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Philosophy of the Circumpolar North

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

Perspective written By Warren Jones

The Qargizine, Summer 2017 #7

Warren is also featured on The Voice here.

Stacey R. Lucason wrote a response to this perspective here.

To this day in America, thousands of people die from exposure related deaths. Alaska leads the nation for deaths by hypothermia by a significant margin. Even in this modern world our northern environment enforces its primacy.

My uncle froze to death outside Hooper Bay. He was trying to go from one house to another in a zero visibility storm. He lost his way and ended up two miles outside of town where he froze to death. My uncle understood the environment, and he only underestimated it once. All he was doing was traveling within the village.

The arctic and subarctic are unforgiving for those who don’t understand them. If you don’t understand and respect the environment it will take your life. Modern technology and life delude people into a false sense of security. This land will still kill you.

This was the crucible in which my culture was formed. We were not the Yupik people until we came to the land that became our home. Our culture and identity was born here in this place. The lessons the environment has to teach a person are hard ones, but are worth learning. Harsh environments breed an entirely different worldview.

This is the basis of Northern Philosophy. The environment of the circumpolar north has created a worldview that is distinct from Western and Eastern philosophies. Even within these disciplines it can be seen that northerners from these respective disciplines think differently than those from the south. Soren Kierkegaard is a perfect example, a Danish philosopher with a focus on pragmatic human reality over abstraction. The northern environment breeds a level of utilitarianism to those who are born into it. As such Northern Philosophy is itself a very practical philosophy in many ways, but deeply romantic in others. Kierkegaard is considered a Western philosopher but I would claim him as Northern.

There are other harsh climates which breed similar traits in people, such as the desert. For now we focus on the north, and the cold climate and seasonal variation found here. The winter months are longer, days are shorter and the resources available in the north are much different. The north has created peoples with a unique philosophy.

Philosophy itself is somewhat of a Western concept. The word itself is Greek in origin: “philo” which means love, and “sophos” which is wisdom. This is not to say reasoning and reflection are solely Western, but the classification and discipline of philosophy trace their roots to West. Plato, Aristotle et. al. are the people who I have studied as part of my schooling, which is an altogether different thing than my education which spans my lifetime. For the West philosophy is often broken into parts: metaphysics (the nature of reality), epistemology (theory of knowledge), ethics, politics, logic, etc. We don’t necessarily have to buy into these distinctions, philosophy can really be boiled down to the whats and whys of the nature of reality. You will however see how Northern Philosophy manifests within some of these branches of philosophy.

Examples In Philosophy

Many philosophers have explored the differences environment creates in the people who live in them.In the beginning of Machiavelli’s work Discourses on Livy he speaks to the differences that an environment breeds in those who live in them.

Because men work either by necessity or by choice, and because greater virtue can be found where choice has less authority, it should be considered whether it is better to choose sterile places for the building of cities so that men, constrained to be industrious and less seized by idleness, live more united, having less cause for discord, because of the poverty of the site…

Niccolò Machiavelli Discourses on Livy Mansfield and Tarcov trans. Part 1:4

Machiavelli discusses how the different environments create a different kind of person. Environments where it is easy to live (e.g. temperate climate, abundance of food) vs the “sterile” environments where it is harder to live. Machiavelli points out that people from the northern environment are better suited for creating his ideal Republic because the environment they live in forces them to be industrious and to learn to live and work with one another. People from more abundant and fertile places are “apt to produce men who are idle and unfit for any virtuous exercise.” The issue for Machiavelli with the harsher environments is they will not allow for large populations due to the limits of resources available and the tyranny of the environment itself. We see this play out in the north, the sizes of our traditional communities were quite small by today’s standards. Machiavelli characterizes such places as the north as sterile. Indeed the winter months which make up most of the year, the north seems very much a sterile environment unless you know how to live there. Those people who live in the circumpolar north know you must live a certain way, and work with other people in order to survive. You need individuals who work hard, but you also need a community that works with one another.

