Home > Uncategorized > Tim Ingold “A Naturalist Abroad in the Museum of Ontology: Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture”

Tim Ingold “A Naturalist Abroad in the Museum of Ontology: Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture”

Ingold, Tim 2016. A Naturalist Abroad in the Museum of Ontology: Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture. Anthropological Forum 0(0). DOI:10.1080/00664677.2015.1136591


Descola’s‘ontologies’ serve to bridge the otherwise yawning gap between a universally given world and its particular representations, rather than treating both what is given and what is known as the derivative offshoots of the being of a world. For the new ontologists, worlds simplyare, before any possibility of division between the given and the known can arise. But for Descola, this division is an a priori condition that creates the space of possibility for ontologies to mediate between them. (2)


So let me make my position plain. I am not a new ontologist, and I do not share their obsession with the multiplication of worlds. On the contrary, thatwe all inhabit one world is, for me, a core principle of the discipline of anthropology. All too often, it seems to me, this principle has been neglected, along with the challenges and responsibilities it entails, in favour of a facile appeal to plurality. Never one world; always many worlds. Once, these were the many worlds of symbolic culture; now, in the hands of the new ontologists, we have the many worlds of elemental being. (3)


Descola’s error, if we may call it that, is to posit, at the origin of human perception and action, ontological settlements that are never actually reached. […] If we must have a‘turn’, let it not be ontological but ontogenetic! Ontological multiplicity gives us many worlds, all but closed to one another. Ontogenetic multiplicity, by contrast, traces open-ended pathways of becoming within one world of nevertheless continuous variation. (3)


Cuvier had a legendary knack of being able to reconstruct the forms of extinct organisms, in their entirety, from mere fragments of their fossilised remains. This knack rested on his conviction that the organism, as a thing of parts, can be assembled into a functioning whole in only a limited number of ways. From one part, the palaeontologist can therefore hazard a reliable guess as to the others. Cuvier called this the principle of the ‘correlation of parts’. According to this principle, every species represents one of a finite set of possible combinations or permutations of organic components. Forms intermediate between combinations could not exist, for with their component parts out of joint, the wholes composed of them would not be viable. Thus there could be no variability among the individuals of a species, nor could any gradual change lead from one species form to another: there could be no evolution, in this sense. It follows that every species must have arisen abruptly and persisted unchanged until, equally abruptly, it went extinct. For Cuvier, each successive moment of extinction and genesis amounted to a ‘revolution’ that punctuated the long history of life on earth. (4)


And now, yet another century further on, we have Descola, veritably the Cuvier of social and cultural anthropology, arguing – just like Durkheim before him – that human beings can organise their relations with one another and with the world they inhabit, and render this world intelligible, in ways that, while remarkable in their diversity, are nevertheless limited by requirements of logical compatibility and operational consistency. (5)


For Cuvier, all living organisms were of four kinds: radiata, mollusca, articulata and vertebrata. For Descola, all schemes of human thought and practice–all ontologies, as he calls them–are of four kinds: animism, totemism, analogism and naturalism. (5)


Just as Cuvier’s project for a comparative palaeontology rested on a vertebrate paradigm of what it means to be an organism–to be self-supporting and capable of autonomous movement directed from a central nervous system–so Descola’s comparative anthropology is framed by a naturalistic paradigm of what an ontology is. It is, in his account, an implicit cognitive schema that enables an interior consciousness, divided from its exterior conditions of existence, to know and to practise in a world of others. (6)


As Lévi-Strauss famously put it,‘“social structure”has nothing to do with empirical reality but with models that are built up after it’ (1968, 279). The structure is a model, and as such, a summary description or formalisation, in our own minds (or, more likely, in the papers we write), of what we have observed. Yet no sooner does Lévi-Strauss admit to this than he turns the logic around. Observable social relations, he contends,‘render manifest the social structure itself’. The structure, it turns out, stands before empirical reality, not after it; it exists proactively in the minds of the people, not retroactively in ours, and orchestrates their activity from behind the scenes yet without their conscious knowledge. (8)


