If western metaphysics is broken, maybe we can re-examine Indigenous knowledges more willingly and openly?

For many years, I (following many others) have argued that western philosophy and metaphysics is broken; it is just wrong (Guerin 1997, 2016).  It has taken a wrong path and can never accomplish what it set out to do.

I will not go through this all again, but the whole of western metaphysics has pretended to be about what is real (ontology) and what is true (epistemology), but with a very narrow agenda.  It has only considered this with words—what can be said or written.

Metaphysics:    the question as presented    what the real question has been all along

Ontology:          “on what there is”                 = what we can say there certainly is

Epistemology:  “what is true knowledge”     = what we can say is certainly true

This is broken. At least since Nietzsche. We can never get any answer said or written which can tell us what there truly is or what is truly true.  Language use is a socially transitive verb…

My arguments (there are more from Nietzsche, Heidegger, Rorty, etc.) follow from the nature of language as something we do to people which is shaped by social consequences, so any ‘certainty’ or ‘truth’ depends on how language is taught and the social control over what people do when you say or write something.  Language is terribly, terribly useful for us but it does not ‘hold’ any truths or certain knowledge.  It does not express truths, communicate truths, refer to truths, or represent truths.

All language ever, ever, ever does is affect people (in the right contexts) who have spent a lot of time being trained to respond in that language.  Nothing else is ‘contained’ in words (one of Saussure’s points).  Demonstration is the only philosophy now.

So, metaphysics in the western style is dead.  All humans ever do, is do stuff which has consequences, which we can observe and do things back.  We make mistakes sometimes when observing but, unlike Descartes’ fanciful leap, this does not mean that everything is socially or cognitively constructed.  Everything we talk about is socially constructed, but there is more to life than what we talk about…

There are many implications from this but for this blog, I want to put on notice that we can go back to Indigenous knowledges now, with a better humility and openness.

All Indigenous knowledges I have talked to people about, or have read about, are way ahead in the sense that they do not believe that talking and writing are the be-all and end-all of life, the universe and everything.  Words are not the pinnacle they have pretended to be in western ‘civilization’.  Language does not contain special powers or truths.  They are just another thing humans do with a lot of training, but language use appears different because it only has social consequences (unlike punching a wall).

Experience, which you must keep absolutely distinct from “talking about experience” (we westerners are taught to conflate these from birth), is the highest form of doing/ knowledge, not language (despite its usefulness).

In the white man’s world, knowledge is a matter of memorizing theories, dates, lists of kings and presidents, the table of chemical elements, and many other things not encountered in the course of a day’s work. Knowledge seems to be divorced from experience. Even religion is a process of memorizing creeds, catechisms, doctrines, and dogmas—general principles that never seem to catch the essence of human existence.” (Deloria, 2012, p. 1)

Therein lies the difference. The Indian confronts the reality of the experience, and while he or she may not make immediate sense of it, it is not rejected as an invalid experience. In the Indian world, experience is not limited by mental considerations and assumptions regarding the universe. For the non-Indian the teachings of a lifetime come thundering down. Such things do not occur in time and space. Reality is basically physical. No one sees ghosts. Reality, in a certain sense, is what you allow your mind to accept, not what you experience.  And a host of other beliefs rush in to cover up, confuse, and eventually eliminate the experience itself.” (Deloria, 2012, p. 5)

Note that “mental considerations” and “what you allow your mind to accept” basically mean, “what you are able talk about”.

Moreover, I will show that the hunters have a general attitude of mistrust, at times even hostility, toward information conveyed through language, which, on a fundamental level, is grounded [for the Yukaghirs] in an ontology that considers verbal accounts to be an inferior way of knowing compared to lived experience.” (Willerslev, 2007, p. 159)

I experienced many similar incidents in which I was told never to accept what people told me without examining the matter myself. The point is not that hunters do not listen to what others have to say or that they should keep what they know to themselves. On the contrary, knowledge about hunting, both its practical and its spiritual aspects, is regarded by the Yukaghirs as a communal resource, and hunters are instructed that “you must tell what you know”… The point is that for the individual hunter, knowledge about hunting should only be recognized as such when it has been tested for himself. In other words, the crucial test for knowledge is personal experience. This was made quite clear to me by a hunter who, in response to my question about whether he believed in the existence of the spiritual agents described in Yukaghir myths, replied, “I believe in those I myself have encountered. The rest I don’t know about. They might exist or they might not.” In other words, verbal information is never seen as sufficient; firsthand knowledge is an epistemological sine qua non.” (Willerslev, 2007, p. 160)

And I would add, ontological sine qua non. The Siberian Yukaghirs are clear that language gives no certainty at all because it is a learned social event.

Once you accept that questions of metaphysis really should be about experience, demonstration, observation and doing things with consequences, all the problems disappear (as does metaphysics itself).  This does not then immediately give us perfect or certain ways of experiencing, observing and doing things; we do not get everything right all the time.  But it stops us believing that in order to do things perfectly and get everything right we must always put what we do into words first which we then must follow.

This last point is a form of ‘neurosis’ which has taken over the whole western world–we can only do things by putting them into words first.  It is the really big mistake we westerners have been making for a long, long time, and which Indigenous knowledges have been warning us about for a long, long time.

We need more “philosophy without the words”.


**************************   For those who need more words… 😊

Deloria, V. (2012). The metaphysics of modern existence. NY: Harper Row.

Guerin, B. (1997). How things get done: Socially, non-socially; with words, without words.  In L. J. Hayes & P. Ghezzi (Eds.), Investigations in behavioral epistemology (pp. 219-235).  Reno, NV: Context Press.

Guerin, B. (2016). How to rethink psychology: New metaphors for understanding people and their behavior. London: Routledge.

Willerslev, R. (2007). Soul hunters: Hunting, animism, and personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Los Angeles: University of California Press.



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