Ibibio Epistemology

Francis Etim


  1. Introduction
  2. Epistemology: General Understanding
  3. Ibibio Epistemology
  4. Types/Sources of Knowledge
  5. The Logic of Ibibio Epistemology
  6. The Logic of Ibibio Epistemology
  7. References

1. Introduction

Essentially, there is an inextricable relationship between metaphysics and epistemology. Indeed, a people’s metaphysics is greatly influenced by their epistemology. A corollary then is that a people’s perception of reality markedly colours their conceptual framework of the perceived reality. Consequentially, Ibibio epistemology fundamentally rests on their conception of reality. This explains why most of the misgivings about Ibibio perception of reality reverberate in Ibibio epistemology. Whether these misgivings are justified or not provides the locus and motif of this work.

2. Epistemology: General Understanding

Epistemology is concerned with the nature, sources, objectivity and extent of human knowledge. Knowledge is a fundamental and natural fact of men. Both James Royce and Aristotle acknowledged this fact in their various submissions that, ‘man naturally desired to know’. Nevertheless, defining knowledge is as elusive as defining philosophy. Recognizing this fact, Harder opines:
An examination of knowledge can only take place in an act of knowledge…. All questions about knowledge are themselves knowledge….the question of the nature of knowledge is a question aiming at knowledge of knowledge. (1969: 110).

Danceel, however, regards knowledge as:

A basic phychic experience that can be better described than defined for defining is an act of knowledge… it is not only impossible to do so but also unnedessary, since knowledge as immediate psychic experience is known in the same way love or fear is known. (Etim 2008: 92)
Letree (1974) puts forward ample series of nuances that the word ‘to know’ indicates. For instance, “I know Rome” connotes familiarity; “I know the Vice Chancellor” (acquaintance); “I know my lesson” (grasping); “I know how to play piano”(mastery); “I know what headache is” (experience); “I know I am late”(consciousness). He explains further that, ‘to know’ in its more basic sense may mean, ‘to perceive’, ‘to recognize’, ‘to identify’, ‘to recall’ and so on.

These varieties in meaning and nuances in addition to other implications complicate and make the definition of knowledge to be subtle. Bittle (1936) apparently accepts this fact when he observes that, ‘just because it is a primary act of experience, the idea of knowledge eludes every effort at an exact definition’. To know implies some subjective being, engaging man’s sense, imagination and consciousness, but these subjective statutes are only one element of knowing. Certain conditions must be fulfilled before that which one claims to know becomes knowledge.

Regarding these conditions, Hamlyn (1977: 79), submits that one of the conditions of ascribing knowledge to a person, is that something is; that what the person claims to know must be the case. If it is an object that one claims to know, this must exist, and if what one knows can be expressed in a proposition, this must be true. Hospers (1956: 346) on his part gives three conditions for knowledge. ‘I know a thing if I believe it, I have good grounds on which to base my belief and the belief is true or the case’. It would seem, judging from these conditions, that knowledge involves a claim to certainty. That is why, perhaps, the most widely accepted definition of knowledge is ‘justified true belief’.

3. Ibibio Epistemology

Epistemology as it pertains to Ibibio and by extension African thought then is concerned, according to Aja (1993: 75), with “ascertain whether or not what is claimed as knowledge is actually knowledge rather than mistaken opinion, on the one hand, and the means of or sources of acquiring knowledge on the other”.

The Ibibio believe in the possibility of human knowledge. Knowledge implies a lot of nuances among the Ibibio like “edidiono”, ‘Ifiok’. “onion”. There are, however, differences in the application of these terms since they indicate degrees of knowledge. While “Ifiok” and “edidiono” can actually mean “knowledge”, “Ikike” is more of an astute knowledge, which the Ibibio usually describe as “ndad mana ifiok” (common sense). This type of knowledge is innate (acquired from birth), though it is not actually so common as everybody is not capable of employing it. “Onion” is usually identified with grey hairs and wisdom. It is the highest form of human knowledge and a rare aptitude among men.

