Psychological Expanses of Dune: Indigenous Philosophy, Americana, and Existentialism

In Dune and Philosophy: Mind, Monads and Muad’Dib. London: (forthcoming)
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Like philosophy itself, Dune explores everything from politics to art to life to reality, but above all, the novels ponder the mysteries of mind. Voyaging through psychic expanses, Frank Herbert hits upon some of the same insights discovered by indigenous people from the Americas. Many of these ideas are repeated in mainstream American and European philosophical traditions like pragmatism and existential phenomenology. These outlooks share a regard for mind as ecological, which is more or less to say that minds extend beyond the brain into the rest of the body and the surrounding environment. The cross-cultural strands in Dune tie closely to Herbert’s life and interests. An outdoorsman born in the Pacific West, he had an abiding bond with a friend from the Quileute tribe, Howie Hansen. Herbert advocated for aboriginal rights and crafted well-intentioned if slightly stereotypical tales about indigenous characters, partly based on his visits with Northwest tribes. Carl Jung (1875-1961), whose idea of collective consciousness echoes aboriginal views, was among Herbert’s European influences. So was existential phenomenology, especially as developed by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). The names of characters in one of Herbert’s novels—The Santaroga Barrier—in fact coincide with terms that Heidegger used to articulate how emotionally colored coping with our environment defines our existence. Many indigenous philosophers have treated phenomenology and its American cousin pragmatism in approving ways. Indeed, the ideas of North America’s first inhabitants seem to have been absorbed by pragmatists and even earlier by transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). These different philosophies all advance a place-based psychology. Anne Waters, herself of mixed tribal heritage, generalizes the mindset of her people this way: “American Indian consciousness, and hence American Indian identity is … interdependent with our land base.” Lee Hester, a Choctaw thinker, adds that practices—not mere beliefs—are most important for native thought. American transcendentalists and pragmatists, as well as European phenomenologists, similarly see hands-on practices and environmental interactions as the core of experience. Extending this a little, they sometimes suggest experience isn’t individual but instead cultural. “Culture” is here understood as interactions within communities that define our worlds and experiences, as when we talk about the “French experience,” “culture” or “world,” or the “experience of parenthood.” This theme also shows up in indigenous thought. Exploring the Dune universe, we find everything from land-based concepts of personal identity, to the idea of sharpening the mind through hands-on training, to collective notions of experience in cooperative tribes or through the genetic memory of central characters. The stories explore fate versus free will in cosmic contexts, introducing views from indigenous thought and the pragmatic philosophy of William James (1842-1910). Different forms of spiritualism mingle to shape minds and cultural mixtures around the globe, and the same occurs in the Dune series. The customs and personalities of characters fuse elements from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, and especially Islam. The series not only highlights that religion shapes psychology, but also that faith connects to place, especially paralleling Judeo-Christian-Islamic desert faiths. In capturing these points, the Dune novels show that “our values, our lifestyles and even the ways we think and feel have been strongly influenced by our locations in history and geography. The study of the human mind is fundamentally the study of place.”
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