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Philippe Descola “Biolatry: A Surrender of Understanding”

Descola, Philippe 2016. Biolatry: A Surrender of Understanding (Response to Ingold’s ’A Naturalist Abroad in the Museum of Ontology’). Antrhopological Forum 0(0). DOI: 10.1080/00664677.2016.1212523


I have made absolutely clear in Beyond Nature and Culture that a great part of the skills and knowledge thanks to which humans continuously grow into competent agents in their worlds are acquired through interactions with other agents, be they humans or nonhumans, and for the most part speechlessly. This is far from a‘representationist’ stance. My difference with Ingold is that I surmise, on the one hand, that this process of worlding does not unfold randomly but follows certain bifurcations that can be reconstituted and modelled–more on modelling later–and, on the other hand, that we can gain a partial knowledge of this process via the mediations that humans make use of when they exchange signs between themselves and with nonhumans. (2-3)


Unfortunately, unmediated knowledge of the kind that Ingold sees as the stuff out of which our awareness of the world grows and changes is mostly inaccessible to ethnographic enquiry. So we have to rely upon what people say that they experience rather than upon what they directly experience. (3)


The deductive character of the model accrues from the fact that it provides a structure which is reputedly isomorphic with the process studied, the deductive transformations operated within the model being conceived as homologous to the transformations of the real phenomena. The structural model which results from this operation does not aim at the faithful description of a social reality nor does it constitute, as Ingold writes,‘an a priori mental template awaiting expression in overt social behaviour’; it is a heuristic device which provides the syntax of transformations allowing the analyst to move from one variant to another within a class of phenomena. Structural analysis in anthropology is nothing but that: it reveals and orders contrastive features so as to discover the necessary relations organising certain domains of social life. (5)


InBeyond Nature and Culture, the modes of identification–animism, totemism, naturalism and analogism–are anthropological models in that sense: within the group of transformation that their contrasts constitute, their aim is to illuminate the reasons why certain institutions, modes of relation, theories of the self, forms of collectives or regimes of temporality are compatible or not between themselves. To this purely heuristic dimension of the structural models, I have added a hypothetical proposition: that the modes of identification might also function as triggering devices for schematising experience and integrating practices and statements into coherent patterns among groups of people living together. The tendency to make ontological inferences of a certain kind would then become progressively dominant during the ontogeny in a social milieu. For I have made clear a number of times that any human, according to circumstances, can make inferences along the lines of a naturalist, an animist, an analogist or a totemist regime. What socialisation most likely does is to inhibit the production of non-standard inferences and foster the systematisation by each individual of a personal ontology which willgrosso modo coincide with that of her consociates. (5)


The combinatorial matrix ofBeyond Nature and Cultureis not a sterile intellectual exercise as Ingold seems to think. By adopting this device, I wanted above all to remain faithful to this basic principle of structural analysis which holds that each variant is a variant of the other variants and not of any of them in particular which would be privileged. For if I gave the structural models of the modes of identification a fundamental position, none of them (whether animism, naturalism, totemism or analogism) and none of the variants detectable in other systems which are as many transformations of the matrix–in the sociological, praxeological, epistemic, cosmological, spatiotemporal orfigurative orders–can claim to predominate over any of the other variants. This was a requirement which I had set upon myself from the start so as to produce a model of intelligibility of social and cultural facts that would remain as neutral as possible in relation to our own ontology, naturalism. (6)

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