‘uMuntu nguMuntu ngaBantu’: toward an equitably infused global epistemological orientation and global (philosophy of) education

Note: this article is now available as open access via the link below. Hosted in Africa is grateful to Associate Professor Cossa for granting us the permission to share this article with our community prior to this announcment (18 April 2023).

Cossa, J. (2023). ‘uMuntu nguMuntu ngaBantu’: Toward an Equitably Infused Global Epistemological Orientation and Global (Philosophy of) Education, Bandung, 10(1), 33-52.


The core question in this article is whether, or not, uBuntu and Humanism can simultaneously inform a pursuit of an equitably infused global epistemological orientation and, consequently, an equitably infused global (philosophy of)1 education. I argue that uBuntu and Humanism are not compatible at the very core of their ontological, axiological, and epistemological nature, and thus, might present an epistemological challenge to any attempt to develop an equitably infused global epistemological orientation and an equitably infused global (philosophy of) education. Moreover, I assume the broad etymological definition of philosophy as the ‘love of wisdom’ and that wisdom is a manifestation in uBuntu world, and consequently the love of such, and the resulting need to inquire into the compatibility, while recognizing potential incommensurability, between how wisdom is thought of by Western humanist-derived epistemologies and by uBuntu-derived epistemologies. At the center of the analysis is the nature of ‘human’ or ‘person’ since both Humanism and uBuntu are intrinsically bound to conceptualizations of personhood. Framed within the historical backdrop of the European Renaissance and the African Renaissance, the article comprises a critical historical outlook and analysis of primary and secondary sources of discourses on Humanism and uBuntu. Primary focus is on works of so-called2 classical thinkers such as Heidegger, Husserl, Cheikh Anta Diop, René Descartes, Frederick Nietzsche, Julius Nyerere, and John Mbiti. The key aim is to challenge scholars to work toward the equitable infusion of epistemologies inherent in these two terms, instead of continuing to see these terms as interchangeable, which essentially authenticates and perpetuates the imposition of humanism on non-humanist contexts. The African Renaissance might be the adequate space for such equitable placement of uBuntu as a source of global epistemologies alongside those emanating from Humanism.

Key words: Epistemology, uBuntu, Humanism, Humanist, Human, Africa, Equitable Infusion, Europe, Philosophy, Philosophy of Education, Epistemology, cognitive, and Education

‘uMuntu nguMuntu ngaBantu’: toward an equitably infused global epistemological orientation and global (philosophy of) education


In the “afterthought on the way forward” section included in my revised article on the African Renaissance and Globalization (Cossa, 2015), I evoked several issues pertaining to the relationship between uBuntu3 and Humanism in pursuit of a global (philosophy of) education. In this article, I pursue and, critically, develop the arguments laid on the aforementioned section as a foundation toward an equitably infused global epistemological orientation and global (philosophy of) education that seriously considers uBuntu in equal terms as Humanism.4

Several studies have attempted to define uBuntu in terms that a global readership can understand. Venter (2004) argues that uBuntu has been used out of context and, consequently, misinterpreted; advocates for uBuntu as a way to rescue the sense of identity and purpose in people; distinguishes between Eurocentric and Afrocentric philosophies centered on individualism and communalism, respectively; and, advocates for a reconstructing of African culture, with uBuntu as an anchor that influences a (philosophy of) education towards teaching both the head and heart, simultaneously. Gade (2012) claims that there is no unified definition of uBuntu among South Africans as some define uBuntu as the moral quality of the person and others describe it as a philosophy or worldview. Sibanda (2014) argues that uBuntu represents a common consciousness for African culture, but it disempowers individual consciousness, lacks proper definition, and does not provide behavioral standards for the African youth to follow. Furthermore, Sibanda claims that uBuntu has the potential to counter globalization and multiculturism, less it is advanced into a more dynamic philosophy that encompasses a global spectrum of values while maintaining African identity, i.e., a ‘flexible version’ of Ubuntu.

