Newsletter: September 2021
Hello everyone, and greetings from Sitka, Alaska. I’m approaching the three-week mark of a four-month stay here, where I’m teaching at a young institution called Outer Coast, whose mission (inspired by Deep Springs College in California) is to provide a holistic education that includes academics, service, labour, and self-governance, with a strong connection to place. And what a place it is. Sitka is located in the northern reaches of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem at the end of an island-dotted sound surrounded by towering mountains.
The teaching work here keeps me busy enough that I’m not offering online courses this autumn although you should hear more in the coming months about January courses.
I sent out my last newsletter just after wrapping up the summer course on the philosophy of love and friendship. An editor I know who works with the London-based Institute of Art and Ideas invited me to write something on a love-related topic for their online magazine. Earlier this month, they published my proposal that we get things wrong love when we dismiss physical appearance as a “superficial” reason for loving someone. On the contrary, I argue, the problem is that we don’t take physical appearance seriously enough.
When that newsletter went out, I was several days into a hike well away from the reach of WiFi or cellular towers. The Tatchu Peninsula hike was my sixth multi-day trek on the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island, a place of natural wonder that never ceases to astonish me.
The first course I’m teaching at Outer Coast was partly inspired by the flagship course I’ve taught online: “How Should We Live? Answers from the Ancient World.” The aim in this intensive course (we have four two-hour meetings per week) is to concentrate on what life lessons we can learn from six different philosophical traditions: Aristotle, Roman Stoicism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and indigenous wisdom of the Pacific Northwest and Arctic regions. That last category could be more smoothly stated as “Alaska Native philosophy” except I’m drawing on authors who reside in present-day Canada as well as Alaska. These people lived and thought here long before anyone thought to draw a border between Alaska and Canada.
Including a week on indigenous philosophy presents me with two challenges. First, I don’t know much about indigenous philosophy. And second, it’s not even clear what “indigenous philosophy” means.
That first challenge is a familiar one and one of the pleasures of teaching. What we call “teaching” is really one part teaching and two parts learning. It’s rare that I teach a course where all of the material is familiar to me before the course begins.
The second challenge is more particular to the North American context. There’s an old, pernicious prejudice, used to justify colonization, that colonized people were benighted and colonizers were doing them a favour by imposing European culture on them. When I ask whether there’s such a thing as “indigenous philosophy,” I don’t mean to perpetuate that prejudice. Like all people everywhere, the indigenous people of North America reflected on their lives and passed on wisdom that grew and changed across generations of transmission. I’m concerned with a different kind of Eurocentric imposition: how far can we apply concepts that arose in Europe to non-European contexts?
Consider religion. The word “religion” derives from a Latin root and applies pretty straightforwardly to monotheistic faiths such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But—to take one familiar puzzle case—is Buddhism a religion? On one hand, Buddhists worship at temples, say prayers, and make offerings. On the other hand, the figure at the centre of Buddhist devotion was 100% mortal and he didn’t claim any kind of divine inspiration as justification for his teachings. Quarreling over whether or not Buddhism “counts” as a religion seems idle to me. Better just to acknowledge that the term “religion” evolved in a context that hadn’t taken Buddhism into account and that in some respects it resembles the religious traditions of the Middle East and Europe and in some respects it doesn’t.
So what about “philosophy”? That term also originates in Europe, in Greece in the 4th century BCE to be precise. In Europe, the Middle East, India, and China traditions arose that sufficiently resemble one another that calling them all “philosophical” makes intuitive sense. Thinkers reflected systematically on the nature and structure of the cosmos, human virtue and the purpose of life, as well as engaging in meta-level investigations on the nature of language and logic that govern these investigations. Thinkers organized themselves into schools—Platonist, Epicurean, Yogācāra, Vaiśeṣika, Confucian, Mohist, and so on—and wrote treatises, dialogues, essays, and letters expounding and debating their views.
Nothing quite like this existed in North America. There are many reasons why North American thinkers didn’t develop philosophical schools in the way that Eurasian thinkers did, but to my mind the crucial difference is this: before European contact, there was no writing north of the Rio Grande. (A fascinating semi-exception: in the early nineteenth century, a Cherokee named Sequoyah developed a writing system for his language without direct knowledge of European writing systems—but his invention was inspired by knowledge that the Europeans had written forms for their languages.)
