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Another look at the naturalistic fallacy: on some ecological aspects of Philippe Descola’s anthropology.
On the basis of what has been called “ontological turn in cultural anthropology”, over the past three
decades cultural anthropology has questioned its own epistemological status in order to redefine its
theoretical and disciplinary ground. The critique of Nature/Culture’s conceptual dichotomy
represents one of the main focuses of this attempt.
Undoubtedly, French anthropologist Philippe Descola has occupied a relevant position in the
context of this debate. With his pivotal work Par-delà nature et culture, Descola has entered into
the problems raised by ontological turn’s anthropologists. Considering Descola’s purpose, what is
more relevant is that he does not just “deconstruct” the concept of nature but, more radically, he
grounds his argument on a solid ontological basis. Indeed, in Par-delà nature et culture Descola’s
aim is to show that nature cannot be considered only a conceptual "invention" of the western philosophical tradition, but it represents the systematized product of a particular mode of
organization of perceptual experience that Descola denominates “ontology”. Each ontology is
characterized by the manner it organizes the link of continuity and discontinuity between human
and non-human. From this perspective, nature can be considered as the product of a specific
ontology, that Descola calls “naturalism”.
Thanks to their theoretical breadth, the theses developed in Par-delà nature et culture detain many
philosophical repercussions of great interest and they allow to reconsider some problems related to
animal ethics and veganism. What I want to suggest in this presentation is that by adopting the
model of the four ontologies proposed by Descola it is possible to shed light on the problem of the
difference between man and animal.
I will develop my argumentation as follows. Firstly, I will try to present the theoretical
presupposition that underpin Descola’s thesis while showing how they are linked to an original reinterpretation of some themes derived from structuralism and phenomenology. The result of this
synthesis will lead to a partial but sufficient comprehension of the model of the four ontologies as
Descola exposed it in his main work. Then, I will analyse the features of the “naturalistic” ontology,
which organizes the difference between human and non-human establishing a continuity of
“physicality” and a discontinuity of “interiority” between the two poles of relationship. Then I will
compare naturalism with the “animistic” ontology, which, on the contrary, links human and non-
human by “interiority” and divide them by “physicality”. Finally, by exploiting Descola’s
arguments, I will suggest an alternative way to set up the philosophical conditions that could
possibly ground an ethics freed from the concept of “species”. This purpose is to be found in
Descola’s most recent works, where he develops the notion of “ecology of relation”, that is to say a
new manner of thinking the link between human and non-human that overcomes what might be
called the “fallacy” of naturalism, namely the idea that nature is an universal concept.
(University of Bologna)