Epistemic Humility and the Critical Imagination: an Invitation to join a conversation about humanness, (dis)connection, and being present

Heidi Ross

Heidi Ross, Professor and Director, East Asian Studies Center; adjunct, East Asian Languages and Cultures; Faculty, Indiana University, Bloomington; Past-President, CIES.

Faced with a challenge of imagining change, I ask myself, "How do I know what I imagine until I share it with others." 1 Especially in the winter months, living as I do in a small city with four distinct seasons, the labor of imagination is eased by the comfort of friends gathered around a radiant heat source. So, I sit by the kitchen fire wondering how to respond to Professor N'Dri Assie-Lumumba's invitation to reflect on humanist education and gender. Set aside the concept of ubuntu, N'Dri advised, and enter into the spirit of re-imagination invoked by our conference theme "to explore an imagined future where education is a moral enterprise that develops and shapes minds to embrace humanism that is inseparable from socio-economic equality, which defines the world as a complex whole, an interconnected and interdependent ecosystem of diverse humans, nature and the planet . . . which inspires a multiplicity of worldviews."

Upon consideration, I can only imagine such a future with human beings in it who approach problems, concerns, arguments, perceived adversaries and others with epistemic humility, a position and sensibility of openness, curiosity, and wonderment that must ground critical imagination. It would be so much easier and far more engaging to imagine what I mean by that if you were sitting by the fire with me. Consider this an invitation to join a conversation about humanness, (dis)connection, and being present.

Ubuntu has served as the first of my two entry points into N'dri's provocation, in part because the scholarship and discursive practices that link ubuntu, education, gender, and feminisms are at once fascinating, counterintuitive, and all over the ideological map, from "pro-market ubuntuphiles" who apparently seek to tame neoliberalism with a rather glib form of ubuntu-communitarianism, to activists who find along the path of ubuntu an inspiring route to restorative justice, to scholars who employ ubuntu as a critical conceptual tool for revealing how gender relations can and often are used as a powerful legitimation of war and virulent and oppressive forms of (inter)national security.

For the purpose of these reflections, I think of ubuntu not as humanism but as humanness. That is, one's own humanity is affirmed by "recognizing the humanity of others" and becomes the basis of "humane relations with them" (Ramose, 2002, 231). Practicing, becoming, embodying this sort of humanness requires a profound generosity of spirit of the sort I imagine Desmond Tutu had in mind when he described ubuntu as embracing hospitality and caring about others (1999).

So, what happens when gendered thinking and feminisms, which I see always as critical theories, meet unbuntu? I conclude we enter a space shaped by critical caring, being present in order to connect, not constrain or control, with those across the table, across the counter, across the line, across the gap, guided by reciprocity rather than consensus, for the sake of humanity.

This conclusion leads me to my second entry point into N'dri's question, Boaventura de Sousa Santos's writing (2014) on epistemic humility. His "mini-festo" is dense, provocative and compelling, and my appropriation of his work here must be seen for what it is, preliminary reflections by the fire. His very un-grandiose and (slyly?) demure name for what is demanded by his vision of social change, to produce a decent life for all, is "prudent" knowledge. But this is actually an awesome and awesomely uncomfortable knowledge, a part of which is the recognition that what goes for global "normalcy" is built on a surreally "naturalized," radically un-reciprocal, unsustainable, and unjust set of structures of (re)production, distribution, and (lack of) recognition. Can the hard work of humility and reciprocity and power divestiture supplant all that with an alternative worldview of "advanced normality: the aspiration to live in normal times whose normality does not derive from the naturalization of abnormality?" (2014, 163) I do not have an answer, except to say that I don't see how without a millennium development goal-sized infusion of epistemic humility that admits that "there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice (2014, viii).

De Sousa Santos identifies one of the hurdles, something that feminist writers and activists of all stripes and locations have knocked around at for decades, as "double opacity," the notion that "radical ideas are not translated into radical practices; radical practices do not recognize themselves in available radical ideas." (2014, 3) This is one of the disconnections implied by my title, and it poses a challenge for societies like CIES and surely for academe, so notorious for its border maintenance. Epistemic humility, a key foundation for the possibility of cognitive justice, invites into serious, reciprocal dialogue different and seemingly incommensurable knowledges. Not doing so guarantees a "waste of experience" in theory and in practice. De Sousa Santos's answer, not to double opacity, unfortunately, but to the possibility of talking across difference, a preoccupation of mine for some time, is intercultural translation, which "consists of searching for isomorphic concerns and underlying assumptions among cultures, identifying differences and similarities, and developing, whenever appropriate, new hybrid forms of cultural understanding and intercommuncation that may be useful in favoring interactions and strengthening alliances among social movements fighting, in different contexts, against capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy and for social justice, human dignity, or human decency" (2014, 212).

Whatever you think of these desired outcomes of inter-cultural communication, CIES would seem a significant case study for gauging the possibility of reciprocity and nonhierarchical thinking demanded by epistemic humility and ultimately cognitive justice, as well as how expansive or limited a CIES-like community can be in what it embraces as translatable knowledges and their legitimate translators. Not to put too negative a spin on it, and shamelessly appropriating de Sousa Santos's arguments once more, I do think "what we lack most are theories about uniting" (2014, 90), and that brings us full circle to the promise many see in ubuntu. The project of epistemic humility is precisely that of humanization, the creation, extending a U.S-based argument made by Ai-jen Poo (2014), of a global caring majority. Epistemic humility, like ubuntu, "is not an educational ideal for the faint of heart or the cynic. It demands great empathy." (Tutu 1999: 35). I invite you to help me imagine that ideal into practice.


1. With apologies to E. M. Foster's question: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"


de Sousa Santos, B. (2014). Epistemologies of the South, Justice Against Epistemcide. Boulder/London: Paradigm Publishers.

Poo, A. (2015). The Age of Dignity, Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America. The New Press.

Ramose, M. B. (2002). The philosophy of ubuntu and ubuntu as a philosophy. In P. H. Coetzee, & A. P. J. Roux (Eds.), Philosophy from Africa: A text with readings (pp. 230-238). Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Tutu, D. 1999. No Future Without Forgiveness. Doubleday Press.