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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

What is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is a word that is used to describe a wide variety of processes and practices that began to gain prominence in the 1970s following the economic slow downs that occurred during that decade. The word neoliberalism is obviously derived from the conjoining of ‘neo’ with ‘liberalism’, i.e. some form of new liberalism. What then is liberalism, and what is new about neoliberalism?

The development of liberalism as a political idea is closely conjoined with the end of feudalism and the beginnings of capitalist modes of production. Besides the social aspects of liberalism, like support for individual rights, fair treatment under the law, and democracy, liberalism is also fundamentally about the sanctity of private property and the superiority of the so-called free market as a means of organizing economic exchanges. Neoliberalism is a reinvigoration of the economic aspects of liberalism, drawing upon the branches of economic theory known as neoclassical economics and monetarism. (more…)

An Essay on Indigenous and Non-Indigenous views of Place

What role do places have in defining us, in making us who we are, and in reminding us who we are? In this essay, I want to explore what differentiates indigenous and non-indigenous experiences of place. Indigenous cultures in North America and the people who constitute them are generally seen to be intricately involved with place. What is the basis for this generalization of Indigenous culture? Where are there divergences and meetings between indigenous and non-indigenous relationships with place. Particularly, in thinking and reading about ‘place’ there are a few themes that emerge: the past, identity, learning and knowing, responsibility and morality, and wisdom. I argue that what differentiates indigenous and non-indigenous conceptions of place is the role and importance of building relationships. That being said, though I say ‘argue’, I want to try and get away from an oppositional approach, by which I do not at all want to presume that there is or could be a binary opposition between two generalized monolithic views of place.

Keith Basso (1996) writes about the connection between wisdom and places in the culture, or the way of being (the ontology), of the Western Apache. By looking at Basso’s work and the work of other indigenous authors I want to try to sketch an idea of what place is in indigenous philosophy. I mean place in a very broad sense, one that encompasses the landscape and all that goes into it. For example, my dad used to have a home on top of a hill outside of Peterborough. When I think of or write about that ‘place’ I am referring to the house, the locations of the different trees, the fences, the fields, the view in the distance, etc. But I also am referring to the memory of how the trees used to look, the memory of a tree before it became a stump, the knowledge that the field is also where baseball games happened, the lawn where parties happened, and the feelings associated with these events. So when I say place I mean the physical objects that make up that place but also the effects, emotional or otherwise, of what is known to have happened in that place. I think this could be called a holistic view of place, because it seeks to include as many aspects as possible in understanding place, rather than trying to distil an essential definition. I think that this is the same as what Brian Yazzie Burkhart (2004) means when he writes that “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” (p. 25). And so in this sense I intend to not restrict what I mean by ‘place.’

In writing about indigenous philosophy “in general” it seems to me that there is a risk of essentializing or generalizing the diversity of views found across Native American groups. That being said, different indigenous authors do write of a general Native American world view as being something that we can talk about without it being an act of colonializing generalization. For example, Vine Deloria Jr. (1999) asserts that it is possible to both recognize the diversity of First Nations and to advance ideas about a general Native American worldview: “two great truths exist side by side: (1) Indian nations are quite distinct from each other and (2) there is a great unanimity among native peoples when they express their views on the natural world and on the behaviour of humans within that world” (p. v, see also Smith, 2005, p. 117). So, keeping in mind the diversity of Native American cultures, it is possible to talk about indigenous views of place in a general way. As well, there is a risk that as a result of being afraid of generalizing, essentializing, or misrepresenting, no work will actually be done on discussing what constitutes ‘indigenous philosophy’ or ‘indigenous thought.’ I have these caveats in mind as I proceed.

Connections to place are fundamental to Indigenous ways of being. Marilyn Notah Verney (Diné) (2004) poses the question, “what is American Indian philosophy?” and, in trying to answer this question, her first principle is that relationships to the land must be central to any conception of Indigenous philosophy: “To understand American Indian Philosophy one must first understand our spiritual relationship, our connection with the land” (p. 134). Where does this spiritual connection come from and what is it? N. Scott Momaday writes:

From the time the Indian first set foot upon this continent, he centered his life in the natural world. He is deeply invested in the earth, committed to it both in his consciousness and in his instinct. The sense of place is paramount. Only in reference to the earth can he persist in his identity. (qtd. in Basso, p. 35)

So, deep spiritual connection is the result of the indigenous person centering her life in the natural world. As a result of this centering, the person’s identity, indeed her consciousness, is fundamentally tied to places. But still, what is this spiritual connection to the land; how does this centering in the natural world function? Basso writes of the connections between place, the past, identity and knowledge:

