Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives

By Philippe Descola; Gisli Palsson | Go to book overview

Chapter 9

Nature, culture, magic, science

On meta-languages for comparison in cultural ecology

Edvard Hviding

This chapter addresses certain problems in the foundations of anthropological inquiry, concerning the 'empiricist' appropriation of certain concepts prevalent in 'rationalist' discourse (cf. Leach 1976). Turning a critical eye on certain epistemological practices in anthropology, I focus on received wisdom concerning relationships between people and their environment, particularly the often-presumed universal conceptual dualism of 'nature' and 'culture' (cf. Lévi-Strauss 1966). I shall elaborate on the position that the nature-culture dualism forms part of western 'ethnoepistemology' and derives from a non-universal ontological basis. Further, some epistemological contexts of the concepts 'magic' and 'science' are investigated with particular reference to their dualist usage in anthropological discourse and to wider philosophical debates. Through a discussion of ethnographic material from Melanesia, some alternative, non-dualist ontological and epistemological contexts will then be exemplified, and some of their analytical implications explored.


ON EPISTEMOLOGICAL PRIVILEGES IN ANTHROPOLOGY

Much discussion has taken place within and beyond anthropology about whether or not western rationalist presuppositions can be taken as representative of human universals, and whether they can be accorded an epistemologically privileged position in cultural translation. It has become rather widely held that Cartesian dualism and other metaphysics characteristic of western ontological presuppositions have dominated anthropological analysis to a degree that may obscure multiple orderings of reality. As expressed in a critique from feminist anthropology, 'social scientists must guard against the

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