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Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews



Indigenous Australian philosophy is more than just a survivalist kit to understanding nature, human or environmental, but is also a system for realising the fullest potential of human emotion and experience. This paper explores elements of indigenous philosophy, focusing on indigenous views that maintain human-ness is a skill, not developed in order to become a better human being, but to become more and more human. In this context, the paper considers indigenous understandings of the land as a spiritual entity and human societies as dependent upon the land.
Extracts from a longer paper entitled
Graham, M 1999, 'Some Thoughts about the
Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal
Worldviews', Worldviews Environment,
Culture, Religion, 3:
Western: What’s the meaning of life?
Aboriginal: What is it that wants to know?
“The white man’s law is always changing, but Aboriginal Law never changes
and is valid for all people.” Mr. Bill Neidjie,
“Kakadu Man”
Worldviews, Environment, Culture, Religion 3
* The Land is the Law
* You are not alone in the world
Aboriginal people’s culture is ancient, and certain observations have been made over many millennia about the
nature of nature, spirit and being human. The most basic questions for any human group, despite advances in
technology, have not changed much over time; they include:
How do we live together (area/nation/globally), without killing each other off?
How do we live without substantially damaging the environment?
Why do we live? The need to find the answer to this question in a way that does not make people feel
alienated, lonely or murderous.
The Land is the Law
The land is a sacred entity, not property or real estate; it is the great mother of all humanity. The Dreaming is a
combination of meaning (about life and all reality); reality and an action guide to living. The two most
important kinds of relationship in life are, firstly, those between land and people and, secondly, those amongst
people themselves, the second being always contingent upon the first. The land, and how we treat it, is what
determines our human-ness. Because land is sacred and must be looked after, the relation between people and
land becomes the template for society and social relations. Therefore, all meaning comes from land.
You are not alone in the world
Aboriginal people have a kinship system, which extends into land; this system was and still is organized into
clans. One's first loyalty is to one's own clan group. It does not matter how Western and urbanized Aboriginal
people have become this kinship system never changes. (It has been damaged by, for example, cultural and
physical genocide/Stolen Children/Westernisation etc, but has not been altered substantially.) Every clan group
has its own Dreaming or explanation of existence. We believe that a person finds their individuality within the
group. To behave as if you are a discrete entity or a conscious isolate is to limit yourself to being merely an
observer in an observed world.
Aboriginal People's Relationship to Land
Every different clan group has stories about their beginnings. Stories are like our archives, detailing how
Creator Beings from under the earth arose to shape the land and to create the landscape. There are myriad
variations of the story, but the theme stays the same.
The whole surface of the earth was like a moonscape, no features; no flora and fauna, just bare open plain. But
there were Creator Beings sleeping in a state of potentiality just under the surface. At a certain time they were
disturbed, whereupon their potentiality transformed into actuality and they arose out of the ground. When they
finally emerged, they were very big and tall. These beings were spirit ancestors of many of the varieties of flora
and fauna, especially large animals, in Australia. When this emergence was completed, the spirit ancestors
started to interact with one another, fighting, dancing, running about, making love, and killing. All of this
activity shaped the Australian landscape, as we know it today.
Throughout this period humans remained asleep in various embryonic forms, in a state like a kind of proto-
humanity. They were woken by all the activity above. The Creator Beings helped these proto-humans to
become fully human, teaching them the Laws of custodianship of land, the Laws of kinship, of marriage, of
correct ceremonies - they gave them every kind of knowledge they needed to look after the land and to have a
stable society.
When this work was finished, the Creator Beings went back into the land, where they all still remain in the
same eternal sleep from which they awakened at the beginning of time. The locations to which they returned
have always been and are still today regarded as very important sacred sites.
Wherever the Creator Beings traveled, they left tracks or some kind of evidence of themselves. These traces
determine the identity of Aboriginal people. In other words, every Aboriginal person has a part of the essence
of one of the original creative spirits who formed the Australian landscape. Therefore, each person has a
charter of custodianship empowering them and making them responsible for renewing that part of the flora
and its fauna. The details of this metaphysics varied widely across the land with the physical environment. But
the spiritual basis, that is, the understanding that what separates humans from animals is the fact that each
human bears a creative and spiritual identity which still resides in land itself - provided, and still provides in
many places, the religious, social, political and economic force throughout Aboriginal Australia.