For Indian men and women, the past lies embedded in features of the earth—in canyons and lakes, mountains and arroyos, rocks and vacant fields—which together endow their land with multiple forms of significance that reach into their lives and shape the ways they think. Knowledge of places is therefore closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one’s position in the larger scheme of things, including one’s own community, and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person. (Basso, p. 34, italics mine)

A person knows herself through knowing the land, and the land is the primary record of the past. Stories of the land, of specific places, pass on memories and knowledge of the past because they are tied to the land which, though it changes, is much more enduring than the lives of humans. And because of this, the land becomes the ultimate frame of reference. As Deloria, Jr. says, “American Indians hold their lands—places—as having the highest possible meaning, and all their statements are made with this reference point” (qtd. in Basso, p. 37). In an oral culture, the land becomes the ‘reference section’ for a community’s knowledge. Increasing your vocabulary then requires increasing your knowledge of places, your recognition of places. But, how does one have ‘knowledge of places’? What do I mean by this?

I think that in Native American philosophy the origins of ideas matter a lot more than they do in the western intellectual tradition. Indeed, one of the more exciting political-philosophical movements in the 20th century in the west is social constructivism, which seeks to gain knowledge and truth through tracing the genealogy of ideas back to their origins. The meanings of concepts like ‘freedom,’ ‘citizenship,’ ‘terrorism,’ etc., become taken for granted very quickly by the general public, and we forget the origin of these ideas as they become abstract concepts. Vine Deloria, Jr. (2004) contends that this does not happen in Indigenous cultures because of “the requirement that Indians place on themselves to have some kind of empirical verification for statements [which] precludes them from making the kind of statements the West takes as knowledge, and it keeps their minds open to receive the unexpected and to remember it” (p. 7). At first it may seem odd that Deloria, Jr. seems to be calling Indigenous epistemology some kind of strict empiricism akin to what was attempted by logical positivists. I do not think that this is what Deloria, Jr. means though. Rather, if every belief has to be justified by an appeal to experience or empirical statements, this requires physical objects, i.e. places, to play a major role. What role then do places play in Indigenous epistemology?

Basso explains how for the Western Apache (at least), the relationship with place goes further than identity and the past, moving to wisdom and morality. He says:

The knowledge on which wisdom depends is gained from observing different places ([so as] to recall them quickly and clearly), learning their Apache names (thus to identify them in spoken discourse and in song), and reflecting upon the traditional narratives that underscore the virtues of wisdom by showing what can happen when its facilitating conditions are absent. (p. 134)

So, wisdom depends upon knowledge, and knowledge depends upon place. Place—the land—is a medium for learning, for knowing, and I think that this is what Deloria, Jr. means by his empiricism—that knowledge is more valuable when it is rooted in something observable, i.e. the land. Earlier I made an analogy between the land and the reference section (of a library), and I think that this analogy can be expanded here. To learn more things about more places is like reading more books. Places are like books—the more you can read and whose contents you can remember and utilize, the more knowledgeable you are. And so places as holders of knowledge become especially important in an oral tradition because, not having written documents, places help stories to be remembered, to be passed on. The oral tradition itself, as opposed to a written tradition, is important because, “once ideas are written down, in black and white, those ideas become objects, something to be studied and taken apart. This process of writing separates our being in the world, an we can lose touch and become isolated from all our relations.” (Verney p. 138) On the other hand, stories which are about the land or take place on the land, and which, because they are not written down, cannot be dissected and thus encourage first hand place-based experiences. More importantly, stories in an oral tradition put you in contact with ancestors who have gone before in the same place.

Knowledge and collective memory are passed down not only through stories but also through ceremony. Gregory Cajete (2004) writes that, “Ceremony us both a context for transferring knowledge and a way to remember the responsibility we have to our relationships with life. Native ceremony is associated with maintaining and restoring balance, renewal, cultivating relationship, and creative participation with nature.” (p. 54) ‘Nature’, I think, encompasses place and all that happens in places. As well, ceremonies are often tied to particular places—places that have an important history and add meaning and significance to the ceremonies. Maureen Smith (2004) writes that, “Most tribal religions were land-based, with their cosmologies founded on the land, water, sky, and all of creation. Religion was geographically bound to sacred spots integral to spiritual practice” (p. 117). To explore the significance of ceremony and place further, a connection to morality and responsibility can be made. Ceremonies, in so far as they are about building relationships with other beings, involve strengthening or deepening social practices. John Dufour (2004) writes about how indigenous morality and responsibility are related to epistemology in the sense that ‘having beliefs’ is a morally regulated action—it is possible to have a morally irresponsible belief. Dufour says, “if systematized thinking about understanding or belief involves social practices, then if we are concerned about particular normative merits for belief or understanding, such merits will probably be rooted in such organized social practices” (p. 35). How this relates to ‘place’ is that if there is such a thing as “morally responsible believing” (p. 34) or understanding, and this believing is tied to social practices, like ceremonies, and ceremonies happen in places and involve attachment to places, then responsible, i.e. moral, learning depends on a having a certain, socially validated relationship to place.

