Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan are joined by PEL fan Jim Marunich, who got his M.A. in this area. As with our Confucius episode, we were faced here with a radically different point of view, unconnected with the founding figures of Western philosophy that may systematically prejudice our thinking, formulated in languages that may even involve different underlying ontological assumptions: While we say “the dog is brown,” which sounds like it’s relating two entities (the object dog and the property brown), they would say “the dog browns,” making the having of the property into an action. Unlike in the case of ancient China, we need only look back less than a century to find people practicing a fairly pure form of this tradition (i.e. without much admixture from European thinking; of course, there are plenty of people living and thinking within this tradition today, but we would not presume to speak for them).
Some preliminaries: Yes, Jim tells us that “American Indian” is more acceptable to native peoples than “Native American,” though really there’s no agreement. Ideally, we should just be talking about different tribes, as there are multiple languages and traditions here, but scholars have found value in articulating some general themes common to the philosophies of these different groups, so we’re attempting to follow suit here.
This was an exclusively oral tradition, and philosophical scholarship regarding it is fairly new, with a small body of literature and philosophers working on it. Jim recommended three essays to us from American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays (2004):
- “What Coyote and Thales Can Teach Us: An Outline of American Indian Epistemology” by Brian Yazzie Burkhart (a Cherokee) (read it online)
- “Philosophy of Native Science” by Gregory Cajete (a Tewa) (read it online)
- “Language Matters: A Metaphysic of Non-Discreet, Non-Binary Dualism” by Anne Waters (a Seminole; she edited the anthology; read it online)
For primary/historical sources, we read chapter 19 from Black Elk Speaks (here’s an online version, which lacks the many helpful notes in the paper one) by John G. Neihard (1932), an American writer who took down (and embellished) the reports of a Lakota (Sioux) medicine man. We also read some stories about the trickster Coyote in part 7 of American Indian Myths and Legends, plus another fable, “How the Buzzard Got His Feathers” (read it online).
Finally, we read Jim’s thesis: “Process Metaphysics in the Far West: American Indian Ontologies” (read it online), which gave us the clearest connections to Western philosophy.
Another helpful secondary source was The Great Courses’ World Philosophy lectures by Kathleen Higgins: Lecture 6: Traditional Beliefs and Philosophy and Lecture 7: American Indian Thinking.
That’s a lot of material, and our goal was not to go through each source to detail what the various authors had to say. We encourage interested folks to read the articles yourself to get a better flavor of how these ideas are conveyed. Instead, we picked up on some overall themes as conveyed by the articles and tried to make sense of them:
- Relationality: What does it mean to say that everything is related to everything else? This claim is supposed to communicate our ethical duties to the world we experience, not just people, but nature.
- Experience and tradition: How do we know what these ethical duties are? Phenomenologically: We experience the world. But we (i.e., those born into this tradition) see the world through a lens of tradition, through the gathered experiences of our forebears.
- Concrete practicality over abstract principle: According to Burkhart, American Indian thought lacks a paradigm in Kuhn’s sense. We aren’t supposed to come at the world with a preconceived framework for what is and isn’t possible; we’re instead supposed to be simply open to experience as it comes. But does this actually make sense, and if so, does it leave us defenseless against superstitious nonsense?
- Stories and rituals as cultural transmission: Instead of principles, we get ritually prescribed actions and narratives that are supposed to remind us of our relationality and pass on specific insights about the natural world, e.g., Burkhart describes how the Seneca tribe discovered that corn, beans, and squash grow well together and conveyed this via a story where these three entities approach humanity and explain that they’re sisters, and they’ll only enter into relations with people if they’re always grown together.
- Lack of firm labels and dichotomies: Anne Waters argues that a different attitude toward labeling things makes American Indian viewpoints inherently more tolerant to those that don’t fit into a strict binary gender framework.
- Process over substance ontology: Why the lack of emphasis on labels? Because everything is in flux, per our Heraclitus episode.
- Intuition and the subconscious: Why this emphasis on immediacy against conceptualization? As was emphasized in our discussion with Dr. Drew, so much of our orientation, our sense of self, relies on a preverbal, unconscious relationship that we have with others. Carl Jung (ep 81) describes intuition as a matter of unconscious synthesis of a wide range of experience. These types of processes are what give us our moral orientation (relationality), provide epistemic guidelines in lieu of a set of explicit epistemic principles, and generalize the way we interact with other people to the way we interact with everything around us. Cajete says, “Every act, element, plant, animal, and natural process is considered to have a moving spirit with which we continually communicate.” This sounds crazy, but think about our conversation with Dr. Drew about how we attribute mentality to others: Before the stage where we attribute explicit beliefs and desires to people, we already understand nature as teleological, which Cajete would describe as alive and creative.
Black Elk picture by Solomon Grundy.