But the logic by which Descola produces the‘tacit’ is no less circular than that adduced by his predecessors. It, too, rests on the trick of inversion, of implanting into the minds of the people models that have, in truth, been built up after the fact through empirical observation and rational analysis. The products of this procedure are the varieties of animism, totemism and analogism. Naturalism, in short, is not so much a variety of tacit knowledge as a machine for producing it, for naturalising the ontological regimes of the Other – regimes that might otherwise challenge the monopoly of its own way of working. That is why, when Descola turns his sights on the regime of naturalism, its underlying principles turn out to bear such an uncanny resemblance to those that underwrite his own comparative inquiry. And it is also why, in a move strikingly at variance with his treatment of animism, totemism and analogism, he goes so far as to appeal to studies in the natural sciences, of biology and psychology, to verify these principles. There need be no shame–Descola seems to be saying–in framing his entire work in terms of naturalism, because at the end of the day, naturalism has got it right! By some miracle, it hasfinally arrived at a mode of apprehending things that corresponds to the way things really and trulyare. And how do we know how things really are? Because we have the sciences of the natural to tell us! (8)


In European languages it is common to use words such as ‘soul’ or‘mind’ (or their non-Anglophone equivalents) for thefirst, and ‘body’ for the second. But far from accusing those who would detect similar dualisms in other regions of the world of the ethnocentric projection of western values, we should realise–according to Descola–that the body/mind dichotomy is no more than a regional variant of a division that is to be found, in one form or another, among all the peoples of the world. What, then, is distinctive about this western variant? The answer we receive from Descola’s text (184) is surprising: it is unique, he avers, in attributing those powers of interiority we call‘mind’ exclusively to humans. Just why this answer is so surprising is a matter to which I shall return; suffice it to note that by this circumlocution, Descola contrives to hide the naturalism that frames his comparative project by narrowing the term to a specific claim to human exceptionality. It no longer appears naturalist to assert a distinction of some sort between physical processes and mental states: everyone does that, Descola assures us, for no other reason than that it is a matter of obvious common sense. Not everyone, however, reserves interiority for individuals of the speciesHomo sapiens, and here, the people whom Descola calls‘Moderns’ are alleged to be the exception (185). This, we are now told, is the defining feature of naturalism, and not the universal theme of interiority/physicality dualism on which it is a particular variation. (10)


However,‘physicality alone’ and‘interiority alone’ are not the only alternatives to dualism. Could we not work our way upstream, to a world in which interiority and physicality have yet to be prised apart? (10)


Selves are not; they become. This project is moreover carried on, not in isolation, but in the company of others and with their material assistance. It is, of course, a process of social life. We might say that in this process, social relations are enfolded in the structures of consciousness, and contrarily, that consciousness unfolds in social relations (Ingold 1986, 248). The boundaries of the self, such as they are, would then be emergentwithinthe process rather than constituted a priori. This‘within’, however, suggests another sense of interiority, and points indeed to a critical ambiguity in the meaning of the term. Interior is on the inside, but inside what? Do we mean inside the process of our social self-fashioning? Or do we mean inside the bounds of the selves so fashioned? (11)


We should not assume, however, that these descriptions are necessarily correct, and I, for one, would dispute them. My understanding is that among people credited by the literature with an ontology of animism, beings of every kind are seen to be ever-forming as concentrations of vital materials and energies that are, and must remain, perpetually in circulation. There is continuity here, in that everything that is–or rather that occurs–is immersed in the flow. There is interiority here as well, but this is the interiority of a consciousness that is immanent in the world itself, that participates directly in its relations and processes, and that knows by way of an enfoldment of these relations and processes into its own constitution. Let us call this the interiority of immanence. Quite contrary to the interiority of containment, which is consistently opposed to the physicality of the exterior world, the interiority or immanence runs seamlessly into physicality, like the singular surface of a Möbius strip, without any breach of continuity. Such interiority, indeed, can no more be distinguished from physicality than can the form of an eddy in the stream be set apart from its substance. It is the logic of naturalism, operating from behind the scenes in the production of anthropological accounts, that has contrived to wrap every being up in itself, thus converting the generative currents of its emergence into a vital agent, or‘soul’, that inhabits an interior divided off from the exterior world of its interactions with others. (11)


Naturalism, it seems, could be defined just as well by the combination of physical discontinuity and interior continuity as by its opposite. For in the same breath that it imagines human cultural diversity to be written on the tablet of universal nature, it also pictures biodiversity as reflected in the mirror of universal humanity. And if that is so for naturalism, then how can it any longer be distinguished from animism? (12)


The differences of animism, we could say, are like the growing shoots of a rhizome; those of naturalism have broken off from the current of life and lie strewn upon that plane of indifference we commonly recognise as‘nature’. The former are emergent and interstitial; the latter resultant and superficial. Whereas animism, then, gives us a world of becoming, naturalism gives a world of being. One is in the making, the other readymade. And what Descola presents to us, under the rubric of animism, is a world in which every becoming is always already being, every making ready-made. (13)

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