Knowledge, Power, and Freedom: Native American and Western Epistemological Paradigms

By Gill, Jerry H. | Philosophy Today, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Knowledge, Power, and Freedom: Native American and Western Epistemological Paradigms


Gill, Jerry H., Philosophy Today


NATIVE AMERICAN AND WESTERN EPISTEMOLOGICAL PARADIGMS

The traditional Western definition of knowledge is well focused in Francis Bacon's famous words "Knowledge is power." Another equally influential motto is taken from the Christian scriptures, "The truth shall make you free." There are, to be sure, those who encourage us to embrace the reverse of this traditional definition in the name of "post-modernism." We can acknowledge that in many cases political power determines the nature of truth, but we must also acknowledge that even this claim itself offers knowledge which promises to provide us with power that will set us free from such political domination. But pursuing that issue is not the concern of this essay.

What is the major concern of this inquiry is the well known conflict between the different understandings of knowledge and truth that characterize traditional Western thought on the one hand and Native American thought on the other. The modem version of the former is frequently equated with the scientific method, while the latter can be said to represent the general pattern of tribal approaches to epistemic issues. Nearly all thinkers familiar with these questions have noted that this difference is due to a fundamental conflict between two incommensurable paradigms concerning the nature, basis, and purpose of human cognitive activity. My purpose here is to explore the differences between these two epistemological paradigms, to offer a fresh model of cognition which will provide a fruitful synthesis thereof, and to allow the implications for the notions of power and freedom to be revealed thereby.

The focus of this fresh epistemological model will be on the insights provided by Michael Polanyi in his major work Personal Knowledge. Some additional ideas will be gleaned from his equally important books, The Tacit Dimension and Knowing and Being. Polanyi sought to construct a post-modern, or as he termed it, a "post-critical", epistemology that would be constructive in character. In this his work stands in sharp contrast to that of current "deconstructivist" post-modem thinkers. His central claim was that tacit knowledge, as distinguished from explicit or articulate knowledge, is logically prior in all cognition. As he himself put it: "We always know more than we can tell."

The format for the following exploration and contrast of the Western and Native American epistemological paradigms is a three-fold schema which will focus on the divergent bases, goals, and methods of their respective approaches to cognition. Clearly this format necessitates a certain degree of over simplification with regard to both of these cognitive models, but care will be taken to avoid undue distortion and falsification thereby. Any investigation of such complex issues must begin by locating the primary difficulties involved and naturally this requires a certain amount of generalization at the outset in order to get the ball rolling. As with most tasks, one must begin where one is or one will never begin at all. Refinement of the issues can only follow such a beginning.

A recent and quite positive treatment of the crucial issues involved in the following discussion has been provided by Sandra Harding, among others, who builds on the notion of "situated knowledge" introduced by Donna Hardaway. In her very provocative book Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? (Cornell University Press, 1991), Harding argues that the bias of the traditional Western approach to epistemology against allowing any personal or valuational factors to figure into cognitive activity is itself a value commitment that needs rethinking. She contends that this "bias against bias" not only arbitrarily separates the processes of search and discovery from the resultant knowledge which they provide, but it also falsifies our understanding of cognitive activity itself. In short, Harding insists that a narrow identification of knowledge with verification alone results in a "weak" notion of objectivity itself.

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