Akan Soul

A Critique of the Concept of Quasi-Physicalism in Akan Philosophy
MOHAMMED MAJEED, African Studies Quarterly | Volume 14, Issues 1 & 2| November 2013


The philosophical ideas of any culture, including the Akan, may be obtained from the language, beliefs, and practices of that culture. In this regard, an examination of some Akan cultural beliefs and language should aid in the understanding of the Akan concept of a person. In Akan language, the human body is referred to as honam, but there are two other expressions, ōkra and sunsum, which, together with honam, seem to suggest belief in the existence of two distinct components of the human being. These expressions are sometimes translated as “soul or mind” and “spirit’ respectively and designated as being spiritual.

Akan thinkers who hold spiritual conceptions of these entities include Asare Opoku, Peter Sarpong, and Kwame Gyekye.1 Even though Sarpong, for instance, correctly translates sunsum as “spirit,” he nonetheless sees it as deriving from the father—an error that Gyekye points out.2 It is also held in Akan thought that the ōkra does not, just like the sunsum, form part of the brain or the body because of its complete spirituality. It is nonetheless believed to play some role in the person’s ability to live, as it is seen to be a life force with spiritual attributes.

It is these spiritual conceptions of ōkra and sunsum that Kwasi Wiredu and Safro Kwame reject. They argue—for reasons that I will explain in detail in the next section—that ōkra and sunsum are not spiritual but are rather quasi-physical. […] Wiredu and Kwame, to be specific, explain that these entities are spoken of in physical terms and are capable of partially assuming spatial properties.3

[…] this article rejects the quasi-physicalist’s argument that the ōkra, especially, cannot be regarded as spiritual because (i) it falls in between the physical and “the so-called spiritual” realms and is closer to the physical, (ii) it is believed to accept offerings, (iii) it is capable of rendering itself visible to medicine men, (iv) medicine men use physical or partially physical means to reach to the ōkra, and that (v) the ōkra is thought of as a person’s double.4 The article finally argues that aspects of the doctrine of quasi-physicalism itself are utterly inconsistent with some basic Akan beliefs. Hence, the spiritual conception of ōkra is not wrong.

[…] The spiritual aspect of the person, which is also believed to survive death (that is, the ōkra), is the subject often mentioned in the traditional Akan religious practice of libation pouring. It is also believed to be capable of enforcing morality in the physical human community. Also, the clarity that this article gives to the concept of the ōkra (mind) provides useful information for scholars interested in (i) the question of whether or not ōkra (mind) differs from adwene (thought) and amene (brain), and (ii) the issue of whether or not any relationships exist among the three.

It could, for instance, be observed that the article does not point in the direction of the mind being part of the body or the brain; nor is the mind shown to be physical or quasi-physical. […] Finally, the postulation of quasi-physicalism, amidst its many problems, is an interesting exercise in contemporary Akan philosophy. […] In modern Western philosophy, discussions on personal identity often go back to Descartes who, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, postulated a metaphysical mind in addition to the body. Yet, the mind is seen by anti-metaphysians such as D.M. Armstrong and U.T. Place as not different from brain processes, which to them is quite empirical.5 D.M. Armstrong notes,

“The mind was not something behind the behavior of the body, it was simply part of that physical behavior.”6

He calls this a “Materialist or Physicalist account of the mind.”7 What distinguishes Wiredu and Kwame from the Western anti-metaphysians, however, is their apparent admission that the ōkra, for instance, is indeed an entity distinguishable from the body and capable of existing after death. But, while Gyekye accepts the idea of the immortality of the ōkra, he seems to suggest that at death, the surviving entity is a union of ōkra and sunsum which, together, constitute one spiritual component of the human being.8 Therefore, Gyekye’s position, although not necessarily Cartesian, is ultimately dualistic; and I am more inclined toward it than toward Wiredu’s and Kwame’s.