The attempt to define uBuntu for a global readership has led many scholars to equate uBuntu to Humanism. This constitutes the core of the discussion in this article and inspires the inquiry about the relationship between these two philosophical foundations. Such inquiry presupposes that we ask ourselves whether, or not, uBuntu and Humanism are compatible and if they can simultaneously inform a pursuit toward an equitably infused global epistemological orientation and global (philosophy of) education. This question emerges as a continuation of my musings about the African Renaissance and concepts that are African-originating such as uBuntu and from my interest in problematizing the theme of the 59th conference of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES), “Ubuntu! Imagining a Humanist Education Globally”. It became my priority to look critically at the challenge presented to us by Professor N’Dri Assié- Lumumba since most papers seemed to assume that the relationship between uBuntu and humanist education were synonymous or compatible. I conjecture, herein, that the epistemologies inherent

in the two philosophical foundations are not compatible, thus requiring caution when inviting such inherent epistemologies to share the same (educational) space even in an infused form. In this article, I evoke uBuntu, as it (re)surfaces in the African Renaissance, and Humanism, as it surfaced in the European Renaissance. A noteworthy perspective is the fact that Humanism provided the Western world with a construct it could call its own, i.e., Western world, after all what is known as the Western world is the brainchild of Humanism. Therefore, to understand uBuntu as Humanism begs the question of legitimacy as do questions of comparison in comparative studies since, for instance, each society/nation/country has its own nuanced contextual existence. That is, as a comparativist, I am cognizant of the incommensurability surrounding this comparison (be it by equating or differentiating phenomena at a mere conceptual level). Moreover, while disagreeing with the premise of the argumentation and claims, I respect the work of those who have brought to the center-stage of historical reflection the effort to reclaim African equitable participation in the world by arguing for an African Humanism or the right for Africans to appropriate the term Humanism to interpret African phenomenon.5 However, the lenses of epistemic violence and, more specifically, untranslatability and translation as erasure (Vázquez, 2011), might be handy to aid those struggling with my claim of incommensurability of uBuntu as Humanism.6 Nonetheless, this is a discussion for another paper.

uBuntu and Humanism

In the last decade-and-half, there seems to be a revival of African intellectual quest for defining both philosophy and education [and (philosophy of) education] in a way that makes sense, at least, to the African intelligentsia, by challenging the dominant pre-existing notions of the essence of both philosophy and education. This quest might be accompanied by similar phenomena in other regions of the world that have suffered the ills of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism and the consequent degrading of their people and disregard of their knowledge systems.7 It is this common thread of a sort of conscientização that has elevated the discourse to attempts toward identifying concepts and developing philosophies that will orient the thread into a movement of social transformation that has philosophical and educational transformation at its core. However, a study about other regions is beyond the scope of this article. In this article, I argue that, in order to engage in a quest that will lead to meaningful transformation toward philosophy and education, such quest needs to be rooted in scholarly engagements that look critically at epistemology, since scholarship is about how we know what we know, without overlooking ontology and axiology as they are threaded (in ways that we cannot unthread) with epistemology.

As in the case of the incommensurability dilemma faced in the Humanism-uBuntu comparison, I reckon that the aforementioned quest begs the question of methodological adequacy as well as adequacy of approach (from the mere level of ideas and concepts) since epistemology, axiology, and ontology are elements of Western philosophy—at least at the level of cognition that led to their existence as areas of philosophy and academic nomenclature. Consequently, amidst these developments and concurrent conundrum, one may ask, ‘should Africans and the rest of the non- Western world be thinking in terms of a philosophy of xyz (e.g., education)? Is the nature of uBuntu, a phenomenon that originates from the African context, compatible with the nature of a philosophy, as we know it in Western educational context?’ Any attempt to answer these questions calls for a consideration of the very basic conceptions of philosophy, i.e., philo=love and Sophia=wisdom, and look at how ‘wisdom’ might be understood in Humanism and uBuntu. If we assume that wisdom (lato sensu) is a manifestation in uBuntu world, and consequently the love of such, is there compatibility between how wisdom (stricto sensu) is thought of within a Humanist world and within an uBuntu world?

Before we proceed with this inquiry, it is important to mention that the scope of this article does not permit an elaborate discussion on the nature of philosophy. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that such discussions are part of the current discourse by African scholars. For instance, Letseka (2014) presents an elaborate and intentional argument to dethrone the Western-originating claim that philosophy originates from Greece by taking up assumptions by Husserl and Russel.8

What I set out to do in this paper is to subvert the taken-for-granted assumptions that philosophy originated in Greece. Such assumptions were shown to be prominent in the writings of German philosopher Edmund Husserl and British philosopher Bertrand Russell. If anything (sic) their views only smack of an ingrained and severe inward-looking Eurocentrism. For then the Greek origin of philosophy is “a story which affirms the link between individuality and universality by embodying that link in either the person of Socrates or by defining the (European) philosopher as the functionary of humanity” (Critchley, 1995:85). (p. 1306)

Further, he founds his argument on historical evidence from Confucius and the Kemetic culture of ancient Egypt as follows:

