Igwebuike, Personal Identity And Alterity



  1. Introduction
  2. Problem of Personal Identity and Alterity in General
  3. Globalization, Personal identity and the Reasonableness of Alterity
  4. Igwebuike and the Question of Identity and Alterity
  5. References

1. Introduction

There is an obvious diversity between the Western conceptualization scheme and the African conception of reality. Onyeocha (1997) avers that “whereas Western philosophy is characterized by the problem of the knowledge of universals involving abstractions on the one hand…, Africans exercise their thinking on the correctness of existence, the problem of living and life itself” (p. 142). The Western pattern of thought is exclusivistic, depersonalized, objectivised and more concerned with analysis; the African scheme of conceptualization is inclusivistic, integrative, non-reductionistic, concrete, personalized and subjectivised in all its manifestations, expressing the interconnectedness of reality- a world of relationship, harmony, continuality and complementarity. Thus, Onyeocha (2006) argues 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” (p. 99). This divergence has further structured the African and Western conceptions of the human person in relation to the other. In addressing the issue of personal identity and alterity the dualistic and exclusivist Western perception of reality understands a person in relation to the other in terms of “I and Not-I”. This creates a dichotomy that brings in a strong divide between the “I and the other”, which could set groups and individuals against themselves.

This piece attempts to study the Igbo-African conceptualization of the relationship between personal identity and alterity. That is, how the African conceives the self in relation to the other. In responding to this question, Igwebuike has been employed as the Igbo-African response to the interrogation of “who am I in relation to the other?” The Indigenous Wholistic Theory of Absolom (2010) would be engaged to underpin this study. This theory is based on the idea that indigenous peoples have worldviews and means of relating to the world. This worldview is rooted within indigenous epistemologies, cultures and traditions with the understanding that we are all related- each aspect relates with the whole: the dynamics of reality are based on the relationships and experiences of interrelationships and interconnections.

This study is categorized as “Igbo-African” because it stretches from and between the Igbos and the entirety of Africa. According to Ogugua (2003):

‘Igbo-African’, therefore, represents the generalizations from the Igbo race, which is one of the races making up the African race. Again one can make a limited generalization about Africa from what we get from Igbo world because of felt similarities which exist among races in Africa. (p. 15).
The position of Ogugua was affirmed by Nwoga (cited by Ogugua 2006) who writes:

It is possible, however, to consider Africa in terms of a centre and periphery theory in which certain phenomena, certain aspects of firmer and deeper and more expansive hold in particular parts of Africa and to be of less effect in surrounding areas. (p.1).

This notwithstanding, the fact that the researcher is from an Igbo speaking area and knows this named area and its existential principles and practices more than any other part of Africa counts in his favour. He has a very safe and secured ground thinking of Igbo-African because the law of statistical regularity and inertia of large numbers are in his favour. This is the basis for domiciling this research within the Igbo parameters. The researcher believes that an understanding and appreciation of the Igbo-African conceptualization of the “I and other” relationship would advance a better human relationship, boost national and international unity and enhance dialogue between people of diverse religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and thus, reduce violence linked to these alterities.

2. Problem of Personal Identity and Alterity in General

A cursory glance at the historical evolution of the problem of personal identity reveals a couple of perspectives. Conford (1912) and Omoregbe (1991) aver that the Pre-Socratic philosophers (600 BC) were at the base of Western philosophy which grew out of religion and mythology. They all agreed that there must be an original stuff of which all things are made. But they disagreed what precisely this original stuff and primary elements of all things was. For Thales (600 BC), it was water. For Anaximander (600-548), it was a neutral element, infinite, eternal and indeterminate. For Anaximenes (528-526 BC), it was air. For Pythagoras (570 BC), the human person comprises the body and the soul. For Empedocles (440 BC), all things, including the human person is made up of four everlasting elements: earth, air, fire and water. Their coming together and separation is the cause of the changes we experience in the world. According to Russell (1975), the Pre-Socratics were more concerned with the cosmos, and this affected the development of the concept person during this epoch. However, they were more interested in discovering the unity of the aterities of their time.
With the emergence of the Sophists, there was a shift in the direction of Western philosophy; Stumpf (2000) observes that the human person now occupied a worthwhile place in the scheme of things. Protagoras (490-420 BC), Gorgias (late 5thcentury) and Thrasymachus (late 5thcentury) are three most outstanding sophists who emerged in Athens sometime during the 5th century. Protagoras, the oldest and most influential Sophist is best known for his teaching that, “Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not”. Judgments are therefore relative. The rise and spread of relativism during this period drew attention to the individual person, and generated a radical approach towards alterity.

