The Epic Story of Humanity: Part 1, Spring

Ubuntu: I Am Because You Are

Emotional Utopia of the Abstracted Self
MALICK SIDIBÉ/JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Since Descartes, Western philosophy has grappled in metaphysical agony with the notion of reunifying the object and the self.

Cartesian dualism, as it has become known — the separation of spirit from body, reason from empiricism, thought from experience — has haunted the obsessive riddle-making of Western thinkers for almost 400 years. Heidegger and Nietzsche tried to smash the dualism into substantive bits, bridging unity out of the mess, but subject and object, you and the world, are still at the polar ends of the philosophical magnet.

Today, the archetypal Western philosopher is a neurotic academic obsessed with word equations and sophisticated translations of obscurity, as if the point of philosophy is not to solve questions of meaning, but to pass time with endless struggle… to fill the void in the soul that individualism ripped wide open.

Southern African philosophy has never endured such a finicky, yet debilitating rapture. Rather than endless staring into the self, the Southern African philosophy of Ubuntu accepts at the outset that a human is only a human through others. Subject and object are inherently bound, in flux at times, but in essence collective, allowing room to breathe, but not the great selfish gasps of the Western mind.

In the vibrant cultures of Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, most Westerners feel an incredible sense of presence and realism, a feeling they rarely ever recover from. They experience the African continent as a type of emotional utopia of the abstracted self, forever forced to grapple with the contradiction that such an objectively difficult place for living — starvation, war, famine, poverty, disease — could be filled with such a subjectively abundant joy of life.

Comments on the article “Ubuntu: I Am Because You Are”

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Michèle Marchand

I felt the same thing with our Indians: when you live with them for a while, you cannot ever feel the same about individualism!!! Thank you for your article. I'm going to read about Ubuntu...

Anonymous

The "Africa has a superior culture" mantra started after European colonialists were chased out through superior African military power and, in some cases, ethnic cleansing of Europeans. People tend to side with military victors.

Well, I don't believe you. With all due respect, I do not want to live in an African-style society.

todawgs

Yep, and I'm one of them. White Westerners tend to experience life without intimacy, which is what makes the world go-round.

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