Custodial Ethic toward Land
Although Indigenous people everywhere are westernized to different degrees, Aboriginal people's identity is
essentially always embedded in land and defined by their relationships to it and to other people. The sacred
web of connections includes not only kinship relations and relations to the land, but also relations to nature
and all living things. When a controlling ethic, lacking such a collective spiritual basis prevails or is chosen,
then the sacred becomes constrained by religious and political imperatives, and the voyage to societal and
spiritual hierarchies begins. The logical end point of such a system is a narrow survivalist mentality and
perspective on life and on existence itself. This is because such systems incorporate strong reward/punishment
systems; they provide clear direction for people's fears, dreams, ambitions and ultimately status. In fact this
mentality becomes both the reason and the impelling force for constant action, change and even belief without
reflection. People become habituated to such systems if rewards are, not necessarily large or rich, but at least
constant and established. Collective self knowledge is then seen as not very important; it could even be viewed
as a chore or burden best avoided.
Old Aboriginal people have often stated that White Australians 'have no Dreaming', that is, they have no
collective spiritual identity, together with no true understanding of having a correct or 'proper' relationship
with land/reality. Many White Australians recognize this themselves and are working, planning and creating,
quite often in dialogue with Aboriginal people, to change this situation.
Reflective Motive
The non-ego based nature of Aboriginal society was grounded in an understanding of the human psyche. The
Aboriginal understanding posits that the tendency to possess is more deeply embedded in the human psyche
than is the tendency to share. In other words, possessiveness is a more 'primitive' mode of behavior than
sharing or altruism; possessiveness precedes altruism and it therefore takes a higher order of abilities to
maintain "sharing" behavior than it takes to demonstrate possessive behavior. Possessive behavior is asserted
or exhibited spontaneously and unreflectively. Sharing behavior has to be inculcated in the first place and then
"maintained". It involves such abstract concepts as 'reciprocity', 'strategy' and above all 'community'.
When the Aboriginal child learns to share, he or she is given food and then invited to give it back; social
obligations are pointed out and possessiveness gently discouraged, as in the following child's lullaby:
Give to me, Baby,
Give to her, Baby,
Give to him, Baby,
Give to one, Baby,
Give to all, Baby.
A collective responsibility to land is vital before people attempt to transcend ego and possessiveness. These
things tend to present a barrier to upholding obligations to look after land, so land should always comes before
ego and possessions.
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The effect of this transcendence of ego is to inculcate a sense of communal, rather than individuated, identity,
and, most importantly, to encourage reflective engagement in all activities. Such a reflective effort, which in
Western culture issued in science, resulted, in Aboriginal culture, in the thorough examination and
understanding of what it means to be human. Therefore, for Westerners, possessiveness - which emerges from
within the smoldering ember of the unreflective motive found within the cult of individualism - is what makes
modern Western economic activity possible and money valuable.
Aboriginal logic is very different to Western logic. Western logic rests on the division between the self and the
not-self, the external and the internal. This means that it is the viewpoint of the human individual that is taken
to be the window between the external world of fact and the internal world of beliefs. Within the terms of such
a division, and the 'viewpoint' which it produces, things can only ever appear as either true or false if they are
to appear to “be” at all; this is the law of the Excluded Middle.
Aboriginal logic maintains that there is no division between the observing mind and anything else: there is no
“external world” to inhabit. There are distinctions between the physical and the spiritual, but these aspects of
existence continually interpenetrate each other. All perspectives are thus valid and reasonable: there is no one
way or meaning of life. There is never a barrier between the mind and the Creative; the whole repertoire of
what is possible continually presents or is expressed as an infinite range of Dreamings. What is possible is the
transformative dynamic of growth.
If one true way is posited, sooner or later individuals or groups are inclined to ideologise it; rigid thinking then
follows (or vice versa), and the formation of groups of “true believers”, chosen people, sects, religions, parties
etc cannot be far behind.
Historically, different groups/individuals have assumed that there is only one absolute answer to the question
of existence, usually their own. If this assumption is accepted, then logically there must be thousands, if not
millions, of potential absolute answers to this age-old question. Aboriginal people however approached this
dilemma differently: the only constant in the lives of human beings was, according to them, land/nature. Ideas
are myriad and ever changing. This is why the custodial ethic, based on and expressed through Aboriginal
Law, is so essential not only to Aboriginal society but to any society that intends to continue for millennia and
wants to regard itself as mature.