What does philosophy look like when it isn’t written down? Yes, many of the great philosophers of Eurasia never wrote anything down themselves—we know of Socrates, Confucius, and the Buddha only from subsequent writers. But these people all lived and taught in literate settings. Not writing was a choice for them—and indeed, Plato gives a good deal of attention to the dangers of writing and the merits of in-person dialogue.
A culture in which writing isn’t widespread requires very different methods for preserving and transmitting its wisdom. In oral cultures, storytelling is a central mode of thinking. Gripping narratives, told in rhythmic verse and with repetition and stock phrases, are easier to remember and pass along orally than dry treatises. The American classicist Milman Parry revolutionized our understanding of Homer by showing how the Iliad and Odyssey encode vast swathes of wisdom and know-how from Mycenean Greece.
In A Story as Sharp as a Knife, Robert Bringhurst makes a similar claim for two Haida storytellers, Skaay and Ghandl, from the turn of the twentieth century. Bringhurst, a white scholar who’s fluent in the Haida language, translates stories that were first recorded by an American anthropologist at a time when the tradition of classical Haida storytelling had not yet been disrupted by the systematic efforts of British and Canadian governments to eradicate indigenous languages and cultures. Bringhurst makes the compelling case that the stories of Skaay and Ghandl are not just poetry and myth-telling of the highest order, but also philosophy. The Haida thought in stories, and these masterful storytellers were also masterful philosophers.
These storytelling traditions have been disrupted by European colonization but they haven’t been extinguished. Contemporary indigenous writers expounding traditional wisdom often use a mix of traditional storytelling and European forms of expository writing to convey philosophical ideas. Two books I’ve recently enjoyed that combine indigenous and European modes of thinking are Joseph M. Marshall III’s The Lakota Way and Umeek (E. Richard Atleo)’s Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview. You can find another form of hybrid thinking in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer is a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She writes about the intersections and divergences between the Western science of botany and indigenous modes of understanding our relationship with, and duties to, the ecosystems we inhabit.
So is a story about the trickster Raven philosophy? I want to answer with the same shrug I give when asked whether Buddhism is a religion: it depends on how you look at it. More to the point, we shouldn’t fixate on slotting non-European traditions into European categories. If calling Skaay and Ghandl philosophers elevates their reputation and makes more people take notice of them, great. But their thinking has a grandeur of its own that doesn’t require a Eurocentric stamp of approval to dignify it.
Whether or not we call it “philosophy,” the indigenous traditions of North America have a great deal to teach those of us who are interested in what’s more straightforwardly called philosophy. A large part of their value lies precisely in their difference from Eurasian modes of thinking. Eurasian philosophers almost always lived and thought in large-scale agricultural societies. Although such societies also existed in North America—most notably in the Mississippi valley—many indigenous cultures subsisted primarily or exclusively on wild foods.
What difference does this make? Here are two quick examples. First, the rhythms of agriculture and empire significantly structure a person’s conception of time. In particular, linear conceptions of time dominate in Eurasian philosophy whereas many indigenous thinkers conceive of time in a more cyclical fashion. And second, there’s a strong tendency in all Eurasian philosophical traditions to think of humans as sharply distinct from other animals whereas in many North American traditions, “human people” exist side by side and on an equal footing with “bear people,” “deer people,” and so on. Engaging with these modes of thought is interesting in its own right. But doing so can also productively challenge certain assumptions common to Eurasian philosophical traditions.
For the most part, indigenous thought isn’t taught in the philosophy departments of modern universities. Indeed, non-Western philosophy of all kinds is still a rarity in philosophy departments in Europe and North America. But all of this is starting to change. A recent anthology of the philosophies of the Americas presents Ralph Waldo Emerson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Elk, and the Popol Vuh, the sacred narrative of Maya myth, as all contributing to the same unfolding philosophical tradition.
The history of the Americas over the last five hundred years is marked by the horrors of slavery and settler colonialism. These monstrous upheavals also offer an opportunity, if we can take it. The Americas are now home to a tremendous diversity of people and traditions. If we can learn to learn from one another, the philosophy of the Americas has tremendous potential for syncretism and growth.