Open minds, changing worlds

Opinion: Of all scholars, one supposes that philosophers would be the most open-minded. It is their job to think about all things under the sun, writes Professor Dame Anne Salmond.

Whakapapa provided a framework for Māori knowledge to be passed on from one generation to the next. Photo: The interior of a Māori pā in the olden time by Sam Smith, Auckland Art Gallery via Wikicommons

Presumably, that includes the insights and wisdom of thinkers from cultural legacies other than those from Europe, and ‘the West’. Otherwise, their discipline would be parochial, focused on the exploration of one historical trajectory of thought.

If, as the Oxford dictionary suggests, philosophy is the ‘study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence,’ it is unlikely that philosophers from only one cultural tradition have gained insights into such matters. Chinese, Indian, South American and Pacific thinkers, for instance, have pondered these questions for centuries. Curiosity, intelligence and astute reasoning are not limited to the ‘Western’ tradition. To suppose otherwise would be to indulge in hubris, and cultural exceptionalism.

In addition, its a basic tenet of scholarship that one should not pass judgement on matters that one has not studied in depth. On these grounds, a philosopher who has not closely investigated Māori ideas about ‘knowledge, reality and existence’ would be unwise to dismiss them out of hand. This would be a case of prejudgement – literally, ‘prejudice.’ Rather, it might be profitable to engage seriously with these ways of thinking, if only in order to gain insight into the limits of one’s own cultural assumptions.

Robert Nola’s article Binary Blues: a philosopher's response, a critique of my piece, Iwi vs Kiwi: Beyond the binary, was not the most open-minded of scholarly exercises. In discussing Cartesian dualism and binary logic, for instance, he writes, ‘I doubt any of the first Europeans who stepped ashore here had even heard of Descartes, let alone his dualism.’ But the first Europeans who stepped ashore in New Zealand included an elite group of Royal Society scientists, sent to the Pacific to observe the Transit of Venus – Joseph Banks, later long-serving President of the Royal Society; Dr. Carl Solander, student of Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist; Charles Green, the expedition’s astronomer; along with James Cook, leading cartographer and hydrographer. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy notes, ‘René Descartes’ rationalist system of philosophy is one of the pillars on which Enlightenment thought rests;’ and these Royal Society scientists were at the forefront of mid eighteenth century Enlightenment science. In his journal, too, Joseph Banks wrote about the Great Chain of Being, the other key ‘form of order’ mentioned in the Newsroom article that Nola discusses. On this point, Nola is mistaken. Without doubt, the first Europeans who stepped ashore here brought these ideas with them.

As for the Biblical myth that God gave Adam dominion over the earth and all its creatures, Nola dismisses its impact on contemporary thought about environmental matters by saying that most Christians are embarrassed by it. That might be so, but this mythic tale lies at the heart of modernist ideas about private property. In the writings of John Locke, for instance, or William Blackstone, the eighteenth century British jurist who described the common law, the link between private property and God’s gift to Adam is obvious: ‘In the beginning of the world, we are informed by holy writ, the all-bountiful Creator gave to man ‘dominion over all the earth, and over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ This is the only true and solid foundation of man’s dominion over external things.’ (Blackstone, 1770, book 2, p.18). The law is founded on precedent, and anthropocentric assumptions about human relations with ‘Nature’ still underpin legal, scientific and utilitarian framings.

Like the myth of Adam’s dominion over the earth, Descartes’ dualistic vision of ‘knowledge, reality and existence’ remains influential, as a large anthropological literature on its role in ‘Western’ thought attests. In our own time, binary logic and dualistic thinking are ubiquitous, with their gridded forms of order – spreadsheets, Outlook calendars, organisational charts, planning maps, censuses, siloed bureaucracies and disciplines; and in computing, for instance, with Boolean logic. Along with the Biblical assertion of human dominion over the earth and all of its creatures, Cartesian dualism with its divisions between mind and matter (res cogitans vs. res extensa), Nature vs. Culture and people vs. environment underpins an extractive, controlling ethos in dealing with other life forms – ‘resource management’, ‘ecosystem services’ and the like. In the end, perhaps all forms of human understanding have mythic foundations, including those of modernity and ‘the West.’

The point about whakapapa is that it is based on a different kind of logic. Here, relationships are ontologically prior, constituting the entities they link together. In this relational way of thinking, complex, dynamic networks are generated in which land, sea, sky, people, plants and animals are existentially interconnected. Relational logic focuses attention on the nature of reciprocal exchanges within and among all life forms and living systems. This not unlike thinking about complex systems in contemporary science.

Such relational framings are invaluable in trying to understand current existential dilemmas. As Our Planet, our Future, a recent virtual gathering of Nobel prize-winners insisted, for instance, ‘wicked problems’ such as climate change, collapsing ecosystems and radical inequalities within and between nations are causally linked. To quote Sandra Diaz, an Argentinian ecologist, “We have incontestable evidence that the living fabric of the earth is being unravelled fast. The only reason this is happening is the present dominant model of appropriating nature. Runaway climate change, massive biodiversity loss and intolerable social and environmental inequality among people are simply the three most serious symptoms of the same root problem. They must be tackled together.”

To dismiss whakapapa, as Nola does, as a ‘mythical crutch,’ is to ignore the ‘mythical crutches’ that also underpin modernist habits of mind. If the Nobel prize winners are right, and ‘the present dominant model of appropriating nature’ is putting human survival at risk, it makes no sense to hold fast to its top-down, fragmented, extractive vision. Rather, radically new kinds of thinking are needed, including those that move beyond disciplinary and cultural silos. A philosophy that resolutely stays within its own cultural framings while dismissing the insights of others is not helpful, hindering rather than helping the radical rethinking of ‘knowledge, and reality, and existence’ that is needed. If whakapapa, along with the science of complex systems, can help us to think more insightfully about human relationships with ‘the living fabric of the earth,’ this is an opportunity to be seized, not set aside.

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in anthropology at the University of Auckland.  In 2020, she was appointed to the Order of New Zealand.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

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