Knowledge is also used to describe the act of being aware of a thing, to witness or experience, to learn or grasp, to be familiar with, to know the cause of something. Even the act of remembering or recalling, “editoyo”, implies knowledge, since one cannot remember or recalling what was not previously known. The Ibibio abhors trick as an exhibition of knowledge for them “nkar idighe ifiok” (trick is no knowledge). Knowledge then aptly applies only to “ifiok” that is positively applied for the good of either the community or individual and not for exploitation. This goes to underscore the humanistic or communal character of knowledge.

4. Types/Sources of Knowledge

For the Ibibio, there are varied sources of knowledge, which give rise to different kinds of knowledge. These can be itemized as: perceptual knowledge, premonitory knowledge, divination, common sense knowledge, and old age knowledge.

a) Perceptual Knowledge: The Ibibio place a huge premium on experience. To know means that you have witnessed it and can adequately communicate or relate it to others. This is expressed in an adage, which says that okut mkpo ke enyin ofiok mbuk, nting nno iko oworo nsu (one who witnessed an event can properly tell story in detain whereas hear say is false). By witness, the Ibibio preference is for the person who was actually there at the scene of the occurrence of the event. A story told by the first witness is regarded as true while subsequent narration by the person who was told by the witness is doubtful; the witness can decide to distort the fact. That is why witnessing personally is regarded as more dependable. This is a kind of “immediate knowledge” or “personal knowledge” or “felt knowledge”, which implies that one must have been present to witness what he claims to know either as a participant or an onlooker. Uduigwomen (1995: 37) contends that “What one sees, touches, feels, hears and tastes, is taken to be first hand or eye witness account, hence it is treated as certain knowledge”. However, unlike logical positivism and empiricism, the veracity of what are observed is not tested through experiments. A witness usually settles disagreements over an issue that borders on experience. This may not go down well with some people as an authentic verification of truth since there can be false witness. The Ibibio (Africans) believe that any witnessing, especially if corroborated with an oath, is true. The practice in the law courts seems to vindicate the Ibibio on this belief.

b) Premonitory Knowledge: This type of knowledge is associated with some signs, like sneezing repeatedly, hurting ones toes (left or right) and so on. It is regarded as a form of extra-sensory knowledge, probably, a communication from the gods or the ancestors of an immediate or future occurrence; a type of initiative knowledge. Uduigwomen, for instance, observes:
The unexpected shaking of one’s toe is a sign that some evil is in the offing: the person who sneezes repeatedly should note that his name is being mentioned somewhere for good or for bad; the person who accidentally hits his left foot against a stone should better watch out for an impending evil (1995: 38).This type of knowledge is indeed questionable since there is no objective criterion for its verification.

c. Divinization (Idion): This is knowledge that is associated with diviners “mbio idion”, priests “Oku”, native doctors “mbio ibok”, rainmakers “obok edim”, herbalists, etc. Uduigwomen (1995: 38) refers to it as “extra-sensory or mystical knowledge”. This knowledge is believed to transcend common sense. The possessors are believed to be endowed with the ‘innate abilities’ to see beyond the present and can foretell the future. They are equally capable of manipulating the spirit world and its forces for the good of the world. These capabilities therefore qualify the diviner as a veritable intermediary between men and the spirits. Today, this type of knowledge is not regarded as exclusively belonging to traditional diviners, some religions also make recourse to it effectively in their healing ministration.

This mediate knowledge does not depend on experience or on the use of sense perception or nationalization but on interaction with the gods. Minton and Shipka aptly describe the mediate knowledge thus:

i. It is neither intellectual knowledge nor inferential
ii. knowledge. It is beyond the senses, beyond the
iii. understanding, beyond all expressions. It is the
iv. pure unity of consciousness wherein awareness
v. of the world and of multiplicity is completely
vi. obliterated. (1982: 87)

There are certain epistemological problems which knowledge based on divination can generate. First, how can knowledge based on divination be ascertained, as there are not empirical parameters, for its authentication? How can such knowledge he devoid of its attendant subjectivity and relativity? How can predictions be made based on its findings, as the basis of patterns of observable regularity? Indeed, this epistemic position is seriously criticized by empirically minded philosophers who treat it as subjective and illusory. Minton (1982: 38), citing William James, describes divination as ‘nothing but a beautiful dream, an illusions, which one may be convinced by faith, or initiation, of feeling but not by logical argument or evidence”.

