Dualistic conception of the human person in Yorùbá worldview

Seminar Paper, 2018

17 Pages


Table of Contents


Dualist Project versus Cartesian Dualism

Understanding who the Yorùbá is

The Human Person and Composition in Yorùbá Cosmology

Mind-Body Link problem in Yorùbá ontology

Material-Immaterial Relation in Yorùbá Conception of Person

Evaluation and Conclusion.


Central to the numerous challenges that confront philosophy and philosophers is inter alia the question of the composition of the human person. Essentially, philosophers, especially metaphysicians, grapple with the question of ‘who a person is? Put differently, what constitutes the human nature? Integrally connected to such fundamental questions are other posers that bother on the mind-body problem, which, on the one hand, focus on the composition of the person as a material being. Such questions like ‘is man a composition of mind and body? And, what kind of relationship or interaction (if any) goes on between the domains of substances? ‘Is the human person an entirely physical entity’? Or, ‘is he solely non-physical? Or, is he composed of both physical and non-physical features? These are the interrogative legacies of Cartesian substance dualism and interactionism bequeathed to philosophy. There is no straightforward answer to these questions as a first-glance approach could present them to be.

This paper attempts to provide a framework for understanding the concept of the human person in his essential and ontological beingness in the light of Yorùbá worldview. The paper argues that the mind-body problem that has taken a central seat in philosophy would be better appreciated if it is allowed to remain as culture-relative. In other words, it would a mistaken assumption of sort to assume that the western categories of monism or Cartesian dualism are sufficient theories around which the mind-body problem should be discussed. At the heart of the discussion is an attempt to open up the Yorùbá perspective to the mind-body problem which, though primarily acknowledges among other considerations that the human person is composed of both material-physical and immaterial-spiritual (metaphysical) aspects, insists a person is more than the mind and body. An attempt will also be made in this project to make a contrast between Cartesian dualism and Yorùbá worldview of the composition of the human person and draw a parallel between the two perspectives.

Dualist Project versus Cartesian Dualism

Dualism in general terms, is a philosophical theory which upholds the view that there are two fundamental kinds of things or principles. For example, in metaphysical theology, dualists consider the existence of Good and Evil, God and Devil, Evil Spirit and Holy Spirit, etc with each operating independent of the other. Dualism is the opposite of monism and pluralism, with monism representing an insistence on the existence of only one fundamental kind, category of thing or principle, while pluralism contends that there are many kinds or categories of things.

In philosophy of mind, dualism represents a theory that the mental and the physical—or mind and body or soul and body or mind and brain—are, in some sense, radically different kinds of thing. The starting point for the dualist is the assumption that the physical body or world exists in reality and so the mind cannot be treated as simply an integral and inseparable part of that body. There are three principles upon which the dualist project rests on. First, that the mental is irreducible, meaning the mind and mental activities are not reducible to non-mental explanations or sense perception. Second, that the mental is private, meaning that though each of us has access to our own mind through introspection, no one can directly observe anyone else’s mind. The third principle is that there is a privileged access. Simply put, that the data and information gained through the sensory organs are fallible and prone to errors; however, because we are privileged to have access to our own minds, we are presented with infallible and error-free information and knowledge. Physical or material properties include size, weight, shape, colour, motion, space, time, etc, while mental actions or properties involve actions such as imagination, consciousness, perception, emotion, desire, belief, thinking, assimilating, meditating, etc.

Descartes could be said to have amplified the mind-body problem and brought it to the most controversial end with his conclusion that beyond the separate existences that characterize the distinction between mind and body, there is also some causal interaction between the two substances. The linking force of this interaction is what he attributes to the ‘little, very 'subtle' organ in the brain - the pineal gland.’1 There are four prima facie principles upon which Descartes predicates his distinction between mind and body, namely, that (1) the mind necessarily exists when thinking (the Cogito), but the existence of the body can be doubted – the necessity of the mind; (2) the body is divisible and separable, but the mind is a unit, indivisible and one - unity of the mind; (3) it is only the mind that has the capacity for thinking; thinking does not belong to the non-mental entity -thinking capacity of the mind; (4) thinking takes place outside the world of space; the body exists and occupies in space – non-spatial or spatial existence.2

Understanding who the Yorùbá is

To set a firm and proper foundation for our discussion in the paper, it is important for us to begin with an understanding of which category of nations of persons is the concept of Yorùbá applies. We will adopt the geo-locational descriptive position of Atanda when he says:

