A published philosopher... at 19

2011-09-19 00:00

ONE aspect of the practice of philosophy is to help us tidy up the way we think about a given subject. A new book, Analytic Aesthetics: An Inquiry by Phila Mfundo Msimang, certainly helped me tidy up my thinking about what I do: use words to write articles in a newspaper like this one. But then that’s something we all do, use words.

Quite apart from the subject, Msimang’s book is notable as being the first publication in The Natal Society Foundation’s New Writers imprint created, according to a press release, for “young, previously unpublished, non-fiction researchers and writers in KwaZulu-Natal”. Msimang easily fits the bill — he’s 19.

He was born in Caluza in 1992, into the well-known Msimang family that includes, among others, the Wesleyan Methodist missionary Daniel Msimang who, with James Allison, founded Edendale in 1851, and Richard and Selby Msimang, founder members of the ANC in 1912.

Msimang went to Merchiston Prep and Linpark High, and is currently involved in what he describes as “self education”. “If something attracts me I follow it up and research it.”

Msimang says his interest in philosophy grew gradually while in secondary school and it appears to have grown out of the experience of being stabbed at the age of 14 which provided the prelude to what, in his book, Msimang describes as “the beginning of a not very well remembered but adverse two-and-a-half years”.

“Those years were my first disillusionment with the world, and periodic disenchantment with people. They were a prerequisite for my journey in philosophy.”

Asked about this, Msimang responds: “All my experiences somehow influence the person I am; and they had to happen for me to write this book.”

Msimang’s book is an inquiry into the way we communicate with words, in the process utilising some of his own poetry and an artwork — a “word picture” — not to showcase them but to illustrate his thesis. A slim volume, Analytic Aesthetics is divided into sections: a Prelude “discusses the importance of content and context, and their relationship” and is followed by three “movements” that take the inquiry further ending with a Praxi (used here to mean the “proper way of doing things”) that reflects on the preceding sections and draws some conclusions.

“The structure of the book moves from a personal, subjective view, then to a more objective view,” says Msimang. “It’s rather the same as human development. As a child we begin by being inward looking and then, as we grow, we look beyond ourselves and begin to understand things from other peoples’ perspectives.”

Asked what he expects readers to take away from his book, Msimang responds: “That depends on the readers — and how they have read the book.” but he hopes it will encourage people to inquire into the matter further, “to find out for themselves — it’s important to know how things work”.

As someone who works with words I found the book stimulating, provocative, and enlightening. Writing for a newspaper — or any other medium for that matter — one is continually confronted with how to communicate ideas and concepts to the reader. This in a world where, as 17th-century John Locke says, everybody has the liberty to “make words stand for what ideas he pleases, that no one hath the power to make others have the same ideas in their minds that he has, when they use the same words that he does”.

It’s one thing to write a straightforward news story that involves facts: what happened, to whom and where. But when you get to the “why” things get a bit more interesting. And matters become even more complex when you try to conjure up a picture of, say, a place and find yourself plundering your arsenal of those wily things called adjectives. Is my “beautiful” the same as your “beautiful”?

For example, you take a drive into the countryside. How do you describe what you see to the reader? “You might say it’s ‘beautiful’, but what does that word mean to you and what does it mean to your reader?” asks Msimang. “Maybe it’s factories that impress you.”

Personal experience can often dictate seemingly unexpected responses. For many, electricity pylons are blots on the landscape but I once heard an engineer say he saw them as ballet dancers pirouetting across the veld.

So how do you bridge the gap between writer and reader? “One way is through the establishment of a common experience between people,” says Msimang. A common experience that accommodates agreement between writer and reader on the meaning of a word.

In a newspaper that means having some idea of who your reader might be, your target audience. Surveys establish their likely level of education, income, and status in society. All of this can assist the writer in pitching the story at the level most likely to best communicate what he or she has to say. “In the context of newspaper writing words must be used that aren’t outside peoples’ purview or their vocabulary,” says Msimang.

One section of Msimang’s book touches on issues around translation from one language to another. When I suggest that if one thought and spoke in, say, Chinese, one might be able to think different thoughts than in English. Msimang demurs, observing that while people might live in different cultures they still have the same sort of brain so that even allowing for cultural differences our brains and the way they work will provide a commonality.

Talking of translation, I had thought Msimang’s first name, Phila, might be a variation of “philo”, meaning “lover of” — which when added to “sophia” (wisdom), as the Pythagoreans did, gives us the word “philosopher”. Which would have been apt in Msimang’s case. But it’s a Zulu word (with a hard “p” not a soft “ph”) meaning “live”, pronounced as in “live life”, not as in “live show”. Msimang’s second name, Mfundo, means “learning”. Thus we have “Live Learning”. An exhortation young Msimang seems to be living up to with credit.

Analytic Aesthetics: An Inquiry by Phila Mfundo Msimang is published by the Natal Society Foundation and is available from Adams and Bookworld Cascades.

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