Philippe Descola

Beyond Nature and Culture

Wednesday, 20 February 2008, Large Operon, 16:00 h

Philippe Descola, Collège de France

Words like 'nature' or 'culture' that we use freely both as scientists and as laymen do not denote a universal reality that would manifest itself under the same guise to everybody, but a particular way of carving ontological domains in the texture of things, which the Moderns have devised in the course of the past four centuries. Other civilisations have adopted different systems of ascribing qualities to beings in the world, resulting in forms of continuity and discontinuity between humans and non humans which, as they differ widely from our own cosmological standards, have long puzzled anthropologists.

We are in a better position now to treat the modern ontological grid (physical universality versus moral singularity) as but one among other formulae that have been used to describe the structures of the world. Although they are grounded in common cognitive processes, these formulae generate distinctive principles of aggregation of humans and non humans into collectives, which our culture-specific concept of 'society' can hardly account for. The challenge is thus to retain the ambition to explain this kind of diversity while at the same time reformulating our tools of explanation so as to eschew Eurocentric concepts and frameworks of analysis.


Born in Paris in 1949, Philippe Descola studied philosophy at the Ecole normale supérieure, and anthropology at the école Pratique des Hautes Etudes where he obtained his doctorate in 1983 under the supervision of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Most of his fieldwork was conducted among the Achuar Jivaro of the Ecuadorian Amazon with whom he lived from 1976 to 1979 and where he has been returning ever since for shorter periods. Besides his field research, to which he has already devoted two books and many articles, Philippe Descola has published extensively on the anthropology of nature. He holds the chair of anthropology at the Collège de France where he heads the Laboratoire d'Anthropologie sociale and is also a professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.

Books authored by Descola on the anthropology of nature:

In the Society of Nature (Cambridge, 1994).
Par-delà nature et culture (Paris, 2005).
Nature and Society (London, 1996).