Critical Reflections on Knowledge Systems

Defenders of Western Civilisation

As Wollongong University charges ahead with its Ramsay Centre of Western Civilisation, and associated BA in Western Civilisation, at the behest of the champions of the British empire like Tony Abbott, we can only hope that this will not be a vain propaganda exercise, but a serious academic appraisal of the legacy of the knowledge system that Western Civilisation has spread to the world through first imperialism and then economic globalisation. Even the rise and rise of China as the world’s largest economy is modelled on Marxism and state capitalism which has been imported from the West—all be it with a cultural veneer of Confucianism in terms of bureaucratic authoritarianism showing touches of the old Emperor of the Middle Kingdom in President Xi Jinping, and Mao Zedung before him.

However this looks like a vain hope with the UOW VC announcing: “The BA in Western Civilisation students will consider contemporary issues as they engage with some of the greatest works of thought and art ever produced, and learn to understand and respect interactions between Western and non-Western traditions of thought and art.”  The deal is worth approximately $50 million over 8 years, provides at least 150 undergraduate scholarships and funds several positions for outstanding academics

Meanwhile, despite Ramsay’s money fuelling nostalgia about the glories of Western Civilisation, the world is waking up to the full extent of epistemic colonisation through academic imperialism, as more and more attempts are made to help the previously excluded ethnic minorities of the colonised gain access to a ‘good academic education’. This is particularly evident in countries like Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand.  But we also see this epistemic colonisation at work in the field of Tibetan Buddhist studies, which rely on text, not on the actual experience of the mixture of practice and textual study in its tradition.  Like learning to be a doctor purely from texts, without ever examining a patient.

Fortunately, following groundbreaking work by educators such as Paulo Friere (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and a host of Indigenous scholars from First Nations peoples, there is now an extensive research effort in post colonial theory, and associated evaluation of research methodologies, by which academic scholars work with such ethnic minorities.  This is particularly in fields such as anthropology, health, law and education, but also in conservation and land care management.

The failure of Australia’s Indigenous people to thrive in our schools, and the failure of ‘closing the gap’ strategies, has put a spotlight on how these strategies have all been conceived in ignorance of the validity of indigenous knowledge systems.  Of failing to take account of their very different systems of ontology (being), epistemology (knowledge) and axiology (values), which must inform pedagogy.  Without this they are either doomed to failure, or they are doomed to reap psychic and cultural havoc and oppression.

This has recently been brought into sharp relief in the extensive work now on ‘cultural burning as caring for country’ as championed for the past decades by people like Victor Steffensen (Fire Country, 2020). This stand in contrast with  the current approach of heroic crisis bushfire fighting to protect assets. It has also been exposed in the recent film, “In My Blood It Runs”, which led to its protagonist, 12 year old Dujuan Hoosan addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva about the catastrophic impact of epistemic oppression that is built into the imposition of the pedagogy of Western Civilisation on our Indigenous people, such as himself and his community, the custodians of this land for over 60,000 years.

What is starkly evident is that Aboriginal people always speak about their spiritual relationship to country.  They are not afraid to bring this into their cosmology and given its ancient basis, it can hardly be dismissed as ‘new age’ thinking.  It is western materialism that divided the world into mind and matter, leaving spirit out of the picture, or rather transferring it to religious belief in an external ‘God’, entirely separate from earthly existence and embodiment.

Furthermore, we now confront the stark evidence that the technical rationality of Western Civilisation has directly led to the devastating consequences of climate change through global warming, destruction of forests, acidification of the oceans, and widespread soil erosion, desertification and land degradation.  Western academia is part of this system of epistemic devastation, even as its science is what has revealed it to us with its evidence.  Small wonder that the world has not leapt into action.  Too many other aspects of academia, particularly in the world of economics and business studies, propagates very different values and worldview.

What is becoming increasingly evident, moreover, is that the whole push to a renewable energy economy is just finding another energy source to replace fossil fuels so that we can continue with our socially and psychologically destructive model of ‘consumptionomics’ – economic growth as measured by the intensity of consumption of ‘everything’, right down to the mass tourism of the must have selfie and of intimate personal experiences (ie: the tinder app model).

