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Anthropology of Nature

Philippe Descola

Anthropology of Nature

Inaugural lecture delivered on Thursday 29 March 2001

Philippe Descola
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

Note de l’éditeur

This text has been translated by Liz Libbrecht in collaboration with Céline Surprenant (Collège de France).

Texte intégral

1Mr Administrator,
My dear colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

  • 1 Excerpts from Relation historique aux régions équinoxialespublished by Ch. Minguet (A. de Humbold (...)
  • 2 In a letter to Schiller cited by Ch. Minguet (Alexander von Humboldt, historien et géographe de l’A (...)

2It was on a day like today, in late March, but in 1800, that an essentially unmemorable incident occurred which I shall take as a starting point. On 31 March, Alexander von Humboldt descended the Rio Apure in the Ilanos of Venezuela, where he enjoyed the spectacle offered by the prodigiously diverse nature that civilization had not yet disturbed. The Christianized Indian rowing his pirogue exclaimed: “It is just as it was in Paradise,” But the scholar, believing neither in the good savage nor in the innocent harmony of a pristine world, noted in his journal: “The golden age has ceased; and in this Paradise of the American forests, as well as everywhere else, sad and long experience has taught all beings that benignity is seldom found in alliance with strength.”1 This was an almost trivial comment, coming from a naturalist-ethnographer who by training and by nature was attentive to the chains of dependence – especially food-related ones – that united organisms in a tropical ecosystem, and who was not inclined to see the inhabitants of these lands as the idealized vestiges of an Edenic past. But the comment was new in the context of the time, for while this admirer of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre described the South American fauna and flora in colourful language that enchanted his contemporaries, he was also the founder of geography as a science of the environment. When he studied a phenomenon as a geographer or a botanist, he did so with a view to linking it to other phenomena found in the same environment, while still taking into account historical and sociological facts. He would then endeavour to illuminate the relations thus revealed, by examining similar situations in other regions of the world. Alexander von Humboldt had the same approach to the Amerindian peoples that he studied in the Orinoco and those on the high plains of the Andes and Mexico. Far from seeing them as likeable or repulsive figures that could serve to illustrate philosophical parables, he sought to show that their future depended not only on the soil, climate and vegetation, but also on migrations, exchanges of goods and ideas, inter-ethnic conflicts and, even indirectly, on the vicissitudes of Spanish colonization. In short, he had the intuition that humans’ natural history was inseparable from the human history of nature, and that the “progressive habitability of the surface of the globe”, as he put it, depended as much on physical factors as on the widely diverse ways in which they were perceived and used by the societies that had received a share of them.2

3While the coincidence of dates that I used in my preamble is entirely fortuitous, it did afford me a pretext to mention Alexander von Humboldt, and not only for the purpose of paying homage to a man who contributed to arousing my interest in South American societies and landscapes. For, Mr Administrator and dear colleagues, in deciding on the creation of a Chair of Anthropology of Nature, and in bestowing upon me the great honour of entrusting this Chair to me, you wished to ensure the continuity of a fundamental anthropology programme that the author of Cosmos was one of the first to outline: to understand the unity of humans through the diversity of the means they employ to objectify a world from which they cannot be dissociated. My emotion as I take up this task again in an institution in which it has been illustrated with such brilliance is therefore not entirely devoid of mischievous regret. How not to wonder how the discipline might have evolved had the Collège de France distinguished Humboldt when he came to settle in Paris in 1804, on his return from his South American trip? How much time might have been saved, had this institution been able to welcome a scholar that Franz Boas, the pioneer of North American anthropology, saw as a model and the source of his vocation: a great European who wrote most of his work in French and whose attachment to the spirit of the Enlightenment remained very much alive way after political circumstances had become unfavourable.

4But it was surely either too early or too late, as at the time, in the organization of its teaching, the Collège de France had already started to ratify the great divide in methods and subjects, between the natural and the cultural sciences, which steadily deepened during the 19th century. In those years, Georges Cuvier was Chair of Natural History, while Pierre de Pastoret had just taken over from Mathieu-Antoine Bouchaud as Chair of the Law of Nature and Nations, a mix of moral philosophy and of the history of institutions that prefigured social anthropology. Yet, even though the division was very clearly spelled out in the names of the Chairs, the tasks were probably not that distinct in the aspirations of those who held them. Cuvier, Bouchaud and de Pastoret had all been active members of the short-lived Société des observateurs de l’homme, with which Humboldt was in regular contact. It seems unlikely that their discussions within what the historian George Stocking called “the world’s first anthropological society” predisposed them to unreservedly acknowledging the separation between the physical and the moral, against which their companions Destutt de Tracy and Cabanis were actively fighting. It is far more probable that they adhered instead to the Ideologists’ open ambition of studying the natural laws of understanding, through the observation of their effects, evidenced in the customs, techniques and institutions of people in all parts of the world and during all ages of humanity. A project of this nature had started to be implemented with Nicolas Baudin’s scientific expedition in Australia, which Humboldt nearly joined and for which Cuvier had written instructions. The conditions were clearly ripe for the birth, in France, of a truly comparative anthropology, informed by ethnographic observation and seeking to explore the social, cultural and linguistic dimensions of social life, as well as biological and geographic ones.

