ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment

(P77)

Anthropology and the post-enlightenment person

Location Quincentenary Building, Seminar Room
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 14:00

Convenor

Martin Mills (University of Aberdeen) email
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Summary

How should anthropologists think about and theorise the cultural perception of personhood in all its diversity?

Long Abstract

Since the years of the European Enlightenment, the problem of characterising the person as an object of knowledge has dogged the philosophical, psychological and social sciences. In many respects, the methodological assumption of a universe of persons and intentional states has been assumed by the social sciences, and therefore anthropology, since Weber's formulation of verstehen. This is a problem both of cultural conception and psychological perception, and therefore often stands in the uncomfortable realm between psychology, anthropology, philosophy and, sometimes, even theology. In anthropology, considerable attention has classically been paid to problematizing the rational economic and moral individual that emerged from the Enlightenment as a basis for social and economic thinking, and - more in more recent decades - the tendency to "treat humanity as the deciding mark of personhood" (Dennett). And yet the place of the person and personhood as an object of knowledge and attention, and as the grounding of both our epistemology and methodology, remains under-examined and undecided. This panel thus asks: Is personhood a universal feature of human social and biological thought? Despite the apparent variety that exists in the ascription of personhood in the ethnographic record, does this constitute a single encompassing process of human cognition, a cultural multiplicity which - like "marriage" before it - conveniently comes under a single analytic rubric, or is - as some evolutionary psychology theorists would assert - personhood a standard universal, occasionally misconceived?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Relatedness, legality, and the heterogeneous ontologies of personhood among the Rukai of Taiwan

Author: Weining Cheng (Academia Sinica)  email

Summary

This paper proposes that the question of what post-enlightenment personhood looks like should be ethnographically constructed and then philosophically scrutinized, as the case of the Rukai shows that the nature of personhood is simultaneously an epistemological question and an ontological category.

Long Abstract

This paper focuses on the ethnography of how and why the Rukai, one indigenous peoples of Taiwan, give importance to verifying paternity. It also examines the duplex (Strathern 2005) between the legal categories of kinship as the world of abstraction, and local kinship as embodying practices of affect, in order to see how they are conducive to the heterogeneous ontologies of personhood. To make this point, I analyze the dialectic layers in the power of legal abstraction in kinship categories, the 'truth' of genetic evidence, and the reality of sedentary affect in everyday life. Indeed, I argue that the heterogeneous ontologies of personhood in modern Rukai kinship constructs are closely bound up with their cognizance of alterity as an indispensable part of their worlds. For them, an agent mimics ideas or aesthetics in order to capture the potency of alterity for the sake of self-transformation, thereby fashioning a heterogeneous ontology of the world. In other words, the nature of what counts as personhood or humanity is always contingent upon the dialectics between alterity and self as they engage in both the local community and in the (high) modernity embodied in legality.

Seen from this view, the question of what post-enlightenment personhood looks like should be ethnographically constructed and then philosophically scrutinized, as the case of the Rukai shows that the nature of personhood is simultaneously an epistemological question and an ontological category.

Perceiving or constructing personhood? Deities and persons in Tibetan Buddhism

Author: Martin Mills (University of Aberdeen)  email

Summary

The anthropology of persons has generally been based either the psychology of person-perception or on the cultural construction of persons. Using Tibetan ethnography on tantric practices, I argue that personhood is certainly interpretively constructed, but by perceiving individuals, and in the manner that a house is constructed, using culturally available supplies, and in stages.

Long Abstract

One of the main problems with the anthropology of personhood is the problem of the immediate presence of persons and the manner in which they seem so obvious to the senses. Arguments for the cultural construction of personhood seem to fail to capture this visceral reality, while most psychological theories of person perception tend to emphasise an inferential and evolved universality that simultaneously fails to capture the apparent diversity of the ethnographic record. Using ethnography from Tibetan practices of dakskyed (tantric divine self-visualisations), which combine tantric visualisations of oneself and one's surroundings as a deity emergent from a mantra with the practitioner's surrounding envionment as the celestial abode of the deity. In an analogy with Austin's performative statements in natural language, discussion will particularly focus on the idea of the person as a platform concept: a concept which lacks intrinsic content but acts as a platform for the organisation of other perceived knowledge.

The new domestic order: pets as persons and the post-humanist man

Author: Vintila Mihailescu (National School of Political and Administrative Studies)  email

Summary

Beyond recessive trends of human-animal ties in (western) history, (some) animals have been turned recently to “persons”, thus figuring a “new domestic order”. Complementary, the very concept of man was challenged and theorized by rather anti-enlightenment post-humanist thinkers and activists.

Long Abstract

"I see the life of the native as utterly devoid of interest or importance, something as remote from me as the life of a dog…" - Malinowski confessed in his Journal. Only some decades latter, Tim Ingold claimed that "animals are not just like persons, they are persons". For 63.2% of the American pet owners, these are indeed members of the family. A "new domestic order" seems to emerge as the outcome of a co-evolution of the family structure and a changing attitude toward animals in general. (Some) animals have been turned not just to "persons", but to subjects of law too - or, at least, to subjects of ethics. In return, the very concept of manhood has been challenged along an anti-enlightenment post-humanist ideology.

Following the case study of pets, the paper presents and questions this recent moral standard of the "authentic man" and its enlarged concept of personhood.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.