The Legacy of Western Epistemic Imperialism

The impact of Western imperialism has not only been about the subjugation of colonised people and appropriation of their lands and wealth, followed by the modern form of this in global capitalism and neo-colonialism at the hands of the dominant economic and military powers such as the US and China, but also including the other Western nations of Europe, Britain and Australia wherever they can get an opportunity through commerce and military alliances.  More importantly it has been epistemic.  It has been the determined destruction of indigenous knowledge systems and associated culture by those of the dominant western forms of knowledge construction and verification.

Tony Ward (, a New Zealand based critical educational thinker has written on this topic, based on his teaching and research experience, to discuss what transformative and collaborative rationality might look like in challenging the dominant forms of technical rationality and hermeneutic rationality.

Tony Ward

Over the last thirty years I have worked in a bicultural environment – in Aotearoa-New Zealand that was colonized two hundred years ago by the British.

Before coming to New Zealand I also worked in Britain and the United States where I worked with many different colonized ethnic groups, including Native Americans. Together, these two experiences have led me to reflect critically on the veracity and completeness of my original thinking on the subject of Transformative Rationality, and I have come to the conclusion that it runs the risk of perpetuating the very colonialism that it purports to attack. For six years (2000-6) I held the position of Director of Programme Development at one of three indigenous universities, Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi. My job was to write and gain government accreditation for new degree and sub-degree programmes. The programmes were grounded in tikanga Māori (Māori traditions, languages and customs) and the intent was to revitalize previously colonized Māori language, philosophy and knowledge systems. During my tenure I designed and gained accreditation for six undergraduate degree programmes and more than twenty sub- degree programmes as well as contributing to the development of both Masters and PhD programmes.

During this time I was always aware of the irony and contradictions of acknowledging (and therefore legitimating and reinforcing) the dominant colonial Eurocentric education system of New Zealand by aspiring to its credentialing system while at the same time doing so to promote Māori independence.

The following extracts are taken from an essay by Tony Ward: Rationality and Colonisation: A discourse of the use of rationality as an instrument of oppression, blog


Our current understanding of “the rational” is relatively recent. The positivist form of rationalism – that which originated in the discourses of the Enlightenment and relies upon objective, measurable verification – has become so pervasive (one might almost say invasive) over the last two centuries that we tend to assume that it is the only form of rationality.

Critical Education theorist Henry Giroux has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of rationality as a form of social discourse by suggesting that its central problematic involves a conceptual structure that can be identified both by the questions it raises and the questions it is incapable of raising (Giroux, H. A., (1983) Theory and Resistance in Education, Bergin and Garvey
).This analytic (first articulated by Habermas, J., Knowledge and Human Interests, Beacon Press, Boston, 1971) helps Giroux to identify three main streams of rationalist thought, and to clarify much of the confusion (and oppressive naming) that attends the use of the term “rational”. They are:

  1. Technical rationality
  2. Hermeneutic rationality
  3. Emancipatory rationality

Technical Rationality and the Logic of Domination

Technical rationality, for Giroux, is linked to principles of control, and addresses the world through processes of objectification and control, using the natural sciences as its model of development and legitimation. Technical rationality is that form of cognition that is normatively taken as “scientific”. Technical rationality presumes that there is an objective world “out there” and that the job of rationalism is to employ all of the technical means at our disposal to uncover and explain it. It suggests a unitary form of “real” knowledge of that world (ie. knowledge which most accurately describes it).

This knowledge is seen as “value free”, uncontaminated by either personal idiosyncratic perception or ideological dogma, and is seen to develop in a linear fashion, aligned to conceptions of history that are “progressive” (ie. that view the human story as one of continuing progress).

Hermeneutic Rationality

The central tenet of hermeneutic rationality is that all forms of discourse, whether scientific or “narrative” constitute language games which operate with their own internal rules and consistencies but which are incommensurable. In other words, for all of its sophistry, hermeneutic rationality fails to guide us in the solution of the moral dilemmas that it poses. It makes no distinctions around issues of power and hegemony that lie behind the authority of some language games and the suppression of others. Having thrown out the (unifying?) meta-narratives of Social Justice, Equity etc. the theory leaves little space in its moral vacuum for action on behalf of the oppressed and disempowered. We might all just as well sit back and watch the advances of the Evil Empire in our home theatres in the knowledge that it’s really only a game.