5Unfortunately this early effervescence was short-lived. When Alexander von Humboldt returned from America, the Société des observateurs de l’homme had already dissolved, faced with the animosity of the Emperor who rightly saw it as a refuge for republican ideas. Anthropology was to be born from its ashes, this time permanently, but much later, in the 1860s, and elsewhere, primarily in Germany and in the English-speaking world. In France the divorce between naturalists and humanists had already been consummated, as the creation in 1859 of two rival institutions attested: the Société d’anthropologie de Paris, which, under Paul Broca, intended to promote the study of all aspects of Man, but whose interest was rapidly to narrow down to anatomic, physiological and demographic research only; and the Société d’ethnographie de Paris, founded on the instigation of Léon de Rosny, a renowned Orientalist and Americanist, and which, despite Claude Bernard’s brief chairmanship, ended up focusing primarily on linguistics and religion. Notwithstanding the repeated efforts of the nineteenth century’s greatest minds to bridge the widening gap between the physical and the life sciences, on the one hand, and the social sciences and humanities, on the other, anthropology was torn between these opposing poles from the outset. The conflict between the two was to have a lasting impact on the methods and research questions of its maturity.

6Perhaps we should not regret this, as anthropology’s raison d’être and dynamic stemmed largely from this initial tension. With the new colonial expansion of the European powers, increasingly rich and detailed information was being collected on the ways in which many non-modern peoples perceived plants and animals, and on how they attributed the status of ancestors to particular species, or treated others as close relatives or as doubles. Although historians of religion and folklorists had already studied these strange attitudes, their steadfastness among geographically distant contemporaries inevitably raised questions as to the unity of humans’ faculties and their seemingly unequal pace of development. Anthropology as a specialized science spawned from a need to solve this logical scandal, by explaining and justifying exotic forms of thinking that seemed to make no clear distinctions between humans and non-humans, at a time when the separation between the natural sciences and the cultural sciences had definitively been consolidated. Given this split, it was inevitable that the characteristics of physical reality, as the natural sciences conceived of them, would serve to define the objects of the worldviews that the cultural sciences sought to elucidate. Hence emerged the major controversies on animism, totemism and naturist religions, in which the founders of the discipline confronted one another. They were all equally committed to finding a single origin – be it psychological, social or experiential – to the intellectual constructions, which, insofar as they neglected the distinctions between humans and natural entities, seemed to run counter to the requirements of reason. Man as an organism had deserted the reign of nature, but nature had returned in force as the background against which primitive humanity placed its poor mirages.

7Marcel Mauss strove to lead anthropology out of this dead end. Heedful of the body as a tool and as the seat of physical and psychological dispositions, aware of the role played by material and ecological foundations in the shaping of collective existence, pioneer in the study of traditional techniques: in short, driven by an insatiable curiosity for all manifestations of practical reason, Mauss was able to bring society down from Mount Olympus where Durkheim had placed it. He shifted it to a mediating position where it was a living environment rather than an over-arching final cause; a simple and necessary state through which all kinds of conditions on which life together depended, could be synthesized. Neglected to some extent by his uncle and mentor, the physical context of human activity became once again a legitimate component of the dynamics of peoples, a potentiality that could be actualized in a particular type of social morphology rather than an autonomous and omnipotent constraint such as the “telluric factor” – the influence of soils on societies – that Mauss claimed geographers used excessively.

8With hindsight, we can but be struck by the recurrence of the notion of totality in the writings of this versatile genius. It is as though he used this term to exorcize the fragmentation of an immense work, and thus to emphasize his constant aspiration to achieve the combination of individual and collective plans through the singularity of an experience in which the play of institutions and their specific mode of assemblage would be revealed in their full complexity. For if the famous “total social fact” can function as an analytical frame, this is because it echoes on another scale what Mauss called “total Man”, that is, humans envisaged from all sides: biological, psychological and sociological; in short, a de facto totality, which must be studied as such. We would do well to keep this salutary definition in mind, to steer clear of the constant temptation to reduce humans to automats, in a sense, in which each branch of knowledge might claim to be the key to the main motor, identified alternately as mental faculties, genes, drives, physiological needs, or cultural habits.

  • 3 Marcel Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie, Introduction by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Paris, PUF, 1950, p (...)

9It is hardly surprising that ethnology, to which Mauss devoted most of his teaching at the Collège de France, seemed to him to be the most appropriate way of implementing this totalizing aspiration. All the concrete objects of ethnological investigation are situated in this zone where the collective institutions come together with the biological and psychological data that give the social its substance but not its form. The rules of kinship and matrimonial alliance, the ways of using and arranging the physical environment, the technical systems, the forms of exchange, the conceptions of the person, of the body and of misfortune, the knowledge on the world, and the classificatory systems accompanying it: all reflect a wide range of physiological functions, anatomical particularities, motor schemas, and cognitive faculties that cannot be dissociated from the instituted forms within which they are expressed. Anthropology has no intention to lay claim to a monopoly on the study of these interface facts that other sciences also study, and perhaps it is even currently giving the impression of pulling back, faced with the magnitude of the task, and finding more convenient a refuge in ethnographic erudition alone, or in the narcissistic justification of the impossibility of producing knowledge on others. I do not find this type of approach particularly helpful because the adventure of the mind is absent. As Mauss wrote: “when a science makes progress, it always does so in respect of the concrete, and always in respect of the unknown. And the unknown lies at the borders between sciences”. He added, citing Goethe: “there where professors devour one another”.3

  • 4 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Regard éloigné, Paris, Plon, 1983, p. 164-165; translated by Joachim Neugro (...)