In the 5th century B.C., Plato (427-347) argued that the human person is composed of body and soul. The soul is a non-material thing and is capable of existence independent of the body. The soul exists before the body does. Kanu (2014) thinks that Plato gives more function to the soul, since he emphasized that the soul is the real person. The body is a material thing that is capable of independent existence, but not existing after death. The body is an impediment to attaining true knowledge. It is a prison. The essence of the human person is therefore the soul, and it does not change. At death, the soul leaves the body and goes to another body, or goes back to another world. In Plato, since the soul is at the centre of existence, the body, which is the other is treated negatively as an impediment and a prison from which the soul must free itself. This perspective would resurface again in the Meditations of Descartes.

In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle (384-322) in his De Anima, taught that every material being is made up of two elements: matter and form. Allan (1970) and Vella (2008) posit that they are not separate entities as such, but a complex unity. In the human person, the matter is the body and the soul is the form. The Soul and body are aspects of a single substance, standing to one another in the relation of form and matter. Agreeing with Plato, he defined the soul as the core essence of a being, but argued against its having a separate existence. In Aristotle, a more balanced relationship between identity and alterity is attained.

Augustine (354-430 AD), in his De Trinitate, was the first to take up a deepened examination of the word person. His purpose was to find a word that would be applied distinctly to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, without falling into the error of making them three divinities or dissolving their individuality. In this regard, the concepts substance and essence were inadequate because they only refer to the things that are common to the three Divine Persons. This distinction he argues belongs to the term hypostasis and its Latin correspondent persona, which does not signify a species, but something singular and individual. Analogically, other than God, this term is also applied to man: singulis quisque homo una persona est (every single man is a person). From the foregoing, Mundi (1985) observes that the person in Augustine is the single individual, even though Trape (1973) argues that in Augustine there is still no definition of a person. Augustine, however, being a neo-platonist, places more value on the soul than on the body.

Boethius (480 AD) in his De Persona et Duabus Naturis, held that a person is an ‘individual substance of a rational nature’ (persona est rationalis naturae individual substantia). This later became the classical definition of person. For Boethius, person is predicated only of rational beings. Thus, rationality and individuality are the criteria that qualifies human beings as persons. St Thomas Aquinas (1224 AD) agreed with Boethius that a person needs to be an individual substance of a rational nature, however, in his Summa Theologica, he defines a person as the subsistens rationale (a rational subsistent).

According to Okon (2010), the addition made by Thomas Aquinas to what Boethius had said contains five possible entailments:

a. A person is a substance not accident.
b. A person must have a complete nature, and so that which lacks completeness and remains only a part of nature does not satisfy this definition.
c. It is subsistent by itself, the person exists in himself and for himself, being the ultimate subject possessor of his nature and all his acts and so is the ultimate subject of predication of all its attributes.
d. It is separated from others.
e. It is of a rational nature, this excludes all supposits that lack rationality.

This notwithstanding, with Rene Descartes (1596-1650 AD), philosophy started a new way, that of gnoseology. He defines the person in relation to self-consciousness. In the Second Meditation, Descartes (1637), through his methodical doubt, discovers that something resists doubt. That is, the fact that it is he who doubts, and who can be deceived. He thus, arrives at Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore, I am). To the question, who am I? Descartes answers simply, a “thinking thing”, a thing that essentially has mental experiences. Descartes’ transformation of the person from an ontological to a psychological fact, opened the door to a series of either great diminutions or of enormous exaggerations of the concept of person. Since the time of Descartes, individual consciousness has been taken as the privileged centre of identity, while ‘the other’ is seen as an epistemological problem, or as an inferior, reduced or negated form of the same.

The modern history of personal identity begins with Locke. Njoku (2002) avers that he countered the Cartesian ground for identity- which is thinking, believing that the establishment of identity over time needed a more solid foundation. Against this reasoning, Locke (1964) argues that the identity of a person consists neither in the identity of the immaterial substance, as most dualists are apt to hold, or in the identity of a material substance, as materialists might be expected to hold. John Locke posits that personal identity consists not in the identity of substance, but in the identity of consciousness. His view, according to Shoemaker (1998) is that the persistence of a person through time consists in the fact that certain actions, thoughts, experiences etc., occurring at different times, are united in memory. Consciousness constitutes human identity, hence makes what we call the self. The self owns and imputes to itself past actions, just upon the same ground and the same reason for which it does the present. To be personally conscious for Locke is to be able to recall and take responsibility for one’s actions. Locke’s account of personal identity and the method that he uses to defend it influenced his successors tremendously and remains to this day the starting point of much thinking about the nature of personal identity. Nimbalkar (2008) posits that, in Locke, we see the first modern conceptualization of consciousness.

