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Indigenous and Western Worldviews

February 14, 2015

For  a while now, and especially following the interviews that I recently conducted with twelve Shipibo healers (that I wrote about in my last blog post), I have been wondering about the Shipibo worldview. How do they see, think about and experience the world and how is it different from the typical Western worldview?

These, of course, are typical Western questions! They are rational, abstract and theoretical. I’m not sure the Shipibo would have the same questions about Westerners in terms of the way we see the world – though they certainly have broad interpretations about our behavior.

For example, Bernd Brabec de Mori mentions in his interesting chapter called ‘From the Native’s Point of View: How Shipibo-Konibo Experience and Interpret Ayahuasca Drinking with “Gringos”‘ (from the book (2014) ‘Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond’) that many Shipibo-Konibo think that the reason most Westerners come to Peru to drink ayahuasca is because we are ‘drogadictos’ (drug addicts). They pick up that many Westerners approach La Madre Ayahuasca as they would a drug experience – they talk about ‘tripping’, ‘awesome visions’, and ‘being out of it’, for example. In contrast, traditionally for the Shipibos, the only people who drank ayahuasca were the shamans. The patients did not drink.

In this blog post, I will outline three useful frames of reference I have found for understanding the differences between Western and Indigenous cultures. In doing this, I will use a typical Western method of contrasting the Indigenous and Western world views through a series of theoretical dichotomies. It would be challenging – and probably impossible for me as a Westerner – to try to approach this from an indigenous point of view and express it in an indigenous style.

The best examples I have seen of attempting to illustrate in writing the world from an indigenous point of view come from literature. In Peru, from the book The Three Halves of  Ino Moxo: Teachings of the Wizard of the Upper Amazon’  by  César Calvo. And, in Mexico, from the book by Juan Rulfo called ‘Pedro Páramo’. Interestingly, when Pedro Páramo was first published in 1955, it met with a barrage of criticism due to its non-linear narrative style and interpenetration of the so-called real world and the ancestral world of the spirits – both important aspects of an Indigenous world-view.

1. The Divided Brain

My first take on the differences between Western and Indigenous world views come from Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus ‘The Master and the Servant: the Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern Western World’. (For a very good RSA animated talk by Iain McGilchrist setting out his key ideas click here.)

In this magisterial book, McGilchrist does three remarkable things.

reason and imaginationi) He first summarizes the work in neuroscience on the two halves of the brain.

ii) He then shows how each half of the brain brings into being very different worlds.

iii) He then does a tour de force of Western culture indicating the distinct periods in which he considers that one particular side of the brain tended to be dominant.

If this sounds heavily reductionist, I assure you that it is not.

McGilchrist, through his extensive (and unusual, in these days of specialization) background in both the arts and sciences – he was a Professor of Literature at Oxford University before training to be a doctor, psychiatrist and neuroscientist – has a very subtle mind and is always careful (unlike many of his fellow neuroscientists) never to reduce the complex phenomenon of culture to brain functioning.

McGilchrist argues that the world which the left hemisphere of the brain brings into being can be described as: linear, language-based, abstract, analytical, systematic, explicit, rational, instrumental, survival-focused, grasping, control-oriented, certain, literal, and narrowly egoistic. By contrast, the world that the right hemisphere creates can be described as: holistic, pre-conceptual, unifying, grounding, contextual, receptive, empathic, implicit, metaphorical, imaginative, musical, intuitive, unconscious, and poetic.

McGilchrist writes that:

“In reality we are a composite of the two hemispheres, and despite the interesting results of experiments designed artificially to separate their functioning, they work together most of the time at the everyday level. But that does not at all exclude that they may have radically different agendas, and over long time periods and large numbers of individuals it becomes apparent that they each instantiate a way of being in the world that is at conflict with each other.”

McGilchrist’s basic and very well argued thesis is that, at this moment in time, the left side of the brain has become overly dominant. The left half of the brain that should be the servant (in shorthand, the ego) has become the master, with all the potentially catastrophic consequences that follow from this – as we are now witnessing in the ecological crisis and the expansion of untrammeled economic and cultural individualism.


Additionally McGilchrist says that:

“The right hemisphere is also more realistic about how it stands in relation to the world at large, less grandiose, more self-aware than the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere is ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its shortcomings”

(That reads like a good description of Western, especially American, globalized culture.)

I have written before how I find McGilchrist’s work very useful in understanding the experience with La Madre Ayahauasca as she takes us much more into ways of perceiving and being associated with the right hemisphere.

My hypothesis here is that the Shipibo (and possibly all indigenous people but I’m even less qualified to make general assertions about that) are more at home in and operate more from the right side of the brain.

