Philosophies without ontology

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Carlo Severi. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.1.014

Book Symposium

Philosophies without ontology

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

Carlo SEVERI, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales


In Being, humanity, and understanding, Geoffrey Lloyd poses central questions for the epistemology of social anthropology with a rare matter-of-fact, elegant, and tolerant attitude. He repeatedly stresses that, in discussing matters concerning human cosmologies, we need to refer “more to comments than to verdicts” (Lloyd 2012: 40). For him, we should constantly remember that: “there are occasions when plural answers to an apparently single question are appropriate, even indispensable” (ibid.: 111). From a theoretical point of view, he argues for what we might call a controlled pluralism: “to treat realism and relativism as mutually exclusive and exhaustive alternatives is liable to mislead. In a sense, we need both.” (ibid.: 105).

The risk of taking un-nuanced positions on these matters is well described in a passage that deserves a full citation: “Just as we have every reason to be cautious in considering some set of beliefs, thinking we fully comprehend them, so there is every reason to be cautious in endorsing any metaphysical system; the implications of which may be very unclear” (ibid.: 40).

This cautious and reflexive epistemological stance is one of the two best qualities of the book, the other being the constant comparison of contemporary ethnography with the historical-epistemological analysis of the Greek and Chinese ancient worlds that Lloyd has realized in the rest of his oeuvre. Conceptual analysis and comparison: both these strategies allow him to give a very rich account of the nature and implications of the questions the book is concerned with. Everywhere the evaluation of possible solutions goes along with the appreciation of possible theoretical risks. Greek philosophy, especially the Presocratic thinkers, Chinese traditional thought (and, sometimes, Sumerian astronomy) constantly offer, by way of contrast or of analogy, matter for further arguments, and for possible extensions to the analysis of cosmologies coming from other parts of the world. Sometimes, Lloyd’s way to study cosmologies come close to anthropology itself, and namely to the sociology of knowledge practiced by Frederik Barth (e.g., 1989). Like Barth, he does not want to discuss the “kind of truth” that cosmologies might convey— “ontologies are in principle comprehensive accounts of whatever there is. As such, they are not subject to straightforward verification or falsification” (Lloyd 2012: 39). He chooses instead to identify the historical and sociological conditions that might generate them: “Both the Chinese and the Greek data,” writes Lloyd, “suggest the difficulty of generalizing about the ontology of either civilization…. At the same time, more positively, they enable us to identify some of the conditions that prompt… the proliferation of ontologies, whether we are talking about the proposal put forward by articulate writers, or the background of commonly shared assumptions” (ibid.: 67).

In the spirit of Lloyd’s book, to “offer more comments than verdicts” (and also for respecting the limits imposed here: the book is very rich, and other topics would certainly deserve a detailed discussion), I would like to focus my intervention on the comparison of indigenous cosmologies with the Presocratic tradition of thought. I have two remarks. One concerns the concept of ontology in this tradition, and in particular, the enormous difference that exists between Parmenides and the other Presocratic thinkers. The other concerns the comparison itself and the kind of conceptual risks it might involve. As I have already noted, the Presocratic tradition is one of the terms of comparison that Lloyd uses in his discussion of different kind of cosmological ideas. Actually, the very perspective of discussing this Greek tradition of thought, Chinese traditional knowledge, and non-western cosmologies in terms of a “logique du concret” (Lévi-Strauss 2008) is very tempting, and it often proves fruitful. Everywhere, the subject of ontological explanation is constituted by what seems to be a sort of common mythical universe: natural forces incarnated in conflicting beings, processes of generation and transformation, mythical genealogies of the gods and the human beings, attempts of explanation of certain natural phenomena, etc.

However, in the Presocratic tradition, the discourse “about what it is” takes two very different forms: the one we find in Parmenides’ and the one that characterizes, in a sense, all the others, with the possible exception of Heraclitus. As Guthrie (1965) and indeed Lloyd (1979: 68–72) himself on other occasions, have written, there is a crucial difference between Parmenides and the other Presocratic thinkers. The famous statement of Guthrie (1965: 1), “Presocratic philosophy is divided in two halves by the name of Parmenides,” is not to be understood only in terms of chronology or in reference to the exceptional gifts of this thinker. It has a logical character. Before and after him, authors like Heraclitus, Democritus, Leucippus, or Empedocles all write peri phuséos, “on nature.” The aim of their inquiry is to identify the fundamental elements of matter, and the various forces that might combine to generate observable physical phenomena. Empedocles, for instance, who is “at pains to deny that the original mixture of the elements is anthropomorphic or theriomorphic” (ibid.: 168), still describes the cosmos in entirely physical terms. For him, the first stage of its existence was governed by a force he calls Love. At that time: “no twin branches sprang from its back, no feet nor nimble knees, but it was a sphere in all directions equal to itself” (ibid.), where the four elements were thoroughly blended (ibid.: 170). Only the force of Strife, which comes in a second stage, will introduce change and motion into the Sphere of the Cosmos.

No doubt, Parmenides has his own story to tell about the origins of the universe. In his poem, he also speaks of light and darkness. He also refers to a genealogy of gods, and puts “love and desire among things as a first (physical) cause” (ibid.: 61). But he also adopts an entirely different point of view. He not only disagrees with this or that opinion expressed before him about the physical “elements” that govern the universe. The argument he formulates about the nature of “what it is” changes radically the subject of this philosophical tradition. The dimension of the ontological problem which he wants to identify is situated, in the words of Aristotle, metà ta phisika, beyond the appearance of things. His main argument, then, is not about the various material constituents of the universe (fire, water, air, etc.) and their different ways to combine (through Love or Strife, as it was, for instance, for Empedocles). For the first time, he formulates an argument about “being itself.” His search aims to the construction of a science of abstract principles, through an unprecedented “sustained deductive argument” (Lloyd 1979: 69), about “being” as an abstract feature, not as a mythical discourse about the origins of what physically exists.

