Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Papatuanuku in a Maori Philosophy of Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_173


Maori abstract thought must grapple with the everyday, concrete realities of life (Marsden 1985), and this dual work is initiated and continued by the grounded yet mysterious nature of a primordial entity, Papatuanuku (Earth Mother). Papatuanuku has been attributed with a number of sublime characteristics; one of these is its basis for philosophy itself (Mika 2016). This entry analyses that concept and applies it to a specific, Maori notion of education that turns on the wellbeing of the self. Of particular relevance here is Thrupp and Mika’s (2012) interpretation of the verb “ako” (teach/learn), which corresponds with the foundational wellbeing that is provided by things in the world; moreover, “ako” is critical in its stance, because as Thrupp and Mika argue, it resists foreclosing against the full possibility of things in the world – a full potential that has already been offered by Papatuanuku. Maori philosophical thinking hence involves a strong metaphilosophy as it seeks to reflect on the speculative exercise that engages with that thinking, including on those limitations that are scribed by Papatuanuku.

The Influence of Papatuanuku on Maori Philosophical Thought and Education

A Point of Reference: The School of Athens

Maori philosophy retains its own distinctive flavor, but it may also make contact with Western thought. Occasionally, key individuals from the latter are represented in art, and what is suggested in that genre and its subsequent interpretation can be equally as fascinating for a Maori discussion as the alleged congruence of the illustration with the individual’s theories. We can refer briefly here to two key philosophers – Plato and Aristotle – and their depiction in the well-known fresco The School of Athens. What might be most striking to the Maori onlooker is that Plato is pointing at the heavens; Aristotle, in what is generally taken to be a stark contrast, gestures at the earth. A common interpretation of the fresco is that it signifies the essential difference in their philosophies. Aristotle, who played no minor part in the current focus on taxonomies and essences, deals with the realm of the present. Plato, on the other hand, apparently wants an escape from the realm of appearances and urges thinking in terms of abstract ideas. The division between the two – which, it must be noted, may be exaggerated – has set the path for dominant Western propositions about knowledge itself.

Whether the fresco properly aligns with the full extent of Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophies is an intriguing subject, but it is the “either/or” binary in the interpretation that could be particularly revealing for the Maori philosopher and may signal something prominent for him or her. Importantly, Maori philosophy would not necessarily take the dualistic representation at face value, due to its own suspicion that binaries are not reflected so simplistically in the natural face of the world. A Maori worldview would note with interest, though, the possibility that there are vastly different ways of interacting with things in the world, and the Maori philosopher may wish to engage with that sort of depiction, in the form of a dialogue with the representation. Thus, a Maori reaction to Plato and Aristotle, along with their respective philosophies, is not an incidental one, because it is the fact of a dichotomous representation that is especially appealing, not so much a debate on whether Plato and Aristotle deserve to be represented in such a way or not. What may be most significant for the Maori thinker in this instance is, again, the fact that a less-than-subtle delineation between sky and earth has been made.

The Importance of Papatuanuku in Maori Philosophical Self-Development

Vital to a Maori incursion into thinking here is the manifestation of a problem: in the present case of the fresco, an illustration potentially jars with a Maori metaphysics that would normally prefer to assign objects to an interrelationship rather than a distinction. The speculation that proceeds from that point is consistently influenced by that initial and delicate “shock,” because Maori thought attempts to reintegrate feeling with rational thought (Smith 2000). Feeling, somewhat unusually for any worldview that prefers rationalism, must be acknowledged as equally important in Maori philosophy because it has a stated genealogy with apparently rarefied thought, along with other states of being. The upshot for Maori philosophy is that thought and feeling are inextricable; moreover, the thinker must reflect on that interconnection as much as the topic at hand. Its emotional impetus means that the philosopher is likely to continue to acknowledge that instinctive reaction throughout the work. At the very least, the philosopher may theorize to themselves that they were brought to their work by a feeling or an exasperation. This initial prompt is not forgotten in subsequent arguments, with the Maori philosopher often fluctuating between considering an issue on its own rational terms and suddenly referring to that very first, sometimes irrational, impetus.

