Beyond Nature and Culture

By Philippe Descola. Translated by Marshall Sahlins. 2013. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 463 pages. ISBN: 978-0-226-14445-0 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Tim Frandy, Western Kentucky University

[Review length: 1104 words • Review posted on November 19, 2014]

Philippe Descola, professor of anthropology at the Collège de France and a former student of Claude Lévi-Strauss, presents with his latest work, Beyond Nature and Culture, an ambitious and bold work of structural anthropology. Rejecting the nature-culture dichotomy as a human universal, Descola seeks out its origins in the Western world, bringing the reader on a worldwide journey that spans millennia. First published in French in 2005, the first English-language edition (2013) is skillfully translated by Janet Lloyd, and features an introduction by Marshall Sahlins. Sahlins’s introduction suggests the work’s appeal to a generation of anthropologists disillusioned by deconstruction theory, and positions it as a triumphant return to the bygone era of “Big Thinkers” in the discipline, like Lévi-Strauss, Tylor, Benedict, and Radcliffe-Brown (xi).

In his exploration of the nature-culture dichotomy, Descola looks toward cultures across the globe that do not recognize this categorical distinction, claiming the Western concept of nature-culture is anomalous on a global scale. Building upon and systematizing much of Descola’s prior work with the Achuar people of the Amazon, Descola’s exploration of different ontologies challenges the work of his structuralist predecessors and breaks new ground in explaining complex cultural phenomena in fresh ways. In this undertaking, Descola works across six continents, scores of distinct cultures, and two millennia of Western history. His command of an ocean of interdisciplinary theory and ethnographic literature is commendable (and, at times, humbling), and his central argument is challenging, new, and provocative. The text itself is at times self-aware and playful, peppered with allusions to his favorite works of Western philosophers, but also dense with meticulous ethnographic detail and theoretical argumentation.

At the heart of the work, Descola questions the origins of different, but seemingly finite numbers of human and non-human relational ontological structures throughout the world. He proposes the global existence of exclusively four familiar ontologies: animism, totemism, naturalism, and analogism. Descola argues that humans inherently and universally possess one interiority and one physicality, and all people also project interiority and physicality onto all non-human entities. In this projection, Descola believes, humans ascribe one of two binary statuses to non-humans: similar or different. Only four permutations exist within this framework: interiority same, physicality different (animism); interiority same, physicality same (totemism); interiority different, physicality same (naturalism); interiority different, physicality different (analogism). With one chapter devoted in great detail to each organizational schema, Descola takes the reader on a journey across the world, looking primarily at Amerindian animism in the Amazon, Australian aboriginal totemism, European naturalism, and Amerindian analogism in Mexico. In the final chapters, Descola explores how these four ontologies manifest themselves differently through different types of interpersonal relations: exchange, taking, giving, predation, production, protection, sharing, and transmission.

Descola’s framework produces, at times, some intriguing ways to understand complex cultural phenomena, in particular as he delves into his discussion of interpersonal relations. His discussion of predator-prey relations, his explanation for cultures lacking possession traditions, his argument about material objects and power in Amerindian cultures, and his discussion of sacred places and ancestral spirits in Australia are among his best discussions. Or, in the Western naturalist tradition, Descola’s definition impressively reconciles both sides of the Enlightenment/Romanticist coin into a singular anthropocentric tradition of the West. His successes are many as he courses through hundreds of ethnographic cases in brief. Of course, Descola’s brevity in detailing minor examples (a necessity in a globally-oriented book) limits unspecialized readers’ access to information which could allow deviation from Descola’s own interpretations.

For some folklorists, however, the work may be filled with as many frustrations as revelations. Many scholars justifiably believe these four ontologies reflect Western anthropological categorizations of non-Western people, not emic categorizations themselves. Similarly, Descola’s foundational proposition, that all humans recognize only one singular interiority and physicality within entities (and necessarily adopt only a binary relationship to these components), is a bold claim with perhaps too little evidence in its defense. I remain skeptical, for instance, when Descola posits that indigenous people who recognize an individual’s multiple souls fundamentally construct their interiority as singular and in a manner that conforms neatly to the author’s own Western tradition. Additionally, I strongly suspect, based on my own collaborations with indigenous communities,that many community-based cultural experts would disagree with several of Descola’s more conjectural moments of interpretation. I feel this is a problem of method. From a folklorist’s perspective, these problems would be averted had Descola given voice to the indigenous populations and native hermeneutics he writes about. He instead suggests such vernacular models of categorization are considerably too rich in variation, too unsystematic, and too intertwined with the “cognitive mechanisms” of their own structures (115). Accordingly, Descola grants Western philosophers voices as individuals in an ever-evolving tradition, but he mentions few indigenous people by name, as their communities are presented as somewhat homogenous and static. While Descola defends these methods as essential casualties of his crafting of meaningful generalization, for scholars of Indigenous Studies, these attitudes are alarmingly reminiscent of the colonial roots of anthropology and suggest a perpetuation of the historical inequities of power and knowledge production.

Descola’s portrayal of Europe is also somewhat problematic, as he looks at source-material exclusively from prototypical elite Western Civilization: philosophers, classically trained artists, academics, and theologians. Seldom does he venture outside of his French homeland and its bordering nations. Class, gender, and racial/ethnic/religious minorities in Europe are also conspicuously absent from this work. This oversight neglects a sizable and important body of ecofeminist scholarship relevant to his hypothesis, and it neglects a fascinating discussion about farmers, herders, peasants, fishermen, and land-workers, and their relationships to non-humans and the land. In ignoring Europe’s marginalized peoples, this interpretation discounts living, hybridized, recently-deceased, or revitalized animist traditions found elsewhere in Europe–often within its marginalized communities. A wider view of Europe would allow greater engagement with the important questions about the growth, spread, and eventual domination of Western naturalism in the Euro-American world, as well as one of its most important byproducts, capitalism, and its spread across the globe.

These issues, of course, have been an area of considerable debate among many scholars in the broader field(s) of ethnography, and a neostructuralist view can be seen as part of this ongoing methodological and interpretive discussion. Descola’s work is of great importance, whether its hypotheses are ultimately accepted or rejected, and it will be particularly useful for folklorists who research structuralist approaches, work with indigenous populations, or study human-animal relations. While likely too complex a text for an undergraduate course, the book would be suitable for advanced graduate seminars. It is compelling, insightful, and challenging, and its contribution to the field will be remembered for a long while.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.