• Mātauranga: Unity of the Big Three

last modified January 21, 2016 by strypey


Our inherited European philosophy of knowledge (for this discussion, I use the term 'Western' philosophy), with its focus on categorisation, can be traced back at least as far as Aristotle in ancient Greece (8). It breaks knowledge into packets of information assets, assigns them to isolated hierarchies, and divides access to them into two broad domains - private and public. In contrast, indigenous peoples tend to have their own unique conceptual frameworks for knowledge. For Tangata Whenua, knowledge is mātauranga, a unified system for understanding the world by mapping whakapapa  (networks of relationships), rather than assembling heirarchical databases. Instead of an asset - in the sense of property that can be owned - mātauranga is "taonga tuku iho"; a responsibility passed down from the ancestors, and held in trust by the present generation for the benefit of future generations.

Mātauranga is made up of three interrelated and inseparable parts, represented as three kete (baskets) of knowledge in the tauparapara (incantation) of Tane's ascension to commune with Io (a personification of the "parentless source") in Te Tihi-o-Manono: "te kete-tuatea (basket of light), te kete-tuauri (basket of darkness) and te kete-aronui (basket of pursuit). There are several interpretations of what each basket represents. The scholar Māori Marsden has suggested that the basket of light is present knowledge, the basket of darkness things unknown, and the basket of pursuit is the knowledge humans currently seek", says Taonui in Te Ara (9

Integral theorist Ken Wilbur sees three domains of knowledge in modern Western philosophy - the "Big Three" of science, art, and ethics. "The Big Three are also Sir Karl Popper's three worlds - objective (it), subjective (I), and cultural (we). And the Big Three are Habermass' three vailidity claims: objective truth, subjective sincerity, and intersubjective justness" (10). Keeping this in mind, I see parallels between the kete and his Big Three as follows; 

Kete Tuauri - ("present knowledge") arts - the personal interpretation of that which has been discovered in a determined past.

Kete Tuatea - ("things unknown") ethics  - the cultural interpretation of that which should or should not be done in an undetermined future. To quote Richard Stallman, "Whether gods exist or not, there is no way to get absolute certainty about ethics. Without absolute certainty, what do we do? We do the best we can." (11)

Kete Aronui - ("knowledge humans currently seek") science - the personal and institutional quest to test, assimilate, and use new knowledge. 

However, the Big Three are derived from Wilbur's claim that modern Western science only grants the "flatland" of exteriors status in reality, demoting the internal facets to the role of representation and metaphor. Wilbur contrasts this state of dissociation against premodern states which precede it, in which the Big Three are undifferentiated; and a postmodern state that transcends it, integrating the three spheres without losing their differentiation. Whether the three kete represent such a premodern condition or postmodern insight is a profound question which would need an essay in itself to explore. As would the notion that the founding concept of the University - where all forms of knowledge are shared, cross-bred, and deepened - corresponds with the idea of mātauranga as a diverse but unified body of knowledge. Nevertheless, both could be interpreted as aspirations towards Wilbur's "integration of the big three", and a fundamentally different understanding of the universe than the flatland of reductionist Western science.

One of the major differences is the understanding of ownership as being primarily about control and profit (Western), as opposed to belonging and responsibility to past and future generations (mātauranga). The Western approach assumes that there are two possible ways of owning information; privately - owned by a legal person, a human being or an incorporated entity like a company or trust; and publicly - owned by society, as represented by a formal government, usually a nation-state. This assumption is codified in all legislation that affects information. In Tangata Whenua tradition, mātauranga belongs to whanau (family), hapu (community), and iwi (nation), and includes knowledge which is sacred/ secret, which nobody else needs to know, or has any right to know. Marie Shroff (12) mentions the location of urupa (burial grounds) as an example of this "collective privacy". It also includes practical knowledge, the form and history of which is intrinsically tied to the mana and reputation of the group, yet may be shared for the benefit of the wider society, or humanity as a whole. To quote the Mataatua Declaration, "...Indigenous Peoples are capable of managing their traditional knowledge themselves, but are willing to offer it to all humanity provided their fundamental rights to define and control this knowledge are protected by the international community" (13).

As a framework for comparing these different containers of knowledge I turn to another of Wilbur's analytical tools, the All Quadrants All Levels (AQAL) model, in which everything in the universe is understood to evolve through all four facets of its reality, given here with their correlates among the Big Three; interior individual (art); interior collective (ethics); exterior individual and exterior collective (science). Applying the quadrants to human knowledge gives us four domains; personal privacy (interior individual), sacred customs (interior collective), personal reputation (exterior individual), and the public domain (exterior collective).

In this model, different parts of the "intellectual property" complex can be seen to belong in different quadrants. Trade secrets are interior collective, although unlike sacred customs their secrecy often expires naturally, along with their commercial advantage, as new products and services are brought to market. Trademarks are exterior individual, as they pertain to the reputation of a legal 'person', an individual or a company. Unlike knowledge in the public domain you cannot do whatever you like to the information in the reputation quadrant, which also includes libel, slander, and defamation laws. It is by its nature publicly available, but it must be transmitted and represented accurately and fairly. Copyrights, patents, PVRs (Plant Variety Rights), and IDRs (Industrial Design Rights) are exterior collective, as the knowledge they cover is publicly shared and reusable, despite the limited monopoly granted over sharing and reuse of that knowledge before it enters the public domain.