The expectation that Maori learning in its broadest sense is most fundamentally linked to a vulnerable relationship with emotion is highlighted by Thrupp and Mika (2012). Through that emotional response, the self learns. Thrupp and Mika note that the current discourse around the term “ako” reduces the term to its more visible facets of “teaching and learning.” In fact, the term carries with it a sense that far exceeds that didactic approach. Alongside its classroom fit, it also dictates that one is susceptible to what an object withholds from view and that one’s role is to speculate on the interconnection between things, rather than to simply provide a self-originating definition for them. The self is encouraged to explore creative approaches to a thing; in general, teaching and learning with “ako” recognizes the highly active links between the speculative self and what appears to be the object of thought.

This responsive mode of thinking illustrates that there is something involved that transcends pure, rational thought. Let us turn here to the fresco’s more substantive suggestion that thinking either takes place by ignoring or embracing the world of appearances in some measure. Maori constantly reference two central metaphysically vital phenomena in their oratory – Papatuanuku (Earth Mother) and Ranginui (Sky Father). Their English glosses, it should be noted, suffice for concise translation but do not do justice to the depth of their sense. Both phenomena were originally joined but were thrust apart, and thus they appear to be separate. However, both are still joined in some ways even if not physically, with their initial symbiosis persisting in each other in much the same way as an original, emotional impetus for thought does for the Maori philosopher. Papatuanuku in particular has received a great deal of coverage in Maori literature, perhaps because her equivalence with “earth” renders her more tangible. She has also been equated with “the infinite” (Marsden 2003, p. 22) and is the mysterious backdrop or nurturing force for land (“whenua,” which simultaneously means “afterbirth”). All human activity takes place within the horizon of Ranginui and Papatuanuku, which are responsible for the manifestation of all things. The self is one element among many that are initiated and sustained by Ranginui and Papatuanuku. Papatuanuku may also be conceived of as “world” in an active sense, and the relationship of objects with the perceiving self and Papatuanuku is highlighted in the following summation by Raerino (2000):

Kai roto i ngā kupu me ngā momo kōrero, waiata, haka me ngā karakia a te Māori ngā oro o te taiao. Ko ngā oro nei hai tūhono i te ao tangata, ki te ao o te wao. Ko ngā momo oro hai tūhono i te ao kikokiko ki te ao wairua, te ira tangata ki te ira atua. (p. 1)

Within words and the diversity of talk, songs, performance and prayers of the Māori, resides the sounds of the world around us. These sounds link man to the world of the environment. These sorts of sounds connect the bodily realm to the spiritual realm, the intrinsic humanness to the intrinsic godliness. (author’s translation)

Sounds here are not just audible waves, but in a Maori sense can be thought of as requests or intimations made between the seemingly external world and the self (and vice versa). With this consistent metaphysical relationship, thought is more complex than the fresco would suggest. Philosophical thought lends itself traditionally to grasping the Platonic forms, to a glance upwards. Most tellingly, it is sometimes termed “blue sky thinking.” It is hence a kind of inquiry that feels inherently different to its other, more empirical, approach. But instead of looking up into the heavens, as if the earth is to be avoided, the Maori philosopher’s gaze is more multifaceted and thought is directed and continued by both Ranginui and Papatuanuku. It is at once both concrete and obscure. Thinking is not as rarefied as Plato would have it, nor should it be as utterly “in the visible world” as Aristotle wants it. From a Maori perspective, the pointing upwards that is meant to signify an escape from what could fool the self is only permissible because of the fact of those entities to begin with. The knowing subject that is “above” entities is never fully free of the world, even though he or she appears to be; instead, those entities continue to reside with the Maori philosopher as he or she moves to where Plato dictates in order to philosophize. The Maori philosopher stays firmly within the earth while ascending elsewhere.

Conceptual Notions of “Earth” Within Education

This position makes perfect sense when we do consider that Papatuanuku’s conceptual impetus is locatable in its notion as “ground.” One distinctive discipline of thought that has emerged since the early 1990s, in written form at least, is kaupapa Maori. The term “kaupapa” contains to it an abbreviation of “Papatuanuku” – “papa” – and is hence constituted by Papatuanuku, with Charles Royal (2008) stating that:

Nā, mō te kupu ‘papa’, he kupu nui tēnei i te reo Māori …. He tikanga nui hoki i roto, ā, e takea katoatia ana i a Papatuanuku. Arā, ahakoa puta ai tēnei kupu ki whea, kei te takea mai i a Papatuanuku, ka tū rānei a Papatuanuku hei tauira mō te whakaputanga o te kupu ‘papa’ nei. (p. 68)

And so, the word ‘papa’ is an important one in the Maori language. It contains to it some vital philosophical aspects; these are fully undergirded with Papatuanuku. That is, regardless of where this word emerges, it has its basis in Papatuanuku, or Papatuanuku stands within the sign of ‘papa’. (author’s translation)

Kaupapa Maori is a theoretical body of work, or a research method, that seeks to address colonization and reclaim Maori autonomy. In the vast majority of cases, it is positioned as a Maori ground for social, human-centered activity, but its metaphysical congruence with a ground beyond the human self deserves to be reiterated here. “Papa” may be thought of here as the conceptual soil for a relationship with an idea. The “papa” element of that practice is responsible for thinking, because it is the ground that endures in all cases. It shows itself in Thrupp and Mika’s “ako” to the extent that it draws the Maori learner on to question, inquire, represent, and articulate but never fully leaves the thinking process although thought seems to have soared away from it. This ground also encourages continual thought on the nature of colonization – itself an educational exercise. It highlights the need to reflect on a potentially unpleasant aspect of existence so that the self is formed by a critique: “ako” in its focus on vulnerability is thus congruent with a speculative glance towards what is antithetic as much as pleasant (Thrupp and Mika 2012).

“Ako” proposes that the environment “moves towards us” (Thrupp and Mika, p. 210), with the self responding. Thought, when assessed against the active process that “ako” dictates, is not outside of the influence of those more earthbound things, as they have been initiated by the ongoing and active influence of Papatuanuku. The inescapability of the earth for the Maori thinker is also reflected in yet another term that has certainly suffered in translation. The sort of “groundedness” that is suggested in the term “whakapapa” and its association with “papa” is not commensurate with its English linguistic and conceptual equivalent, “genealogy.” “Genealogy” as a translation is perhaps more reminiscent of a sequential display of different “grounds” rather than an active and persistent “grounding” that “papa” depicts. It is true that whakapapa does denote a relationship between all things in the world, but what is more intriguing about the term is the role of the earth as a conceptual ground in thought. “Whakapapa,” read as an active concept, depicts the “becoming” (“whaka”) of a ground (“papa”) throughout all things in the world (Mika 2011). This ground for a Maori philosopher may be one that involves a given capacity to reflect on other things in the world: it “becomes” in the sense that it provides a fluidly speculative approach to the nature of all things. “Ako” in this case, as a possibility for a learning process, is associated with this ground to the extent that this ground draws one’s attention to one thing as it relates to all other things. The self then reflects on both the thing in itself and that relationship. The “becoming” that is alluded to here is a subtle irruption into the self’s perception, such that thinking takes place. Again, we can detect that one is exposed, in the susceptibility inherent to ako, to the outer world, and that thinking is dependent on the lure of Papatuanuku and her originary relationship with all things that exist.

Maori access to thinking in the learning process is therefore incredibly important, because it needs to take place on its own terms and within the influence of that intangible interplay between the earth, the earth’s continuous becoming (“whakapapa”), and its intellectual manifestation through a critique of the base of colonization (“kaupapa”). Maori are not able to freely reflect on (and within) that primordial ground described above, partly because philosophical research in general appears to be marginalized and also due to the nature of philosophy in schools and universities. It is only marginally visible in schools and, although it occupies a privileged position as a discerner of first assumptions in university study, it does not often attract funding to the extent that its empirical counterpart can. It is also characterized by speculation rather than certain knowledge and is therefore associated with the continual process of inquiry rather than a neatly packaged “outcome.” For Maori, the withdrawal of philosophical thought in the academy and in schools represents the recession of Papatuanuku in the active nature of thought and poses some serious repercussions for one’s self-formation, which can be equated with “ako” and its emotional and spiritual relationship with things in the world. Philosophy in a Maori setting is intimately related to the balance of the self with the external world, and indeed that world is not so external as it constitutes all its individual elements. Maori philosophy therefore acknowledges that speculation about that external world is simultaneously to inquire into its proper representation and, crucially, the connection of that process of theorizing with the community’s health. To that extent, a Maori papa of thought is consonant with the balance of the self and the world.


Maori oratory recognizes and acknowledges the role of the earth in thought and existence generally. Learning is not exempt from its influence, because one is immediately underscored by the earth even as one is moved to represent aspects that originate from it. The term Papatuanuku, as we have seen, shares ontologically in the learning that is proposed through ako. Both indicate that the thinking and learning self is at the mercy of a vast constellation of elements that, in turn, ask that speculative self to represent the world with that complexity in mind.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand