This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © João de Pina-Cabral. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.012


An anthropological examination (part 2)

João de PINA-CABRAL, University of Kent

This paper is the second of a two-part essay that aims to examine anthropologically the category “world.” The first part argued in favor of a single-world approach and for the unavoidable centrality of personhood in the human condition. In this second part of the essay, I address the metaphysical implications of the category “world” and relate them to the process of “worlding,” thus defending the continued heuristic value of the old anthropological category of worldview. I suggest that a consideration of the Ontological Proof of God’s existence, developed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the late eleventh century, helps us develop a comparative theory of personhood by showing how the experience of transcendence is inherent in personal ontogenesis.

Keywords: person, animism, self, ontological proof, world, transcendence, participation

This paper is the second of a two-part essay that aims to examine anthropologically the category “world.” The first part (Pina-Cabral 2014a) argued in favor of a single-world approach and for the centrality of personhood in the human condition. In it, I proposed that a position of minimalist realism best suits the ethnographic endeavor—the original and defining move of anthropology. In their descriptions of people’s lived worlds, anthropologists are expected to clarify what beings there are for the people they study (their ontology) and how these beings interrelate meaningfully within a world (their metaphysics). The starting point of the discussion, therefore, is that metaphysical concerns are never absent from any ethnographic description that aims to “take seriously” the experiences described.1

In this second part of the essay, I address the metaphysical implications of the category “world” and relate them to the process of “worlding,” a human disposition that opens up the space of relationality where the “holism of the mental”2 operates. I am here inspired by Anna Tsing’s use of the concept, when she claims that “worlding is simultaneously orienting and disorienting. Worlding is always practiced in relation; worlds come into being at the encounter—and at best they explain the encounter” (2011: 63). In consequence, I defend the continued heuristic value of the old anthropological category of worldview. Concomitantly, I argue that transcendence is not to be seen as a feature of this or that “culture” or “ontology.” Rather, it is a recurrent aspect of human experience, as it is an effect of the very process of constitution of human persons in ontogeny by means of what Lévy-Bruhl ([1949] 1998) called “participation.” The paper starts by setting these discussions within the history of twentieth-century anthropology in order to make sense of where we have come from. In particular, it argues for the continued relevance of a tradition that finds its roots in R. G. Collingwood’s rendering of the Ontological Proof of God’s existence, developed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the late eleventh century.

The reenchantment of the world

Over the past decade, sociocultural anthropology has witnessed the emergence of a mode of ethnographic analysis that emphasizes the “strangeness,” other-worldliness, or transcendentality of its objects of study. Considering that these ethnographers and their readers purport to inhabit a spiritless world, their presentation of the ethnographic material they gather in exotic places as genuinely transcendental3involves an intellectual challenge. Some have called this disposition “the ontological turn,” and it is often, but as we will see not always, presented as a form of pluralism of worlds resulting from a postulation of ontological incommensurability (Pedersen 2012). What came to pass was a revival of older and more transcendentalist categories, such as animism, totemism, and shamanism, accompanied by a ferocious critique of some of the more trusty tools of ethnographic analysis, such as methodological holism or worldview analysis. While Lévi-Straussian modes of analysis were taken on board in a silenced manner, Latourian naturalism made big inroads under the guise of “animism” (e.g., Descola 2013; Kohn 2013).

However, the revisitation by these contemporaries of such concepts as animism, totemism, shaman, soul, or spirit does not imply the adoption of the attitudes of distancing that characterized the founding masters of our discipline: same words, different intentions. McLennan, Lubbock, Tylor, and Frazer were “all great believers in laws of social evolution and in the necessary interdependence of institutions, and all … agnostic and hostile to religion” (Evans-Pritchard 1962: 35). To the contrary, like Evans-Pritchard himself, the anthropologists of today defend that the experiences they describe (e.g., of shamanism) are genuinely transcendental—their “cannibal metaphysics” are presented as fully valid human experiences (Viveiros de Castro 2009).

Yet, contrary to the midcentury interpretivists, whose towering figure was Evans-Pritchard, our contemporary colleagues instinctively reject the metaphysical divide between mind and matter that made possible the flowering of the anthropology of religion sixty years ago. In order to achieve this, some choose to adopt forms of ontological pluralism, while others argue for an animistic reenchantment of the world. Here, I sustain that, since the practice of anthropology demands that we postulate a single ontology, we have to avoid both options. Rather, as Evans-Pritchard already suggested in his courageous defense of Lévy-Bruhl in the 1930s, we must attend to the process by which the ontogeny of partible persons takes place in sociality, leading to what Lévy-Bruhl called “participation” (Evans-Pritchard [1934] 1970). If we do so, we can account for transcendence while abandoning the mind/matter polarity, thus finally bypassing the tragic choice between godlessness and godforsakenness that haunted twentieth-century anthropology and which Evans-Pritchard grapples with in his Aquinas Lecture of 1959 (1962).

Midcentury interpretivism

In the 1930s, when a newly trained generation of professional ethnographers inspired by Malinowski started publishing their monographs, a paradigmatic change occurred in the way anthropologists dealt with other people’s metaphysics. The theoretical works that both Marcel Mauss and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl were publishing at the time (cf. Mauss 1923) both reflected this new information and affected it most decisively.4 The young E. E. Evans-Pritchard, then Professor of Sociology at King Fuad I University in Cairo,5 published three short papers where he laid down the theoretical foundations for what was going to be his life’s work: “The intellectualist (English) interpretation of magic” (1933); “Lévy-Bruhl’s theory of primitive mentality” ([1934] 1970); and “Science and sentiment: An exposition and criticism of the writings of Pareto” (1936). However, his lasting influence in the discipline was only established ten years later. His first ethnographic monograph, Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande ([1937] 1976), only became a classic of the discipline in the postwar period (see Douglas 1970: xiii).

Together with Franz Baermann Steiner (1999a, 1999b), Evans-Pritchard had a major impact on a group of young anthropologists who came to write their theses in Oxford immediately after the end of the war and who were going to shape the discipline globally (Mary Douglas herself, Louis Dumont, M. N. Srinivas, the Bohannans, Julian Pitt-Rivers, Godfrey Lienhardt, Thomas Beidelman, Ian Cunnison, John Peristiany, Rodney Needham, John K. Campbell, etc.). Owing to them, Evans-Pritchard’s interpretivist turn in the early 1950s (cf. Pina-Cabral 2014a) and his favored metaphor for ethnography as “translation of cultures” (cf. Beidelman 1971) became the foundation for most anthropological approaches to metaphysical matters on both sides of the Atlantic during the second half of the twentieth century. The Azande granary (Figure 1) or the Nuer twins were going to become familiar theoretical mnemonics for practically all trained anthropologists thereafter.

Figure 1
Figure 1: The Azande granary (Evans-Pritchard, Sudan, 1927–1930, Pitt Rivers Museum Photographic Collection).

The son of an Anglican priest, Evans-Pritchard had undertaken by then a deeply emotional conversion to Catholicism, and his religious struggles played no small part in his anthropological thinking. Although both Steiner and Evans-Pritchard were careful in keeping their religious options away from their academic works, it is not irrelevant that they were both deeply engaged believers (a practicing Orthodox Jew and a recent convert to Catholicism, respectively). Indeed, many of their students in Oxford who were to have a significant impact in discussing matters of religion were also personally engaged believers (e.g., Godfrey Lienhardt, M. N. Srinivas, Mary Douglas, Victor Turner). For such people, the border between the two metaphysical conditions (that of science and that of faith) was not at all easy to police. Evidence of the conflict caused by keeping his personal metaphysics separate from those of the peoples he describes emerges in Evans-Pritchard’s marginal writings. Indeed, he suggests that it was his confrontation with Nuer religiosity that was at the basis of his conversion to Catholicism ([1937] 1976: 245). Similarly, Steiner finds himself grappling uncomfortably with his own personal “primitiveness” as a Jewish believer (e.g., 1999b: 59).

Judging from his later writings, we might surmise that Evans-Pritchard had been dissatisfied with Durkheimian structural functionalism from the beginning. Malinowski’s well-attested distrust of him might well have been due to that. The fact is that it was only in 1949/50—at a time when he was President of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Radcliffe-Brown having retired, and Malinowski having died—that he felt empowered enough to write his first theoretical manifesto (“Social anthropology: Past and present,” the 1949 Marrett Lecture—1962). He was bold in his criticism: “I believe we shall not hear much more of sociological laws … and that that will be much to the benefit of anthropology” (ibid.: 44) In fact, he had never been happy with the collectivist dispositions of the Durkheimian school. He actually wonders whether there is “an entity which can be labelled ‘society’ and that such an entity has something called a ‘structure,’ which can be further described as a set of functionally interdependent institutions or sets of social relations. These are analogies from biological science and, if they had their uses, they have also proved to be highly dangerous” (ibid.: 55).

Evans-Pritchard’s Marrett Lecture, his Aquinas Lecture, and his 1961 essay on “Anthropology and history” can be read together as proposing an interpretivist approach to anthropology that was deeply at odds with the previous anthropological status quo and was at the root of the distancing that eventually took place between himself, Meyer Fortes, and Max Gluckman. But it should be stressed that the differences between these men were not merely theoretical, as they had deep political and philosophical roots. Evans-Pritchard’s new approach was politically conservative and philosophically based on the methodology of history proposed by R. G. Collingwood (see ibid.: 51), whose lectures he had attended in Oxford in the 1920s when he was a student of Robert Marrett at Exeter College and clearly had never forgotten.6 Evans-Pritchard was a brilliant ethnographic writer whose empiricist creed led him to leave out of his writings any reference to his theoretical moorings. In his own words, “Perhaps I should regard myself first as an ethnographer and secondly as a social anthropologist, because I believe that a proper understanding of the ethnographic facts must come before any really scientific analysis” (1963: 24). As a result, his profound theoretical debt to Collingwood’s idealism has remained largely unnoticed in anthropological milieus.7

The founding stone of Collingwood’s philosophy of history is that the “logic of nature” and the “logic of mind” are radically distinct ([1936] 1994). This largely explains Evans-Pritchard’s conviction that “fundamentally there never were any real grounds for dispute between what natural science teaches about the nature of the physical world and what the Churches teach about faith and morals” (1962: 43). The only access to human action, they sustained, is through reflexive thinking. So, in order to get to know human action, you have to position yourself in the role of the knower as it were by proxy. The ethnographer, therefore, has to place himself in the position of “the primitives” he studies so as to get to know what they know.8This is one of the reasons why, in his methodological writings, Evans-Pritchard emphasizes so much the need to actually experience physically the life and tools of the people one studies (e.g., [1937] 1976: 243). And, in order to give “us” access to the knowledge thus obtained about “them,” the ethnographer has to “translate.” In this process, however, one comes to achieve some greater knowledge of oneself. As Collingwood put it, “To know something without knowing that one knows it is only a half-knowing, and to know that one knows is to know oneself ” ([1936] 1994: 204) Thus, the study of “the primitives” was a part of the larger history of humankind, for, again in Collingwood’s words, “the historical process is a process in which man creates for himself this or that kind of human nature by re-creating in his own thought the past to which he is heir” (ibid.: 226).