[…] John Mbiti and Gyekye would [not] consider such “perceptions” of the ōkra (of the dead) as quasi-physical at all.14 For instance, even though Mbiti reports people “seeing” and “hearing” certain figures (such as mizimu—the living-dead among the Baganda), he still refers to them as “spirits,” as spiritual beings. Similarly, Gyekye argues that even though such spiritual beings “can make themselves felt in the physical world” and, “by the sheer operation of [their] power[s], assume spatial properties,” they are neither physical nor quasi-physical.

[…] Unlike Mbiti and Gyekye, Wiredu’s preference for his coined term “quasi-physical” appears to be based on the strength of the fact that ōkra is “perceptible.”15 Secondly, he also maintains that there are several other qualities often attributed to some parts of a person that stand those parts out as quasi-physical. He cites the instance of the common Akan belief that when someone eats a kind of food which his ’kra is allergic to, he or she falls sick so that “the ōkra may need to be pacified with offerings of appropriate food and drinks.”16 He suggests that the ōkra is portrayed to have some amount of physical desire, the ability to choose and enjoy food, and the ability to receive. But if his evidence is granted, his conclusion can, with some reflection, still be rejected. Since a person’s ’kra is believed to be linked or subsumed with his body, and the person lives in a world which is both physical and spiritual, he or she is possibly not prevented in the physical realm from reaching to the nonphysical side. The problem probably is “how” this reaching is done.

[…] If it is granted, for the sake of argumentation, that an illness originates from the ōkra or that the ōkra is badly affected by the eating of food, it appears that only a cross-realm causation is implied, not necessarily the quasi-physicality of the ōkra. Again, assuming that a spiritual being could be made perceptible with some invocation done with the aid of material objects, or that certain physical effects can be predicted with some degree of certainty whenever some items are allegedly offered to spirits, then, those objects would rather become just channels of interaction.

[…] The right questions to ask, then, would be whether there is anything beyond the phenomenal world, and whether and how such realities may connect with the physical (especially, to produce some effect). This way, the researcher shows his or her readiness to accept the spiritual if it can be or is found. With any alleged cross-realm-generated effect, for example, it would have to be examined whether one specific situation obtains: i.e. whether the effect is radically different from what the physical objects used in the process can produce on their own – both individually and collectively. If it is, then the bringing into being of the effect would understandably be traced to the (other) nonphysical component.

[…] it has been indicated already how of little value it is to ignore the claim of a cross-realm effect or interaction, only to confirm the obvious fact that (i) the metaphysical and material are completely different in constitution, and (ii) some amount of the physical is involved, at some stages, in the art of reaching to the spiritual realm. Secondly, it is a portrayal of lack of understanding of the worldview of medicine men to suggest that they do not understand that the concept of “the spiritual,” by definition, completely excludes anything physical. For if an object is believed by them to be capable of being inhabited by an invoked spirit, for example, the object is not misunderstood to be the spirit itself at all. Nor is the spirit believed to have become material.

Thirdly, the medicine men believe, instead, that the spiritual and the physical do interact, or that events in one realm can affect the other. This is evidenced in their use of objects in many of their healing techniques. It is thus possible, they would agree with John Perry, for the material world to form the “evidential base” for something that is “well beyond the material world.”18 Indeed, finally, the belief that a person has a spiritual component and that this component can affect the body (and vice versa) renders untrue S. Kwame’s view that the mind-body problem does not arise at all in the Akan concept of the person.19

The seeming near-physicality of the ōkra merely on the basis of the offering of sacrifice of food and other items, and even the pouring of libation to the living-dead (an act which Wiredu regards as utterly irrational), would be difficult to deny only if it is understood within the ordinary context that these offerings are meant for the consumption of the spirits.20 It would be irrational indeed for a traditional Akan thinker to believe that a drink just poured on the ground, food placed at a section of the house or an object left on a crossroad have actually been eaten or taken by the spirits. For, the items “offered” do not necessarily vanish at all. The drink sinks into the ground and dries out; the food stays in the bowl until it is taken away or replaced by humans; and, the item left on the crossroads remains there and gets rotten, eaten by insects, or just displaced through some unintended human or natural action.

