Enlightenment Discourses and Knowledge Frameworks

In document Between people and things: understanding violence and theft in early New Zealand transactions (Page 84-89)

Today, a number of European epistemological models are on offer for imagining and interpreting the world. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was no single interpretive view either. Ideas being discussed in academia, in the coffee shops, pubs and pulpits of Georgian and Victorian England belonged to a variety of knowledge systems inherited from Greek, Roman, Alexandrian, Jewish, Christian and even Norse and Celtic philosophical traditions and mythologies. What counted as ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’, and who had the right to determine these and purvey them had gone through a number of changes from Greco-Roman times before the re- adjustment of the Enlightenment period in Europe and Britain. Where Plato in the caste society of Athens in the 5th century BC, had thought that truths were to be

discovered only by reason and logic, Aristotle applied these methods to his empirical observations, seeking universal common elements, as well as classificatory

differences in groups of things and beings. Truths, in his view became observations that were “facts that had been explained”, the soul was a vital principle, and God was not personal, but was the purpose of all beings (Lewis, 1954: 27-40). By 271 AD, discourses about truth and knowledge of the world inherited from philosophical ancestors such as Aristotle had been adapted and incorporated with Christian

philosophies, folk ideas about witchcraft, magic, and the occult, resulting in a belief in a hierarchical world order originating from God “in decreasing degrees of perfection the farther one gets from the source... (ibid.). Hence, some philosophical origins of the ‘natural’ and hierarchical classifications and perceived ‘truths’ concerning the relationships of people and things, informed Enlightenment discourse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that are being discussed here.

Many of those received ‘truths’ then in circulation, were challenged by practical (rather than theoretical) investigators and contributed to emerging ‘scientific’ ways of ‘seeing and knowing’. Their interpretations of the natural world were based upon systematic field observations and experimentation in disciplines such as astronomy, which enabled received wisdom about the stars, planets, and sun to be challenged, and

the science of navigation to develop. Their over-riding purpose was to seek, through sensory observation, the ‘truths’ of relationships between humans, other beings, and the inanimate world and to identify what it meant to be human. It was an era of travel and exploration, with competition amongst the major powers of the known world for control of resources and people in other lands. There were therefore dilemmas to be resolved about how ‘human’ these ‘others’ were; whether or not they were ‘civilised’, and what ‘ownership rights’ they had over the resources, which Europeans were setting out to ‘discover’. These issues were complicated by the dogmas of the Christian church and its uncritical acceptance of those philosophies upon which classical education at that time was based. Some practical investigators and philosophers did not agree that the alleged ‘truths’ could be ‘seen’ as true to their observations of the natural world. Yet, as in ancient Greece and Rome, these

investigators – for the most part – originated from the privileged classes and so their versions of ‘truth’ constituted ‘what counts’, and they decided this. Churches as well as politicians resisted the acceptance of new discoveries and what they might mean for humans and their rights, especially ‘other’ humans in newly ‘discovered’ lands. It is these two aspects of epistemological debate during the ‘Enlightenment’– what it is to be human, and whether all humans had equal moral and territorial rights – that this section of the current chapter examines, because they provide insights into how, through exposure to Enlightenment discourse at home, European visitors to Te Wai Pounamu could have interpreted and experienced their interactions with Māori.

Four categories of European visitors to the South Island of New Zealand were involved in transactions with Māori: naval officers & captains; supernumerary scientists; sailors; sealers, whalers and missionaries. They were all in some degree exposed to ‘Enlightenment’ thinking, and also to some ideas persisting from at least the late Renaissance.These ideas influenced the experience and writings of gentleman naturalist Joseph Banks, but influenced sailors and missionaries in a different way. They were included in ordinary public discourse, in what people on land heard in church, and those at sea from the Captain, on Sundays (cf. Beaglehole (1955: 513- 519). Sailors, sealers, and whalers may not have thought much about Enlightenment philosophies, but lived with their socio-political effects, which would have coloured their attitudes and responses to other seamen and officers, as well as to Māori

(Boultbee, 1828: 16). It is inevitable that folk traditions persisted in shipboard culture, agricultural villages and ports that many of the sailors came from, and contributed to

their interpretations. They were discussed in pubs and churches, and helped

reconfigure enlightenment discourse within their own worlds. Glimpses of this reality are rare in archives, but are visible where sailors recorded their fears and

apprehensions about the physical and cultural unknowns of their journeys. There is no room here to discuss the various ideas of the philosophes at any length but I take the viewpoint of Thomas Munck that:

… even though we recognise all the variant ‘national’ forms of enlightenment in Europe, we need to remember that to many contemporaries the fundamentals of reason and enlightening were valid throughout Europe and North America irrespective of national boundaries… [and] for all the deep social divisions in European society, the enlightenment was not merely an élite intellectual pastime, but a real process of emancipation from inherited values and beliefs, with… much potential impact on ordinary Europeans.

(2000: vii)

What follows here is therefore an outline of some dominant discursive and political realities of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, since most of the mariners originated from there. These realities are entangled with some Renaissance and Enlightenment discourses’, and concern moral philosophy: the perceived need to establish secular moral systems, perceptions of what it means to be ‘good and honest’, the natural world, man’s place in it, his nature, the advancement of science, and intentions to increase knowledge of the natural world, “to lighten

workloads and increase the volume and efficiency of production” (Hyland et. al, 2003: 126).This attention given to concepts of what constitutes human nature, how humans are positioned in the natural world, and in relation to each other, shows that their knowledge-system was human-orientated. They explained the world and human relationships to it, in terms of ideas inherited from their Greco-Roman and Judeo- Christian forbears. ‘Knowledge’ and ‘truth’ were therefore being scrutinised, as were their socio-political implications, including the doctrine of the ‘Divine Right’ of kings. Some key aspects of debate which contributed to what was seen as ‘truth’ and

‘knowledge’ during the Enlightenment, were discourses on the ‘Great Chain of Being’, the ‘Noble Savage’, the slavery movement, ‘cannibalism’, and concepts of property ownership and theft that were implicated in a contemporary concern for re- evaluating one’s understanding of what it is to be human, and to live an ethical social and political life.