10It was these controversial borders that my master Claude Lévi-Strauss had also chosen to investigate when he restored the teaching of anthropology at the Collège de France. He thus gave back to the discipline, which was then little known outside of specialized circles, the prestige and authority that it currently enjoys in our country. Lévi-Strauss developed his method by borrowing hypotheses and results from all the pioneering fronts of science: from linguistics, of course, and notably phonology, but also from the physiology of perception, from cladistics, and from game theory and cybernetics. That is why structural anthropology – apart from the remarkable innovation that it has allowed for in the classical fields of the study of kinship and the analysis of myths – has also perpetuated and enriched the Maussian idea of the total human, by proposing a bold theory of knowledge in which “the mind operates in ways that do not differ in kind from those that have unfolded in the world”.4 By way of the mechanisms of the perception and intellection of sensible objects, conceived of as an internal milieu equivalent to the physical milieu, humans returned to inhabit this vast dwelling from which they had been expelled. This put an end, de jure if not always de facto, to the dissociation so common in anthropology between categories of representation, corporal faculties, and the properties of matter. Françoise Héritier was to pursue this route when she opened the vast field of the symbolic anthropology of the body, seeking to understand how elementary evidences of organic nature – primarily sexual differences – are combined in chains of associated significations whose arrangements in limited numbers weave a web of semantic invariants around the world.

11As we can see, anthropology has constantly been faced with the problem of the relations of continuity and discontinuity between nature and culture, a problem that has often been said to constitute the chosen field of this original form of knowledge. I intend to pursue this movement, however, by giving it a slight shift of emphasis prefigured in the name of the Chair. It looks as though the anthropology of nature is indeed an oxymoron of sorts, given that for the past few centuries, nature has been characterized in the West by humans’ absence, and humans, by their capacity to overcome what is natural in them. I nevertheless found this antinomy suggestive, because it reveals an aporia in modern thinking, while suggesting a way of escaping it. By positing a universal distribution of humans and non-humans in two separate ontological fields, we are for one quite ill equipped to analyse all those systems of objectification of the world in which a formal distinction between nature and culture does not obtain. Nature does not exist as a sphere of autonomous realities for all peoples, and it must be anthropology’s task to understand not only why and how so many peoples classify under the heading of humanity many existents that we call natural, but also why and how it has seemed to us necessary to exclude these entities from our common destiny. Brandished peremptorily as a positive property of things, this type of distinction moreover appears to go against what the evolutionary and life sciences have taught us about the phyletic continuity of organisms, thus minimizing the importance of the diverse biological mechanisms that we share with other organized beings. Our singularity in relation to all other existents is relative, as is our awareness of it.

  • 5 Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature [1920], Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1955, (...)

12For proof we need only witness the difficulties with which dualist thought is confronted when it comes to distributing practices and phenomena in airtight compartments – difficulties that everyday language clearly reveals. For instance, to denote the relations between nature and culture, terms are often borrowed from the vocabulary of techniques or that of anatomy, with an emphasis sometimes on continuity – articulation, joints, suture or coupling – and sometimes on discontinuity – cuts, fractures, breaks or ruptures –, as though these two domains were clearly delimited, so that we could separate them along an existing fold, or join them together like two parts of a whole. Yet everyone knows that this is a fiction, for there is constant interlinking and mutual determination between the universal constraints of life and instituted habits, between the necessity where humans find themselves of existing as organisms in environments that they have shaped only partly, and the ability afforded them to give their interactions and the other entities of the world a host of particular significations. Where does nature end and culture start when I have a meal, when I identify an animal by its name, or when I trace constellations in the sky? In short, to take Alfred Whitehead’s image, “the edges of nature are always ragged”.5 Is it up to anthropology patiently to hem this rag so that it always presents the smooth edge that would make it possible to attach to it, like as many multicoloured cloths, the thousands of cultures that we have stored in our libraries? Might it have the mission of carving out of the diversity of experiences of the world, pieces of the same format, because they have been cut according to a single pattern, in order to place them on the broad width of nature? There, by contrast with the unity of their base and with the medley of colours, motifs and textures that their juxtaposition highlights, each of them would reveal its distinctive character compared to its neighbours, as well as the deeper similarity that unites them in the difference that they exhibit all together, from the contrasting background.