The significance of such sacrifices could only be to show human attempt to commune with “the spirits.” Such that, they (the spiritual entities) would be willing to return some favors as they witness the premium human beings place on the relationship with them. The premium being, among others, the latter’s parting with those items in memory of the former. In the case of the pacification of the ōkra, it still does not appear there is any basis to suggest that it engages in any physical or quasi-physical act of eating any portion of the food and drinks that are allegedly offered to it.

The alleged pacification sometimes involves nothing but the eating of a particular food by the individual to correct some imbalance in his system. Usually the imbalance is believed to be between his ’kra and honam, caused originally by the ingestant that was bound to disturb the body and the harmony between it and the ōkra.

Wiredu makes reference to Debrunner’s statement that the ōkra is a person’s double, “conceived in his material image complete with a head, hands, legs and all.”21 But Debrunner’s claim is a bit inaccurate. He seems to have been misled by the personal or rationalistic terms in which the ōkra is described to conclude that it has the same parts as the physical person. But this notion is completely absent in Akan language. It makes no sense to use phrases like “my ōkra’s leg,” “my ōkra’s head;” or even say that “her okra’s chin is like this” or that “his ōkra’s hand has done that.” Simply put, the ōkra has no such parts as claimed by Debrunner. It only makes sense to conceive of the ōkra as a person’s double when it is interpreted as a spiritual aspect of an individual who has a particular physical shape. This is far from saying that the ōkra has that same shape.

In cases where, as Wiredu suggests, the ōkra is “seen” by medicine men, there is still the question of whether the ōkra is “seen” in human form. While Wiredu seems to hold that this is the case, it is not quite clear whether the shape is the actual shape of the ōkra itself. Given the absence of expressions in the Akan idiom compartmentalizing the ōkra, it is quite doubtful whether Akan thinkers would actually consider any such shape, assuming the ōkra is indeed seen, to be its own shape. It is conceivable that it takes on the shape of the person it was known to inhabit just for the purposes of easy identification of its bearer.

[…] I question why spirits cannot be conceived to exist as essentially nonphysical beings, or why a theory of spirits is thus “an empirical theory.” […] existence of a thing is not only independent of its being an object of investigation, but also of any chosen method of investigation.

[…] There are obvious difficulties with the notion of quasi-physicalism itself. I must admit, however, that the difficulties are mainly as a result of the complex nature of the notion of personal identity in general, and the challenge this presents to anyone attempting to give a comprehensive account of the identity of persons. This is shown clearly when (i) quasi-physicalists are compelled to recognize that certain existents (such as ōkra) do not yield fully to physical laws, which they regard as the sole arbiter of truth, and (ii) dualists also admit that the spiritual can be physically perceived. Why then, one would ask, does the quasi-physicalist not prefer to be called a quasi-metaphysian, and the metaphysian to be called a physicalist of some sort? […]

According to Wiredu, the ōkra is believed to be capable of rendering itself visible to some medicine men although it is not material or tangible.25 Assuming this is true, the resort to it by Safro Kwame and Kwasi Wiredu to claim that it is quasi-physical makes their interpretation appear to ignore the essential quality of spirits. It is not clear why, for instance, from the occasional visibility of “spirits” quasi-physicalists describe them only in terms of features exhibited on those occasions. Again, with the traditional Akan belief in the potential visibility of spirits, and possibly on multiple occasions, it is only fair to ask what the identity of those spirits are when they have not allegedly revealed or are not revealing themselves to human beings? Are they nonexistent? If they are, how possible is it for nonentities to know when and who to appear (or even reappear) to? How can medicine men, for instance, receive inspiration from and be able to invoke nonentities in their practices?