Hermeneutic rationality corresponds to what Hal Foster (Foster, H. (ed), The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture, Bay Press, Port Townsend, 1983) has called a “postmodernism of reaction” which, while promising to lead us from the moral and ethical contradictions of technical rationality, leaves us without any moral position from which to address issues of suffering, domination or oppression. It is a form of rationality that, while revealing the oppression inherent in technical rationality, replaces it with another, less obvious form of oppression all the more powerful for its liberating appearance, since it conveys the impression of social transformation through the logic of appeasement to dominant culture interests.

Emancipatory Rationality

Giroux suggests a third form of rationality which is aimed not only at reproducing and adding to our knowledge of the world as is the case with technical rationality, nor at merely critically describing the process by which we do this – as is the case with hermeneutic rationality. His third mode of rationality is grounded in a particular form of understanding of how meaning is shaped in the context of domination and struggle. It does not reject the hermeneutic understanding of how meaning is produced, but extends it by recognising agencies of power which shape not only its practice but also its theorising.

Emancipatory rationality locates rationality itself as an element of investigation within the process of inquiry to point to the ways in which critical analysis might contribute to the circumstances it critiques. Emancipatory rationality requires viewing human existence not as a given, but as a field of social struggle, in which individual beings accept the challenge to transform their given circumstances.

Collaborative Rationality

The logic of the Enlightenment (and its ideology of progress and ‘improvement’) has been the hand-maiden and justification of capitalist expansion of environmental exploitation and of impending global collapse. Can we therefore take this logic seriously in light of its failure (some might say its complicity) in this process? Or is the model of the Enlightenment itself, with its theories of social evolution, of successive developmental increases in productive capacity (as Marx and Engels theorised) now open to review?

When examining pre-colonial cultures, we discover some striking similarities in their cosmologies. In general they exhibit:

  • A care for the environment
  • A care for the most vulnerable members, (children, elderly, disabled)
  • Equality of resource distribution
  • Willingness and ability to negotiate peaceful reconciliations
  • Openness to encounters with different communities
  • Capacity for empathy, compassion, forgiveness, understanding
  • Ability to co-operate and collaborate
  • An ethic of giving, rather than taking, and a high regard for reciprocity
  • Conceive of life as a sacred phenomenon, a mystery that can not be known but 
that can be experienced as a vehicle to right-living and health
  • A concept of wellbeing that is essentially holistic
  • An embrace and inclusion of all aspects of life and existence that are seen as fundamentally interconnected
  • An emphasis on the individual’s relationships to the outside universe, and in 
particular to the material world, to the environment
  • The recognition of four aspects of existence – Body, Mind, Spirit and Emotions and of the importance of balance between these
  • They include aspects of life that the Western materialist model is unable to grasp – specifically the notion of spirit or life force, that is seen as permeating the universe and at the core of each individual’s inner state
  • Where spiritual issues are concerned, the priest or shaman is merely an intermediary or facilitator rather than the creator of the establishment, healing and maintenance of relationships
  • They exhibit a reverence for life, for difference and for that which is unknowable
  • Leadership roles rarely involve economic or material compensation or reward since humility in the face of The Great Mystery is a fundamental requirement of 
  • Decisions are made by consensus rather than “democratic” majority voting
  • Democracy is direct rather than representational.

Although there may be some differences across different cultural groups, in the 
main these characteristics remain constant with pre-colonial, pre-capitalist cultures. What stands out for me, is the collaborative nature of this entire structure, with a profound emphasis on establishing, maintaining and healing balance and relationships – all relationships: with the environment, with “friends”, with “enemies”.

Transformative logic does not avoid confrontation with oppression, but recognises the futility of eternal antagonisms, unresolved resentments and ongoing relationship degradation. 
Our present systems of rationality have brought us to a point of universal crisis. It remains to be seen whether we have the will and determination to abandon the logic of exploitation that they embody, and to collectively adopt, instead, the logic of those we thought we had replaced.