In the First Person
Philippe Descola: ‘We, the modern, are the only ones reflecting on the difference between nature and culture.’
António Guerreiro

Philippe Descola, who had Claude Lévi-Strauss as a superior and completed his PhD under his wing, has been a central figure of Anthropology since he published Par-delà nature et culture [Beyond Nature and Culture]. The thesis developed in this book had, and continues to have, tremendous resonance beyond its disciplinary field. The new times, characterised by the criticism of European ethnocentrism, are favourable to the triumphant reception of his work.

philippe descola

© Bénédicte Roscot


This interview with Philippe Descola took place in May 2023, when the French anthropologist and professor at the Collège de France presented a conference at Culturgest, in Lisbon. The topic of the conference revisited the title of a monumental book published two years ago: Les Formes du visible [The Forms of the Visible]. Figuration, the production of images, is a common operation among humans, Descola teaches us in this book, which is a long and wonderful journey through the many ways of ‘worldmaking’, i.e. representing the plurality of configurations of the world present in different cultures. An anthropology of images had already been the basis of a singular exhibit, with a strong thesis-like character, which Descola had conceived for the Quai Branly Museum, an ethnographic museum, in 2010. The exhibit was called La fabrique des images [The Factory of Images].

With this extensive study of iconographic traditions and styles, Philippe Descola continued a task of great theoretical scope, initiated with Par-delà nature et culture, a book from 2005 that gave him prominence worldwide within the scientific field of Anthropology. This task consisted in undoing the dualism nature/culture that resides in our ethnocentrism. The research work carried out by the ethnologist in the Amazon resulted in a thesis that profoundly influenced the disciplinary field of Anthropology: the opposition between nature and culture is far from being universal; it is only ‘our’ way of objectifying reality, based on our metaphysical tradition. But the same is not true of other cultures. Therefore, Descola moved from an ‘anthropology of culture’ to an ‘anthropology of nature’.

Recently, Philippe Descola entered the media-dominated public space for reasons foreign to his science: he gave his support and became actively involved in some of the actions of the environmental group Les soulèvements de la Terre [The Earth Uprisings]. It did not take long for him to be included in the blacklist of ‘ecoterrorists’ drawn up by Emmanuel Macron’s government, which caused a stir in the world of science and culture.

levi strauss tristes tropiques

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Caduveo facial drawings, 1936


ANTÓNIO GUERREIRO  Today you hold a chair at the Collège de France that used to belong to Lévi-Strauss. Do you feel like his heir?

PHILIPPE DESCOLA  There are the self-proclaimed heirs and then there are those classified as heirs. I wouldn’t like to say I’m Lévi-Strauss’s heir. I was his student, I place myself in the structuralist tradition and it’s true that I continue his work in a very particular direction, but not as his heir.

AG  Your place within the structuralist tradition implies many detours, however…

PD  But not a detour from the methods. Lévi-Strauss used the opposition between nature and culture, underlining that it was a methodological, not an ontological opposition. I believed that it was possible and necessary to stop using these classificatory tools, so that we could imagine other ways to thematise and organise the discontinuities between humans and non-humans. From this point of view, I take a step sideways, but the method that I use is the structural method, which even within the order of phenomena consists in focusing on the differences, not the similarities.

"What we see as a positive singularity and a legacy of Enlightenment philosophy, the difference between nature and culture, actually keeps us from being universal, since we are the only ones who think this way."

paul bril

Paul Bril, Deer Hunt, 1590 © Photo: Musée du Louvre, Paris


AG  Undoing the opposition between nature and culture is one of your great theoretical enterprises that is not contained in Lévi-Strauss’s work.

PD  You’re right, but the tools that I use were forged by Lévi-Strauss. It’s a big change, without a doubt. The concept of ‘nature’ is central to Western metaphysics because it allows us to qualify, by default, all the notions this concept is opposed to: nature and art, nature and history, nature and religion, nature and consciousness, etc. But the concept itself is imprecise and can lend itself to numerous forms of alternation and opposition regarding other concepts. It plays a fundamental role in Western metaphysics. And the moderns, the only ones who believe in the existence of nature and culture, are also the only ones who have done it. What we see as a positive singularity and a legacy of Enlightenment philosophy, the difference between nature and culture, actually keeps us from being universal, since we are the only ones who think this way. Our dualistic cosmology is completely singular in the history of humanity, although it took some time for it to take on its current form, with successive iterations since Greek philosophy, including Christianity and the scientific revolution. The question that I ask is the following: how can these concepts that arose from a singular historical path (and which characterises a very singular cosmology) be used, as we do in the social sciences and in our everyday lives, to treat phenomena in a universal fashion? In this way, I draw attention to the false universalism of modernity.

AG  And how did you arrive at this criticism of dualism?

PD  In the first part of my book Par-delà nature et culture I used as an epigraph a poem by Fernando Pessoa, by his heteronym Alberto Caeiro to be more precise, which says that there are trees, weeds, flowers, hills, but no nature, [I saw there’s no Nature, / Nature doesn’t exist, / There are hills, valleys, plains, / There are trees, flowers, weeds, / There are rivers and stones, / But there isn’t a whole all this belongs to, / And a real and true wholeness / Is a sickness of our ideas. // Nature is parts without a whole / This is perhaps the mystery they speak of.] Therefore, a poet of the calibre of Pessoa had already reached this conclusion. I don’t have his poetic ability, but I have the ethnographic experience with the Achuar, in the Amazon, which made me realise that what we called ‘nature’ and ‘society’ made no sense, since there wasn’t nature, on the one hand, and society, on the other. On the contrary, there was a relationship of profound continuity, because for the Achuar, plants and animals are endowed with a spirit, a soul. In fact, they are social partners, not an external nature. Realising this, on the ground, led me to extend my research beyond the Achuar, in the Amazon, to other regions of the world, developing a comparative anthropology and using the texts of my colleagues. This is how I understood that the opposition between nature and society was an absolute singularity of the moderns. Since I don’t have the clear-sightedness of a poet such as Pessoa, it was an ethnographic shock that caused me to call into question the universality of the opposition between nature and culture.

AG  This shock can be sensed in your designation of an ‘anthropology of nature’. To our way of thinking, this name is a paradox…

PD  It’s paradoxical and provocative. It’s an oxymoron…

farid belkahia

Farid Belkahia, The Hand, 1983