The bulk of the Yorùbá people are found in the south-western part of modern Nigeria, where they form one of the leading ethnic groups. Specifically, they effectively occupy the whole of Ogun, Ondo, Oyo and Lagos States and substantial part of Kwara State in the country. A substantial number of the Yorùbá people also inhabit the south western part of the Republic of Benin (i.e. former Dahomey) which is contiguous with the area the people occupy in Nigeria. All these areas enumerated in Nigeria and in the Benin Republic formed what was known as the Yorùbá country before the European partition of Africa and the accompanying European rule. This Yorùbá country lies roughly between latitudes 6° and 9° North and longitudes 2°30' and 6°30' East. Its area is about 181,300 square kilometers. Beyond this area, pockets of Yorùbá population are found in other parts of Nigeria and in some other West African countries. Similar pockets of their population, largely off-shoots from their West African base, are also found across the Atlantic, as far afield as the Caribbean and South America, particularly in Cuba and in Brazil.3

Of course, Atanda’s list of Nigerian states which the Yorùbá predominantly occupy and inhabit is obviously incomplete as it excludes states of Osun and Ekiti in its consideration. It is safer to assert that besides other considerations highlighted above by Atanda, all the six states that make up the South Western geo-political region of Nigeria including some parts of eastern Edo state are constituted by the Yorùbá people.

The second point to note about the Yorùbá is their historical mother city and origin. Hitherto, there has been conflicting histories about this theme, generating a lot of disagreement about where exactly is the home of the Yorùbá nation. While some argue that the ‘Yorùbá Proper’ originated from Oyo, a town in Oyo state, others like Atanda contend that all Yorùbá nationalities originated from Ilé-ifè, a historical town in Osun state. The position of the Ilé-Ifè proponents seems to have popular appeal and acceptance among scholars, given the historical and archeological findings upon which they hinge their argument:

All Yorùbá communities…regard [Ilé] Ife as their mother city— a city from where they fanned out in all directions to their present territories, taking ‘Ife Culture’ with them. Yorùbá history and archaeological investigation confirm this. If Ife is the point of dispersion, it is difficult to justify the description of a migrant sub-group (the Oyos) as the only Yorùbá Proper.4

The Human Person and Composition in Yorùbá Cosmology

Yorùbá describes the human person as ènìyàn, which has its root in the phrase eni-ayàn, meaning the ‘chosen one.’5 The Ifa Oracle succinctly defines the human person this way:

à wa gégébí ènìyàn, … we as human beings, à wa ni Olodumare yàn we are the God’s elect, láti lo tun ilé ayé se, designated to renew the world, Eni -a yàn ni wá... We are the chosen ones.6

Interpreting this Odù, Gbadegesin holds that ‘ ènìyàn is made by the combined effort of Olodumare, the supreme deity and his subordinate, Òrìsà Nlá, the arch-divinity, with the former giving life (èmí) while the latter makes the corporeal part (ara). The Supreme deity supplies the èmí which activates the lifeless ara.7 Clearly, from the above, the essence of the person is predetermined by his creator and so is his existence. Yorùbá cosmological theory sees the person as a composition of both the physical and spiritual aspects, and many of their oral literatures expressed in proverbs and folklores reflect this reality. There are a number of schools in respect of what constitute each of these two aspects of ènìyàn. There are those who believe that the material and immaterial aspects of ènìyàn are composed of three parts, while some believe it is four-fold. In his interpretation of some of Soyinka’s poetic works in his antology A Shuttle of the Crypt, Stern affirms that ‘the material body, the portion that acts and reacts to physical environment, consists of the Ara, or "physical body," the ò jìjí, or "shadow," and the Iyè, or "mind".8 In fact while concepts such èmí (life activating principle, the soul), and orí (in the figurative sense meaning the ‘inner head’, ‘inner person’, or ‘personality soul’) are clear expressions of the Yorùbá idea of the immaterial aspect of ènìyàn, the concept ara ( body ) is his material aspect. This material body consists of okàn (heart) , opolo (brain) , èjè (blood), and orí (in the literal sense meaning the ‘human head’ which consists of the oju (eyes), etí (ear), ahón (tongue), enu (mouth), ètè (lip), imu (nose)), all of which constitute the organs of the body and are conceptual representations of the material aspect of ènìyàn. From this categorization, one can technically say that Yorùbá idea of personhood is conceived in a trichotomist rather than a monist or dichotomist dimension. The quartet of Bolaji Idowu, Olusegun Oladipo, Barry Hallen and Sodipo agrees to the tripartite Yorùbá conception of the human person, while the duo of Gbadegesin and Abimbola view the idea from a fourth realm. In his own understanding, Abimbola adds the aspect which he calls ‘ Ȩsè’ 9 to ènìyàn. Ok à n, the heart, is regarded as the seat of emotion and psychic energy; èmí is the life-force which makes him breathe; while orí represents the physical head is the symbol of the inner person. It is believed that Olodumare puts the ori in man to functions as a guardian spirit of the person, the essence of personality.10

