In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Relational Autonomy, Personhood, and African Traditions
  • Polycarp Ikuenobe (bio)


The commonplace view of autonomy involves the ability of individuals to be self-governing and self-legislating, and to make freely and reflectively deliberate choices and decisions. This idea of autonomy — that persons are metaphysically free, that is, that they have free will and may use reason to choose how they shall act — is considered to be a defining feature of a responsible person. There is a commonplace view that autonomy (freedom of will and choice) is intrinsically good such that overriding it cannot be justified.1 This intrinsic value implies a negative sense of autonomy, which involves non-interference with one’s free choices, as opposed to a positive sense, which involves helping or enabling one to make ‘good’ free choices.2 One feature of communalism in African traditions is its normative conception of person-hood, which indicates how a community, based on its values, obligations, and social recognition, may shape an individual’s identity and choices. Some have argued that this communal view of personhood is inconsistent with or vitiates autonomy because the community strongly determines the choices that individuals make, and in some cases it imposes its will on individuals such that they are prevented from freely making their own choices.

I argue that the conception of personhood and the relations between community and individuals in African traditions are not inconsistent with the idea of autonomy. Such inconsistency exists only if we assume falsely that autonomy must be construed negatively and in an extreme individualistic metaphysical sense of the free will of an isolated and non-relational individual. I argue that the idea of personhood in African traditions implies a relational and positive sense of autonomy, which involves the community helping or guiding one to use one’s ability and knowledge of one’s social relations and circumstance to choose freely the requisite goods for achieving one’s life plan. In contrast, a negative sense of autonomy involves simply leaving one alone to make free choices and not to interfere with one’s ability to make free choices. The idea of ‘relational autonomy’ is understood in philosophical literature as an alternative conception of what it means for one to be a free and self-governing person, in that such a person is socially constituted and embedded in a social environment, culture, or tradition that indicates value commitments, social obligations, interpersonal relationships, and mutual dependencies.3 The African view of relational autonomy is defined and bolstered by communal realities, relationships, values, interests, obligations, and modes of meaning. These social relationships and obligations not [End Page 1005] only shape individuals’ rational options, choices, and decisions but also give meaning to the notion of a free choice.

I analyze communalism in African traditions as the social and value systems that give meaning to, circumscribe, bolster, and provide the contents of and the context or support for normative personhood and relational and positive autonomy. I make references to some African traditions to illustrate how this view of personhood and autonomy indicates a dominant theme in African cultures, but without suggesting that all African cultures have exactly the same view or that they hold this view in the same way, extent, or degree. Many of the authors quoted in this essay who have written on African philosophy use the terms ‘African culture,’ ‘African tradition,’ ‘African view,’ or ‘traditional African society.’ Thus, it has become commonplace in African philosophical circles that when the prefix ‘African’ is used in the literature on African philosophy, it does not imply that Africa is a monolith or that its traditions are static. There is a recognition that some traditions have changed or are changing. The use of ‘African tradition’ usually indicates a generalizing theoretical abstraction about some enduring and dominant themes or ideas that have similarities in many African traditions. It is also used in contrast with ‘Western’ traditions, and to respond to Western critiques of Africa as a group. Similarly, the prefix ‘Western,’ which is replete in the literature, does not suggest a monolith but a reference to some dominant themes or similar ideas in Western thought.

Personhood and Communalism in African Traditions

In this section...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 1005-1029
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.