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Philippe Descola’s Ontological Grid

Philippe Descola’s Four Ontologies

The task of anthropology is to account for how worlds are composed. – Philippe Descola

From time to time over the past few years I have chipped away at a goal of understanding Philippe Descola’s version of ontology. His work initially attracted my attention because of my interest in all things Iroquoian, but that is another post.

Yesterday Johannes Neurath shared a link to a 2012 lecture by Descola (see below). That has inspired me to tap out this short blog post about one of the foundations of Descola’s work, namely his four part ontological grid.

In Descola’s model—and he is clear that it is just that—humans construct their world based upon whether they consider the entities surrounding them to be similar or dissimilar to humans in terms of their interiority and their physicality.

animism totemism naturalism analogism

Descola’s four ontologies. The possible combinations result in the grid illustrated below.

In the case of animism, non-human species share intentionality and agency with humans but are differentiated by their bodies.

Totemism is the ontology I understand least well. Descola gives as exemplars the ontologies of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.

Naturalism is in essence the contemporary scientific perspective on the world.

In analogism, the world is made up of differentiated but interrelated entities. Astrology (the relation of the movement to the entities in the heavens to individual humans’ fortunes) is an ontology of analogy.

Matthew Timothy Bradley

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6 Comments

  1. And, and, and…. where do you go from here?

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    • I have to come to some come of understanding of what he means by “totemism.” One of the critiques of his ontologies is that he misunderstands Australian ethnology, which I have to admit has always intimidated me.

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      • Tell us more. How do you understand his view of totemism?

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        • I don’t, that’s the problem! I just have to read him looking specifically at that area before I can even articulate what I don’t understand. It’s important to me, too, because the distinction keeps coming up again and again in the geographic area I am most interested in (the Eastern Woodlands).

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        • For what it’s worth, given the criteria he uses, I took it to be a system in which the animals themselves are sacred/tabooed (at least to the people whose totems they are), in contrast to animism where the spirit/god who controls a particular species is sacred, but the animals themselves are not. How does that sound?

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        • My understanding at this point is that for Descola, a totemic relationship is not made in relation to a specific object or being, but to a quality or set of qualities. The Cherokee have a Deer clan, or better said, a Deer sib; members of the sib are not descended from (a) deer, but they are like deer in some ways (they are predisposed to be good runners, for instance). Members of the deer sib do eat venison.

          The Cherokee say that flora and fauna have their own tribes—tribes can be glossed as ‘species’ here—in the way that humans do. They meet in councils and have social relationships with one another and with humans (the origin of human disease is a decision by most, but not all, fauna to go to war on humans as humans go to war on them, i.e., hunt; the origin of medicine is the decision by flora to come to the aid of humans in the conflict). I understand that to be representative of an animistic ontology.

          My reading of Descola is still quite preliminary, though, so in a month or year or decade I may reread the above and shake my head!

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