13Such is not my conviction; but it is nevertheless how anthropology has for a long time conceived of its task. Under cover of a relativism of method, seemingly respectful of the diversity of ways of experiencing the human condition, and on principle refuting hierarchies of values and institutions that are too tied up to the standards proposed by the modern West, an underground universalism has reigned alone, that of a homogeneous nature with respect to its borders, its effects and its main qualities. The bewilderment over the disparity of uses and customs became less of a challenge since each culture could be treated as a singular point of view – albeit one deemed erroneous – on a set of phenomena whose stubborn evidence no one could ignore, as a particular way of accepting a bloc of realities and objective determinations, of which we, the Moderns, would have been the first to suspect the existence outside of any human intention, and the only ones to attempt to identify the true properties. Hence, the impossible alternative with which anthropology was confronted from the start: either relating the range of human behaviours to biological or ecological functions that the mask of culture might conceal in the eyes of those who are its playthings, or positing that the action of nature is always played out in cultural terms, and that culture is accessible to us only through the filters that it imposes, thus giving all power to the symbolic order to make the physical world acquire a reality for-itself.

14We know which difficulties stem from this type of dilemma. Whether it appears in the old form of some theory of needs, or in the more recent avatars of sociobiology, ecological materialism or evolutionary psychology, naturalist monism explains nothing. For when it comes to institutionalized practices, knowing a function does not enable us to account for the specificity of the forms through which it is expressed, supposing for that matter that such finalism should be plausible in the order of purely biological phenomena. Radical culturalism is hardly any better off, because it is constrained to rely underhandedly on a fixed point that it had yet excluded from its premises. If nature is a cultural construct of which each people proposes a variant, then, the original text from which everyone has drawn will eventually emerge in one way or another from behind the palimpsest of interpretations and glosses. Saying that nature exists only inasmuch as it conveys meaning and is transfigured into something other than itself implies that this contingent meaning is given to a facet of reality that has no intrinsic meaning; that a stubborn factuality can be constituted as a representation; and that the symbolic function has some anchorage in an ultimate phenomenal referent, guarantor of our common humanity and protection against the nightmare of solipsism. A distinction between nature and culture, which appeared at a late stage in the Western episteme, was thus extended without warning on the scale of humanity. Claude Lévi-Strauss so rightly said that the distinction had nothing more than a methodological value; yet once it had acquired the status of a universal ontology by a sort of casual paralipsis, it would condemn all those peoples who chose to disregard it, to presenting only clumsy pre-figurations or fallacious representations of the genuine organization of the real, as that of which the moderns would have established the canons. The abundance of practical states of the world would then be reduced to so-called “cultural” differences, both moving testimonies of the non-moderns’ inventiveness in their attempts to objectify, in their own way, the cosmology that is ours, and clear signs of their failure in this respect; and justifications of our claim to submit them to an inverted form of cannibalism: not as formerly in South America, the physical incorporation of the other’s identity as the condition for having a point of view on oneself, but the dissolution of the other’s point of view on him- or herself in our point of view on ourselves.

15It is time for anthropology to challenge this type of heritage and to see the world with more emancipated eyes, free of the dualistic veil that the natural and life sciences have partially outdated, and that engendered many pernicious distortions in the understanding of peoples whose customs differed radically from ours. The analysis of interactions between inhabitants of the world can no longer be confined to institutions governing the society of humans, this club of producers of norms, of signs and of wealth where non-humans are admitted only as picturesque accessories to decorate the grand theatre in which those who have language monopolize the stage. Many so-called “primitive” societies invite us to transcend this outlook: those who have never imagined that the frontiers of humanity stop at the gates of the human species, and who readily invite into the arena of their social life the most modest plants and the most insignificant animals. Anthropology is thus confronted with a formidable task: either disappear together with an exhausted form of anthropocentrism, or mutate by rethinking its domain and tools so as to include far more than the anthropos, that is, all existents related to it and relegated for a long time to an environmental function. It is in this sense – which is admittedly militant – that we can talk of the anthropology of nature.

  • 6 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, L’Œil et l’Esprit, Paris, Gallimard, 1964, p. 13; translated by Carleton Dal (...)

16How are we to proceed? Surely, by starting out from differences and not from those misleading phenomenal continuities that dissolve the diversity of instituted forms of presence to the world in the factitious unity of internal consciousness or of practical interaction. But I am not referring here to those conspicuous differences between what we call cultures, pretexts for the hermeneutic delectation in which relativism delights, nor to the unique difference of nature between humans and non-humans, in relation to which all other differences are supposedly authenticated. The differences that matter are rather those imposed by the maze of discontinuities of form, matter, behaviour or function afforded us by the movement of the world; discontinuities that are sometimes sharply defined and sometimes barely discernible, and that we can recognize or ignore, emphasize or minimize, actualize in usages or leave as potentialities, and that constitute the framework on which our relations with what Maurice Merleau-Ponty called “associated bodies”6, is attached. In this web of discontinuities there is no need first to draw the dividing lines that would distinguish a priori the animate from the inanimate, the solid from the immaterial, the realms of nature from beings of language and, among them, humans who live according to the laws of reason from those who believe in the supernatural. We would thus simply be perpetuating the cosmological system that is most familiar to us. Suspending our judgement as is required in any scientific endeavour, let us rather examine how, in all ages and under the most diverse climates, humans have been able collectively to take advantage of the field of possible contrasts available to them, so as to form, on the texture and the structure of things, singular configurations of relations of difference and similitude between existents and their properties, their dispositions, and their actions.

