Descola—Modes of Being and Forms of Predication

Modes of Being and Forms of Predication

by Phillipe Descola

[Descola, Philippe. “Modes of being and forms of predication.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, no. 1 (2014): 271-280.]


  1. argument against social construction–the world is not a self-contained collection of things that are seen differently by different cultures, but rather “a vast amount of qualities and relations that can be actualized or not by humans according to how ontological filters discriminate between environmental affordances” (273).
  2. When we piece together these affordances in the process of worlding, we create framing devices–“cognitive schemata that regulate habitus, guide inferences, filter perceptions” (274).
  3. Fundamental to these framing devices is the process of lumping together elements with similar qualities and dissociating those with dissimilar qualities.
  4. One of the universal features of this process is an awareness of a duality of planes:
    1. material process; physicality
    2. mental states; interiority
  5. This type of worlding results in a schema of four ontologies:
    1. Animism
      1. similar interiority; dissimilar physicality
      2. both humans and non-humans understand themselves as human – external differences are like clothing that can be worn or discarded
      3. seen in indigenous North and South America, Siberia, parts of Southeast Asia
    2. Totemism
      1. similar interiority and physicality
      2. groups of humans and animals share ganaral attributes of physical conformation, temperament, substance and behavior due to a common spatial origin
      3. Best seen in Australia, but also in some North American moities
    3. Analogism
      1. dissimilar interiority and physicality
      2. everything is separated by minute intervals, like the Great Chain of Being during the Middle Ages and Renaissance–it represents an attempt to create continuity out of vast objects that are all separate, “a multiplicity of reverberating differences” (276).
      3. common in Asia, West Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Andes
    4. Naturalism
      1.  similar physicality; dissimilar interiority
      2. There is a single unifying nature to the world, but cultures view it differently–(opposite of Animism) our physical properties are the same, but our souls/viewpoints are different–Darwinian evolution strengthens this, as we are (physically) part of an observable continuity
      3. contemporary Western ontology
  6. Most societies are a hybrid of more than one of the four typologies, while privileging one–this should be used as a way to think about ontology rather than a way to classify groups
  7. “we should regard what we usually call societies and cosmologies as a matter of distributing existents into different collectives: what or who associates with what or whom, and in what way, and for what purpose?” (278).
  8. “It is time, then, that we take stock of the fact that worlds are differently composed; it is time that we endeavour to understand how they are composed without automatic recourse to our own mode of composition” (279).

ontological filters–the way understandings of our own existence (being-in-the-world) makes certain environmental qualities or affordances available to us and certain qualities elide perception

worlding–the process of piecing together what is in our environment from these available affordances


Notions like “nature” or “culture” do not denote a universal reality but a particular way,devised by the Moderns, of carving ontological domains in the texture of things. Othercivilizations have devised different ways of detecting qualities among existents, resulting inother forms of organizing continuity and discontinuity between humans and nonhumans,of aggregating beings in collectives,  of defining  who or what is capable of agency andknowledge. The paper emphasizes that these processes of ontological predication arenot “worldviews”  but, properly speaking, styles of worlding. Ontology is taken here as designating a more elementary analytical level to study worlding than the one anthropology usually calls for. It is at this level, where basic inferences are made about the kinds of beings that exist and how they relate to each other, that anthropology can best fulfill its mission to account for how worlds are composed.

