Brain, Ubuntu and Hegel

There is a recent paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: Marchetti and Koster, Brain and intersubjectivity: a Hegelian hypothesis on the self-other neurodynamics. (citation below)


The authors attempt to show that self-consciousness can be understood in the context of Hegel’s ideas of intersubjectivity. The parts of Hegel that they pick to illustrate the nature of ‘self’ and ‘other’ reminded me of the Bantu idea of ‘ubuntu’. That made me more interested because, to be honest, I have, in the past, ignored Hegel because of my discomfort with some of his spin-offs: Nietzsche, existentialism, psychoanalysis. But I am intrigued by an overlap of neuroscience, Hegel and ubuntu.



First the neuroscience as the paper puts it forward: what are the steps from simple perception and thinking (consciousness) leading to the more complicated self-consciousness. The authors look at two aspects of the brain, mirror cells and the default mode network. Mirror cells are active for a particular action whether I do the action or experience someone else doing the same action. I do not confuse myself with someone else but I recognize a particular action (an action concept) as the same action just with a different actor. The default mode network seems to do the same thing for mental actions/states (goals, intentions, view-points, beliefs, emotions, values and so on). It is the same idea: the thoughts are the same but associated with different minds. In other words the same neural systems are used to create our ‘self’ and to create someone else. Using the mechanisms we have to understand others, we can understand ourselves, and of course, vice verse.



Hegel’s answer is, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged .” Self and other can exist when they have mutual recognition, recognition of separate identity of the other, and recognition of the self by the other. If there is no recogniton by another then I can be conscious of the world but I cannot be conscious of myself as a self-conscious agent.



I have thought that there was no equivalent in western philosophy for the concept of Ubuntu but Hegel’s statement seems to be one. Ubuntu is the shining ‘halo’ of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu with their big hearts and unerring moral compasses. Wikipedia has a definition by Michael Onyebuchi Eze of the core of ubuntu. “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”. This the basic premise that results in a particular type of community, of social interaction, of economy, of justice and it fact all aspects of Bantu life (ideally, that is).

Marchetti, I., & Koster, E. (2014). Brain and intersubjectivity: a Hegelian hypothesis on the self-other neurodynamics Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00011

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