Beauty in African Philosophy

Beauty has a long history in philosophy. “The Concept of Beauty in African Philosophy,” by  Diana-Abasi Ibanga, adds to this history by explaining another perspective. Ibanga, a researcher in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Calabar, Nigeria, begins his article by drawing attention to the fact that the pursuit and experience of beauty is virtually universal, yet the understanding of the concept is not universal. Framing his explanation of an African understanding of beauty against the traditional western concept, he offers a brief overview of some key ideas about beauty from western philosophy.

The Western Notion

Beginning with Plato, Ibanga notes that Plato connects beauty with the realm of the Forms (a realm beyond the physical world). This perfect realm is what grounds the beauty of everyday physical objects. According to Ibanga, beauty is objective on this account as it exists before any human being experiences it. He then moves on to Aristotle, who agreed with Plato that beauty was objective. However, Aristotle did not find the ground for beauty in a realm beyond the physical. For Aristotle, beauty is grounded in nature. Citing from the Metaphysics, he writes that Aristotle believed beauty consisted of order, symmetry, and the definite. And the two philosophers set the stage for the development of western philosophy, leading to Kant. While Kant believed that beauty is subjective, he thought it was universally communicable. But there cannot be principles that will guarantee the creation of beauty when applied. Ibanga goes into more detail about Kant’s notion of beauty, which can be found in the complete article (see link above). To summarize, Ibanga highlights that beauty for western philosophy is couched in the objective-subjective debate as it is focused on the individual’s experience.

The Concept of Beauty in African Philosophy

Beauty is generally connected with women in African thought, according to Ibanga. However, this is not limited to physical beauty alone. “Therefore, as we can see, in Africa, beauty is defined as unison (or harmony) of physical attractiveness (uyai akpọ iso) and good conducts (uyai edu) – this is to the extent that it applies to people” (p. 255). Both internal and external beauty are required for someone to be considered genuinely beautiful. Lacking one or the other of these halves means one has only an incomplete beauty.

Another concept important for beauty in African philosophy is functionality. To put it bluntly, beauty is not for beauty’s sake. But what is its function? Beauty is communal, rather than individualistic. “Beauty must serve to communicate values, norms, morals, and purpose. Beauty must edify the community” (p. 255). Beauty has this function to promote values, which can and will differ from community to community. Ibanga explains: “the concept of beauty in Africa is objective in that it communicates a communal standard, but it is also subjective in that the standard of beauty is different from community to community” (p. 255).

Drawing a contrast between people and objects, Ibanga explains that an object (i.e., a work of art) is most beautiful when it is made and immediately begins declining in beauty. However, a person does not begin life with complete beauty. A person progresses toward a pinnacle of beauty in middle age, and then begins to diminish in beauty. Contrary to Plato’s notion of a perfect form, beauty, for Ibanga, is “always subject to depreciation” (p. 257).

The final idea highlighted by Ibanga is that beauty is relational. “Relational concept of beauty is an Afrocentric theoretical perspective that objects derives their beauty from other objects proximate to it” (p. 257). Other objects are the source of the beauty of any given object. The basic relational core is summed up in the expression, “I am because we are.” Nothing exists in isolation, so people and objects have their ground of beauty in their relationships. He explains: “Experience of beauty has to do with wholeness and interdependence; and recognizing one’s place in the connective web of other existents” (p. 258). Without relations a person or object would lose some its beauty.

I’ll end the summary of this article with Ibanga’s own summary conclusion in its entirety:

“This study examined the concept of beauty or the beautiful in African philosophy. It indicated that the concept of beauty in an African context is communal and functional, unlike individualistic conception of beauty in Western philosophy. Hence, the communal conception of beauty means that whatever is judged as beautiful must not be socially disharmonious, but it must also enhance community balance. The functional conception of beauty implies that beauty, in an African context must serve to lead to some purpose. In Africa, beauty is linked with the development of moral awareness; there is no beauty for beauty’s sake, it must serve some good. Finally, the beautiful is a two-fold reality: the inner beauty and exterior beauty. Inner beauty refers to good conduct; exterior beauty refers to physical attractiveness. A person or thing is judged beautiful if and only if it reflects both aspects; for the absence of one nullifies the other. This means that beauty in an African context is complementary in the sense that good conduct must complement physical attractiveness and vice versa in order to render an aesthetical appearance complete, because both aspects are relevant to valid aesthetic judgment.” (p. 259).

Credits: “The Concept of Beauty in African Philosophy by Diana-Abasi Ibanga. Cover image by Hannah Spicher incorporates “Bronze Sculpture of Ideal Benin Woman” by Osaize Omodamwen, Nigeria, 1984 CE.

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