"), so that each individual is self-complete, and the reality of the person cannot be derivative and posterior to that of the community.

While Gyekye argues that the individual is ontologically complete, he also acknowledges that people live in community, as in the proverb, "When a person descends from heaven, he/she descends into a human society." In his view, a person's abilities are not sufficient for survival, so that community is necessary for the survival of the individual, as articulated in the proverb, "A person is not a palm tree that he/she should be self-sufficient."

Thus, he argues, it is error to holds that African philosophy denies the individual, but instead, the individual is an intrinsically valuable child of God, intricately linked into a web of human relationships. He cites a Ghanaian artist who wrote, "we are linked together like a chain; we are linked in life, we are linked in death; persons who share a common blood relation never break away from one another."

Bibliography[edit]

  • 1975: "Philosophical relevance of Akan proverbs" (Second Order: An African Journal of Philosophy 4:2, pp. 45–53)
  • 1977: "Akan language and the materialism thesis: a short essay on the relations between philosophy and language" (Studies in Language 1:1, pp 237 44)
  • 1978: "Akan concept of a person" (International Philosophical Quarterly 18:3, pp. 277–87)
  • 1987: An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme
    • (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
    • 1995: revised edition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) ISBN 1-56639-380-9
  • 1988: The Unexamined Life: Philosophy and the African Experience (Ghana Universities Press)
  • 1991: "Man as a moral subject: the perspective of an African philosophical anthropology" in The Quest for Man: The Topicality of Philosophical Anthropology, ed. Joris van Nispens & Douwe Tiemersma (Assen/Maastricht, Netherlands: VanGorcum)
  • 1992a: (ed. Gyekye & Kwasi Wiredu) Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies 1 (Washington D.C.: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy)
  • 1992b: "Person and Community" in 1992a
  • 1992c: "Traditional political ideas and values" in 1992a
  • 1995: "Aspects of African communitarian thought" (The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities)