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The Ontological Hitchhiker's Guide

      Popularisation does not always get good press among anthropologists, but anyone who has never felt like shouting 'Kamoulox' in the middle of one of those sentences in which Philippe Descola manages to fit the terms 'ontogenesis' and 'solipsism' into the same sentence should throw the first stone. For although we at Casoar are convinced that anthropology is good for our health, it is often difficult to access for non-specialists and is, in the eyes of many, a discipline of insiders, not very welcoming. Yet, today more than ever, anthropology is necessary, even vital, to enable us to think about the world around us. This is why Casoar has decided to tackle with you today a particularly thorny and complex issue, but one that is so rich in lessons: the ontological turn.

      " What turn? Can you eat it?" you might ask. Well, no. The ontological turn is the name given to a recent period in the history of anthropology marked by the work of two major figures: Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Philippe Descola. Both are specialists in South American cultures and have drawn on their respective fields to propose the theories that interest us today.

     It should be noted that the two anthropologists did not work together to produce these theories. Rather, they drew on each other's work to deepen and enrich their thinking and also debated extensively. For the ontological turn is by no means a unified movement. Although the theories of Viveiros de Castro and Descola have points in common in terms of content, the two researchers also have many points of disagreement. On the other hand, their work has attracted other anthropologists who have developed their own views on these issues. In short, the ontological turn in the broad sense is a nice little broth, but we will not have time here to detail all the ingredients and subtleties. Instead, we will focus on the heart of this movement, namely the theories proposed by Descola and Viveiros de Castro, and try to understand why the thinking they propose is important for everyone, not just anthropologists.

      For the ontological turn is not just a lot of paper. Although the questions it poses may at first appear to have little substance, they are in fact crucial to understanding the way in which different human societies organise their relationship with the world. The central question posed by the ontological turn is how societies think about their relationship with what anthropology calls the non-human.

     Let us stop for a moment to consider this category of 'non-human', which is widely used in anthropology. It includes everything that is not considered human in a given society. Non-humans can be objects, plant or mineral elements, natural phenomena, divine or spiritual entities, animals or insects. The interest of this expression is that it is both extremely broad and very neutral, i.e. it does not prejudge the way in which these non-humans are defined and named in the society concerned and does not impose inappropriate Western categories on them.

      For a very long time, we have tended to try to understand other societies through our own categories and our own division of the world. Through colonisation and evangelisation, Western societies have often devalued or even completely ignored the way non-European societies perceived things. Anthropology itself, because of its Western origins, has long suffered from this reading bias. Terms such as 'mind' or 'object' that we use to classify different non-humans correspond to purely Western categories that do not always have an equivalent in extra-European societies.

       The idea of the ontological turn is precisely to become aware of this problem and to succeed in overcoming it, and thus to understand how human societies organise their relationship to the world around them. This relationship to the world is what we call an ontology. What is important to understand about these ontologies is that they are not simply abstract and vague concepts that have no concrete reality. An ontology influences all aspects of the functioning of the human group that shares it. It sets the rules of the game for collective life within that group, it makes its members share a common way of perceiving and interpreting the world and events, it influences the way thoughts and emotions are expressed in that group... All this is unconscious of course, we internalise from a very young age a certain way of seeing and doing things that we end up considering as 'natural': in anthropology we call it a habitus.

     Ontology, as we have understood, is therefore important for understanding how a given human group functions. But what are the ontologies of others? And what about our own? Viveiros de Castro and Philippe Descola both propose similar but slightly different interpretations. We will not go into the details of the debates in which the two researchers have embarked so as not to risk losing us along the way. Let us begin by taking a look at their respective theories.