I showed, drawing on the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida (2002) that the discipline of philosophy is, and has always been a bastard, hybrid, grafted, multilinear, and polyglot. I showed that the thesis of the ‘Greek origin of philosophy’ overlooks the historical fact that the proponents of Greek philosophy – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle gained prominence as philosophers long after the advent of Chinese philosopher Confucius. I showed that by the time Confucius died Socrates was only ten years old. There is more. Advocates of the ‘Greek origin of philosophy’ also ignore the fact of the Kemetic culture of ancient Egypt even though history records that Plato actually visited Egypt around 390 BC, which was already a flourishing civilization. (Letseka, 2014, p. 1306)

Despite Letseka’s claim of primacy of non-Western philosophy, such claim is done in humanist fashion—a logical linear argumentation. This ambiguity, from which I cannot claim to have escaped when writing this article, is a demonstration of the extent to which humanist cognition can and does penetrate. The mere idea that Africans define this phenomenon known to the West as ‘philosophy’ is, in itself, evidence of this stronghold, which extends to a continuous fight to occupy the/a space of/in such descriptor, thus acquiring a sense of belonging that is legitimized by Western scholarship.

In humanist thinking, wisdom is centered around the individual human’s ability to make decisions about daily life matters and, when it operates within the context of education, it seems to focus on the ability to offer a sophisticated logic (perhaps linear) endowed with cumulative insight based on other humans’ thinking when making such decisions. It does not seem farfetched to argue that non-western contexts might offer alternative decision-making sophistications that are not compatible with such western wisdom. For instance, in biblical ancient world, wisdom is equated with the fear of God (Prov. 9:10) and is personified as God or co-existing with God (Prov. 8), perhaps as a means to construct it as a God-originating rather than human-originating phenomenon. In uBuntu world, wisdom can only be centered on the embodying of the motto ‘Motho ke Motho ka Batho’9 (that is, a person is a person unto, or because of, persons),10 not as an African conception of self but as the essence of humanity and its humanness. While in uBuntu world, wisdom is the realization that one is, only if fellow persons are; in Humanism, one is because one thinks, thus the Descartian syllogism “cogito ergo sum”, i.e., “I think, therefore I am,” (Descartes, 1637) is compatible with, and central to, Humanism; but, incompatible with, and exterior to, uBuntu.11 For instance, Descartes (1637) claimed to have found the first principle of philosophy, as follows:

… I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am (COGITO ERGO SUM), was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the skeptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search. (Part IV)

Moreover, such principle allowed him to reach the following conclusion (Descartes, 1637):

I was a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing; so that “I,” that is to say, the mind by which I am what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily known than the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not, it would still continue to be all that it is. (Part IV)

Descartian logic, which constitutes the heart of Humanism (especially, as manifested in Cartesianism), attests to the decision-making process in conceptualizing and understanding the essence of being human. In Cartesian terms, the mind discovered itself, defined itself, and made sense of itself and the life it leads. This, in contrast to the body, which is rendered (almost) meaningless in regard to understanding existence.

In uBuntu world, as opposed to humanist world, existence is not reduced to thought but to the perception of being that is contingent on, and inseparable from, fellow humans. Moreover, uBuntu focuses on the whole being and manifests in the communal, known in Swahili as ujamaa (Nyerere, 1966); whereas Humanism focuses on the creative power of the human brain and manifests in the individual.12 While in uBuntu a community is not made of individuals because the perception of individual is absent in uBuntu world, individuals comprise community in Humanism. I argue for the absence of ‘individual’ in uBuntu, using as a premise the motto itself and African spiritual cosmologies (Mbiti, 1995). When translated literally, the motto means ‘a person is a person unto/through/because of persons’ (not others), thus rendering both the singular and the ‘othering’ obsolete by not allowing the definition of personhood through self/individuality. African spiritual cosmologies, on the other hand, presuppose that at no point is the physical entity, often known as the ‘self’ in Humanism, alone, given that our ancestors are always with us in the real world and daily affairs. Allow me to illustrate this with a story of my own experience as one caught in the conundrum of being an African amidst the forces of a Western perception of humanity, even to the degree of Western-oriented cognitive engagement in native language speaking:

When I was 17, while a student of law at the University of Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, I was in Johannesburg, South Africa visiting with a Venda friend who sold fish and chips in a local Park Station joint. She said to me in Shangaan, “A tolo, hi vuyili hi mi vacaxa!” [Yesterday, we came to visit you!] To which I immediately asked “nwini na mani?” [You and whom?]. As our conversation continued, we were able to iron out our misunderstanding about who had visited me. Dissonance in perceptions of personhood became clear to me as I later realized that to the Shangaan (if properly spoken) there are no individuals, while to the Shangaan operating within a non-uBuntu cognition, the person is an individual. In uBuntu world there is never a time when a person is alone, even if it appears to be the case if one is to be confined to physical existence, because in uBuntu world we walk accompanied by our ancestors who are part of what John Mbiti (1995) once described as ‘the living dead’ (those who may not manifest in the physical but their memories are alive in us and their sprits, i.e., moya, are felt in real terms rather than in the realm of belief alone).