17This is an impossible task, some will say, which could be likened to those inventories of correspondence that Renaissance thinkers undertook in the vain and magnificent hope that they might give meaning to the world by recording all its reverberations. Yet that is not what this is about, even though it is regrettable that in that age we only just missed a first encounter with anthropology, an age which was lacking not so much new objects, the art of describing them with discernment and the ability to tame their foreignness through subtle comparisons, as the awareness that the reflexive totality that we call culture or society is autonomous – a condition which was certainly necessary for the human sciences to really develop, but which is presently hindering their progress because it is complied with too submissively. Indeed, that is not what this is about, for although the field of discontinuities is immense, and unreasonable, no doubt, the ambition of exhausting all the figures it contains, the relations structuring these discontinuities is neither infinite nor is their setting arbitrary. The former depend on a small number of properties of social life, that is, on the different ways of maintaining my relationship to the other, while the latter are subjected to the principles of combination that anthropology and notably structural anthropology has started to register.

18The mission of anthropology, as I understand it, is therefore in no way ambiguous: it is to contribute, along with other sciences and by means of its own methods, to making intelligible the way in which the organisms of a particular kind fit into the world, select specific properties for their use, and contribute to modifying it by weaving, with it and between them, constant or occasional ties of remarkable yet finite diversity. To this end, it is first necessary to map these relations, to understand their nature better, to establish their modes of compatibility and incompatibility, and to examine how they are actualized in immediately distinctive ways of being. If I may allow myself to spin the textile metaphor further, I would say that our main objective is not to carry on putting together this patchwork of cultures, the disconcerting heterogeneity of which I have just referred to; instead, it is to study how, on a warp of discontinuities accessible to all, groups of humans have woven a singular weft by linking up points with their own particular arrangements and motifs, yet by means of a technique that they share with others, at least in varying forms. Note however that the warp does not in any way correspond to Nature: it is the network of contrasting features of any nature that, like certain figures of Gestalt, allow for forms of recognition, markings of identity and various imputations as far as the structure of the world is concerned. Likewise, the different types of weft are not equivalent to cultures; they are schemas through which collective life is organized and meanings are built and shared. Note furthermore that these schemas are not institutions, values or repertoires of norms. Instead, we should understand this notion in the cognitive psychology sense, that is, the psychological, sensory-motor and emotional dispositions, interiorized in the form of habitus through experience acquired in a particular social environment, and which allow for the exercise of at least three types of competence: first, selectively structuring the flow of perception by granting significant pre-eminence to certain features and processes observable in the environment; second, organizing practical activity as much as the expression of thinking and emotions, according to relatively standardized scenarios; and finally, providing a framework for typical interpretations of behaviours or events – interpretations that are acceptable and communicable within the community where the lifestyles they reflect are accepted as normal.

  • 7 André-Georges Haudricourt, “Domestication des animaux, culture des plantes et traitement d’autrui”, (...)

19How, other than through vague intuitions, can we identify these schemas that mark the attitudes and practices of a community in such a way that the observer immediately perceives it as distinctive? I can suggest one answer: the schemas that must be considered dominant are those that are activated in the largest number of situations, in the treatment of humans as much as in that of non-humans; these schemas subordinate the other ones to their own logic by stripping them to a large extent of their original orientation. It is probably such a mechanism that Georges-André Haudricourt had in mind when he distinguished two ways of treating nature and the others: negative indirect action and positive direct action.7 Illustrated by yam cultivation in Melanesia, or irrigated rice farming in Asia, the former aims to favour the growth conditions of domesticated beings by arranging their environment as well as possible, not by exercising direct control over them. This tendency is also evidenced in the government of people, as attested by Confucian political philosophy and by conceptions of authority in the chieftainships of tropical horticulturists. By contrast, crop and sheep farming in the Mediterranean involve a series of coercive operations on plants and permanent contact with the animals, which depend on the shepherd for their food and protection. This is positive direct action, the parallel of which is found in the ideal of the sovereign as the good shepherd, a constant in Western political philosophy. Basically, what is at stake is not a projection of relations between humans onto relations between non-humans, but a homology between guiding principles applying in the treatment of both domains.

