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Anthropology, Or, in other words, Naturalist Metaphysics as the Foundations of Morals

Anthropology, Or, in other words, Naturalist Metaphysics as the Foundations of Morals



The naturalistic turn in philosophy has put a significant squeeze on transcendental approaches to assumptions about human nature and how human experience takes place. In Western philosophy, Bertrand Russell’s and Quine’s respective epistemological critiques of empiricism not only resuscitated debates along the lines of Hume’s psychological description of sensory experience, they indeed planted the seeds of what has germinated into, and now looks like full-grown naturalism today.

In the African traditions from which African philosophers draw the line between transcendentalism and naturalism is often blurred by the methods of oral presentations which frequently employ allegorical descriptions of natural occurrences.

This situation was made much worse by European agents of Christianity who, in their search for the indigenous stepping stones, pierres d’attente, took any form of language that was not directly empirical to be a form of reference to entities in the spiritual realm or to their claimed actions. The result has left a legacy of conceptual ambiguities based, at least sometimes, on literal translations of metaphorical idioms that may not have been meant to describe the world in terms of religion as we conventionally understand it. The pierres d’attente became pierres d’achoppement, stumbling blocks, to the intended knowledge. My aim here is, at least in part, to argue that transcendentalism, such is used by, say, Immanuel Kant1, to ground his moral theory, is an arbitrarily chosen approach that ignores the more reasonable and naturalist circumstances that explain the foundations of morality. *

Transcendentalism begins with a presupposition: that each individual bears innate (i.e. a priori, as given in the beginning) qualities that determine how their experience of the world will happen. In the case of morals, the innate quality is in the form of a law or command to duty. And since each individual is autonomous from the beginning, each individual bears this duty autonomously of anything or anyone else. The result, then, is that morality is the dutiful practice of the good as demanded of everyone independently and autonomously without any external considerations as it is implanted in the will under the guidance of pure reason.

I have argued elsewhere2 that just because we can act organically only as individuals, or that just because we enjoy pleasant experiences and suffer pain, and eventually also die as individuals, we are easily misled into absolutizing the autonomy and individualism on which these crucial experiences are grounded, or into thinking that besides what individuals inherit from ancestry such as their looks and other genetically transmitted characteristics, every individual is a sui generis entity, and they are right, from a purely organic or biological point of view. In these and probably other senses, every individual has her or his own irreplicable “footprint”, so to speak. As biologists say, the earth appears to be characterized by the individuality of living things as conspicuously bounded , marked off from one another, and very numerous. It is not just humans; it is the character of the earth, and thus describes all living organisms.

Indeed, microbiological science appears to support this obviousness of individuality as part of the widespread idea of what philosophers have frequently referred to as “primary substances”, the irreducible metaphysical existents. Like most other living organisms, we all have our DNAs by which we can be traced and singled out. In regard to humans more specifically, we got accustomed to thinking of individual men or women as bearers of this fundamental autonomy, not just in terms of our presence, but also in respect to what awaits or will become of us in the future. The fact that we think of destiny as projected paths that individuals “walk” in the course of their lives is thus not strange at all. Humans everywhere think in this manner regarding the primacy of individuals and their respective destinies. It is a widespread form of folk anthropology, namely the multiple beliefs representing different forms of mythologizing this fundamental autonomy as sourced by individuals from a common origin. Like their fellow living organisms, human individuals too maintain themselves - that is, they keep themselves alive and reproduce. They maintain their autonomy while living in and mingling within groups. It is in accounting for the boundaries that individuals strive to maintain of their autonomy while also mingling with others that result in the triadic intersection between biology, folk anthropology, and philosophy. Most importantly, this is also where the separations between transcendentalist and naturalist approaches occur.

What exactly, then, is transcendentalism, and how does it impact how we think of the source of morality? I use the term here generally to refer to any approach that establishes, or at least tries, to give an account of the mind and nature as derived from a source beyond nature itself—a source that is, in other words, primary, objective, and indubitable. Such an explanation is, then, anti-empiricist or anti-naturalist. In the history of thought, philosophers have become prime vehicles for the advancement of this kind of explaining “the order of things”, if you wish, but they are hardly the inventors of the idea. Take, for example, the common but non- universal African renditions of beliefs about the origin of the world, beliefs that become crucial especially when viewed in respect to one of their central objectives, namely to account for a preference for a specific understanding of the nature of humans and the order of conduct commensurate with that nature. What philosophers have called “transcendental deduction”3, namely that knowledge of outer states is a precondition for knowledge of inner states, may, in light of such folk anthropological beliefs, now appear to be merely attempts to intellectualize what ordinary folks, including themselves in a certain stance as members of folk communities, already lived by, however implicitly. In the recorded history of thought, assumptions regarding a pre-existing transcendental state traces back to classical Greek philosophy. But we know that a transcendental idealist, such as Plato was, for example, and later re-articulated by Kant, an empirical realist. In other words, the transcendental idealist merely believes that while the world before us may be a representation of an order beyond it, it also bears in its structure every empirical modus required for its operation. What this means, then, is that the difference between transcendental and naturalist accounts of the world is not built on explaining their operation, but in accounting for the origin of the mechanistic ingredients of its operations.