In our pursuit of an equitably infused global epistemological orientation and global (philosophy of) education, and in addition to the differences pointed thus far, we are to factor in the historical perceptions, and consequent influence, of the West on African civilizations (Diop, 1991). One can hardly deny how historical factors such as colonialism and post-colonial derivatives have shaped the interaction between the so-called Western and non-Western worlds. We can safely say that Western civilization is continuing to influence the African way of life. Despite a more concerted effort in the past decades since the advent of the idea of revisiting the African Renaissance, Africans generally avoid participating in, or being associated with, African traditional religions, African languages, mores, art, and oral wisdom. In cases when such affirmation is present, there is still a lack of a continent-wide unity to elevate African languages and cognitions into the sphere of international discourse (Babaci-Wilhite, 2014). Africa’s children are born into a so-called globalized world influenced by the civilization of the West; a world where the preeminence of foreign languages and customs are major factors of alienation from traditional African customs.

Consequently, education in Africa is only regarded as acceptable to the global community when it conforms to Western standards of content and process. Because of this external bias, African education is increasingly subjected to Western cognitive patterns that are foreign to the average African citizen.13 I argued elsewhere (Cossa, 2008) that,

Many Africans are expressing a desire to return to indigenous14 forms of civilization (i.e., Egypt, Agicuyos of Kenya, the Muenemutapas of Zimbabwe, and the Nguni of Southern Africa) … Some scholars, clergy, politicians, and African leaders desire the return of their long-lost identity and values through an African renaissance, which presupposes a call for educational systems that are compatible with traditional African cognitive systems. (p. 2)

These forms of African civilizations ought to be understood against the backdrop of an understanding of a human being as a being with inherent dignity and how that dignity was reduced through complex systematic efforts to denigrate others in order to dominate (Salazar, 1943-1967). For instance, African [Oral] historians tell us that, when European settlers encountered Africans in the Southern African region who, presumably, had emigrated from the Great Lakes region in Central Africa, the Europeans asked who the Africans were and in response they [the Africans] described themselves as humans or people, i.e., Bantu. This descriptor was seen by Europeans as a descriptor of a particular people who were thenceforth referred to by the senseless descriptor “Bantu people,” which literally means “’people’ people”.15 In this historical narrative of the encounter between Africa and the West, a foundational distinction can be made in the understanding of ‘human’ between one who operates within an uBuntu framework and one who operates within a humanist framework. Therefore, when taking this narrative seriously into account, as I do herein, one can argue that when the Africans in the narrative described themselves as Bantu, they were defining humanity in its more global way—i.e., “we are human.” On the contrary, the Europeans in the narrative, informed by their humanistic orientation, saw this as a mere description of a particular group of people. What emerged out of this was a perpetual embracing of an erroneous categorization of the people of Southern Africa and people with specific features (e.g., those who came to accept being designated as ‘Somali Bantu’16 simply because they have been seen as possessing characteristics of what such ‘Bantu’ look like). One important point to highlight here is that we, Africans, scholars included, have embraced and sustained this descriptor without cognizance of the cognitive system and the corresponding epistemological root, i.e., Humanism, which informs such descriptor.

A Brief Synopsis on European Renaissance and Humanism

To elucidate further this point pertaining to the epistemological roots, we need to revisit a time in history that is widely accepted as being responsible for what came to be known as Humanism (Russell, 1945). Humanism emerges within the context of the European Renaissance. Estep (1986) relates that the Renaissance was a return to classical excellence in the social, political, and religious realms. One of its important features was an emergent individual thinking. As stated elsewhere (Cossa, 2008),

There was within the Renaissance an intellectual movement called Humanism… Humanism… later infiltrated the Christian faith with the consent from Popes who were desperate for scholarly recognition. Humanism argued convincingly the supremacy of the Greek and Latin classics on matters of morals and effective life… by relying on the wisdom of the ancient European civilizations, Humanism attracted various members of the elite who soon preferred humanists as teachers for their children. (p. 13)