3. Globalization, Personal identity and the Reasonableness of Alterity

The principle of identity is a value expressed by one of the first principles of being. According to Kanu (2012), it states that every being is determined in itself, is one with itself and is consistent in itself. Thus, every being is one with itself and divided from others. The qualities of matter, referred to in traditional metaphysics as accidents, such as size, colour, shape etc., Njoku (2002) distinguishes one being from the other. If being does not have an identity, then everything would be everything, giving birth to one thing since nothing can be differentiated from the other. In this case, there would be no subject and object relationship. This would, therefore, create a causal traffic in the order of being and knowledge. However, with the development of globalization, which Obiefuna and Aniago (2010) and Kanu (2014) trace to Hellenistic times, when Alexander the Great in 334 B C attempted to Greekicize non Greeks, and more fundamentally to Europe, when Portuguese navigators discovered some parts of the world, and through trade, evangelization, exploration and colonialism rules the world, there has been an increased movement of people from one part of the world to another, and to a cross-cultural influence, thus, raising more questions about identity and alterity.

Fafowora (1998) refers to globalization as the process of increasing economic, political, social and cultural relations across international boundaries. Kanu (2015) observes that it deals with increasing the breaking down of trade barriers and the increasing integration of world market. Globalization is, therefore, systematically reconstructing integrative phases among nations by breaking down barriers in the areas of culture, commerce, communication and other fields of endeavour. Gradually, the world is turned into a global village, and peoples of diverse culture, religion and traditions as cosmopolitans on a global conference table. There is now a greater human cohesion and solidarity, greater interaction on the global level, mankind coming close together, and relating more and more with one another. Asouzu (2007) refers to it as “a necessary consequence of our being” (p. 382). Agreeing with Asouzu, Agbo (2010) writes that “Globalization is not only part of nature, it is the mode of being for human beings, it expresses our internal state. In an ontological sense, it is the category of our expressive existentiality! It is the name we give to the invisible force that is propelling reality forward with incredible velocity” (p. 36).

Although each person is an individual substance, globalization brings persons together from different backgrounds- social, cultural, economic, religious, educational, racial etc., to relate with one another. At this point of encounter, the self gets in contact with the other, the different, the dissimilar, the distinct to which the self must relate. The otherness, sometimes radically in contrast with the entity of the self, with alternative viewpoint is what alterity addresses. It is a concept that emerged in postmodern writings to describe the otherness of others or the otherness of the self- in fact, it was adopted as an alternative concept for otherness. Alterity can be defined as a state of being other or different. It shifts emphasis on Descartes philosophical concerns with the other which was stuck in abstraction to a concrete other that is located in social and cultural institutions. Alterity is concerned with the sometimes strange zone of the ‘other’, which comprises different identities and entities. It, therefore, focuses not on a metaphysical unity, but on the relationship between metaphysical unities.
This does not in any way mean that alterity is completely detached from personal identity. Tarde (1999) writes that:

To exist is to differ; difference in a sense is the substantial side of things, is what they have only to themselves and what they have in common. One has to start the explanation from here, including the explanation of identity, taken often, mistakenly, for a starting point. Identity is but a minimal difference, and hence a type of difference, and a very rare type at that, in the same way as rest is a type of movement and circle a peculiar type of eclipse. (p. 50).

Identity in itself carries the mark of alterity, since it emphasizes that reality is one with itself and consistent with itself, that is, different from others. In the I and the other relation, both participants exist as polarities of relation.
A diagram showing how identity and alterity are polarities of

From this diagram, it is, therefore, difficult to talk about the identity of a thing without implying its distinctiveness or alterity, for in every idea of identity is the idea of alterity, and in every idea of alterity is that of identity. Thus, they complement one another.

4. Igwebuike and the Question of Identity and Alterity

Igwebuike as a theory in African philosophy provides an ontological horizon that presents being as that which possesses a relational character of mutual relations. As an ideology, Kanu (2016a&b) opines that rests on the African principles of solidarity and complementarity. Igwebuike holds that ‘to be’ is to live in solidarity and complementarity, and to live outside the parameters of solidarity and complementarity is to suffer alienation. ‘To be’ is ‘to be with the other’, in a community of beings. Thus, Kanu (2015a&b) avers that Igwebuike is based on the African sense of community, which is the underlying principle and unity of the African philosophical experience. It is anchored on the African worldview, which, according to Iroegbu (1995) is characterized by a common origin, common world-view, common language, shared culture, shared race, colour and habits, common historical experience and a common destiny.