The notoriety of transcendental philosophy is to be found in its account of the moral order, not because it defines or sets the goals of morality differently, but because it insists that the objective of moral conduct is to adhere to transcendental laws of right and good. By insisting that morality is about adherence to duty, transcendental philosophers, or moral theorists—and, again even here only in extending some aspects of what folk anthropology already teaches—insist that the focus of morality is the law written in every individual, or the law within, as it is said, and that a morally virtuous person is she or he who consistently, rightly, and successfully guides her or his conduct by use of pure reason toward adherence to this law. In other words, morality is about duty to oneself, hence the predominant use of pure reason for the understanding of which law is indeed the right law. It is only by extension, and by its impact, that morality becomes public. Among other things, these elements raise crucial questions regarding the concept of ends in Kant’s moral and political theories, and whether, if at all, the idea of community that arises from the idea of ends in these realms is to be understood in the same sense we usually use the term.

The first indication can be what Kant says in the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals about the nature of pure morals.4 Here, Kant states that the ground of (moral) obligation must be sought “not in the nature of man nor in the circumstances of the world in which man is placed, but must be sought a priori solely in the concepts of pure reason; he must grant that every other precept which is founded on the principles of mere experience—even a precept that may in certain respects be universal—insofar as it rests in the least on empirical grounds—perhaps only in its motive—can indeed be called a practical rule, but never a moral law.” It is unlikely that the idea of community that may emerge from the mutual interaction between Kant’s moral agents would be significant beyond the likely but not morally necessary mutual dependency. The latter, for him, would be the subject matter of “anthropology from a pragmatic point of view”, but not of the moral law. Humans need community for their pragmatic needs. But not for either the development or practice of the crucial acts of reason as these are sourced a priori.

One of our challenges is to compare this idea of the individual and community with what one gets, for example, out of the folk anthropological account in Yoruba, modes of thought of the origin of individual capacities in her or his cognitive and moral experience as the grounding of one’s destiny. I am thinking here specifically of the account of individuals’ selection in Ajala’s pottery bam of the “head” that eventually will be .the grounding of their fate—by virtue of the decisions and choices they make—in life once their “making” is complete and they arrive in the world. The irony here is that although these expressions of individualism in terms of one’s management of her or his own fate, such form of individualism was private while leaving the management of public affairs in the hands of councils and other types of representative organizations. In that respect, even a system as sophisticated as the Yoruba religious system appears to have made distinctions between the private and the public realms of a person’s experience and life in general. It is for this reason, I believe, that a scholar like Olufemi Tafwo asserts that the idea in Africa of all-round dominant individual must have been extracted by African prophets from the Euro-American tradition where it had been fostered by the rise of modernism.5 Tafwo argues, however, and rightly so given the type of communalism that he focuses on, that African preachers of communalism blindly followed the colonial erasure of the “the individual” from African thought and social organization. In his view, it was convenient for the colonial system to erase any distinctions in African societies so they could be colonized uniformly as “a type.”6 In fact, I agree, but with a caveat.

The communalist claims Taiwo attacks were of the cheap wave. They emerged at the beginning of the Africanization wave driven by the general anti-colonial sentiments. Incidentally, this type ot communalism was the result of an extension of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s structuralist distinction of two opposed types of solidarity that held societies together.7 While identifying the non-European societies to fall under what he called the “mechanical solidarity” type, he described the European society as the “organic solidarity” type. The former occurs when individuals, in times of need, turns to her community to whose norms she must adjust in exchange for protection and other benefits. The result is that this type of society develops much less diversification. This is what the agents of European colonization planted in non-European subjects. In Europe, on the other hand, Durkheim claimed there was in practice a different kind of adjustment strategies adopted by individuals. They acted independently but in harmony with others. Hence, the claimed organizational contrast between Europe and the rest of the world like Africa: the former is individualistic, while the latter is utterly communalistic. Durkheim’s categories became standard and essentializing identifiers organizational markers for analyzing and distinguishing between European and non-European social structures. It is not how I view these matters.

Viewed differently, though, communalism, or, as it is now obvious that I prefer, communitarianism, is not good because it describes the prevalent value base for understanding cognitive and moral experience, it is good because it is the more sensible way of understanding experience. I have argued elsewhere, just like I said at the beginning of this essay, that while the fact that we all exist, live and even die as individuals is undeniable, those facts alone do not explain much beyond the mechanistic or functional aspect of the human being. What is philosophically interesting is the need to understand how what is given to each individual to “chew” or “churn” mechanistically, so to speak, is generated and how this “chewing” or “churning” contributes to the shared and behavioristically human-defining realms of epistemological, moral, and other types of knowledge. Understanding the mechanistic structure of the human makeup is good and interesting far more only in service of it adds to our understanding of human experience in general, revealing, in the process of pursuing such understanding, that the self, the individual, is what we return to from outside. Others, in their externality, are a precondition for the knowledge of self and its states. This is how any normal person grows and acquires self-awareness. Ironically, and contrary to much but false convention, then, knowledge of other minds is not a projection or inference from one’s own solipsistic stance. Rather, other minds are the precondition for our own self-awareness or self-knowledge. How does the full-fledged, reflective, creative, responsible, and self-conscious mind start to get to do what it does? Put another way, how does mind and self arise within conduct? *

Naturalism is an approach that opposes the otherworldliness of the foundations of human experience—of their mind, soul, or whatever one may wish to call either human capacities, or their drives, desires, inclinations, ends, and so on. By implication, naturalism demands that even in matters like epistemological analyses, interesting matters of the functional order be enjoined to behavioural aspects of knowledge, not for aesthetic design, but rather because they cannot be separated. This, as is well known already, is what I believe Kwasi Wiredu champions.9 The objective is to bring together the social (behavioural) process within which human development takes place, on the one hand, and the biological (functional) level of the social process, on the other. This approach, as you can now see, avoids the kind of individualism that appears to be built on the extremist recognition of the biologic individuality of all of us as I pointed out earlier. Rather, it endeavours to explain social nature of the rise of the mind in the biological process as conjoined with the rise of the self under the same social processes.