Aboriginal Law is valid for all people only in the sense that all people are placed on land wherever they
happen to be, so that the custodial ethic, which is primarily an obligatory system, may be acted on by anyone
who is interested in looking after or caring for land. It most certainly is not itself a "true" way - there are no
ideas surrounding it as to the right method, correct rules etc; there are no small, powerful groups that are the
"only exponents"; there is no hard, soft, liberal, or orthodox approach to this ethic.
The custodial ethic/Aboriginal Law thus cannot be idealogised: it is a locus of identity for human beings, not a
focus of identity: we can achieve the fullest expression of our human identity in a location in land. This
identity emerges out of a place in the landscape with meaning intact. Ideology, in contrast, provides a sharp
focus for ideas and a definition of the human individual, where this in turn places the individual, as human,
against land, as mere backdrop. Meaning is then molded to fit this framework (rather than emerging intact
from a place in the landscape).
The Land is the Law
Mr. Neidjie's statement at the beginning of this paper is an observation that reveals one difference between
positive and natural kinds of law. A system of natural law is one that is based on the way the real world is
perceived to behave. For instance, the laws of physics describe how objects in the real world interact, so that
physics can be seen to be a system of natural, physical law that never changes. If the laws of physical motion
did change, we could expect to see the universe begin to fall apart before our eyes.
But just as it is possible to describe some of the ways in which the world seems to behave at a physical level, it
may also be possible to describe some of the ways in which the world behaves at a non-physical, or “spiritual”,
level. Aboriginal Law is grounded in a perception of this psychic level of natural behavior. On that view,
Aboriginal Law “never changes and is valid for all people”, because it implicitly describes the wider
emotional, psychological and perhaps cognitive states of the world to which all human beings are subject.
Which means that Aboriginal Law is as natural (and as scientific) a system of law as physics. On this basis
alone, Aboriginal Law is a very important system to understand.
Aboriginal Law refers to a complex relationship between humanity and land which extends to cover every
aspect of life; to that extent it is what theorists call a “complex system”, in that it explains both the observer
and the observed. In that sense the Law is both a science and a religion, in Western terms. It is a religion in
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that it explains both the origins and meaning of the cosmos (including the observer), and it is a science in that
it does so rationally, and with empirical support. To this extent, Aboriginal Law differs from modern Western
ideas of “positive law”
On Western theoretical criteria, Aboriginal Law is natural law, in that if it was legislated at all, this was done
not by humans, but by the spiritual ancestors of the Dreaming, so that Aboriginal Law is incapable of being
added to, amended or repealed by any human agency. What this means is that Aboriginal Law is like a
cognitive science or applied psychology - it doesn’t deal with the actions of humans or the events which befall
them, but with what makes it possible for people to act purposively, and experience “events”. That is to say,
the perfectibility of human beings was never a concern for Aboriginal Law; rather this Law was/is always an
attempt to understand what it is that makes us human. It was/is concerned with why and how it is that we act
with purpose: where does this will come from? Why and how do we experience the events that occur in our
lives? Why is the experience of one person different from that of another? Over millennia this understanding
of the human experience in Australia has given rise to a form of law which Justice Blackburn, in a Northern
Territory Land Rights case, described as
"A subtle and elaborate system highly adapted to the country in which the people lead their lives, which
provided a stable order of society and was remarkably free from the vagaries of personal whim or influence. If
ever a system could be called "a government of laws, and not of men", it is that shown in the evidence before
me." (Blackburn, 1970)
In this sense Aboriginal Law could be said to be both an action guide to living and a guide to understanding
reality itself, especially in relation to land as the basis for all meaning.
At this level of conception, Aboriginal Law is comparable to Buddhism, which is also a psychology of life.
There is however a major difference Buddhism seeks an escape from normal, waking consciousness, on the
grounds that no matter how richly endowed, waking existence is an endless wheel of birth, suffering and
death. By contrast, Aboriginal Law, which is located in land, celebrates life in all its ups and downs, using the
“downs” to point to moral formulae.
