The Dance of Person and Place

One Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy

By Thomas M. Norton-Smith

Subjects: Philosophy, Indigenous Studies, Environmental Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Living Indigenous Philosophies
Paperback : 9781438431321, 180 pages, April 2010
Hardcover : 9781438431338, 180 pages, April 2010

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations

1. Common Themes in American Indian Philosophy
First Introductions
Four Common Themes: A First Look
Constructing an Actual American Indian World

2. Nelson Goodman’s Constructivism
Setting the Stage
Fact, Fiction, and Feeders
Ontological Pluralism
True Versions and Well-Made Worlds
Nonlinguistic Versions and the Advancement of Understanding

3. True Versions and Cultural Bias
Constructive Realism: Variations on a Theme by Goodman
True Versions and Cultural Bias
An American Indian Well-Made Actual World

4. Relatedness, Native Knowledge, and Ultimate Acceptability
Native Knowledge and Relatedness as a World-Ordering Principle
Native Knowledge and Truth
Native Knowledge and Verification
Native Knowledge and Ultimate Acceptability

5. An Expansive Conception of Persons
A Western Conception of Persons
Native Conceptions of Animate Beings and Persons
An American Indian Expansive Conception of Persons

6. The Semantic Potency of Performance
Opening Reflections and Reminders About Performances
Symbols and Their Performance
The Shawnee Naming Ceremony
Gifting as a World-Constructing Performance
Closing Remarks About the Semantic Potency of Performances

7. Circularity as a World-Ordering Principle
Goodman Briefly Revisited
Time, Events, and History or Space, Place, and Nature?
Circularity as a World-Ordering Principle
Circularity and Sacred Places
Closing Remarks About Circularity as a World-Ordering Principle

8. The Dance of Person and Place
American Indian Philosophy as a Dance of Person and Place
Consequences, Speculations, and Closing Reflections


Uses the concept of "worldmaking" to provide an introduction to American Indian philosophy.


Ever since first contact with Europeans, American Indian stories about how the world is have been regarded as interesting objects of study, but also as childish and savage, philosophically curious and ethically monstrous. Using the writings of early ethnographers and cultural anthropologists, early narratives told or written by Indians, and scholarly work by contemporary Native writers and philosophers, Shawnee philosopher Thomas Norton-Smith develops a rational reconstruction of American Indian philosophy as a dance of person and place. He views Native philosophy through the lens of a culturally sophisticated constructivism grounded in the work of contemporary American analytic philosopher Nelson Goodman, in which stories (or "world versions") satisfying certain criteria construct actual worlds—words make worlds. Ultimately, Norton-Smith argues that the Native stories construct real worlds as robustly as their Western counterparts, and, in so doing, he helps to bridge the chasm between Western and American Indian philosophical traditions.

Thomas M. Norton-Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Kent State University Stark.


"…a deft and self-aware exemplification of the task of cross-cultural comparison … The writing is accessible and shows a deft and helpful interplay between abstract language and concrete illustrative material." — The Pluralist

"Norton-Smith does a good job illustrating how worlds are created through language and how language itself contains philosophy." — H-Net Reviews (H-Environment)

"…Norton-Smith offers an insightful discussion of Native American epistemological concepts … This book is an excellent exercise for all philosophy students as an expansion of worldviews and an examination of Western epistemological foundations and biases. It also offers an insightful discussion of indigenous philosophy for both philosophy and indigenous scholars … Highly recommended." ― CHOICE

"The author opens a unique and exciting avenue for philosophical discourse by demonstrating a method of inquiry that provides a new way of interpreting Native thinking, a method that not only promotes Native philosophical systems but allows for greater communication between Western and Native philosophers." — Lorraine Mayer, author of Cries from a Métis Heart

"Challenging and provocative, this book is a great step forward in the conversation of academic Indigenous philosophy." — Brian Yazzie Burkhart, Pitzer College