Again, at the risk of redundancy, I should say that transcendentalists insist that norms, both general and specifically moral ones, are one type of a priori “stuff.” Certainly, we do not learn (of) them from experience like we do our knowledge of material substances. The abstractness of norms makes ethics both interesting and, sometimes quite confusing as to what exactly is the nature of the kind of knowledge that employ to guide human conduct, and as to where exactly such knowledge comes from. To some extent, there is some similarity with the problem in general epistemology regarding the relationship between particular ideas, such as my idea of this chair, and universal such as the idea of chair in general. Empiricists and idealists have fought over this issue for a long time. How, exactly, does the mind apprehend universals? Despite the intervention of the more recent school of phenomenology, this and other, related issues, continue to divide philosophers. Perhaps, as modem studies in psychology and behavioural studies suggest, knowing how the human brain works might clear new paths. In the meantime, in moral theory, our pull remains toward such normative judgements as this state of affairs would be good or bad for Okonkwo, or that this experience is delightful, pleasant, or repulsive, painful, and so on. Also, that Afwande prefers this dish or shirt to that other one. Finally, that we judge that Okonkwo ought to do this or that, and so on. Human lives are driven daily by these (evaluative, comparative, and directive) types of normative judgement. The fact that we perform these judgements is not in and of itself interesting to the ethicist. What excites her or him is both the nature of, and how we arrive at the norms that we apply to the making of these judgements, and whether or not they should not be applied consistently in all similar situations.

The problem for real people, as opposed to the abstract thinker like we believe the ethicist is, is that situations in life affect how we feel about our comfort and integrity. Our comfort and integrity drive our selection of objects and states that feed them, or at least do not perturb them. This is our well-being, and anything or any state that militates against this wellbeing will be rejected because it is likely to be considered harmful to the well-being. In the conjectural world of individual spheres, humans are likely to go about picking from their domain what, in their intuition or judgement, feeds this well-being. But such a world is hardly human. Rather, the regular human condition involves others as the source of the development of mind and self-awareness, eliciting thereby the individual’s realization of limitations, or fallibility as a cognitive condition of human experience - a realization that becomes real only in the presence of others.10 Isn’t it the case, then, that, intuitively, that what is undesirable should be avoided at all times, and what is desirable be attained or done at all times? My point here is that the evaluative and directive aspects of normativity do in fact interconnect as different levels of the same stream of the psychology of self-preservation or well-being. Either by direct experience or by observation of the experience of others, we define right actions (what it means for an action to be right) and either require or prohibit (normativize positively or negatively) them based on what we either remember as their real consequences of actions on our well-being and the well-being of others, or consider as their possible consequences thereon.

So how, again in real life, do we morally assess the actions of such people as serial or mass killers who, unfortunately, appear to strike with such frequency? Despite its unfair use, attribution of mental problems to individuals or groups who commit such acts is a form of recognition of the relationship between human actions with mental health. Convention is that we hold to be responsible for their actions all individuals who are determined to be mentally healthy, a belief that suggests a correlation between biological (functional) state with behaviour. The idea in this correlation is that any average and better person is one who has developed, at least partly through their growth and development through social immersion, adequate understanding of limitations by being able to distinguish right from wrong as well as the consequences that are associated with each one. It is the presupposition of this social construction of the moral agent that mandates mental examination of people who commit serious crimes as a requirement for the legal administration of justice in such cases. It is for the same reason that the actions of persons with developmental problems such as autistic persons, or those persons who may have suffered severe or debilitating brain injuries, or with emotional disabilities, are assessed differently, usually handed only symbolic legal judgement or are exonerated from culpability altogether. Moral judgement of their actions among those who know their condition is usually even more lenient.11 These and related concerns point to the view that just like in the domain of cognitive experience, moral experience too cannot be understood without taking into consideration the growing input of neuroscience. Moral law does not drop to earth from heaven. Rather, it is a persistent problem whose ever more complex nature gains from developments in the sciences of the brain and the impact of its biological (functional) process on the development of moral normativity.


Why all this is Communitarian

To sum up the above, there are no rules for their own sake. If there are such rules, then we have not, and would likely not encounter them outside the context of the benefits of safeguarding our well-being in the social world. Moral rules emerge out of the world shared with other people whose needs compete with our own, thus putting moral knowledge at the same level with cognitive knowledge as socially generated in a manner that reconciles the functional and behavioural processes as complementary aspects of human nature.