Let us begin our exploration with the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. He developed his ideas in a major article published in 1998 in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute: Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism.1 Under this fancy title lies a theory dear to Viveiros de Castro: perspectivism. Viveiros de Castro explains that many Amerindian societies consider that humans and animals apprehend reality from different points of view, different perspectives. For these societies, animals see themselves as humans, perceive their physical attributes as ornaments and clothing and see humans as animals. Their social organisation is also seen as a reflection of that of humans. Thus, the jaguar sees humans as prey and their blood as beer, while the peccaries see them as predatory animals, etc.

         Behind these different perspectives lies for Viveiros de Castro the idea that these animals and humans in fact share the same deep nature, the same interiority, and that their external appearances are only envelopes. All of them, including humans, perceive themselves as humans (their interiority) and are perceived by other species as animals (their exterior appearance).

        As Viveiros de Castro points out in his article, this way of looking at things is different from the one used in Western societies. In the West, we tend to organise the world by distinguishing between what belongs to 'Nature' and what belongs to 'Culture'. Our outward appearance is thus part of what we call Nature, it is dependent on biological data that we share with other elements of the world such as animals. We therefore recognise that we share common ground with them in this area. On the other hand, we believe that we are different from them in our profound nature, our interiority, which is part of Culture. Viveiros de Castro speaks of 'multiculturalism' to describe our way of seeing things: a common Nature but different 'cultures', or interiorities. In contrast, the Amerindian populations apply a 'multinaturalism': they consider that what is common is the interiority, the Culture, and that what differs is what comes from Nature, the external appearance.  This 'multiculturalism' and this perspectivism, or 'multinaturalism', thus constitute two different ontologies for Viveiros de Castro.

Let us now turn to Philippe Descola's theory, mainly developed in his 2005 book Par Delà Nature et Culture but also in his lectures at the Collège de France.2 Whereas Viveiros de Castro is more specifically interested in Amerindian populations, Descola will propose a global theory, valid for all human populations. For him, an ontology corresponds to a certain way of organising what he calls the "continuities and discontinuities between the beings and their properties". A little translation is necessary to familiarise ourselves with the Descolian vocabulary.

        The beings are simply all the things and beings that exist, human and non-human - anthropology, while it has questioned many things, has not yet questioned the fact that we and the world around us do exist, it leaves that to philosophy and religion. The 'properties' of existing things are all the things that make them up and characterise them, whether in terms of biology, appearance or behaviour. For example, a cat has hair, it is a solitary hunter and it can purr, all these are properties of the cat. There are differences (what Descola calls 'discontinuities') and commonalities (what he calls 'continuities') between the properties of the various existing things.

      Each human group will thus emphasise certain properties of the existing and their relations with the properties of other existing. For example, they will choose to emphasise certain properties of humans that differ from the properties of non-humans, or vice versa. Societies thus organise the continuities and discontinuities between the existing in a certain way and act according to this organisation. This is the recipe for a successful ontology. For Descola, there is not an infinite number of such ontologies, simply because there are not a million ways of structuring these continuities and discontinuities: the combinations between them are not infinite.

He thus identifies four major ontologies:

  • Naturalism
  • Animism
  • Totemism
  • Analogism

       Naturalism is our ontology, the one that prevails in Western societies. It is very close to the 'multiculturalism' of Viveiros de Castro. Like him, Descola considers that modern Western societies have organised their worldview according to the distinction between Nature and Culture. According to this ontology, from the point of view of their exteriority, humans and non-humans belong to Nature, they share the same biological and physical properties. On the other hand, humans have an interiority that is different from the rest of the existing beings, and therefore they are different from them. For example, humans are considered to have a soul or a spirit, unlike other beings. What is important to understand here is that Nature and Culture do not exist in themselves. Even if it is through their prism that we usually perceive the world, they are not objective realities.

     Animism, on the other hand, is similar in many respects to Viveiros de Castro's perspectivism. It is in some ways the opposite of naturalism. In an animist ontology, the emphasis is on the similarity between the interiorities of the existing. Humans thus consider that they share with certain non-humans an interiority, a spirit, of the same nature. On the other hand, their exteriority differs.

