In this article I review critical thought about cosmogony in the social sciences and explore the current status of this concept. The latter agenda entails three components. First, I argue that, even where cosmogony is not mentioned, contemporary anthropological projects that reject the essentialist ontology they ascribe to Western modernity in favor of analytical versions of relational non-dualism thereby posit a 'counter-cosmogony' of eternal relational becoming. Second, I show how Viveiros de Castro has made Amazonian cosmogonic myth—understood as counter-cosmogony—iconic of the relational non-dualist ontology he terms 'perspectival multinaturalism'. Observing that this counter-cosmogony now stands in opposition to biblical cosmogony, I conclude by considering the consequences for the study of cosmogony when it becomes a register of what it is about—when it becomes, that is, a form of polemical debate about competing models of cosmogony and the practical implications that they are perceived to entail.
Counter-Cosmogony, Perspectivism, and the Return of Anti-biblical Polemic
Michael W. Scott
Reflections on Anthropomorphism and Anthropological Comparison
This article compares recent anthropological accounts of animist and perspectivist ontologies with evolutionary explanations of animal behaviour in contemporary behavioural ecology. It argues that some unexpected echoes between these two very different ways of encountering non-humans raise a set of fascinating issues both ethnographic and theoretical. On the ethnographic side, thinking of behavioural ecology as akin to a 'naturalist perspectivism' illuminates some of the complex ways in which the discipline deals with worries about anthropomorphic projection. On the theoretical side, the comparison raises some questions about the ease with which us/them contrasts associated with the recent 'ontological turn' in anthropology find themselves echoing contrasts internal to Western philosophical and scientific debate. The resulting problem of mirroring (the concern that 'others' may be called upon to play the role of an anti-'us', rather than encountered on their own terms) is in turn considered as an analogue of the scientific problem of 'anthropomorphism', and some potential responses to both are considered.
Recent Studies of Amazonian Ontologies
Luiz Costa and Carlos Fausto
The ethnography of lowland South American societies has occupied a central place in recent debates concerning what has been called the 'ontological turn' in anthropology. The concepts of 'animism' and 'perspectivism', which have been revigorated through studies of Amerindian ontologies, figure increasingly in the ethnographies of non-Amerindian peoples and in anthropological theory more generally. This article traces the theoretical and empirical background of these concepts, beginning with the influence of Lévi-Strauss's work on the anthropology of Philippe Descola and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and proceeding with their impact on Amazonian ethnography. It then investigates the problems that two alternative traditions—one combining a cognitivist with a pragmaticist approach, the other a phenomenological one—pose to recent studies of Amazonian ontologies that rely on the concepts of animism and perspectivism. The article concludes by considering how animism and perspectivism affect our descriptions of Amerindian society and politics, highlighting the new challenges that studies of Amerindian ontologies have begun to address.
Indigeneity, Ontology, and Hybridity in Settler Colonialism
Paul Berne Burow, Samara Brock, and Michael R. Dove
overcoming the ontological hurdles of Eurocentric imaginings of post-humanism that these authors critique. Perspectivism Many of today’s studies of nonhuman others cite the canonical work of Jakob von Uexküll (2010 ) on the concept of the umwelt
This afterword offers a commentary on the concept of relations discussed in the introduction and the individual contributions to this special issue by critically reflecting on the key concepts that have emerged in it. It contributes to the discussion with a reflection on the use of the term parente in Amazonia, showing how its exclusive use in inter-ethnic contexts indicates a play of perspective in the way that relations between different groups of people are experienced.
Discussing an Ontological Turn
This article is an ethnographic essay on the notion of an 'ontological turn', taken here in its literal sense of ontological change. It explores a specific sociocosmological transformation – one resulting from the conversion of an Amazonian people, the Wari', to Christianity – via the concept of ontology. The central question here concerns the relationship between an Amazonian animist/perspectivist ontology and the naturalism characteristic of Christian-Western thought. Through a critical reading of the notion of ontological change advanced by Descola (2013) in Beyond Nature and Culture, the article aims to show that the transformation experienced by the Wari' with the arrival of Christianity can be described neither as a linear transition between ontologies, nor as the result of the foregrounding of conceptions or kinds of relationship previously found in an encompassed form. The separation between humans and animals, and the constitution of an inner self typical of Christian naturalism, are becoming gradually absorbed into the Wari' world now but were non-existent and inconceivable in their traditional universe. An examination of the translation choices made by the Evangelical missionaries from the New Tribes Mission and the apprehension of these ideas by the Wari' suggests a complex and non-linear transition between the two ontologies.
How Does Form Reveal Relation?
Through the study of form, we explore how relations constitute persons for the Huni Kuin of Western Amazonia. Shamanistic song, and the role in it of patterned design, reveals a specific aesthetics that emphasizes processes of becoming, transformation, and figure/ground reversal. Since bodily substances and actions of others affect the ‘thinking body’, well-being depends on making visible the relational network that exists inside and outside one’s embodied self. An aesthetic battlefield unfolds where the doubles of ingested substances invert the predatory relation and come to envelop the ‘eye soul’ of the one who ingested them with their design and ornaments. This setting allows us to address the fractal quality of personhood and the permanent disequilibrium between symmetrical and asymmetrical relations in Amazonia.
Folds, Wraps, and Relations in the Southern Andes
This article explores how viscera, bodies, and forces emerge in resemblance to one another. In the connections between the animals’ butcher, the treatment of body parts, and the rituals of herd marking in the Argentinean highlands, folds and wrappings of viscera, leathers, meats, and dances make things ‘look like’ something else in different scales, highlighting correspondences or reflections between entities. Each level of these compositions refers to another, and a change in one can affect all of them. Resemblances are constantly evaluated and topologically manipulated, either to enable their mutual stimulation or to avoid connections and thus to establish differences between the perspectives of different beings. This article argues that the fabrication of similarities and differences through the manipulation of resemblances offers a privileged key to an understanding of Andean and Amerindian sociality.
Reflections on 'Ontology'
This piece reflects on two 'ontological turns': the recent anthropological movement and that occasioned earlier in analytic philosophy by the work of W. V. O. Quine. I argue that the commitment entailed by 'ontology' is incompatible with the laudable aim of the 'ontological turn' in anthropology to take seriously radical difference and alterity.
A Reflection on the 'Ways of Knowing' Conference
Stirred by the University of St Andrews’s 25th Anniversary Conference—celebrating twentyfive years of the anthropology department—entitled ‘Ways of Knowing’, my objective is to reflect on some of the works presented as they pertain to my own interests in shamanry and Amerindian perspectivism. As a master’s student, it was imperative to attend this conference, since it served as a forum in which to discuss the foundations on which (I think) anthropology is based: knowledge and what the individual accepts or rejects as being knowledge.