Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The nature of Inuit Knowledge

I sometimes get emails from friends who talk about or ask questions of Inuit Knowledge (IQ) that make me really think - in ways that make me go: aha!

One of the biggest obstacles to understanding, I think, is the apparent differences between scientific knowledge and IQ (one is "reductionist" (so they say) and the other is "anecdotal" (so they say) - whoever "they" are). But that is a wrong-headed argument.

The epistemological differences are closer than what is apparent: IQ (or any indigenous knowledge) treats knowledge in the gestalt, and significant factors (the environment/flora&fauna, its integrity) are regarded as a whole (that each is part and partial of everything that affects and sustains it); whereas, scientific reductionism derives its knowledge by deconstruction and how the whole is affected by deletion/absence of particular elements - usually until the thing dies or loses its integrity and can no longer be considered as such.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "gestalt" as:

"a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts".

- I would say "with [its particular] properties comprising its treatment as a whole" instead of "with properties not derivable by summation of its parts" for the simple reason that the M-W definition (as it stands) carries a heavy unvoiced ideological assumption rather than being a productive logical element of an argument.

Gestalt, seen in this way (ie, mathematically), is no longer an ideological/phenomenological stance but an actual working postulate of epistemology proper more amenable to testing and constructing and sustaining a discourse. It also comes closer to the sense in which IQ regards its knowledge of flora/fauna and ecology/environment, social/spiritual relations (with people, with environment), etc.

Reductionism, for all its inestimable power, is the science of pathologies and in extremis (which I distinguish from mathematical knowledge which is the science of abstraction rather than reductionism, per se). Hence, reductionism tends to be Malthusian and prescriptive in outlook, and inherently mistrustful of that which it cannot control (ie, is neurotic). It is ideological rather than scientific.

Gestalt outlook is not anti-scientific. Far from it: it is the science of Bateson, Darwin, of Whitehead and cybernetics, of Jung for that matter. And, of IQ. It has pragmaticism (in the Piercesque sense) at its core, being informed by (from a Wikipedia entry): its commitments to the spirit of strict logic, the immutability of truth, the reality of infinity, and the difference between (1) actively willing to control thought, to doubt, to weigh reasons, and (2) willing not to exert the will, willing to believe.

In IQ, this "willing to believe" is based upon an organic network of knowledgable individuals which make up the community of its users and generators of its contents (and continuously spans thousands of years). It has in it also that unwillingness to talk about things that Inuit themselves have not seen or experienced themselves or vouch-safe from people they can trust. "The immutability of [its] truth[s]" is rather more a moral than ideological notion that drives social and ecological relations as opposed to purely economic/egoistic interests. The "reality of infinity" bespeaks of humility and recognition that our knowledge is limited and contingent upon factors necessarily outside of anyone's control and purview.

Given that the Arctic environment makes for scarce and little margins for error, again in the Piercesean sense, IQ operates on "the idea that belief is that upon which one is prepared to act" - an act not something so much based on superstition per se, but that whose proven efficacy bases that superstition or taboo originally: human beings, being reasoning beings, have their reasons for everything.

A true scientific spirit would seek out how and why things are the way they are, or the reasons why such beliefs exist rather than poo-pooing things which stodgy, old men (and their timid sycophants) cannot or are unwilling to countenance amenable to human reason and understanding.

Jay

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