Indigenous Philosophies of Consciousness: Editorial Introduction

Radek Trnka[1] and
Radmila Lorencova[2]


Indigenous Philosophies
of Consciousness

Indigenous understandings of consciousness represent an important inspiration for scientific discussions about the nature of conscious­ness. Despite the fact that Indigenous concepts are not outputs of research driven by rigorous, scientific methods, they are of high significance, because they have been formed by hundreds of years of specific routes of cultural evolution. The evolution of Indigenous cultures proceeded in their native habitat. The meanings that emerged in this process represent adaptive solutions that were optimal in the given environmental and social milieu. We argue that it would not be appropriate to handle these meanings as something that science con­siders to be wrong, or as outdated relics of the human past. In contrast, Indigenous concepts and their meanings may be considered to be an important heritage of native human populations and, moreover, they also represent interesting material for analyses and inspiration for recent scientific debates.

Furthermore, it is also necessary to mention another reason why the exploration of Indigenous concepts has been so topical recently. Thus far, much psychological theoretical development has been published in English as a result of research conducted in Western countries. The dominance of English and the superiority of research conducted by researchers from Western countries may be considered a kind of barrier towards other ways of knowing. We argue that the traditional cultural knowledge that comes from Indigenous societies may offer an interesting source of new thought for science. The weakening of the strong dependence of science on well-established academic circles dominated by Western theoretical perspectives may be beneficial for stimulating its further development (Sidik, 2022). Therefore, this special symposium of the Journal of Consciousness Studies aims to open the door to other ways of knowing, for the knowing that emerged in native Indigenous cultures. We argue that the rich cultural heritage of these societies may stimulate the emergence of new analytical per­spectives for scientific theorizing about the nature of consciousness.

For all these reasons, the study of Indigenous concepts of conscious­ness captured our interest, and we decided to start investigating them. In 2020 and 2021, we retrieved and analysed pieces of information from past ethnographical field evidence which were gathered from various Indigenous cultures. After removal of data about cultures that showed a high acceptance of influences from external religious traditions (e.g. Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism), a comparative analysis of data from 55 Indigenous groups was conducted and pub­lished in this journal (Trnka and Lorencova, 2022). This primary project revealed many interesting results, but more importantly it also showed many unexplored avenues that called for further examination. This special symposium of the Journal of Consciousness Studies is a continuation and new development of research on Indigenous under­standings of consciousness.

Past ethnographical evidence involved some valuable pieces of knowledge about Indigenous concepts of consciousness, but the relevant information was often fragmentary or even totally missing in some cases. Moreover, many authors of past ethnographic records applied a strong etic approach that clouded the understanding of native Indigenous thoughts. Therefore, the main goal of the current sympo­sium was to broaden the overall information base for the analysis of Indigenous concepts of consciousness or closely related phenomena. In other words, the symposium aimed to bring more detailed knowl­edge of Indigenous concepts of consciousness, mind and body, and their relations in various groups of Indigenous people.

In 2022, we contacted potential contributors and were pleased by their positive reactions, which reflected the topicality of this research focus. The authors were asked to draft their papers with a special focus on (a) cultural Indigenous understandings of the concept of consciousness, (b) a cultural Indigenous understanding of the mind–body differentiation (or consciousness–body differentiation), and (c) cultural metaphors and cultural beliefs related to consciousness, mind, and body. Many of contributors were native members of Indigenous cultures, which made the descriptions of Indigenous con­cepts more accurate and reliable. This enabled many truly emic, in-depth insights into Indigenous concepts of consciousness and related phenomena to be gained.

As a result, this symposium introduces eight papers, each focused on a different geographical region/Indigenous group: Nahua and Maya (Mexico), Guna (Panama), Mapuche (Chile), Māori (New Zealand), Telengit (Altai), Mongolian groups, Igbo (Nigeria), and Asabano (New Guinea). These papers are followed by a general paper discuss­ing magical consciousness in the case of an Aboriginal wise man (Australia). The symposium closes with our concluding editorial essay, which generalizes the findings and introduces three theoretical models of understandings of consciousness inspired by the analysis of Indigenous concepts.

Aside from the importance for basic research, the exploration of Indigenous concepts of consciousness is also very important for informing practitioners from many applied spheres. Many current methods for treating addictions, traumatic life events, professional burnout, and other mental health problems use features of Indigenous healing practices. A proper understanding of meanings related to mind, body, and consciousness is important for Western psychothera­pists to adapt the Indigenous practices to particular Western cultural milieus. Furthermore, a proper understanding of meanings related to mind, body, and consciousness is also important for treating ethnic, linguistic, and culturally diverse populations (APA, 1990). For thera­pists, psychologists, and physicians, understanding the meanings of these concepts may promote better care of their clients from various Indigenous ethnic groups.

Last but not least, Indigenous concepts, meanings, and languages are closely related to the continuation of the heritage of Indigenous people (United Nations, 2016). The world’s Indigenous languages have recently been under threat of disappearing — many Indigenous languages are endangered globally, and the rate of loss is high (ibid.). Importantly, recent research has also shown that the retention of Indigenous languages may be protective for the psychological and physical health of their speakers.

All these areas represent fields for potential use of the findings presented in this symposium. As a concluding note, the editors of this symposium hope that this collection of papers will inspire academic scholars while also providing important information for practitioners from various spheres.


Many thanks to the Prague College of Psychosocial Studies and the College of Applied Psychology for support of this project — both institutions participated equally in the preparation and implementation of the project.


APA (1990) Guidelines for Providers of Psychological Services to Ethnic, Linguistic, and Culturally Diverse Populations, [Online], pi/oema/resources/policy/provider-guidelines [20 January 2023].

Sidik, S.M. (2022) For better science, increase Indigenous participation in pub­lishing, Nature, online first. doi: 10.1038/d41586-022-00058-x

Trnka, R. & Lorencova, R. (2022) Indigenous concepts of consciousness, soul, and spirit: A cross-cultural perspective, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 29 (1–2), pp. 113–140.

United Nations (2016) Concept Note, [Online], desa/indigenouspeoples/meetings-and-workshops/8109-2.html [20 January 2023].

[1]      Prague College of Psychosocial Studies, Prague, Czech Republic.

[2]      College of Applied Psychology, Terezin, Czech Republic.

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