What anthropology should learn from G. E. R. Lloyd

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Tanya Luhrmann. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.1.010

Book Symposium

What anthropology should learn from G. E. R. Lloyd

Comment on LLOYD, G. E. R. 2012. Being, humanity, and under-standing. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Tanya Marie LUHRMANN, Stanford University


In 1937, E. E. Evans-Pritchard published a book on witchcraft in the southern Sudan which set the British intellectual establishment on its ears. Evans-Pritchard had reported that believing in witches was a perfectly reasonable way of proceeding in the world and that he, an Oxford don, had little difficulty organizing his life accordingly when he had lived among these people. The Azande were perfectly logical, he said. They weren't scientific, but they were logical. The excitement the book provoked was palpable even in the 1980s, when I arrived in Cambridge. There were discussions about rationality. There were discussions about science. There were arguments about whether you could ever understand people like the Azande unless you were one of them.

Two different intellectual movements cooled down the heat of debate. One was postmodernism. Many scholars began to think of science as a culture, as a style rather than as a progressive accumulation of increasingly better facts and theories. They started talking as if nothing was ever fixed or definite. From that perspective, Azande witchcraft was one discourse among others, and probably distorted by the colonist encounter at that. The other was cognitive science, an interdisciplinary enterprise focused on the structure of knowledge and the complex relationship between the knower and the known. Cognitive science mostly happened in non-anthropological circles, but not entirely. Dan Sperber, Pascal Boyer, Roy D'andrade, Eleanor Rosch, and others are the thinkers they are because they took seriously the challenge to positivism that Evans-Pritchard represented and sought to resolve that challenge through a more careful and systematic analysis of knowledge.

Perspectivism and multiple ontologies have become, I think, the new Azande: the ethnographic claims that puzzle and frustrate so many people who want not to believe them but can't quite make them go away, people who wrestle with the ethnographic claims like puppies with a rope toy. This is an immensely exciting moment for anthropology in general. It suggests that we are past self-recriminations and self-absorption and that we are getting on with the business of making sense of other people.

The basic ethnographic claim in perspectivism seems to be that bodies are chronically unstable, and shift when perceived from different points of view. Here is a now-classic example taken from Aparecida Vilaça’s work:

An event which befell some of my Wari’ friends provides a perfect example. A child is invited by her mother to take a trip to the forest. Many days go by as they walk around and pick fruit. The child is treated normally by her mother until one day, realizing just how long they have spent away from home, the child starts to grow suspicious. Looking carefully, she sees a tail discreetly hidden between her mother’s legs. Struck by fear, she cries for help, summoning her true kin and causing the jaguar to flee, leaving a trail of paw-prints in its wake. One woman, telling me about this event, said that, after finding her, the girl’s true mother warned her to always distrust other people. (Vilaça 2005: 451)

What makes the ethnography so gripping for readers is the insistence that these claims are not just simple metaphors, different ways of talking about the world. Something more is going on, and the claim of that “more” is what leads people to whisper together at the edge of conferences and get agitated.

I take Geoffrey Lloyd’s new book to be a response to the more agitated critics of Aparecida Vilaça, Philippe Descola, and Eduardo Vivieros de Castro and a defense of the need to take the perspectivist position seriously, even in its strongest stance. He wants to make room for multiple ontologies in a single world. He does so by resisting the idea that these other ontologies can be shown clearly to be wrong. Instead, he invites us to imagine words as reaching out into the world in complex ways that do not map neatly onto what Richard Rorty called that mirror of nature. Lloyd uses the concept of semantic stretch: a model that sidesteps radical boundaries between literal and metaphorical by emphasizing the necessary interaction between words in a single system. He does not think that we can never reject a statement as false, but he prefers to see us as struggling to make sense of others rather than as rejecting them as wrong. That is not so much a moral claim as an epistemological one, and as we have come to expect of Lloyd, the demo-nstration of the varieties of understanding is stunningly broad. There are few other scholars with his combination of erudition and intellectual range.

What intrigues me here is the upshot of the epistemological debates for anthropology. Lloyd’s intellectual move is to take the scientific claims of cognitive science into the humanistic world, to combine scientific and experimental sophistication with real humanistic depth. That has not often been done, despite the anthropologists who have been interested in cognition. I take that as a model not only for myself but for the field. This is where anthropology should go. It needs to go somewhere. There is little doubt that we are seeing a retreat from postmodernism. The linguistic turn in the social sciences is more or less over. True, continental philosophers are still often cited in American anthropology. But people are beginning to notice that clear findings are valuable and obscurity costly.

I think that these debates herald a return to comparison. Comparison has always been at least implicit in anthropology, even at its most self-critical, but in recent years we have been so hesitant to make comparative claims that we are at risk of becoming solipsistic and speaking only to ourselves. But perspectivism is not at all shy about making explicit comparative claims. That, in fact, is the point. Descola’s map of the four ontological ways of being is startlingly bold—and that boldness has energized the field and forced observers to ask what they believe about the claims, and why.

Lloyd’s book shows us that comparison need not be reductive, to use that term of insult. One of the interesting things about this book is that it does not come down on a clear view of the real. What it does is to make explicit points of contrast between ancient ontologies—reason, righteousness, humans and animals, humans and spirits, the process of change, regularity, and so on—and so sketch out a structure through which one could compare others. It shows the way, then, to structure an analysis so that one could see causal consequences of particular orientations. It gives us the structure to ask (for example): What are the causal consequences of Christianity (to which the Wari have now converted)? What are the interacting terms that shape those who convert? And where can we see the consequences of those entailments?

Anthropology should take up the intellectual challenge this book lays down.


Vilaça, Aparecida. 2005. “Chronically unstable bodies: Reflections on Amazonian corporalities.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 11: 445–64.



Tanya Marie Luhrmann
Department of Anthropology
Building 50
Stanford University
450 Serra Mall
Stanford CA 94305