Human nature (“man’s essence”) is created by humans in the process of existence by the thinking of history. Thus, when they bring the experiences of the “primitives” into history, anthropologists are actually shaping human nature. The myriad historical and anthropological monographs being written are nothing but “chapters in a single historical work,” the process of emergence of human essence (ibid.: 27). This metaphysical circularity between essence and existence is profoundly connected with Collingwood’s particular interpretation of the Ontological Proof, which we will discuss later on in this essay.

A surprising aspect of this approach is that it is based on a deep distrust of the cognitive capacities of all humans—what I call for the sake of this argument anti-intellectualism. In Collingwood’s formulation: “It is only by fits and starts, in a flickering and dubious manner, that human beings are rational at all” (ibid.: 227). Humans are not essentially driven by ostension; to the contrary, there are a whole lot of “social restraints on perception” which it is the ethnographer’s task to identify.9 As an ethnographer, therefore, Evans-Pritchard did not despise the “primitives” for thinking in logically unsatisfactory ways or for failing to take the correct conclusions from their experience, since he believed that “no one is mainly controlled by reason anywhere or at any epoch” (cited in Douglas 1980: 33). As Rodney Needham used to put it in his lectures, “Human beings do not think much and when they do they are often wrong.” Many of the readings of Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Azande fail to see that he was attempting to explain how religious thought operates; he was not validating it as being rational or truthful.

For both Collingwood and Evans-Pritchard, “scientific thought is a very specialized experience that only takes place in very specialized conditions” (Douglas 1980: 31). In fact, the ethnographer’s main task as an interpreter of culture was precisely to explain “how a metaphysical system could compel belief by a variety of self-validating procedures” (ibid.: xviii). Thus, Douglas describes the main challenge that Evans-Pritchard addresses in Witchraft, oracles and magicas the need to explain “how a people can use an acceptable idiom to present their political system to themselves without worrying about how little it corresponds to the facts” (Douglas 1970: xvii). This concurs perfectly with Collingwood’s preoccupation to explain how modes of thinking that rely on mutually exclusive absolute presuppositions can survive perfectly well next to each other.

As it happens, however, this anti-intellectualism is at the root of Evans-Pritchard’s personal religious options and, in this sense, his theoretical approach as a social anthropologist cannot be separated from his political and religious conservatism. We must not forget that the Catholicism he opted for at the time of the war was hardly the Catholicism that we are familiar with today and that was largely molded by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. He opted for the Ultramontane Catholicism of his day rather than the bland Protestantism of his own father’s faith. Protestantism’s reliance on the Bible as the source of belief was, in his eyes, eroded by historical criticism; while, on the contrary, the Catholic reliance on papal infallibility and the authority of the church left it safe beyond the realms of reason. His option, therefore, must be seen as an anti-intellectualist declaration very much in the line of Collingwood’s idealism: “As Comte long ago most clearly saw, … Protestantism shades into Deism and Deism into agnosticism, and … the choice is all or nothing, a choice which allows of no compromise between a Church which has stood its ground and made no concessions, and no religion at all” (Evans-Pritchard 1962: 45).

Heidegger, in his late writings about our contemporary metaphysical condition, argues that there are two metaphysical options in the “age of choice”: the position of the godless and that of the godforsaken (Wrathall and Lambeth 2011: 171; cf. Heidegger 1999).10 While Evans-Pritchard (1962) accuses most of the anthropologists of his day of being godless, and thus incapable of coping with the fact that religion is a human inevitability, I believe it is reasonable to argue that his own extreme anti-intellectualist option was a manifestation of godforsakenness, a despair at the imminent loss of the sacred.

A polydivinistic age

However, as I read the work of our more recent colleagues in the light of those of an earlier generation, I conclude that the divide between the godless (those who deny the sacred) and the godforsaken (those who insist on awaiting a new coming) has shifted its ground. Authors such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2009) are engaging in genuine metaphysics, even as they do so by proxy. Anthropology is presently undergoing a further paradigmatic change that is perhaps even more profound than in the 1930s. Heidegger calls this change “the passing of the last god,” when he claims that we are searching for a way of being human which is newly “open to transient and particular but intense manifestations of a plurality of sacreds” (Wrathall and Lambeth 2011: 163), where the anxiety about transcendental inaccessibility that characterized the twentieth century no longer applies.

When Márcio Goldman (2003) claims that he actually could hear the drums of the dead being called by the shaman, he does not share the sense of paradox that accompanies Evans-Pritchard’s similar declaration that he did not believe in witches that fly in the middle of the night but that, one night, among the Azande, as he was coming out of his hut, he actually saw one going past in the sky. The main difference is that contemporary anthropologists no longer rely on the kind of “fideistic” type of belief (see Sabbatucci 2000) that Rodney Needham (1972) deconstructed in his book about Evans-Pritchard’s concept of belief. To put it in another way, Goldman no longer feels he has to “believe in” in order to “believe that” (cf. Ruel [1982] 2002)—being and understanding are seen as related but separate.11

In truth, this change in aspect (or, better still, this ontological transformation) did not come about unannounced. This form of ethnographic engagement with magic and the metaphysical that preserves their transcendence independently of the ethnographer’s own declared belief system has been emerging in anthropology over the past decades, making its presence felt in some of the more well-read ethnographic experiments. One of its most excessive and at the same time most poignant reminders is Michael Taussig’s The magic of the state (1997), that weirdly fascinating book. This is how he starts it:

How naturally we entify and give life to such. Take the case of God, the economy, and the state, abstract entities we credit with Being, species of things awesome with life-force of their own, transcendent over mere mortals. Clearly they are fetishes, invented wholes of materialized artifice into whose woeful insufficiency of being we have placed soulstuff. (1997: 3)

It would seem, then, that Taussig’s materialist background was going to drive him to reject transcendence, but then he proceeds:

I hope to clarify matters somewhat, and not only for myself, by thinking about the magic of the state in a European Elsewhere—your metaphor, my literality—as related to a free spirit who frequented those parts, a sunny place, she said, from where oil flows out, cars, ammo, and videos flow in, and where a crucial quality of being is granted the state of the whole by virtue of death, casting an aura of magic over the mountain at its center. (1997: 4, my emphasis)

Rather than contrasted, therefore, literality and metaphor are somehow being combined. A decade ago, when I first encountered these passages, I took them to be an instance of creative writing; and that they are. But since then I have learnt to see that, buried inside Taussig’s metaphysical ranting, there was the emergence of a whole new way for anthropology to overcome its uncomfortably dichotomic metaphysical condition: Heidegger’s “passing of the last god” (1999). We have given up on Evans-Pritchard’s hope of finding in Ultramontane Catholicism the advent of a “world-grounding being,” but we have not given up on transcendence. Rather, to the contrary, anthropologists have chosen to become open to the experience of transcendence in a plurality of divine fashions: we are “polydivinistic” (Heidegger’s word—see Wrathall and Lambeth 2011: 178), to the extent that we learn to foster “whatever practices we have left to us for receptivity to the sacred” (ibid.).

In line with this, Taussig concludes his book by claiming that the main role of anthropology today is to bring such a conscience to actualization: that is, “the storing in modernity of what are taken to be pre-modern practices such as spirit possession and magic” (1997: 198, again my emphasis), and this, for the sake of “profane illumination.” We assume that if these magical practices “are taken to be,” then it is because they are not really—or is it modernity that no longer “is”? Thus, Taussig’s search for a immanent transcendentality—for grounding the world’s “strangeness” in its own processes of becoming—relies on a kind of withholding of disbelief; it relies on a vicarious experience, assessed via the polydivinism of the Other: the “strange” Maria Lionza, the erotically charged goddess of the Venezuelan Other. Taussig remains “modern,” he preserves his “Westernness,” and so the true experience of transcendence can only be achieved by proxy.

And indeed, this is a condition very akin to that which Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has been elaborating over the years, when writing about Amerindian “multinaturalism” (2009: 31–32) inspired by Lévi-Strauss’ Mythologiques—the old master’s extensive survey of the mythical corpus of the whole of the American continent. The Amerindian world, he claims, is “a world of immanent alterity, where the human retains its primordiality” (ibid.: 28). That is, contrary to “us”/“Westerners,” for whom the transcendental manifests itself as utterly nonhuman, Amerindians experience “nature as variation” by means of a game of dislocation that Viveiros de Castro calls “perspectivism” and that consists in treating all existing things as centers of intentionality (ibid.: 12). While “we” have many cultures but one nature, “they” have many natures but one culture, since the focus of the perspective (personhood) is open to all beings.

When he crosses the boundary of his embodiment as human, the shaman “adopts the perspective of the subjectivities of other species, so as to manage the relations between the latter and humans” (ibid.: 25). This disposition is based on considering that nonhuman agents (other species) see themselves and their own behavior much like we humans see our own. This involves a radical relocation of the notion of personhood that frees it from humanity, in that personhood becomes anterior and logically superior to humanity. So, both personhood and perspective cease to be seen as the distinct property of this or that species. Rather, they are treated as a matter of degree, that is, they are the capacity to occupy a point of view (ibid.: 22). For the Amerindians, “Between the formal subjectivity of the souls and the substantial materiality of the organisms, there is a central ground which is the body as a bundle of affects and capacities, and which is the origin of the perspectives” (ibid.: 40).