For humanists, the understanding of humanity is an intellectual exercise. Husserl’s phenomenology offers insight into humanistic thinking as it calls for a radical ‘thinking’ about phenomena in general and, consequently, our own humanity in particular. Phenomenological concern lies on the human’s ability to think, and think with such ‘sophistication’ that one can re- claim one’s own primordial understanding of self. Husserl (1983) claims that the key task of phenomenology is “to provide a clear, undistorted description of the ways things appear” and it is more concerned with description rather than interpretation of (conscious) experience. A call for description over interpretation may mislead one to think that Husserl is reducing the place of reason, thus not as humanistic as humanists should be, however, the mere idea of going against the grain of general reasoning is reasoning in itself. For instance, he argues in favor of a reasoning process, which he calls phenomenological reduction, a process that allows one to go back to the things as they are given, to look beyond what we have been told, the prejudices of common-sense realism, and to accept things as they are. Furthermore, Husserl’s wrestling with the question of being is clearly centered on human ability to reason:

Our considerations now have succeeded in reaching a point of culmination. We have acquired the cognitions we needed. Already included in the concatenations of essences disclosed to us are the most important premises from which we shall draw the inferences concerning the essential detachableness of the whole natural world from the domains of consciousness, of the sphere of being pertaining to mental processes; we can presume ourselves that, in these inferences, justice is at last done to a core of Descartes’s Meditations (which were directed to entirely different ends) which only lacked a pure, effective development. (Husserl, 1983, pp. 103-104)

From a religious angle, notwithstanding the claim that the Reformation emerged as a form of protest against the Church’s embrace of “pagan” philosophies and practices introduced by humanists, developments in both the Renaissance and Reformation were a result of the role of humanists in advocating for conscious individualism. Humanists introduced the question of what it is to be understood as human, as opposed to the creationist view, and conceptions that derived from such a quest influenced how the West was to view humanity. Heidegger (Heidegger, 2000) sums up Humanism as “meditating and caring, that man be human and not inhumane, ‘inhuman,’ that is, outside his essence. But in what does the humanity of man consist? It lies in his essence.”17 However, Heidegger further presents weariness around the question of essence pursued through Christianity, metaphysics, and the sciences. He states that,

Just as little as the essence of man consists in being an animal organism can this insufficient definition of man’s essence be overcome or offset by outfitting man with an immortal soul, the power of reason, or the character of a person. In each instance essence is passed over, and passed over on the basis of the same metaphysical projection. (p. 88)

In refuting the limitations of conceptualizing the essence of human through metaphysics, Heidegger (Heidegger, 2000) claims that the vehicle for understanding human essence is what he called Ek-sistence, “Ek-sistence so understood is not only the ground of the possibility of reason, ratio (italics mine), but is also that in which the essence of man preserves the source that determines him” (p. 16). In his wrestling with the essence of Being and time, Heidegger (1962) makes a very persuasive argument in regards to the concealing power of tradition, that is useful even for our current attempt to understand what happened to uBuntu, since Western tradition has become master of our attempts to understand the very essence of uBuntu. Heidegger argues that,

When tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it ‘transmits’ is made so inaccessible, proximally and for the most part, that it rather becomes concealed. Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial ‘sources’ from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn. Indeed it makes us forget that they have had such an origin, and makes us suppose that the necessity of going back to these sources is something which we need not even understand… (p. 22)

Further, he (2000) states:

Dasein [Da (there) + sein (being) ≈ existence that is aware] has had its historicality so thoroughly uprooted by tradition that it confines its interest to the multiformity of possible types, directions, and standpoints of philosophical activity in the most exotic and alien of cultures… Dasein no longer understands the most elementary conditions which would alone enable it to go back to the past in a positive manner and make it productively its own. (p. 22)

His reasoning principle is to seek the essence of Being through a dethroning of ancient ontologies (e.g., Greek, Hegelian, Descartian’s ego cogito) and subsequent tradition, but not in its totality since such tradition sustains all Western humanist tendencies, even those claiming radicalism from the general humanist tradition (Heidegger, 1962). He states the following:

In thus demonstrating the origin of our basic ontological concepts an investigation in which their ‘birth certificate’ is displayed, we have nothing to do with a vicious relativizing of ontological standpoints. But this destruction is just as far from having the negative sense of shaking off the ontological tradition. We must, on the contrary, stake out the positive possibilities of that tradition, and this always means keeping it within its limits; these in turn are given factically in the way the question is formulated at the time, and in the way the possible field for investigation is thus bounded off. (p. 23)

Then he (Heidegger, 2000) presents the negative side, albeit arguing it as having a positive aim, as follows:

… this destruction does not relate itself towards the past; its criticism is aimed at ‘today’ and at the prevalent way of treating the history of ontology, whether it is headed towards doxography, towards intellectual history, or towards a history of problems. But to bury the past in nullity [Nichtigkeit] is not the purpose of this destruction; its aim is positive; its negative function remains unexpressed and indirect. (p. 23)

