Unlearning a Western Pathology

The philosopher Peter Van Inwagen suggests that we humans are very good at physics and very bad at metaphysics and that this might be due to the ways in which our minds are constructed–that we might simply be blind to the necessary ways of perceiving and thinking. He goes on to say that perhaps one day we will meet aliens who have this just the other way around–who are very good at metaphysics but very bad at physics.

I would suggest to him that people of European descent met those “aliens” quite a while ago. They were certain indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Indian subcontinent, Japan (before the bastardization of Shinto by emperor-worship–a problem that has since been corrected), and various other places around the globe.

When Spanish explorers came to the land of the Tennassy Cherokee (from which we get the name Tennessee), one noted in a journal that the natives didn’t seem to have any religion because there were no temples and no priests among them. But to the Cherokee, of course, the world was a temple, and every man and woman, to use the words of the Santee Dakota teacher Ohiyesa, “stood upright in his [or her] own divinity.”

To these peoples, separation of “the natural” and “the supernatural” simply made no sense. It was an alien and “crazy” idea, as if you were to imagine that someone referring now to a creek, now to a stream, when pointing to the same perceptual object, must be referring to two separate things.

Whites, for the most part, only THOUGHT that they were talking to these people and recording their “myths” and “legends.” But they didn’t get these Others AT ALL. They might as well have been trying to grok the mental and spiritual lives of dolphins. As a result, a LOT of Western-made records of “indigenous folkways” are simply nonsense, as if someone had recorded her observations of the Milky Way through a kaleidoscope.

Unlearning is the most difficult (and potentially rewarding) kind of learning there is. But this splitting of everything down the middle–this Contemptus Mundi and instrumentalization of everything, this separation of the natural and the spiritual–is DEEPLY ingrained in Western culture. It infects our most basic linguistic usages and our most fundamental conceptualizations, and like Orwell’s Newspeak, it makes certain kinds of conceptualization difficult if not impossible. This pathology takes a LOT of work to recover from, and I wonder whether we can do so sufficiently in time.

We’re not even, yet, at a place where even a fraction of Western people realize that it IS a pathology, and those who have some inkling of this generally don’t understand, at all, just how deep the infection goes, or, to use a slightly different metaphor, how widespread the metastasis is.

Copyright 2018. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This post may be shared as long as this notice is retained.


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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