All this is very fascinating and takes anthropological theory to realms of theoretical sophistication which it had rarely attained since the days of Evans-Pritchard and Lévy-Bruhl. Viveiros de Castro asks us to “take seriously” Amerindian multinaturalism; and that, of course, we must do, to the extent that we must learn its lessons. But its lessons will never be ahistorical; they will never remain purely virtual or textual. They are our contemporary lessons and they are not about the appositeness of such an ontology, for, whether they happen to be Amerindian or not, anthropologists qua anthropologists are not about to become convicted multinaturalists. I need hardly stress that anthropologists are not really expected to adopt Amerindian forms of myth-making. Of course not; the lessons anthropologists have to learn from reading Mythologiques are about how to overcome the inadequacies of previous anthropological modes of thinking so as to account for Amerindian metaphysics. To follow Collingwood’s suggestion, we are making ourselves by making all of these ontologies part of our history (not only the Amerindian ones, but also that of the Buddha, that of Plato, that of St. Anselm of Canterbury, etc.). No human experience should remain “strange” to us; we must think through them all in our efforts to give body to our increasingly ecumenical condition.

Still, in order to do that, we have to trace a path that makes them all humanly possible and, therefore, available. We do not have to find the coherence among them, the compatibility that will unite them all, nor do we need to close the boundaries of the species: we just have to make such experiences verisimilitudinous (to “take them seriously,” as Viveiros de Castro [2011] puts it). That is the task of ethnography, first, and of anthropological comparativism, later. But it remains unavoidable that, faced with such a variety of “regimes of veridiction” (cf. Descola 2014), we are left with having to propose a metaregime of veridiction. In short, we are ontologically responsible for the awareness of the existence of a plurality of ontologies.

Now, as I argued in the first part of this paper (Pina-Cabral 2014a), that can only be done satisfactorily by refusing to see meaning and reason as dissociated from historically rooted human experience. It would all be easy if it were a matter of narratives, as when Viveiros de Castro claims: “If there is one thing that it falls to anthropology to accomplish, it is not to explicate the worlds of others but rather to multiply our world, people it with ‘all those expressed, which do not exist apart from their expressions’” (2011: 137). But the problem is that we are not faced with having to determine how worlds are (note the plural) according to this or that “expression”; we have to account for how meaning is made by persons in world. The reason for this is that triangulating human expression with world is the only means anyone has (ethnographer or not) of having access to the meaning of others.

Furthermore, the matter would be simpler if indeed we were dealing with collectively defined ontologies, that is, “cultures.” But “cultures” (and their component elements) cannot be observed as such; they are the product of the analytical efforts of the ethnographer. Viveiros de Castro claims:

Anthropology’s mission, as a social science, is to describe the forms which, and the conditions under which, truth and falsity are articulated according to the different ontologies that are presupposed by each culture (a culture here being taken as analogous to a scientific theory, which requires its own ontology —that is, its own field of objects and processes—in order for the theory to generate relevant truths). (2011: 143)

Not only is he assuming an all-or-nothing theory of truth in the above passage (cf. Pina-Cabral 2011), but he is assuming that cultures offer themselves for our observation (a) as cultures (which is not the case, the job of the ethnographer is analytical) and (b) as narrative structures, like a scientific theory. This, of course, is not the case. Viveiros de Castro had to approach the Arawetê before he produced a metaphysics of the world he inhabited with them. He is the author of their ontology. It all becomes even more complex when we are dealing with fully contemporary urban contexts, where a history of anthropological debate is already part of what is being studied, as noted by Matei Candea (2011). There, it is simply impossible not to distrust the disposition for proposing ontological barriers which anthropology inherited from nineteenth-century primitivism.

Faced, then, with the need to “take seriously” ethnographic material, transcendentality, in particular, becomes a challenge for the anthropologist, for the very words we use to convey it betray us horribly, owing to their profound ontological implications. Words such as “god,” “soul,” or “spirit” should never be used without considerable reserve. See, for example, the confusions that have characterized the anthropological adoption of the word “soul” when applied to Chinese traditional contexts (Pina-Cabral 2002: 120–25). Lévi-Strauss and Viveiros de Castro, of all people, are fully aware of this, even as they use them. Such words have the same effect as “modern” and “nonmodern” in Taussig’s writing: they reconstitute the ontological barrier (the summa divisio) through the back door. If, however, we give up on single-world ontology, adopting a form of culturalist agnosticism, we are back in a situation of godforsakenness.

There is, nevertheless, a lesson that we must take from the work of the Amerindianists: the lesson of becoming. That is, the observation that, whatever our ontology comes to be, it cannot be about fixed entities but it must be about transformation. It cannot be about simple repetition or symmetry, but it must be about movement of essence, about broken symmetry (cf. Lévi-Strauss [1958] 1963). As it happens, we are strongly encouraged to go that way by a radically different authority: that of contemporary physics (see Lederman and Hill 2004). As Marc Kirchner, John Gerhart, and Tim Mitchison propose, “There is no guarantee that the capacities of human knowledge in an undesigned world will ever mesh entirely with the crooked ways of the world itself: that is, indeterminacy rules (2000: 81). In short, we have no reason to worry about the epistemological break, since the notion that it is possible to know the world in precise, fully determinable manners never even arises.

If, then, we find that the postulation of a single external source of transcendental truth—such as is implicit in the Traditions of the Book—is no longer available to us, as it prevents us from making sense of too many other humanly desirable worlds, but we find that Amerindian multinaturalism or Greek polytheism is equally unavailable, then where are we going to search for the original ground to the experience of transcendentality that we no longer wish to treat as being somehow inchoate, “primitive,” or false as did McLennan, Lubbock, Tylor, Westermarck, or Frazer in their day?

Animist transcendence

This was an issue that troubled Evans-Pritchard his life through. In a methodological paper written in 1973, he asks: “In writing about the beliefs of primitive peoples does it matter one way or the other whether one accords them validity or regards them as fallacious?” ([1937] 1976: 244). His decided conclusion is that it does, but then he despairs over the fact that he cannot really believe in witches but yet he did learn a lot about God from the Nuer. If indeed “witches” and “God” were mere representations, empirically encountered cultural items, they should have had the same truth status. It is a problem to which, he exclaims, he has no answer. His anthropological agnosticism is godforsaken.12

As it happens, a similar quandary remains very present in the works of Philippe Descola, one of the most congenial anthropological accounts of world that has emerged over the past two decades (cf. 2014). His is a minimalist realist account that is diversified by the claim that humans exist within distinct “ontological filters.” He suggests that “‘what is the case for us’ is not a complete and self-contained world waiting to be represented according to different viewpoints, but, most probably, a vast amount of qualities and relations that can be actualized or not by humans according to how ontological filters discriminate between environmental affordances” (2014: 272–73). Unfortunately, I feel this position also fails to help our contemporary puzzlement with transcendentality. First, one can see that Descola is going over ground that Evans-Pritchard had already covered in his interpretivist turn, but, second, one is struck by the “most possibly” clause. To my mind, this clause is a declaration of “withholding of disbelief,” a declaration of agnosticism (to speak perhaps less metaphorically than it might at first seem), and thus a recognition of godforsakenness.

According to Descola, human worlds can be composed according to “ontological filters” or “framing devices.” These are “systems of differences in the ways humans inhabit the world,” and there can be four of them: animism, totemism, analogism, and naturalism, in that order (ibid.: 273–74). Irrespective of the patently heuristic value of the differences that Descola identifies, readers have to ask themselves where he places himself when he proposes them. For where he places himself is where “we” are placed (we being his anthropologically informed assumed audience, whether we are Portuguese, as is the present case, Chinese, Amerindian, or whatever). Thus, Descola sees human difference when faced with world in a kind of continuum where “animism” is the farthest away from the description and “naturalism”/“us” is the closest. This is why the apparently discreet escape valve in the above sentence—the agnostic clause—turns out to be so relevant. Naturalism is “our own ontology,” but we can only really know it exists because we contrast it with that which is least “ours”: “naturalism inverts the ontological premises of animism” (ibid.: 277).

Again, independently of the genuine heuristic appositeness of Descola’s quadriculation of world, this account shares with that of Viveiros de Castro (and both of them with the Ur-myth: Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologiques) what I have been calling over the years a “primitivist disposition.”13 That is, the notion that collective Others do it otherwise and anthropologists are not collectively part of those who otherwise it. In short, anthropologists are postulated as being collectively and ontologically external to the human realities they describe—the latter, of course, being also described as imminently collective. I call this disposition “primitivist” not only because of its historical roots in the nineteenth-century evolutionistic history of our discipline, but principally because it associates essentiality with primordiality (things that are most simple are also considered to be more essential, and, therefore, anterior).

Descola, for example, concludes his most recent account by stating that in order “to take stock of the fact that worlds are differently composed,” we have to “understand how they are composed without automatic recourse to our own mode of composition” (ibid.: 279). Thus, to take recourse to a metaphor, each collectivity of humans is fitted into its respective “ontological” shelf, but no one is about to account for the whole bookshelf. This kind of agnosticism, therefore, turns out in the end to be a disguised form of culturalist idealism to the extent that it forgets we do not import representations into the world, because we are always already part of it. In metaphysical terms, indeed, we are essentially back where Collingwood left us.

Faced with the godforsakenness of such positions, it is no wonder that a number of colleagues are attempting to open ontological doors for “the passing of the last god.” Many, in the wake of the work of Bruno Latour, are trying to postulate the bookshelf by radically and openly embracing transcendentality (cf. Bennett 2010 or Connolly 2011). This, I insist, is quite as honest a theoretical option as the forms of agnosticism that Evans-Pritchard, Descola, or Viveiros de Castro espouse. William Connolly’s defense of what he calls “immanent naturalism,” which has received so much critical attention of late, is a case in point (Connolly 2001). Again, we are dealing with an author who, like Taussig, takes the literal implications of his engagement with transcendence by regularly slipping from philosophical analysis into poetry.