Nietzsche (Kaufmann, 1954) argues for a superiority of individuality over communality when stating the following:

History teaches that the best-preserved tribe among a people is the one in which men have a living communal sense as a consequence of sharing their customary and indisputable principles… the danger of these strong communities founded on homogeneous individuals who have character is growing stupidity, which gradually increases by heredity, and which, in any case, follows all stability like a shadow. It is the individuals who have fewer ties and are much more uncertain and morally weaker upon whom spiritual progress depends in such communities; they are the men who make new and manifold experiments. (pp. 54-55)

This favoring individuality is further highlighted in Nietzsche’s placing reason at the top of the educational agenda. He categorically states that “the schools have no more important task than to teach rigorous thinking, cautious judgment, and consistent inference… they should enforce what is essential and distinctive in man: “reason and science, man’s very highest power” (P57). He justifies his claim regarding the superiority of Europeans over Asiatics (and by inference, non- Western societies) by elevating the centrality of the mind and reason, a manifestation of European Humanism, deeming everything that resorted to other ways of knowing as unscientific and comparable to European Middle Ages (Kaufmann, 1954). He claims that “Europe was made Europe by reason in the schools; in the Middle Ages Europe was on the way to becoming a piece and an appendix of Asia again—by losing the scientific sense that it owed to the Greeks” (p. 57).

Toward an Equitably Infused Global Epistemological Orientation and Global (Philosophy of) Education

The dilemma found in the dominance of Humanism over other epistemologies, in conceptualizing personhood, have been inherited by African scholarship and present an almost insurmountable challenge for those of us who are seeking to illuminate the world about the possibility of elevating African cognition and epistemology to equitable levels in global scholarship and practice. Locked in this dilemma is Hoekema’s attempt to classify into categories the (philosophical) African discourses surrounding the essence of humanness or personhood (Hoekema, 2008). Hoekema claims to have identified three key aspects of traditional notions of personhood, as follows:

First, it persists through life and beyond death. Second, it is attained, by stages, through key events and accomplishments beginning with formal recognition in a naming ceremony and continuing, for those who have lived worthy lives, for several generations after death. Third, personhood is essentially relational and social, not something that can be properly attributed to individuals in isolation.18 (p. 265)

Hoekema’s claim that “Personhood in traditional African thought is achieved in stages throughout one’s life, not conferred as undifferentiated status” (p. 261) is problematic, seems unfounded, and a gross generalization. One can concur with the fact that there are ceremonies in Africa pertaining to naming an infant and presenting the infant to the community, which require a waiting period for such to take place. However, explaining such practices as the pre-personhood stage, i.e., a stage in which an African infant is not yet human, leans toward a neo-colonial distortion of traditional African thought and a consequent misinterpretation of traditional African practices. Hoekema contradicts the claim about “personhood in traditional African thought” when claiming the inappropriateness to speak of a unified mentality in regards to conceptions of a person:

It is inappropriate to speak of “the African conception of the person,” falsely imputing some sort of unified mentality that spans a vast continent whose peoples, cultures, histories, and languages are widely diverse. And yet many observers of African cultures have called attention to features such as these three that can be found in many cultures and are affirmed in many traditional systems of thought, as is evident in the four sources that have just been cited – from Kenya, the Congo, Uganda, and South Africa – in support of a communal conception of the self. (Hoekema, 2008, pp. 265-266)

Like African Renaissance literature, African and Diasporic post-colonial literature wrestled with the issue of finding adequate expressions of humanity as a form of liberation from colonialism. However, such attempts fell short of the stronghold of Humanism, albeit constituting an indispensable foundation on which to build the quest for African epistemological independence and the grounds for equitable epistemological participation in global discourse about an infused equitable epistemological orientation and global (philosophy of) education. In a discussion of Aimé Césaire, Hiddleston (2010) points us to Lavinas as a prelude to the Césairean conceptualization of humanity:

Although Levinas does not argue explicitly for the ethical implications of the notion of humanity, he redeploys the term precisely with the aim of reinforcing the ethical nature of our relationality. We are human, then, to the extent that we depend upon and are responsible for others. Even more, in recognizing the other’s humanity we recognize him or her as a vulnerable Other to whom we have an ethical obligation. (p. 96)

Hiddleston describes Césaire’s thought on the subject of humanity as one characterized by an evoking of ‘humanité’ to emphasize “the necessity for an ethical understanding of the relation to the other as other” (p. 96).

