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"Where Do We Stand When We Know? Mātauranga Māori and its Translation as 'Science'" by Carl Mika

White house on hill

A current concern in Aotearoa (New Zealand) centres on the relationship of mātauranga Māori to science. Mātauranga Māori is often defined as Māori knowledge, and thus debates have ensued around whether there are disciplines of mātauranga Māori that can be deemed scientific. In what follows, I limit the discussion to both mātauranga Māori and science as they adopt contrasting stances (other possible words are “orientation” or “tendency” – in Māori, “whakaaro”). Both disciplines are broad and I am aware that there is a complexity to both, such that there is no single agreed-on definition for either. “Stance” seeks to encompass this breadth, and expands the discussion from methods, observations, research findings, and so on, to a more fundamental one which is especially important to mātauranga Māori: an emotional commitment to relating to things in the world in a particular way. As the British philosopher Matthew Ratcliffe has put it, “a shift in stance involves a kind of affective transformation of the world” and different stances “do at least comprise dispositions towards certain kinds of questions, arguments and positions”.

In Māori philosophy, there is a particular allegiance to the idea that all things in the world are interconnected. This totality or “the All” includes everything that has ever existed and will exist, along with visible and invisible realms. Of all first principles in Māori thought, this is the most enduring and frequently mentioned. In its loyalty to a belief that all things are interconnected, the Māori language makes a point of referencing primordial phenomena such as the All, nothingness, and darkness. The contrasting relationships of both mātauranga Māori and science to the All will be the anchor of this discussion. I will consider these relationships at three levels:

1) The stance of the disciplines themselves;

2) The evolution of their practitioners – how they are thrust into the world, dictated by their discipline’s respective commitments to the All;

3) The subsequent dealings of the mātauranga Māori practitioner and scientist with the external world.

My overall claim is that while there may at first glance appear to be similarities between western science and mātauranga Māori, the commitment of mātauranga Māori to the All complicates any possibility of an alliance between the two.


In one sense, mātauranga Māori can be thought of as an assessment carried out by the “gut” or through intuition. It calls for the mātauranga Māori practitioner to take a step back from detail and assess a state of affairs based – initially, at least – on an emotional assessment. Indeed, it can take the form of ignoring detail and focusing on the nature of some phenomenon as a whole. How a discipline tends to show itself, or show itself up in relation to the All, becomes extremely important. To that extent, mātauranga Māori believes that a discipline breathes into the world in its own way, as much as any human does.

Mātauranga Māori believes that a discipline breathes into the world in its own way, as much as any human does.

Māori scholar Daniel Hikuroa notes that “[t]he world view of a culture determines what [the members of that culture] perceive reality to be: what is regarded as actual, probable, possible or impossible”. This raises the question of how we are to approach our understanding of mātauranga Māori. In her article “Mātauranga Māori: A philosophy from Aotearoa”, Māori scholar Georgina Tuari Stewart suggests that mātauranga Māori needs to be approached philosophically, rather than scientifically. As a form of inquiry that is prior to any particular empirical observation or technical discussion of a method, a philosophical approach is more open to the idea of a ground for thinking that is prior to knowledge and has been set down by the more-than-human. In the Māori language, we call this primordiality or ground of existence “papa”. I wouldn’t want to know, comprehend or understand something if there wasn’t an instinctive, even unconscious, drive to orient towards it in the first place: I would need something to dictate my interest in the visible and invisible, in desiring to know at all.

Mātauranga Māori has at its disposal several terms that either directly allude to that drive or, more subtly, have it as a background to their meaning. One such term (which we have already encountered in the opening paragraph) is “whakaaro” which, alongside its common definition of “to think”, can also mean a type of “orientation towards” something, prior to thinking or any other kind of cognitive engagement. Of central importance to this seemingly straightforward definition, though, is that one does not conduct one’s own “orienting”: I am in fact oriented towards something by the All because it constitutes me (and every other thing) in a material sense. Crucially, whakaaro can refer to an orientation taken by non-humans as well as humans.