These epistemological problems call for a national justification of divination as a source of knowledge. The epistemological requirements of this task fuses into metaphysics as a national justification, which is only attainable when one follows certain principles. The principle in the case of divination is the logic of “duality” or integrated cosmology, according to which the universe is believed to be two dimensional – the physical and the spiritual: both separated by a metaphysics fence. While man and other created beings occupy the physical realm, the spiritual realm is the abode of the gods and the ancestors. Man of all the beings in the physical realm, is capable of penetrating the spiritual realm because of his spiritual nature, the soul. The diviners, however, are believed to be in intimate communion with the gods through the act of initiation and the use of rituals. This explains why they are revered among the Ibibios as having a privileged type of knowledge. It is this restrictive nature of knowledge sent directly from gods that makes it doubtful, since deceit is possible. In any case, within the sphere of medical prognosis where divination is mostly used, the people’s tenacious fait in divination and the workability of its predictions are usually pointed at as grounds for justifying divination as a source of knowledge. While the issue of objectivity would definitely stare divination in the face, one fact, at least is underscored: that is that there is another side of life, which the logic of experience alone cannot explain.

d) Common Sense Knowledge “Ndat Mana Ifiok”: This type of knowledge is regarded as inborn. It is synonymous with the innate knowledge of the rationalist. For the Ibibio, an average man is endowed with innate capacity from birth to know good and evil and to act reasonably. Despite the natural endowment of this knowledge, not everyone employs it. The person who cannot use it is regarded to be without “ndat mana ifiok”. In fact, to be so regarded is considered an insult on the person since everyone is believed to be well endowed naturally with this capacity. However, like the Leibnizian ‘innatic theory’ experiences and life circumstances are the best tests of these inborn ideas. Accordingly, knowledge associated with “ndat mana ifiok” could be regarded as rationalization nature in contradistinction with knowledge of brute animals like goats and persons who are just coming to the earth on their first incarnation “akpa ndighe obot”. A man who acts with reasonable knowledge is regarded as “enyene eti ibout” literally meaning “a man with a good head”.

e) Old Age Knowledge: “Onion”: This type of knowledge is associated with old age. The Ibibio believe that the older a person is, the more knowledgeable he should be because of acquired experiences. This is expressed in an adage that says “osong owo osong ifiok” (the older the person is to another, the older his knowledge than the other). The Ibibio also believe that older people are closer to the gods; therefore sthey share in their knowledge intuitively. This must have informed Uduigwomen description of this knowledge as “ontological knowledge” which is knowledge of the ontological balance of life forces in their classification and hierarchy. This knowledge is a combination of “ifiok” and “ikike”.

This level of knowledge is so revered and sought after. To overlook it is to do so at one’s peril. In fact, there is an adage that summarizes this Ibibio type of knowledge thus: “Se ekamba owo anaha ana okut, etok eyen adaha ada ikhide” (what an old man sees lying down, a young man does not see even if he is standing).

5. The Logic of Ibibio Epistemology

Ibibio epistemology is premised on Ibibio logic. Like African logic in general, Ibibio is integral, accepting the co-existence of opposing realities as complementary. This is analogous to the Hegelian dialectics of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Day is vivified and complemented by night and good by evil. The adage that “Abasi obot mbat, abot udara ikpat.” Meaning “the God who creates mud made available something to wash off the mud”, explains this fact of the complementarity of reality. The two realities – “mud” and “water” – are mutually opposed but are two sides of the same coin. It is this complementarity or what Anyanwu (1981: 87) calls “inner curve of reciprocity” that makes African (Ibibio) epistemology to avoid the dualism of subjectivism and objectivism. This, Anyanwu (1981: 87) prefers to call duality (to distinguish it from western dualism), and it refers to the notion of dialectics where two things functionally different are seen as essential and incomplete members of the whole to form a harmonious monism. This logic, according to Anyanwu in the same work, accepts the co-existence of opposing realities each complementing the other. It denies absolutism, monolithism and completely diffuses the problem of dualism as evident in the Cartesian philosophy. Citing Ijiomah, Etim (2005: 64) explains Anyanwu’s position as premised on the belief that the world including (x) has a missing link, which is something other than the thing (x). The thing (x) then persistently yearns for and struggles to capture this missing link. This is achieved at the time of complementation at which point (x) realizes itself.