There never was a paradise
There never was a paradise, either an Indigenous one, a religious or moral one, a worker's, futuristic,
technological or even a physical one. The hierarchical structure of many societies gives the impression that
one is always on the way to some destination, to a better position, life or world. Although this is an illusion,
Western people were (and still are) habituated to the notion of 'travelling', metaphorically, toward some great
unknown where they hope that what might be waiting for them is, if not Heaven, then maybe, Happiness,
Love, Security, a Theory Explaining Everything.
Throughout the whole historical period, from the birth of the state to the transformation of people into citizens
of nations and members of ever-changing class systems, social relations became ever more disconnected,
alienated and strained. This development was softened to some extent, and at the same time camouflaged, by
economic materialism, which ensured that people sought spiritual and psychological security through an
identity based on ownership. Throughout their history, the behavior of Westerners has been consistent with
that of a people who believe that they are quite alone in existence - which the individual is, metaphysically
speaking, totally alone. This is also why the notion of spirit and the sacred gradually disappear from their
intellectual discourse (though not from their writing and poetry).
If a society makes the sacred simply a matter of personal choice or private concern for individuals, then the
next logical step is for these metaphysical isolates to extend themselves physically (which is in reality an
unacknowledged search for meaning), and ownership is physical extension by accretion.
But what is the sacred, this domain of spirit that has been lost to Western society? What does it consist of?
Where does it reside? From an Aboriginal perspective, it resides in the relationship between the human spirit
and the natural life force. When there is a breach between the two, or rather, when the link between the two is
weakened, then a human being becomes a totally individuated self, a discrete entity whirling in space,
completely free. Its freedom is a fearful freedom however, because a sense of deepest spiritual loneliness and
alienation envelops the individual. The result is then that whatever form the environment or landscape takes,
it becomes and remains a hostile place. The discrete individual then has to arm itself not just literally against
other discrete individuals, but against its environment - which is why land is always something to be
conquered and owned. Indeed, the individual has to arm itself against loneliness and against nature itself -
though not against ideas. It arms itself with materialism, ownership, possessiveness (not just vulgar
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This is why economics generally has meant survival in Western society, not only in the practical sense, but also
in the moral, psychological and spiritual senses too. Enter economic rationalism, with its 'law of the jungle'
approach to the market dictatorship of societies, which has compounded the already existing global socio-
political crises. These crises, and the inadequacy of 'economism' as a defense against meaninglessness, has
ushered in a new search/struggle in the Western world for the true definition of identity or meaning - for the
definition of human identity, that is, not political/nationalist identity. This raises again all those questions
which many people thought had been answered: why are we here? Why am I doing this job? Where am I
going? What does this global crisis mean? What can I do about anything?
Many Australians of themselves and of their own society are currently asking these questions and many more.
Developments of the last decade with regard to Aboriginal land rights/Native Title have highlighted the
ambivalent relationship Australians have with land in this country, and their uncomfortable relationship with
Aboriginal people. Many Australians, however, have seen this period as a chance to understand themselves
and their country and the kind of society they want in the future for their children.
Part of the problem for Aboriginal people in modern Australia is working out ways in which we can continue
carrying out custodial responsibilities to land and, at the same time, try to obtain control over the economic
development of our communities without falling prey to the seductions of individualism.
The world is immediate, not external, and we are all its custodians, as well as its observers. A culture that
holds the immediate world at bay by objectifying it as the Observed System, thereby leaving it to the blinkered
forces of the market place, will also be blind to the effects of doing so until those effects become quantifiable
as, for example, acid rain, holes in the ozone layer and global economic recession. All the social forces, which
have led to this planetary crisis, could have been anticipated in principle, but this would have required a richer
Aboriginal people are not against economics or private ownership, but they ask that there be recognition that
ownership is a social act and therefore a spiritual act. As such, it produces effects in the immediate world,
which show up sooner or later in the 'external' world. What will eventually emerge in a natural, habituated
way is the embryonic form of an intact, collective spiritual identity for all Australians, which will inform and
support our daily lives, our aspirations and our creative genius.
J. Austin, The Province of Jurisprudence Determined, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1954.
Justice Blackburn, 'Milirrpum and others vs Nabalco Pty Ltd and the Commonwealth of Australia' 17 Federal
Law Report 267, 1970.
Bracton, Henry de, 1268, On the Laws and Customs of England, by Samuel E Thorne. Cambridge: published
in association with the Seldon Society by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968.
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