Response to comments on <i>Being, humanity, and understanding</i>

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © G. E. R. Lloyd. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.1.017

Book Symposium

Response to comments on Being, humanity, and understanding

G. E. R. LLOYD, University of Cambridge


It is a great privilege to have such careful readers of my book. In particular I appreciate the reactions from practicing anthropologists to my endeavors to combine what I think I have learned from ethnography with philosophy, cognitive science, and ancient history in order to try to illuminate issues that have often been tackled from within one of those disciplines in isolation from the others. Some parts of my discussion, such as the more technical analyses of Greek and Chinese thought, naturally attracted little comment. But several contributions register difficulties with my use of the term ontologies to cover both the explicit theorizing of ancient Greeks and Chinese on the one hand, and the implicit beliefs brought to light by ethnographic fieldwork, on the other. I shall accordingly concentrate my own comments here on that fundamental issue. First, however, I shall give my own reactions to some of the other points that have been raised.

Thus Tanya Luhrmann interestingly suggests that recent anthropological developments pose problems for us that are analogous to those that earlier ethnography raised for the generation of E. E. Evans-Pritchard. How are app-arently exotic, even irrational, beliefs and practices to be understood? Luhrmann remarks that in my book I offer no answer to the question of what is real, and indeed I remain profoundly dissatisfied with the way that topic has often been treated, especially when the old dichotomy between realism and relativism was wheeled out and those two were treated as mutually exclusive and exhaustive alternatives. Nor am I happy with other traditional moves, such as the notion that the statements in question were not intended literally, but only metaphorically or symbolically (another dichotomy I have sought to undermine by way of the notion of semantic stretch to which I shall be returning). Again the idea of searching for some set of transcendent criteria on the basis of which judgements can be made on anyone else’s view of reality also seems to me chimerical, even though that does not mean that, on simple matters of calculation, for instance, we are incapable of diagnosing error either in ourselves or in others. If imposing our own pre-conceptions (whatever they are) is hopelessly parochial, we should not, on the other hand, retreat to an extreme relativism that allows that anything goes, and my analysis of error in Chapter 2 of my book was designed precisely to draw a line at that point. The pluralism I advocate allows for the multidimensionality of the phenomena, and indeed for the multidimensionality of the real. But to spell that out, and to answer Luhrmann’s question, involves engaging in first-order inquiries in each and every one of the domains to which human experience exposes us, from everything from our perception of color or space to the realities of our cult-ural persona. We should not expect simple answers to such questions: tempting as they may be, they are always misleading. Philosophy has sometimes claimed to deliver general solutions by wielding all-purpose epistemological arguments. But physics already gives such the lie and that is before we make the most of our multi-farious anthropological sources. We have, as Luhrmann says, to get on with the business of understanding one another: and we should not be misled by the would-be all-purpose strategies of positivism, postmodernism, and their successors.

Luhrmann cites Aparecida Vilaça’s fieldwork and Vilaça’s own contribution pursues the question of Wari’ perspectivism a good deal further, notably to challenge whether the notion of semantic stretch is applicable in such a case. While I was endeavouring to develop an analysis of language use to enable com-prehension between different worlds, Vilaça shows that the Wari’ are concerned to maintain distances between worlds, rather than to overcome them. Trans-ontological translation is not just a matter of Wari’ perspectives and those, for instance, of jaguars (who see themselves as humans, that is as Wari’, while seeing the Wari’ as animals, as prey) but also nowadays in a post-pacification era of coming to terms with Whites who inhabit a world still dominated (as Vilaça notes) by multiculturalism and mononaturalism. So they must do anthropology (under-stand: make sense of the other) on the Whites, who are, of course, doing anthrop-ology on them. They searched (and still search) for another world to which the same word refers—in controlled equivocation. So the objection can be put that while semantic stretch locates the problem in the language used, for the Wari’ the problem is one in the worlds themselves.

