Indigenous American philosophy

Last updated

Indigenous American philosophy is the philosophy of the Indigenous people of the Americas.

Philosophy Study of general and fundamental questions

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust? Do humans have free will?


An indigenous philosopher is an indigenous person or associate who practices philosophy and has a vast knowledge of various indigenous history, culture, language, and traditions. There are very few contemporary indigenous philosophers alive today.

Epistemology and science

Ceremonies play a key part in Native American philosophy. Native American Faith (4180525160).jpg
Ceremonies play a key part in Native American philosophy.

Epistemology refers to the study of knowledge, the ways in which a person acquires and processes information. Among Indigenous cultures, epistemology is understood differently and more inherently than how it is understood in Western philosophy. Native American epistemology is found primarily in theories, philosophies, histories, ceremonies and nature as multiple ways of knowing. Emphasis is put on the importance of language as one of the vital components of Native American epistemology. [1] It is through the unique symbolism and the close connection with nature, that Native Americans consider knowledge to be acquired. In relation to consciousness, rationality and other heavily studied psychological states, the inherent structure of the complex Native American language is necessary to understand in the obtainment of indigenous knowledge. [1] There is also a strong link between nature and the interpretation of knowledge within Native American culture. It is believed that the mind interacts with the environment in a very active, conscious way. [2] The process through which they interact with nature is through the necessary need for survival but also through a deep respect and understanding the land as a huge part of their identity. It is vital to understand how to gather medicine, predict weather conditions so as to effectively produce food, and how to navigate through the land in order to grow and thrive as part of an ecological dependent community. Native American knowledge is continuously adapting to the changing environment as the ecosystem evolves and this is how epistemology is understood to have such a strong root to nature. [3]


Native American artifacts Native American Artifacts.jpg
Native American artifacts

Native American science and understanding is said to have a basis in perceptual phenomenology, meaning the philosophical study of phenomena. [4] In this context, phenomenology refers to the examination of ones experiences to come to a personal world view. [5] Something is believed to be true when it has been verified by experiences and provides explanations which assist in completing tasks.This worldview is dynamic as new experiences alter this worldview and add to it. [6] There is no belief in a universal worldview which could explain all aspects of reality for a permanent set of time.

Phenomenology is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. As a philosophical movement it was founded in the early years of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl and was later expanded upon by a circle of his followers at the universities of Göttingen and Munich in Germany. It then spread to France, the United States, and elsewhere, often in contexts far removed from Husserl's early work.

The world is viewed as infinitely complex and so it is impossible to come to a universal understanding of it. [7] Therefore, Native Americans believe that useful knowledge can only be acquired through individual experience which, whilst subjective, is valid to that space and time. [8] The method of interacting with the environment is never made fixed and instead, is carried through generations who continuously revise it and add to it. [6] This creates a web of knowledge shaped by the individual experiences of a community.

Coherentism is the name given to a few philosophical theories in modern epistemology.

The subjectivity of experience and circumstance means that each Indigenous community's beliefs will be distinct. Indigenous people believe that experience can always present a better way of interacting with the environment. [5] [8] As a result of this understanding, no belief is viewed as being supremely valid when compared to another belief. [7] A belief receives its validity from experience.Regardless of whether an experience is ordinary and extraordinary, they are both viewed the same and are equally useful for gathering knowledge. [9] Everything is viewed as possible in the world as no universal laws are seen to govern how the world exists. Each person in their own environment and circumstance can derive their own beliefs which is completely valid and logical in their personal circumstance.

The principle of relatedness

Brian Yazzie Burkhart, a Cherokee, has described his experience of the story of Coyote:

The Cherokee are one of the indigenous people of the Southeastern Woodlands of the United States. Prior to the 18th century, they were concentrated in what is now southwestern North Carolina, southeastern Tennessee, and the tips of western South Carolina and northeastern Georgia.

Coyote is wandering around in his usual way when he comes upon a prairie dog town. The prairie dogs laugh and curse at him. Coyote gets angry and wants revenge. The sun is high in the sky. Coyote decides that he wants clouds to come. He is starting to hate the prairie dogs and so thinks about rain. Just then a cloud appears.

Coyote says, "I wish it would rain on me." And that is what happened.

Coyote says, "I wish there were rain at my feet." And that is what happened.

"I want the rain up to my knees," Coyote says. And that is what happened.

