Rene Descartes is frequently referred to as the “first modern philosopher,” and his famous phrase “I think, therefore I am” formed the foundation for how we think about ourselves.
But what if there’s a non-Western concept of personal identity that rejects this stress on individuality?

Consider the African idea of “ubuntu,” which states that your sense of self is shaped by your interactions with others. It’s a way of life based on the idea that “I am” only exists because “we are.” Kenyan literary professor James Ogude argues that ubuntu might act as a counterweight to the world’s unrestrained individualism. “Ubuntu is anchored in what I call a relational type of personhood,” Ogude explained to Steve Paulson and Anne Strainchamps in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “In other words, your humanity, your personhood, is nurtured in relation to other people as a human being.” 

In practice, ubuntu implies understanding that a group’s common links are more essential than individual disagreements and divides.”People will argue and disagree; it’s not like there aren’t any tensions,” Ogude added. “It’s about banding together and reaching an agreement on issues that affect the community. And when you’ve debated, you’ll know what’s best for the community, and you’ll have to believe it.” When Archbishop Desmond Tutu led South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which helped the country grapple with its apartheid heritage, he leaned on the notion of ubuntu. Ubuntu encourages restorative justice and a communal mindset. “As people, we have the power to dive into our human values and strive for the best of them in order to heal and bridge the divide,” Ogude added. This concept also applies to our interactions with rivers, plants, and creatures that are not human. 

Here are some popular views on Ubuntu;

James Ogude: In some ways, ubuntu as a concept and the African communitarian ethos force a sense of moral obligation regarding your responsibility for others even before you consider yourself. You must, in the words of Russian critic Bakhtin, stare into the eyes of another person and have that person reciprocate your gaze. The attention you receive when your look is returned humanizes you.

JO: There is empathy, and there is trust that is established in this process. That, in my opinion, is the moral imperative that is often overlooked when excessive emphasis is placed on individualism and the self, when it’s “all about me” and everyone else takes a back seat. However, other, competing principles, such as human rights, plague even the West.
In the West, there have always been movements that put the other ahead of the self. That is why, even though our society encourage us to be individualistic, all human beings have some level of conscience. Whether it comes from religion or a moral obligation to others, a measure of accountability is part of our obligation.


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