Annotation Summary for: Descola – Modes of Being and Forms of Predication

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Modes of b of predic Philippe Notions like “nature” or “ devised by the Moderns, of civilizations have devis other forms of organizing of aggregating beings in c knowledge. The paper emph not “worldviews” but, pro designating a more elemen usually calls for. It is at that exist and how they rel account for how worlds are Keywords: nature,”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “distinction between primary and secondary qualities: the former are said to be intelligible, separable, and, in large measure, calculable; while the latter are the subject matter of what Lévi-Strauss called “la logique duconcret,” the ability of the mind to establish relations of correspondence and oppo-sition between salient features of our perceived environment.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “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 environ-ment. ”

Page 2, Highlight (Yellow): Content: ““worlding””

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “y contrast with this run-of-the-mill culturalist mean-ing—which implies a distinction between a preexisting transcendental reality and the various cultural versions that can be given of it—I see worlding rather as the process of stabilization of certain features of what happens to us, a covert, and per-haps unfaithful, homage to Wittgenstein’s famous proposition that “the world is everything that is the case.”2 ”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I argue that “what is the case for us” is not”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “a complete and self-contained world waiting to be represented according to differ- ent 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.”

Page 3, Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The material and immaterial objects of our environment do not stand in the heavens of eternal ideas ready to be captured by our faculties, nor are they mere social constructs giving shape and meaning to araw material; they are just clusters of qualities some of which we detect, some of which we ignore.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Speaking of “ontological filters” is a way for me to emphasize the fact that the analytical level at which I believe the anthropological endeavor should start is more elementary than what is usually taken for granted.”

Page 3, Highlight (Yellow): Content: ““ontological filters””

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “My conviction is that sys- tems of differences in the ways humans inhabit the world are not to be understood as byproducts of institutions, economic systems, sets of values, cultural patterns, worldviews, or the like; on the contrary, the latter are the outcome of more basic as- sumptions as to what the world contains and how the elements of this furniture are connected.”

Page 3, Underline (Magenta): Content: “The main task of anthropology is to bring to light how beings of a certain kind—humans—operate in their environ- ment, how they detect in it such or such property that they make use of, and how they manage to transform this environment by weaving with it and between them- selves permanent or occasional relations of a remarkable, but not infinite, diversity.”

Page 3, Stamp (Quote!)

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In short, the task of anthropology is to account for how worlds are composed.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “What are these distinctive styles of human action and thought that anthropology should bring to light?”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “They should be understood as cognitive andsensory-motor patterns of practice, in part innate, in part resulting from the actual process of interactions between organisms, that is, from the practical manners of coordinating human and nonhuman agencies in a given environment”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “that is, cognitive schemata that regulate habitus, guide inferences, filter perceptions, and are largely the products of the af- fordances which the world offers to specifically human dispositions.”

Page 4, Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “My argument is that one of the universal features of the cognitive process in which such dispositions are rooted is the awareness of a duality of planes between material processes (which I call “physicality”) and men- tal states (which I call “interiority”).”

Page 4, Highlight (Yellow): Content: ““physicality”)”

Page 4, Highlight (Yellow): Content: ““interiority”).”

Page 5, Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This results in a fourfold schema of ontologies, that is, of con- trastive qualities and beings detected in human surroundings and organized into systems, that I have labeled “animism,” “totemism,” “analogism,” and “naturalism,” thus giving new meanings to well-worn anthropological concepts.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Animism as a continuity of souls and a discontinuity of bodies”

Page 5, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “Animism”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Southand North America, in Siberia, and in some parts of Southeast Asia ”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In these animic systems, humans and most nonhumans are conceived as having the same type of interiority, and it is because of this common subjectivity that animals and spirits are said to possess social charac- teristics: they live in villages, abide by kinship rules and ethical codes, they engage in ritual activity and barter goods.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “humans and all the kinds of nonhumans with which humans interact each have different physicalities, in that their identical internal essences are lodged in differ- ent types of bodies, often described as clothing that can be donned or discarded,”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Human and nonhuman persons have an integrally “cultural” view of their life sphere because they share the same kind of interiority, but the world that these entities apprehend is different, for their equipment is distinct.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The form of bodies is thus more than the physical conformation; it is the entire biological toolkit that allows a species to occupy a habitat and to lead there the distinctive life by which it is identified.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “second mode of identification, where some beings in the world share sets of physical and moral attributes that cut across the boundaries of species. I call it totemism,”

