Ontologies, ideologies, desire

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © P. Steven Sangren. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.1.012

Book Symposium

Ontologies, ideologies, desire

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

P. Steven SANGREN, Cornell University


Professor Sir Geoffrey Lloyd’s Being, humanity and understanding (2012) offers anthropologists a salutary commentary from the vantage of history and philosophy upon what is arguably our discipline’s defining-project—how to apprehend and assess cultural difference, on the one hand, while sustaining a long-standing inquiry into humankind’s essential psychic unity, on the other.1 Lloyd’s enviable erudition, especially with respect to ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy, enlivens anthropology’s abiding interest in these issues. Moreover, Lloyd’s observations are especially timely given a recent and, perhaps, growing trend among some anthropologists to approach culture in terms of variant, sui generis ontologies2 Lloyd is especially interested in the provocative implications of perspectivism (epitomized by the works of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro [1998])] and animism (as articulated by Philippe Descola [2013]),3 but he also engages earlier ethno graphically inspired critiques of (arguably) Western thinking such as Marilyn Strathern’s (1998) work on Melanesian personhood.

The general tenor of Lloyd’s hortatory essay is pragmatic. He counsels against rushing to ethnocentric judgements when it comes to other cultures’ conceptual systems; yet he also insists that one should not suppose other cultural ontologies to be “incommensurably” alien:

Warnings against reducing others’ conceptual systems to one’s own are salutary, but that should not lead to the conclusion that others’ ideas are inevitably beyond our comprehensions. The key points… are that our conceptual system is no monolith and our basic concepts are indeed subject to revision in the light of what we learn from others. (Lloyd 2012: 24, n. 34)

The implications for ethnography are clear: Although ethnographers should approach other cultures mindful of the possibility that their own presuppositions may obstruct respectful comprehension, one need not abandon critical or analy-tical judgment altogether.

Lloyd is particularly interested in resisting the idea that ontological incommen-surability forecloses cross-cultural understanding or communication. Lloyd ad-vocates an ethics of open-minded engagement with other ontologies in the interest not only of understanding them, but also of learning from them. In this regard, his project echoes Jürgen Habermas’s (1981, 1985) massive analysis of and advocacy for communicative process and reason.4 Arrogant dismissal of the epistemological claims manifest in other ontologies, Lloyd argues, forecloses the possibility that one might learn from them and even be persuaded to alter one’s own presuppositions.5

Lloyd draws attention to a number of important considerations in this regard. He notes, for example, that ontologies are unlikely to be altogether homogeneous in any society. Recall, for example, Clifford Geertz’s (1973) influential depiction of Balinese personhood. Geertz’s descriptions of Balinese self-possession, studied calm, and disciplined etiquette—ramified and reflected in a variety of institutional contexts and symbolic registers—comprise a convincing image of an ontology of personhood quite different from, for example, utilitarian individualism. Indeed, Geertz’s point was to show that even a category like “person” is something very different in Bali. What, then, is one to make of Unni Wikan’s (1989) equally arresting ethnographic descriptions to the effect that the apparently enviably self-possessed Balinese are in fact beset with anxieties over what others are thinking, worrying obsessively about those very inner desires of others that Geertz insists figure minimally in Balinese personhood? One might conclude that either Geertz or Wikan is mistaken with regard to Balinese ontology, but I suppose instead that each succeeds admirably in conveying (while overstating) important elements in a more complicated reality.6 At issue in this regard is not simply the coexistence in a society of diverging ontologies of personhood, but also how this coexistence is part and parcel of this more complicated reality. (I return to this question below.)

Lloyd’s point—that one should not expect unanimity within a society with respect to ontologies—might be extended to the level of individual phenomenology. Individuals (as we are frequently reminded in contemporary social–theoretical discourse) have access to or inhabit shifting subject positions. This truism implies that even in the realm of individual experience, ontologies or perspectives (however conceived) may shift as well. Just as Lloyd insists that communication across cultural difference is possible, so, too, might a similar sort of communication across shifting subject–position–cum–ontological perspectives be supposed to lend continuity to individuals’ experiences. Needless to say, this suggestion implicates issues too complex to engage seriously here. I note, however, that any comparative project to this effect would unavoidably posit an integrative level of cognition, memory, and consciousness of a sort transcendent to or encompassing of any of the constituent ontologies that contribute to this continuity.

