TSElosophers meeting 5.12.2018. Jonathan Mumford, Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Otto Rosendahl

Beyond Nature and Culture (preface, chapters 6 and 8), Philippe Descola 2013

Professor Philippe Descola, an anthropologist, motivates his book “Beyond Nature and Culture” (2013) with no less than saving the scientific field of anthropology. He is worried that of among the “modes of identification” – referring to the ways we essentially conceptualize ourselves – what he calls “naturalism” dominates the scene, both unnecessarily and with some highly problematic consequences. Drawing on anthropological findings and his own reasoning, he suggests a two-by-two matrix with four modes of identification. The dimensions of the matrix deal with whether living things (plants, animals and humans) practice continuity or discontinuity regarding their spiritual or physical self.

Physical continuity refers to thinking where the various forms of living things are physically connected by their evolution, exemplified by Darwinism. Discontinuity in this regard can be exemplified by creationism, typical of Christian religion. Spiritual continuity again refers to thinking according to which the various forms of living things are spiritually connected – while they look physically different, they all represent some common spirit of life. Discontinuity in this regard means thinking where different forms of living have a hierarchy. This can be exemplified by the nowadays typical take in the Western societies where us humans are staged as the ‘kings and rulers’ of the universe: As they are viewed (by us humans!) as mentally much more developed than other living creatures (animals and plants), we kind of self-evidently should gain this special position.

From Descola’s book, TSElosophers focused on reading and discussing just two cells of the matrix: Naturalism (physical continuity combined with spiritual discontinuity) and animism (spiritual continuity combined with physical discontinuity). Descola argues that only one mode of identification, naturalism, is needed to understand the majority of practices in our modernist Western-based societies. Physical continuity is strongly manifested in our wide-spread acknowledgement that humans have developed from other species through evolution. On the other hand, the same modernism also encourages us to perceive all other living things (animals and plants) as separated and (at least implicitly) inferior to us – consider the wide acceptance and consumption of industrialized meat products.

Animism that has been encountered in many anthropological studies among indigenous cultures is a logical counterpoint of naturalism as it combines spiritual continuity with physical discontinuity. In animist thought, just like humans, also animals and plants form communities. For example, animistic cultures have beliefs about peccaries making beer from maize and “jaguars [that] take their prey home for their wives to cook” (Descola 2013, 132). Also, the boundaries between human, animal and plant communities are limited by different physical constitutions, e.g. peccaries form human communities with other peccaries and jaguars form human communities with other jaguars. While animals, plants and humans are spiritually connected, only in special circumstances, such as dreams, they can visit their different physical domains. As for humans, for instance, only shamans have the capability to transcend the physical boundary and visit animal and plant communities.

Naturalism and animism produce different answers of the importance of humans. Naturalism emphasizes the superior intelligence and self-reflective capabilities of humans, which also imply a demand for a greater sense of responsibility from them – most often towards other human individuals. Pragmatic approaches to extend ethics beyond humanism focus on expanding the category of humans towards human-like beneficiaries. The reference point for ethics is hence always the humans. For Example, Peter Singer’s extensionist ethics considers all creatures that feel pleasure and pain as inherently valuable, while others can be treated just as objects of our observation or consumption. Any form of ethics in naturalism-dominated cultures is limited by the need to draw a boundary that spiritually severs a human individual from the majority of existence. In contrast, according to animism, all different physical forms of living are to be dealt in essentially equal terms, due to the spiritual union of all living things. Therefore, animism imbues, for instance, to humans with a desire to create intricate relations with a wide-range of communities: humans, animals and plants.

Descola’s analysis is intended to shake the dominance of naturalism in our culture. It makes us profoundly understand how the Western modernist practice of life, staging humans into the ‘superior position’, has led us to see the rest of the world as just objects serving our desires – essentially just potential resources for our production and consumption. Having read Descola, we became increasingly worried by the strongly expansionist drive in naturalism. Our key concern with naturalism is the deeply institutionalized and therefore taken-for-granted competition and consumption of resources, where the expansionist drive is out-reaching our planetary limits. For us, the key ideas of animism, where all living things should be treated with appreciation, all being our ‘brothers and sisters or cousins’ in their spirit offers a fundamentally different and at least thought-provoking approach to our practices of living. Such way of thought would immediately question the ethical grounding of our expansionist way of life, being based on the belief of ever-increasing growth of production and consumption, which is effectively just using the other living things as we please as resources at our disposal. Spiritual continuity in animism perceives its kin as successfully expanded into the world without any requirement of competition, conquest or status.

Where animism is prepared to see the beneficiary in everyone, naturalism is geared towards seeing a resource in everyone. In our culture, aren’t we too often tempted to sanctify our consumption and politics with the belief that the economic expansion and technological advances will eventually lead to the salvation – or at the very least prevent its fall into damnation? Many of us live in this uncertainty-limiting vision, which may however soon prove to be only utopia. Change in our fundamental, paradigmatic thinking models, is never easy. Descola, however, notes that some eco-centric ethical theories already include holistic, i.e. not artificially bounded, well-being/viability considerations. Theoretically we may contend that human societies can form commitments to eco-centric ethics, which animistic (and totemistic) societies have demonstrated for us. The implication is that despite our genetic heritage, our societal values are not hard-coded to naturalism and may be over-ridden by the efforts of skilled, determined and patient programmers (yet with a risk of for better or for worse). However, the awareness of and interest in eco-centric ethical frameworks remain so far quite marginal. We would like to suggest that wise re-institutions of practices that are aligned with spiritual continuity could eventually lead to more mainstream commitment to the formation of eco-centrical ethical dispositions. An example of these marginal practices within the modern culture may be seen from our earlier blog post (ethical ascetic practices; Munro 2014)

On a final note, we are not sure why Descola motivated his research with the aim of saving anthropology. Descola referred to a wide range of anthropological research, which indicates that there are not any serious crises in their credibility. Possibly Descola’s theoretical efforts are pre-emptive: They certainly help to align anthropology better with post-humanistic philosophies. In summary, we believe that anthropological insights have potential to inspire us and develop our imagination in the development and adoption of practices regarding our society’s most pressing misgivings, such as our on-going contradiction between ecology and expansion.