Page 5, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “totemism,”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “best exemplified by Aboriginal Australia.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the main totem of a group of humans, most often an animal or a plant, and all the beings, human and nonhuman, that are affiliated to it are said to share certain general attributes of physical conformation, substance, temperament, and behavior by virtue of a common origin localized in space.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “an abstract property which is present in this species as well as in all the beings subsumed under it in a totemic grouping.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “analogism, is predicated on the idea that all the entities in the world are fragmented into a multiplicity of essences, forms, and substances separated by minute intervals, often ordered along a graded scale, such as in the Great Chain of Being,”

Page 6, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “analogism,”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the main cosmological model dur- ing the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “ad-mitting that all the components of the world are separated by tiny discontinuities,it entertains the hope of weaving these weakly differentiated elements in a canvas of affinities and attractions which has all the appearances of continuity. ”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Asia, in West Africa, or among the native communities of Mesoamerica and the Andes.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “naturalism, corresponds to our own ontology.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “if one consid-ers naturalism—the coexistence of a single unifying nature and a multiplicity of cultures—not as the all-embracing template which allows the objectification of any reality, but as one among other modes of identification, then its contrastive proper-ties appear more clearly.”

Page 7, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “naturalism”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “naturalism inverts the ontological premises of animism since, instead of claiming an identity of soul and a difference of bod- ies, it is predicated upon a discontinuity of interiorities and a material continuity.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “we are all aware, especially since Darwin, that the physical dimension of humans locates them within a material continuum wherein they do not stand out as singularities.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “These manners of detecting and emphasizing folds in our surroundings should be taken not as a typology of tightly isolated “worldviews,” but rather as a develop- ment of the phenomenological consequences of four different kinds of inference about the identities of beings in the world.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Actual ontologies can be very close to the model but perhaps the most common situation is one of hybridity, where one modeof identification will slightly dominate over another one, resulting in a variety of complex combinations. ”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This fourfold typology should thus be taken as a heuristic device rather than as a method for classifying societies;”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “once the worlding process has been achieved, once some of these qualities and relations have been detected and systematized, the result is not a worldview, that is, one version among others of the same transcendental reality; the result is a world in its own right, a system ”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “of incompletely actualized properties, saturated with meaning and replete with agency, but partially overlapping with other similar configurations that have been differently actualized and instituted by different actants.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “each of these modes of identification prefigures the kind of collec- tive that is suited to assembling within a common destiny the various types of be- ings that it distinguishes.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “If, up until recently, humankind did not operate hard- and-fast distinctions between the natural and the social and did not think that the treatment of humans and that of nonhumans were divorced, then we should regard what we usually call societies and cosmologies as a matter of distributing existents into different collectives: what or who associates with what or whom, and in what way, and for what purpose?”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Asking these kinds of questions, and trying to answer them, implies that the conventional tools which the social sciences have inherited from the European po- litical philosophy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have to be divested of their centrality and paradigmatic clout, for these tools are the direct outcome of a highly unusual reflexive account of highly unusual historical circumstances.”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It is time, then, that we take stock of the fact that worlds are differently composed; it is time that we endeavour to understand how they are composed without automatic recourse to our own mode of composition; it is time that we set out to recompose them so as to make them more amenable to a wider variety of inhabitants, human and nonhuman.”

Page 9, Underline (Red): Content: “Deleuze, Gilles. 1953. Empirisme et subjectivité: Essai sur la nature humaine selon Hume. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, Épiméthée.”

Page 9, Underline (Red): Content: “Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1996. “Os pronomes cosmológicos e o perspectivismo amerín- dio.” Mana 2 (2): 115–44.”

Page 10, Underline (Red): Content: “Wittgenstein, Ludwig. [1921] 1989. Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung/Tractatus logico- philosophicus. Kritische Edition. Edited by Brian McGuinness and Joachim Schulte. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp”


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