The implication of this position is that Ibibio knowledge should not be thought of as either susbjective or objective. Man is a being with two dimensions, physical and spiritual, so also is reality. To know implies both subjective and objective qualities. Recourse to either of the two would be incomplete knowledge. Human knowledge must of necessity involve both subjective and objective qualities.

6. Conclusion

Ibibio epistemology is characteristically humanistic. That is, what constitutes knowledge is determined by its effect on man, either positively or negatively. In this case, there is no marked distinction between man and the subject of knowledge. Rather, it is man that unites both the subject and the object of cognition. This must have been what Anyanwu meant when he describes African epistemology thus:

…the negro-African makes no distinction between himself and the object. He does not hold himself to be examined by it… he takes kit he feels it, he is conscious of it… It is by his subjectivity … that he discovers the other… here we see the African sympathizing with the other, having to identify with the other, dying to himself to be born in another. He lives a common life with the other. Subjects and objects are compared dialectically in the very act of cognition (250-251).

This dimension of knowledge is expressed in the ritualistic religion, which facilitates integration with the divine in order to attain some understanding. It also explains the dependency among the Ibibio on diviners for any ultimate knowledge of the cause(s) of events.

For Levy Bruhl (1962: 20) “this kind of knowledge is societal based and marked mystical”. By this, Bruhl means that perception and interpretation of perception and other streams of sensory impressions are evoked by mystical representation with the stereotypes of understanding selected and effected by the society. Attention is paid to phenomena or account of the mystical properties with which their collective representations are endowed. The collective representations thus both control perception and are fused with it.

Bruhl’s submission is not very true of Ibibio epistemology. It is a fact that among the Ibibio there is a societal dimension to everything called knowledge. In fact an Ibibio would always ask concerning any issue “ufon odoake”? (of what relevance is it?). The relevance most often has communal undertone. However, Bruhl’s ascription of perception only to societal collective representation would be tantamount to denying personal knowledge or personal contribution to knowledge. The Ibibio person places much premium on individual knowledge as is expressed in the adage “okut mkpo ke anyin ofiok mbuk, nting nno iko owon nsu” (He who witnessed an event can properly relate the story than those who depend on hearsay, which may be false). But the interpretation of personal experience must not be at par with what is accepted by the society.

The ultimate submission of personal experience to societal typologies or interpretation is actually a bane and a serious hindrance to the development of personal knowledge and initiatives among the Ibibio and the general abhorrence of change. For there to be any meaningful orientation and change there must be a “Socrates” who is not satisfied with the “a la mode”. But given the astute societal insistence, the survival of such new ideas may be very probable as in the Athens of old: certainly the change will be effected with time, persistence and appeal to truthfulness.

What then constitutes the criteria for truth as far as the Ibibio are concerned are personal experiences, practical results and belief. All these criteria ultimately reduce knowledge to subjectivity with its attendant relativity. Even the obliteration of the divide between objectivity and subjectivity by Anyanwu does not seem to objectify Ibibio knowledge, since, all cognition depends on the susbjective man or the subject of cognition. Though these personal experiences do not have to square with social experiences, however it could be difficult for personal experiences to be easily accepted by the society if they do not match at the time of their occurrences with what is upheld by the society. Rather the obliteration appears to be a disservice to epistemology, which necessarily entails an object distinct from the subject of cognition. Man cannot be submerged in things and the Ibibios make this distinction glaringly in their ontological classification of beings.

In fact, Ibibio knowledge is phenomenal as expressed in the adage that “okut mkpo ke enyin ofiok, mbuk” (he who witnessed an event can properly narrate the story). However, there are other aspects of knowledge, including divination, that are not universal, but restricted to certain classes of people who are initiated. This type of knowledge of the inner working of reality. Even at this level, knowledge is still subjective and is subjectively interpreted.


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Etim F., Metaphysics of African Medicine. Uyo: Minder Press, 2005

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