His argument concerns a logical status of “what it is” which has nothing to do with observable phenomena. He, and all the other metaphysicians from Plato to Kant at least, look for a rational and general principle governing both the world and the thought. If one cannot think what does not exist, then “to exist and to think” are the same (to gar auto’ noein estin te kai einai, Frgm. 8, in: Parmenides 1984: 56–57).

Nor does Parmenides look for a classification of the different beings inhabiting the universe. He wants to identify an abstract relationship between nous and phusis. He looks for the conditions under which the world is thinkable. He speaks of the abstract principle of being, not of the categories of things and living beings that one might observe in the empirical world. His philosophical heritage is consequently much closer to the Aristotelian idea of metaphysics as a “thinking of thinking” (Lloyd 2012: 14)—a way to study the intelligible forms of the world, as they are continually thought by God’s thinking—than to subsequent theories concerning the nature of the matter, like, for instance, Epicurean atomism.

This approach generates another crucial difference between Parmenides and the others Presocratic thinkers. Because “it is the same thing that can be thought and can be” (Lloyd 1979: 69) his perspective generates a systematic theorizing, both about the foundation of reality and about the principles of thought. It is important to remember that, in philosophy (from Plato to Kant and beyond) only a theory about invisible principles, developed following the method of systematic deduction, like Parmenides deductive argument, deserves the name of “ontology.” A classification of the categories of different beings, following for instance the distinctions between animate/inanimate, human/animal, male/female (which is often understood as “ontological” by anthropologists) technically does not make for an “ontology.” In the works of Aristotle, for instance, the study of these forms of knowledge belongs to the Parva Naturalia, not to the doctrine of Being, which is the object of metaphysics.

Actually, one might object that this conceptual distinction only concerns the history of Greek (and subsequent Western) philosophy. Why should we anthropologists (working, for instance, in Melanesia, Amazonia, or Central America) bother about? Why should we not leave it to philosophers? After all, our task is the interpretation of ethnography, not the reconstruction of Presocratic tradition of thought. The short answer could be: because, as Lévi-Strauss has repeatedly noted (cf., for instance, Lévi-Strauss 1998), philosophy is back in social anthropology, and we have already started to speak its language. To put it in a more detailed way, one might identify at least two reasons for taking this question seriously. One is that this distinction concerns the logical nature and the socio-logical conditions of the cosmologies we work on. To describe them as “ontologies” involves the risk of leaving their specific logical form unidentified. And the other is that this distinction also concerns the conceptual tools we use to think about them. So a comparative elucidation of the concept of cosmology is relevant not only to their way of thought, but also to ours, to the detailed study of cosmologies and to the epistemological status of social anthropology as a discipline.

In short, the risk involved in ignoring the distinction between Parmenides and the other Presocratic thinkers, is to mistake Melanesian or Amazonian “conceptions of the world,” founded on “background commonly shared assumptions” about physical and social observable phenomena (Lloyd 2012: 67), for pseudo-Parmenidean ontologies. And, consequently, to understand them as coherent systems of thought: “unique, immobile, and unchanging” as the Parmenidean concept of Being. I think that there are no empirical reasons to think so. Only a wrong decision to view cosmologies as such may transform them into systematic ontology, or even (adopting an extreme Heideggerian idealism) into indigenous metaphysics. In this latter case, cosmologies would become no more than anthropological artifacts.

In my view, what we anthropologists tend to call “cosmologies” are de facto regularities in the establishment of a number of shared assumptions, very rarely expressed in the form of an explicit argument, and always related to specific practices, systems of relationships, and genre of discourses, either ritual or mythological. These discourses might sometimes intersect, generating the appear-ance of a unitary “discourse on the nature of what it is.” But what is particularly interesting about them, is precisely their unsystematic character, the fact that they always leave a space open for different strategies of thought. In this sense, indigenous cosmologies (while being sometimes comparable to Chinese traditional thought, or to authors like Democritus or Empedocles) are philosophies without an ontology, as Parmenides has defined it.

As Lévi-Strauss has written, philosophy is back in anthropology, and one can be happy or unhappy about its return. Be it as it may. At any rate, thanks to the brilliant work of Geoffrey Lloyd, we can show today that an apparently unrelated and obscure philosophical distinction, between Parmenides’ ontology and the other Presocratic discourses on “what it is,” can decisively influence the epistem-ology of our discipline. In the definition of the logical form of ontologies, the choice, for Parmenides or against him, concerns both anthropology and philosophy.


Barth, Fredrik. 1989. “The guru and the conjurer: Transactions in knowledge and the shaping of culture in Southeast Asia and Melanesia.” Man 25 (4): 640–53.

Guthrie, W. K. C. 1965. The Presocratic tradition from Parmenides to Democritus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1998. “Lévi-Strauss no 90, voltas ao pasado.” Mana 4 (2): 105–6.

———. 2008. La pensée sauvage. In Oeuvres. Paris: Gallimard-La Pléiade.

Lloyd, G. E. R. 1979. Magic, Reason and Experience: Studies in the origins and development of Greek science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2012. Being, humanity, and understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parmenides. 1984. Le poème. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.



Carlo Severi
Laboratoire d'Anthropologie Sociale
College de France
52 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine
75005 Paris