Ubuntu: “A person is a person through other people”

In somewhat of a twist from where I would normally go with the word “Ubuntu” (a distro of the open source Linux operating system), I’d like to reflect on the African philosophy of Ubuntu: “A person is a person through other people.” For those who know my inclination towards computers and technology, this is an unusual choice. But on a day that symbolizes a chronological milestone in one’s life (my birthday), I think it is important to pause and consider how much of ourselves that we celebrate on a birthday is not only attributable to those around us, but also might be central to finding meaning in life.

I want to distinguish the practice of being thankful to others for meaningful experiences (by itself a perfectly good thing to do) with the more radical idea that meaningfulness in life is an ’emergent’ quality of our social bonds with others. I attribute much credit to my family for being a very positive influence on my life (a realization that continues to sink in as time progresses). But even beyond attribution of influence/credit, the idea of ‘ubuntu’ is that the significance of who I am (influences and all) gains primary meaning through my relationships and interactions with others.

I can’t explain the idea very well because, well, it doesn’t (at least historically) exemplify my own self-image as a person very well. As an introspective, introverted person, I don’t tend to think of my sense of self in terms of relationships to others. Rather, I exist as an individual and build relationships to enrich the meaning in my life. A life alone would still have meaning, but just substantially less than one with an abundance of healthy relationships. And we’ve all been there before – losing touch or dropping out of contact with some friends or extended family. But beyond the regret of losing contact with them, perhaps we lose something else about ourselves in the process. At least that’s what ‘ubuntu’ brings to mind for me. But to let someone far more eloquent describe what ‘ubuntu’ means:

‘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 […] 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 […]
—Eze, M. O. Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa, pp. 190–191.

It’s that bolded text that I find to be the critical point of differentiation between my own self-perception and that proposed by the philosophy of ‘ubuntu.’ A life alone really wouldn’t be much of a life at all, according to that argument. And while I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment (if only due to belief perseverence or other ‘sticky’ ideas of the Western philosophical tradition lodged firmly in my head), it opens up a door to thinking about myself in terms of relationships outside my self. I know, that seems like such an obvious thing, right? Relationships matter. People matter. But if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t think I derive my meaning as a human being through the lens of relationships with others. (Maybe I do in reality, but just don’t think of it in those terms.)

Martha Nussbaum’s idea of concentric circles is another avenue to a similar mode of thinking about those other than our own self, tribe, or nation-state. When we shift to seeing ourselves as belonging to ‘humanity’ as opposed to a particular sub-group, our thinking, actions, and ethical reasoning evolve to be inclusive of those all around us. It’s certainly not the default mode of thought for the majority of human-kind. But while Nussbaum urges us to advance our sense of community to be an ever-growing circle of ‘others’, she doesn’t arrive at the same conclusion of ‘ubuntu’ that derives primary sense of meaning from the ‘other.’ I almost wonder if the diagram of concentric circles would be inverted for ‘ubuntu’ in comparison to Nussbaum’s in terms of identity.

When anyone asked him where he came from, he said, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’
—Diogenes Laertius, Life of Diogenes the Cynic

So if there is a nugget of wisdom to summarize from this thread of thought to take with me, it would be that meaningfulness in life is more a function of relationships with others than I tend to realize or to which I give credit. My birthday provides a convenient annual reminder of the passage of time. And if the philosophy of ‘ubuntu’ can have any influence on how I think of myself and meaning in life, that passage of time is as much about the people I spend it with building meaning together as it is about who I am as an individual alone.

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