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A little while ago I made it through David Graeber and David Wengrow’s ambitious The Dawn of Everything. It’s an exciting book for a variety of reasons, one of which is its approach to indigenous North American thought.

Graeber and Wengrow want us to rethink our assumptions about political philosophy, in which we assume that a centralized state is necessary to govern human affairs above a certain scale. They cite the archaeological evidence of various indigenous cultures in support for this claim. Philosophically, they turn to the ideas they attribute (circa 1700) to a Huron-Wendat leader named Kandiaronk, defending a system that avoids many features taken for granted by Europeans:

You have observed that we lack judges. What is the reason for that? Well, we never bring lawsuits against one another. And why do we never bring lawsuits? Well, because we made a decision neither to accept or make use of money. And why do we refuse to allow money into our communities? The reason is this: we are determined not to have laws – because, since the world was a world, our ancestors have been able to live contentedly without them. (Graeber and Wengrow 54)

That’s powerful stuff to read (and there’s more in the book). It calls into question a lot of taken-for-granted ideas about what politics must be; it might give Kandiaronk a claim to be the first Canadian philosopher we know of. The difficulty is there is significant reason to doubt whether Kandiaronk actually said any of it. The source is a book entitled Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Travelled, by the aristocratic French traveller Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de Lahontan. Lahontan’s work puts these and similar words in the mouth of a character named Adario, who seems to have been based on Kandiaronk. The question is how much of the words are indeed Kandiaronk’s, and how much are Lahontan’s.

Graeber and Wengrow note that “Most criticism of Lahontan’s work simply assumes as a matter of course that the dialogues are made up, and that the arguments attributed to ‘Adario’ (the name given there to Kandiaronk) are the opinions of Lahontan himself.” But “In recent decades, however, indigenous scholars returned to the material in light of what we know about Kandiaronk himself – and came to very different conclusions”, namely that the views of Adario are indeed Kandiaronk’s. (50)

Graeber and Wengrow are likely too quick to jump to that conclusion. Princeton historian David A. Bell rakes them over the coals for it, noting that it was a popular genre of the time to put a European critique of Europe in the mouths of invented foreigners (the most famous such work being Montesquieu’s Persian Letters). The main “indigenous scholar” that Graeber and Wengrow quote is Barbara Alice Mann, who, Bell thinks, bases her claim for the authenticity of the speeches primarily on taking Lahontan’s word for it.

Bell may go too far there. Graeber and Wengrow cite as further evidence that we have independent accounts of Kandiaronk’s eloquence, that there is reason to believe he had actually visited France, and that there are similar criticisms documented from other speakers of Iroquoian languages. (50-1) Bell is inclined not to trust Graeber and Wengrow’s account because of several glaring errors they make about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Bell’s field of expertise. That’s understandable, and as all of this is well out of my own expertise, I wouldn’t want to pronounce anything definitively.

Still, Bell doesn’t give us reason to rule out the idea that at least some of the ideas attributed to Kandiaronk might be genuine. Bell quotes John Steckley, a scholar of indigenous languages, that “Although some turns of phrase sound Native, and may have been lifted from Kandiaronk’s speeches, Adario’s critical voice of pristine purity spoke with Lahontan’s jaded intellectual accent.” Steckley indicates that some of the words of Adario may well be Kandiaronk’s own. It would be wonderful to see further scholarship investigate the question of what in the Dialogues actually does come from Kandiaronk.

I say all of this for the fundamental reason that I really appreciate what Graeber and Wengrow are trying to do in this part of their work, even if they ultimately fail at it. They are looking for great historical indigenous thinkers and what they might now have to say to us today – and more than that, thinkers from the North American cultures who left far less of a record to work with than did the Aztecs and Mayans further south.

I appreciate Graeber and Wengrow’s approach in contrast to the approach taken by Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden in the New York Times article that kicked up a storm a few years ago. Garfield and Van Norden proclaim a hope “that Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), Kwazi Wiredu (1931- ), Lame Deer (1903-1976) and Maria Lugones will be as familiar to our students as their equally profound colleagues in the contemporary philosophical canon.” What’s their evidence that Lame Deer is “equally profound” to Aristotle or Hobbes or Wittgenstein? Why should anyone believe that claim beyond their mere say-so? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ They just assert it without argument.

Garfield and Van Norden’s underlying assumption seems to be that all traditions of philosophical inquiry should be a priori treated as equal, and I think that approach denigrates and devalues philosophy as an activity – they don’t mention any reason why anyone should bother studying philosophy at all. Given the huge differences among philosophies and traditions, if we actually believe philosophical thought contributes something valuable to human life, it would stand to reason that some philosophies can contribute more than others. We shouldn’t be praising the profound contributions of a given philosopher without saying something about what those contributions are.

Van Norden thankfully goes a long way to fix this omission in his later Taking Back Philosophy, which argues both for philosophy’s value as a discipline and for the specific contributions that non-Western philosophers can make to it. But the non-Western traditions he draws from for his example are the easy ones: the systematic and well documented traditions of China and India. We have access to thousands of years’ worth of their philosophical output. It’s a lot harder to figure out what we can learn from the historical indigenous traditions that (for a number of reasons) have left us so much less of a record. As far as I know, neither Garfield nor Van Norden ever explained what it was that they thought we could learn from Lame Deer.

That’s why I admire Graeber and Wengrow’s approach to Kandiaronk as a philosopher: unlike in Garfield and Van Norden’s article, there is content to it. Some of the words that Lahontan puts in Adario’s mouth may well be Kandiaronk’s own – and the content of their lessons, that there are other ways to organize society than a centralized state, is something that political philosophers should think about. Graeber and Wengrow aim to make an argument establishing the value of indigenous North American thought. Even if the argument isn’t particularly strong, just the attempt at an argument still gets us a lot further than mere assertion.