Transmutating beings: A proposal for an anthropology of thought

Carlo Severi


Forms of thought, from what Lévi-Strauss called the "systematization [of] what is immediately presented to the senses,"  to the causal theories studied by Evans-Pritchard in witchcraft, have generally been interpreted as an expression of a specific language or "culture." In this paper, I discuss this way of defining thought. Three classic objections are examined: (1) societies sharing the same "system of thought" may speak different languages, and vice versa; (2) if a relation between language and thought exists, it is an indirect and controversial one, and we should never take it for granted (or infer qualities of thought from language structures) without further investigation; (3) the languages that we use to qualify different kinds of thought are constantly translated. Through a discussion of the context of translation, I argue that instead of seeing the possibility of translation as a theoretical difficulty for defining thought, we could, on the contrary, consider the ethnography of translation as a chance to observe the dynamics and structure of thought processes, and to study how they operate in different cultural contexts. Using three Amazonian examples, I will try to describe the kind of cognition involved by the form of translation that Jakobson calls transmutation. I will argue that from this ethnographic analysis, we can not only derive a better (both wider and more precise) idea of some, rarely studied, cultural translation processes, but also draw from it a new way to define the concept of "cultural ontology," both for Amazonian cultures and in more general terms. 

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.003