20The dominant schemas are also identifiable in so far as they show a significant difference with those prevailing in the immediate surroundings, as though each community endeavoured above all to differentiate itself from those around it or with which it coexisted. The nature and limits of the population concerned are however never given a priori; hence, on the contrary, it is the scope of the dominant schema that above all establishes them. In this sense a community does not necessarily coincide with a “society”, “tribe”, “nation” or “class”: all awkward terms due to the substantive closure and essentialization that they imply. It is defined first and foremost by the discontinuity introduced around it, due to the conspicuous presence nearby of other principles underpinning the schematization of experience. Its existence is positional and not intrinsic; it can be highlighted only by means of a comparative method. Hence, it is not so much linguistic boundaries, the limits of a network of exchange or even the homogeneity of lifestyles that draw the boundaries of a community suitable for a comparative analysis. It is rather the way of organizing relationships to the world and to others, shared by a large or small group of individuals. This group may have sufficiently distinctive internal variations – of language, of institutions, of customs – for it to be considered, on another scale, as a group of transformation composed of discrete units. Even though this type of definition cannot be substituted entirely for usual categories – culture, ethnic group, civilization, linguistic group, social milieu, etc. – which may remain useful in other analytical contexts, it enables us at least to avoid the pitfalls of fixism. It also allows us to circumvent the almost spontaneous tendency to interpret the particularisms of human groups in terms of the features that they brandish to distinguish themselves from their close neighbours. The approach counters the one adopted by Ruth Benedict to demonstrate culture patterns. Instead of setting our hearts on a group delimited from the start, to which an abstract and transcending unity has been ascribed as a mysterious source of regularity in behaviours and representations, we identify the field covered by certain schemas underlying practices in communities. The dimensions of these communities can vary widely, for their boundaries are set not by local custom or by the sphere of observation that an ethnographer can embrace, but by qualitative leaps in the ways of stylizing the experience of the world. Depending on the type of phenomenon considered, entire continents can constitute a unit of analysis that is as relevant as units consisting of only a few thousand individuals sharing the same distinctive cosmology.

21The type of comparativism for which such an approach calls must be framed by strict rules. First, one must apply it to a corpus whose descriptive codes, modes of establishing proof, analytical canons and classificatory tools one masters. The field that fits this requirement is ethnography, a body of knowledge accumulated for over a century on thousands of peoples throughout the world. Having contributed to it on my own scale and having practised it as a keen reader, I believe that I am able to assess its scope and its limits. Of course I do not prohibit myself from drawing on historical and sociological studies for the material needed for my analyses, but I do so with the gaze of the ethnographer, that is, a gaze attentive to configurations of facts whose existence was first revealed by the observation of societies that developed in parallel with the West. It is not that I wish to revive an outdated opposition between Us and Them, or affirm a theoretical distinction, between the object of ethnology and that of sociology or history; the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Nathan Wachtel in particular have adequately shown that this type of division is unfounded. Rather, the range of practices and institutions that these societies offer us allows for richer reflection on the diversity of human behaviours. Moreover, even if we can compare only discrete sets of phenomena, the meaning attached to them must always be examined in relation to the local systems in which they are set. Practices or institutions that seem similar, for having been described according to the same typological conventions, may very well prove to be totally dissimilar when, in their context of occurrence, we relate them to other practices and institutions that shed different light on them. Thus, the construction of a category of comparable facts proceeds from a back-and-forth movement between a comprehensive approach – the appeal to context – and an extensive one – the identification of apparently multiple expressions of the same property of social life. Understood in this way, the comparative method is not an end in itself, but a form of controlled experimentation that allows us to verify or to invalidate hypotheses on what underpins and explains the diverse use systems of the world.

  • 8 Marcel Mauss, Œuvres, vol. 2, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1974, p. 130.

22The time is ripe to answer a question that might well be asked: so where do you situate yourself, in the great debate between universalism and relativism? How can you simultaneously challenge the generality of the distinction between nature and culture, and claim to bring to light invariants in the modes of relationship with humans and non-humans? I have already mentioned just how artificial this opposition between the universality of nomothetic explanations and the relativity of historical and sociological interpretations seems to me; it is the mere translation, in apparently contradictory epistemological positions, of an empirical division of work, between natural and cultural sciences. While this division was surely necessary in its day, to isolate domains with positive objects, its crystallization in a futile philosophical quarrel is presently essentially an obstacle to the progress of knowledge. Hence, I would rather tend to opt for what could be called a relative universalism – relative in the sense of a relative pronoun, that is, which refers to a relationship. Relative universalism does not stem from an initial distinction between primary qualities and secondary qualities, but from relations of continuity and discontinuity, identity and difference, analogy and contrast, which humans establish between existents. It does not require an absolute nature and contingent cultures to be given from the outset; it needs only that we recognize, with Mauss, that “Man identifies himself with things and identifies things with himself, having the sense of both the differences and the similarities that he establishes”8; and, granted that, that we add the hypothesis that the formulae governing these processes of identification do not exist in unlimited numbers.

  • 9 Carl Georg von Brandenstein, “Aboriginal Ecological Order in the South-West of Australia. Meanings (...)
  • 10 W. B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, London, Macmillan & Co, 189 (...)

