The objective of this seminar is to study the relations between natures and societies in Southeast Asia in the light of the work of the French anthropologist Philippe Descola. The expressions Beyond nature and culture1 refers to the title of his master piece which is a deconstruction of the idea of a universal nature. It means that we will attempt thought this seminar :
- To transcend the Western dualism that opposes nature and society as two different and separate realms of beings.
- To include in our study the relation between human and non-humans – gods, spirits, plants, animals, objects.
- To explore the diversity of natures in Southeast Asia.
In this first part, I will present Philippe Descola and the big lines of the his thought.
In the second part, I will develop through examples how his theoretical propositions could be adapted to Southeast Asian ethnographic materials.
Who is Philippe Descola?
Philippe Descola is a French anthropologist, now Professor at the prestigious academic school named Collège de France, where he has founded the chair of anthropology of nature.
He has conducted an ethnographic study from 1976 to 1979 with the Achuar indigenous people living in the Amazonian forest between Peru and Ecuador. The Achuar are part of Jivaros group formerly known as warriors and head hunters. It is with the Achuar that P. Descola began to question the notion of nature.
In 1983, he completed his PhD under the supervision of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist who is the father of structuralism2 A movement that suggest to decode the deep structures or universal abstract models that shape the variety of human social organizations (like kinship structures for example). P. Descola was previously trained in philosophy and has always paid a lot of attention to epistemology applied to anthropology methods and theories. He was especially influence by the phenomenological philosophers Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In 2001, Philippe founded the chair of anthropology of nature at the collège de France in Paris.
In the society of nature (published in 1986), he describes the ecology of the Achuar forest dwellers practicing swidden farming, hunting and gathering products of the forest. The spears of twilight (1993), is a more a personal account of his experiences living with the Achuar accessible to a large public. In 1996, the collective book Nature and Society, co-edited with Gisli Pálsso, compiles contributions investigating nature as a network of sociability that connects the human and non-human actors. And his master piece, Beyond Nature and Culture (2005), where he operates a real deconstruction of the concept of “nature” and develop a comparative approach on the modes of socializing nature.
The deconstruction of the idea of nature
Naturalism: a Western cosmology
In Beyond nature and culture, Descola shows that the opposition between nature / culture is not universal, but Eurocentric. The idea of a nature, unique and universal, is a Western cosmological conception. It results from a specific historical development of mixed influences :
- Greek philosophy: which starts with Aristotle classification of animals in a table according to criterias like bodies, wings, legs, fins. He introduced the idea of nature as a sum of beings that constitutes an order and are subjects to laws according to their structure.
- Christianity which defines the transcendence of man in relation to the physical world. Humans have a supernatural divine origin. They are singular beings higher than plants and animals. God gave to humans the mission to administrate and govern Earth.
- Renaissance: the invention of pictorial perspective which helped to design the landscape from outside has created a distance between man and the world, allowing him to produce nature and things as autonomous objects.
- The scientific revolution at the 17th century : scientific experimentation and mathematical modeling legitimized the idea of a mechanical nature. This mechanic act as a total system in which the behavior of each element is explicable by laws.
The main demonstration of Descola is to deconstruct the evidence of a singular nature and to show that it does not exist as a universal truth. It is the result of a Western cosmological conception, a world organization built by the “Moderns” (17th century). And he calls “naturalism” this specific dualism.
Facts and values
The nature / culture dichotomy is based on the division of the world between values of culture and the facts of Nature. It is on this great division between humanity and the world of nature that relay the academic division between natural sciences and humanities with :
Culture: as an object of anthropology, studying the variability of human values.
Nature: as an object of the natural sciences, studying the regularity of facts.
This dualistic view has produced two dominant perspectives on human-nature relations in the history of the anthropological discipline:
1. Whereas we study the facts and we explain the culture by nature. It is the adaptation theory represented in anthropology by studies which aimed to prove that environment determines people’s ways of life and institutions. Which is also called determinism. Henri Lewis Morgan3, one of the first anthropologist during the nineteen’s century, started to explore the relation between techniques and social forms of organization. He was followed in the 50’s by Julian Steward4 who initiated the American school of thought named cultural ecology5.
2. Either we study the thought and explain the nature by the culture. Culture is what gives meaning, sense, organization, order to the chaotic nature. It is represented by the symbolic anthropology school of thought. For instance, Lévi-Strauss structuralism seeks to understand the conceptual models that order the human societies : cosmologies, meaning the ways humans represent their world ; and taxonomies, meaning the ways they classify beings and objects through languages. For example, ethnosciences interpret the environment in the light of classification vocabulary that organizes the world and orders plants, animals, etc.