For any transcendentalists still left out there, the challenge is not to recognize, and describe just the fact that individuals think or speak, but to account for how and why she/he thinks or speaks at all, or how at all she/he develops and actually behaves like she/he does.12 Admittedly, this is a very difficult terrain to navigate, which is the reason there are, rightly, so many ways of looking at it, and so much discord among them. However, to take the needful ideal perfection of the individual as an end unto itself is to ignore what this possible perfection would serve in the natural order. It is easy to think, falsely, for example, that an individual with a perfectly functioning biological constitution would not need other humans around her or him. But such an individual would only, for example, have a humanly perfect hearing capacity, a humanly perfect vision, and, perhaps, a humanly perfect brain, although this latter capacity is far less clear than the others in regard to what, exactly, that should make us do. But even in the case of the other senses, no-one else, in their own perfections, would be able to sense exactly what or how another person senses. The realm of knowledge as a corpus of statements with which we describe what or how we sense the world around us would still remain subject to the discourse of comparisons, tests, and conventions. In an ideal world, those comparisons, tests and conventions would be far closer to unanimity if we were all perfect and identical in all our biological endowments of sensorial capacities. Unfortunately, as common and even casual attention to our daily discourses discloses, we are not biologically perfect, nor do we know what that would be or what kind of sensations it would yield. At any rate, pursuit of the functional perfection of the individual is not only good, it is also crucial, hence one can understand

why, alongside believing that every individual is unique as a sui generis, some people have been tempted to infer, as a moral implication, thai^the highest obligation everyone has is to pursue her or his self-interbsts because she or he is the only thing out there that really matters. Then tons of interpretations, applications, and disagreements have arisen from that position, but, at least in respect to morals and ethics, mainly within a range that extends from egoism to liberalism.

Are egoism and liberalism wrong? I am strongly inclined to think that they are not, but that they are vastly different and need to be set apart. While the former is a belief that values the self above all else, its position and possible practice envisages a disparately atomized social condition in which everyone fends just for her- or him-self, and perhaps conflict is viewed as a natural part of the game. European contractarians thought that although this was apt in a state of nature, it was not congruent with a civilized state of human life, meaning a life lived as humans are expected to do by virtue of their rationality.

Remember that famous saying of Hobbes?13 In this passage Hobbes remains faithful to the naturalist psychological approach present among British theorists of his time in understanding individuals’ experience of the external world. Without a mutually benefitting relationship between individual and society, the individual is likely to remain beastly and grotesque in his or her conduct for lack of normative principles. These norms protect while also limiting the individual’s reaches.

There are several ways to look at Hobbes’s view of the contract. From the point of view of political theory, civil society, which can be understood in this sense as a society of humans who recognize what they owe to each other over and above their respective singularity, ought to be the result of the ultimately limiting attention to singularity. Political contracts are ultimately, grounded in the psychological sociality that every individual needs to develop awareness of and desire for norms, and the ability to discern which ones are the best for survival and flourishing. According to Hobbes, this is the natural grounding for ethics and the law as foundations of civil society. Thus, although humans carry in their respective and singular biological constitution the capacity for reason, save for defective anomalies and other genetically inherited or one-time developmental handicaps, they do not'flourish in their singularity.

Anthropological observation makes it just obvious enough for every reflective person to realize that individual and community are so intertwined and mutually conditioning that neither one can be separated from the other in the understanding of human reality. Of the broader animal family, humans are at birth the most underdeveloped members of their species, hence their dependency on other humans.14 As I have just mentioned, Kant, on the other hand, was absolutely individualist, but from a transcendental point of view. His system projects the individual as already metaphysically fully “hardwired”15, so to speak, for the cognitive and moral performances whose formal-functional details are the subject of the two respective Critiques. The endowments give human experience its form. For Kant, then, while experiencing the external world necessarily requires the body, moral knowledge does not as moral reason is drawn directly, deontologically, toward the good, defined as that which is right, as its object that it pursues for its own sake. Duty, then, becomes for Kant the starting point as the active condition under which humans act morally, and it is unconditioned (must not be affected) by the circumstances of the social world such as interests in particular situations.


The Birth of the “Self’

The debate about the nature of the self sways significantly towards the discussion of how “human nature” is to be defined. And, as you probably preempt already, the question, in relation to Kant’s moral theory, is whether the categorical imperative is an innate law that governs the respect for and observance of duty, or a psychological function of relational experience. In other words, what are the motivations in a moral act? Wiredu’s view, which I have called quasi-physicalist for lack of a better term, and classified with philosophical anthropology16 based on the idea of biology as the foundations of human nature and experience, is an outright rejection of deontology. It shows general affinities with what some schools of contemporary social philosophy as well as cognitive and behavioural sciences have contributed to the study of the mental world. In sharing the recognition of human embodiment as the basis of his or her social immersion and empirical orientation to norms, ethics and social philosophy on the one hand, and the cognitive and behavioural sciences on the other, combine to chart a communitarian path to rethinking the nature of selfhood. Their respective positions share the view that there is no evidence for claiming that humans occupy a special relationship with a transcendental being according to whose ordination the empirical and functional structure of humans ought to be seen in light of this special relationship rather than in light of what such structure, when in appreciably good condition, accomplishes. We have seen that in Wiredu’s view, such functional accomplishment does not occur, and has never been, in the absence of a vital empirical condition: the presence of other humans. To call, as Kant does, the will as “a law unto itself’ under the guidance of pure reason a transcendental or innate attribute does not change the naturalist view of moral hard-wiredness which regulates this specific (moral) type of experience that emerges relationally with fellow humans.