The very ideas of the occasional exposure and visibility of particular “spirits” (as held by quasi-physicalists), the invoking or re-invoking of specific spirits in various cultural contexts, and the very concept of the living-dead suggest that spirits are always existent. They are believed to exist whether or not they are being felt by humans. […] sight alone does not define the physical; so, the ōkra cannot be regarded as quasi-physical based on fleeting visibility alone. Whereas a hologram can be described as quasi-physical, the same description cannot be given of ōkra because its category of existence does not by nature admit of physical attributes. For it is non-physically natured and remains so at most of its normal times. And, given the belief that spirits do not die, one more thing can be said.

[…] It appears more acceptable then that spirits, including the ōkra, are essentially metaphysical in nature, even though they have some capacity for quasi-physical manifestation. The difference between the essential nature of spirits and their capacity to be quasi-physical can be likened to water and ice. Water is essentially liquid but it also has the capacity to turn to ice under certain conditions. It will be most inappropriate to claim that water is solid or half-solid just because the ice which it occasionally turns to is solid.26

The quasi-physicalist is a physicalist in disguise. His claim to allow for things that are not entirely subject to the laws of physics is misleading. This claim initially seems as if it recognizes metaphysical realities which many Akan thinkers actually see ōkra to fall within.27 But, in reality, what the quasi-physicalist means by something not being “entirely subject to the laws of science” is that it is something “which current laws of physics do not explain, but might be proved by physics in future.”

For instance, S. Kwame, who can be called a “modern” quasi-physicalist, declares that:

“the modern or contemporary quasi-physicalist does not deny that as our discovery of physical laws proceeds and our scientific knowledge increases, we may come to accept some or all the quasi-physical objects as bona fide physical objects. The quasi-physicalism of today may then turn out to be the materialism or physicalism of tomorrow.”28

There is every indication in the preceding quotation that the purported quasi-physical entities would not have been affirmed as real if they were not capable of becoming (known as) physical objects in future. So, given that all physicalists, quasi or not, already affirm the reality of physical objects, the quasi-physicalist becomes both today’s physicalist and tomorrow’s physicalist today. That is, he is a physicalist today who has the foresight of knowing what might become physical tomorrow. He therefore becomes somebody like a prophet who hopes that his predictions come true in future. But, like any act of prophesy, failure is an important possibility.

Even the statement that “the ōkra is a quasi-physical object” is one which the quasi-physicalist would regard as confirmable on physical or empirical grounds. Otherwise, how else can he claim to know such an object, since the claim is not a priori and, also, “metaphysics” is a taboo word for him. This confirms he is a physicalist today, not only tomorrow. […] the ōkra (which the quasi-physicalist admits is incapable of proof only for today) will not cease to be metaphysical. It is very much doubtful if the ōkra will ever be subject to the physical laws which the quasi-physicalist suggests.

[…] The tension between metaphysics and science, seen essentially as between the belief in the reality of spiritual entities and the requirement of scientific proof, is of such a nature that one of them cannot be expected to collapse into the other. It is, however, possible to have a little bit of both, as found in such experience as the manifestation of the ōkra.

[…] The Akan expression sunsum mu nsεm and sunsum mu ahintasεm translate respectively as “matters of the spiritual realm” and “the secrets (or mysteries) of the spiritual realm.” The former is used in reference to questions of metaphysical concern, while the latter is used in connection with the esoteric nature of the objects and happenings of the metaphysical realm. In both there is some evidence for the Akan belief in the existence of a spiritual realm. What requires to be noted, also, is the Akan belief that the human being (onipa) has sunsum (spirit), and that sunsum mu nsεm also involve him or her. Some of the difficulties inherent in quasi-physicalism results from the failure of its advocates to recognize this aspect of Akan thought.

Source: http://www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v14/v14i1-2a2.pdf


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2 thoughts on “Akan Soul

  1. Emma's Cup October 19, 2015 at 8:19 pm Reply

    Your getting facebooked! Nice job, 7M. 🙂

  2. thesevenminds October 20, 2015 at 5:10 pm Reply

    Now I see it. The page does not always fully load. It is great information, so FBing is welcomed. 🙂

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