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Why I am teaching Shona philosophy in the UK

30 Sep 2020 at 14:16hrs | Views
Philosophy deals with the "big questions" that concern us all, such as: what can I know, how should we live, and how should society be organized? But arguably the greatest of the big questions are to be found in the area of philosophy of religion, which considers, amongst other things, what God is like and whether there will be life after death. In the west, these questions are almost always approached from a western, or indeed European perspective, to the exclusion of all other thinkers and traditions.

This is because for more than 200 years western thinkers have treated philosophy as a uniquely western phenomenon, denying that it has or could exist anywhere else. This in turn was largely a result of the scientific racism that Europeans developed in the second half of the 18th century, which divided the peoples of the world into different, colour-coded groups that reflected a colour-coded hierarchy of innate abilities, with reason thought to be the preserve of white Europeans alone. So for more than 200 years, western philosophers have often insisted that philosophy is exclusively western (often exclusively European) and anything else is merely "wisdom," or "thought" rather than true philosophy. Because of such insular thinking, philosophy courses in the UK have rarely featured anything except western or European ideas, as if these were the only ones that existed, or at least the only ones worth studying.

Thankfully, this is now changing, in no small part due to the movement to decolonize the curriculum, which urges western academics to change their courses to better reflect the ideas and experiences of peoples from all parts of the globe rather than one small part. This has led some philosophy departments in the UK and elsewhere in the west to teach various non-western philosophies, especially those of China and India. But what of African philosophies? Unfortunately, these have yet to make many inroads into western philosophy departments, in part because there are far fewer resources available for teaching African philosophies than there are for Chinese and Indian. But those prepared to look will find some good resources around, including an excellent recent book on Shona philosophy by Pascah Mungwini.

For me, finding Mungwini's book was like the answer to a prayer. While there are many books and papers that include Shona ideas, an entire book on them made it possible to start teaching Shona philosophy, something I have wanted to do for many years. As far as I know, my new course, Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, is the only course in the UK that includes any Shona philosophy. Including Shona ideas has enriched it considerably, especially with regard to the greatest of the "big questions" I mentioned at the start, namely what God is like and whether there will be life after death.

Students have enjoyed learning about Mwari, who as a genderless Supreme Being they conceive as more inclusive and representative than the Christian God, who of course is often depicted as an old, white man. And they are fascinated by Shona ideas about the afterlife, where there is no final judgement, or heaven and hell awaiting the virtuous and the wicked, but rather a transition to a spiritual realm that intersects the physical world, where we join the ancestral spirits or become other kinds of spirit. Of course, Shona philosophy has much to say about the other big questions of philosophy as well, especially ethics. For example, the communitarian vision of hunhu offers a welcome and attractive alternative to the west's strident emphasis on individualism. Given the challenges we all face in the 21st century, an ethic that places the interests of the community above those of the individual, if it were developed and applied properly, would be of enormous benefit. In short, then, Shona philosophy has much to offer the west, and it deserves to be taught in the UK and other western countries purely and simply because of the richness of its ideas.

Professor Lloyd Strickland
Manchester Metropolitan University (UK)

Source - Professor Lloyd Strickland
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