If it is not already evident, I am not a wholehearted enthusiast of the recent ontological turn, although like Lloyd, I see some value in it. My resistances are related to investments in and commitments to analytical instruments developed over a career of engagement both with social theory and, especially, Taiwanese culture and society. In particular, I have found indispensible a Marxian–inspired notion of ideology in developing an understanding of social processes in time. By the same token, desire as elaborated in psychoanalytic discourse comes close to describing what I take to be the “human condition”—certainly a factor with respect to humankind’s psychic unity. Neither of these analytical tools would find much welcome in analyses that insist upon restricting inquiry to the terms of native ontologies. Before elaborating, however, I must provide some context.

My first book, History and magical power in a Chinese community (1987), describes what amounts to a Chinese ontology focusing on powers attributed to spirits (gods, ghosts, demons). Apropos of Lloyd’s comments on Chinese ontology as “process based” (Lloyd 2012: 91), I argued that comprehending this power (ling 靈) requires understanding it less as something akin to physical force and more as having to do with transformation (hua 化). Moreover, power in this sense is immanent in the processes of transforming disorder (yin 陰) into order (yang 陽) (i.e., production) and, conversely, order into disorder (i.e., destruction). Implicitly, what is desirable is not so much a “balance” of yin and yang (as frequently asserted both in Chinese sources and by Western analysts) as positioning or imagining oneself or one’s collectivity as agent possessing the power to produce or to destroy.

I arrived at this argument as much by induction—that is to say, by noticing a consistency of patterning in a wide variety of iconographic, ritual, architectural, and other symbolically potent phenomena—as from informants’ direct testimony. In sum, discerning what I take to be a partly explicit and partly implicit ontology in Chinese religious thought and activity was central to my ethnographic project. Moreover, the idea that power consists in the processes of production (ordering) and destruction (disordering) or transformation has profoundly influenced my own thinking with respect to power as a category in philosophical and social analysis. There is, indeed, much to be learned from “taking seriously” other ontologies.

But “taking seriously” should not foreclose critique or analysis in terms other than those internal to the ontology ethnology claims to reveal. To wit, the Chinese folk ontology summarized above is also marked importantly by alienating pro-jections. Apropos of Lloyd’s observation that “as regards beliefs… mistakes in attributing agency may be particularly liable to occur” (ibid.: 40), I argue that the power constituted by collective social activities tends to be attributed to tutelary deities (difang shen 地方神). In explaining the efficacy of such deities, people typically cite instances from local history in which their community was threatened by an external force (e.g., Japanese army, headhunting aborigines, American bombs, a flooding river) and saved by divine intervention (xianling 顯靈). It is noteworthy that such events also typically inspired cooperative efforts to defend the community from the threat.

I conclude, on the one hand, that the constitution of community is, as Chinese ontology conveys, an ordering process; on the other hand, I also conclude that the agent of this ordering is the community itself, which, in effect, alienates its own self-productive agency by attributing it to transcendent powers. Complicating this process, however, is that this alienating tropic structure is itself an important, even essential, element of community self-regeneration—a transcendental pivot around which community action is organized in annual ritual commemorations on gods’ birthdays.7 Ling is thus both an ontology of collective process and form of historical consciousness and, at the same, an ideology whose alienating tropic structure figures in the real operations of power and agency in community formation.

To shift from ideology to human commonalities, we might consider how Lloyd reminds cultural anthropologists that not only do human beings everywhere share similar genetic endowments and cognitive capacities, “but also… we all undergo processes of social acculturation” (ibid.: 116–17). In other words, “human nature” is not reducible to common biological endowments, but is also shaped by the fact that all human beings are biologically destined to social existence. Social existence, in turn, exercises logical imperatives—e.g., to accommodate others—that are not reducible to biology alone, but are nonetheless ubiquitous to human experience.