So what is the nature of the concessions I should now make with regard to my venturing a semantic stretch analysis in the footnote (Lloyd 2012: 107, n. 11) that Vilaça cites? I certainly paid insufficient attention to the way the Wari’, like others, discuss what is going on, as in the exchange Vilaça cites between To'o Xak Wa and her husband, though I did have quite a bit to say about debate and skepticism across all human societies. I also should have acknowledged the point about main-taining distance, for without it Wari’ society cannot reproduce itself. She herself speaks of the multiple entries in the Wari’–jaguar dictionaries her friends use, and thus far it seems that we are dealing with semantic issues, for up to that point our dictionaries too have multiple entries to which my notion of semantic stretch can be applied (as I did with my examples from Roget’s Thesaurus). But what is needed to deal with the trans-ontological translation situations she describes has to be more than just semantics. My (limited) optimism in that regard, I now see, was misplaced, not that elsewhere in the book I was in danger of presupposing onto-logical uniformity (as I shall be discussing in a moment) or of ignoring the pragmat-ics of communication, where for example I brought Zhuangzi’s “lodge sayings” to bear to insist on the need to place yourself in the position of your interlocutor.

P. Steven Sangren’s reaction, next, concentrated on very different aspects of the problems. To get beyond the surface phenomena of stated or implied beliefs we need to examine the underlying desires and feelings of those responding to those phenomena and trying to make sense of them. Ontology must be seen as under-pinned by psychology and indeed by ideology. I have always been wary of attempts to offer psychological diagnoses of whole human populations, just as I have resisted varieties of strong linguistic determinism. But I accept that there are possibly fruitful avenues of exploration not just of the psychological dimensions of the problems of human attempts to order experience, but also of the ideological interferences to which such endeavors may be subject, and in both cases that could have done with greater attention than I devoted to them in my book.

Meanwhile Webb Keane, too, helpfully suggests that one way for us to come to grips with the variety of systems of belief and practice that I was discussing is to examine the ethical consequences, justifications, and conditions of those systems. Indeed I might well have said more than I did about the difference it makes to how we should behave when we adopt or presuppose one or another attitude to the differences between humans and other animals, not to mention the differences between humans you feel you can identify with and those you cannot. But I would see that ethical turn, if I may call it such, as complimentary to, not a replacement of, the analysis of ontologies that I was undertaking.

One way or another most contributors focus on that issue of ontologies. Some are worried that it is inherently deeply ambiguous, and that it is quite misleading to lump together my ancient Greek and Chinese materials with the recent ontological turn in anthropology. As Keane puts it, we should distinguish between weak ontologies (representations of the world) and strong ones (where the worlds themselves differ). Anne-Christine Taylor adds an extra layer of complication in insisting on the difference between Philippe Descola’s tetradic schema, and the heavily political agenda that colors the most recent explorations of Cannibal Meta-physics by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2009) and here (too) I stand corrected. I would accept that she is right in seeing Descola’s four ontologies rather as ideal types, since none exists in any society in a pure form. Viveiros de Castro, for his part, clearly wages war (to put it at its starkest) with the still prevailing mono-naturalism and multiculturalism of our own society. As Taylor points out, I did not tackle the dynamics underlying different sets of practices, and various correlations that they bring to light. Indeed my brief survey omitted much in its bid to open up possible lines of inquiry for further comparative study, and indeed this discussion has already begun to expand the agenda in ways I find fruitful.

Then Carlo Severi’s take is different again, though he shares with other con-tributors the perception that what I treated under the general rubric of ontologies needs sifting and dividing. In a series of interesting comments on Presocratic philosophy he drives a wedge between Parmenides and the rest. The rest are concerned to identify the fundamental elements of matter, for instance, and with explaining origins and change. Parmenides by contrast alone provides a unified theory, a metaphysics closer to Aristotle’s discussion of “being qua being.” This leaves the appearances behind to consider conditions of intelligibility, the princi-ples that govern both the world and thought.

This is not the place to go into the finer points of the interpretation of Presocratic thought. Rather, I accept that my discussion at that point should have emphasized (even) more than it did that different ancient Greeks had different agenda. I note however one interesting consequence of Severi’s critique, namely that it brings some Greek thinkers—those other Presocratics—closer to Melanesian and Amazonian thought, even while it identifies Parmenides’ problematic as quite distinctive. That contrasts, rather, with some of my other critics who would have it that the key Great Divide is the gap that separates the explicit theorists of ancient literate communities as a whole, on the one hand, from the implicit assumptions under discussion in ethnography on the other.

Laidlaw perhaps especially points to a contrast in my own handling of the two main types of material I discuss. When I was dealing with ancient Greece and China, I examined the particular communication situation in which the theories in question were propounded, often in direct opposition to rival views. But where my ethnographic examples were concerned, I did not similarly challenge how the material has been collected and processed, indeed processed several times over, first by indigenous informants and then in ethnographic interpretation.