This conception readily sympathizes with Mbaegbu’s position of the African conceptual scheme of the human person:

For the African, man, who is a unity of mind and body is bound to the spiritual or supernatural realm by his soul and to the physical realm by his body but the basic ontological strand; the vital force fills up the entity called man.11

It is taken from the comparative analysis made above that the argument as to what Yorùbá considers as what the human person is composed is still a subject of debate. However, Oyeshile cautions very instructively that it is important not to focus on the person from this categorization so as to avoid being led into what he calls ‘conceptual muddle.’12 For him, therefore, any attempt to impose prejudiced western or indigenous academic categories on the Yorùbá conception of the human person will lead to category mistake. He submits that it is better to appreciate Yorùbá understanding of the human person in the light of a holistic being rather a being in the monist, dualist, tripartite or quadruple sense. The instructive implication of this caveat is that Yorùbá ontology of personhood goes beyond both the restrictive western dualistic discourse and the Cartesian interactionism categories.

…Descartes’ position that the soul is immaterial and immortal implies that it survives the body, but Descartes does not say what happens to the soul when it abdicates its liaison with the body.13

In the same manner, Lucas insists that the Yorùbá believe that ènìyàn is not a composition of isolated, separate and conflicting constituent elements. Rather, for him, the "unity of man's personality is an essential element in the Yorùbá conception of man", that the all essential elements of ènìyàn are unified and they express themselves through the body (ara) and though the agency of the heart-soul (okàn).14


1 Guttenplan, S. Ed. A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, P 87.

2 Descartes, R. Meditations in John Heil’s Philosophy of Mind: A Guide and Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. P 54.

3 Atanda, J. A. The Yoruba People: Their Origin, Culture and Civilization, in O. O. Olatunji, ed. The Yoruba: History, Culture, and Language (Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, (1996) quoted Adegbindin, O. (2014). Ifa in Yoruba Thought System, Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, P xviii.

4 R. K. Obateru, Yoruba Proper: A Critique cited in Adegbindin, O. Ifá in Yorùbá Thought System, P. XVI

5 Ademuleya, B.A. 2007. The Concept of Ori in the Traditional Yoruba Visual Representation of Human Figures in Nordic Journal of African Studies 16(2), P 212-220.

6 ibid

7 Gbadegesin quoted by Shitta-Bey, O.A. The humanity of the foetus: The Yoruba Perspective in African Journal of History and Culture, Vol 7(2), February 2015, P 52-55.

8 Stern, L. L. Soyinka's Use of The Yoruba Conception of Man in Postcolonial Literature in English in the Post colonial Web, '93 (English 32, Spring 1990), available on http://www.postcolonialweb.org/soyinka/wsyorub.html

9 Abimbola , W. The Yoruba concept of Human Personality, La Notion de Personneen Afrique Noire, Colloques Internation aux de centre National de recherché Scientifique

10 Ogunboye, P. (2000) The Human Soul in Yoruba/Igbo Tradition and the Bible in Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology, Vol 19, Issue 1, P 75-86.

11 Mbaegbu, C. C.

12 Oyeshile, O. A. Towards an African Concept of a Person: Person in Yoruba, Akan and Igbo Thoughts in Orita, Ibadan Journal of Religious Studies, XXXIV, (2002). P 105-114.

13 ibid

14 Lucas, J.O. 1948. The Religion of the Yorubas. London: A. Brown & Sons, P 251

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Dualistic conception of the human person in Yorùbá worldview
University of Ibadan
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#PhilosophyofYoruba, #Philosophy, #PhilosophyofMind, #YorubaConceptionofMan, #Yoruba
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James Alabi (Author), 2018, Dualistic conception of the human person in Yorùbá worldview, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/463175


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