Indigenous Thinking, western Canon, or another kind of



Indigenous Thinking, western Canon, or another kind of
Chunjie Zhang 1 Indigenous Thinking, Western Canon, or An-­‐other Kind of Commemoration: Reflections on the Workshop “Education, Development, Freedom,” 2/2010, Duke University The most striking point of the workshop is for me the prefix “de-“ or the attempt of
negating the reality in which our education is situated. If the purpose of western education is to
impose the principle of development, then our workshop pointed out its inefficiency. If the goal
of development is to reach freedom, our workshop reminded us that it is un-freedom that proves
the result of the doctrine of capitalist development in the socalled developing countries. What we
have in mind is not merely a critical spectator; rather, through the institution of education, we
aim to dis-entangle the ideological and colonial yoke of our way of learning and knowing, in
order to reach a stage from which we can rebuild and reorganize our view of the world and our
being. In short, decolonization is not only a theoretical concept, but it also demands action and
practice in writing and teaching.
In this spirit, I deem it important to reform the western canon – standardized teaching
materials – so that an-other way of commemorating the colonial past could become possible. To
achieve the goal of “learn to unlearn in order to relearn,” it is indispensable to restructure the
western canon as the carrier of colonial knowledge and enhance the visibility of transmodernity
in the formation and transformation of today’s human condition. This task does not only include
reading Kant or Hegel decolonially but also necessitates reading non-canonical works by
canonical and non-canonical thinkers from all parts of the world. Then the firmly established
concepts of liberal arts education would gradually alter, our knowledge about the past would be
reconstructed, our historiography would take a different look, the concept of world literature
would reflect a more profound pluri-versality, and our decisions toward the future could be
Chunjie Zhang 2 readjusted and reformulated. In brief, the standards in our globalized society would become
radically different. Let me elaborate with two examples.
One striking aspect of the workshop is the emphasis on the attempt pioneered and
exemplified by Amawtay Wasi in Ecuador. Due to linguistic barrier, I am not able to read much
about Amawtay Wasi’s program and statements online. Reading Rodolfo Kusch’s Indigenous
and Popular Thinking in América, however, helps me understand an alternative or the
indigenous way of life rooted in Américan context, which is opposed to the dominating pattern
of western thinking and living. Kusch points out the insufficiency of western causal thinking and
endeavors to enhance the indigenous sensual thinking. Offering a vivid account of the indigenous
way of life, in the heyday of Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropology and C. G. Jung’s
psychoanalysis, Kusch sees his task in understanding the Américan problem from the indigenous
perspective and mapping out a distinctive path to overcome the crisis and revitalize América and
the world. Different to Lévi-Strauss, who strived to extract a universal pattern out of both
European and indigenous worlds, Kusch makes strident differences between these two worlds.
Furthermore, Kusch points out the deficit of urban thinking and the neglected benefit of
indigenous thinking in América. By opposing affective implications to reasoning, the
unnameable plain to causal lucidity, and salvation to solution, Kusch is able to claim: “Whether
we like or not, man is half filled with things and half with gods, even in the twentieth century,
and especially in América. This is the most fecund possibility provided to us by indigenous and
popular thinking.”1
Rodolfo Kusch, Indigenous and Popular Thinking in A mérica, trans. María Lugones and Joshua M. Price (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), 171-­‐72. Chunjie Zhang 3 Yet Kusch is not merely interested in getting rid of causal thinking; rather he strives to
add indigenous thinking as the indispensable part to human existence. In other words, Kusch
intends to break up the hierarchy and contempt which western tradition holds toward indigenous
thinking, but he still keeps causal thinking as a valid part of human life. Therefore, in addition to
negation, Kusch presents a way of deconstruction and transformation. Kusch elaborates that both
the philosophy in the street and the philosophy with European problematic taught in the
university are important. We should see the philosophy at the university from the perspective of
the street and reform or decolonize it to the needs of the street.
In this spirit, the case of the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder offers us an
example of recanonization. According to established intellectual history, Herder is known for his
philosophy of history and aesthetics. There has been little attention given to his concept of
perpetual peace based on a story of the American-Indian tribe Iroquois. Furthermore, Herder’s
enthusiasm for and usage of the Iroquois story reminds me of Kusch’s method.