I hope then that up to this point I have been able to sketch a image of the role of ‘place’ in indigenous culture in general. It is an image that involves interconnections between identity, collective memory, oral tradition, learning, knowing, morality and responsibility, all of which are rooted in some important way in places—in the land.

In thinking about indigenous conceptions of place I could not help but try to relate them to my own experiences of place. I recently returned to Peterborough, Ontario, the city where I passed my childhood. Since returning, after an absence of several years, as I have passed by familiar places I have been flooded by memories from childhood and youth of events, stories, and lesson-learning that occurred in these places. One evening I went walking through my old neighbourhood, and to the park behind the house where I grew up. What follows are my thoughts and reflections that evening; they are meant to help in this exercise of conceptualizing my relation to place.

I am visiting my old neighbourhood. I came in up behind the Fairhaven retirement home, where I played as a kid. It has changed a lot, but it is still a wild place there. Scraggly trees and thick vines on ground. Makeshift forts, garbage, a ruin of an old structure. Grassy bits in other places, and dried out waist-high plants that have burs that stick to your clothes. Another section there has little sumacs, with their fuzzy bark. Then there is the big hill. Then more tangle and then the road and it’s over. All of this was familiar to me. I expected it to be there and it was.

Heading the way I used to walk from middle school I reach my mom’s old house. New owners. New cars. Stacked wood. They are settled in. I looked in from a distance, from the edge of the property line and then continued to the park behind the house.

I don’t have a name for this place. I am here trying to think about ‘place’ and how this place, so strong in my memory of childhood, affects me, has affected me, continues to be a part of me. I don’t know when the last time I came back here was. Five years? But, I am surprised to feel mostly sadness, or loss, or perhaps it is absence. Maybe I am missing the people who made this place with me, or for me. It seems ghostly right now. It is cold, around zero, and getting dark. The sun has set. There is no one else around.

I went to bigrock, down in the brush by the creek, but it is not as big as I remember it being. I couldn’t get into it the way I used to. The entrance was overgrown. I had to go around. Everything seemed smaller. Especially the rock. I remember it being huge. But still it is all very familiar. The way the stream runs and curves. The vines above the rock. All very familiar. It was the same with my mom’s house, in a way. Familiar, but now someone else owns the house, so I can’t enter. In the same way I couldn’t enter bigrock the way I entered it as I did when I was a kid. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel like it was my place anymore. I was just visiting.

On the way here, on the trail behind Peter Robinson College, pointing to the ditch a man said to his granddaughter as I passed, “See that computer monitor down there? People shouldn’t do that should they?” Will she remember that spot and that lesson together?

Farther along the trail, crossing Antrim St., a teenager pulled up in a truck, jumped out and started running down the trail after a girl. She saw him and started running too. He stopped, giving up, looking upset and desperate. Will he remember this spot as a lesson in losing love?

What do I remember about this place, this tuft of wildness behind my childhood home? Lessons learned? Some, but mostly just snippets. Partial pictures of hiding in the grass, breaking rocks, catching crayfish, falling into the creek, sandwiches on white buns, no parents. I remember one incident well. We got caught throwing stones at the machinery on the roof of the strip-mall that is below the park. The owner of the convenience store yelled at us, and chased us. Someone lost a shoe and he grabbed it, using it to force us all back in order for its owner to reclaim it. After that I never contemplated damaging other people’s property for fun.

This was our world, our space. What is it now? It doesn’t even have a name. There is no one around. The swings and the slide are gone. All that’s left is the one lonely bench where I’m sitting.

A friend talked to me about ceremony and how that is what ties indigenous people, his people, to the land, in time and over time. What ceremony do I have to connect me to this place? Sitting alone on a bench in the cold looking at the 200 ft. t.v. tower in the distance on the hill, that broadcasts to the houses around me. This is sad. I have armchair philosophy; bench-thinking solitude.

