THE NOTION OF THE HUMAN PERSON IN
KIERKEGAARD VIS-À-VIS AFRICAN INDIVIDUAL
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”.
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
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.
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
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
has been described “not as a ‘philosophy’ but rather as ‘a style of
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.
first significant common feature of the existentialist philosophers is that
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
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.
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.
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.
OF THE PROBLEM
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.
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
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.
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.
OF THE WORK
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.
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.
 A.C. Danto, “Person” in
P.Edwards (ed.), The Enclycopeadia of Philosophy, Vol. 6, (London:
Collier Macmillan Pub., 1967), p. 110.
 J. Macquarrie, Existentialism, (Great Britain: The Chaucer
Press Limited, 1980), p. 53
7 This is the existentialist term for the human person.
8 J. Mbiti, African Religions and philosophy, (New York:
Doubleday and company, 1970), p. 141.
9 F. J., Lescoe, Existentialism: with or without God, (New
York: father and brothers of St. Paul
Publications, 1974), p. 11.
Share on social media: