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Have we ever changed?

Auckland, New Zealand

Dear Sir / Madam:

Re: Knowledge Versus Source of Knowledge


While I appreciate the reply of Mr William Mariner (The world has moved on!) to my latest correspondence (Defining sustainable development), given that he is free to express his views, I think he went over the mark by not responding fairly to both the form and substance of my communication and by contradicting himself and his own thinking through and through. While it may be true that the world has moved on, mainly technologically, but the human situation still remains more or less of the same. For example, we still make uglier, bloodier wars today as they did in the old world; we make peace today as they did in the past …– amongst many others! Have we ever changed? However, I would like take this opportunity to point out some of the flaws in Mr Mariner…’s thinking.

Who should speak and who should not?

If Mr Mariner thought my knowledge of politics and economics seemed way beyond my field of anthropology, then it simply means that he knows more about them than me. By all means, Mr Mariner could have engaged in this debate by contributing his knowledge of the subjects to benefit us all. I felt that he tried to settle an issue by attempting to settle every other issue, so that, in the end, no issue can ever be settled.

I find Mr Mariner…’s behaviour a form of intellectual terrorism. Like his highly, subjectively unjustified attack on Heraclitos, Mr Mariner equally cursed Hitler (who was an example he himself chose) for his political terrorism by ending up being a terrorist himself of the most evil intellectual kind.

No one stops him or the other scholars or academics from writing. It is a case of taking the horse to the water but you cannot make it drink. In fact, many, if not all of us would-be academics and academics, do that all the time. We write books and articles, critically examining all aspects of our subject matters, amidst other things. As academics, we have both official and unofficial roles to play in critically debating topics or subject matters of greater theoretical and practical significance to humanity within and outside of the university. Academics at our University are expected to be “critics and conscience of society”, which is a life of living dangerously, of living a life of hostility and unpopularity. To fail to do so is to live a lie, a life of selfishness.

Mr Mariner cited the words of Mr Nelson Mandela, who said that the common struggle for freedom of the black people was his whole life. Did he ever make a fool of himself by publicising their common struggle, saying outrageous and infamous things as he rightly did, where he always lived dangerously, living a life of hostility and unpopularity? By being an admirer of Mandela, does Mr Mariner live up to its requirements by leading with example? Yet Mr Mariner turned around and condemned the very people who try their best to live up to those ideals lived by Mr Mandela.

Even Jesus Christ went through the same inhumane treatment through the very people ignorant of his teaching for saying outrageous and infamous things as he clearly did. Unlike Mandela, his living dangerously went to the extreme, where he paid the price with his own life. Many of the prophets, God…’s mouthpieces on earth, in the Old Testament unjustifiably experienced the same unwarranted public shame and condemnation of the sort put forward by Mr Mariner.

Pacific political economy: A cultural and historical process

I hold a PhD degree in Pacific history, as Mr Mariner rightly said, but I teach Pacific political economy and Pacific arts in Anthropology at the University of Auckland …– the so-called premier Pacific Anthropology Department in the world. Anthropology, like mathematics, physics and chemistry, amidst other fields of study, has a number of sub-fields such as archaeology, biological anthropology, ethnomusicology, linguistics and social anthropology amongst others.

As far as Pacific political economy is concerned, I research, teach and write basically about the exertion of control over both the material and non-material dimensions of Pacific societies, thereby bringing the conflicting political, economic, psychological and social tendencies of the human situation to a common critical focus. I teach Pacific political economy on both undergraduate and graduate levels, not to mention Pacific poetry and dance amongst other Pacific arts.

I know about fossils and artefacts but I do not teach about them. My colleagues in archaeology are the experts in the field, and they are the ones who research, teach and write about them. They do much more than what Mr Mariner problematically assumed them to be, and without the knowledge acquired we would be left in the dark wrapped up in our own ignorance as to the past. You have archaeologists all over the world, many of whom work at universities across the whole globe.

Lack of understanding

In a way, all these sub-disciplines deal with the past, i.e., the “fossilised” material and non-material dimensions of the past of a civilisation. Archaeologists, biological anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, linguists and social or cultural anthropologists team together to search constantly for common knowledge about the past of a living people or a lost civilisation.

There are archaeologists of the more specialised kind such the Egyptologists, who spend the whole of their time studying the great pyramids and the unique tombs of the Pharaohs. As great works of engineering, these so-called “fossils” and “artefacts” belong to the great wonders of the world. The same applies to Pacific archaeologists, who have continued to tell us more and more about the complexity and beauty of the so-called Lapita culture that is ancestral to the whole of Polynesia.

With all these sub-disciplines, including archaeology, put together, they can tell us a great deal of knowledge about both the material and non-material aspects of the past of a culture or civilisation. Included in this are both the politics and economics of a people, such as the dual kaimoana, kaifonua, marine-based, land-based modes of economy driving the social organisation of production characteristic of the Lapita culture.

Lack of clarity

I still do not see the words I drew from Heraclitos to be infamous nor understand their connections with Hitler. The thinking of Heraclitos, which takes the view that there is no granting of a privileged positions in reality to gods, men or molecules (developed by Anderson), holds true, at least, in the case of Taufa…’ahau, who purposely destroyed the Tongan gods and religious temples …– the sacred! Even the Bible is full of infamous words and stories, many of which are worse than those of Hitler.

I am afraid Mr Mariner but all the great thinkers we have both named are taught in departments of philosophy, political science, ancient history and classics, mathematics and physics, to name a few, in universities all over the world. Their ideas are taught “independently” as part of the history of ideas or for their contributions to specific fields or for knowledge as a whole or to the whole of humanity.

In doing so, the ideas of these great thinkers are critically evaluated on their own terms for their strengths and weaknesses but not by way of whether we like or dislike them! We are here more concerned with the knowledge in itself not the source of knowledge. In fact, the ashes of a good many of these great thinkers are lost forever or lying unknown in lowly places, yet their ideas or souls continue to live on, forever, in libraries.

Newton, who was awarded in recognition of his great achievements, was referred to as a giant. He responded by saying that if they called him a giant, then this was because he stood on the shoulders of giants who had gone before him. It is a clear case of “no man is an island”. As academics, we are inevitably caught up in the history of ideas, so that the whole notion of “starting afresh” is highly fallible a proposition, as we are all very much part of a history …– the history of thought.

Philosophy: critical understanding vs. photographic memorising

Mr Mariner made it out that he knew about philosophy too …– which is a good thing. While that may be the case, his assumed knowledge of philosophy appears to be one of photographic memorising …– it is far from one of critical understanding. Mind you, the ideas of Heraclitos, especially his Doctrine of Flux, are currently under strong survival within and across both the soft and hard sciences the world over. As conflict theorists, Marx and Weber, for instance, can be considered basing their ideas on those of Heraclitos. In the fields of mathematics and physics, for example, we witness the philosophical pluralism of Heraclitos resurfacing in a powerful manner in chaos or butterfly-effect theory.


Mr Mariner condemned me for referring to some of the great thinkers in the history of thought or quoting their lasting ideas for my purpose yet he went straight ahead by naming some others or referencing their views for the sake of his highly subjective argument.

Never at any point in his correspondence did he refer to the issue under debate …– the issue of sustainable development - between several of us Tongan scholars and academics nor even attempted to address the subject matters of politics and economics he boasted himself to know more than me or my fellow debaters.

To advance our knowledge of an issue is to both formally and substantially address it on its own terms and not in terms of the person who said it. In short, we must deal with the issue but not the person.

‘‘Ofa atu fau,

Dr ‘Okusitino Mahina

Lecturer in Pacific political economy and Pacific arts


University of Auckland