Originally published in 2004 in the Common Knowledge symposium “Talking Peace with Gods,” this article elaborates the nature and consequences of the perspectivist cosmologies of Amerindian societies. Contemporary Western cosmologies regard humans as ex-animals who became differentiated from other nonhuman species through the acquisition of advanced cognitive capacities. Amerindian cultures, by contrast, regard animals as ex-humans who became differentiated from both modern humans and other animal species via a series of physical adaptations. Underneath these physical differences, both humans and nonhumans (...) retain a shared human soul; what is more, each species perceives its own kind as human and all other kinds—including humans—as animals. Viveiros de Castro distinguishes this “perspectivism” from relativism: whereas Western relativism assumes multiple valid cultural models, Amerindian perspectivism holds that human and nonhuman species possess a common values system and cultural framework. While this commonality is ordinarily obscured by biologically grounded, perceptual differences, the gap in perspective may be bridged by shamans, whose gift of adopting nonhuman subjectivities enables them to see other species as they see themselves—namely, as humans partaking in human culture. Perspectivism influences both the practices that Amerindian peoples adopt toward nonhuman species and their attitudes toward other human groups, especially in the context of warfare. The Amerindian warrior’s capacity to overcome an enemy ultimately depends on a shaman-like entry into the subjectivity of another: rather than denying the personhood of his enemy, the Amerindian warrior must acknowledge the affinity between them. (shrink)
The article assumes that the expression “comparative relativism”—the title of the Common Knowledge symposium in which the essay appears—is neither tautological nor oxymoronic. Rather, the author construes the term as an apt synthetic characterization of anthropology and illustrates that idea by means of four quotations, taken from authors as different as Richard Rorty and David Schneider, Marcel Mauss and Henri Michaux. The quotations can be said to “exemplify” anthropology in terms that are interestingly (and diversely) restrictive: some of them amount (...) to extrinsic negations of anthropology that would paralyze it; others suggest intrinsic negativities that would propel it. All of the passages chosen evoke the idea of belief, which is profoundly implicated, in all possible senses (and especially the worse ones), in the majority of arguments that connect the themes of anthropology, comparison, and relativism. (shrink)
This introduction to the Common Knowledge symposium titled “Comparative Relativism” outlines a variety of intellectual contexts where placing the unlikely companion terms comparison and relativism in conjunction offers analytical purchase. If comparison, in the most general sense, involves the investigation of discrete contexts in order to elucidate their similarities and differences, then relativism, as a tendency, stance, or working method, usually involves the assumption that contexts exhibit, or may exhibit, radically different, incomparable, or incommensurable traits. Comparative studies are required to (...) treat their objects as alike, at least in some crucial respects; relativism indicates the limits of this practice. Jensen argues that this seeming paradox is productive, as he moves across contexts, from Lévi-Strauss's analysis of comparison as an anthropological method to Peter Galison's history of physics, and on to the anthropological, philosophical, and historical examples offered in symposium contributions by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Marilyn Strathern, and Isabelle Stengers. Comparative relativism is understood by some to imply that relativism comes in various kinds and that these have multiple uses, functions, and effects, varying widely in different personal, historical, and institutional contexts that can be compared and contrasted. Comparative relativism is taken by others to encourage a “comparison of comparisons,” in order to relativize what different peoples—say, Western academics and Amerindian shamans—compare things “for.” Jensen concludes that what is compared and relativized in this symposium are the methods of comparison and relativization themselves. He ventures that the contributors all hope that treating these terms in juxtaposition may allow for new configurations of inquiry. (shrink)
This introduction to “Anthropological Philosophy: Symposium on an Unanticipated Conceptual Practice” comprises a brief history of attitudes among anthropologists toward the philosophical field of ontology, and attitudes among professional philosophers toward the kinds of alien and marginal thinking with which anthropology is concerned. After the narrative reaches what has been called the “ontological turn” in anthropology, which is generally assumed to represent the current moment in relations between the disciplines, the author discloses the recent emergence of an unexpected cultural practice: (...) a hybrid of anthropology and philosophy that takes metaphysics, as distinct from ontology, as both its object and its method. The distinction between metaphysics and ontology is crucial to this new “intellectual space” because, while ontology is an unconscious possession of any people, metaphysics is a demanding speculative discipline whose becoming an object of anthropology suggests that indigenous peoples consciously deal with questions about what is real and what is not in ways so impressive and sophisticated that they can be compared with the efforts of credentialed philosophers. In this emergent conceptual practice, moreover, the work of academic philosophers is open to elaboration and correction in response to the findings of tribal and Western marginal thinkers. Among the developers of anthropological philosophy are said to be the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, the French philosopher Patrice Maniglier, and the other contributors to this symposium, whose articles the author goes on, in this context, to describe and assess. (shrink)
This piece is an answer to comments by Matei Candea, Debbora Battaglia, and Roy Wagner on the author's article, “Zeno and the Art of Anthropology.” Here Viveiros de Castro focuses on the relation between exo- and endo-anthropology, on the conditions for the conceptual imagination of the other, on the distinction between minor and royal (or state) science, and on the precise meaning of the characterization of anthropology as a theory of the “ontological autodetermination of the world's peoples.”.