All graduates can be certain of only one thing; the world will make demands on them in the not so distant future that nobody has even thought of today. In this era of global, ethical, social, environmental, and identity crises, the complexity and magnitude of which threaten or promise to change the world as we know it, on-going learning and adaptation must become a way of life. Against this backdrop, a good grounding in philosophy, which does not teach students what to think, but focuses on developing an open, flexible, critical mind, is an invaluable asset. Philosophical training develops skills in close and careful reading, thinking critically and creatively about meanings, assessing the value of ideas independently, and producing clear, powerful concepts and arguments of one’s own. These essential skills are vital in an environment where flexible, innovative thinking and the ability to learn are as important as a “cutting edge” knowledge base.

The development of a vibrant culture of philosophical critique and creativity is increasingly being prioritised at tertiary institutions around the world. Philosophy as it is currently presented at universities across South Africa is extremely diverse. But almost all Philosophy Departments, whatever their specific strengths and specialities, emphasise a historical tradition of ideas, ethics and critical thinking, with a growing awareness of complexity thinking. In keeping with this, Philosophy at Nelson Mandela University is undergoing a process of creative reconstruction.

Philosophy at Nelson Mandela University is situated within a continental tradition of philosophy with a strong emphasis on complex, poststructuralist thinking. In this tradition, Philosophy’s task is understood in terms of its Socratic ideal, which takes Philosophy to be critical and creative thinking concerning the meaning of Being, for the sake of building a worthy ethos. Often it is said that Philosophy's alpha and omega is critical thinking – it is what the great philosophers do, and what philosophy teachers try to teach. But critical thinking is not merely an intellectual activity. It is submitted to a strong ethical exigency; that is, it aims to engender the kind of transformative personal insight that enables individuals to develop the art of living well and, in turn, to teach others through the example of a life worth living. Such self-edification lends itself directly to forming a just ethos. The ethos is the spirit that directs the art of establishing ethical interconnections within a complex system of selves, communities, and the natural environment.

A common thread in poststructuralist philosophy is the idea that the binary thinking of the Modern Era traps us into violently competitive strategies of thinking and action whereby one extreme way of thinking or set of values is valorised at the cost of its opposite. The overall cost of binary thinking is a pathological rigidity that does not cope well with the complex reality of everyday life. Poststructuralist thinkers, therefore, all search for alternative strategies whereby extremes may be negotiated and opposites may be thought together. In other words, for all such thinkers, we come face to face with “truth” when confronted with dilemmas and sometimes paradoxes. Poststructuralist thinkers apply distinctive brands of complexity thinking to themes as diverse as cosmopolitanism, Africa, violence, forgiveness, terrorism, hospitality, abjection, gift, communication, the sublime, psychoanalysis, sexuality, subjectivity, power, technology, film, capitalism, and the environment.

Philosophy at Nelson Mandela University is committed to nurture this ethical process, by concentrating on what may be learned from the major, ancient and contemporary thinkers in response to the contemporary ethical call to re-imagine human being-in-the-world in a way that fosters just and sustainable living in an age of complexity. Based on the idea that there are three fundamental human concerns, this involves imagining more appropriate ways for humans to engage with the natural and material environment, form autonomous and edified selves, and shape workable and nurturing social interrelationships.

Philosophy is not a science, but instead raises and tries to address fundamental, speculative, critical and ethical questions concerning the meaning of life, which are never fully answerable through gathering empirical data. The task of philosophy is to critique and create concepts. One may legitimately do this through applying very old philosophical concepts (human heartedness) to new contexts (ubuntu). The on-going enterprise we call philosophy is an interweaving of ideas, both throughout the world and over time. This is a human enterprise and exclusive rights to any notion concerning any way of being human cannot be claimed by any culture. Philosophy in Africa means taking any philosophical notion and bringing it to life in the context of contemporary African problems and solutions, or creating new concepts that emerge from contemporary local realities. In this case, respect for cultural diversity does not translate into a desire for illegitimate “ownership” of ideas, thereby losing sight of our common humanity.

Philosophy belongs everywhere and to everyone.