Helmut Wautischer, ed. Tribal Epistemologies: Essays in the Philosophy of Anthropology.
What is it that perennially leads to questions about our humanly situated place in the cosmos? Perhaps it is as Rudolph C. Ryser comments in an article called "Observations on `Self" and `Knowing'" in a new book titled Tribal Epistemology: Essays in the Philosophy of Anthropology, edited by Helmut Wautischer: "Like all people, humans have the capacity to learn; but humans have a greater need to learn owing to their relative youth, inexperience, and lack of knowledge. It is because of this serious limitation that humans have needed a brain that allows them to learn more things" (28). This idea complements Wautischer's view in his introductory article, "Pathways to Knowledge," that "consciousness is but a tool through which power symbols are recognized and managed" (3).
These explanations of why and how human consciousness learns, via the use of consciousness's tools, may suggest why postmodernism embraces the standpoint of multiple truths. The reasoning process, via tools of consciousness, closes the dual chasms of subject and object--what appears to modern science as a tripartite dual gap structure. This book begs and attempts to answer two questions: What is the relationship between the brain's consciousness and culture? And what is the relationship between culture and physical reality? The investigation of consciousness must theorize these relationships while at the same time assuming them. These assumptions about consciousness, culture, and physical reality may give rise to apparently disparate truth claims, and they philosophically underlie the postmodern crisis of representation.
What is at issue in this collection, one of the first of its kind, is whether the editor's "participatory" theory of epistemic validation for transformative states of consciousness can survive a narrative approach to exploring conscious experience. The criteria for conscious experience assumed in this text is having a situated ethnocultural consciousness about related "states" or "moments" of experience, which can be understood by applying cross-cultural understandings of the nature of the "self."
The book, divided into five parts, includes significant discussion of indigenous worldviews by nine nonindigenous scholars, including four anthropologists, two philosophers, a sociologist, and a psychologist. Also presented are the works of two indigenous scholars: a chapter by a specialist in international relations (indigenous to Mexico) and a joint paper from two New Zealand biologists (one of Pakeha/European and Maori/Tainui descent). There are no cross-disciplinary projects. As a philosopher of American Indian descent, I found it most interesting to note the different metaphysical frameworks used by indigenous and nonindigenous authors. Because of this difference, one can glean from the anthology valuable insights about philosophical frameworks in which self-reflective experiential information maintains metaphysical and epistemological cultural boundaries.
In the introduction, "Pathways to Knowledge," Wautischer claims that fertile ground "wherein new scientific methodologies might have a chance to blossom" may be found by entertaining disparate truth claims. Wautischer wants to uncover new methodologies because he is concerned that reductionism, theorizing human intelligence as no more than the application of deterministic principles, reduces human behavior to merely a function of being governed by neuropharmacologies, rewards, or punishments. In such a reductionist framework, understanding a sentient being's nondisposition to act in a certain predictable manner, therefore, can be looked on as no more than a form of pathology, which, for Wautischer, and me, would be an undesirable consequence.
Reductionism is not the method employed by these contributors in their attempts to understand aspects of consciousness. They all share an assumption that notions of "intentionality and introspection" do not easily give way to traditional scientific methods without objectifying epistemic phenomena into a subject-object dichotomy. The authors view the process of consciousness as tied so intimately with life that neither consciousness nor life can be separated from the other without losing the lived consciousness that defines life.
Twentieth-century postmodern philosophers understand consciousness to require a living consciousness of something. A living human consciousness may be a consciousness that is simultaneously both a personal and a collective consciousness, as delicately tied together as consciousness and life. To grasp this relationship, we can use the metaphor of a spinning sphere wherein each part actively composes the other; another example might be the chemicals of water, hydrogen and oxygen, neither of which by itself can produce water ([H.sub.2]0). Drawing out the analysis of consciousness of self and community as intimately bound together, it is easy to see how this notion of consciousness merges with the experience of what many indigenous people call the living universe (cosmos) or "people."
Part 2, titled "Methodological Conundrums," includes Ryser's "Observations on `Self' and `Knowing,'" which is perhaps appropriately referred to as the "leading article" to the remaining chapters. This is because when introducing the Cowlitz people he refers to a submerged consciousness as a "consciousness of people, place, and cosmos that embraces the notion of eternal changeability ... born of countless generations of interaction among individuals, their extended families (which includes other animals, plants, water sources, stones, mountains, the Moon, the Sun, the stars, and prairies), and revered ancestors" (17). Able to understand the nature of the Cowlitz awareness of consciousness, Ryser lays out a terrain of ontological relationships: the source of all knowing is found in living contradicting capacities of self, as both manifesting "interdependence and simultaneous capacity for independence" (18). Ryser explains this "being in the world" by using the metaphor of a river's waters for the collective self and the fractional quantity of water "as representation for the `personal self'" (18).