23An illustration is indispensable here, which I will borrow from the rich palette of relations between people and birds. The Nungar tribes in south-western Australia were organized in exogamous moieties named after two birds: the white cockatoo, Cacatua tenuirostris, whose indigenous name maarnetj can be translated as “the catcher”, and the crow, Corvus coronoides, called waardar, a term meaning “the watcher”. The fact that an animal species is named after a general characteristic of its behaviour rather than by a term exclusively associated with it, a feature common in Australia, is partially explained by the status conferred on these two totemic birds. They are the origin and substantial incarnation of two contrasting sets of material and spiritual properties – character traits, physical conformity and aptitudes, psychological predispositions and the like – that are reputedly peculiar to all human members of each of the moieties, and simultaneously to all non-humans respectively affiliated to them.9 William Spencer and Franck Gillen noted this community of moods and temperaments within hybrid communities more than a century ago, when they wrote that, in central Australia, “the totem of any man is regarded … as the same thing as himself”.10 It is not that the object of this kind of identification is a crow or cockatoo observable in the environment, but rather that these species constitute the hypostases of a relationship of physical and moral identity between certain entities of the world – a relationship that transcends apparent morphological and functional differences, better to emphasize a common base of ontological similitude.

  • 11 Jacques Galinier, La Moitié du monde. Le corps et le cosmos dans le rituel des Indiens otomi, Paris (...)

24Far from there, on the plateau of central Mexico, the Otomi Indians also maintain a relationship of identification with birds and primarily with the black vulture. This scavenger is the most common avatar of the tona, an animal double whose life cycle is parallel to that of every human being, since it is born and dies at the same time as he or she does, and anything that harms the integrity of the one simultaneously affects the other.11 Labelled with the term “nagualism”, this belief, found throughout Mesoamerica, was formerly considered to testify to the indistinguishability between a human being and an animal, similar to that found in Australia. Yet we see, for two reasons, that the common fate of the human and his or her double is very different from the material and spiritual continuity postulated by the Nungar. First, the animal is an individuality here, not a prototypical species with shared properties, and second, a human being does not have the idiosyncratic features of the tona with which he or she is matched, and whose nature is often unbeknown to him or her. It is necessary, on the contrary, for the human being and his or her animal alter ego to be distinguished in essence and substance for a relationship of analogical correspondence to exist between them, and for accidents that happen first to the one to be able to affect the correlate, as if by reverberation.

25Further south, in upper Amazonia, the Jivaroan Achuar reserve a place of choice for another bird, the toucan. First, it is the most common type of game, even if its meat is too tough to be recommended to gourmets. Like other birds and most mammals, the toucan is said to have a soul similar to that of humans. This places it among people endowed with subjectivity and intentionality, which it can use to communicate with all the entities endowed with the same privilege. It is also owing to this aptitude that it reputedly adheres to the principles and values governing the Achuar's social life. The toucan is in particular the exemplary incarnation among non-humans of the brother-in-law figure, a term used to denote it in certain contexts. This makes it the emblematic partner of the relationship of affinity that humans maintain with game. Yet the humanity shared between the Achuar and the toucans is of a moral and not physical nature: their identical interiority underpinning their similarities is lodged in bodies with clearly different properties which define and make manifest the boundaries of separate but isomorphic social units in which their respective lives develop. By contrast with the Otomi’s vulture, anonymous singularity being foreign to the person to which it is coupled by the same destiny, the Achuar’s toucan is thus a member of a community of the same nature as that of humans and, as such, the potential subject of a social relationship with any entity, human or non-human, placed in the same situation. But the toucan also differs from the nungar totemic birds in so far as there is no material continuity between it and humans, and furthermore that it is on the model proposed by humanity that it is believed to base its behaviour and institutions, and not the reverse.

26Let us now go back to more familiar shores and consider the properties that we attribute to the parrot. It is no doubt an exotic bird, but also one whose disturbing ability to imitate the human voice has for several centuries been a source of entertainment and a pretext for philosophical distinction in the West. Yet, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz and a few others argued that the phrases pronounced by parrots are in no way a sign of their humanity since this bird is incapable of adapting the impressions it receives of outside objects to the signs that it reproduces by imitation, which is why it would have difficulty inventing new languages. As we know, in Cartesian ontology animals are purely material beings because a priori they cannot participate in the unextended substance that is the soul. And even though this point of view has been criticized countless times, we carry on spontaneously adhering to it when we agree that humans are distinguished from non-humans by a reflexive conscience, subjectivity, the power to signify, the use of symbols, and language through which these faculties are expressed. We furthermore fail to question the consequences implicit in this postulate: that the contingency inherent in the ability to produce arbitrary signs causes humans to differentiate between themselves by way of the form they give their conventions, and this by virtue of a collective disposition that was formerly called the spirit of a people and that we now prefer to call culture. Finally, like Descartes, but with the sounder justifications with which Darwinism has provided us, we do not hesitate to recognize that the physical component of our humanity situates us in a material continuum within which we do not appear to be a far more significant singularity than any other organized being.