The only “a priori moral law” is that humans will develop to be humans, and not birds or frogs. In other words, they will develop, specifically, the capacity to react, in appropriate relational situations, in ways that demand norms (right conduct) in service of a good as a desirable state of affairs (such as “children are protected by everyone”, “a peaceful society”, “there is minimum suffering by few people due to lack of life needs because people take care of each other through state and private practices”, “everyone tries their best to live by the laid down norms of conduct”, “people live in harmony rather than at war with each other”, and so on). The basis of these goods is the natural social condition of human life and experience. They emerge as desirables, or goods, by virtue of this social living and experience. The next question, then, is how exactly the desire for these states of affairs arises in us. Deontologists are likely to point to the internal law which alone is the basis of our perception of obligations. For them, obligation is never toward others who are likely to benefit from other people’s — everyone’s—practice of the specific conduct in line with the rules that bring about the states affairs. Rather, it is only to the internal law, thus to oneself. Benefits accrue from this observance but are not the motivation for the appropriate conduct that brings about the states of affairs.

But what is motivation if not a mental and emotional state that is attached, first and foremost, to self-preservation? Any situation in which humans are restricted to having either one or both as their only companions from birth deprives them of the chance to attain the accomplishments that empirically identify humans not only by their bodies, but, more importantly, by the functional accomplishments that put them into relations with other humans as persons.

We determine what and how much to allot to people based on how we identify them, most of the time in relation to how their actions do or are likely to affect our own interests. We institute norms of conduct not because they produce beautiful mental pictures, unless it is a moral beauty that consists, in our expectations, in a relational arrangement where other persons recognize and respect our interests and wellbeing, but that they may commit to being accountable for their actions as far as they affect us. Similarly, self-perception, including—should the matter arise—what we come to believe to be our and other people’s composite make-up, would seem to derive from our experiences in the world shared with others. But even closer to home, for an overwhelming majority of humankind, it is these social identities, not the number and the rubbing between the monads that make up my toe, that matter to how lives are lived on a daily basis. It is the social world that makes relevant and meaningful—i.e., as warrantedly constitutive of human discourse—the implications of the mechanical processes that take place behind the phenomenological reality of every object and person. For example, hosts hardly ask, prior to serving a meal to their guests, if they checked the physics and mechanical status of their throats to ensure they can get food successfully to move from the cavity called their mouths down to the processing chambers called stomach. There is indeed plenty of physics and chemistry to explain the act of eating food, but often these matter much only when something special—such as weight-watching or allergenic conditions of participants—requires attention, otherwise such details will matter little to the overall significance of gathering for a meal among family and friends.

The social world, which is the world of I, you, she, we, and they, the world of values and norms, the world of ideals and hopes, is populated by people whose embodiment is taken for granted to be functionally sound enough to enable them to contribute to the making of the same social world that enables their own development. Observation of empirical process of growth tells us that humans become competent members of their groups by learning and by imitation, both methods that reveal the human need of and dependency on the protection, teaching, and guidance by others. While protection is vital for survival and for reassurance of security and continuity, teaching and guidance are what produce the differences of separation from other species. To restate Wittgenstein’s opening dicta of the Tractatus, that “The world is all that is the case”, and that “The world is the totality of facts, not of things”17, human growth and development occurs, at least in the epistemological sense of his dicta, along the progressively splitting path of an individual’s own construction of descriptions and norms about the world from the constructions of others, both collective and personal, that molded her. Scientific knowledge, as envisaged by Wittgenstein as the only discipline with the capability to determine the truth of the propositions that tell what the “case” is about the world, is itself constituted of pronouncements that, at the beginning, are only hypothetical when they are serious, and guesswork when casual, before their claims are confirmed.

But whether scientific or of other kinds, the claims that humans need in order to become competent members of their communities come from the lips of those they interact with. And with guidance, then own memory, including memory of how other people have been observed to react to similar pronouncements, every individual learns the different variety of meanings that make up the totality of their world. The laws (of thought) that hold that world together are discerned only later. Without other people to give the teaching and guidance, perhaps there would be no world but things. This view of humans as society-dependent for both their growth and development into persons as human agents is an anthropological approach that is radically different from that suggested in some schools of compositional metaphysics, particularly those, like Kant’s, that are anchored in transcendental metaphysics. In Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View18, Kant limits his account of human reactions and responses to social circumstances to descriptions of emotional or instinctive actions, including the view that it is good to respond to other people’s welfare as their need of protection. Even if the results of such actions may be good, he argued in The Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, such actions are not part of philosophical morality proper, because they are intertwined with interests.

However, instructive by experience, Kant speculated, practical (moral) reason must be shaken down to release the philosophically-borne moral reason. Long ago, on one of our occasional school treats in the form of a trip to the beach, a group of us and Father Brian Allen, our teacher cum supervisor, walked by a white couple with a black child engaged in some entertaining conversation between them. We got awed upon hearing the child, who was probably aged about seven or eight years, speak in what we had become accustomed to identifying, based on acquaintance with the Biology teacher in Junior High, as a typical London accent. Our jaws dropped, in admiration, of course. Now, because “identity” was not the issue it is today, it never even crossed our minds, at least not in an explicit or significantly interrogating manner. But how on earth, we wondered, did this little girl acquire this mode of speech? Well, she may have been adopted, or by some other form of acquaintance had acquired this form of Englishness.