      Totemism is somewhat more complex to explain. According to a totemistic ontology, different beings form totemic groups. These groups bring together several different categories of beings that are recognised as having a common origin, often mythical, and common properties. A totemic group can thus include human individuals, certain animals, plants or minerals, etc. The division of these totemic groups does not depend on the Western division into 'species', it is a completely different way of classifying the existing. All human beings do not necessarily belong to the same totemic group.

      Finally, analogism considers that all the components of the world, all the existing, form a myriad of elements that are singular and distinct from each other. Each being is thus an individual element. All these elements are linked to each other by analogies, i.e. by resemblances, continuities. Thus, in an analogist ontology, social disorders can be seen as the cause of natural disasters, one form of disaster responding to another form of disaster. Interestingly, for Descola, Western societies have long been based on analogism and only switched to naturalism in the modern era, i.e. at the end of the Renaissance.

     This is the breakdown proposed by Descola. Although it may appear very schematic at first glance, it does not in any way consist of placing each society in a small hermetic box. In most human groups, there is a dominant ontology, but others may also be present in a more marginal way. A Western scientist who has been schooled in naturalism can talk to his cat in all seriousness and thus adopt an animistic posture. It is therefore not a question of a cut-and-dried approach.

      The most important thing here is to understand how these different ontologies result in totally different relationships to the world and ways of acting. In a totemistic posture your cat may be your brother, in an animistic posture it thinks in a way similar to yours, in a naturalistic posture its mind is on the contrary very different from yours, even non-beings or inferior to yours, finally in an analogistic posture cats may be the envoys of the goddess Bastet who have come to the rescue of mortals against the plague as a reward for their devotion. This obviously changes the way you act towards the cat in question.

       If you transpose this reflection to all beings, you will understand the interest of asking yourself from which point of view a human group places itself if you want to try to understand their actions and not simply judge them. After all, that is the purpose of anthropology, to go beyond the posture of ethnocentric judgement, to take a step out of our own references, our own being in the world, in short, our own ontology, in order to better understand people. But taking a step away from ethnocentrism, this attitude that consists in taking our own culture as a standard for judging that of others, is not reserved for anthropologists alone.

    Anthropology's posture can benefit everyone in their daily lives, to better understand the world's evolutions, actions and reactions of each other. In this context, the ontological turn, despite the criticisms that may be levelled at it, is particularly useful in that it constitutes an attempt by anthropology itself to be less ethnocentric. It thus points to what is perhaps our greatest ethnocentric bias but also opens up a way out of this impasse.

Alice Bernadac

Cover picture: Display case at the Musée de l'Homme showing the four ontologies according to Philippe Descola through objects. Photo by Margot Kreidl.

Some of the elements mentioned in this article have already been developed by the author in his previous works, in particular   From   the   Enemy’s   Point   of   View. However, 'Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism' seems to us to be more interesting to mention here insofar as this article constitutes a synthesis of the perspectivist theory.

In particular in his lectures from 2000 to 2005, of which written summaries are available online on the Collège de France website (see link in the bibliography of this article).


  • DESCOLA, P., 2001. « Anthropologie de la nature ». Leçon Inaugurale au Collège de France. (disponible here)
  • DESCOLA, P., 2000-2004. « Figures des Relations entre Humains et non-Humains ». Cours au Collège de France. (versions résumées disponible here)
  • DESCOLA, P., 2005. Par delà Nature et Culture. Paris, Gallimard.
  • DESCOLA, P., 2010. « Manières de Voir, Manières de Figurer ». In La Fabrique des Images. Paris, Somogy, Musée du Quai Branly.
  • VIVEIROS DE CASTRO, E., 1992. From the Enemy’s Point of View. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • VIVEIROS DE CASTRO, E., 1998. « Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism ». In The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol 4, n°3. London, Royal Anthropological Institute. Chicago, London, University of Chicago Press.


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