The African concept of ubuntu expresses a notion of human nature that emphasizes relationships and interdependence. The words umutu ngumunto ngabuntu express the idea that a person is a person through other persons.
Trudy Govier, writing in Humanist Perspectivies (Spring 2006, formerly Humanist in Canada), is author of Social Trust and Human Communities (1997), Socrates' Children (1998), and Forgiveness and Revenge (2002). According to Govier, who is a member of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, ubuntu is an important concept because cultures and civilizations can best advance by developing their own resources and adapting them to new circumstances and functions.
Ubuntu is in contrast with the individualism so characteristic of western philosophy, she explains:
- Individualism is often epitomized in the philosophy of Descarts and his famous small argument: "I think, therefore I am." In this argument, usually referred to as the Cogito (for the Latin "I think"), the individual self is known to exist through its own individual conciousness. The presumption is that one can know one's own mind and its contents withot knowing that the material world, one's own body, or other people can exist. The self, or consciousness, is considered to be purely individual and not tied to social relatioships.
The notion of umbuntu, however, is that it is a tool
- that can encourage us to pay attention to others and their interests: others are not in any complete sense separate from ourselves. The concept of ubuntu seems to have considerable potention, not only for cultural regeneration, but as an element of inspirational discourse.
For example, Desmond Tutu linked the notion of ubuntu with the willingness of black South Africans to forgive in the aftermath of apartheid. Otherewise, to refuse to forgive would be to be in a state of alienation from fellow human beings. If others are isolated and dehumanized, then I will be harmed by their suffering. Or, as Tutu stated it, "I am human because I belong, I anticipate, I share."
Linux software has named one of its freeware systems "Linux Ubuntu," recognizing the sharing, non-capitalistic ethos of Linux. In Pretoria, there is an Ubuntu School of Philosophy. The University of Utrecht offered a course in Ubuntu in 2001. The notion, in short, inspires cooperation.
According to Govier, the concept of ubuntu comes from the Zulu and Xhosa people. Not that all African cultures have a concept that is similar, but the idea originated in Africa. She cautions, however, about two mistakes that need to be avoided:
- The first mistake is that of essentialism, which is supposing that all members of a group have some deep and fundamental element in common, this common element being their "essence." We would make this mistake if we simply assumed that all African cultures feature an ubuntu concept of humanity. The second mistake is that of dichotomization - thinking in simplistic either/or patterns. We would make this mistake if we presumed that concepts of human nature can be characerized as either African (relatedness reigns) or Western (individualism reigns), and there are no significant mixtures.
Another pitfall, Govier adds, is that of romanticizing African ideas, for in practice all African countries have not displayed ubuntu-inspired concern for other human beings.