Herder’s vision of perpetual peace is richly informed by colonial realities and discloses
the enormous impact of non-European culture and knowledge on his thinking through the
Iroquois story. Moreover, Herder’s project of perpetual peace endeavors to reach beyond the
geographical borders of Europe and incorporate the whole world; in other words, its primary
interest is not only a European peace, as Kant is primarily concerned in his treatise, but also a
peaceful relation between Europe and the non-European world, between the colonizers and the
Here is the story that inspires Herder’s vision of perpetual peace: As the result of constant
conflicts induced by the strong tribe Delaware among other tribes, the weak tribe Iroquois makes
Chunjie Zhang 4 a suggestion to the stronger tribes in order to keep peace: one tribe should be the woman, around
whom the warring tribes live as men. No one should harm and attack the woman. If one tribe
does so, then all other tribes together should punish the lawbreaker. The woman, however,
should not get involved in war, but should endeavor to maintain peace. If the men tribes fight
against each other, the woman tribe should warn them that their women and children may be
killed and in the end the whole tribe will be extinguished. The Delaware agrees to be the woman
tribe. The Iroquois thus perform a ceremony and hang oil and medicine on the arm of the woman.
Oil and medicine symbolize two functions of the woman of peace: she should tell good things to
all the tribes, represented by oil, and persuades warring tribes to maintain the peaceful state and
thus cure their decease, symbolized by medicine. The Delaware should solely devote themselves
to agriculture. Herder laments that European colonizers destroy the peaceful state created
through the Iroquois wisdom.2 Inspired by the Iroquois story, Herder maps out his own vision of
perpetual peace to maintain peace and curb warfare and colonialism.
At a more abstract level, Herder postulates that his woman of peace is universal equity
(allgemeine Billigkeit), humanity (Menschlichkeit), and practical reason (tätige Vernunft). Herder
supports these three theorems through seven doctrines (Gesinnung). As the first three doctrines,
Herder proposes revulsion against war (Abscheu gegen den Krieg), reduced respect for heroism
(Verminderte Achtung gegen den Heldentum), and revulsion against false statecraft (Abscheu der
falschen Staatskunst). Herder argues that warfare poisons the well of history and human rights.
Als die Europäer näher drangen, sollte auf Erfordern d er Männer selbst die Frau an d er Gegenwehr mit Anteil nehmen. [ ...] Eine fremde unvorhergesehene Übergewalt störte das schöne Project der Wilden zum Frieden unter einander; und dies wird jedesmal der Fall sein, solange der Baum des Friedens nicht mit festen, unausreißbaren Wurzeln von Innen heraus d en Nationen blühet. Johann Gottfried H erder, Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität, ed. Hans Dieter Irmscher, vol. 7 (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1991), 716. Chunjie Zhang 5 In the 117th letter, He contends: “Gewalt und Willkür mögen gebieten, worüber sie Macht haben,
nur nicht über Grundsätze des Rechts und Unrechts in der Menschengeschichte.”3
There is a similarity and a difference between Herder and Kusch. It is similar that they
both cherish the indigenous way of life and endeavor to make sense of it. The difference is:
Kusch recognizes the indigenous thinking as an equal-valued alternative to western causal
thinking whereas Herder attempts to wrest forth universal principles for the human kind within
the scope of western thinking. Clearly, Herder is not a decolonial thinker as Kusch exemplifies.
Yet if we read Herder with Kusch, we would appreciate that Kusch enables us to recognize the
value of this neglected piece in Herder’s oeuvre and we could identify Herder’s perpetual peace
as a negotiation between indigenous challenge and European Enlightenment dominance. If we
read Kusch with Herder, we could learn how to emancipate from the implanted mechanism of
universalization and value the breach that Herder’s non-canonical writing causes within western
thinking itself. In brief, the reformation of western canon is a two-fold task: we need to read
canonical and non-canonical works by western thinkers and decolonial works of non-European
writers side by side so that we can see the similarities, the differences, and the path of a new
reading, thinking, and commemoration.
Works Cited:
Herder, Johann Gottfried. Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität. Edited b y Hans Dieter Irmscher. V ol. 7. Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker V erlag, 1991. Kusch, Rodolfo. Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América. Translated by María Lugones and Joshua M. Price. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.
Ibid., 708. 

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