In The Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu has an entire book in part three on the relationship between the nature of the climate and the kinds of laws that are created in them. Montesquieu being a political philosopher was well versed in Machiavelli and perhaps influenced by his ideas. He makes interesting assertions about the vim and vigor of northern people. He claims they are more courageous, magnanimous, and “with more frankness and fewer suspicions, maneuvers, and tricks”. Later in the book Montesquieu says barren lands make men “industrious, sober, inured to work, courageous, and fit for war”. His observations are decidedly unscientific, yet are unlikely to be wholly fabricated. They are likely based on real observed differences between people from different climates as throughout the book he gives many examples of how climate affects the views of the people who live in it.

Examples In Fiction

Other than the historical examples of which there are many more, northern philosophy is also noted in fiction. The contemporary story A Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known as The Game of Thrones the north’s characters are shaped by their environment and are much different than the characters who come from the southlands.

You were born in the long summer, you've never known anything else. But now winter is truly coming. In the winter, we must protect ourselves, look after one another.

When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.

Eddard Stark, A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin

Eddard Stark is the patriarch of the Stark family who makes their home in the north. The peoples of the north are practical, just and hard people. This is juxtaposed with the southerners who live much different lives and concern themselves with things that are not as important in the north. The Stark motto “Winter is Coming” is much different in nature than the braggadocio mottos of the other great houses. In the North they are in constant preparation for the winter they know is coming. They are more inclined to know how much they rely on one another.

Jack London’s famous story To Build a Fire has two versions, and both are cautionary tales about what happens when you underestimate the northern environment. In the book the protagonist doesn’t heed the warning given to him about the weather ends up freezing to death.

In the 1965 novel Dune, Frank Herbert imagines Arrakis a desert planet which is so harsh that no one except a people known as the Fremen live there. This is a common theme throughout many of Herbert’s books. The Fremen were made hard and strong by the environment, being very resourceful and incredibly fierce fighters. These attributes were a result of living on the planet itself via its hostile environment. Their entire worldview was shaped by their world. Although a desert planet might seem to be the polar opposite of the far north the two environments share much in common. The two biomes both share temperature extremes, and scarcity of resources. Herbert’s theme is that hard environments create hard peoples.

More colloquial examples of the recognition of the differences of the north and south are replete. In The United Kingdom differences between northerners and southerners are well noted. In American, the South has had a distinct identity that continues to the modern age. In Alaska itself, the differences between the north and south is also apparent in the differences of the indigenous people who come from this state. The lines drawn between states and countries are fairly arbitrary but the differences in the environment are not.

These examples are to demonstrate some of the places where the inkling of this idea came from. As I went to school for political philosophy I found myself questioning many of the premises of the ideas I was reading. I wrote papers on Plato and “decolonization”, I was constantly questioning the ideas of the philosophers who were invariably of the Western tradition. I grew up in Nome which is on the coast of the Bering Sea. I would roam the frozen tundra and the sea ice in the winters. We would hunt and fish all summer long preparing for the longer winter and this life forever shaped the way I view the world. I felt we were trying to preserve something important with our culture but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I struggled with whether or not the reason we were preserving culture was because of pride, as that would itself violate our cultural values. In fact, if we were trying to preserve this only out of a sense of pride then it would be foolish and the best course of action would be to assimilate. As a result of this introspection I realized that what we were trying to preserve was important, and I think this is the reason why we resist assimilation so strongly. We recognize that there is something valuable in our worldview. There is something worth fighting for here. Much of what follows is imperfect, but a beginning sketch of some of the ways in which the northern view manifests. Some of them are perhaps only my own ideas, but I am a denizen of the north.

