Tribal Epistemologies: Essays in the Philosophy of Anthropology (review)
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The American Indian Quarterly 25.4 (2001) 661-666

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Helmut Wautischer, ed. Tribal Epistemologies: Essays in the Philosophy of Anthropology. Burlington VT: Ashgate Publishing, 1998. 264 pp. Cloth, $79.95.

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 [End Page 661] "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...