Descola clearly defines his intention to overcome the determinism of ecological anthropology and structuralism, still dependent on the universal opposition between nature and culture. He proposes instead to explore the relationship between man and his environment through the interaction between the techniques of socializing nature and the symbolic systems that organize them, which is a way to articulate practice and thought.
Other cosmologies : Amazonian animism
In the first chapter of the Beyond Nature and Culture, “The figures of continuities” he shows that in other cosmologies, everywhere in the world, the frontiers between human and objects are imprecise or even absent. The Achuar are animist. They think that wild animals and plants have a soul, act like persons and share social values. In the Amazonian thought, it is impossible to see the world from a unique human perspective.
Animals and plants see themselves as humans. But they don’t see the same things as we the humans see, because they don’t have the same body and sensorial abilities. For example: jaguar and spirits see humans as prey, whereas the animals hunted by humans see humans as spirits or predatory animals. That’s what Edouardo Viveiros de Castro6 theorized as perspectivism.
Others examples invite us to consider the “agency” and “potency” of non-humans. That is to say how non-human can have an intentionality, an ability to act and a spiritual power, so that they can transform the world and have social relations with other species of beings.
Frontiers between human and non-humans are not clear in many societies in the world not even in the so-called modern society. What about treating dolls like persons?
The recent Luk thep (child angel) phenomenon in Thailand – in which dolls are animated, through specific rituals, with the souls of young children who have passed away – illustrate this indistinct frontiers between human and artifacts.
Interiority and physicality
Descola’s project is to develop a comparative approach of the diversity of possible relations with natures throughout the world. To overcome the western opposition between nature and culture, he considers the opposition between mind and body as more universal. All his argument relay on the contrast between interiority and physicality.
The interiority refers to proprieties commonly associated with the spirit, soul or consciousness: intentionality, subjectivity, reflexivity, feelings, the ability to communicate or to dream – but also immaterial principles supposed to cause the animation, such as breath or vital energy.
The physicality in contrast is material, it is the organic dimension of human and non human: the outer form (the body), the substance, the physiological, perceptual and sensori-motor processes or temperament.
Descola conceived a conceptual scheme that distinguish 4 possible combinations of distributing spiritual and material proprieties to beings He calls these combinaisons ontologies or modes of identification
These 4 modes are:
1. Naturalism, (same physicality, but different interiority). It postulates the uniqueness of nature on which unfolds the diversity of cultures. Naturalism is “multiculturalist”. Only humans have subjectivity. A mode best exemplified by modern western science.
2. Animism (same interiority, different physicality). In contrast, animism give to non-human an interiority similar to human. Animism is “multinaturalist”. Plants and animals are like “persons” have a social life similar to that of humans, but differs in the body. American Indians, Vietnamese tribes or Pygmies are also animists.
3. Analogism (different interiority, different physicality). In analogism, humans and non-humans are made up of fragmented essences. Analogism poses an infinite set of singularities interrelated by analogies. Astrology for instance links the movements and positions of distant planets to an individual destiny. This thought is found in many esoteric systems like divination, geomancy, Chinese medicine. This system governs hierarchical societies, huge ensembles such as China or India, and pre-modern states of Aztecs, the Dogon of West Africa, or Europe until Renaissance.
4. Totemism (same interiority, same physicality). Where groups of humans and non-humans share interior as well as physical attributes. A ontology found within the Aboriginals of Australia. Here the identification of the group to his animal ancestor, the totem, is both spiritual (moral) and physical.
Descola specifies that none of this ontological model is pure and that they can overlap.
- Philippe Descola. Beyond Nature and Culture, Translated by Janet Lloyd Foreword by Marshall Sahlins, University of Chicago Press,  2013, 488 pages [↩]
- Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural anthropology. Basic Books, 1963 . [↩]
- Morgan, Lewis Henry. Ancient society; or, researches in the lines of human progress from savagery, through barbarism to civilization. H. Holt, 1907. [↩]
- Steward, Julian H. Theory of culture change : The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution, Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1955 [↩]
- Vayda, Andrew P. et Rappaport, Roy A. “Ecology, cultural and noncultural”. Introduction to cultural anthropology, 1968, p. 477-497 [↩]
- De Castro, Eduardo Batalha Viveiros. “Cosmological perspectivism in Amazonia and elsewhere“. HAU Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 2012. [↩]