Book Review: Wisdom Sits in Places – Keith H. Basso

Wisdom Sits in Places.

The Apache take a unique stance toward history.  Their approach is framed around an investigation and catalogue of sites and their native names.  These names are generally descriptive, originally serving as oral maps of sites that were named when the land was first being populated and explored.  Later on site names become associated with the people who were somehow connected with them.  This evolved into the use of sites to explicate specific events, to tell a story, often a moral homily. That is, a practical discourse with a view to the spiritual edification of the hearers, rather than for the development of a moral doctrine.

Basso asks us “What do people make of places? As we read through the chapters of the book Basso continues to add layers to the answers to this opening question. He encourages us to reflect on various uses of the word “make”. We make sense of places by interpreting them. We make use of places; as sign posts or land-marks through the use of descriptive naming. The Apache made places repositories of ethical teachings. For example, they may tell a tale associated with a particular mesa in order to educate the tribe in a particular ethical practice. Thus the wisdom of that practice is said to sit in the mesa.

In the first chapter he relates how each speaker brings the homily forward, making it their own, fleshing it out. One imagines that the speaker and his listener are expected to silently immerse themselves in each homily. They make it real by seeing it happen. They give vision to the oral narrative by developing layers upon layers of particular exemplars of the lesson. As one gains wisdom one thus becomes more proficient at seeing when and where to apply these lessons.

This is similar in a way to the approach of the early Greek sophists who used rhetoric as an epistemological tool; a method for discovering how the cultural heroes of the past would respond to current dilemmas. Both cultures saw their elders and ancestors as the source of wisdom. They both argued that the knowledge of the past resided less in universal laws than in the ethical actions taken by their gods or their most revered ancestors.

The Apache method is a form of moral particularism as opposed to the Western habit of applying overarching moral principles to each situation. Particularism is the belief that the right action, the correct moral choice, is particular to each unique event. This is what Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, called phronesis: the ability to choose the right action for new situations throughout their lives.

The respect for the ancients and their language is a respect for tales of ancestors as fonts of ‘right’ actions, a moral stance that is critical for the individual and culture in the present.  The dead hand of the past is their invisible ethical guide to choosing the right action. Thus the Apache say that the lessons associated with specific sites “hunt like arrows.” They hunt for the right action in our everyday ethical dilemmas.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Wisdom Sits in Places – Keith H. Basso

  1. Ray

    Aristotle also believed phronesis not to be merely a technē, or skill, but the ability to understand and determine beneficial ends, which (he believed) must be consistent with the overall aim of living well. He saw virtue as a kind of hierarchy, with sophia, or wisdom, representing the pinnacle, and phronesis, being concerned with particulars, a necessary means toward achieving that pinnacle. Growing up — and forgive me here for being over-personal — my Indian name was “Sleeps With Beavers,” which, retrospectively, was indeed a kind of guide that lead me to a great deal of happiness.


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