A bit less Décartes and a bit more Ubantu

It is often said that the majority of Africans find capitalism particularly emotionally and conceptually difficult. And I think it’s not always limited to Africans.

Although Western capitalism was founded on a certain amount of cooperation and charity, in overwhelming measure it was based on the individual self interest of the capitalist. In today’s “financial capitalism” this has worsened as money provides both a resource and a measuring system that purportedly allows us to make straighforward and appropriate “logical” decisions. Meanwhile sociopathy appears to be as advantageous now as it was in the eighteenth century – as the current salaries of chief executives of large companies so obviously testify.

So I was intrigued to read an article on the aeon ideas site where Abeba Birhane, a PhD student in Dublin, maintains that the responsibility for this largely lies with Descartes. He wasn’t a thrusting capitalist but his famous Latinised expression, ‘Dubito, cogito, ergo sum’ ended up providing a philosophical basis for individuality. ‘I doubt, I think, therefore I am’ is all about the self: nobody else is remotely involved, just the individual and the thinking. And as Descartes  wrote this in 1637 it has had a long time to be become well enshrined in the western capitalist mentality.

Birhane contrasts this with Ubuntu philosophy and a definition from a Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti in African Religions and Philosophy (1975): ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.’

Ubuntu gained more widespread recognition after the end of South African apartheid, so I think a story allegedly from Desmond Tutu is particularly demonstrative. An anthropologist studying the habits and customs of an African tribe found himself surrounded by children most days. So he decided to play a little game with them. He managed to get sweets from the nearest town and put them in a decorated basket at the foot of a tree. Then he called the children and suggested they play a game. When the anthropologist said ‘now’, the children had to run to the tree and the first one to get there could have all the sweets. So the children all lined up waiting for the signal. When the anthropologist said ‘now’, all of the children took each other by the hand and ran together toward the tree. They all arrived at the same time, divided up the sweets, sat down and began to happily munch away. The anthropologist went over to them and asked why they had all run together when any one of them could have had the sweets all to themselves. The children responded: ‘Ubuntu. How could any one of us be happy if all the others were sad?’ Ubuntu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as, ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.’

Ubuntu in effect defines the individual only in terms of his or her relationships with others in the community. Birhane implies a little more Ubuntu and a little less Décartes would be good for the West. I rather agree, and above all it’s good to know that there IS an alternative.

Of course, none of this precludes thinking (which is probably one of life’s greatest excitements) or being, but it does suggest to me that Décartes’ maxim should be the start and not the destination – because Ubuntu seems to point out that if indeed there really were no such thing as society then there is no individual either. And that’s not in anyone’s interest…