What do I learn about my own relationship with places from these reflections? My experiences that evening seem to have some of the characteristics of ‘place’ that were highlighted as being important in Indigenous thought, but in a watered-down form. Of course this exercise is ‘flawed’ from the beginning in the sense that what I reflected upon that evening could not possibly be taken as an archetype for all experiences of place of non-indigenous people. Indeed, they cannot even necessarily be taken as representative of how I always relate to place, for I have different experiences of place at different times, and the influence of the time of day, the lack of company, and the temperature demonstrate how my reflections are not absolute but are relative. But these reflections can provide a way to think about at least one instance of an experience with place, in order that I might make comparisons with what I have previously written about indigenous concepts of place.

In terms of identity, I see my conception of myself as having been formed, to a large extent, in that park behind my mother’s old house. When I think about what makes the ‘me’ that I am now the same ‘me’ that I was when I was six and playing in that park I think back to activities mentioned in my reflections—the breaking rocks, catching crayfish, etc. And, I try to distil something fundamental about me out of the way that I approached those activities. I try to seek out the character traits that I have held throughout my life through trying to see them in those activities. But this attempt to distil something fundamental seems to be counter to what Burkhart says about an indigenous approach being to seek understanding by embracing as widely as possible. Though my ‘becoming who I am’ occurred in that park, I‘m not sure that I think of it as being a part of me beyond just having a sentimental fondness for it.

In terms of collective memory and oral tradition, as is clear in my reflections, I visited that place alone, and remarked upon a sense of absence that I was feeling. It may be that if I were to visit the park again, but this time with my childhood friends, it would be an entirely different experience. Perhaps all of our individual connections to the place would be strengthened by hearing the memories of the group. This would be a process of strengthening relationships with each other and that place, akin to what Cajete attributes to ceremony, though in this case it would be much more shallow. And if this meeting of childhood friends were to take place, we would not be feverishly writing down all that was being said. Rather we would be telling stories, stories intimately attached to specific places. Bigrock would take on greater and greater significance through the telling of more and more stories of events that took place there. This seems to highlight the social characteristic of indigenous relations to place.

In terms of learning and knowing, for indigenous philosophy it seems that learning or coming to know can only happen via places, or at least this is the type of knowing that builds and respects relations. In my walk back to my old neighbourhood I observed two interesting interactions, one between a man and his granddaughter and the other between two upset teenagers. Both of these events seem to be obvious cases of learning a lesson, in the first case a lesson in not littering, and in the latter a lesson in the fleetingness of love. Both of these events, as all events do, occurred in a particular place; but, will the lessons learned be tied to these places through what Basso describes as a process of observing, learning names, and reflecting? I do sometimes think back to the stone throwing property damage incident that I described, but what is lacking is the name. As Deloria, Jr. says, “most American Indian tribes embrace “spatial conceptions of history” in which places and their names—and all that these may symbolize—are accorded central importance” (qtd. in Basso, p. 34). The reason that names, as labels, are important is that they only come to be required in social situations, i.e. when there is more than one person. Naming allows people to refer to the same object or place. And, as Dufour has pointed out, in social situations morality comes into play. In indigenous philosophy, I have argued, morality requires a certain socially validated relationship to place, and this validification comes (at least) through ceremony. In my reflections, though there are examples of lesson learning that relates to places, the lack of naming of these places and the lack of socially validated process of believing shows a difference between indigenous and non-indigenous approaches.

What conclusions can be drawn about the differences between indigenous and non-indigenous conceptions of place? I think that what underlies the differences between the two is the idea of relations—with other humans, with the land, with ancestors, and all other beings. The non-indigenous penchant for abstraction facilitates a lack of being grounded in the ‘beingness’ of all beings. As Marilyn Notah Verney says, “We came to be from within the womb of Mother Earth. Mother Earth is home for all living beings: human people, animal people, plant people, everything in the universe” (p. 134)

Works Cited

Basso, Keith. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Burkhart, Brian Yazzie. “What Coyote and Thales Can Teach Us: An Outline American Indian Epistemology,” in Anne Waters ed., American Indian Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Cajete, Gregory. “Philosophy of Native Science,” in Anne Waters ed., American Thought. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Deloria Jr., Vine. preface to Norbert S. Hill, Words of Power: Voices of Indian Fulcrum Publishing, 1999.

Deloria, Jr. Vine. “Philosophy and the Tribal Peoples,” in Anne Waters ed., Indian Thought. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

DuFour, John. “Ethics and Understanding,” in Anne Waters ed., American Thought. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Smith, Maureen E. “Crippling the Spirit, Wounding the Soul: Native American Spiritual And Religious Suppression,” in Anne Waters ed., American Indian Thought. Malden,MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Verney, Marilyn Notah. “On Authenticity,” in Anne Waters ed., American Indian Thought. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

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….