Despite the noble role played by post-colonial thinkers (e.g., Césaire, Senghor, Fanon, Kincaid, Edward Said, Mazrui, Spivak, Aidoo, and a wide range of African scholars) in conceptualizing the essence of ‘humanity,’ the entrapping power of the epistemology inherent in Humanism and its misappropriation as a global instrument to define humanity prevails. Even scholars with a very keen eye to catching the nuances of “epistemological subjugation,” at times, fall pray of such in their analysis. For instance, Makgoba’s use of ‘Humanism’ in critiquing the shortfalls of Western democracies is evidence of the subtleties of this epistemological subjugation revealed by the interchangeable use of Humanism and humanness (Enslin and Horsthemke, 2004). While Enslin and Hosthemke (2004) critique Makgoba’s claims of a uniqueness of uBuntu, their critique is short of providing any hint of liberation from this epistemological subjugation from Humanism. They claim that uBuntu is ‘conceptually and practically associated with a long and profound tradition of humanist concern, caring and compassion, also prominent in Western thought’ and support their position with that of Ramphele (Enslin and Horsthemke, 2004), who posits the following:

Ubuntu as a philosophical approach to social relationships must stand alongside other approaches and be judged on the value it can add to better human relations in our complex society.  The refusal to acknowledge the similarity between ubuntu and other humanistic philosophical approaches is in part a reflection of the parochialism of South Africans and a refusal to learn from others.  We have to have the humility to acknowledge that we are not inventing unique problems in this country, nor are we likely to invent entirely new solutions. (p. 548)

While plausible, inherent in Ramphele’s (Enslin & Horsthemke, 2004) contention against the uniqueness of uBuntu as a South African (and by extension, African) phenomenon is the intricacy of the line between epistemological subjugation and the incommensurability that inhibit thinkers to see the cognitive dissonance between Humanism and uBuntu and the importance of the argument for uBuntu as an Africa-derived phenomenon that can, and must, partake in the infused global epistemological orientation and global (philosophy of) education.


Acknowledging and scrutinizing the intricacy of epistemological subjugation and incommensurability of Humanism and uBuntu is only one of the starting points towards a formulation of comprehensive arguments to salient the importance of uBuntu, and its inherent epistemologies, in the journey toward an infused global epistemological orientation and global (philosophy of) education. Ellis and Haar (2007) provide a framework from which uBuntu might be considered in discourses about world epistemologies as we attempt to free it from a dependence on Humanism toward an equitable role in shaping an infused global epistemological orientation and global (philosophy of) education. They claim the following:

African modes of thought, we suggest, are neither more nor less than epistemologies that include ways of acquiring knowledge not normally considered within the scope of social science. We suggest that such epistemologies have validity, meaning that not only do all people have a right to think about the world in whatever way they choose, but that modes of perception unfamiliar to Western observers may – in theory, at least – be of universal application. (p. 386)

Despite this (apparently) positive stance on African epistemologies, that might serve the call toward an infused global epistemological orientation and global (philosophy of) education, Ellis and Haar (2007) found themselves surrendering to Humanism’s epistemological subjugation of other epistemologies (in this case, African epistemologies) by relegating its judgment to Western social sciences when arguing that, “Although African epistemologies involve concepts that may be unfamiliar to many Europeans and North Americans of European descent, there is nothing in them that cannot be analysed by the conventional methods of social sciences” (p. 393).

Consistent with the spirit of this article, I would like to reiterate an argument I made elsewhere (2008), calling for the creation of academic platforms that allow for work founded on, and/or informed by, African cognitive systems to be published and made available, and, for introducing students to African cognitions and traditions from an early stage in their academic life. This strategy, if advanced with caution alongside a global agenda to level the epistemological playing field, might be a window to a new era of an infused global epistemological orientation and global (philosophy of) education.


I thank Soha Hassan, my graduate assistant at the American University in Cairo at the time of writing this article, for taking this journey with me and allowing herself to immerse in learning together about this complex subject matter.

Works Cited

Babaci-Wilhite, Z. (2014). Giving Space to African Voices: Rights in Local Languages and Local Curriculum (Vol. 33). (Z. Babaci-Wilhite, Ed.) Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Cossa, J. (2008). African Renaissance and Higher Education: A View through the Lenses of Christian Higher Education. Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Muller.

Cossa, J. (2015). African Renaissance and Globalization: A Conceptual Analysis and a Way Forward. Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 38(3). Retrieved from http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1k54r1j7

Cossa, J., Le Grange, L., & Waghid, Y. (2020, November). Cosmo-uBuntu: Toward A New (Exterior to Modernity) Theorizing about the Human, the Cosmos, and Education. Comparative Education Review, 64(4), 753-756. doi:https://doi.org/10.1086/710771

Crane, W. (1966). A Humanist in Africa by Kenneth D. Kaunda London, Longmans Green. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 4(4), 553-555.

