Professor Sellmann, you are Professor of Philosophy and Micronesian Studies at the University of Guam. How do both of these fascinating fields intersect, and do you teach Micronesian philosophy in your dual-hatted role?
I studied Euro-American, Asian, and Comparative philosophy at the University of Hawaii. In 1992, when I was hired at the University of Guam, the contract asked me to bring CHamoru studies into my discipline. So, I developed a course on CHamoru philosophy. Then I expanded the scope of my research to include other Micronesian cultural philosophies. I developed and taught a graduate course on Micronesian Philosophy.
My motivation is to bring the cultural philosophies of Micronesia and the greater Pacific into the academy for further study and benefit for all people. I also wanted to delve into the roots of Pacific philosophy by examining the logic, the ways of reasoning, which inform islander cultures and thinking.
At Synkrētic, we’re focussed on the cultural philosophies of the Pacific and are sensitive to the oral forms they often take. Is it fair to say that Western academic philosophy struggles to see it as on par with Kant and Hume?
In our global context, I think “we” ought to get beyond the East/West distinction because it is based on a Euro-centric colonial perspective, and from our Pacific perspective the cultures referred to are in the opposite direction. One of the reasons why institutionalised, academic philosophers are leery of cultural philosophy from an oral tradition is twofold.
First, because oral philosophy is not written down, it is difficult to ascertain its content.
Second, it is difficult if not impossible to see or read the development of that oral tradition’s “grand conversation”, also known as the historical changes of the tradition. Part of my motivation is to bring Pacific Philosophy into the academy to record its history.
I am aware that there are cultural experts who disagree and prefer to preserve the oral teachings without recording them to maintain the fluid character of the teachings, allowing the impermanent past to disappear by integrating into the present.
In 2021, you published a thought-provoking paper in Pacific Asia Inquiry on Micronesian philosophy and ‘correlative thinking’ which you distinguish from scientific logic.¹ What are the defining traits of this type of thought?
One characteristic of correlative thinking is to avoid stipulative definitions. Definitions give the impression that the defined object is locked into a category, especially the classical, scientific approach of definition by genus and species. I’d propose that correlative thinking looks to identify family resemblances.
Modern logic is based on the three principles of identity (A=A); the excluded middle (A is true or A is not true); and non-contradiction (not both A and not A).
Those three principles do not exactly apply in correlative thinking.
Correlative thinking acknowledges a dynamic process ontology, embracing change. The change is radical such that things transform, obscuring their identity. Inanimate objects are simultaneously gods. Certain Gods are humans, and certain humans are gods.
Rather than an excluded middle, an inclusive middle is emphasised such that the changing nature of things allows them to be and not to be at the same time. The interrelated character of the correlated opposites leaves one’s thinking open to a more complex arrangement of “both A and not A and something else”. Relationality and relationships are more important in correlative thinking than independent substances.
In correlative thinking there is room for not only inconsistencies but even direct contradictions to be accepted. This kind of thinking leaves open the possibilities for changing truths and knowledge; it is not based on the pursuit of absolute, precise, unchanging knowledge claims.
Modern logicians would label correlative thinking as fuzzy logic.
You write that ancient Micronesians did not develop monistic or dualistic philosophies as in Western tradition, e.g., theories that the world is made up of one or two substances like body and spirit. Is this true across the Pacific?
I know that I do not know the correct answer to this question because the Pacific covers more than one-third of the surface of the globe. I have not been able to study all the cultures of the Pacific and their histories. Given the unknown past of Pacific oral teaching, it could be possible that there were ancient monists or dualists in the Pacific.
Part of the claim that ancient peoples used correlative thinking is grounded in brain science (see the paper’s Appendix IV, ‘The Correlative Character of Human Cognition’). The idea is that correlative thinking dominated ancient human cognition globally. Over time, correlative thinking was replaced by other forms of cognition.
As the ancient cultural philosophies in South, Southeast and East Asia continued to change over time, creating monistic and dualistic philosophies, they too entered the Pacific. First Hindu and Buddhist philosophies entered the Pacific, and later Islamic and Christian philosophies came, bringing in monism and dualism.
Pacific islanders seem to reject a principle of logic established by Aristotle: that a claim must either be right or wrong, never both. You say that Pacific islanders think in terms of true-and-false. Could you provide an example?
