Ubuntu and the Meaning of Life Through the eyes of UJ Philosophy Professor, Thad Metz

​​Born and bred in Iowa, United States, Prof Thaddeus Metz joined the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in 2009 as a Humanities Research Professor. Having worked on an eclectic range of topics, he is recognised internationally for his rigorous research into value theory, including the sub-Saharan ethic of ubuntu – the principle that an action is right insofar as it respects harmonious relationships, ones in which people identify with, and exhibit solidarity toward, one another. ​

“As someone originally from the United States (but who’s lived in Mzansi for more than 13 years), it’s nice to feel appreciated by South African colleagues and institutions. One way of integrating myself into South African academia was to critically explore African moral and political philosophy (ubuntu), and it’s particularly heartening to see that facet of my research being recognised,” he says.


Prof Metz, a 2012 Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Awardee for Researcher of the Year, is currently working on a book that would weave together his work, in more than 15 published papers, on the meaning of life.


“My first book, on the topic of what makes a life meaningful, is appearing with Oxford University Press in October 2013, and next year I’ll complete a book on the African ethics and politics of ubuntu. After that, I’ll continue work begun on topics in the philosophy of higher education, the philosophy of psychotherapy, and the comparison of Chinese and African understandings of humanness, harmony and the like,” he says.


Until recently, concepts such as “the meaning of life” and “Ubuntu” have largely remained overlooked it terms of analytical research. However, Prof Metz has helped shed more light onto understanding the philosophies of the human condition, such as humanness and harmony.


“What is distinctive about my research is that it employs an analytic method – which many would describe as an ‘Anglo-American’ style – to Continental and African content. The application of a theoretical, argumentative approach to topics such as existentialism and ubuntu, traditionally considered ‘fuzzy’ topics that have not been treated in a principled and logical way, is particularly salient about my work and has made it of interest to researchers around the world,” Prof Metz adds.


There are several other reasons why the work of Professor Metz is both apt and significant. His focus on Ubuntu coincides with South Africa’s long and continuing quest for its African soul – a quest that has intensified since the dawn of democracy. While we may not be sure what the precise role of Ubuntu is in the future of (South) Africa, few can dispute that ubuntu has a key role to play. Prof Metz’s linking of Ubuntu and the ‘meaning of life’ potentially catapults Ubuntu into an international discourse. Living as we do, at a time, when the ‘meaning of life’ is itself can no longer be taken for granted, the suggestion that Ubuntu might have something to say about this transforms it into global significance.


​​The awarding of an A rating is no mean feat for Professor Thaddeus Metz. The National Research Foundation (NRF) hailed Prof Metz as a leader in his field not just in South Africa and Africa, but globally.

“I would also like to express my gratitude to UJ for providing the time and other resources that have enabled my research to flourish,” says Professor Metz.

You can visit Prof Metz’s Google Scholar Profile to read up on his research and published papers.​​

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