Mbiti on Community in African Political Thought: Reconciling the “I” and the “We”
Keywords:Mbiti, community, personhood, Afro-communitarianism, African political philosophy
In this article, I draw attention to the value of community in John Mbiti’s philosophy using his famous axiom by reconciling the tension between the individual and community his philosophy envisages. To do this, I offer a reconstruction of Mbiti’s communitarian axiom: “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.” Mbiti is considered one of the forerunners of the communitarian debate in African philosophy. His axiom, which describes his idea of Afro-communitarianism, accounts for the importance of individual and community in thinking about social existence in African thought. However, Mbiti’s argument for the direct influence of the community in the formation of the individual is taken to mean the supremacy of the community over the individual. Mbiti’s concept of community has implications for the idea of personhood in that it raises the question of individual agency. This has affected the reception of Mbiti’s contribution to the idea of community in African political thought. While Mbiti’s contributions to Afro-communitarianism transcend the discourse of personhood, I argue that maximising the potential of his idea requires reconstruction and a critical analysis of his axiom. In doing that, I demonstrate that a possible relationship exists between the “I” and “we” in his axiom that represents a harmony between the community and individual and does not suggest a primacy of either but the significance of community. This analysis will enable fair engagement with Mbiti’s conception of community.
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