Last week the university launched our Certificate in Traditional Navigation program. Part of the ceremony was the enactment of the Pow (to pound) ritual to initiate new navigators. A palm frond is used to symbolically beat arrogance out of the initiate while pounding in humility. In the process, the initiates become possessed by ancestral spirits.
Traditionally, the initiates would go into isolation for four days and be given a different herbal medicine each day until they may return to community life. The initiates are both bodily-humans and spiritual-ancestors at the same time. There are many stories across the Pacific of gods and goddesses presenting as humans or inanimate objects. They are both true spirits and not true spirits, but physical at the same time.
In Belau, a drunk driver killed a pedestrian. The Justice Department wanted to put him on trial for, clearly, he was guilty. The victim’s family wanted to adopt him to replace their son. He was truly guilty and truly not guilty as the adopted son. When everything is understood to be interconnected, hard and fast categories melt and blend.
In the Pacific and in other regions, ancestors do not leave but live on after death in the same world as us in a nearby village, valley, or cave. Hell and heaven are on earth, not another realm. This is an ancient concept, isn’t it?
I agree. Globally, across ancient cultures the deceased ancestors were still nearby. They could continue to assist or punish their relatives. The idea that the dearly departed reside in transcendent realms, such as heaven, purgatory, or hell, far beyond and very different from the physical world is based on a dualism that separates the material world from an abstract pure spiritual realm.
As you point out, in many Pacific cultures like the Chuukese of Micronesia and CHamorus of Guam, gods become people and vice versa. Does this remind you of ancient European traditions, for example Greek myths?
If the brain science is correct that human cognition is correlative in character, then it is not surprising to find ancient cross-cultural universals. The god becoming human, the personal relationship with the saviour, and the human blood sacrifice motif are some of the elements that make Christianity so popular and easy for folks to convert to.
You write that many moderns identify with abstract belief systems, i.e. with a religious, political, or scientific worldview, while Pacific traditions identify with their ancestors. How do Pacific islanders strive to balance both worlds?
That is a complex question. The practice is not to balance two different things or approaches but to integrate them in a “both and something more” perspective. In politics, some Pacific nations’ constitutions give cultural-political capital to village leaders or chiefs. Extended families form political parties and vote accordingly. In the church or temple, we express our hopes, values, and beliefs in our own cultural modes.
The human brain learns by making mistakes and by drawing analogies from past experiences. Drawing analogies is part of correlative thinking. In practice, scientific approaches were always part of island wisdom. Islanders have always quickly adopted and integrated technology into our lives. The modern Pacific scientific laboratories contain island wisdom.
You conclude that non-Pacific islanders too need not choose between the monist and dualist philosophies that underlie modern technology. What can Westerners learn from Pacific philosophies?
Some of the topics that modern peoples across the continents can learn from Pacific philosophies are the importance of relationality and relationship in both the social and natural realms.
The climate crisis is in part due to a lack of understanding and appreciation for how human actions and consumption effect the environment. The heart of Pacific philosophy is the beat and rhythm of the environment. Pacific philosophies are first and foremost environmental philosophies.
The rest of the world needs to tune into indigenous ecological thinking because the dualistic model of humans dominating a wild nature is not working well. Human society is part and parcel of the environment. Social and political harmony are rooted in environmental resources.
The onto-cosmic relationality between all life, including human life and the environment, is sacred. As such, human relationships are also sacred. The fragmentation of modern social life would be better informed by the importance of maintaining relationships.
Ancient Hindu creation stories, you explain, travelled the world as far as Ireland and turn up in Pacific stories. As a student of both Chinese and Pacific philosophy, do you see much overlap between these traditions?
The strongest similarity is the use of correlative thinking. Early 20th century Sinologists mistakenly claimed that yin-yang (correlative) thinking was unique to China. A.C. Graham first exposed the universal nature of correlative thinking. W. Goodenough noted the numerology connection between the Chinese Yijing 易經 (Book of Changes) and Chuuk divination practices. So, we can say there was some direct transmission from the China mainland into the Pacific beyond Taiwan and Japan.
Thank you for this opportunity to dialogue with you.
James D. Sellmann, ‘On Pacific logic’, in Synkrētic №3 (Dec. 2022): 64-69.