In anthropology, the most creative postulation of this position is perhaps to be found in Eduardo Kohn’s book How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human (2013). He starts by manifesting his impatience with our contemporary quandary: “The recognition of multiple realities only sidesteps the question: can anthropology make general claims about the way the world is?” (ibid.: 10, original emphasis). In order to resolve it, he proceeds to develop a creative and highly idiosyncratic reading of Peircian semiotics. He proposes to go beyond the human in order to “situate distinctively human ways of being in the world as both emergent from and in continuity with a broader living semiotic realm” (ibid.: 16). He sees life as causally producing thought. (Incidentally, for him too, stones do not think— which Connolly and Bennett would strongly dispute.) Thus, he attempts to reunite thinking and understanding.

So far so good, but then he claims that, “If thoughts exist beyond the human, then we humans are not the only selves in the world” (ibid.: 72). In this way, he proposes to generalize animism: “If thoughts are alive and if that which lives thinks, then perhaps the living world is enchanted” (ibid.). In this way, like Taussig, Viveiros de Castro, and so many anthropologists before them, Kohn wants to safeguard the genuine “strangeness” (and this seems to be one of his favorite words) of the way in which the world presents itself to the Ecuadorean Runa among whom he lived. However, he is going one step further in his attempt not to dissolve, deny, or diminish the genuine mystery of what the forest and its beings communicate to the Runa. He is looking for transcendence in immanence.

I must refer the reader to Kohn’s book for the complexity of his argument and the masterful way in which he intersperses dense ethnographic analysis with complex semiotic theory. For the purposes of my argument, however, it is sufficient to note that the coherence of his theoretical proposition depends on the manipulation of the meaning of two central words: self and representation. Kohn refuses to distinguish “representation” from “presentation” or “reference”;14 neither does he make the distinction between intentionality and propositionality (basic thought v. scaffolded thought—see Hutto and Myin 2013) that I developed in the first part of this essay (Pina-Cabral 2014a). In this way, he attributes reflexivity to forms of intentionality that, patently, do not possess it. So he confuses intentionality (being directed at the world, possessing a telos) with propositionality (the capacity to engage the world reflexively, which can only be acquired through access to language). Thus, for him, since all life demonstrates intentionality, all life thinks, and, since thinking is representing, all life manifests self: ergo, “Dogs … are selves because they think” (Kohn 2013: 73).

Kohn defines self as “a form that is reconstituted and propagated over the generations in ways that exhibit increasingly better fits to the worlds around it” (ibid.: 55). Now, as it happens, he is not the first to attempt to extend the meaning of self beyond consciousness in order to describe more generally life’s concern to exist or to carry on being. Francisco Varela and his associates have been using the notion of a “primitive feeling of self ” to describe “a kind of primitive self-awareness or animation of the body” (Thompson 2007: 161). They are, however, careful to dissociate such a use from a representationist view of mind, such as Kohn adheres to, precisely in order to avoid the sort of abusive generalizations he engages upon.15

There is, furthermore, a problem of conceptual economy, so to speak, in this option to define selfhood in a deeply unconventional manner, so as to apply it both to persons and to nonpersons: the original reason that the Freudians gave for adopting and divulging the concept in the first place was to refer to an entity that reflects upon its own existence. The reflexivity of self was self ’s definitional distinction throughout the twentieth century. Some of us, such as myself, may have doubts about the concept, in particular concerning the way it lends itself to forms of reification of thought that fail to understand that self is essentially a positionality (an arena of presence and action, as Johnston [2010] puts it) and that tend to confuse selfhood with “soul” (see Givens 2012). But the problem is that this is precisely what Kohn’s animism aims to do: he wants to reanimate the world and, in doing this, explain transcendence as a product of immanence.

As it happens, I believe Kohn is pointing in the right direction in attempting to resolve the quandary of transcendentality; unfortunately, his animism stands or falls on what amounts to little more than a metaphor between how humans think and how semiosis operates in nonhuman life.

The Ontological Proof

I propose that, in order to sidestep this predicament, we might usefully go back to the roots of Evans-Pritchard’s thought in Collingwood’s philosophy of history and its reliance on a very particular interpretation of a philosophical form of proof that is generally known as the Ontological Proof of God’s existence (thenceforward OP). Collingwood is hardly the only modern thinker to have entertained it, as a number of his more distinct contemporaries, such as Bertrand Russell and Kurt Gödel, seem to have been equally fascinated by the implications of the proof (Southern 1990: 128). Collingwood argues convincingly that, of all of medieval philosophy, the OP is perhaps the most valuable legacy. Descartes, Spinoza, Hegel, are some of those who explicitly took recourse to it. Indeed, as Collingwood puts it, Kant constitutes “perhaps the only occasion on which any one has rejected it who really understood what it meant” (1933: 126). While, in its simplest form, the argument may appear to the uninitiated as almost puerile, we are well advised to look beyond that first reaction if we take the history of philosophy as our guide. As Anselm’s biographer notes, whether or not we find the argument logically sound (and we have Gödel as an authority on that, no less!), it surely has “some hidden source of life,” for it continues to challenge us today (Southern 1990: 132).

Anselm (1033–1109) was a Benedictine monk of Italian origin who, in 1093, became the second archbishop of Canterbury after the Norman Conquest.16 While his life in the monastery at Bec, in Normandy, as a thinker and intellectual leader, had been deeply contemplative, his time as archbishop was troubled by serious political conflicts with the king. Like so many English ecclesiastic leaders after him (Saint Thomas à Beckett and Sir/Saint Thomas More being perhaps the more tragic examples), he found his allegiance to the pope conflicted with his allegiance to the king and he was forced into exile more than once. Being a devout adherent of the Benedictine monastic ideal, his tenure as archbishop corresponded both to a reinforcement of the rights and independence of the monastic community at Canterbury and to continuing his predecessor’s work of rebuilding the cathedral, which had burnt down in 1067. We owe to him much of the eastern part of today’s building (Southern 1990: 326–27).

Anselm was a devout and orthodox Christian believer, inspiring himself in the Augustinian theological tradition. His starting point is that, since thinking creatures were created by God, it should be possible for them to find within themselves, by contemplation, God’s own traces (Connolly and D’Oro in Collingwood 2005: xi). Thus, he dedicated himself to discover how “the reality of God’s existence is bound up with the very nature of human understanding” (Evans 1989: 106). As a result, his arguments are not dependent on authority; they are based on the examination of the sense-impressions and on self-knowledge, and aim to be self-authenticating (Southern 1990: 122). Thus he called his first treatise Monologion, precisely “because in it he alone speaks and argues with himself ”—explains Eadmer, his disciple and biographer (ibid.: 116). Apparently, the proof of God’s existence formed itself in Anselm’s mind one night at Bec, during Matins, as Deo Gratias was being sung, and he proceeded to put it down in his second treatise Proslogion (Anselm 1998: 82–105). The two works were composed between 1076 and 1078. In what follows, I will also take recourse to his essay called De Veritate, probably written three or four years later, where he expounds what we might call today his epistemological assumptions (Southern 1990: 172).

The OP hinges on a definition of God that Anselm possibly found in Seneca (that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought), but which he places in a radically new context (ibid.: 129–30). He essentially attempts to prove that the nonexistence of God is logically indefensible. The following is the argument in his own words: even one who denies the existence of God (the Fool, as Anselm calls him, following Psalm 13: 1)

is forced to agree that something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-bethought exists in the mind … [but] surely it cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater. If then that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-bethought exists in the mind alone, this same that-than-which-a-greatercannot-be-thought is that-than-which-a-greater-can-be-thought. But this is obviously impossible. Therefore, there is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists both in mind and reality. (Anselm 1998: 87–88, original emphasis)

He concludes, it is not possible to deny God’s existence without entering into self-contradiction. And note, this is not a mere play on words, since the argument is logically coherent. What the OP does not tell us about is the nature of its subject matter, which Anselm proceeds to develop in the rest of his oeuvre. Once we distance ourselves from his particular conception of what God is, the OP becomes a powerful argument concerning how essence (a being’s beingness) and existence (a being’s occurrence) are in fact related. It is in this sense that Spinoza uses it in the first sentence of his Ethics, when he cites it indirectly in order to present his obscure but increasingly influential definition of God (Deus sive natura): “By that which is self-caused, I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent” (Spinoza [1677] 2013: I, definition 1).

And this is where Collingwood takes up the argument. For people like himself, Russell, or Gödel, what is at stake in the ontological argument is not the nature of any specific God. For them, the OP does not prove the existence of the Christian God. What it proves is that, in matters of metaphysics, essence and existence must be thought of as ultimately inseparable—there is no pure ens rationis, thought is never free of objective or ontological reference (Collingwood 1933: 127 and 124). Collingwood’s recourse to this argument in his Philosophical method prefaces his denial of philosophical scepticism in that it proves that thought “affords an instance of something which cannot be conceived except as actual, something whose essence involves existence” (ibid.: 131) Similarly, Evans-Pritchard’s point about his learning about God (his Ultramontane Catholic God) from the Nuer suggests that his belief in God did not depend on any particular theological argument or specific theological faith; it was something that he found when he was forced to immerse himself in human interaction—something the Nuer demanded of him, as opposed to the Azande (Evans-Pritchard [1937] 1976). Rather, he concluded, people do not live by reason. (As he put it, “No one is mainly controlled by reason anywhere or at any epoch”—cited in Douglas 1980: 33.) The Absolute—or transcendentality, to speak more generally—is implicit in human experience; we find it within ourselves through meditation, for it is there in us before we have even started to reason about the world.

Anselm’s insight

Now, only a few years after he discovered the OP, St. Anselm attempted an explanation of how he sees essence as implying existence by relation to the human person. His argument is particularly fascinating for anthropologists today because it sits on a notion of personhood that is radically distinct from the individualist take that twentieth-century anthropology mostly assumed and which dates to the Enlightenment. Anselm operated with a notion of the human person that is a reflection of God’s person, and he explains one by reference to the other. For him, the Trinitarian God is a partible person, so the dividuality of persons is an intrinsic aspect of his anthropology, so to speak.

In fact, the implications of this go deeper than mere theology, for they are patent in Anselm’s letters to his friends. His engagement with his monastic condition was so deep and emotional that his letters to his monk friends evoke in us echoes of homosexuality—which, according to his biographer, is a deeply irrelevant and chronocentric reading (Southern 1990: 149–53). Moreover, this partibility carries with it broader implications, since he saw in the pleasures of friendship a foretaste of the pleasures of Heaven. Thus, he postulates “a joint soul” as an essential characteristic of the monastic community, and, therefore, for him, parting from his companions (as he had to do more than once in the latter part of his life, to his immense chagrin) was nothing less than a scissura animae (a breach of the soul).

In De veritate (Anselm 1998: 151–74), his influential essay on truth, Anselm grounds reason in belief. He grants precedence to belief over reason, thus working on a tradition of thinking grafted to the Platonic inspiration of Augustinian theology. In short, after having searched his soul in deep meditation, Anselm concludes that engagement with God is a precondition for cognition, not the other way round. Content precedes form; belief is a condition for reason, not its result. Anselm famously declared, “For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that ‘unless I first believe, I shall not understand’ [Isa. 7:9]’ (ibid.: 87).

Following on Collingwood, we must ask ourselves whether we can capture today that which, in Anselm’s insight, was so convincing that it continues to provoke our imagination. Sure enough, it might have been simpler to discard his insight, but that would have left us anthropologically impoverished. After all, when Emanuel Levinas ([1961] 1991) places alterity as anterior to identity, when Christina Toren (2002: 122) argues that “mind is a function of the whole person constituted over time in intersubjective relations with others in the environing world,” or when development psychologists tell us that intersubjectivity is anterior to subjectivity (cf. Bråten 1998), are we not running surprisingly close to Anselm’s insight? What we have come to discover of late is that personal ontogeny is launched before propositional thinking emerges. In other words, in order to have conscious thoughts, humans have had to be called into communication by other humans before them. Language use is associated to personhood and each human does not invent language individually each time; rather, the members of the human species predicate personhood on a previously existent history of language use.

Back in the twelfth century, Anselm wrought his arguments concerning truth and immanence by searching within himself for the origin of what allowed him to understand the world. Taking recourse to introspection, he found that the Other, which he called God, was buried deep within himself and was anterior to his own thought. He saw it as constituting the origin of his being (fons et origo—cause and source). And, much like him, we are also disposed today to place belief before understanding, in the sense that we are willing to accept that, for each one of us, personal ontogenesis started before “reason.” In other words, so as to think reflexively (i.e., so as to engage in content-bearing propositional thinking), each human person has to have been previously inserted within a process of human communication. Emmanuel Levinas’ observation that “human experience is social before it is rational” is probably the simplest way of capturing what is at stake here (cf. Finkielkraut 1997: 10).

Thus, much like Anselm perceived nine centuries ago, for each one of us, definitions do impose themselves before reason. We do not first learn the structure of grammar and then the meaning of words—both happen at the same time. In our post-Darwinian age, each one of us is seen as a product not only of his or her own immediate microhistory (our personal ontogenesis) but also of the history of our species (human phylogenesis).17 As we are all called into humanity by other humans, communication is indeed a condition for existence as a world-forming person (cf. Heidegger [1929/30] 1995) and not the other way round.

As it happens, there is a further interesting lesson concealed within Anselm’s words. The Latin sentence used by him to translate the Prophet Isaiah’s words is nisi credidero, non intelligam,18 that is, “unless I first believe, I shall not understand.” Yet, in the modern Latin Vulgate, the sentence is rendered as si non credideritis non permanebitis, which the King James’ translators versed as “If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.” What, then, is the relation between understanding and being established in a land (in the sense of being a legitimate dweller, which is the meaning that modern translations give to Isaiah’s original prophecy)? In the different biblical renditions, the passage is translated in many differing ways, but curiously always bearing the same semantic slippage between inhabiting and being believed: “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all” (English Standard Version);19 “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (New International Version);20 “If you do not have faith, you shall not be believed” (Moeller Haus Publisher, based on the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls).21Ultimately, however, we are perhaps learning here a lesson about the relation between dwelling and understanding that is at the crux of our present debate.

Far from me to try to engage in biblical exegesis or in the history of scholastic philosophy, my aim here is merely to note that, as is often the case in the etymology of individual words, in this web of related translations we meet up with a series of transformations that associate understanding with dwelling (being convincing, being firm, residing, dwelling permanently, setting up roots in a land, being legitimately established as owner of a land). What links understanding to dwelling is that both imply a rootedness in the earth (ii—the mundane, immediate environment) and in the world (i—the embracing cosmos) that combine to produce social legitimacy (iii—the perspectival role of home) (see Pina-Cabral 2014a). Anthropologists have been exploring this insight for a while. For example, in his discussion of “dwelling,” Ingold explains that “human children, like the young of many other species, grow up in environments furnished by the work of previous generations, and as they do so they come literally to carry the forms of their dwelling in their bodies—in specific skills, sensibilities and dispositions” (1995: 77).

We conclude that to postulate an “epistemological break” between human content-bearing understanding and nature is to overlook the modes of operation of personal ontogenesis and human phylogenesis. If a condition for propositional thinking is to have entered thought by the hand of other humans within modes of dwelling that are never abstract but always historical, then the wider meaning of “world” will be necessarily tied up with the unicity and diversity of history in all of its complexity: cosmic history, phylogenetic history, sociogenetic history, and ontogenetic history—the cosmos, life, the species, the social, the person.

Against representationism

Reformulated in terms of our contemporary notions of personhood, Anselm’s insight was that his own internal arena of presence and action (his self or ego, cf. Johnston 2010) did not preexist world (origo), neither did it produce world (fons); rather, it was grounded upon a previously existent configured world. First he had to believe; only then could he engage in reasoning.

The central importance of this observation for anthropology is that it forces us to question our more established assumptions concerning the nature of the human mind. In default mode, anthropologists take cognition to be intellectual: content-bearing, conscious, and linguistically shaped. Whoever counters these basic representationist assumptions is just taken to be discombobulating. Anthropological folklore, for example, takes it as settled that “people think in languages.” Multilinguals like myself are asked recurrently in what language do we dream, as if that question could make any sense. The reason people ask is that they take it for granted that if you dream in English, you think in English. I often have tried to explain that, yes, concepts and words specific to particular languages do play an important part in one’s mental universe, but we do not “think in any one language in particular.” In any case, my own experience is that my response always fails to register on my interlocutors; the intellectualist assumptions are too powerful, so they overrule. I am simply seen as a confused person.

In the same way, the ethnographic task is taken to be that of capturing people’s “concepts” (normally represented in our texts by specific native words that we take out of context) and explaining them to our learned public so that they too can “think” them. These “concepts” that ethnographers “learn” are taken to be “emic,” that is, conscious, linguistic, representational. It is to me a constant surprise how unremittingly resistant anthropological commonplace has been to the challenges posed by people like Gregory Bateson or Rodney Needham, who crashed against the limitations of this view of mind various decades ago (Bateson 1972; Needham 1987: 233; see also 1972), or people in other disciplines such as Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1991). In particular, more recently, the emergence of embodied cognition as an important actor in the philosophical scene has largely passed unnoticed (e.g., Clark and Chalmers 1998; Hutto 2008; Chemero 2009; Hutto and Myin 2013). Recent efforts at providing an overview of cognition for anthropologists have once again indulged this representationist tradition (cf. Bloch 2012). I am convinced, however, that it is high time that anthropologists take on board the growing consensus among philosophers and neuropsychologists that basic cognition is embodied, that is, it is not grounded on content-bearing representations.

As the supporters of radical embodied cognition have demonstrated, the assumptions of the representational view are simply not warranted in the face of our present knowledge (see Thompson 2007: 267–311). In short, most thought processes are not of a linguistic kind as assumed by the majority of anthropologists. This is not to say that there are no areas of mind where such content-bearing ideas exist supported by complex systems of objectification, including, of course, language. But even in such processes the possibility of one’s conscious access to one’s own thought processes should not be taken for granted, as there is little evidence that we can have integral direct conscious recall of our own thought processes, even those that took recourse to representations mediated by language and symbolic forms (cf. Frankfurt 2009). Indeterminacy operates not only between communicating persons, but also within single persons.

I believe that we can find a way of circumventing this view of mind by accepting that nonverbal responding in everyday contexts is not to be understood as “a property of content-bearing mental states or representations” (Hutto 2008: xii). Rather, “nonverbal animals and preverbal infants … are intentionally directed at aspects of their environment in ways that neither involve nor implicate truth-conditional content” (ibid.). Symbolic thinking, therefore, is characteristic of humans who “have appropriately mastered certain sophisticated linguistic constructions and practices” (ibid.).

Anselm’s insight, therefore, helps us make sense of the fact that our basic cognitive processes, those that lie at the root of the shared intentionality that started our ontogenesis as persons, are not representational processes (Tomasello 2008). Rather, they are a direct embodied engagement with the world, a worlding, as we will later explore. It is on the basis of such processes of intentionality that, through a participation in complex human communication (central to which is the learning of a human language), human beings start building their arenas of presence and action (their selves) and start accessing propositional thinking. But even then, our self could never possibly be a semiotic machine, operating through logically associated conscious representations, as representationists would have it. Basic cognition goes on operating all the time; without it we could not be minimally proficient as living mammals.

In short, basic cognition (i.e., most of our thinking) does not involve what anthropologists normally call “concepts”: it is not semiotic, neither does it follow the rules of some predetermined system of reasoning, some “logic,” of the kind that Lévi-Strauss assumed in The savage mind (1966). This being said, however, mind does conform to world and world is historically shaped: ontogenetically, sociogenetically, phylogenetically, and geologically.

In order to have conscious, content-bearing thoughts, we previously have had to be grafted onto a specific world by means of basic cognition. That is, “our primary worldly engagements are nonrepresentational and do not take the form of intellectual activity” (Hutto 2008: 51). Nevertheless, the world we inhabit (and, in particular, the contexts in which we are cared for as a child) is marked by the history of sociality in specific ways that constrain and mold our engagements with world and, consequently, with other human beings. Therefore, much like Anselm, later on in life, when we engage in reflexive self-analysis, we discover that those dispositions have always been there. (This is what Ingold [1995] calls “the dwelling perspective.”) In order to be able to think propositionally, we have had to depend on the tracks around world provided by nonrepresentational thought. We have had to believe so as to understand.

