Philosophy Weekend: Ubuntu, Ubuntu, Ubuntu

Thanks to Nelson Mandela, I have a new favorite word. I’m serious about this; I like this word a lot.

I’ve known about “Ubuntu” for years, but I always thought it was a distribution of the Linux open source operating system. I’ve installed and used Ubuntu Linux often. But I’ve just now learned that the Ubuntu distro was created as a spinoff of Debian Linux in 2004 by a South African entrepreneur named Mark Shuttleworth who knew of “ubuntu” as a familiar term in the Ngugi Bantu and Swahili family of languages. The term denotes a communitarian social philosophy that is certainly relevant to the communitarian technology philosophy of open source. Amazingly, the Ubuntu Linux organization even persuaded Nelson Mandela to speak about the meaning of the word in a promotional video for the free and sharable operating system.

I ran into the word while reading about Nelson Mandela, but apparently the word is more commonly associated with Mandela’s fellow activist Bishop Desmond Tutu, who has described it thus:

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

The term describes a scientific psychological understanding as well as an ethical principle, as in this helpful explanation by African historian Michael Onyebuchi Eze:

A person is a person through other people strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance

“Humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me”. That says a hell of a lot. In fact, it says a hell of a lot that I have been struggling to say in previous Philosophy Weekend articles, particularly in blog posts like The Collective Self, The Ayn Rand Principle and the Two Senses of Self and Groupthink, Group Mind.

I have been at times nearly obsessed with this idea, and have had many fascinating comment-section debates with Litkicks readers about it — particularly as I’ve introduced and emphasized the concept of the natural “group self” to combat the increasingly popular but sadly isolating ultra-individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand in my short book Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters).

Struggling to find the words to express the psychological idea that the human sense of self is intrinsically collectivist as well as the ethical idea that we can live happier and more peaceful lives once we let go of the mistaken and naive belief that the human soul is fully encapsulated in an isolated self, I have evoked a variety of wise thinkers from Buddha to Carl Jung. But I did not know that there was a Southern African tradition I could appeal to as well.

I have previously employed the word “group self” to describe the concept of a human soul that is intrinsically social and naturally inclined to be generous with all fellow human souls. I did not know that I could have used a better word that many of my readers may have been already familiar with. “Ubuntu”. Simple as that.

I love learning new words. Sometimes, as when I ran into Jacques Derrida’s term “differance” earlier this year, the discovery of a previously unknown word helped me to discover a new way to think. It’s very cool when this happens.

But “ubuntu” strikes me differently. This seems to express an exact thing I have already been struggling to express, but without realizing that a word for it existed. I now wish I could reopen all my past debates about the “group self” (especially this mammoth debate from March 2012, which I still remember with a big smile) and replace all instances of the term “group self” with “ubuntu”.

Maybe with this ammunition my vigorous opponents would finally realize they’d been bested in the debate. Okay, that’ll never happen. But it’s still a great word.

To top this off: I’ve watched plenty of Boston Celtics games in the past few years, but I’ve also only now learned that “ubuntu” has recently morphed into a big Boston Celtics tradition, originally passed on to coach Doc Rivers by Stephanie Russell of Marquette University.

“1-2-3 Ubuntu!”. I like the way that sounds.

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