Drucilla Cornell & Karin van Marle, Ubuntu Feminism: Tentative Reflections, 36 Verbum et Ecclesia (2015).
For a number of years, Drucilla Cornell has been studying and reflecting upon ubuntu, ((For instance, Drucilla Cornell, uBuntu, Pluralism and the Responsibility of Legal Academics to the New South Africa, 20 Law & Critique 43, 47 (2009).)) an African term expressing the idea that humans come into being through interconnectedness and that therefore they have a being, understanding, and set of obligations that emerge in their interconnections. The 2015 article authored by Cornell and South African scholar Karin van Marle summarises ubuntu, compares it with classical Western individualist notions of the self, and considers what it has to offer to Western feminism. The article not only serves as an introduction to a significant African concept, but also challenges Western legal feminism to reflect on its foundational concepts. Although this particular article is relatively short, it is very rich in detail and offers a number of intriguing directions for further reflection and action. In this brief review, I will summarise some key features of ubuntu as presented by Cornell and van Marle, and offer a few comments about its broader significance. My intention is to inspire readers to go to the original article: the ideas are new to me and my rendition of them is short and lacking in depth.
By contrast to Western philosophy, the idea of ubuntu does not permit questions such as “who am I?,” “what do I know?,” and “what ought I to do?” to be addressed separately in the abstract. We are not abstract beings, but become beings in a time and a place, and are always already surrounded by others. Who we are, what we know, and our ethical obligations are connected. As Cornell and van Marle explain,
Ubuntu is a philosophy on how human beings are intertwined in a world of ethical relations from the moment they are born. Fundamentally, this inscription is part of our finitude. We are born into a language, a kinship group, a tribe, a nation, and a family. We come into a world obligated to others, and those others are obligated to us. We are mutually obligated to support each other on our respective paths to becoming unique and singular persons.
As Cornell and van Marle further explain, ubuntu bypasses key Western distinctions between ethics, epistemology, and ontology. Ethical imperatives are embedded in our fundamental connectedness and in the dignity necessarily accorded to all people as a result of the “social bond.” (P. 3.) The emergence of the human in an intermingled, obligated life means that it is impossible to distinguish, as Western philosophers do, the question of being from that of knowing, and that of right action: “Ubuntu in this sense encapsulates how we know the world as well as how we are in it through the moral obligations as human beings who must live together.” (Id.)