Māori philosophy and social justice

DR KRUSHIL WATENE - School of Humanities, College of Humanities and Social Sciences

What makes society just? For mainstream Western philosophers, the answer to this question often draws upon the ideas of Plato, who provided a framework for discussion which is generally accepted as the precursor to modern Western society and philosophy.

But what would Plato’s ideas have sounded like had he taken concepts that are basic to Māori society as his starting point? What kind of approach to social justice would we have inherited?

Funded by a Marsden grant, Dr Krushil Watene, a senior lecturer at Massey’s School of Humanities, is working on a project which provides the philosophical research required to articulate an approach to social justice grounded in Māori concepts. ‘In a lot of Western philosophies, talking about social justice usually means people principally or people only,’ she says. ‘But if you think about this in terms of Māori and other indigenous philosophies, the first thing you get is a much wider scope of things that are included in the story about what it means to live together on just terms. Immediately, we find that mainstream theories of justice are too narrow and ignore many of the things that matter for the way we live together.’

The project breaks new ground in two important ways. First, it introduces a Māori approach to social justice into mainstream justice theorising. ‘I’m starting with whakapapa as a framework for thinking about justice and philosophy generally, and then drawing on mana and manaaki, and the relationship between them,’ Dr Watene explains. Second, the project is bringing this approach explicitly into conversation with other indigenous philosophies. One such philosophy is the concept of Ubuntu in South Africa. ‘We were able to have an exciting workshop on Ubuntu and its contribution to justice,’ says Dr Watene. ‘Ubuntu has been really influential with the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, and there is an influential and growing community of African philosophers who are now leading discussions about Ubuntu.’

An important feature of indigenous philosophies is that they do not place the same boundaries around disciplines that have become commonplace in much of Western philosophy and knowledge. However, says Dr Watene, mainstream philosophy has not always been this way. ‘There wasn’t always the chopping up of the disciplines, and science, philosophy and psychology, for example, used to be talked about in the same space.

‘One of the most interesting things so far is my own transformation as a philosopher,’ she says. ‘I don’t just want to think about concepts like whakapapa, mana and manaaki, I also want to work out what it would mean to think from those concepts; what it would look like to frame philosophy around whakapapa, mana and manaaki, what it would look like for philosophy to be relational. In the Western tradition, particular thinkers are prized, philosophy is something that tends to be done alone and then ideas are shared. If you look at the important work of Māori scholars from Tai Tokerau and the platform that Māori scholars generally have put in place to guide Māori researchers, then you understand that philosophy should be done in a different way, which is really exciting. I came to realise that it would be a mistake to simply change what we are philosophising about and not also how that activity was taking place. Ideas should be framed through discussions. Deep reflection can take place with others, based on the relationship that you have and that you foster with other people, communities, and places. Philosophy can be something that belongs to a community and that flourishes within a community.’ Many of these ideas were developed at a symposium co-convened with Professor Kristie Dotson from Michigan State University early in the project.

Dr Watene describes the innovative, cross-disciplinary environment at Massey as inspiring. ‘When I came to Massey, I was able to teach courses that not only included Māori and indigenous world views, but which also encouraged conversations across schools and disciplines. At Massey we value recognising the expertise that exists in other disciplines, and working in mutually beneficial ways together.’

Three further international events are being planned for the remainder of the project: a symposium in Argentina to discuss Latin American concepts; a New Zealand visit by a small group of Native American experts including leading Native American philosopher Professor Kyle Whyte; and an international workshop in 2019. A book is also planned, which will outline a way of framing philosophy around mana, manaaki and whakapapa, articulating one of the ways mana and manaaki operate to give us an account of social justice.

Project details

Date 2016
Funder The Marsden Fund
Partner Michigan State University