Northern Political Philosophy

The summer months in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is a time of great abundance. It is during this time that a great amount of food and resources are gathered and stored for the coming winter months. In the spring, returning birds are hunted and their eggs gathered, spring greens are collected and hunting begins. Over the course of the next few months the north is a place filled with life, the very air vibrates with the buzzing of insects, birds can be heard at almost all hours. This season affirms and celebrates life. These months lead into the fall, days are noticeably shorter, the weather turns cold and the birds begin to migrate south. There is still much hunting and gathering taking place but already winter is upon us. Summers are short. Winter is long, cold and dark. During the winter, food can be found but it is a much different enterprise altogether. Winter storms can leave people stranded and lost, and it is during this time that many people who come unprepared succumb to the weather itself. If you failed to prepare for the winter, then they are lean times which could very well lead to death.

This is the environment my people come from. In this environment you live a certain way or you die. Simple as that, the environment brooks no dissent. Prior to the modern age this was the defining factor governing people's existence, he environment itself. When western explorers first came this far north they were surprised to find people living in this place.

The environment of the north puts things into perspective for you. In a world such as the one our ancestors inhabited the kinds of things that were important were different than the kinds of things people from easier climates. It demands no wasted actions. In these environments people are very conservative, you stick to tried and true techniques. Epistemology in this context is pragmatic.

We all share the same origins no matter what narrative you believe in. We are all one species, the institution of man. Once my people came to the land we now call our home we became the Yupik people. This identity, this culture was co-created with the environment. It is all reflective of the land we inhabit, our culture, our language, our dance, our food and clothing. The culture makes the most sense in the place where it was created. This place was waiting for us, the Yupik people. The Yupik people came into existence here.

The governing structures that dictated the Yupiit way of life were of two main sources:

As we have mentioned ad nauseum the environment is the single biggest factor. The place who shaped us as a people is a harsh master that demands much of the people who choose to live there. In this sort of environment most of the daily and seasonal activities are dictated by the environment. We were a hardy people. Within the bounds set for us by the environment we thrived. The boundaries were hard set.

Just as the rest of humanity we share some of the bounds of the flesh. We all need fresh water, nutritious food, and shelter. Here these were available and often abundant but were not always easily obtained and stored, but once obtained are of almost unsurpassed nutritional quality anywhere on earth, again as a result of the environment.Even warmth itself being much more precious in the north.

The other part of our governance structure was a system called yuuyaraq. Yuuyaraq was a decentralized governance system. Every person born into the Yupik culture was taught yuuyaraq from birth. These were the rules by which human beings lived. All of the stories and values reflected yuuyaraq. Much of yuuyaraq was about developing, maintaining and growing your awareness. This system is much different from the western governance systems such as the legal system. In his book Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being Harold Napoleon characterizes this system as being similar to Mosaic Law. As he explains “ governed all aspects of a human being’s life.” This was the governance system of the Yupik people and within the constructs of the environment and yuuyaraq people were otherwise free.

Leadership manifested differently in this governance structure. All Yuk’s obeyed yuuyaraq. People were leaders because they embodied leadership, they embodied the values of the culture. People were leaders because of their wisdom, generosity, character, temperament. No one had to listen to them, but they did because they were people worth listening to.

Reason was an important part of yuuyaraq as the ability to reason things out was very important in this environment. You often had to reason many steps in advance in order to survive. Self-control was important, one had to be in complete control of your body and emotions. If you let emotions rule you even in this day and age it is a bad thing, in the context of the north you could bring your entire community to ruin by not having self-control.

A central aspect of yuuyaraq was awareness. One had to have awareness of everything at all times. You were aware of your surroundings, aware of others, aware of yourself. People were aware of details we are now oblivious too, they could even sense changes in weather. Much of yuuyaraq was continually growing your awareness in all the different ways it could be grown. One had a responsibility to one’s self, and one's community to maintain this awareness. Yuuyaraq was a governance structure that made perfect sense for the society and environment, you had the responsibility to govern yourself.


Our ethics were, and are much different in the north. Borne from this environment there was no room for over sentimental attitudes about many things. For instance we were hunters, and as such we killed animals. Our relationship with the animals was very intimate, if brutal. Our very existence depended upon theirs so although we would kill them they were very important to the people. Animals were certainly valued and respected but I am not entirely sure we ever took anthropomorphism to the level it now exists in America. In 2015 a study forecasted we would spend 703 million dollars on valentines gifts for pets. Some groups have even gone so far as attempting to obtain status as persons for animals. I will reiterate that we showed our animals compassion and respect but that means something completely different in the north.

