Ubuntu and Descartes

When I first encountered the Southern African word ubuntu a few years ago, it instantly resonated with me. A person is only a person through other people…. the suffering of one person diminishes all of us. Or as Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it, “a solitary human being is a contradiction in terms”. A notion that the English language doesn’t seem to have quite the right colours to paint. It takes a lot of mixing of English words to express that one African word. It resonated with me as a human being as an acknowledgment of our connectedness of our human responsibility to each other, even to all living things.

More than the emotional connection to the word though, it made me think about the philosophy I studied at university. It reminded me that musch of the western canon of philosophy was based on the principle that the indivisible unit of humanity was one human being and that everything one needed to know could therefore be deduced through a process of introspection. Descartes’ famous expression “I think therefore I am” is the classic expression of this principle.

But why should that be true? Why should humanity be discernible from a single human being, any more than wetness can be discerned from an individual molecule of H2O. Of course we are more complex but why should humanity be an individual characteristic as opposed to a collective one. Something that only emerges out of human interaction.

My introduction to the concept of Ubuntu made me think that Descartes took a big philosophical left turn a few hundred years ago that western philosophy has yet to recover from.

It was both inspiring and validating to hear John Seely-Brown express the same notion in an Edutech podcast with Steve Hargadon. In it he says,

“…my own thinking for now 30 years is kind of the shift from a Cartesian point of view of I think, therefore I am where knowledge is a kind of substance that gets kind of poured into your head to build up stocks of knowledge in your head..supposedly, versus we participate, therefore we are in that in participation with others that we come into being and that could be psychoanalytically true but it is also in participation with others that we start to internalise our own understandings of the world and learn…”

Right on.

  • Gert
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  • http://www.google.com/ Gabby

    Enlightnneig the world, one helpful article at a time.

  • http://www.koistrategy.com Neil Hinrichsen

    Spot on!

    If you want to take this further, the now obscure (wildly popular in his lifetime, Tony Blair is a huge fan) Scottish philosopher John Macmurray has built an entire philosophy on the idea that we are only full human beings when we are acting (not thinking) (see his book The Self as Agent) and in relationships (his book Person in Relation).

    More in Wikipedia, but the best short introduction to his work (blew my socks off when I read it) is in David Creamer’s book Guides for the Journey: John MacMurray, Bernard Lonergan, and James Fowler.

  • Steve Song

    Thanks Neil! Fascinating. I’ve never come across his work before. Busy absorbing it now.