2. C.J. Jung

The second perspective on the differences between Western and Indigenous worldviews comes from Jung. Through his travels and contact with indigenous people in East Africa and New Mexico, Jung wrote about the differences he saw between civilized/modern man and primitive/archaic man. The word ‘primitive’  is indeed an unfortunate term to use, which would be unacceptable now – and by using such a term, Jung shows us the unconscious racism of the Western worldview and the inevitable constraints of his own perspective as a twentieth century Swiss bourgeois patriarch, which makes his achievements in plumbing the depths of the psyche even more extraordinary.

To be fair to Jung, however, he also writes:

“I use the term ‘primitive’ in the sense of ‘primordial’ and I do not imply any kind of value judgment.”

Jung Nature writingsIn fact, Jung thought that the great problem with Western man is that he had lost contact with his ‘natural mind’ – that he also called “the primitive within myself”. This reminds me of what Martín Prechtel refers to as the ‘indigenous soul’ in all of us, which is under threat from rapacious, neo-liberal global capitalism.

Many of Jung’s writings about these differences between Western and indigenous people have been compiled in an excellent book edited by Meredith Sabini called ‘C.J Jung on Nature, Technology and Modern Life’.

In different sections of this book, Jung makes many interesting and insightful observations: that for indigenous people waking and dream life are not so separate; dreams are therefore highly significant; that they understand the psyche as not just subjective and subject to our will but “objective, self-subsistent and living its own life”; he also points out how wedded the Western mind is to cause and effect explanations.

He writes:

“It is a rational supposition of ours that everything has a natural and perceptible cause. We are convinced of this right from the start. Causality is one of our most sacred dogmas. [My emphasis]. There is no legitimate place in our world for invisible, arbitrary, and so-called superstitious powers – unless, indeed, we descend with the modern physicist into the obscure, microcosmic world inside the atom, where it appears, some very curious things happen.”

That is certainly something I have noticed in myself and other Westerners. We are addicted to explanations. When I ask my Shipibo Maestro for some explanation about what happened to me in ceremony, he often shrugs his shoulders or answers in a few, cursory words. At other times, though, I have known him talk at length in response to my ‘why’ type question – but I still can’t for the life of me figure out what leads him to respond in different ways at different times.

3. The Passion of the Western Mind

The third approach to this question of the difference between the Western and the indigenous worldview comes from the work of the cultural historian, Richard Tarnas, in his wonderful book detailing the evolution of the Western worldview, ‘The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped our World View’, which ought to be basic reading for every philosophy student .

quote from TarnasIn particular, Tarnas and other thinkers within feminist and post-modern traditions show how the concept of objectivity, (and the whole package of ideas associated with it), became the theoretical foundation of the European scientific revolution in the sixteenth century.

It then is set up as the principal criteria of what constitutes valid knowledge.  This is an immensely clever sleight-of-hand, which serves to exclude and invalidate other forms of knowledge.

Thankfully, now, these conventional scientific sacred cows of objectivity and predictability are shown to be hugely problematic, even within science itself.

This began first with early twentieth-century quantum physics which showed that the observer inevitably effects what is being observed. Then, towards the end of the twentieth century, chaos and complexity theory, showed that all living systems, because of their non-linear nature, are inherently unpredictable.

These perspectives, together with other work in the philosophy of science – notably Kuhn and Feyerabend who challenge the widely accepted notion that science develops in a progressive way, always approaching some independent, externally-validated, absolute truth – open the door to other forms of knowledge that are not based on the illusion of objectivity and the rigid separation of the studying subject and the object studied.

Heisenberg quote

By contrast, it seems that indigenous people learn about their world not by separating themselves from it but by identifying with and becoming it, what anthropologists used to call, following Lévy-Bruhl, participation mystique’. This tradition is not entirely absent within the West. Goethe developed a very different scientific method based on imaginative identification and the German philosopher Max Scheler wrote extensively about sympathy as a basis for knowledge.

Putting all these perspectives together, and adding others, it is possible to construct the following table showing the key differences between indigenous and western worldviews.

But first a few comments about this table:

i) Clearly it is both an over-generalization and over-simplification. The two worlds are not so separate. As McGilchrist says about the two halves of the brain, we necessarily have access to each. They function together.

ii) The table is itself a very Western way of understanding these differences. On the ‘indigenous’ side, by its more holistic nature, these different modes do not exist separately. They happen simultaneously.

iii) Perhaps the table is overly negative about the ‘Western’ side. Tarnas also points out how the Western mind has evolved to be able to give us a critical, emancipatory perspective. We no longer have to be in the thrall of any belief system whether it is religious or science-based.