We have seen that mātauranga Māori tends to place things in the world within a context where those things are understood holistically. One of the most expansive definitions of mātauranga Māori is provided by Māori scholar Daniel Hikuroa in his article “Mātauranga Māori – the ūkaipō of knowledge in New Zealand”:

[T]he knowledge, comprehension, or understanding of everything visible and invisible existing in the universe, including present-day, historic, local and traditional knowledge; systems of knowledge transfer and storage; and Māori goals, aspirations and issues.

There are several terms in the Māori language that reveal this immediate relationship between all things: in Māori philosophy, the term “whakapapa”, for instance, is crucial for describing the interconnection between phenomena, whether they are human or non-human. Often, whakapapa is mentioned in the same space as “mauri” or life-force; at other times, there is simply an acceptance, within the former term, that all things exist inseparably from each other.

Mātauranga Māori, in its tendency to interconnect things in its stance towards the world, thus collapses any strict boundaries between things in the world that have occurred through division or categorisation. It sees phenomena as so tightly interconnected that they constitute each other – “I am that thing, and that thing is me” (and thus any talk of the “I” and “that thing” is simply an unavoidable outcome of having to use language that divides phenomena according to a subject-object scheme).

From a mātauranga Māori perspective, science also has a stance in relation to the All. For the mātauranga Māori practitioner, the stance of science is, in fact, a deeply passionate one characterised by a constant denial that any idea or object is constituted by the All. It thus appears to actively reject something that its own existence depends on. In other words, in denying the existence of the All, it immediately risks negating its own existence. Although science cannot actually disprove the existence of the All (just as it cannot disprove the existence of God), it shows itself – in what might strike the mātauranga Māori practitioner as a rather perverse move – to be nonetheless highly dependent on it because of its constant striving to relegate it to elsewhere in its denial.

Indigenous peoples are susceptible to fragmentation as the fundamental mode of colonisation.

This struggle with itself can be illustrated in the Māori language, which sometimes embeds metaphysical meaning within its terminology. In my article “Western Fragility: A Māori Philosophical Diagnosis”, I identified one such term, “rangirua”, which refers to, amongst other things, uncertainty, having two aspects, and being out of tune. Bringing them together, I noted that there was an ordeal that western thought, including science, was imposing on all things: “[t]he launching of the fragmented self into a disjointed metaphysical realm is a product of worry about the totality of things and the repercussions of that for certainty”. Mātauranga Māori is highly conscious of infinite realms, all of which are meant to sit as part of the All, and thus talk of a disjointed or “worried” metaphysical reality is much more likely to take place in mātauranga Māori contexts than in one where the scientific stance holds sway. From the mātauranga Māori perspective, there is a sense that the scientific stance sets up a kind of nervous disjuncture within the world that undermines the “resonance” or equilibrium of all things, visible and invisible; within the scientific stance, there is nervousness about the totality of things and the repercussions of that for certainty, and so the scene is set for a subsequent elevation of a specifically human-centred stance in relation to other phenomena. In a sense, science worried into existence a realm that was never meant to be. This was the first act of fragmentation, the first ejection of an aspect of the All so that it became available as a realm to place and order all things. It should be noted that indigenous peoples are susceptible to fragmentation as the fundamental mode of colonisation.


A crucial question arising from this discussion is whether the actions of the human self are still dependent, in a very real, material sense, on the All, or whether the latter can be left behind in favour of detached observation and judgement. In short: is the human being untethered from the “shackles” of the non-human world? Does the human being now have the licence to watch, assess and even talk on the premise that they are now completely autonomous? And, more specifically, is their stance or orientation towards the world – the active aspect of whakaaro – such that they can arrange and assess phenomena in an objective manner?

