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Indigenous Metaphysics

  Indigenous metaphysics describes conceptions among various peoples about the universe, the role of humans, and their relationship to unseen powers. Anthropology has shown that different metaphysical schemes about existence and ontology refer not to universal truths, but to cultural presuppositions. Not only do individuals experience reality in different ways; so do communities. The ‘dreamtime’ of the Australian aboriginal, for example, relates the mystical dreamtime of the past to the visible world. The dislocation of normal spatial and temporal qualities in the dreamtime situates it parallel to the visible world, and means that it is only accessible to those who have been initiated into its mysteries. Many indigenous philosophies similarly situate humans within, or complementary to, the processes of the natural world rather than in opposition to it, or attempting to control it.

In the early part of this century, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl started a long debate among anthropologists about the rationality of human thought. (It began with the publication of his book Primitive Mentality in 1922.) He saw ‘primitive’ people as governed by feelings rather than reason, and saw their conceptual frameworks as ‘prelogical’ mystifications of reality. The debate about whether there were two modes of thought, one magical/mystical and the other rational/scientific, continued until recently. These two realms are not, however, mutually exclusive. The fact that death is blamed on witchcraft, for example, does not exclude the observation that it was caused by a collapsing hut.

A more fruitful approach than seeing indigenous ontologies as irrational mystifications, is to view them as conceptual frames that both explain and determine perceptions of reality. They do not refer to stable, immutable realities or reflect assumptions shared by everyone in a community. Members of a spirit-possession cult, for example, have theories about spirit bodies which impinge on their physical bodies to varying degrees. Spirit possession is related to beliefs in various categories of both good and mischievous demonism; or malevolent spirits (see spiritualism).

Recent anthropological concerns with conceptions of personhood have examined the way individuals interact with cosmic forces. Hindus have a theory of partibility which sees the individual as made up of immaterial substances which interact and mingle with the essences of other persons and objects. CL

See also death; religion; space.Further reading P. Heelas and , A. Lock (eds.), Indigenous Psychologies; , P. Hountondji, African Philosophy; , G. Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience, The Religion of the Dinka.



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