The Wisdom & Sanity of Indigenous Thinking

I read this line from a multicultural anthology of how we relate to the places within which we live.

“… helping us move toward a new sanity and an old wisdom in our relationship with nature.”  Barnhill, D.L. (ed) 1999, p xiii

I think that the raising of both “sanity” and “an old wisdom” is so interesting.  We are living within the sociological delusion (the insanity) of Modernity – all machines, reductionism, resources, predictability and determinism.  Cut up and live vivisection the mechanical dog – do not worry about the cries.  It is only the mechanics of the soulless thing emitting a sound.  All part of the machine.

Live vivisection Emile-Edouard Mouchy, 1832.jpg

A physiological demonstration with vivisection of a dog.  Emile-Edouard Mouchy 1838 

And then we do that to the land, and to communities. ‘Otherise’ and reduce everything to parts, as disconnected from self.  Ignore the cries as merely the market at work, all rationality and meritocracy.

From that worldview, there is no reason to judge the destruction and exploitation of those mere things – people, community, land, soil, water, forests, the air, fish, the sea.


The claim to “an old wisdom” is also interesting.  Modernity presumes a superiority of wisdom.  Aristotle doesn’t agree.  His intellectual virtues put mechanical thinking many pegs below the practical wisdom of place and knowing the good goal.  It doesn’t matter how technologically clever are your ‘means’ (the whaling technologies demonstrated within Melville’s Moby Dick) if your purpose – your ‘end’ – is mad (the irrational revenge on the white whale Moby Dick).

Study the old pre-modern or indigenous philosophies of all the tribes – from Oceania to Asia, the Americas and Europe – and there are similarities.  An enchantment as well as a connection, a belonging.  A humility that there are bigger things outside ourselves.  They are strong on purpose and connection whatever their technologies.  prometheus & fire
I’m not suggesting a complete return to the pre-Modern and a complete rejection of Modernity.  We have gained much.  But we have also lost much.  Modernity is at that point (the darkest hour before the dawn?) where technology sans wisdom seems all the rage – “Go STEM young man!”

It is the voluntary plucking out of eyes, led by the already blind, disconnected and unaware of the enchantment, beauty and potential of our people and place.

Now we have the most dangerous of things; the Promethean capacity to destroy, without the wisdom of purpose and connection tempering how we act.

The cleverness of the act

It’s what we’ve lost that may turn out to be the critical thing determining our future.

Our connection to things, working toward appropriate ends and wisely choosing between the means to achieve them, in this particular place, at this particular time.  Aristotle’s Phronesis (Practical Wisdom).  A form of Indigenous Thinking, the prerequisite being that we belong.

The cleverness of the act is as of nothing before the wisdom of the choice.  That’s the new sanity *and* the old wisdom.

Chris Perley


Barnhill, David Landis 1999.  At Home on the Earth: Becoming Native to Our Place, A Cultural Anthology.  University of California Press

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a philosophy, governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and natural systems.

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