Now, all beliefs are propped on other beliefs—the condition Donald Davidson calls the holism of the mental (2001: 98–99). But it is important to realize that holism predates the existence of proper truth-conditional beliefs and coexists with them at all times. Mysteriously, it would seem, the world “worlds” (Heidegger [1929/30] 1995): it was present in us in all of its complexity even before we realized that we were present in it. God, indeed, would have been a useful way of mediating such a mystery. But, in science, we are short of Anselm’s revealed God. Therefore, we become dependent on the notion that humans master intentional thinking before and as a condition for exercising propositional thinking (Hutto 2008), as the self only emerges in the course of personal ontogenesis.

So now we ask: If the world was within us before we became persons, then, in precisely what way was it there? We emerge as persons in a world that is always historically specific. Therefore, the strict instructionalism of the representationists also needs to be abandoned (cf. Hutto and Myin 2013: 49): it is not that we “learn a culture,” “learn a religion,” “learn a language”; it is rather that we find ourselves in a world where that cosmology or language is present. We do not “think” those things before we use them; we find ourselves using them before we reflect on what we are doing. Our houses, our streets, the rhythm of our days, our food, and so on, are immersed in historically shaped environments where the structuring of human action has happened long before each person even suspected that structure was there: as Prinz puts it, “The world is not a booming, buzzing confusion; it is an orderly network of entities interacting in systematic ways” (cited in Hutto 2008: 110). Language is merely one of the many areas of objectification of past human actions that surround us. That is one of the reasons why we are so often struck by epiphanies—suddenly we realize that the world is ordered; we are surprised to discover that there was meaning there, even before we postulated it. But the only reason we are surprised is because we had thought of ourselves as gods, as the originators of thought; we had cut ourselves off from human history.

In the same way, as ethnographers, we are puzzled when we find that our informants are often incapable of telling us what they believe in. There is that famous example of Malinowski, slowly and painfully piecing together the local theory of human reproduction that none of his Kiriwina contemporaries had been capable of explaining to him (1932: 11–15). Can we honestly claim that, if he had to piece it together, then it is because it had not been there? No, we cannot afford to claim that, as it would be the death knell of all subsequent ethnographies, our own ethnographies included.

If that, then, is the case, we are bound to agree that “culture”—that is, a semiotic system of representations—is probably not a useful way of describing what ethnographers are studying (cf. James, Plaice, and Toren 2013). Our subjects of study do not hold most of what we describe as conscious representations. And, contra Kohn, it makes even less sense to try to transform all forms of life into representational selves. Rather, ethnography is an abstraction in writing of the way people’s world is shaped: it aims to inform about the way human action has objectified itself into a specific local world, in the form of houses, objects, routes, names, languages, texts, gestures, rituals, and so on. Such things were going on all around our informants long before they even knew to distinguish them for what they are. Indeed, as Anselm discovered, each one of us had to have access to those things in order to develop propositional thinking, to come to be aware of our own selves.

Transcendence as participation

Have we, then, made any improvement in resolving anthropology’s problems with transcendentality? This is certainly the question that poses itself at this point, since to treat people’s experience of transcendence as somehow erroneous amounts to a serious abdication of our capacity to account for the world humans inhabit. Today, I believe, this is a consensual assessment throughout our discipline. I will, therefore, go on to propose that a nonrepresentationist view of mind may help us respond better to that challenge.22

We must first return to the notion of “participation,” particularly as developed by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl in his late personal notes (published posthumously—[1949] 1998). As Evans-Pritchard saw when he was a young lecturer in Cairo, this can be a very a useful door toward understanding how transcendence is an inevitable aspect of personhood. For Lévy-Bruhl, the philosophically inspired concept of “participation” describes the fact that a person “frequently experiences participations between himself and this or that environing being or object, natural or supernatural, with which he is or comes to be in contact, and that, quite as frequently, he imagines similar participations between these beings and objects” (ibid.: 77–78). Thus, in the ethnographic record, we encounter many examples that confirm that “individual beings or objects are only represented within a whole of which they are, if not the parts, at least integrating elements, composing elements (les composants), or reproductions” (ibid.: 22). Karsenti, his editor, further clarifies that what Lévy-Bruhl had observed was that “the beings and objects which are associated in collective representations only reach representation on the basis of a link that makes them always already participating in one another, so that one can claim that this link is felt even before these objects have been represented and related to each other as represented objects” (Karsenti 1998: xxiv).

As we can see from this sentence, throughout the twentieth century, notions like “representation” and “belief ” operated a kind of silent compacting between personal dispositions (aspects of thought held in the mind of each one of us) and collective dispositions (statistical tendencies observed among the mental dispositions of members of a group). However, to assume that personal mental processes (representations) and collectively shared dispositions (collective representations) are somehow phenomena of the same nature is to assume that groups have minds of the same nature as persons—a supposition that we are hardly entitled to make if we take embodied cognition seriously.

I am not the first, by any means, to return to the concept of participation. Stanley Tambiah, for example, makes a singularly valuable contribution to this discussion, which is informed already by the reading of Donald Davidson and other philosophers of the period (1990: 117–18). While Sahlins stresses that participation is at the root of kinship (2001a, 2001b), Tambiah shows how it “emphasizes sensory and affective communication and the language of the emotions” (1990: 108). Thus, he claims, it is the basis of religious or magical phenomena (i.e., transcendental experience). This is how Tambiah redefines Lévy-Bruhl’s concept: “Participation can be represented as occurring when persons, groups, animals, places, and natural phenomena are in a relation of contiguity, and translate that relation into one of existential immediacy and contact and shared affinities” (ibid.: 107). Unfortunately, once again, as in the case of Karsenti, Tambiah adopts the characteristic midcentury representationist and sociocentric approach, where both groups and persons are held to hold representations and these are considered to be phenomena of the same nature. In the light of the critique of this model of mind that the theories of embodied cognition represent (see also Toren 2002), we are faced with the challenge of matching Lévy-Bruhl’s profound insights concerning participation with contemporary approaches to cognition. To my mind, we can do this by proposing that Lévy-Bruhl’s “participation” synthesizes at least three major aspects of the human condition, that is, the condition of persons in ontogeny.

The first aspect is mutuality of personhood—that is, in Marshall Sahlins’ recent formulation (2011a, 2011b), the way in which persons are constituted multiply and relationally, all singularity being approximate and evanescent. Marilyn Strathern’s concept of the “dividual person” helps us understand how plurality is anterior to singularity, always reimposing itself. Her connected notion of “partibility” describes objects and persons as mutually constituted and conceptually interconnected (Strathern 1984) and in many ways approaches Anselm’s own conceptions of personal partibility molded in the three persons of God.

For the second aspect, we can rely on Rodney Needham’s contributions toward the better understanding of the epistemology of everyday life inspired by the late work of Wittgenstein—namely, an approach to category formation that emphasizes the way in which concepts in natural languages are not subject to the rules of noncontradiction and the excluded middle, rather relying on a notion of opposition that remains ever incomplete and approximate, and on unmediated notions of causality.23 The way in which cognition is essentially embodied is an aspect of Needham’s thought that has come to be fully confirmed, three decades later, by the work of neurophysiologists and philosophers of cognition, such as Andy Clark and David Chalmers (1998) and Anthony Chemero (2009), or of vision, such as Susanna Siegel (2012). In Needham’s words: “The principle of opposition is reversible direction; and (directional) opposites are based on the spatial experience of the human body” (1987: 71–72). His argument concerning notions of causality similarly stresses the relationship between cognition and embodiment (Needham 1976). In fact, category formation will be approached by us in much the same way that fuzzy logic does when it exploits the tolerance for imprecision in dealing with complex problems of engineering (Pina-Cabral 2010; Ross 2010).

The third aspect concerns the nature of human communication and is the disposition that I call retentivity. Here, we are inspired by the thought of W. V. Quine and Donald Davidson. They argue that belief is essentially veridical, that is, “to believe is to believe true” (Quine and Ullian 1978: 4). Therefore, a necessary condition for successful interpretation is that “the interpreter must so interpret as to make a speaker or agent largely correct about the world” (Davidson 2001: 152). However, while belief does depend formatively on people’s assessment of what might be the case, one of the characteristics of humans is a proneness to favor belief coherence. Here again, we are in a graded situation rather than one dominated by clear-cut binary opposites. Concerning belief, therefore, the rule of the excluded middle also makes no sense.

Thus, ostensivity—that is, the association of heard words with things simultaneously observed—is indeed the boundary condition of belief, but it is often side-tracked by the need for belief coherence, giving rise to retentivity—that is, the tendency for beliefs to interconnect with each other, tending toward systematicity (without ever actually fully achieving it). As Quine puts it, “We form habits of building beliefs such as we form our other habits; only in habits of building beliefs there is less room for idiosyncrasy” (Quine and Ullian 1978: 59).

Retentivity consolidates over time in processes of collective coherence that, when identified by ethnographers, get called “worldviews.” The experience of meaning is relational and holistic—there is no such thing as an individual belief, as all beliefs are dependent on other beliefs. We prop our beliefs on each other, as Quine used to explain (cf. Quine and Ullian 1978), but we also maximize their correspondence both to the way the world is shaped and to what other people close to us readily respond to, since mutuality is the rule and the borders between their minds and ours are constantly being fudged. Humans are prone toward favoring the maximization of meaning, so retentivity and the constitution of worldviews are unavoidable products of the process of ontogeny.

As we have seen above, ever since Needham (1972) wrote his essay deconstructing the notion of belief, we have had to rethink the category, separating very clearly between, on the one hand, the propositional attitudes that are being entertained— that is, what Malcolm Ruel ([1982] 2002) would have called “believing that”—and, on the other hand, the adherence to collective solidarities propped on the world implied in the entertaining of such propositional attitudes—that is, “believing in,” or fideistic belief, to use Sabbatucci’s favored expression (Sabbatucci 2000). My argument here is that, if we are willing to engage frontally with mutuality of personhood, polythetic modes of thinking, and retentivity in belief, we will realize that a proneness to experience transcendence is an inevitable product of the development of personal cognition.

