Presented at the PES Pre-Conference on Indigenous topics, March 2017


Is the expression “wisdom philosophy” a tautology, or a contradiction of no consequence? This author subscribes to the view that philosophical practice is, at its core, a quest for wisdom.[1] It is, therefore, not a question of whether but of how it can be made clear to chronically opposed social justice theorists and activists that philosophy has a material say in social change, including concerning the multiply scarred Indigenous/non-Indigenous relationship, which along with law professor Kathleen Mahoney (2015), i’ll insist, is not only historically but currently foundational to Canada.

By arguing for 1) metatheoretical “re-indigenization”[2], e.g. of wisdom as positioned at the heart of philosophical practice, and 2) substantive theoretical “Indigenization”, e.g. of philosophy along ecosocial thinking lines, i present an argument for the very real possibility of long-awaited, mutually sustaining (rather than assimilative) convergences of thought and life for Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and by extension, for philosophy’s continued relevance,[3] including for education, Indigenous and mainstream alike.

I invite Onondaga scholar David Newhouse’s definition of true knowledge as “what helps us to live together well” to step up to a definition of wisdom. For isn’t the latter, rather than traditional epistemological truth or scientific (hence “true”) knowledge, to be attained to, habituated, and relied on if a community is to improve their shared life? I further analyze Nuu-chah-nulth[4] scholar Richard Atleo’s (2005, 2011) tsawalk-principles as ecosocial wisdom that has served his nation well for millennia, and can likewise serve Canadians and humanity as a whole now and in the future. Let us briefly compare the above with European-descended philosophers of environmental orientation.

I side with Jim Lang (2010), who employs Lorraine Code’s (2006) ecological thinking (ET) in his PES 2009 talk to identify educational contexts as, in effect, dynamic social-material ecosystems. Even if quite possibly unbeknownst to or at least unacknowledged (in explicit publications) by these two authors, there exist demonstrable ET resonances with Indigenous philosophies on this continent and elsewhere.[5] Significantly, this allows to “marry”[6] ecologically-minded Western-derived and Indigenous-situated worldviews for an  ecosocially-wise (educational) philosophy.

The understanding that wisdom-searching is indigenous to the philosophical enterprise effects a decisive departure from the “nature-mirroring” detours of Western thought, so aptly deconstructed for their self-serving representationalism by Rorty (1979), a.o., and from the exclusive/exclusionary rationalistic leanings going back to Plato, and never fully transcended, even if resolutely dethroned by a number of revisionist thinkers (see Code, 2006), including Rorty himself, an analytic philosopher by training. The proposed metatheoretical indigenization of wisdom makes like-minded contact with Indigenous wisdom, which some have argued is philosophy proper in an Indigenous paradigm (Cajete, 1994, a.o.); further, the direct practical implementation of said indigenization would correspond with the often noted Indigenous worldview of theory-practice, spirit-mind-body, culture-nature continuity.

As to the substantive theoretical side, the increasingly influential environmental orientation of first-world Canada can be seen as “re-indigenization” by way of earning proper belonging to the land that sustains us, thus by way of touching one’s pre-industrial roots. Then again, it can be seen as “Indigenization” by finding a common language with Indigenous worldviews and peoples, and giving their practice-proven scientific-philosophical insights dignity and worth commensurable with the Euro-American counterparts. Such developments, i propose, are well positioned to effect actual decolonization of thought, and to the extent that the theory-practice link is operationalizable, they can duplicate the recognized be-think-do Indigenous nexus (Atleo, 2005, 2011; Cajete, 1994, a.o.), whereby a professed philosophy is by (Indigenous-paradigm) definition a philosophy as a way of life.

To conclude, the leadership of the re-visioned kind of philosophy in regenerating social interactions would likely quite appropriately suspend Rortyan objections to the role of Kantian philosophy-as-epistemology (per Rorty’s gloss) as the ultimate censor of all scholarship and all of society. It would be organically complemented, and periodically updated, by social justice practice as tactics for the trenches while providing itself an overarching public strategy. If Indigenous/non-Indigenous convergences are realized in thought and life, as projected above, then it would be possible to re-construct in the present time the RCAP-identified “stage of cooperation” (RCAP, 1996) from the time of the fur trade (and earlier), when both local and cross-Atlantic Indigeneities could engage in trade, war and marriage equally fluently and naturally. We can proceed by actualizing a shared respect for the ecosystems that sustain us.



Alfred, Taiaiake (2005) Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Higher Education Division.

Arcilla, René Vincente (2002) Why Aren’t Philosophers and Educators Speaking to Each Other? Educational Theory 52(1), pp.1-11.

Atleo, Umeek E. Richard (2005) Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

—————- (2011) Principles of Tsawalk: An Indigenous Approach to Global Crisis. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Cajete, Gregory (1994) Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of indigenous Education. Kivaki Press.

Deleuze, Gilles & Félix Guattari ([1991]) What Is Philosophy? Transl. from French by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell III. Revised edition. Columbia University Press. Originally published as Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? in 1991 by Les éditions de Minuit, Paris; in English in 1994 by Columbia University Press.

Fricker, Miranda (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Government of Canada (1996) Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume I: Looking Forward, Looking Back.

Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (2006) (May 8, 2006).

Lang, James C. (2010) Educational Epistemic Ecosystems: Re-visioning Educational Contexts on Lorraine Code’s Ecological Thinking. In Philosophy of Education 2010, pp. 180-189. Edited by Gert Biesta. pes/article/view/3085/1144

Mahoney, Kathleen (2015) “Canada’s Origin Story”. Royal Society of Canada keynote, Victoria, B.C., November 27, 2015.

Rorty, Richard (1979) Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. NJ: Princeton University Press.

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Vols I-V. Canada.

Smith. Linda Tuhiwai (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books.

Stengel, B. S. (2002). Cause for Worry or Agenda for Action? Educational Theory, 52(3), 281–290.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015a) Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Winnipeg, Manitoba: TRC.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015b) Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action. Winnipeg, Manitoba: TRC.

Van Kirk, Sylvia (1980) Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870. Watson & Dwyer.



[1] But cf. Deleuze & Guattari, What Is Philosophy? for an alternative, though not strictly opposed view.

[2] Lower-case indigenous is taken to mean “belonging to a place”, whereas capitalized Indigenous refers to who/what is currently/formerly colonized.

[3] Thereby augmenting the fecund possibilities that Barbara Stengel shared in her response to Rene Arcilla’s (2002) famous flagging of the alleged breakdown of the philosopher/educator conversation.

[4] a.k.a. Nootka, which is a preferably avoided label.

[5] In addition to Richard Atleo’s (2005, 2011) Nuu-chah-nulth worldview, see Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) for the New Zealand Indigenous context. The similarly “environmental” worldview of the Bushmen of Southern Africa, a.k.a. the San people, Basarwa, is articulately cinematographically portrayed in The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980).

[6] See historian Sylvia van Kirk’s Many Tender Ties re the family histories of the fur trade in the Great Lakes region.