Archive for November, 2009

Wade Davis Massey Lectures

I have been listening to, and enjoying immensely, this years Massey Lectures by Wade Davis. Actually, the first lecture I did not enjoy so much, as it seemed to be put in as a nod to western science–it focuses largely on, I think the term was, genetic anthropology. Apparently, using information from  human genes, scientists can trace the broad migration patterns out of Africa of all peoples of the Earth. Anyhow, the lectures are great, and I am looking forward to hearing the fifth and final part.

American Indian Thought

For the class I am taking on Indigenous Thought, I have been reading recently a book called American Indian Thought, which is a collection of essays written by Native American scholars about divergences between European and Native American philosophical traditions. This book is especially interesting to me given that I studied (European) philosophy at Dalhousie, and so I can relate to how different the answers (or even the questions themselves) are to common philosophical questions. That being said, I think it is worth reproducing here a notable section in the course syllabus, included as a warning for people like myself who’s understanding of the world relies on different assumptions than those held by those raised with an indigenous perspective:

“Due to the nature of the material studied, students may encounter information and perspectives that are new to them and which challenge their views of Canadian society and history. This may create a sense of confusion or discomfort.”

The sense of confusion and discomfort is all the more true when it comes to philosophical matters, more than political/historical ones. By this I mean that I can relate to and understand criticisms and pronouncements of the Canadian colonial establishment. That Canada is a nation founded on and to some extent sustained by racist, empirialistic, and colonial practices is an idea that I can understand, I think, even though I have never experienced the malicious side of the Canadian state (belonging as I do to the (white) settler majority). However, completely different is, for example, an indigenous idea of epistemology. In Western thought or science specifically (or really in “rigorous” thinking/analysis) the objective is to isolate variables in order to be unbiased, objective, precise, and to formulate general theories based on specific proofs.  Consider the following quotation:

“Now, in Western philosophy, it is generally thought that truth and knowledge are not conducive to our ends, but are ends in themselves. Truth and knowledge are capable of guiding and shaping our action rather than being guided and shaped by it. But for American Indian thought this is clearly not the case. Knowledge is not a thing in the world that we can discover. Knowledge is not such that if we just peer into the world long enough or just sit and think long enough, it will come to us in all of its unabated glory. Knowledge is shaped by human actions, endeavors, desires, and goals….Knowledge can never be divorced from human action and experience.” (21)

For this reason, “American Indian philosophers see the act of displacing oneself from the world in order to do philosophy not only as unnecessary but as highly problematic…” (21) And so, “in American Indian philosophy we must maintain our connectedness, we must maintain our relations, and never abandon them in search of understanding, but rather find understanding through them.” Thus, relatedly, the individualistic assumptions in Western-European epistemology/ontology, epitomized in Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum, for American Indians would be replaced by sumus ergo sumus, “We are, therefore, I am.” This is easy enough to read, but when you (or I) think about its implications for all of the things which we (Westerners) hold to be true, it can be, as the syllabus warns, discomforting. The idea of personal identity being rooted in our common humaness would, I think, undermine any possibility of personal responsibility, which is the key premise for, among other things, British law, Capitalism, or even our general ideas of morality.  (Afterall, how can I, as an individual, be held responisible for murdering someone if who I am is only because we are. In other words, I am only I, because we are we.)

Having thought about this for a half hour, perhaps I will go do the work I’m meant to be doing….