Ny hevitra tsy azo tsy amin’olombelona

The proverb says that knowledge is not attained without others. This is certainly true, and it is good to be reminded. A paper that I co-authored with two colleagues, Graziella Masindrazana and Zoly Rakotoneira, is now out in print in the South African Journal of Philosophy. You can find it here.


The paper discusses some early philosophical ideas of Siméon Rajaona, perhaps Madagascar’s most famous intellectual. The paper would have been impossible as a singular effort and each of us made it better than it would have been otherwise. So much of my research from my Fulbright depends on others, not just the past thinkers who addressed these questions and my colleagues at the University of Antananarivo who continue to address them, but also all my Malagasy friends who have teaching me about all things Malagasy since I set foot on the island in June of 2007. It would be impossible to list everyone, but so much of my time in Madagascar in Peace Corps and the Fulbright was spent learning. The lessons weren’t always in the classroom. Conversations with street vendors, taxi drivers (especially my old driver and friend, Davidson), and people I met out and about taught me more than those people realize. Without these people, my knowledge of Malagasy culture wouldn’t be the same.

If the paper says anything insightful, it is because of the lucid and bold ideas of Rajaona that we build on. It is said that much of our new knowledge and discovery results from standing on the shoulders of giants. True enough, but in my own case, I think it was not merely giants such as Rajaona that made my research possible. It has been so many others as well. It has been Malagasy people who saw a foreigner trying to understand their culture, their language, and decided to share one of the things they hold most dear. It reminds me of another proverb: Tsy ny varotra no taloha fa ny fihavanana (It was not commerce that was first but friendship). There is nothing more foundational than fihavanana (friendship based on love and mutual affection). To have been taught is a gift. To have been taught by someone whose heart is open and receptive to friendship is an even greater gift.

Izy roa lahy

I was lucky to meet Arianala Ratiarivelo, a researcher on Malagasy philosophy, during my Fulbright. He is retired but still very active in his research. He taught philosophy at the University of Antananarivo, among other places. He has written books, in English and Malagasy, on Malagasy philosophy. It was thanks to the head of the Philosophy Department at the university, Josette Rapiera, that we came into contact. We have been talking about a project of comparing Malagasy Ethics to Western Ethics. He came to about four meetings of the Philosophy Club that I was running to talk to students about just this topic. We met outside of this as well. He is a wealth of information and all of our discussions have been very productive. We usually communicate in a mixture of English and Malagasy. People sometimes call this vary amin’ ananana which is the national breakfast. It’s basically a soupy rice dish with greens that is often served with smoked meat. Two languages get mixed just as the rice and greens do in vary amin' ananana

Professor Arianala Ratiarivelo and myself

Professor Arianala Ratiarivelo and myself

Our first project will provide a philosophical analysis of the famous concept FIHAVANANA and explain the role that it plays in the Malagasy ethical tradition. (Professor Ratiarivelo has already done a good deal of work on this, but we want to say more about it and also contrast it more with the Western tradition.) 'Fihavanana' is a word that many people say defies translation. The root is 'havana' which means relatives or kin. Since 'fihavanana' is a substantive it often is translated as kinship, but this fails to really flesh out the full meaning. It’s a sense of belongingness or love that people feel for each other that is perhaps modeled on the immediate family but extends to others in society as well. It's a sense of belonging that motivates people to help others and treat others well. It’s a force for good in the world, and it is the most central ethical concept in the system of Malagasy Ethics. Our first project focuses on just on fihavanana and not the other aspects of the sytem. We also explain how Malagasy Ethics differs from some main themes and approaches in Western Ethics. We also discuss what makes Malagasy ethics distinctive. We talk about the status of fihavanana today (efa manomboka mivaha). And we offer some lessons to be learned from comparing the two approaches to ethics.

We plan to look to proverbs to explicate the concept. Here are just a handful. For reasons owing to the difficulty of translating the term 'fihavanana' we leave it in Malagasy in our literal translations and interpretations. 

Aleo very tsikalakalan-karena , toy izay very tsikalakalam-pihavanana.
Literal meaning: It’s better to lose the basis of wealth than the basis of fihavanana.
Interpretation: Fihavanana is harder to restore than wealth.

Tsy ny varotra no taloha, fa ny fihavanana.
Literal meaning: Selling was not first, it was fihavanana.
Interpretation: Fihavanana is more important than selling or commerce.

Ny fihavanana ohatra ny famoriana tain'omby: ka izay mahavezivazy no mahafeno harona aloha.
Literal meaning: Fihavanana is like collecting cow feces: those who move around the most fill their baskets first.
Interpretation: Fihavanana can grow with work and effort.

Ny vola tsy lany hamamiana fa ny fihavanana mahavonjy amin'ny sarotra.
Literal meaning: Money is sweet but it is fihavana that saves you from trouble.
Interpretation: Fihavana is stronger than money when it comes to getting oneself out of trouble.

In just these few proverbs, one can see the stress placed on fihavanana by Malagasy. Looking at the proverbs will paint a more complete picture of the traditional conception--though we talk about its existence today as well. As I said, one focus of the project is to explain the contrast between Malagasy Ethics and some Western ethical systems. In the end, we want to say that the principles of Malagasy ethics are rooted in everyday life and the impetus for action is rooted firmly in the heart, whereas in some system in the West the principles are incredibly abstract (take Kant’s system for example) and also motivated not by the heart but by reason and the mind. There’s a lot of the details to work out but we’ll keep working on it, as we have been over the past few months.  I am excited about explaining Malagasy Ethics to a Western audience and showing the lessons that might be learned from it.