We also had such things as “mercy killings”, ritual strangulation in the event that a person was so gravely injured they would die. Life in the north can seem cruel sometimes and so can the people and the things they do in it. But put in the proper context it makes perfect sense. In many cases ethics for one group of people is a luxury for another.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

“This part of you is no different than a dog,” gesturing to my body. He continued “yuuyaraq is about developing the part of yourself created in the image of God, your spirit”. I was being lectured by my uncle. The human spirit in particular was a powerful spirit and was called anerneq or breath. In Napoleon’s book he does into more detail about this belief, iinruq or the spirit is separate from the material in which they reside. All things had iinruq in the Yupik view.

Traditional Knowledge often just referred to as TK which is the information that a people have from living in an environment. There are things you can really only know by living in a place for a long time, things you are unlikely to see as a visiting or casual observer. In the case of the indigenous peoples of the north we have not only lived here all our lives, we have knowledge that has been passed generation to generation by a people who have lived in this environment for thousands of years. There are things we have noticed and know from this experience. This might be similar or the same as tacit knowledge, a term coined by Michael Polanyi is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by telling or writing it must be instead experienced.

Sometimes truth can only be ascertained from the inside. So rather than a skeptical “objective” outside observer one has to learn as a subjective participant. Very often you just have to accept what you are being told, and try it on and try it out in order to see if there is any truth to it. This is how we learn almost everything, you are told what to believe by trusted sources and it is up to us to test this knowledge. This is perhaps the opposite of radical skepticism in which you doubt everything you do not explicitly know.

In the Western system, distinctions are constantly being made. Just like the distinction I am trying to make between Northern philosophy and other worldviews. However seeing the wholeness of things, seeing how things are related and are the same is just as valid as making distinctions.

When you first see a herd of caribou it can be difficult to tell the difference between them. It is only after spending a lot of time in the proximity of the herd can you begin to tell the differences. The obvious ones are easy, the caribou who are phenotypically common are much harder. Although the caribou themselves know the differences amongst themselves very well. In the end though, they are all caribou and really are more similar than they are different. Similarly humans think we are all special little snowflakes, each and every one of us different and unique. We are, but in the end snowflakes are all just frozen water, falling from the sky, destined to melt into the earth.

Northern philosophy is simply philosophy from the Northern perspective but it is different enough to warrant exploration and important to those of us who come from this environment and history. Many aspects of Northern Philosophy are not that different from Western or Eastern Philosophy. We are all humans after all, it is the environments we come from and other experiences which form the frameworks we operate from.

This is an incomplete picture, but one that I hope makes it clear that Northern Philosophy is a distinct way of viewing the world complete with its own metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and political structures. There is much more work yet to be done to further distinguish and articulate this discipline. I consider all of my own work to be Northern Philosophy, and some of that work is to set Northern Philosophy itself as being distinct from the others.

For those of us who come from the north, these ideas are not new. We know we see the world differently. Even contemporary Alaskans know there is something different about the north. Across the circumpolar north the communities that exist in this environment are different in fundamental ways. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, these are countries in which Northern Philosophy is still alive. In the northern parts of Alaska, Canada and Russia as well. The arctic and subarctic create a unique worldview for those who inhabit it.

This is changing as technology neuters the impact the environment has but the environment still dictates much in the north. After all, there is a reason construction season is still mainly in the summer. Roads don’t crisscross our state and flights are often canceled because the environment will not allow you to do as you please. Just twenty years ago Alaska was a much different place. With the advent of cellphones and other technology we are not as reliant on one another as we once were. The Alaska of our ancestors is gone, and in many ways we cannot even understand the world they lived in. We live too differently. But the knowledge is still out there to be discovered, and all of the old views are not lost. The North still has its very own philosophy.

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