In a remarkable achievement, a student at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) has become the first African woman from South Africa to be awarded a doctoral degree in Philosophy, wherein she focuses on advancing a theory of what it means for persons to be unique. Dr Mpho Tshivhase graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy at UJ on Thursday, 12 April 2018.
The title of her thesis was entitled: 'Towards a Normative Theory of Uniqueness of Persons.’ Her research project was completed under the supervision of Prof. Thaddeus Metz, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Philosophy at UJ.
Prof. Metz explains that Dr Tshivhase’s Doctoral thesis is the first systematic treatment of uniqueness as something valuable that can be manifested in a person’s life. In it, Dr Tshivhase distinguishes the value of uniqueness from other values such as happiness and morality, arguing that it merits attention as something worth having in its own right. She also points out that existing philosophical accounts of uniqueness all share the counterintuitive implication that everyone is always already unique.”
“This topic is extremely fascinating for me, particularly because I think we live in a society that generally moves people to prioritise who (and perhaps even what) other people think they should become. Our societal interactions in general seem to prize group identities that seem to require one to give up their personal identities in order assimilate into a group identity, whether it be race, gender, class, political or religious assimilation, to name a few. I think even in instances where people do create what they consider to be an original identity, they seem to still look to society for some form of affirmation from those who are around them,” says Dr Tshivhase.
“When I looked around me I found that uniqueness is something that is truly prized by society but it is not quite examined in a systematic way. For instance, the work of artists is judged based on its level of uniqueness. Painters, singers or dancers have to produce something unique in order to be appreciated and appraised. Some people secure jobs in the workplace by being perceived as unique. Our romantic relationships can also be a matter of thinking there is something unique about our partners that sets them apart from all other potential partners.”
According to Prof Metz, “[a]mongst other remarks from the examiners were that Dr Tshivhase’s Doctorate is ‘consistently original, interesting, and insightful’ and ‘absolutely brilliant’.”
Towards global influence and engagement
While working on her PhD, Dr Tshivhase has been working with a few research groups on matters relating to Philosophy. “The research group I worked the longest with was one that was led by Professor James Ogude at the University of Pretoria and other scholars in Kenya and Uganda on the topic of Ubuntu,” she explains. It was a three-year project that was aimed, in part, at investigating the different ways in which the theory of Ubuntu manifests in different parts of Africa. The team also worked on the relations between Ubuntu and persons, as well as Ubuntu and theories of restorative justice.”
Dr Tshivhase was recently invited to present a talk on Blackness for students registered for a course on Racism at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria.
Now with her PhD in the bag, at the age of 32, she says her recent graduation has exposed a glaring gap in the development of women, particularly African women, in South Africa who are working in Philosophy. “While we know the political history that has led to this gap, I believe it is important to find ways to redress this deficiency. While it is inspiring and well worth celebrating, it is also distressing that I am the first African woman from South Africa to get a Doctorate in the field of Philosophy from any institution.”
Dr Tshivhase is working to apply for grants that will enable her to establish research projects that would fund Master’s and Doctoral students with a particular focus on developing female students. She has a keen interest in mentoring younger black female students to take up postgraduate studies in Philosophy. She says this is a more challenging project since most students worry about what they can do with Philosophy once they graduate.
Moreover, Dr Tshivhase expresses that “it is my dream to promote Philosophy so that it is taught at high schools in the future. This is long-term project that would require the general public to recognise the value of philosophy graduates more markedly.