"I want the rain up to my waist," he then says. And that is what happened. [10]

Eventually, the entire land is flooded. Coyote's mistake is not letting what is right guide his actions, but instead acting entirely on his own motivations. This is a reminder that one must be careful about what one desires, and must keep in mind the things around us and how we relate to them. Burkhart terms this the principle of relatedness: [11]

The idea here is simply that the most important things to keep in mind are the simple things that are directly around us in our experience and the things to which we are most directly related. In calling these ideas principles, I do not mean to give them special philosophical status. In American Indian thought, they are simply ways of being. These principles are merely abstractions from these ways of being. ... Principles in the traditional philosophical sense have no place in American Indian philosophy. [11]


Anne Waters has described a "nondiscreet ontology of being" in the context of gender. [12] With a different attitude towards labels, Waters argues that American Indian viewpoints are more tolerant to those that don't fit into a strict binary gender framework. [12]

Differences to other philosophical traditions

American Horse Tribal Council 1903 (includes Red Cloud)- meeting of Native Americans. American Horse Tribal Council, 1903.png
American Horse Tribal Council 1903 (includes Red Cloud)- meeting of Native Americans.

The canon of Western philosophy (WP) is rooted in the Platonic understanding of truth (the form of the truth) being stable immutable and present, upon which philosophical investigations take place.[ dubious ] On the other hand, Native American philosophy (NAP) holds that the stability for the basis of such inquiry in the native world is found not in absolutes, rather the consistencies in a complexity of the world. [13] This concept of an absolute simplified starting point against finding similarities in a complex matrix is highlighted in particular in the different ways notes how NAP and WP analyse space and time. Typical WP views the world in sections: the universe is viewed as created ex nihilo (implying it had a definitive beginning and most likely with have a definitive end) and is depicted as violent (e.g. 'the big bang'). Moreover, time is broken up into 3 simple sections that all acts can fit within: past, present and future, all of which have definable boundaries that actions in reality can go up to and occasional cross. [14] Conversely, Cordova notes that NAP views space as being a concept that connects everything to our global environment and time as an endless continuous motion. The universe is considered as infinite and unbound; being in constant motion with no beginning or end and is balanced and stable despite occasional "temporary sadness." [15] Similarly, time does not belong to an absolute and bounded category in NAP, it is not a self-existing thing independent of human acknowledgement. Time is not even another dimension - it is nothing more than a human construct. Instead, it is, "merely a measure of motion ... the sun, stars, and moon through the sky, of changes that are visible and can be predicted." [16]

Related Research Articles

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

Foundationalism concerns philosophical theories of knowledge resting upon justified belief, or some secure foundation of certainty such as a conclusion inferred from a basis of sound premises. The main rival of the foundationalist theory of justification is the coherence theory of justification, whereby a body of knowledge, not requiring a secure foundation, can be established by the interlocking strength of its components, like a puzzle solved without prior certainty that each small region was solved correctly.

Philosophy of religion is "the philosophical examination of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions". Philosophical discussions on such topics date from ancient times, and appear in the earliest known texts concerning philosophy. The field is related to many other branches of philosophy, including metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

Hindu philosophy various systems of thought in Hinduism

Hindu philosophy refers(philosophies, world views, teachings) that emerged in ancient India. These include six systems (ṣaḍdarśana) – Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta. These are also called the Astika (orthodox) philosophical traditions and are those that accept the Vedas as an authoritative, important source of knowledge. Ancient and medieval India was also the source of philosophies that share philosophical concepts but rejected the Vedas, and these have been called nāstika Indian philosophies. Nāstika Indian philosophies include Buddhism, Jainism, Cārvāka, Ājīvika, and others.

Reformed epistemology

In the philosophy of religion, Reformed epistemology is a school of philosophical thought concerning the nature of knowledge (epistemology) as it applies to religious beliefs. The central proposition of Reformed epistemology is that beliefs can be justified by more than evidence alone, contrary to the positions of evidentialism, which argues that while belief other than through evidence may be beneficial, it violates some epistemic duty. Central to Reformed epistemology is the proposition that belief in God may be "properly basic" and not need to be inferred from other truths to be rationally warranted. William Lane Craig describes Reformed epistemology as "One of the most significant developments in contemporary Religious Epistemology ... which directly assaults the evidentialist construal of rationality."

Naturalized epistemology, coined by W. V. O. Quine, is a collection of philosophic views concerned with the theory of knowledge that emphasize the role of natural scientific methods. This shared emphasis on scientific methods of studying knowledge shifts focus to the empirical processes of knowledge acquisition and away from many traditional philosophical questions. There are noteworthy distinctions within naturalized epistemology. Replacement naturalism maintains that traditional epistemology should be abandoned and replaced with the methodologies of the natural sciences. The general thesis of cooperative naturalism is that traditional epistemology can benefit in its inquiry by using the knowledge we have gained from the cognitive sciences. Substantive naturalism focuses on an asserted equality of facts of knowledge and natural facts.

