ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment

(Plen03)

Human / Nature

Location Appleton Tower, Lecture Theatre 4
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 16:00

Convenors

Tim Ingold (University of Aberdeen) email
Martin Mills (University of Aberdeen) email
Maggie Bolton (University of Aberdeen) email
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Summary

Should anthropology respond to the Enlightenment separation of humanity and nature by continuing to assert the autonomy of the social and cultural domain from its biological base? Or should it favour an understanding of forms of life as emergent within fields of relations not confined to the human?

Long Abstract

One of the intellectual mainstays of the European Enlightenment was the separation of humanity from the 'state of nature'. Thanks to their possession of reason and conscience, human beings were thought capable of breaking the bounds of instinct that held other creatures captive, and of forming communities that could aspire to morality and progress. Civilisation itself was defined by the degree to which humans were raised both above the rest of the animal kingdom and above 'the animal' within - comprising dispositions that humans were supposed to share with the beasts. As humanity exceeded nature, so the symbolic domains of culture and knowledge were held to exceed the one biophysical world within which they were forged. Anthropologists have responded to this thesis in two ways. They have either followed the example of many of the peoples among whom they have worked in rejecting any a priori division between nature and humanity in favour of an understanding of forms of life as emergent within fields of mutually conditioning relations, not confined to the human. Or they have continued to assert the ontological autonomy of the social and cultural domain from its biological 'base', and with it, the distinctiveness of sociocultural anthropology vis-à-vis the science of human nature. In this panel three internationally distinguished scholars - Signe Howell, Gisli Palsson and Terrence Deacon - will address the question of whether these two positions can be reconciled, by responding to a position paper to be prepared in advance by Tim Ingold.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Against human nature

Author: Tim Ingold (University of Aberdeen)  email

Summary

Are human cultural differences superimposed upon a universal human nature? The appeal to an essentialist concept of human nature is a defensive reaction the legacy of racist science left by Darwin’s argument in The Descent of Man. Humans are made to appear different in degree from their evolutionary antecedents by attributing the movement of history to a process of culture that differs in kind from the biological process of evolution. The specifications of evolved human nature are supposed to lie in the genes. However human capacities are not genetically specified but emerge within processes ontogenetic development. Moreover the circumstances of development are continually shaped through human activity. There is consequently no human nature that has escaped the current of history.

Long Abstract

None provided.

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Writing nature: human variation as biosocial becoming

Author: Gísli Pálsson (University of Iceland)  email

Summary

Immanuel Kant, a key figure in the European Enlightenment, the author of Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View and arguably the first lecturer in anthropology, distinguished between physiological and pragmatic knowledge: “Physiological knowledge of the human being concerns the investigation of what nature makes of the human being; pragmatic, the investigation of what he as a free-acting being makes of himself” (Kant 2006[1798]: 3). In Ingold’s view, such a distinction has fatefully marked anthropological knowledge ever since the Enlightenment, separating culture and biology. Recently, however, the notions of “biology” and “the body” have been radically socialized and, at the same time, “society” has been thoroughly embodied and materialized. Where does this leave the central anthropological issue of “human variation”? I suggest it is pertinent to rethink variation, fusing “social” and “natural” fields of scholarship. In such a project, however, variation should not be seen as the mapping of essences and states of being but of relations and becoming. It makes sense, I argue, for the purpose of capturing the moment of becoming in the flux of human life, to speak of human variation as a moving “biosocial present” (analogous, perhaps, to the “ethnographic present”), continually situated in a dynamic context. This is not just an academic, anthropological exercise, it has profound implications for the understanding of health and well-being – for meaningful post-Enlightenment biopolitics.

Long Abstract

None provided.

Revisiting Levy-Bruhl and “the law of participation”: some reflections on its relevance to contemporary anthropology

Author: Signe Howell (University of Oslo)  email

Summary

The dissolution of the division between humanity and nature in much contemporary anthropology raises important questions regarding ramifications of our ethnographic studies of societies commonly characterized as animistic. In his critique of Frazer, Tyler and Lang, Levy-Bruhl attempted to elicit a formal differences between “primitive” and “civilized” thought or logic His critics dismissed this as racist. Reading his work today this is a false accusation. His presentation of the issues has much to say to contemporary debates. The crux of his argument echoes much current thinking: that primitive thought is indifferent to contradiction; and that all things, beings, or whatever, are in some fashion linked together, that there is no distinction between self and other, objects and subject, past and present, animate and inanimate Absurd at the time, highly acceptable today – when, one might say, primitive thought has become human thought. A mutuality between the human and natural worlds also in non-exotic ethnographic settings is uncontroversial. But does “post-humanism” in its various guises limit rather than expand the scope of anthropology?

Long Abstract

None provided.

Neither nature nor nurture (nor any interactionist compromise)

Author: Terrence Deacon (U C Berkeley)  email

Summary

Abstract: Although causes of human behaviour are often cast in a classic nature/nurture framing — even by those trying to break out of this Cartesian prison by exploring various forms of nature-plus-nurture compromises — I will argue that it is time to recognize that not everything we do fits within the scope of this dichotomy. I will use the classic example of universal grammar to show how something can be a near-universal human attribute and yet not be attributed just to processes within this domain. I will advocate that we need to begin thinking in terms of constraints not "causes" and that we need to recognize that constraints can have a sort of formal origin. Specifically, in the case of universal grammar I will explore the role of semiotic constraints that emerge with symbolic communication and will suggest that these formal constraints have played a significant role in shaping the distinctive biases characterizing human cognition.

Long Abstract

None provided.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.