Sunday Perspectives

February 7, 2016

Belongingness as an essential component of human nature

Belongingness as an essential component of human nature

Man (in the sense in which it includes woman of course) has been characterised in different ways by philosophers since antiquity. For example, man is said to be a homo faber, res cogitans, homo economicus, homo politicus, and homo sapiens. These definitions signpost the capacities and potentialities of human beings, which implies, as the French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, that a human being “can be what he is, and what he is not.”

change-worldAlthough there has been heated debate about whether there is “human nature” separable from socio-cultural and environmental determinants of human behaviour, there is an emerging consensus that human beings are not infinitely malleable, as behaviourists and cultural determinists would want us to believe.

Every human being is a bundle of actualisable possibilities arising from the incredible capacity of humans to change themselves and the world around them within the limitations of his biological and psychical make up. From a slightly different perspective, the question has been raised in connection with the mode of being characteristic of the human essence: is man essentially an individual that happens to exist in the midst of others or is he fundamentally a social being, or what some existentialists call “a-being-with-others”? Delineating and characterising the dialectical relationship between the individuality and sociality of man is one of the central problems of socio-political philosophy, ethics and the philosophy of law.

Certainly, a single human being is an individual entity that can be differentiated from others, with unique genetic configurations inherited from the parents that play an essential role in determining what the person would become in future. Yet, man’s most distinctive attributes, which set him apart from the rest of the animal kingdom and make him a unique entity in the universe, are primarily social. For instance, the capacity to invent and use language (both spoken and written) depends on the sociality of man. Clearly, the centrality of language as a critical defining attribute of homo sapiens cannot be overemphasised: it is the very basis of our humanity.

Consequently, a sizeable number of philosophers, such as Marxists and existentialists, claim that man is, fundamentally, a social being, and have constructed elaborate philosophical theories which seek to describe the complex interactions between individuals, on the one hand, and the world in which they live, move about and actualise their productive powers, on the other.

This is not to say that the individual must be swallowed up by the society or that it is impossible  for a paradigmatic human being, through outstanding achievements in the intellectual, moral or spiritual domain, to change the trajectory of societal evolution for good. Inasmuch as no reasonable person can justifiably deny or belittle the capacity of world historical figures to alter the course of history, it must be acknowledged that without others a human being is completely helpless. As Aristotle, the great ancient Greek philosopher stated, a man who has no need of society is either a god or a beast.

In fact, the concept of a man totally isolated from others is odd, incoherent and historically untenable. For one thing, it takes sex cells from a man and a woman to produce another human being, which means that at the very beginning of a person’s life, the existence of others is presupposed. And given that every human being is, at any point in time, the joint product of “nature and nurture,” there can be no doubt that belongingness is at the very core of human existence.

Despite his occasional flight of fancy into the arcane world of transcendental reduction executed by pure consciousness, Edmund Husserl, the patron saint of 20the century phenomenology, recognises the importance of man’s sociality by positing that I, we and the world belong together. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his Phenomenology of Perception, suggests that a phenomenological description, instead of disclosing isolated, self-sufficient subjectivities, reveals continuities between intersubjective life and the world. In addition, Martin Heidegger reiterates the same theme as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. Heidegger says that the life-world is an interpenetration of three domains, namely, “surrounding world,” “with-world,” and “self-world.” Accordingly, dasein (man), as a world-experiencing being, is always already “a-being-with.”

The idea that the self, the world, and others belong together, reciprocally illuminate one another, and can only be properly understood in their interconnectedness is not exclusive to phenomenologists. The Jewish existentialist philosopher, Martin Buber, made the social dimension of man the centrepiece of his influential work, I and Thou, where he argued that all real living is meeting. In his book, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, D. Davidson affirms that the basic problems of how a mind can know the world of nature, how it is possible for one mind to know another, and how it is possible to know the contents of our own minds without resorting to observation or evidence, are inextricably interwoven.

Scholars in African philosophy, such as Sophie Oluwole, K.C. Anyanwu, E.A. Ruch and C.S. Momoh have drawn attention to the fact that the dominant communalistic nature of traditional African societies is anchored on a holistic metaphysical doctrine of the interconnectedness of being. Indeed, the theme of man’s sociality is so strong in African philosophy that the late Senegalese President and champion of Negritude philosophy, Leopold Sedar Senghor, rejected the Cartesian cogito and insisted that the Self cannot be properly defined without the Other.

Of course, the emphasis on the social nature of man in traditional Africa promotes solidarity, brotherliness and consensus building in the society. However, in extreme cases, as exemplified by the vanishing extended family system of African communities, it stifles individual initiative and places heavy burdens on people because they are expected to take care of (mostly non-productive cousins) family members and other relatives, including those connected through marriage, oftentimes to their own disadvantage.

Our excursion into the rarefied field of philosophy provides a solid foreground for understanding belongingness as an essential feature of human existence. Every human being belongs to, or is a member of, a family, social group, or country. Without the sense of belonging to a social group, an individual would become lonely, isolated and disoriented, for it is in the company of others that he can actualise the latent possibilities embedded in him. We are what we are largely because others are there to teach, help and encourage us. It is true that one would be better off without people of questionable character such as liars, cheats, backbiters, haters, hypocrites, enemies of progress and so on.

Still, there are great human beings all over the world that have added value to our lives one way or another; people who through one word of encouragement or simple acts of kindness have moved us to a higher level in the journey through life. It follows that building relationships with good people and belonging to one group or another is beneficial, although it entails the responsibility of contributing to the flourishing of the group. Meaningful belongingness can only be attained if every member of the group is willing, as the occasion demands, to sacrifice his or her egoistic interests for the benefit of the Other.

That is why I disagree with the Igbo aphorism that the relationship between two people depends on one person, an unsatisfactory attempt to explain away the ill treatment of one person by another. In any relationship where one party exploits the other, belongingness becomes a burden, an exploitative way of life that sometimes breeds resentment, anger and conflict. Thus, in our most intimate disclosure of belongingness – marriage and love – we should encourage emotional and material exchange between equals because that is the foundation of trust, and trust is the basis of fruitful belongingness.