Simeon Rajaona on the Authentic Malagasy Mind

 Simeon Rajaona Room at The University of Antananarivo

Simeon Rajaona Room at The University of Antananarivo

Simeon Rajaona is perhaps the most famous Malagasy intellectual. He was Dean of the Faculty of Letters at the University of Antananarivo from 1971-1974, and he wrote a great deal about Malagasy literature and also the Malagasy language itself. Two pieces of his have grabbed my attention as of late. They were written early in his career when he was still in his 30s and concern the relationship between the Western worldview and authentic Malagasy worldview.

  • “Essai d’analyse de la structure de la pensée malgache, examen de quelques notions” (1959)
  • “Aspects de la psychologie malgache vus à travers certains traits des ‘Kabary’ et quelques faits de langue” (1963)

Even a quick reading makes you realize immediately that you are dealing with a man with a keen and penetrating intellect, a thinker capable of not only sophisticated and daring analysis but also one with great pride in his cultural heritage. Though I don’t agree with everything in the two papers, I think that Rajaona makes some fascinating points about the authentic Malagasy mind. My colleagues, Zoly Rakotoniera and Graziella Masindrazana, and I are working on a response to the paper. While we don’t agree with everything, it is out of great respect for Rajaona and his ideas that we set to work on the topic.

Here is the rundown of his main claims.

1)    Westerners have tended to read Western notions into the Malagasy worldview thereby displacing authentic Malagasy notion—the notion of truth being a prime example here.
2)    Malagasy do not reason in the same way as Westerners.
3)    Malagasy enjoy a direct connection with the external world. Their mental connection with the world is not mediated by categories as is the case with Westerners.
4)    Malagasy ethics is distinct from Western ethics.

The argument for claim (1) is perhaps the most sophisticated in both papers. He does what you might call a deep semantic analysis of the word marina (which is typically translated into English as meaning true). His analysis delves into the etymology of marina and its cognates. The upshot is that the Malagasy notion of truth is not the same as the Western notion. The Western notion is one that involves something, some representation, being true just in case it corresponds to something in the world. Unlike the Western concept and its focus on correspondence, the idea of balance or harmony permeates the Malagasy concept of truth. The basic idea is that truth is not accuracy or correspondence but a balance between disparate elements. In the end, we do not agree that the very notion of truth in the Western and Malagasy worldviews is distinct. There is a distinction between cultural attitudes toward the truth, though. So, Rajaona was on to something. Malagasy, in many circumstances, believe that reaching a harmonious agreement in matters is more important that getting all the facts right. They also arguably believe that truth is more elusive than do Westerners. At any rate, our response attempts to mirror the subtlety of Rajaona’s own argument, so I can’t go into all the details here, but we do note there is a difference in the worldviews with regard to cultural attitudes about truth but not the very concept of truth itself, which we argue is not specifically Western or specifically Malagasy but universal.


 Simeon Rajaona Photo in the Faculty of Letters Building

Simeon Rajaona Photo in the Faculty of Letters Building

This is, in fact, the main strategy of the paper: to find points of agreement and try to state what we think is true in Rajaona’s claims while rejecting the more extreme elements of his view. Point (3) is an example. He thinks that Malagasy think more with images than Westerners do, and are therefore in more direct contact with the external world than the Westerners since the latter’s connection is mediated by a conceptual layer of categorization. This is a striking claim, and it would obviously be incredibly interesting if it were true. However, no real argument is given for it—which is certainly not true of all the claims, but it is true of this one. As claim (2), the alleged differences in reasoning, we find a difference in content but not in form. Malagasy people often use proverbs, which are populated with local flora and fauna of Madagascar, in argumentation. Here is one.


Ny valala tsy indroa mandry am-bavahady. (The cricket doesn’t sleep twice at the gate.)

The meaning here is that one should take advantage of unique opportunities--strike while the iron is hot, as we say in English. Using a proverb in argument has great power here. And proverbs are very imagistic, hence Rajaona’s claim that Malagasy people reason in a more concrete way that Westerners. We have many things to say about this, but here let me be brief. Using proverbs in reasoning is doing something that Western philosophers have done for a long time: using analogies in argumentation. These involve comparing two objects and drawing a conclusion about one based on a basis of shared similarity. So, the form of the reasoning is not new or unique, though the content surely is. The area of the paper that, I think, is in need of the most extensive further exploration is the claim about a distinct Malagasy form of ethics, (4). What is the ethical code one finds in the proverbial wisdom passed down from the ancestors? Rajaona, like Rahajarizafy (1970) after him, argues that Malagasy thinking about ethics is essentially an approach that tries to avoid extremes and find a middle ground. This needs to be worked out in more detail, but the gist of it certainly seems true based on proverbs, the writings of Malagasy philosophers and what Malagasy themselves report about a distinctive Malagasy way of thinking about ethics. Of course, there are other approaches to ethics in the history of thought that share this insight, but much work could be done to systematize the ethical advice and outlook in the proverbs. 

In the end, Rajaona’s project is a good one, and one that I am endlessly fascinated by these days. While we don’t agree with everything that Rajaona says, we certainly feel his concern for scholars falsely reading Western notions into the Malagasy mind. As a philosopher I have a tendency to look for what is shared, for what is arguable universal in seemingly disparate ways of looking at the world. So, I work on checking this as I research. Rajaona, I think, has perhaps the opposite tendency: to see Malagasy habits of mind as being singular and unique when there are either universal elements or parallels in the grand history of human thought. But in the end there are surely some concepts that are distinctly Malagasy. There is an ethical system in the proverbs that deserves to be labeled Malagasy if anything does.

One gets the sense that his great fear was that colonization would not just harm the proper or natural development of the country, but that it would erase the very essence of being Malagasy, the authentic Malagasy way of seeing the world and the way of treating others and moving about life that is passed down from the ancestors and is part of the shared heritage that has united and should continue to unite Malagasy people. Perhaps one of the greatest fears for a people is losing the memory or knowledge of their cultural values. If cities burn, they can be rebuilt from blueprints or from memory. Completely supplanting the Malagasy mind with the Western mind burns not just the city but it burns the blueprints themselves. That is a scary thought for anyone who has been touched by the spirit of the Malagasy people, for anyone who has experienced various fomba ‘gasy (Malagasy way of doing things), or for anyone who has grown up in the culture and has internalized the values. If there is one thing with which I am in complete agreement with Rajaona, it is that such a loss would be horrific and ought to be fought against with all one’s will and power.