A Naturalist Abroad in the Museum of Ontology: Phillipe Descola's Beyond Nature and Culture

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Philippe Descola is a self-confessed naturalist. Yet in his book Beyond Nature and Culture, he presents naturalism as just one of four possible ontologies that – for different peoples in different periods – have underwritten human thought and practice. The others are animism, totemism and analogism. In this article I explore some of the paradoxical consequences of his positing naturalism both as a frame for comparative analysis and as one of the terms enframed by it. These have to do with the logic of the ontological four-fold, the conversion of inference into schemas of tacit knowledge, the division between psychological and linguistic constructions of the self, alternative senses of interiority and physicality, the dichotomies between humanity as condition and as species, and between mind and nature, and the proper use of the concepts of production and transmission. I conclude by imagining what would happen if animism, rather than naturalism, were taken as a starting point for comparative understanding. Then life, growth and movement, rather than figuring as the exterior emanations of a world of being, would be restored to immanence in a world of becoming.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)301-320
Number of pages20
JournalAnthropological Forum
Issue number3
Early online date18 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • animism
  • immanence
  • interiority
  • naturalism
  • ontology


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