Today, despite the often disorienting identity discourse which they inevitably evoke, mobility of peoples and immersions in what were once regarded as cultures of distant peoples from us and our own have become commonplace. Voluntary migrations, international adoptions across national and cultural borders, as well as the abominable but real modem forms of slave trade, such as human trafficking, are but only some of the known cases of people rewriting or changing the course of their life narratives across the globe. They are adopting new languages and the cultural nuances that come with speaking and writing in them; they are acquiring new world-views that come with their new Fiscal identities, roles and rights, and they are changing their new neighborhoods in similar and multiple other ways. And all these social realities of our contemporary world suggest one significant character of humanity: that of all living species, humankind alone comes into the world incomplete and lacking in fixed nature. Endowed only with the capacity to develop into what will make him/her into a functionally competent member of his/her species, members of the species depend on each other for the longest time for these capacities to develop through levels of gradual maturation by means of training, testing, and guided application. Thus, the human self is made, and does not descend in a complete form from a transcendental world. It is not born. Critically indeterminate having come into the world free of any preconceptions of the world and prejudices of culture, the self is, by virtue of his/her corporeality, nonetheless subject to specific cultural systems as the inevitable empirical means for development until such time that he/she can wave these away as “necessary contingents”. In other words, the idea that human selves are sociogenic beings is a concept that is hard to sift from how human beings become persons. But the formative content of this conditioning, such as the cultural beliefs that it defines itself by from place to place, are contingent as they are particular.

The humanism I describe above is built on an anthropology that is free of hegemonic views of human ontology and destiny beyond what can only metaphorically be represented. Above all, it lies at the heart of Kwasi Wiredu’s philosophical view of human nature as having no greater call than to recognize the fundamental role of community, and diligently to perform those duties that are commensurate with such recognition. Society makes it possible for the capacities of the human self to be stimulated into functional reality the same way plugging a copper wire power cord into a power line enables it to conduct current, all because the copper wire already bore the capacity to do so. With a small difference: human capacities do not perform full throttle by mere appearance in society. They gradually have to be loaded up, so to speak, by habitual imitation, and by training and education. Humans are biologically “hardwired” to develop those capacities to their levels of full function. Mind, the capacity to process information in a certain form, is thus socially originated. It is unlikely, for example, on this anthropological account that anything emerges from human experience whose adjudication does not run through social mediation. Truth, good, right, bad, and the idea of normativity itself, are inter-subjective concepts at core.

While we all inherit the rational tools for negotiating “the world” we get born into, we are not unsalvably tied to such heredity except where critical reason gives us grounds for preferring them to others. Such critique :an take place within sets of frameworks, a practice that accounts for growth of sets without abandoning their basic axiomatic underlays. Traditions propel themselves through history in that manner. But another critique can occur by comparing the results of specific problem solutions of one set with those of another set based on their respectively relevant and comparable methodological applications. We have seen, for example, that one does not compare the results of a laboratory test for the cause of death in a snake-bite victim with the explanations of an oracle administrator. To hold, then, that some methods of one set work better than those of another in some specific regards is a matter of a careful comparison. Hence the view that persons are fundamentally social beings who owe their capacities and commitments to their dependency on that order should be one that is arrived at rationally by comparing it with the worthiness of the results therefrom to an alternative view if there is one—such as one that views persons as individuals autonomously endowed with their capacities from heaven and whose commitments are therefore to cultivate and safeguard such individuality and everything else that emanates from it.

Many non-Westem thinkers may believe in communalism—or communitarianism—as an axiomatic anthropological assumption that they have inherited and do not have or see the need to prove or justify it, and that is good. Others, while consciously believing that they have inherited it, may choose to prefer it to anything else for political reasons attributed to historical awareness. The latter may be problematic as one may not always know what to make of the heredity when applied to the management of the complex social world. Indeed, we have seen dictators seek to justify their brutally oppressive and violent leadership by appealing, falsely, to the need to “defend and protect the unity” once enjoyed under traditional communalism. From a rationalized perspective, the heredity of a communitarian ethic is not sufficient for its appeal. It is always good to inherit something good and valuable, but its goodness, worth or value must be explained separately from the fact that it has been in place in the traditions of past generations and is inherited from them.

Global education, historically made available and actual for some people through colonialism, has made it possible for African thinkers and philosophers in particular, to encounter alternative systems which sometimes offer solutions that, upon analysis, contrast with those which stem from communitarian perspectives. Intellectuals with the privilege of plural-system awareness—call them multicultural—may frequently find themselves comparing and contrasting theories offered from the different cultural systems with which they are acquainted. To them, comparative philosophizing may flow as easily as comparing merchandise in the marketplace. And while that is some kind of admission of the once- imposing influence of the colonial legacy in our recent education systems, it is not a surrender to a view of futility of the efforts of disengagement. Rather, it is a way of suggesting what the fine points of such disengagement may be. In Wiredu’s thought we find a philosophical system that seeks to educate and to develop a better and more desirable human being, one that confronts the pervasive and so-called (Western) “modem” conception by pointing out the fallibility of the individual. At the center of this communitarian conceptualization of “the world” as a function of constant dialogues in both epistemological and moral orders one finds what is both familiar and new at the same time.

As I said already in reference to my curious student, what is familiar in it lies in its reconnections with, or renaissance of, a view encoded in the preinterruption social and intellectual structures. The novelty of it, on the other hand, lies in the interpretation and restatement, for a generation that has not paid enough to reason as a function in service of the advancement of humanity itself, of the virtues of reason that is cleared of mystical excesses, whether they are in the form of imposed religious beliefs and cults, or raw superstition. But, true to Wiredu’s own position, his communitarian humanism is not a re-enactment or mere statement of the same or something similar from elsewhere, be it traditional community or not. Any similarities with indigenous pasts would be coincidental, however a happy one to note. His own communitarianism is simply a better perspective for defining and understanding the best paths and objectives of cognitive and moral quests in human experience than other alternatives, especially those that build on individuality. In other words, Wiredu, like the American pragmatist John Dewey, recognizes no authority save reason in agreement with experience, and commits to little else than open rationalism.