Lloyd does not link this observation to desire, but I suggest doing so. Whatever one might make of Freud’s theories regarding the biological bases of sexual instincts (highly problematic, in my view), psychoanalysis also proposes a less reductive ontology of desire as a human commonality.8 Desire, I propose, is neither reducible to biological imperatives nor is it solely an effect of culture, but is instead best understood as an effect of people’s coming into being as cultural subjects; desire emerges as individuals’ encounter the limits to ego-centric or narcissistic impulses consequent upon the fact that others possess desires of their own. Psychoanalysis describes this socializing process in concepts like repression, or (more positively) maturation, but its most intriguing suggestion, in my view, is the more abstractly denoted truism that becoming fully human, realizing our natures as social beings, entails elements of self-denial in the interest of accommodating others.9

One would be hard-pressed to argue that Chinese ontologies closely parallel psychoanalysis in this regard, although arguably Buddhism’s recognition that desire is the font of human suffering might constitute a candidate. In any case, my more recent work approaches Chinese patriliny from the vantage of desire. This work is motivated in part by dissatisfaction with both native exegesis and anthropological treatments of patriliny. By “Chinese patriliny” I mean not only a particular set of social-structural principles or characteristics—e.g., descent, family dynamics, and generational- and gender-based roles—but also ancestor worship, cosmology, ethnobiological and gender ideologies, and (to some degree at least) political institutions. This complex nexus of institutional-cum-ideational forms has generally been approached, loosely speaking, as a culturally unique ontology—a phenomenon to be described, made readable to non-Chinese, perhaps, but not explained in any terms beyond those in which it expresses itself.

And here I might press a bit further than does Lloyd by suggesting that “communication” across ontologies—say, anthropology10 and Chinese patriliny— recommends attempting to discern something of human commonality in Chinese patriliny. To this end, I have proposed thinking of patriliny as “instituted fantasy” (Sangren 2013) insofar as it comprises an ontology of personhood—organized around the figure of the filial son—that can be linked to desire understood as emergent effect of enculturation everywhere. By the same token, in institutional operation (e.g., family dynamics) patriliny is simultaneously a “mode of production of desire” (ibid.) Socialization in this regard entails an imperative to accommodate to patriliny as institutional reality, thereby provoking resistances and, therefore, desires (differently figured depending upon one’s place—e.g., son or daughter) that circumstances might be otherwise. These desires, in turn, motivate people to attempt to imagine, to bring into being, circumstances (especially in the realm of intimate social relationships) more satisfying that those which, in part by frustrating them, also produced them in the first place.

Needless to say, this distilled summary inadequately gestures in the direction of a more thoroughgoing ethnographic analysis. I hope, however, that it conveys at least the point that comprehending Chinese patriliny might legitimately entail much more than viewing it as an ontology of personhood. Although Chinese patriliny certainly incorporates such an ontology, it is an ontology whose logic is importantly shaped by framing processes—desire and ideology, individual and collective—that exceed the terms of the ontology itself.


Bastian, Adolf. 1860. Der Mensch in Der Geschichte, Zur Begründung Einer Psychologischen Weltanschauung. 3 Vols. Leipzig: Verland von Otto Wigand.

Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballentine

———. 1979. Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Boas, Franz. 1911. The mind of primitive man. New York: MacMillan.

Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond nature and culture, translated by Janet Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Freeman, Derek. 1986. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The making and unmaking of an anthropological myth. New York: Penguin.

Freud, Sigmund. 1950. Totem and taboo: Some points of agreement between the mental lives of savages and neurotics, translated by James Strachey. New York: Norton.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Person, time, and conduct in Bali.” In The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays, 360–411. New York: Basic Books.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1981. The theory of communicative action, Vol. 1: Reason and the rationalization of society. Boston: Beacon Press.