As we have seen, whakaaro is a concept that underlines the extent to which the lens through which we view the world is shaped, or even constituted, by the world itself. Thus, not only is the self shaped by the All, but also the means by which we assess the phenomena that we observe – our intuitive and intellectual processes. The stance that the All has towards the human is both fundamental – as just described – and directive, insofar as it gives shape to the human’s subsequent engagement with the world. In his article “Nga tini ahuatanga o whakapapa korero”, Māori scholar Takirirangi Smith identifies a complex interrelationship of the world and the human self at work in whakaaro, including “knowledge of above”, the “earthly”, the Sky Father/Earth Mother, as well as “the ngakau [heart], the stomach and the central region of the body”. Whakaaro, the act of representing the external world as well as the possible means of representing it, thus appears to be highly dependent on the non-human totality.

The scientific stance, on the other hand, thrusts its practitioners amongst the All as if they were self-reliant. There is a distinct existential difference here: where the mātauranga Māori practitioner is, in a sense, with all things, the scientist is still among them – he or she cannot help that, as I discussed above – but they are set within the world as if they are separate. The scientist is one whose ability to proceed with observation relies on the assumption that such an activity begins with, and proceeds from, the human self outwards towards the observed world. They are meant to be unencumbered in order to perform their work. And yet, to reiterate here an earlier point, such a stance relies on the All in the first instance, but, having established a realm that exists separately from the All, the scientific stance now imagines itself to be self-governing.

As we have seen, the stances of both the mātauranga Māori practitioner and the scientist begin with hunches or suspicions about phenomena. Thus, the origins of both science and mātauranga Māori are emotional (and from the mātauranga Māori perspective, this is another way of explaining the dependence of both on the All). However, with the mātauranga Māori practitioner being so deeply implicated with the All, the relationship between the thing under investigation and the self is profound. This link between the mātauranga Māori practitioner and the object of their concern means that they cannot distance themselves from it, and thus an emotional response persists. In other words, the mātauranga Māori practitioner remains emotionally galvanised by the things they investigate due to their indivisibility from them. The scientist, however, is meant to achieve the opposite: they must assert their emotional freedom from the thing in order to allow for the possibility of clear knowledge. This is what is meant by the lauded scientific goal of “objectivity”.

In even the most banal Māori settings, we can see a divergence between the two stances taking place. If, for example, a Māori scientist (or philosopher, academic, lawyer, doctor and so on) wishes to talk to an elder, they may find that their inquiry – whatever that is – is thwarted by the elder wanting to know how the person in front of them orients themselves towards the world. Where do they stand in relation to the world? Are they too eager to know? Are they distracted, and hence not inhabiting a calm state of mind? Do they appear too pushy by engaging in an excess of questioning? Do they seem thrilled by the prospect of closing a circle, of finding a solution, and are therefore, in a sense, not present? While the questions posed by the Māori scientist/philosopher may be important, the elder may end up ignoring such questions in order to make their own inquiry into the existential nature of the visitor.


We have now seen many reasons to suspect that any attempts to advocate for an equivalence between mātauranga Māori and western science is doomed to failure. As Georgina Tuari Stewart has put it, “[t]o equate mātauranga with science means attributing to mātauranga the epistemological commitments of science, thereby limiting the ability to explore and develop contemporary understandings of mātauranga in its own right”. Similarly, in “God, man and universe: A Māori view”, Māori Marsden cautions that “abstract rational thought and empirical methods cannot grasp the concrete act of existing [for Māori] which is fragmentary, paradoxical and incomplete”. While Māori thought can take objects as if they are world itself, it cannot objectify them due to their fundamental inaccessibility (they have their own life force or embeddedness within the All), and thus it cannot complete a tidy circle of knowledge about them. Things have their vibrancy and resist full comprehension. The Māori live within the complexity of all things, and thus clarity is not the true aim of life. The Māori understand knowledge to be a mode of belonging to the world rather than a tool for controlling it. There is, in short, no need for the Māori to defer to the authority of science in matters pertaining to knowledge.

