Dualism and Duality in Igbo Philosophy

F.O.C. Njoku


  1. The Characterization of Western view of Reality
  2. A Critique of Onyeocha’s Characterization of Reality
  3. Notes
  4. Academic tools

1. The Characterization of Western view of Reality

In considering African mode of thought, Onyeocha holds that the logical structure of thought is in many respects, different from the conceptual scheme of the West, when he states: “Whereas Western philosophy is characterized by the problem of knowledge of universals involving abstractions on the one hand, and of the data of immediate experience on the other, Africans exercise their thinking on the correctness of existence, the problem of living and life itself.”1
He rejects Western conceptualization of experience in dualistic terms, he characterizes African perception of reality in terms of duality. For him, the concept of duality is used to express the inter-connectedness of the whole of reality, hence he writes, “in African thought things, the cosmos, the realities of the world, supernatural beings are too much mingled with human realities to be looked upon from an objective and substantialist view point.”2

In Onyeocha , the African view of reality is inclusivistic with nothing left out. As such, it aims at synthesis. The Western view, on the other hand, according to him, is exclusivistic, and is concerned with analysis. The one is concrete subjectivised and personalized, while the other is abstract, objectivised and depersonalized.

Finally, “there are the African view of Life-Force and the view of the soul which are quite different from that of the West.”3 Both the Western and African views lay claim to experience as the starting point of their modes of thought; but they part company in the way experience is perceived or received by the different subjects. For the African experiencing subject, there is a participation in which the world is represented in duality as opposed to the Western dualistic world view.
Dualism and duality are all rooted in two-ness of relationship, Onyeocha claims that in duality, “the relationship is one of harmony, continuality and complimentarity, while in dualism it is one of contrast, opposition or discontinuity. The relationship between male and female, between one’s right hand and one’s left hand, between the beginning of an activity and its end is certainly one of complimentarity, while that between light and darkness, good and evil, love and hate is one of opposition.”4 Onyeocha believes that the duality of relationship that characterizes the African view is opposed to the Western dualistic approach for the duality –approach is broad, elastic and personalized. The two-ness that characterizes reality in dualism sets an opposition between the subject and the object to make the knowledge situation become two separate and independent realities. The result in the Western conceptual frame is that duality is reduced to dualism, albeit that two-ness is a character of reality. Onyeocha affirms:
The mode of thought gives rise to two incompatible and contradictory theories of Knowledge, namely rationalism and naturalism. Where rationalism places the Premium on reason over nature, naturalism places the premium on nature over reason. Both theories were firmly held and stoutly defended by cross sections of Western World. Thus, without embarrassment the Western universities taught these theories as the trustworthy knowledge of reality.5

The same Western dualistic understanding of reality leads the West to divide the World into I and Not – I in the cognition of the other. According to Onyeocha, whereas the African sees the other in terms of complimentarity; the West sees him or her as one of opposition and unresolved conflict. In Africa, Onyeocha argues, the I does not necessarily exclude the other, the Western tendency to divide the world into I and Not-I spills into its conception of religion-expressed through a dichotomy of relationship between the other and the Holy, nuclear family as opposed to outsiders and societal living as opposed to others. It sets groups in society against themselves: the I against Not-I or the We.6

On the contrary, Onyeocha is convinced that the African view is inclusivistic and not exclusivistic, that in African life, the WE in all its relatedness and harmony among persons and nature is the law of life. The African vision of reality is total, free, inclusive and inter-dependent; this understanding, according to Onyeocha , contrasts with the Western view of reality which is deterministic, discontinuous, and independent.7 Thus, the African does not compartmentalize reality, but looks at reality as holistic, integrative and non-reductionistic in all its manifestation, with the self at the centre of experience.

For Onyeocha, self-experience is personal. Personal experience embraces the totality of the whole personality.8 Furthermore, Onyeocha suggests that the Western conceptual frame is more bent to towards the abstract, and the African inclines more to the concrete:
The African could consider his or her mode of thought true to life, concrete and down-to-earth, while considering the Western mode abstract, ethereal, unrealistic and therefore handing in the air. Where the Western rationalist seeks definition, proofs and beliefs in concepts, the African vitalist seeks inspi-ration, vigour, and intuitive insight, and believes in the person. The Western rationalist forces from them. He or she does this by detaching his or her ego as if he or she were not present in the world. The African vitalists strives to put himself or herself in immediate and personal relationship with the soul of the world, with God and the spirit in order to find the guarantee of his or her hope (to live) as well as evidence of what he or she does not see.9