After explaining the tremendous ontological importance of "place" in Cowlitz ontology, Ryser explains the metaphysical terrain of Cowlitz people, first by noting that individual personality is distinguishable from the collective self by physical separateness, which is essentially an illusion. Cowlitz know only in knowing relationships as discerned by the self: "The Cowlitz who lives rightly knows that the superficial differences among the people give meaning only to relational concepts" (18). A fractional part of a river's water (representing personal self) has meaning only by being in relationship to the whole of water; and only the totality of water (the metaphor for collective self) has meaning. The fractional part of water in relation to the whole of water is merely an attribute to "permit adjustment to change." (Ryser also uses the metaphor of a water-filled cup: the water has the attribute of a cup shape--but only to adjust to change.)
Ryser further explains Cowlitz metaphysics by noting that one can experience either a sense of disconnectedness and vulnerability or the connectedness of a unified submersion. "Mowich" (deer people) also experience both the singular and the unified sense of submersion; they travel collectively, and they can pretend to be a stone but are at once "itself" and all other things. As a part of the collective consciousness Mowich experience a calm serenity--any awareness of change is experienced as a shared consciousness of tension. Mowich can choose a time to separate from the permanent and perpetual state of collective consciousness, to experience a temporary and fleeting moment, or to expose an instance of separation, perhaps to a spirit, thus, for example, choosing a time to give their lives to hunters. This giving becomes a manifestation of both independence of separational choice and interdependence with the consciousness of all other "people," in this case, especially with the spirit and the hunter.
Central to Ryser's epistemology of knowing are five ways, or methods, of thought; he likens these to "braided rivers to knowing." Time, space, and place animate a great consciousness in the universe; and human beings experience different streams of thought that flow into "a single river of thought that offers ways of knowing." These five ways are Cyclicism (eastern Mediterranean to the eighteenth century), Cuarto Spiralism (Western Hemisphere), Fatalism (Asia), Providentialism (Christendom), and Progressivism (Western-modern-industrialized). Each of these ways is associated with particular cultures; each reflects the diversity and similarity of human cultures over time; and each records human experience. For Ryser, these different ways of knowing can be understood as different streams of a great river of thought that offers different ways of knowing. It is only Progressivism, the alleged objective and the most recently developed way of knowing, that places human beings in a dominant role, controlling the destiny of earth. Ryser holds that to embrace cultural relativity with respect to epistemology is to recognize that the differing modes of thought contain truths about ultimate consciousness.
The second chapter in this section, "Individuality in a Relational Culture: A Comparative Study," by postmodern philosopher Hoyt L. Edge, distinguishes between a traditional Western view of the self as atomistic and relational concepts of the self found in Balinese and Australian Aboriginal cultures. Whereas the former atomistic self, in valuing sameness, searches for selves of commonality (and deviations are suspect), the latter relational self, in valuing autonomy, seeks out difference (unique perspective). In the Western model, autonomy is present but as a given of human nature. Contrasting this, aboriginal notions of autonomy are developed via relationships with others, and an individual grows into autonomy by developing relationships unique to that person's perspective. By juxtaposing different relational cultural concepts of the self, Edge concludes that differences of language, customs, beliefs, and race seem "to bring the sense of community into question" (38) but that the relational model of self suggests that "we can form a robust notion of community based on difference and individuality" (38). Moreover, as our communities become more multicultural, individuality and difference may become the norm, thus shifting the Western notion of the self to a relational notion.
Part 3, "Ethnographic Assessment of Knowledge," presents two good articles about how one comes to "know" one's place in the cosmos. The first, "Understanding Maori Epistemology: A Scientific Perspective," by Roma Mere Roberts and Peter R. Wills, attempts to represent the nature and function of an indigenous knowledge system (of Aotearoa/New Zealand) on an equal playing field with academic inquiry into an epistemology of science. Central to their work is the claim that "to know" something is to locate it in space and time. This is precisely what American Indians have been saying for many years, that identity is relative to an ancestral homeland of origin, that reference to place establishes one's personal identity, and that knowledge of place is knowledge of a line of historical and cosmological entry into the world.
Roberts and Wills point out that in a world where everything is relationally connected, animate and inanimate, a framework of locating one's place in the world requires both a cosmogonic and an anthropogenic template. This framework begins with divine power, or energy, rather than the Western notion of an inherent principle of mechanics or a random event. This spiritual breath, or life force, precedes shape, form, space, and time. This kind of knowledge, as sacred knowledge, belongs to a group, though individuals pass it on to particular members from generation to generation. This knowledge is passed on via oral narrative, using mnemonic devices such as poetry placenames, song, oratory, metaphors, recitation, and visual cues, including visible acts of carving knowledge into wood such as rafters and walls. Moral tenets, causal explanations, tribal history, and extratribal relationships are but a few of the types of information that can be transferred with narrative, using multiple interpretations, so that knowledge of the "status" of the listener would also be required in order to decipher meaning.