The (intellectual) implications of Wiredu’s version of an African renaissance, including his take on the “taken-for-granted” religious character of indigenous African belief systems, are a matter of discussion.


Here is a fable.

Long ago, when migrations and competition for good land for our cattle brought us into confrontation with the peoples who inhabited the hills overlooking the land around the lake that we had already occupied, there emerged young warriors for whom the good of our people stood before everything else. It was the highest honor for a warrior to fight for or defend the needs and yet-to-be-acquired goods for his community. In those days there emerged a robust, strong, and fearless young man from the Kano clan, and his name was Lwanda Magere. He felled many an enemy in battle as he was endowed with mystery. No spears could pierce his rock-like strong body. Then one day, the enemy retreated, and then sent an emissary to declare their intention to give our warrior a bride as a sign of peace. And for a while, no battles were fought between Lwanda Magere’s Kano clan and the neighboring Lang’o.

Then one day, after he fell ill with pneumonia that resulted in a severe chest congestion, he asked his bride to make scars on his shadow rather than directly on his body. As she did so, he bled on his body to release pressure from his veins, and he got well again. After discovering this secret, the bride ran away to her people who soon declared resumption of war. In the next battle, one of their fighters feigned death as Lwanda Magere approached to get past him, and he speared his shadow. The warn or son of Kano fell. As his people retreated, he transfigured into a huge rock, which is the meaning of his name, Lwanda.

The moral of the story? Let us call it the intended lesson to be learned. Luo people tell this famous legend to teach history, but also, perhaps inadvertently to many narrators who often are focused on its historical significance only, to teach that as mysterious as living humans may appear to be due to our little knowledge of human physiology, there is nothing about it that is not part of the known natural reality with which it blends following death. There already exists quite interesting debate among Akan-speaking philosophers on whether the archive of Akan oral literature and mode of thought tell a monist or dualist representation of reality and what can be inferred from it regarding such pertinent issues like immortality and after-life, and such matters.

The separation, of Wiredu from Kant, can be read as occurring on several levels. First, Wiredu separates from Kant with regard to the nature of mind itself. For Kant, the mind, or reason as he prefers, is thought of as a bearer of properties or attributes, such as the autonomous ability to guide the will in respect to the moral law. Indeed, to be sure, it is the case that moral judgements, like all others, are the affair of reason, that is, it is the role of reason to determine not only which ideals we ought to live by, but also which conduct reliably put us on the right path toward the attainment of those ideals. Yes, Kant agrees, that “these laws require... a power of judgment sharpened by experience”19, but he thinks that experience is merely a contingent factor to reason’s endowments with the ability to determine moral law where such determination is the role of reason as it’s a priori attribute, that is, in its isolation from the social circumstances (of experience). Here, what Wiredu is ready to concede as a priori characteristics of reason are limited, and they refer, if you wish, to the mind’s “organizational strictures”, that is, the “manner” or conditions in which its capacities are actualized.20 Thus, while Kant thinks of the social circumstances of human experience as conditions which aid or enhance what already exists a priori, Wiredu thinks of them as the real sources of reason. The difference is immense. Where Kant’s approach suggests a metaphysics (of composition) as first philosophy, Wiredu suggests social anthropology, and the two go separate ways in response to the question which Kant asks in the Logic21, namely “What is man?” Assumedly, his system suggests, analysis of the cognitive, moral, and aesthetic domains of experience point to and elucidate the answer. Kant’s anthropology22 describes, on the one hand, the behavioral practices and dispositions that portray the human psychological capacities against the backdrop, on the other hand, of the roles played by external factors. It is, in important historical respects, an examination of Hume’s psychological stream that starts with simple and vivid sense experiences and ends with complex ideas, and thus focuses on the description of externally caused as well as the internally generated — a priori — contents of consciousness. Even here, despite ambiguity of expression while describing the human practical psychology, Kant identifies moral predisposition as an inborn human character, for, he says, "... in his consciousness of freedom and in his feeling (which is called moral feeling) that justice or injustice is done to him or, by him, to others, he sees himself as subject to a law of duty, no matter how obscure his ideas about it may be. This in itself is the intelligible character of humanity as such and insofar as he has it man is good in his inborn predispositions (good by nature).

We may ask: if humans come into this world already “stuffed” with the kind of judgements that will guide them through the meanders of what can turn out for some to be a long life, then what, one might ask, is the role of the social world into which we are born and where most spend their lives, whether short or long? Given what we know of the distractions of living in society, what sensible purpose could possibly be served by having such entities that already were “stuffed” a priori with ideal norms whose objects are the perfect conduct to be exposed to possible pollution from such distractions of this world? Let us assume for a moment, then, that there are such “beings” somewhere, waiting to come into this world at some point, and that they are looking at us with some concern due to what we are already experiencing. One would want to assume that the privilege of such a priori knowledge would also be the basis of recognizing before hand the dangers that would await them here upon their entry into this world, and so would lead them to either one of two choices: either avoid this world altogether and thus remain the perfect beings that they are, or come in with all the enlightenment that makes their lives morally perfect from the start. The lives of such beings would be normative (norm- conformant), at least par excellence if not indeed by necessity.