Half a century ago, having thoroughly examined the literature then available, Gustav Jahoda ended his essay on the psychology of superstition with a critique of those who continued to believe that education and the improvement of science would lead to a decrease in what was then called “superstition.” He concluded, therefore, “opinions of this kind are themselves irrational in nature,” since “the propensity can never be eradicated because, paradoxically, it is an integral part of mechanisms without which humanity would be unable to survive” (Jahoda 1970: 142, 147). Jahoda is not all that distant from Frazer and Westermarck, half a century before him, much like Sahlins’ discussions concerning “mutuality of being” are not all that distant from Lévy-Bruhl’s “participation.”24

Similarly, we are led to agree with Collingwood and his anthropological followers that it is a mistake to pretend that scientific rationalization can be the basis for a human form of life, since it is a technically specific form of engagement with the world that hardly satisfies the intellectual and emotional needs of human beings in sociality. Rather, scientific reason must be seen as the exception—mediated by a series of methodological technologies that have been developed precisely to help us sustain it. In his critique of Robin Horton’s famous essays on African thought, Tambiah, quoting Alfred Schutz, similarly argues that “the activity of science is a circumscribed activity, undertaken in very special and restricted circumstances by partial selves of human beings, and, … therefore, this is a special ordering of reality, only one of several others” (Tambiah 1990: 103)

Furthermore, sociocentrism—that is, the modernist proneness to attribute to groups the characteristics of persons—prevented us from seeing that transcendence in human sociality is not something that humans “learn”; imposed on them by social values or norms. It is a disposition that they form in the course of their own ontogenesis and that they can hardly dispense with. Durkheim’s foundational myth of society as expressed in the clan’s dance around the fire in The elementary forms of religious life has continued to cast its primitivist shadows over us to this day. But he was wrong, as Evans-Pritchard clearly saw. As it turns out, we would be much better off if we had heeded to Anselm’s introspection and to Collingwood’s anti-intellectualism.25

Conclusion: Anthropology as worlding of worlding

Let us now, at the end of our tour, return to the relation between world and anthropology. Most uses of the word “world” carry with them the implication that world is somehow ordered. In fact, the very etymology of the Latin and Greek words points us in that direction (Pina-Cabral 2014a). Now if you make a quick mental experiment and ask yourself whether the “Nyakyusa/Ngonde world” was ordered (whether it did cohere in a structured manner), you have to answer in two apparently contradictory manners. On the one hand, yes it did: Nyakyusa persons worked hard at making their world cohere and the Wilsons managed to capture a good chunk of that (Wilson 1951). All of us work at living in reasonably ordered, predictable, meaningful environments—we build worldviews. On the other hand, no it didn't. For example, it included bacteria, an aspect the Nyakyusa did not account for, even though bacteria were certainly present in the margins of Lake Nyassa in the mid-twentieth century and they determined important aspects of Nyakyusa lives, as Monica Wilson would easily confirm.

It is important that we should realize that this paradox is nothing but a product of our holding a representationist theory of mind. While a person’s intentional engagement with world depends passively on the world being structured, the person’s propositional engagement with world actively promotes structure (we might choose to call it, with Anna Tsing, “figuration”), owing to the inevitability of retentivity. But the possibility of the emergence of the second assumes that the first is always already present. In short, the emergence of propositional thinking and personhood (i.e., the opening up of the arena of presence and action, the self) is grounded on the kind of sociality that is characteristic of intentional thinking. Thus, “worlding” is a precondition for structuring to occur (for the building of cosmology, of worldview) within the narrative forms of social engagement that take place among propositionally thinking humans in ontogenesis. As Tsing puts it, “The gift of worlding is its ability to make figures appear from the midst and to show them as no more than figures” (2011: 64, original emphasis).

This category originates in Heidegger’s work, as part of his use of the verb “to world.”26 All commentators seem to agree that his concept remains to the end rather vaguely defined, so that, by the time it is taken up by a person like Anna Tsing (2011), to account for her study of scientific practice in a Latourian vein, or by Philippe Descola (2010, 2014), in his attempt to outline different modes of ontological positioning, it acquires necessarily different meanings and implications. In my own particular case, I am concerned to show that the ethnographic gesture depends on the fact that “world worlds”: that is, world “is more fully in being than all those tangible and perceptible things in the midst of which we take ourselves to be at home… . By the opening of a world, all things gain their lingering and hastening, their distance and proximity, their breath and their limits” (Heidegger [1950] 2002: 23). The ethnographic gesture is dependent on the fact that world worlds, it offers itself to persons in ontogeny as a form of spaciousness where things are founded and order can be built. This is the feature of thought that makes possible both ordinary propositionality and ethnographic approximation. Methodologically, ethnographic analysis depends on the assumed expectation (the charity) that people in specific historically determined local contexts engage with a world which worlds, which can be holistically relational. If persons (informant and analyst) were not prone to “world,” there would be no ethnography. In Anna Tsing’s words, “Worlding as a tool asks how informants as well as analysts imagine the relationality of worlds that are self-consciously unfamiliar whether across cultures and continents or across kinds of beings and forms of data” (2011: 50).27

Worlding creates a space for the holism of the mental to operate, producing figuration. Let it be noted, however, that “worlding is simultaneously orienting and disorienting” (ibid.: 63). If people’s worlds were fully coherent, ethnographic fieldwork would also be impossible, as ethnographers would have no points of entry into another’s “world.” By that I mean that most of what exists around humans (a) is not fully coherent (underdetermined), (b) must be interpreted in a number of different ways (indeterminate), and (c) is indeed common to the whole human species. Only owing to these three factors can ethnographers learn to see the world from a new perspective when they “go out into the field”—even in contexts of considerable cultural distance, such as that met by the Wilsons when they arrived on the shores of Lake Nyassa in the 1930s (Wilson 1951). These conditions are the conditions of possibility of the ethnographic gesture, as indeed of all propositional thinking. What is truly brilliant in Quine’s insight is that he taught us to see that indeterminacy and underdetermination are not impediments to proper understanding; rather, they are the conditions for human communication and thought (see Quine and Ullian 1978).

And here we get to the aspect of seeing. For the visual metaphor is very present in all anthropological forms of characterizing world: you see the world from a certain angle, you have a worldview, you assume a perspective. Over and beyond the debate as to whether or not the centrality of vision is a modern European fixation (cf. Bloch 2008), the fact is that the metaphor carries two central aspects that we must attend to. One is this idea that people are prone to think in terms of cosmologies, of scapes—with the implication of mental holism. The other is almost not a metaphor, in that viewing is a central aspect of most people’s sense of situated-ness (a feature of “basic minds”). Now, situatedness is not only a momentary thing, for it implies dwelling, both for humans and for animals. As ethologists have long argued, “home” is centrally constituted by two processes: a “goal of flight” and a “place of maximal security” (Ingold 1995: 73). Sociality was there before humanity but it continues to operate within it, as Lévi-Strauss (2000) so poignantly argues in his passing thoughts about amoebas. As we have seen in part 1 of this essay (Pina-Cabral 2014a), one of the three central vectors of meaning of world in anthropological accounts is precisely this perspectival proclivity.

My point here is that if “what a person’s words mean depends in the most basic cases on the kinds of objects and events that have caused the person to hold the words to be applicable,” as Davidson has put it (2001: 37), then people who dwell in close proximity share communities of interpretation, that is, worldviews. We return to the notion that world tends to be structured to the extent that it is carried by persons whose ontogenies are historical, that is, marked by complex but specific social belongings, perspectivally focused on common environments of dwelling: people’s world always worlds.

In sum, “world” as experienced by persons in actual historical contexts of sociality is never an undifferentiated whole; it offers itself as a space for holist relationality. In fact, it is that feature of world (that the world worlds) that allows the person to start his or her ontogenesis. Each historically located sociocultural context gives evidence of internal features of structuration (or figuration) that reflect the fact that world is the habitable environment where persons are socially constituted. Each one of us, as a person, emerges to a dynamic lifeworld that is a complex jungle of broken symmetries that we are bodily endowed to tune into.

Why, then, are our learned colleagues so uncomfortable with the concept of “worldview”?28 Recently, we have been presented with a number of attacks on the notion of worldview coming from luminaries in our discipline: among them, Tim Ingold (2010) and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2010). They go at it together, but funnily enough from almost opposite directions. Viveiros de Castro starts his attack by defending that we should treat “human cultures as constituting … configurations that are strictly definable as reciprocal variants of one another and thus intrinsically subject to historical and structural transformation” (2010: 324). He is begging the question: if these human “cultures” (and my problem is that I am not at all satisfied with this proprietorial, unitarist take on “cultures”—whatever the justifications and blandishments) are “reciprocal variants of one another,” then there is only one world and talk of “ontologies” cannot be more than a postponement of the problem of world, an agnosticism.

He defends that there is no way of “finding a neutral vantage point from which to adjudicate the controversy” concerning the difference between worlds. Here he is shooting arrows at ghosts; his own and no one else’s. If anthropology is a science, then it does not promise any moral adjudication based on any “vantage-neutral perspective.” All scientists know that, tomorrow, they will think differently from what they think today, of necessity; all scientists should know that there are no spaceless spaces, no timeless times, no flies on the walls of laboratories. Viveiros’ invented opponents hold such primitive epistemological views concerning what they are doing that one suspects him of being shielded from truth by prejudice.

To the contrary, according to Tim Ingold, the principal problem with the concept of worldview is that it assumes that those who view different things do the viewing in just the same form. He does have a point here that deserves to be noted. The drawback, however, will be significantly reduced if we remember that, in the first place, as he puts it, “difference is a function of positionality, within a continuous universe of relations” (2010: 353) and, in the second place, this is once again the product of a modern proclivity to presume that world is outside and view is inside. If we consider that “world” is everything that exists, we must conclude that it includes the embodied cognitive dispositions that make humans differ. Again, worldview is only a problem for so long as one continues (willingly or by lack of attention) to entertain a representationist view of mind.

The structuring of world made possible by worlding happens within historical sociality as an approximative fuzzy process that remains ever incomplete. As a constant process of error correction (orientation and disorientation), the social structuration of world is the result of the operation of indeterminacy and under-determination, not the contrary. Furthermore, the material roots of more complex forms of propositional structuration (the sort of thing that anthropologists have called “cosmologies”) never wrench themselves free of basic cognition, of the embodied physical dispositions of human beings’ worlding. Humans build the world of content-bearing propositions in language and symbolic behavior by means of processes of imagination that are themselves embodied dispositions. Behind scaffolded minds there always remain basic minds, as their absolute condition of possibility. (As Heidegger [(1929/30) 1995: 287] would have it, the “poor” world of animals is the ground upon which worlding in humans is based.) In short, the worldviews that ethnographers describe cannot possibly be described in representational fashion (as if they were “emic,” that is). This is why we need not worry about the fact that the Kiriwina never managed to explain to Malinowski a theory of human reproduction that they manifestly possessed. He had to work it out on the basis of a multiplicity of observations of a varied nature: his theory, their structuration of the world.

