The Plurality of Worlds

On Philippe Descola

Matthew Broadhead, Kleifarvatn Lake in Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland.

Philippe Descola. Beyond Nature and Culture, trans. Janet Lloyd. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

In his 1686 work Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle observed: “All philosophy is founded on two things, that our minds are curious, and our eyes are bad.” French anthropology, as it would develop over the course of the 20th century, may be seen to no small degree as a correction of at least the second problem Fontenelle identifies: the myopia of the philosophers. It can be hard to recall, but for a moment in the middle of the 20th century, the discipline of anthropology was poised to assume the throne as the leading, most capacious, and most authoritative of the human sciences. Structuralism, a mode of inquiry that had come out of linguistics, took up residence in anthropology thanks to the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who, through fieldwork as well as synthesis, came as close as anyone to generating what he called a “key to all mythologies.” That this form of analysis now seems presumptuous, and even to have perpetuated a colonialist mind-set though its aims were the exact opposite, says much about the intellectual fracturing that has come about since the 1960s—in no small part thanks to the revolution that Lévi-Strauss helped set in motion.

His work The Savage Mind (1962), in particular, represents the peak of anthropology’s popularity, as well as the moment when the field began to slip into a crisis, attacked from within and without, from which it never fully recovered. The works that emerged out of this crisis would for several decades to come seem more vital and relevant for theorizing what it is to be human than the works of the earlier generation, to the extent that today many people have a far better grasp, or think they do, anyway, of poststructuralism than of its unprefixed forbear.

Among the associations with poststructuralism often denied to its parent is openness in place of a closed rigidity. But there was always a playful element in Lévi-Strauss’s work, albeit one that did not always translate well. Even the title The Savage Mind, which inadequately translates La pensée sauvage, conceals profound wordplay—the French means, by a lovely homonymy, both “savage thought” and “wild pansy”—as well as an ironic, complicated stance toward the long anthropological tradition and the West-and-the-rest dualism on which it had been based until then. Though it appears to be a continuation of the sort of anthropology represented by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s Primitive Mentality of 1922, it is in fact a full-bore assault on the presumption of the superiority, or greater evolvedness, of human beings in complex societies such as those of Europe, as contrasted with those of Amazonia.

The core idea of The Savage Mind is that there is no greater development of human reason in societies with political structure, class inequality, surplus storage currency, literacy, and all the other markers of life under the state as we have known it since the end of the last Ice Age, than in societies that we variously call “hunter-gatherer,” “subsistence,” “pre-agricultural,” or “primitive.” Reason is, however, expressed differently in the latter sort of society, according to what Lévi-Strauss calls “the logic of the concrete.” This logic is based on observation of “the sensible world in sensible terms,” without any attempt at understanding the unseen causal background, the discovery of which is the aim of science. Lévi-Strauss goes further. Even if the logic of the concrete “was necessarily restricted by its essence to results other than those destined to be achieved by the exact natural sciences,” still, “it was no less scientific and its results no less genuine. They were secured ten thousand years earlier and still remain at the basis of our own civilization.” Lévi-Strauss preserves elements of the old dichotomy between primitive and civilized while moving beyond it.

In one critical instance, however, the dichotomy remained fixed. Lévi-Strauss believed that reciprocity and exchange are innate to human beings. Nowhere are they more important for the structuring of human society, he thought, than in kinship: the relationship between human beings through affinity or by blood. He argued, in fact, that it is the “exchange of women” (for example, the giving-away of one’s daughter in marriage), propelled ultimately by the taboo against incest, that is the basis of kinship; male domination is for Lévi-Strauss the condition for the emergence of human kinship systems.

Since the work of Lewis H. Morgan in the 19th century, the study of kinship had been the formal logic of anthropology—the backbone from which the rest of the discipline could be fleshed out. And at least some of the structural anthropologists trained by Lévi-Strauss continued to understand it in this way, even if they began to subject the ideological presuppositions of classical kinship theory to critique. From a feminist point of view, Françoise Héritier agreed that kinship is based on masculine domination, but she went on to argue that this, in turn, is not based on any sort of superior strength, let alone superior “rationality,” but on a sort of envy. She pointed to the widespread phenomenon of couvade, when a man claims to have the same somatic symptoms as his pregnant wife: it is simple envy, of bodily capacities that men do not have, that leads to the overwhelming desire to control.

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