Let me first concede something to that last point. While I feel confident, at least up to a point, to comment on the circumstances in which plural explicit theories were developed in ancient societies, namely the situations in which per-suaders, sophists, or whoever tried out new ideas often in explicit contradistinction to those of rivals, I was, I am, in no position to look over the shoulders of the ethnographers who tease out the implications of their indigenous informants’ ideas and practices, let alone to access those informants themselves. All I can do is comment on the end result of that double process of interpretation.

Yet none of that, I believe, makes the rubric of ontology just hopelessly ambigu-ous and not fit for purpose. That some ontologies are fully elaborate and explicit, others implicit, some go beyond the appearances, others classify them, does not alter the fact that all those types deal with what there is, the onta as the Greeks would say which is just a word for “things”—whatever is—though it then provided the root for our fancy term “ontology.” Even the Presocratics in Severi’s discussion had “what is” as their target, though it was only Parmenides who tackled that by insisting that reason alone can deliver the answer in the shape of the necessary pronouncements of the Way of Truth. Even the implicit cosmologies in my dis-cussion can be seen as being indeed cosmologies, accounts of the cosmos, the world—what is—even while the degree to which the problematic was made explicit certainly varies.

We are all in the business of trying to make sense of others, and for that we have always more or less to process the materials we use to answer the question. In my brief discussion in my book attempting to clarify the issue between plural worlds and plural worldviews, I sought to have it both ways, though evidently I did not persuade everyone that that is the right move. There is just the one world, to repeat myself, if by world we mean everything there is: that becomes true by definition. But that should not lead us to ignore the point that everyone inhabits their own world, bounded by the limits of their inevitably partial and incomplete experience. That applies to myself and any other commentator, though I certainly lived and live in hopes that my exploration of others’ views can lead me to revise my own—as I am doing right here. If ontology itself is allowed semantic stretch in our usage, then indeed both explicit and implicit, both strong and weak, and both metaphysical and phenomenal versions are grist to my exploration of its, their, multidimensionality.

That may make it seem that I have learned nothing from these interesting contributions. But on the contrary I welcome the new avenues of inquiry that they have opened up, though the extent to which I can myself in future do justice to them depends on the limitations of my own expertise. But just to come back to four such avenues that I have alluded to already. Sangren usefully suggests that we look beyond ontology to desire, personhood, ideology, and that does seem to me a fruitful way to access aspects of the human condition that are relevant to my enterprise. Luhrmann calls for greater use of comparison to enable us to explain the causal consequences of particular orientations and again this has great potentiality for illuminating both the commonalities of different lived experiences and their distinctive characteristics. Keane points to the ethical consequences of ontological commitments: we should ask what is at stake for our relations with other peoples, with other animals, with other things. Severi warns that the agenda of some of the theorists may include the conditions of possibility of understanding the world, while others have taken that for granted: but I treat that as a plea for greater methodological caution rather than as pronouncing a death sentence for the exploration as a whole.

So I return to the point that to make any advance in understanding the problems we need to pool the resources of several academic disciplines that are used to considering themselves as autonomous. Social anthropology, philosophy, cognitive science, even history need to join forces. Cognitive science needs to get beyond the narrow focus on WEIRD subjects, as Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan (2010) have demanded when they protested at the distortions that arise from concentrating, as often happens, on Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic persons. Philosophy needs to see that ontology is an issue in social anthropology, where a traditional attack on the problems by way of epistemological argument is inadequate. Social anthropology, in turn, needs philosophy (as Severi too insists), not just to do justice to cannibal metaphysics, but indeed to appreciate how to cope with those apparent dichotomies between realism and relativism that lie below the surface of ethnographic interpretation too. Ancient history, meanwhile, should raise its eyes from the fundamental task of assessing the disparate sources with which it has to deal, to consider the wider implications of what they reveal.

What is at stake is to do justice both to human diversity and to human unity, and to learn from what we can discover about those to challenge our own unexamined assumptions. If the problems are, as I claim, multidimensional, many of them are only now being opened up, especially by recent developments for which we have anthropology to thank. So may I express my gratitude to the editor, and to this forum in particular, for taking some steps along that road, raising fundamental issues not just for my interpretative explorations, but even indeed (as Luhrmann says) for anthropological practice.


Henrich, Joseph, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. “The weirdest people in the world.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33: 61–83.

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

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2009. Métaphysiques cannibales. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.



G. E. R. Lloyd
Needham Research Institute
8 Sylvester Road
Cambridge CB3 9AF