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Anthropology and Phylosophy or the Problem of Ontological Symmetry

Par Tim Ingold
Publié par Clifford Armion le 02/11/2014
"Anthropology, for me, is philosophy with the people in. It is philosophy, because its concern is with the conditions and possibilities of human being and knowing in the one world we all inhabit."

all rights reserved - Tim Ingold
Tim Ingold (born 1948) is a British anthropologist, currently Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He was educated at Leighton Park School and Cambridge University. He is a fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Ingold is researching and teaching today on the connections between anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture (the ‘4 As’), conceived as ways of exploring the relations between human beings and the environments they inhabit.





Anthropology, for me, is philosophy with the people in. It is philosophy, because its concern is with the conditions and possibilities of human being and knowing in the one world we all inhabit. Where it differs, perhaps, from the philosophy of the philosophers is that its natural habitat is the very world of which it speaks. Its inquiries into what life might be like – of what its possibilities might be – are always tempered by a finely tuned awareness of what life is like, for the inhabitants of particular times and places. This is what I mean by bringing in the people. The tension between the speculative and the experiential is the force that drives our work. Leave out the people, and the force would be dissipated so as to leave only the flaccid, hollow shell that I take much academic philosophy to be.

A philosophy with the people in has four key qualities: it is generous, open-ended, comparative, and yet critical. It is generous because it is founded in a willingness to both listen and respond to what others have to tell us, and to give in return. That is to say, in our anthropological researches, we study with the people among whom we work, under their tutelage. They are, to us, what professors are to students of the academy. This, moreover, has a critical corollary of which, in my estimation, anthropologists themselves have not been sufficiently cognisant. Too often, having left what they call ‘the field’, they have turned their backs on their erstwhile mentors, remembering them not as wise and knowledgeable interlocutors but more as sources of evidence for certain beliefs and practices, or as what were once known as ‘informants’, a term that captures well the duplicitous nature of the enterprise. Worse still, they claim to own this evidence as their ‘ethnography’. Not that there is anything wrong with ethnography as such. To describe or chronicle the lives of a people, which is what ethnography literally means, is an entirely worthy endeavour. But to convert this material into data for subsequent analysis is to cast aside the very people to whom we are indebted for our formation. This is to install a fundamental asymmetry at the heart of what we do. And behind this asymmetry is the claim that underpins the institution of the academy itself: namely, to reveal the truth behind the illusion of appearances, or to deliver an authoritative account of the way the world works.

It is precisely because anthropology is philosophy with the people rather than ethnography of the people that it is open-ended. Far from fixing an end-point and looking back on what has already come to pass, subjecting it to retrospective analysis, it joins with the movement of life itself in order to reveal the paths along which it can keep on going. Thus anthropology carries on, even as life does. It does not aim, then, for final solutions. It follows that the holism to which our discipline aspires is the very opposite of totalisation. Far from piecing all the parts together into a single whole, in which everything is ‘joined up’, it seeks to reveal how within every moment of social life is enfolded an entire history of relations of which it is the transitory outcome. This has an important corollary, however. It is that our philosophy cannot be an engagement with finished systems of thought but only with such systems in the making. We are all too inclined to credit the peoples among whom we work with understandings of being and becoming – or ontologies – that are already fully formed. One sure sign of this tendency is the addition to these understandings of the suffix ‘ism’. Thus we have, for example, ‘naturalism’, ‘totemism’ and ‘animism’. But this forecloses lives and minds that have to do their thinking for themselves. People grow into knowledge; they do not receive it ready made. Such growth entails a combination of instilling and exposure, both of which are brought together in the concept of education. It is, I believe, high time that practices of education, long and unjustly marginalised in an anthropology that remains obsessed with the shapes and forms of mature thought, be restored to the centrality they deserve.

Now this bears critically on the question of what we mean when we say that anthropology is comparative. What do we compare? Anthropologists may pride themselves on the symmetry with which they conduct their inquiries. Not for them the ethnocentric branding of other peoples’ philosophies as less developed than our own! Yet a comparative project that treats people as the exemplars of diverse modes of thought, and the anthropologist as an emancipated spectator free to roam the gallery of human variation, has a stance of asymmetry built into its founding assumptions. This is the asymmetry that we have already found in an anthropology conceived as a study of, rather than with, the peoples of the world. An ‘anthropology with’ is comparative in another sense. It lies in the acknowledgement that no way of being is the only possible one, and that for every way we find, or resolve to take, alternative ways could be taken that would lead in different directions. Thus even as we follow a particular way, the question of ‘why this way rather than that?’ is always at the forefront of our minds. What we are comparing, then, are not final understandings but ways of coming by them. There are, let us say, natural, totemic and animic ways of education. With these and similar words, preferably with their –isms removed, we are referring not to ontologies but to ontogenies, not to structures but to generations of being. And whereas the symmetry of comparative ontology rests on the asymmetry of its academic foundation, the asymmetry of a comparative ontogeny that can only follow one path at a time rests on the genuinely symmetrical acknowledgement that multiple paths are possible.

This brings me, finally, to the fourth of the key qualities of anthropology with which I began. Anthropology is critical because we cannot be content with things as they are. By general consent, the organisations of production, distribution, governance and knowledge that have dominated the modern era have brought the world to the brink of catastrophe. In finding ways to carry on, we need all the help we can get. But no-one – no indigenous group, no specialist science, no doctrine or philosophy – already holds the key to the future, if only we could find it. We have to make the future for ourselves, but that can only be done through dialogue. Anthropology’s role, I believe, is to expand the scope of this dialogue: to make a conversation of human life itself.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Tim Ingold, "Anthropology and Phylosophy or the Problem of Ontological Symmetry", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), novembre 2014. Consulté le 18/03/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/anthropology-and-phylosophy-or-the-problem-of-ontological-symmetry