Descartes, R. (1637). Discourse on Method. Ebook of A Discourse on Method. The Project Gutenberg . Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/59/59-h/59-h.htm

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Eleojo, E. F. (2014, January). Africans and African Humanism: What Prospects? American International Journal of Contemporary Research, 4(1), 297-308.

Ellis, S., & Haar, G. T. (2007, September). Religion and Politics: Taking African Epistemologies Seriously. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 45(3), 385-401.

Enslin, P., & Horsthemke, K. (2004, November). Can Ubuntu Provide a Model for Citizenship Education in African Democracies? Comparative Education, 40(4), 545-558.

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Art work courtesy of Chilonga Haji of Tanzania

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  1. I use parenthesis in order to emphasize the stance in this article that the term ‘philosophy of’ is not adequate to describe this phenomenon on a global scale; thus, it is only used for the current lack of a better term.
  2. The use of so-called is to reflect that the pervasive use of the term “classical” in academic literature is limited.
  3. My preference is to write ‘uBuntu’ rather than ‘Ubuntu’ reflects my emphasis on the concept person or human, i.e., ‘Muntu’. I acknowledge that there are other variations that reflect an emphasis on any given part or aspect of the concept, but such a discussion is beyond the scope of this article
  4. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the nuances of the implications of spelling Humanism/Humanist with a capital
  5. Works by former President Kenneth Kaunda conceptualizing African Humanism (Kaunda & Morris, 1966) and other related ideas (Nagan, 1993) as well as other works of scholars who reflected on his contributions (Crane, 1966) and that of likeminded African thinkers (Eleojo, 2014) are evidence that Africans have unceasingly wrestled with this concept
  6. An additional point of reflection is to ask ourselves the following: if uBuntu is translatable to (African) Humanism, can we comfortably claim that (Western) Humanism is (Western) uBuntu?
  7. See for instance the work of the Mapuche Weichafe Moira Millán (2011) and works about Buen Vivir (Mamani, 2010).
  8. For an example of this historical framing of philosophy, see Russel’s The History of Western Philosophy (Russell, 1945).
  9. seSotho. Readers might be more familiar with the Zulu expression, uMuntu nguMuntu ngaBantu!
  10. Since 2020, I have added “with persons” as a result of adopting Yusef Waghid’s insight (Cossa, Le Grange, & Waghid, 2020)
  11. For more insight into Descartes process-argument see the 1911 edition of The Philosophical Works of Descartes (Cambridge University Press), translated by Elizabeth S. Haldane.
  12. Note that this, too, is to a large extent constrained by the duality inherent to Cartesian dualism and modernity.
  13. This article is evidence of this conundrum. For instance, it is written in English and from the perspective that the ‘individual’ wrote it alone (not only for the use of ‘I’ but also for the subtle cognitive oscillation between Western and African cognitions in researching, conceptualizing, and communicating the key argument/s
  14. I personally oppose the use of indigenous as a descriptor of any non-Western communities because the term, like many other terms, was used as a descriptor of those labeled by colonialists as lesser people. Either we are all indigenous or no one is
  15. The term is used also as a descriptor of a group of languages spoken in most of Southern Africa. There is the argument as to when this term came into existence in Western literature, but that is beyond the scope of this article. For a treatment of such, see “Raymond O. Silverstein (1968). A note on the term ‘Bantu’ as first used by W. H. I. Bleek, African Studies, 27:4, 211-212.”
  16. For evidence of the use of this descriptor see the literature produced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) under the pretext of distinguishing peoples for the purposes of facilitating humanitarian aid.
  17. Most of us present-day scholars do not endorse the use of patriarchal and chauvinistic language characteristic of the time, thus it is only maintained here when in a direct quote.
  18. Here, the reference of Tutu as one writing in a popular, rather than a scholarly mode is evidence of Hoekema’s perception that there is a specific way of communicating (at least in writing) that must be regarded as scholarly. This, I am afraid, perpetuates the tendencies toward ignoring the incommensurability of epistemological nuances, especially as they related to the effect ‘epistemological colonialism’ (my term).

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  1. Global Africa’s public intellectuals play a vital role in helping to shape the various narratives that emanate from our authentic experiences and understanding of the cosmos. HiA Network is delighted to be sharing works from Professor José Cossa relating to uBuntu.

    @josecossa @melissamungai @sama @bahamenyanduga @donalddeya @oluyimika @jblanksjones @alexanderotuka1 @tawanda @xela @michael-davies @michaelinsightfulstrategies-org @mikeyman @gaynelcurry @baidoojohannesgmail-com @nelsonmbuyahoo-com

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