Mr Phila Msimang

  • Lecturer, University of Stellenbosch
  • Scholars' Scholar 2017
  • University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, MA


Phila’s interests include race and cognitive science. His Master’s dissertation, “is racial population naturalism really about race?”, explores naturalistic and biological theories of race and is an assessment of where contemporary biological racial realism goes wrong. His dissertation makes up part of his larger project that investigates the connections between racial theory and social action.

Phila’s path to postgraduate education was far from conventional. Growing up in a child-headed household in a Pietermaritzburg township, Phila was required to take on extensive family responsibilities at a young age, which restricted him from continuing his formal education beyond high school. However, Phila retained a “stoic resolve” to continue learning, and kept up his studies informally by devouring second-hand books and internet resources. Simultaneously, he built up a an impressive and diverse employment resumé; working as a journalist at the Maritzburg Sun and Public Eye, delivering motivational talks at schools, and even performing voice-overs for museum installations.

After completing just one philosophy module for non-degree purposes at UKZN and presenting his portfolio of independent research, the department were sufficiently impressed to admit Phila directly into their Masters degree programme, on the basis of recognition of prior learning.

His dissertation on the evolution of racial theories and the history of racial thought aims to demonstrate how these theories, riddled with mythologies and rhetoric, have informed and influenced policy and social intervention throughout history. He has already been published in three peer-reviewed journals, a remarkable feat for a scholar who does not yet have a full degree under his belt. He hopes that his work will pose new ideas and benefit the academic research community as well as contribute towards the formulation of public policy.

We spoke to Phila about his unconventional journey to becoming the 2017 Scholars’ Scholar, the “earthly gaze” of his philosophical research, and how he plans to contribute towards a more open and just society.

1.You pursued an unorthodox educational path, and overcame numerous obstacles to reach postgraduate level. How do you feel this has influenced your attitude to education?

My unusual educational path has given me an appreciation for learning. On one level, it has taught me the value of knowledge in itself and how it may be used to navigate the world. Perhaps more importantly, on another level, it has taught me the function and promise our formal institutions of learning hold. Training and certification within our formal institutions opens doors to meaningful participation in our society, economy, and cultural life. This is one family of reasons why it is important that we make concerted efforts to eliminate artificial barriers to learning, especially in our formal institutions. My path has left me with the attitude or belief that education is a social good from which all people can benefit directly or indirectly and so should be treated as such.

2. Philosophy, as a discipline, is sometimes derided for its impracticality or detachment from temporal concerns. Do you feel that your research, exploring issues of race and society, defies this stereotype?

There are most certainly traditions within philosophy which attempt to disengage with more temporal concerns, but some of the greatest work in philosophy throughout history—and some of the best work by practicing philosophers today—is directly engaged with issues concerning practical problems. Research exploring race and society joins a strong tradition in philosophy that actively defies the stereotype of a lack of an ‘earthly gaze’ in the practice of philosophy. Research on race in particular can reveal how philosophy, as a practice, can be useful in many other contexts from questions arising in everyday life to those guiding political or scientific practices.

3. The Scholars’ Scholar, selected by the Canon Collins alumni community, is chosen as someone who embodies, and can meaningfully contribute to, the Trust’s vision of an open and just society. What do you think your unique contribution could be?

I hope that my training in philosophy can assist me in contributing to evidence-based reasoning on various issues affecting South Africa and the world at large. The practice of critical thinking and intellectual honesty, based on a respect for factual information and positive ethical values, is something philosophy gives promise of and which the world is always in need. One role which a philosopher can take on is that of a person who tries to find what the correct course of action may be through using these various ways of reasoning. As a perpetual student of philosophy, I aspire to be the kind of philosopher to use tools of reasoning to help build communities and institutions.