In a narrative, the process of speaking names, for example, names of mountains, is to make manifest the tribe. Indeed, mountains and rivers cannot be externalized, objectified, or made separate from oneself, which is a manifestation of one's people. Similarly, to say "I am Anishnabe" in the Americas is to identify place, being, group, and relationships in the world. This type of genealogy as a repository of knowledge allows members to interpret current events in the context of an ontology encompassing biological, social, and cultural order over millennia. Hence, rather than living in a teleological universe, where one interprets present action as directed toward a future goal (usually termed "progress"), an indigenous context brings knowledge of the past to the present by invoking ancestors and ancestral knowledge of all relations. In this way, generations can be guided by ancestral knowledge of values providing moral and value guidelines. Also, because all things are related, what a generation did in the past is directly linked to what generations do in the present. And finally, what generations do in the future will be informed by what the current generation does now. Thus, continuity of past, place, relations, and identity maintains a moral accountability to future generations. The authors would like to bridge this type of subjective interpretation of experience to mechanistic notions of contemporary science, thus bringing together humanity and the world--or ethics and science. A proposal of this nature will be strongly rejected by a scientific worldview claiming that scientific methodologies are value free, as are the scientists doing science.
The second article in part 3, "Preconquest Consciousness," by E. Richard Sorenson, is a clear example of why many indigenous people reject anthropologists. Even if there is some semblance of truth to the affectively experiential moments of "erocentric rapport" that Sorenson explicates, that is, a social condition that is "a sociosensual type of infant and child nurture that spawns an intuitive group rapport and unites people without need for formal rules," the language of this article is enough to send many folks, myself included, on to the next article. But against my better judgment, ! stayed with it, through the talk of liminal awareness to supraliminal awareness, past the pictures of naked full-bosomed women, the sexism employed talking about girl and boy children, and the literary nature of what are supposed to be descriptive passages. I was finally cognitively rewarded where Sorenson presents basic features of a particular type of consciousness, holding a particular sense of name, space, number, truth, and emotion. But even here I was left with problems of questionable third person observer interpretations. Arriving at what many have referred to as "Just So!" stories, I was again disappointed by the imaginative leaps.
In part 4, "Shamanistic Mediation of Meaning," Michael Ripinsky-Naxon presents "Shamanistic Knowledge and Cosmology." The chapter discusses polar bi-unity, whereby the union of opposites synthesizes a psycho-epistemological understanding of the universe. The author seems to have a good grasp of the notion that a dualistic cosmology does not imply a dichotomous cosmology. Nonetheless, his view of shamanism waxes trance-like over ecstatic experiences brought about by mind-altering drugs. A shaman's power allegedly consists of an ability to master ecstatic technique, acquire spirit helpers, and perform ritual song. A bit: simplistic in his explanation, the author leaves nothing to our imagination, exploring the variety of types of drugs to induce this experience. Both Ripinsky-Naxon and Hultkrantz share the assumption that shamanism requires a trance (medical) or ecstasy (religious) experience. This assumption is powerfully challenged by Roberte N. Hamayon. Hamayon holds that although trance or ecstasy may be part of some shamanic experiences, it is certainly not a necessary condition for all shamanic experiences. Cross-cultural research, for Hamayon, pays off powerful dividends in her search to substantiate this thesis. The rest of this part of the book is about this debate.
The final section, part 5, is "Converging Knowledge in Cultural Diversity." The first of two chapters in this section is Nina Rosenstand's "Myths and Morals: Images of Conduct, Character, and Personhood in the Native American Tradition." Rosenstand points to the obvious: the cognitive environment of tribal epistemology embeds a social ethics and way of being that underlies oral history (myth or narrative). There is one major problem: Rosenstand impresses Western concepts of persons, and personhood, onto native ideas. Without a prior discussion of human nature and the place of humans among all our relations, the author dismisses the entire realm of metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology that forms the fabric of social ethics.
The second chapter, by Robert M. Torrance, is "Some `Shamanistic' Affinities of Western Culture." Although the spirit of the chapter is admirable--the author wants to maintain the integrity of "shaman-like" behaviors and lifestyles--Torrance is so inclusive in his discussion of shamanism that he runs the risk of making it out to be everything and thus nothing at all. He identifies shamans as persons who make poetry, engage in stand-up entertainment, are possessed, and/or have visions, trances, and ecstatic flight. He argues: "The legitimate plasticity of the concept thus gives plausible cover to its inordinate popular extensions" (208).
Torrance's thesis is that "though tribal shamanism and Western poetry and thought have often been opposed to each other by simplistic distortion of each, the affinities between these very different phenomena are thus far greater than this opposition suggests" (230). He supports the thesis by employing questionable analogies between his concepts of"shamanism" and "tribalism" and Western culture from the Pre-Socratics through Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, and a variety of historic and contemporary poets. Torrance claims that shamans seek transcendence through vision: "transcendence of present time and personal self through memory, both individual and collective, by which the poet is united, with others out of place in their time: widowed queen, urban negress, orphaned child, marooned sailor, and whoever has lost what will never again be found" (226). This description of the shaman leaves me, at least, to wonder if Torrance's claim is true and begs one to question what might have been (and in some places still is) the role and lifestyle of shamans who were not out of place in their time. However powerful and passionate Torrance's article is, the poets of Western thought are not the shamans of tribal epistemologies.
This is a book to be read by philosophers interested in the anthropology of consciousness. Students, practitioners, and theorists working in American Indian studies should read it with a critical eye. And some of the better articles, like Ryser's, will be well worth the read.
Anne Waters, Albuquerque NM
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|Publication:||The American Indian Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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