The Māori understand knowledge to be a mode of belonging to the world rather than a tool for controlling it.

However, one notable attempt to bring mātauranga Māori and science into productive conversation has been made by Daniel Hikuroa. While not denying that Māori awareness of the supernatural origins of the world is important, Hikuroa argues that both “mātauranga Māori and science are bodies of knowledge methodically created, contextualised within a world view”. For example, he notes that we can observe and, aside from there being questions of values and differing metaphysics, in its most basic form we can all observe in the same way. Observation, the development of hypotheses, confirming them or otherwise – these are all culturally neutral. Hikuroa even argues that some mātauranga Māori “has been generated according to the scientific method, and can therefore be considered as a science”.

While Hikuroa acknowledges that “mātauranga Māori includes values and is explained according to a Māori world view”, I suggest instead that mātauranga Māori – if instructed and directed by the notion that all things are interconnected rather than simply “including” this as a value and then codifying a scientific outcome within a set of Māori values – marks a significant departure from science. Constantly incorporating the All whilst conducting a scientific inquiry would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, because it would compromise the premises on which the scientific stance is based. For example, in the scientific stance, there is a clear and uncomplicated space between self and phenomenon, such that there is no relationship between them, apart from an intellectual and emotional interest on the part of the scientist.

Despite disagreeing with the equivalence between mātauranga Māori and the scientific stance, I acknowledge that these sorts of discussions are potentially very exciting for Māori philosophy. They illustrate that, even though there is very different engagement with the world between western and Māori thought, and thus there is no direct commensurability between the two, speculative dialogue is nevertheless possible. Just because we can find no immediate correspondences does not mean all discussions are impossible: after all, the differences provoke philosophical tensions, which give rise to further thinking.


There are bigger issues at stake, however, and in considering these I am following in the footsteps of Gianni Vattimo, who writes that “it interests me greatly to learn what the impact is of certain scientific achievements, what has changed in the history of our existence, our culture, our human community in consequence. For me, the philosophy of science is basically, whether it likes it or not, a species of sociology or philosophy of culture”. Within the central tenets of mātauranga Māori, as described above, lays the glimmer of a warning. Science (and rationality more generally, for that matter) illuminates the self and simultaneously fires the self outward from an all-embracing materiality. This worry is not simply about the individual but the system as a whole, and while there is room for more than one stance in mātauranga Māori, it seems that the one that fragments the self from things, and things among themselves, leads to a metaphysico-existential crisis.

Methods of thinking and observing are tightly implicated with wellbeing – not just for the human entity but also the non-human world.

In this crisis, one is not simply affected psychologically but at a much broader and deeper level. Methods of thinking and observing are tightly implicated with wellbeing – not just for the human entity but also the non-human world. If we just accepted that mātauranga Māori used the same units of analysis that science draws from, then mātauranga Māori would be nothing but “empiricism in a piupiu” (according to Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, a piupiu is a “skirt-like garment made of flax strands that hang from a belt”, which is worn both in traditional and, sometimes, contemporary Māori times).

To hold true to its philosophy, mātauranga Māori must be ready to, at the very least, consider its incommensurability with some extremely compelling and seductive methods and ontologies – including the scientific one.

Carl Mika is Māori of the Tuhourangi tribe, and is an associate professor in the Division of Education and Co-Director of Centre for Global Studies at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. His research is in the area of Maori thought/philosophy, with a particular focus on its revitalisation within a colonised reality. Committed to investigating indigenous notions of holism, he is currently working on the Māori concepts of nothingness and darkness in response to an Enlightenment focus on clarity, and is speculating on how they can form the backdrop of academic expression. He is interested in current debates on crossovers between Māori thought/philosophy, education and science.


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 2 ("Authority and Knowledge"). If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a print or digital subscriber. We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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