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1.0             INTRODUCTION

There 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”[1].

But 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 qualities.

Legally 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.

Nevertheless, 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 label”[2] 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 existentialism.

Existentialism has been described “not as a ‘philosophy’ but rather as ‘a style of philosophizing’”[3]. 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.

The first significant common feature of the existentialist philosophers is that they

begin 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 existing”[4]. 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.

In 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.

The 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.



The 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.

Hence, 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 grapple with.

1.2             PURPOSE OF STUDY

The 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.

1.3       SCOPE OF STUDY

This 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.


The 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.


This 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.

[1] A.C.      Danto, “Person” in P.Edwards (ed.), The Enclycopeadia of Philosophy, Vol. 6, (London: Collier Macmillan Pub., 1967), p. 110.

[2] J. Macquarrie, Existentialism, (Great Britain: The Chaucer Press Limited, 1980), p. 53

[3] Ibid., p. 14

[4] Ibid., p. 15

5 loc. Cit

6 loc. Cit

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.

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