Igwebuike as a complementary philosophy understands life as a shared reality. And it is only within the context of complementarity that life makes meaning. Life is a life of sharedness; one in which another is part thereof. A relationship, though of separate and separated entities or individuals but with a joining of the same whole (Kanu 2015c). It is a relationship in which case the two or more coming together make each other a complete whole; it is a diversity of being one with the other. To put the other away removes the balance of being. Kanu (2015d) avers that this presupposes a tailor-made-cloth, measured, cut and sewn to fit into the curves, contours, shape and size, peculiarities and particularities of a being. Thus, every being has a missing part and is at the same time, a missing part. Ewulu (2010), therefore, writes that:

If the other is my part or a piece of me, it means that I need him for me to be complete, for me to be what I really am. The other completes rather than diminishes me. His language and culture make my own stand out and at the same time, they enrich and complement my own. In the presence of his language and culture, the riches and poverty of my language and culture become clear and I see that his own and my own when put together form a richer whole when compared to any of them in isolation.

Ekwulu (2010) further opines that the self is not only completed in relating with the other, but that it attains self-realization in the other:

I realize myself in the other because it is in the ‘Thou-ness’ of the Thou that my ‘Is-ness’ is realized. I am ‘I’ because you are ‘You’. Without Thou there is no I. We are ‘We’ because they are ‘They’, and without ‘They’, there is no ‘We’. (p. 189).
In the contention of Asouzu (2007): “It is within this ontological context (of life as sharedness) that all questions of meaning can be handled adequately and fully within the context of mutual complementarity of all possible relations.”(p. 252-253).
The foregoing, explains why the Igbo would refer to the ‘Other’ as Ibe, which means ‘a piece of’ or ‘a part of’, as in ibe anu (a piece of meat) or ibe ede (a piece of cocoyam). The Igbo would, therefore, refer to the ‘other person’ as ibe m which means ‘my piece’ or mmadu ibe m (my fellow human being). This is the concept also employed in reference to relationships and reciprocity: love one another (hunu ibe unu n’anya), help one another (nyere nu ibe unu aka), respect one another (sopuru nu ibe unu), etc. Since the ‘other’ refers to my own piece, it would, therefore, mean that to love the other is to love oneself, to help the other is to help oneself and to respect the other is to respect oneself. Put the other way round, to hate the other is to hate oneself, to refuse help to the other is to refuse help to oneself and to disrespect the other is to disrespect oneself.
According to Ewulu (2010), the use of ibe applies to all forms of relationship with the other. He expressed it as follows:
a. 1st Person singular: ibe m (my piece (s)/my part (s)
b. 2nd Person singular: ibe gi (your piece (s)/your part (s)
c. 3rd Person singular: ibe ya (his/her piece (s)/his/her part (s)
d. 1st Person plural: ibe anyi (our piece (s)/our part (s)
e. 2nd Person plural: ibe unu (your piece (s)/your part (s)
f. 3rd Person plural: ibe ha (their piece (s)/their part (s)
In a paradoxical way Ekwulu writes that:
The term ibe brings out the reciprocity tension between the self and the other. The self is always implicated in the other. The self’s reference to he other always points back to the self. I am, as it were, in the other and the other is in me. He is my piece as i am his piece. That which is different from me is ‘my piece’ or ‘my other’. That which is different from us is part of us. (p. 188).
From the foregoing, Ewulu strongly thinks that the differences among human beings is absolved in the identity, for that which is different from me is part of me ibe m, and, in turn, the identity is absolved in the alterity, because I am part of the other who is different from me. Identity and alterity are in a sense two related concepts, for the one implies the other.

5. Conclusion

This piece is an Igbo-African indigeno-philosophical response to the problem of personal identity and alterity, that is, the I and the Other. It strongly contends that the future of reality lies in the dialogue between the I and otherness. In fact, the relationship between alterity and personal identity is understood as a dialogical movement, which results to increasing expansion, growth and development. To conceptualize identity free of alterity is only a few steps away from doom- for although every other is truly other, no other is wholly other but a relative and complementary other. To conceptualize the self without the other would be an illusion, as Levinas (1969 & 1981) observes, the other is always irreducibly present as it is implied in the self. The interaction or dialogue between identity and alterity leads to a better self knowledge and understanding.

The self as metaphysical unity forms a thesis that is negated by the diversity of the other, which stands to the self as an antithesis, however, with dialogue and relationship emerges a synthesis, a complementary whole, a situation where the self sees itself as part of the whole, and sees the other as part of the self. Wenger (1998) sees the dialogue between the self and the other as the beginning of change and growth- for in the process of encounter and dialogue, the other changes my ethical being and I change theirs. The other facilitates the self and grounds the being of the self. As the self relates with the other, it is not only taught but it also learns; for in the other, the self sees what it is not. Thus, identity is a mark of incompleteness which requires the other and the active participation in the other’s identity structure. The idea of complementarity is not in any way a move towards saying that reality is one, or to undermine the need to make a distinction between the self and the other. The fact that reality is interconnected does not in any way mean that reality is one; interconnectedness is not sameness. Any form of inability to identify distinction, is a conceptual weakness. Distinction does not negate separateness. Every self has a personal calling of negotiating with the other, including the utterly strange and radically other.


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