Tag Archives: ubuntu

What is being humble?

What is humility; what does it mean in folk pyschology to be intellecually humble? It is good or bad? ScienceDaily has an item on a study of this topic (here). The researchers are looking for the real world definition. “This is more of a bottom-up approach, what do real people think about humility, what are the lay conceptions out there in the real world and not just what comes from the ivory tower. We’re just using statistics to present it and give people a picture of that.

Being humble is the opposite of being proud. A humble person has a real regard for others and is “ not thinking too highly of himself – but highly enough”.

...analysis found two clusters of traits that people use to explain humility. Traits in the first cluster come from the social realm: Sincere, honest, unselfish, thoughtful, mature, etc. The second and more unique cluster surrounds the concept of learning: curious, bright, logical and aware.” These occur together in the intellectually humble person who appreciates learning from others.

It seems to me that such a person has self-esteem but also has ‘other-esteem’ to coin a phrase. It is not just the opposite of proud but it contrasts with narcissistic and individualistic. The idea of humility would seem to fit well with the Ubuntu philosophy, a very underrated way of approaching life. Other-esteem is important.

Here is the abstract of paper, (Peter L. Samuelson, Matthew J. Jarvinen, Thomas B. Paulus, Ian M. Church, Sam A. Hardy, Justin L. Barrett. Implicit theories of intellectual virtues and vices: A focus on intellectual humility. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2014; 1):

Abstract: “The study of intellectual humility is still in its early stages and issues of definition and measurement are only now being explored. To inform and guide the process of defining and measuring this important intellectual virtue, we conducted a series of studies into the implicit theory – or ‘folk’ understanding – of an intellectually humble person, a wise person, and an intellectually arrogant person. In Study 1, 350 adults used a free-listing procedure to generate a list of descriptors, one for each person-concept. In Study 2, 335 adults rated the previously generated descriptors by how characteristic each was of the target person-concept. In Study 3, 344 adults sorted the descriptors by similarity for each person-concept. By comparing and contrasting the three person-concepts, a complex portrait of an intellectually humble person emerges with particular epistemic, self-oriented, and other-oriented dimensions.”


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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