The Great Chain of Being – relationships, God & the natural world

This feature was inherited from its Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian and Neo- Platonic epistemological forebears, whose ideas of ‘truth’, ‘knowledge’, and the way these could be accessed was centred more on theoretical speculation, than around real empirical observation. Aristotle had focused on the need to classify known

phenomena, including humans, and to arrange them hierarchically. The Judeo- Christian world contributed a genealogical component to Aristotle’s model. It was based upon the Genesis story. Both possessed frameworks in which a position was allocated for humans, in respect to the Gods and ancestors, and also in respect to other living things and to the natural world. Hence the Mediaeval Christian Church

espoused a kind of syncretic socio-religious episteme that encompassed all ‘things’ and was known as the “Great Chain of Being”. It comprised: “… God, through cherubim and seraphim, archangels, kings, princes of the church, magistrates and merchants to the great mass of peasants and labourers… to animals… plants and finally stones and earth which had no soul at all” (Salmond, 1991: 52). They were successively of decreasing significance and power within this system created from perceptions of experienced phenomena. At the time that Christians took up this idea of hierarchical patterns in nature, these were interpreted as having all been created out of Chaos by the Creator God as described in the Book of Genesis. The system that explained the world was genealogical and hierarchical, attributing the greatest amount of ‘soul’ to kings and princes, and less to ‘other’ humans. Hence, as a framework for understanding relationships, the ‘Great Chain’ began its life as a system of

classification, rather than of biological descent, but the two became conflated. They became further conflated when the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné published his book Systema Naturae (1735) setting out a new standardised system for the

classification of ‘natural’ things. Linné’s classification system included minerals, plants, and animals, and was adopted enthusiastically by naturalists. It was one way of ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing’ about the natural world and relationships within it.

Furthermore, Scottish philosopher David Hume said, “Tis evident, that all the sciences have a relation, greater or less to human nature” (1739, quoted in Hyland, 2003: 3). Linnaeus included humans in his system, having studied ‘others’ in Lapland where he said of the Saami: “The tranquil existence of the Laplanders answers to Ovid’s

the remembrance of the patriarchal life, and the poetical descriptions of the Elysian fields” (1732, in Ellington, 2001: 133). Linnaeus said that “Man, the last and best created works; formed after the image of his Maker, endowed with a portion of intellectual divinity, the subjugator of all other beings, is by his wisdom alone able to form just conclusions from such things as present themselves to his senses” (ibid.).

Church people were therefore able to ‘slot’ the Linnean system into the Great Chain of Being, and some early ‘anthropological’ views about ‘other’ humans arose, whereby some were seen as being closer to the spiritual realm than others (in Hyland et al. 2003: 104). Besides Linnaeus, others commenting on the place of humans in the ‘natural’ world, and contributing to the debate, were Buffon, Diderot and Rousseau, whose varying opinions about man’s nature influenced the early anthropological discourses known to ‘naturalists’ like Banks, Solander, J. R. and G. Forster, Sparrman and even James Cook. Buffon (1753) considered that humans are “inspired,

enoble[ed] and animate[d]” by a “ray of divinity” from God, but that species were not immutable. “[T]he monkey is a man degenerated… sprung from common stock” (in Hyland et al. 2003: 108). The origin of his ideas could be seen in the ‘Great Chain’ excepting that he allowed for species to change, contradicting any biblical

interpretation of separate creation or immutability. This allowed for conceptualising that within the human species, some races/‘others’, may be degenerate in comparison with other groups. The Enlightenment era philosophes engaged in this discourse, as did gentleman amateurs and naturalists, who had access to their works on board ships like the Endeavour. Hyland et al. explain that Diderot in his Thoughts on the

Interpretation of Nature (1754) expressed evolutionary ideas also, “… that nature is still at work” and “what we take for natural history is… the far-from-complete history of a single instant” (2003: 102-12). Hume (1748) considered the white variety of humans was superior, and Blumenbach (1798) that there were five different varieties of humans and “four were of degenerated stock” (in Hyland, 2003: 7). Some humans were physically inferior in this hierarchical taxonomic system, at least in some

Enlightenment discourse. Moreover, humans varied socially according to what kind of societies they had, whether they were deemed to be ‘civilised’, ‘savage’, ‘barbarous’ or ‘primitive’ (ibid: 7). These ideas persisted into the early nineteenth century when explorers like d’Urville were in New Zealand waters in the late 1820’s and 1830’s. Debates raged between those who thought that: “human nature was the same at all times and places”, and those looking for racial differences (Hunt, 2003: 16). On

d’Urville’s 1840 visit, Dumoutier made life masks of Ngāi Tahu chiefs ‘Taha Tahala’ (Tangatahara) and ‘Poukalem’ (Pōkene) at Otago (ibid; Thomas, 2003: 54-5; Terry, 2003: 76). It was thus usual for naturalists like the Forsters and Joseph Banks to make value judgements about the level of civilisation and physical characterisics of Māori and Polynesian ‘others’.

In document Between people and things: understanding violence and theft in early New Zealand transactions (Page 84-89)

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