In philosophy, testimony includes any words or utterances that are presented as evidence for the claims they express. This definition may be distinguished from the legal notion of testimony in that the speaker does not have to make a declaration of the truth of the facts.

Alvin Ira Goldman is an American philosopher who is Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a leading figure in epistemology.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to philosophy:

Broadly speaking, fallibilism is the philosophical claim that no belief can have justification which guarantees the truth of the belief. However, not all fallibilists believe that fallibilism extends to all domains of knowledge.

Formal epistemology uses formal methods from decision theory, logic, probability theory and computability theory to model and reason about issues of epistemological interest. Work in this area spans several academic fields, including philosophy, computer science, economics, and statistics. The focus of formal epistemology has tended to differ somewhat from that of traditional epistemology, with topics like uncertainty, induction, and belief revision garnering more attention than the analysis of knowledge, skepticism, and issues with justification.

Tyler Burge is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at UCLA. Burge has made contributions to many areas of philosophy, including the philosophy of mind, philosophy of logic, epistemology, philosophy of language, and the history of philosophy.

Hilary Kornblith is an American Professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA, and one of contemporary epistemology's most prominent proponents of naturalized epistemology.

The division of philosophy into a practical philosophy and a theoretical discipline has its origin in Aristotle's moral philosophy and natural philosophy categories. In Sweden and Finland courses in theoretical and practical philosophy are taught separately, and are separate degrees. Other countries may use a similar scheme—some Scottish universities, for example, divide philosophy into logic, metaphysics, and ethics—but in most universities around the world philosophy is taught as a single subject. There is also a unified philosophy subject in some Swedish universities, such as Södertörns Högskola.

Outline of epistemology Overview of and topical guide to epistemology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to epistemology:

Buddhist logico-epistemology

Buddhist logico-epistemology is a term used in Western scholarship for pramāṇa-vāda and Hetu-vidya. Pramāṇa-vāda is an epistemological study of the nature of knowledge; Hetu-vidya is a system of logic. These models developed in India during the 5th through 7th centuries.

Epistemology or theory of knowledge is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge. It addresses the questions "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", "What do people know?", "How do we know what we know?", and "Why do we know what we know?". Much of the debate in this field has focused on analyzing the nature of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions such as truth, belief, and justification. It also deals with the means of production of knowledge, as well as skepticism about different knowledge claims.

Formative epistemology is a collection of philosophic views concerned with the theory of knowledge that emphasize the role of natural scientific methods. According to formative epistemology, knowledge is gained through the imputation of thoughts from one human being to another in the societal setting. Humans are born without intrinsic knowledge and through their evolutionary and developmental processes gain knowledge from other human beings. Thus, according to formative epistemology, all knowledge is completely subjective and truth does not exist.

Viola Cordova, a philosopher, artist, and author, member of the Jicarilla Apache tribe, was the first Native American woman to earn a PhD in philosophy.




  • Arola, A. (2011). "Native American Philosophy". The Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy. Oxford Handbooks.
  • Barnhardt, R. (2005). "Indigenous knowledge systems and Alaska Native ways of knowing". Anthropology & Education Quarterly. 36 (1): 8–23.
  • Battiste, Marie (2002). "Indigenous Knowledge and Pedagogy in First Nations Education: A Literary Review with Recommendations" (PDF). National Working Group on Education. Ottawa, Canada: 17.
  • Burkhart, Brian Yazzie (2003). "What Coyote and Thales Can Teach Us: An Outline of American Indian Epistemology". In Waters, Anne (ed.). American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 15–26.
  • Cajete, Gregory (2003). "Philosophy of Native Science". In Waters, Anne (ed.). American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 45–57.
  • Hester, L.; Cheney, J. (2001). "Truth and Native American epistemology" (PDF). Social Epistemology. 15 (4): 319–334.
  • Moore, K.D.; Peters, K.; Jojola, T.; Lacy, A. (2007). How it is: The Native American philosophy of VF Cordova.
  • Parry, M.L.; Canziani, O.F.; Palutikof, J.P.; van der Linden, P.J.; Hanson, C.E. (2007). Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Cambridge University Press. pp. 625–666.
  • Tedlock, D.; Tedlock, B., eds. (1992). Teachings from the American Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy. W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Waters, Anne (2003). "Language Matters: Nondiscrete Nonbinary Dualism". In Waters, Anne (ed.). American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 97–115.
  • Younker, Jason (2008). "Review of How It Is: The Native American Philosophy of V. F. Cordova by V. F. Cordova, Kathleen Dean Moore, Kurt Peters, Ted Jojola, Amber Lacy". Oregon Historical Quarterly. 109 (4): 641–642. JSTOR   20615918.

Further reading