In addition to pinpointing the elements of African mode of thought, Onyeocha insists that we take a further note of the African assumption about reality. He explicates the assumption with the concepts of life-force, the soul, God, the human being, the world and time in a later article, he insists that “the African conceives of reality in terms of a universe of forces that are linked together, and are in constant interplay with one another.”10

2. A Critique of Onyeocha’s Characterization of Reality

Both dualism and duality involves a duo – a two-ness as Onyeocha points out, and a philosophical distinction can be attempted. Dualism involves the existence of two realities or realms, mental and physical. Duality implies a quality of two-ness in the realms or realities already affirmed. However to distinguish dualism from duality, Onyeocha aligns dualism to complimentary’ and restricts dualism to two-ness of opposition. But I think there is no need for this restriction in the conception of dualism. The two realms affirmed in dualism can stand in a relationship (interaction or parallelism). This understanding, should also explain duality. Nothing in dualism excludes it from ‘complementarity’, which Onyeocha interchanges with duality.

Duality, however, does not necessarily explain complementarity as to warrant it being put in a separate category from dualism. Duality explains the quality of two-ness of any realm conceived in dualistic terms or that can represent the world on dual pictures. Dualism is a philosophical system that insists that reality is composed of two realms. John Foster has indicated that dualism has five major claims:

(1) There is a mental realm.
(2) The mental realm is fundamental.
(3) There is a physical realm.
(4) The physical realm is fundamental.
(5) The two realms are ontologically separate.11

Duality retains a two-ness that is rooted in its etymology. Complementarity is about something that completes; it is not restricted to two-ness: thus, complementary parts can be two or more. Complementarity expresses the view that a single model may not be adequate in explaining (all of) reality. But it does not restrict the model of explanation to two. It could be two or more than two, but it cannot be one. And whatever those models are, complementarity does not presuppose that its complements be necessarily set in opposition. Complements only attempt to complete or complement the whole picture.

Onyeocha has the tendency of implying that because reality is interconnected therefore reality is one; hence no need in the African mode to make a distinction between the self and the world.12 I do not think that it is right to reduce reality to one simply because it is seen as an inter-connected network. Connectedness is not the same as identity. If two things are identical in spatial-generation, it is likely that they are the same thing.

It is not a credit to Africans to say that they do not make a distinction between realities for example, the sacred and the profane, the subject and the object. It is a conceptual weakness for one to be unable to make distinctions. If the subject cannot take a distance from the object, it will be difficult for one to do a science – that is, some kind of disinterested study of reality, albeit not all science is presuppositionless. Besides, it will be hard to defend a descriptive and objective study of any reality at all. In fact, most of what Onyeocha groups as, African modes of thought are simply characteristics of traditional thought in general. Kwasi Wirendu has warned that Africans have no right to rest with traditional thought as their birthright preserve. Thus, the characterization of the type of Onyeocha may directly or indirectly reinforce stereotypes. Martin Nkafu Nkemnkia has equally been very guilty of parading characteristics of traditional thought in general as a preserve of Africans.13

The African does not have to be different in all modes of thought from the rest of humans in order to make a contribution to universal civilization. However, the search continues as to who is an African and has contribution to human history.


  1. Izu M. Onyeocha, Africa: The Question of Identity Nigerian ed. (Washington DC.The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1997), 142
  2. Izu M. Onyeocha, Africa: The Question of Identity Nigerian, 143
  3. Izu M. Onyeocha, Africa: The Question of Identity Nigerian, 144
  4. Izu M. Onyeocha, Africa: The Question of Identity Nigerian, 145
  5. Izu M. Onyeocha, Africa: The Question of Identity Nigerian, 151 – 52
  6. Izu M. Onyeocha, Africa: The Question of Identity Nigerian, 153
  7. Izu M. Onyeocha, Africa: The Question of Identity Nigerian, 158
  8. Izu M. Onyeocha, Africa: The Question of Identity Nigerian, 161
  9. Izu M Onyeocha, “Africa’s Idea About the Nature of Reality,” Maryland Studies 3(June, 2006), 5. See also Onyeocha, Africa, 99
  10. John Foster, The Immaterial Self: A Defence of the Cartesian Dualist Conception of the Mind (London: Routledge, 1990), 1.
  11. Izu M. Onyeocha, Africa: The Question of Identity Nigerian, 160
  12. Martin Njoku Nkemnkia, African Vitalogy: A Step Forward in African Thinking(Nairobi: Paulines Publications, 1999), 63-5

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