27If we agree to envisage the modern ontology that I have just described as a way, among others, of classifying entities of the world according to the properties that we choose to attribute to them, and not as an absolute standard in relation to which cultural variations must be measured, then the contrasting features that it presents in relation to other ontological formulae become far more manifest. Faced with a bird of some kind, since it is with birds that we started off, I can assume either: that it has elements of physicality and interiority identical to my own, but which all together differ from those that my spouse or my brother-in-law share with another bird – which is what the Nungar do; or that its interiority and physicality are distinct from my own even though they display small enough differences to allow for relations of analogy – which is the case of the Otomi; or else that we have similar interiorities and heterogeneous physicalities – as the Achuar postulate; or finally that our interiorities are incommensurable and our physicalities likewise – as we ourselves presume. Over and above the relationship to these particular objects that we have taken as examples, each of these combinations affords a glimpse of a more general principle governing the distribution of the continuities and discontinuities between any human subject and the objects of its environment, on the basis of the resemblances and contrasts of form, substance and behaviour that his or her engagement in the world leads him or her to infer. Each of these modes of identification serves moreover as a touchstone for singular configurations of cosmological systems, of conceptions of the social link and theories of otherness – instituted expressions of more entrenched mechanisms of recognition of the other and material par excellence for anthropological investigation, of which this year’s lectures will start off by charting the configuration and exploring the connections.


28To conclude this lecture, Mr Administrator, dear colleagues, I would like to revert for a moment to the sources of anthropological knowledge. You will perhaps agree with me that none of the ontologies that I have mentioned here is more veracious than another in that it might offer a more precise reflection of a taxinomic organization, the objective order of which would have been legible forever in the structure of things. But once interiorized by a community, like a guiding schema, each of them becomes so forcefully obvious to the members of this group that it is an incentive to treat the other ontologies – insofar as their existence can even be conceived of or known about – as manifest absurdities or unfounded superstitions, barely good enough to support the feeling of superiority that we inevitably experience when we see the contemptible erring or criminal ways into which neighbours have fallen. Yet it is in this undecided periphery where misunderstandings and ostracisms are born, in these margins where civilizations confront one another and judge or choose to ignore one another that ethnology has chosen to settle itself for over a century. This is where it hopes to gain more insight into the diverse regimes of humanity precisely there where the gaps between them seem greatest, and thus contribute to the construction of an anthropology that is less influenced by local prejudices. There is no doubt whatsoever that a project of this nature accompanied and sometimes served the great movement of subjection of peoples and consciences in which European nations and churches engaged half a millennium ago, and which is still ongoing in a more insidious form, committing them to a new mercantile colonization; yet this does not invalidate the goal of fostering knowledge that underpins the project. For the knowledge that it has spawned, and that you have invited me to transmit in these solemn walls, my dear colleagues, has been acquired partly through conversations around the fire in the misty dawns of upper Amazonia, with men and women whose voices I still hear as I endeavour to relate what they told me. I have also acquired it from all the dialogues that ethnologists have held in similar circumstances to ensure the survival, if not of the actual lifestyles that we have shared, then at least of the echo of the creative force that made their fulfilment possible. Hence, even more than the debt of loyalty contracted by the witness, and the recognition due to those who teach us and enhance our experience, what I owe to my Amerindian companions is the fact that, by overturning my beliefs by way of the calm assurance with which they adhered to theirs, they allowed me to challenge that which, until then, more or less consciously, I had held as unquestionable truths. I was thus encouraged to re-experience the fleeting virtue of astonishment, a source of philosophical questioning and driver of scientific progress, which I have maintained since then as a sort of talisman. In the use that I intend to make of it among you, I would like it to be more than a homage paid to those from whom I received it as a gift: a tribute paid for what they gave me to think about.


1 Excerpts from Relation historique aux régions équinoxialespublished by Ch. Minguet (A. de Humboldt, Voyages dans L’Amérique équinoxiale, vol. 1, Paris, François Maspero, 1980, p. 87); translated by Thomasina Ross: Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America during the Years 1799-1804, vol. 2, Londres, Bell & Daldy, 1871, chap. XVIII, p. 154.

2 In a letter to Schiller cited by Ch. Minguet (Alexander von Humboldt, historien et géographe de l’Amérique espagnole, Paris, François Maspero, 1969, p. 77).

3 Marcel Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie, Introduction by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Paris, PUF, 1950, p. 365.

4 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Regard éloigné, Paris, Plon, 1983, p. 164-165; translated by Joachim Neugroschel et Phoebe Hoss: The View from Afar, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 118-119.

5 Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature [1920], Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1955, p. 50.

6 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, L’Œil et l’Esprit, Paris, Gallimard, 1964, p. 13; translated by Carleton Dallery: “Philosophy of Art. Eye and Mind [Part II]”, in The Primacy of Perception: And Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1964, p. 161.

7 André-Georges Haudricourt, “Domestication des animaux, culture des plantes et traitement d’autrui”, L’Homme, vol. II, no. 1, 1962, p. 40-50.

8 Marcel Mauss, Œuvres, vol. 2, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1974, p. 130.

9 Carl Georg von Brandenstein, “Aboriginal Ecological Order in the South-West of Australia. Meanings and Examples”, Oceania, vol. XLVII, no. 3, 1977, p. 170-186.

10 W. B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, London, Macmillan & Co, 1899, p. 202.

11 Jacques Galinier, La Moitié du monde. Le corps et le cosmos dans le rituel des Indiens otomi, Paris, PUF, 1997.


Professor at the College de France
Liz Libbrecht (Traducteur)

© Collège de France, 2014

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