In their monographs, ethnographers are primarily engaged in capturing the trends that result from numberless processes of fuzzy adjustment within actual historically shaped contexts of human sociality. A “tribe” does not “have” a “culture”; rather, humans are constantly worlding. The epistemological status of a worldview, therefore, is that of a hypothesis built by the ethnographer; a worldview is the way the ethnographer found of identifying the central structuring elements in people’s daily lives. Ethnographers are not representing people’s thoughts, as the representationist vulgate would have it; they are outlining the pathways within which persons are prone to move in the world. Many methodological discussions over the past two decades might have been avoided if it had been clearly understood that (a) what the ethnographer describes is part of world, but (b) it exists as recurrences, not as mental content (“knowledge,” “ideas”). Worldviews are hypotheses, not anatomies, as David Maybury-Lewis brilliantly put it so long ago (1974: 295). Anthropology, therefore, in that sense is coexistent with ethnography, for the comparative disposition is a worlding of worlding, the opening of a world for worlds to occur.

* * *

I concluded the first part of this essay by stating that “world … like persons, will ever waver in the unstable terrain that lies between singularity and plurality; it is one and it is many” (2014a: 69). Such a statement assumes that there is an isomorphism between personhood and world. We are now in a better condition to understand that this symmetry results from the fact that the human condition is the condition of persons in sociality. Indeed, in that paper, we identified three vectors in the experience of world: (i) the cosmic vector, where the embracing cosmos is opposed to the textured world at hand; (ii) the perspectival vector, where the encompassing world is opposed to home; and (iii) the propositional vector, where the containing materiality opposes propositional thought. Similarly, in my earlier papers on personhood and naming, I came to identify three aspects of personhood that jointly determine the human condition: (i) the physical person; (ii) the self, the arena of presence and action; and (iii) the historically constituted and culturally shared frameworks of personhood.29 In both instances, the three aspects are distinguished by a set of structures of relating: (i) embracement; (ii) encompassment; and (iii) containment. In the life of humans (persons in world), the three structures of identification/differentiation combine and contrast, giving rise to broken symmetries that are the dynamic bases of personhood and sociality. In these two essays, I have argued that it is the dynamic incompleteness, the constant approximation without achievement, the semiotic ambiguity, that explains why immanent transcendence pervades human experience in world.


This paper came directly out of the rich critical interactions I have benefited from over this past year: I am especially grateful to Glenn Bowman, Cecilia McCallum, Susana Matos Viegas, Joan Bestard Camps, Joana Gonçalo Oliveira, Christina Toren, and Giovanni da Col for their exceptionally generous contributions. As Cicero would have it, they have dealt with me cum benevolentia et caritate (1884: VI, 20).


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Le Monde: Un examen anthropologique (deuxième partie)

Résumé : Cet article est la seconde partie d'un essai en deux parties qui examine la catégorie de “monde” dans une perspective anthropologique. La première partie de cet essai soutenait la nécessité d'une approche considérant le monde comme une entité unique et défendant l'inévitable centralité de la personne (personhood) comme caractéristique de la condition humaine. Dans la deuxième partie de cet essai, je m'intéresse aux implications métaphysiques de la catégorie de “monde” et les met en relation au procès de “mise en monde” (worlding), maintenant ainsi la valeur heuristique de la catégorie anthropologique ancienne de “vision du monde” (worldview). Je suggère qu'une analyse de la Preuve Ontologique de l'existence de Dieu, soutenue par Saint Anselme de Cantorbéry à la fin du onzième siècle, peut nous aider à développer une théorie comparative de la personne (personhood), en montrant comment l'expérience de la transcendance est inhérente a toute ontogenèse personnelle.

João de PINA-CABRAL is Professor of Social Anthropology and Head of the School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent (www.pina-cabral.org). He has published extensively on matters related to kinship and the family, religion and belief, personhood, and ethnicity in postcolonial contexts, and carried out fieldwork on the Alto Minho (Portugal), Macau (Southern China), and Bahia (Northeastern Brazil). His principal publications are Sons of Adam, daughters of Eve: The peasant worldview of the Alto Minho (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1984), Between China and Europe: Person, culture and emotion in Macau (London, Athlone/Berg, 2002), and Gente livre: Consideração e pessoa no baixo sul da Bahia (São Paulo, Terceira Palavra, 2013). He has also coedited with A. P. Lima Elites: Choice, leadership, and succession (Oxford, Berg, 2000), with Frances Pine On the margins of religion (Oxford, Berghahn, 2008), and with Christina Toren The challenge of epistemology: Anthropological perspectives (Oxford, Berghahn, 2011).

João de Pina-Cabral
School of Anthropology and Conservation
Marlowe Building
University of Kent
Canterbury, Kent


1. I am, of course, referring to the debate between Viveiros de Castro (2011a) and Matei Candea (2011). As we will see later on, however, my own take on “taking seriously” in the ethnographic gesture rejects the possibility of ontological incommensurability. Thus, it emphasizes the creative nature of the ethnographic analysis and focuses preferably on the verisimilitude of the narrative.

2. I warn the reader not to assume that I am using the word “holism” in the fashion it is commonly encountered in anthropological literature. The expression “holism of the mental” refers to Donald Davidson’s thought (2001) and describes the participations that exist among all our thoughts and that, owing to worlding, tend to be figured into structures, without ever fully achieving an overarching structure.

3. I use “transcendence” here to refer to that which is beyond the ordinary range of perception, namely the experience of the sacred or the other-worldy.

4. In his reply to Evans-Pritchard, Lévy-Bruhl (1952) declares that he regrets that when he wrote his books, he did not have the quality data that were later available as a result of the work of ethnographers of a newer generation.

5. A post held earlier on by another of Malinowski’s personae non gratae, A. M. Hocart.

6. I want to thank Tim Jenkins for having called my attention to Evans-Pritchard’s dependence on R. G. Collingwood’s idealist methodology of history. See also Peter Winch’s comments on Collingwood: “There is a certain respect, indeed, in which Collingwood pays insufficient attention to the manner in which a way of thinking and the historical situation to which it belongs form one indivisible whole” (Winch [1958] 2008: 123). This can be seen to apply to all the long line of subsequent anthropological interpretivisms that (whether they know it or not) find their original source in Evans-Pritchard’s reading of Collingwood’s philosophy of history.

7. Mary Douglas, for instance, comments explicitly that he promoted “a virtual silence of his intellectual debts” (1980: 29).

8. As we will further develop later, there is implicit here, of course, a representationist theory of mind that has become naturalized in most anthropological discourses (see Pina-Cabral 2010, 2011, 2013b).

9. This is how Mary Douglas explains the nature of the project that Evans-Pritchard set himself when writing Witchraft, oracles and magic (1970: xvii).

10. Once again I must thank Glenn Bowman for his learned suggestions.

11. In fact, the problem with some of Viveiros de Castro’s recent comments on this matter (cf. 2011a) is precisely that he continues to pitch his arguments against a notion of belief that does not take into account the fact that anthropological understanding about what is belief has evolved significantly.

12. In that sense his personal (not anthropological) option for Roman Catholicism can be seen as a deeply courageous response to metaphysical despair.

13. All this is made painfully clear in an interview that Lévi-Strauss (1998) gave to Viveiros de Castro and that has been published in Portuguese in Mana.

14. See Thompson (2007: 288): “A re-presentational experience constitutes its object precisely as both phenomenally absent in its bodily being and as mentally evoked or brought forth.”

15. In Thompson’s words, “[It] seems unlikely that minimal autopoietic selfhood involves phenomenal selfhood or subjectivity, in the sense of a prereflective self-awareness constitutive of a phenomenal first-person perspective” (ibid.: 163).

16. I am indebted to R. W. Southern’s exemplary personal and intellectual biography of St. Anselm (1990)

17. Evolution is human history. Ingold states this in a somewhat different manner: “History is but the continuation of an evolutionary process by another name” (1995: 77).

18. http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/anselmproslogion.html.

19. http://www.biblesociety.org.uk/the-bible/search-the-bible/ESV/Isa/7/.

20. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+7.

21. http://www.moellerhaus.com/7-8.htm.

22. This section follows on an argument I have already developed more extensively in Pina-Cabral (2014b).

23. On polythetic categories and causality, see Needham (1976); on opposition, see Needham (1987).

24. As Sahlins indeed acknowledges (2011a: 10).

25. But curiously Mary Douglas did not, and that is one of the stranger aspects of her book on Evans-Pritchard (Douglas 1980), where she seems to take away from his work those theoretical aspects of his thinking that are more challenging to us today.

26. Cf. Being and time (Heidegger [1953] 2010) and “The origin of the work of art” in Off the beaten track (Heidegger [1950] 2002).

27. In that sense, I find myself closer to her interpretation of the word than to Descola’s, for whom “there is another explanation for the very different ways, traditionally labeled ‘cultural,’ of giving accounts of the world in spite of a common biological equipment. Let us call ‘worlding’ this process of piecing together what is perceived in our environment” (2014: 272). I would consider that to be worldview, while to world is to constitute the space of relationality that allows for worldview to emerge.

28. Much has been written in anthropology about worldview and cosmology, but, like Michael Kierney in his Annual Review article of 1975, I have to admit that, paradoxically, very little has been made of it. As he acknowledges, the issue of the worldview’s integration is a thorny one; the more you look for it, the less apparent it becomes (1975: 249).

29. By “frameworks of personhood,” I have in mind the sort of notion of personhood that Marcel Mauss pioneered in his famous essay ([1938] 1985) and that Meyer Fortes engaged with so brilliantly ([1973] 1987). From a theoretical perspective such as my own, which emphasizes embodied cognition, these three aspects of person must be seen as causally distinct but profoundly interdependent (cf. Pina-Cabral 2013a).