 1. Modes of Perception   1. Modes of Perception
 Left-brained  Right-brained
 Rational, linear, analytical, reductionist, mechanistic,explicit Holistic, intuitive, pre-conceptual, imaginative, metaphorical, musical, implicit
 2. Modes of Understanding  2. Modes of Understanding
 Abstract-conceptual  Symbolic
 Literal, language-based, either/or logic (Aristotelian logic), theoretical Imaginative, pictorial, mythical, narrative-based, both-and logic (dialectical logic), emotional
 3. Modes of relating  3. Modes of Relating
 Separate from others and nature Relational and interconnected
 Self-serving, individualistic, egoistic  Service oriented, communal, based on reciprocity and mutual obligations
Nature lacks soul/spirit Everything in nature is ensouled and has its own spirit
 Nature is a resource to be appropriated and exploited for human ends  Nature is our mother
 4. Modes of knowledge construction  4. Modes of knowledge construction
 Knowledge is obtained via separation and distance Knowledge is obtained through identification and participation
Objectivity is the only valid criteria for knowledge  There are many valid ways of knowing, not just those based on objectivity
 Valid knowledge is obtained through the quantitative measurement and recording of external sense perceptions Knowledge can be obtained by inner emotionally-based processes of empathy
 Knowledge is based on finding logical cause and effect relationships  Knowledge can be based on finding acausal connecting principles (synchronicity)
 Knowledge is context independent Knowledge is always situated, embedded, ecological
 Knowledge proceeds by breaking down any system into its component parts to understand the relationships between them Knowledge proceeds by understanding the whole system and the relationships between the parts and the whole
 Disembodied Embodied
Control-oriented Partnership-oriented
  1. Tony Clark permalink

    Excellent Paul

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Very interestingly fascinating Paul. While reading it I have to think a lot about the book Left in the Dark by Tony Wright (I’ve been spamming people fiercely with it a couple of years ago .. maybe you too .. ?).
    Wright states that when we left the Garden of Eden (say some what 600.000 years ago),
    we were forced to change our diet from a solely plant based diet to a weat and meat based diet.
    This wheat and meat based diet resulted in more and more steroids in our bodies and more and more the absence of flavonoids and therefor made us more aggressive and more right brain oriented.. Well this as the book in an atom shell. It is an easy and not very thick book and it might find more acknowledgments of the different perceptions/fdifferences in observations you discuss here . “Left in the Dark”

    • CosmicDrBii permalink

      HI Petra. I did get this book a while ago based on your and others’ recommendations. I read part of it and then stopped. Maybe I should go back. The part I remember best is where the author talks about the evidence that if you don’t sleep for a night or two, your cognitive performance in some areas actually gets better.That was reassuring at a time when I was sleeping very little.

  3. Good post. I think this right/left brain is fine as metaphor (and maybe that is how you meant it) but I wouldn’t push it too far.

    I go into the idea somewhat in a post on my blog:

    Let me provide an extended quote from it:

    “Perhaps the early human simply lacked the development of various structures and capabilities in the left brain and the new human developed these structures that enabled us to take the next step in our development. Unfortunately, if there is any truth to this theory, it is almost certain that the story is much more complicated. The associations of language with the left brain and of artistic and perceptual abilities with the right brain are only a tendencies. Some people have the associations reversed and others seems to share language processing across both hemispheres. Other studies have shown that the right brain itself seems to have some language processing capability. Some people who have had sections of the left hemisphere associated with speech (Broca’s area) removed still seem to have language abilities. Making the issue more complicated is that this same lateralization of function seems to exist in other mammals, including apes, and may also have a long evolutionary history in the human line with evidence of handedness in hominid tool making. So the history of this specialization of brain function must go much farther back in time than the last 100,000 years.”

    You might want to look at How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn.

    • CosmicDrBii permalink

      Thanks for your comment James and for the connection to your blog and the book by Eduardo Kohn.

      I agree that the right/left brain distinction can be overworked and when it entered popular culture a while back that’s what happened. To me its precisely the genius of McGilchrist that he writes a whole book about this without overworking the distinction.

      I found a good interview with Eduardo Kohn on:

      • The Kohn book is a somewhat difficult read but what it attempts seems quite revolutionary to me and goes directly to your attempt to distinguish indigenous and western worldviews.

        First, a little background. Kohn is an anthropologist who has been studying the Runa in Ecuador. I was immediately attracted to the book because his work is near places I have visited in Ecuador. See my post here.

        I am probably over simplifying but I think Kohn’s view is that the indigenous worldview consists of a rich web of signs that includes the non-human as well as the human. As humans came together in larger groups, in cities, and with new technology we have gradually cut ourselves off from the non-human part of the knowledge web. Our insulation from the non-human is what makes us think differently from the indigenous.

      • CosmicDrBii permalink

        Hi James. I read your blog on Don Luis. Very good account of the ayahuasca experience. I agree completely with what you say that: “Our insulation from the non-human is what makes us think differently from the indigenous.” We have indeed lost the ability to read the signs in nature. I don’t know if you know David Abram’s work (especially his book “Spell of the Sensuous”) but this is exactly what he is writing about.

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