———. 1985. The theory of communicative action, Vol. 2: Lifeword and system: A critique of functionalist reason. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. The elementary structures of kinship (Les structures élémentaires de la parenté), translated by James Harle and John Richard von Sturmer Bell, edited by Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lloyd, G. E. R. 2012. Being, humanity, and understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of age in Samoa;: A psychological study of primitive youth for western civilization. New York: W. Morrow.

Sangren, P. Steven. 1987. History and magical power in a Chinese community. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

———. 2013. “The Chinese family as instituted fantasy: Or rescuing kinship imaginaries from the ‘symbolic.’” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Insti-tute N.S. (19): 270–99.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1988. The gender of the gift. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Turner, Terence S. 2009. “The crisis of late structuralism. Perspectivism and animism: Rethinking culture, nature, spirit, and bodiliness.” Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 7 (1): 1–40.

———. 1991. “‘We are parrots,’ ‘twins are birds’: Play of tropes as operational structures.” In Beyond metaphor: The theory of tropes in anthropology, edited by James W. Fernandez, 121–58. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1998. “Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute N.S. (4): 469–88.

Wikan, Unni. 1989. “Managing the heart to brighten face and soul: Emotions in Balinese morality and health care.” American Ethnologist 16: 294–312.



P. Steven Sangren
Department of Anthropology
222 McGraw Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853



1. “We all share not just our genes but also our basic cognitive capacities” (Lloyd 2012: 25). “Psychic unity,” the notion that human beings everywhere are endowed with essentially the same cognitive capacities and potential, is usually attributed to Adolf Bastian (1860) and, influentially, his student Franz Boas (1911).

2. The terms of debate are not altogether new, of course. Would-be champions of “science” have intermittently squared off against “relativists,” often to the discomfiture of more pragmatic observers. For example, postmodernism during the 1980s renounced anthropological claims to scientific authority in the name of a decentered plurality of voices representing contending positions. More recently, advocates of “lateral” and “collaborative” ethnography have similarly called into question more traditional forms of ethnographic authority.

3. Terence Turner’s (2009) thoroughgoing critiques of Descola and Viveiros de Castro dispute both the idealism of what he terms their “late structuralist” assumptions and the ethnographic bases of their depictions of Amazonian ontologies.

4. Needless to say, Lloyd does not push this ethical agenda to develop an encompassing political-cum-moral philosophy of a magnitude akin to Habermas’, but his aims seem broadly similar.

5. Gregory Bateson, too, recommends openness to learning not only as an enduring academic value, but also as an adaptive property of “mind” (conceived to include not only individual consciousness, but also cultural, social, and even ecological systems). Engagement with and response to “external” stimuli can, in some instances according to Bateson (1972, 1979), incite not only communication, but emergence of “higher levels” of organization (including understanding).

6. Arguably, a similar point might be made with respect to the famous dispute over Samoan personhood. Are (or were) Samoans enviably free of anxieties associated with identity and sex, as Margaret Mead (1928) famously portrayed them, or instead, as Derek Freeman (1986) insisted, especially anxious regarding issues relating to sex and virginity? A clash of ontologies is clearest here between Freeman’s socio-biological assumptions and Mead’s culturalism, but (as among Balinese) it is also likely that diverging ontological framings operate within Samoan culture and society itself.

7. Turner (1991) makes a similar point in his analysis of the ritual-cum-ideological uses of metaphor among Brazil’s Kayapo. In light of the centrality of Amazonian ethnographic material in the current debate, Turner’s important analysis deserves more consideration.

8. Lacan’s disarticulation of desire from Freud’s notion of instincts accounts in large part for his appeal to contemporary social theorists, but his structuralist invocation of language raises difficulties of its own (Sangren 2013).

9. The incest tabu, as noticed by both Freud (1950) and Lévi-Strauss (1969), may model this element of self-denial most insistently, but need not be supposed to be the sole source or cause of self-restraint in general.

10. To term anthropology an “ontology” may overstate the degree to which anthropologists’ viewpoints converge or comprise an encompassing worldview, but if exotic ontologies can be viewed as incorporating native anthropologies, then anthropological traditions in academe would seem similarly to implicate a framing ontology.