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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.
Continues on part two, or get your unbroken, ad-free Citizen Edition. Please support PEL!
Black Elk picture by Solomon Grundy.
Daniel Everett on the Nature of Language
Dr. Everett is an American author and academic best known for his study of the Amazon Basin’s Pirahã people and their language
How Speaking English Impacts Our Relationship With Nature – Arthur Haines #12
Tribe book; white people living with Native Americans
Benjamin Franklin pondered why:
“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”
One author put a bottom line on it in 1782, writing that,
“thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans!”
folks might also be interested in The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Native American Thought. by Bruce Wilshire and Scott L Pratt’s (UofO) Native Pragmatism:
Dale A says
For some meta-level talk, Course (2010) offers a linguistic approach to reveal the challenge of understanding non-Western ontologies.
From the abstract:
“Through the presentation of alternative grammatical paradigms present in Amerindian languages themselves, I suggest that grammars necessarily contain implicit ontologies which, when used analogically to represent non-linguistic phenomena, may seriously distort the ethnographic data they are intended to clarify.”
Course, M. (2010). Of words and fog. Anthropological Theory, 10(3), 247–263. https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499610372177
Vine Deloria Jr, an indigenous author, wrote a text called “The metaphysics of modern existence” in which he parallels the process philosophy of Whitehead and Teilhard de Chardin with Indigenous process philosophy.
Justin K Bird says
This guy’s teacher is a fraud. He might have been honestly deceived by this charlatan but yall are all idiots for not doing any background research. This episode should be taken down. http://ancestorstealing.blogspot.com/2017/04/thomas-norton-smith-kent-state.html?m=1
Mark Linsenmayer says
Dude, we read from the most widely read book of American Indian lit (Black Elk) and the most widely used academic collection, and the guest’s thesis was interesting on its own merit. How much native blood his teacher actually as is totally irrelevant.
Justin K Bird says
1.) I am not concerned with his “blood,” whatever that means. The issue is Norton-Smith is clearly lying about who he is. Yes, he might know as much about “American Indian Philosophy” as anyone, but by claiming a phoney NDN identity he is also claiming resources that have been set aside by institutions as reparations for the ongoing colonial occupation of NDN land. He also falsely implies that his fake Shawnee heritage gives him some kind of authority to speak on these matters. Being an NDN does not give you the authority to speak on a complex and obscure topic like NDN intellectual traditions, but letting people believe that it does is still wrong.
2.) The authenticity and representativeness of Black Elk Speaks have been questioned for decades. You note that your guest had concerns about this and you dismissed those concerns without any substantial discussion.
3.) As far as I can tell, American Indian Thought is also the only anthology on NDN philosophy written by trained philosophers, so saying that it is the most widely used text is a bit rich.
4.) The guest’s thesis is not interesting; it is vague and surface level. It also feigns wokeness by cautioning against generalization, but goes ahead a makes them anyway despite a noticeable lack of primary documents or first hand accounts. His list of citations is incredibly short. The thesis presents the ideas of his teacher with some cliff notes process philosophy attached to it.
5.) Norton-Smith and your guest are only able to recover some “commonalities” in NDN philosophies by analog to philosophical traditions such as process philosophy and constructivism that have nothing to do with traditional ways of life or the colonial context of contemporary life as an NDN.
I am not the only one on this site to argue that this episode was stupid and bad. Seeing as it could be a source of substantial misinformation to your audience, I think you should take it down.
Mark Linsenmayer says
First, I appreciate you weighing in with more detail. Were you not so obviously rude, I’d invite you to come on the show for a follow-up discussion.
…And that’s where we’re at at this point. Removing the episode is out of the question, but I’d be more than happy to learn from whatever mistakes we’ve made here by having someone both academically knowledgeable and currently living in the tradition come on with us to discuss, e.g. Vine Deloris Jr.’s “The Metaphsyics of Modern Existence,” which I read in full after we recorded this and found that it reinforced a lot of the themes and generalizations, both positive and negative, that came up in this discussion (and by “this discussion” I mean both parts 1 and 2; we really didn’t get going on much substantial here until part 2). I ended up feeling that that book was too fluffy to make my fellow podcasters read it (I mean, it ends with a whole rant against the too-quick rejection of astrology!), and though I’m all for helping bring more scholarly study to this area, if people like you are just going to cry foul at whatever approach we take, then it seems not worthwhile to pursue further. I remain convinced that this discussion was not at all “stupid,” and that by bringing it to 50,000 people or so, we’ve potentially set some folks on to studying this area that might otherwise be ignored, which is really the whole point.
I am open to suggestion from you or anything else re. Particular guests we should try to approach for a follow-up episode or particular people to read, and I’m not at all dismissing the legitimate concerns people raised on Twitter and here re. Our presentation in the episode of the tradition as a thing of the past and find the challenge interesting and worth talking about in itself that Westerners falsify traditional practices by insisting that they fit into a Western academic project somehow.
So if you’re an actual fan of the show, or care about what we’ve been doing for coming up on 10 years, then contribute to the spread of philosophy by helping us out here, but if you’re just some dude who looks around the Internet for slights against NDNs, well, then it’s interesting to hear what you have to say, but it’s not going to affect what we do much.
Thanks for listening.
Karl Andres G y Anaya says
Overall I’m glad you folks took this kind of scholarship seriously. You admitted that you may treat subjects with irreverence, as you often do with established, credible philosophical traditions and authors. However, I find the hosts’ frequent dismissals of what they call “crazy” stories of animals (especially one of your remarks on the Coyote-penis in Part II–for the record the phallus, as in ancient Phonoecian and Mesopotamian culture was a necessary referent for fertility–to be patently disrespectful and offensive to this Indigenous listener. Please remember that there are people who have been told their whole lives, usually through religious and state sponsored boarding schools, that their ancestors were superstitious, simple-minded dirt worshippers and that they must be “enlightened” by Western culture. I fail to recognize the distinction between the attitudes of the hosts and the latent colonial assumptions about what kinds of ideas are worth taking seriously. Don’t worry, you still have a faithful listener; but keep in mind that I come to your site for thoughtful commentary on philosophy, and my hesitations to your readings were confirmed. Perhaps you are already aware of these biases. I had only hoped for more.