Kant’s a pnon'-norm-stuffed Subject is a transcendental agent whose possibility must be conceived to be above any specific conditions or placements. But such a being cannot exist outside our own imagination, because she/he must be disembodied in order to be placement-free, and therefore free of the limits of any possible experience. When well directed, human imagination enables people to “picture” states in which perfect or ideal conditions and values, drawn from known and possible consequences of experience, prevail, sometimes only in bits according to the ideals defined by one’s specific interests at any given time in life. For example, every student whose awareness leads them to weigh a desired perfect grade against the daunting work required to attain it might idealize a perfect condition in which all grades are attainable without too much effort, just like every poor person idealizes that time when all his material shortfalls, as his circumstances may allow his imagination to wonder, would miraculously be replaced with inexhaustible abundance. Pushed by temptations—a different but related and frequently accompanying imagination—to make good on such imaginations with the instantaneity that often accompanies them, individuals with those mental states may become susceptible to acts of dishonesty. From a slightly different angle, say a philosophical one, we can imagine, for any Subject, the ability to access all truths, of whatever kind and order, directly and instantaneously by some special ability of the mind. We call it intuition. In the history of philosophy, particularly in the Western tradition, Descartes towers among the best known exponents of the intuitive autonomy of reason or the mind. Finally, we have encountered persons with an imagination of a Subject, an agent, for whom such perfection, of knowledge among other perfections, is a matter of instantaneous will, or one whose very being is identical with all such perfection. Now, while most human beings I know may have to apply themselves with utmost diligence in their efforts toward such ideals in different sectors of their lives in order to have any measure of success, realities of the human condition make such goals just what they are, ideals, such that ideals are both unattainable yet also useful as guides to our efforts.


Conclusion, or Embodiment, Reason and Culture

Real humans are embodied, and their agency is exercised among other embodied agents. Indeed, the real ego is formed, and transformed, through her interactions with other real (embodied) egos. She is beholden to others for what finally defines and distinguishes her as a member of the species, meaning the tools with which will eventually function as a competent member of any group she may choose to live and conduct her life in. In other words, her thought and valuation are the fruit of this interaction. For Wiredu, the question “What is man?” suggests a look at the itinerary of his/her development, with the aim therein to identify the conditions and times of the onset and flourishing of those characteristics which belong to her qua member of the species. This approach—of studying the cognitive and moral formation or constitution of the ego as agent by looking at the itinerary and circumstances of the onset and development of those capacities—is an anthropological exercise, but one which asks more fundamental questions regarding the origins and ends of the characteristics such as those that are described by Kant both in the Critiques and in the descriptive practical psychology or, as he preferred to call it, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. The transcendental approach overlooks, because it takes for granted, the all important questions of the formation of cognitive agency because it assumes that the individual brings them with her/him from some other place. Hence focus is put on the exercise of agency.

The fact that a European writer should take for granted the discussion of the formation of the cognitive formation of agency—at least for the European writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—should not be at all surprising. The audience they wrote for largely shared, as many there continue to share, the religious view—the one Achebe told us about—about the origin of the universe, including its human occupants, even without necessarily sharing the active recognition of it. As I said earlier, their world-view is firmly rooted in the belief, long made implicit or “taken for granted”, that everyone owes the grounding of his/her faculties to the creator in equal measure with all others with whom they share the likeness they believe God gave them, thus giving those around him/her the duty of merely recognizing the rights they bring forth with them. Despite being a thesis of believers, Kant does not appear to have accorded it the cultural significance that it bore—which is the reason he assumed that other matters built on it would make sense to the target audience for his writings, it nonetheless enabled him to assert that experience in the real world merely “helps to sharpen” the human awareness of the moral law, but does not contribute to its formation, for reason is autonomous. Hence the anthropological approach we propose must be significantly different from that which Kant had in mind in his treatment of practical psychology, for its aim is the understanding of the itinerary of human development as a philosophical consideration of the origin of cognitive and moral agency.

Embodiment has long been the grounding for empiricist theories in Western thought, especially of knowledge, but the peculiarities of varieties of embodiment as the grounding of agency did not become a topic of theoretical focus there until the rise of feminist theory drew attention to the unlikeness of knowing agents. More recently, behavioural psychology and cognitive science have added a significant voice to the feminist position that claims to the universality of knowledge, especially of the principles of its acquisition and organization, are not inimical to gender differences in how these processes take place in the human body and mind. In other words, cognitive agency is subject to how mind connects with empirically (meaning bodily) encountered reality. And since all bodies are not alike, identifying and characterizing knowledge ought to take into account the differences that embodiment imposes on the kind of experiences one will have, and therefore what kind of knowledge one will have. It cannot be overemphasized that our cultures promote such sex-based differences among members of different societies across the continent. A rather grave carry-over from our not-always-happy past, many systems, at both national and cultural levels, continue to barr some people, based on their sex, from acquiring knowledge required to access and participate in the activities of certain institutions of society. In addition to gender, especially in multiracial social conditions, race is always another factor of embodiment that influences the kind of experiences and opportunities one is likely to have and access, respectively, such that their knowledge, their beliefs, and their hopes and life projections are determined by how our biology is given meaning by our social world. Feminist critiques of transcendental epistemology share these views regarding the significance of embodiment to experience, especially in the form of acquisition of knowledge of self and the external world.

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