Paris, 21 September 2012

Anthropologist Philippe Descola receives the CNRS Gold Medal

During a ceremony held at the Sorbonne in Paris on December 19, 2012, the anthropologist and Americanist Philippe Descola was presented with the CNRS Gold Medal, France's most prestigious scientific distinction. With a background in philosophy, Descola became a specialist in the native tribes of the Amazon Basin and the relations that human societies establish with nature. A professor and chair of the Anthropology of Nature at the Collège de France since 2000, Philippe Descola has also served since 2001 as director of the Laboratoire d'Anthropologie Sociale (Collège de France/CNRS/EHESS) founded in 1960 by Claude Lévi-Strauss. His ethnographic work among the Achuar Jivaro people of Ecuador revolutionized anthropological research in Amazonia. Gradually extending his scope to other societies and looking beyond the opposition between nature and culture, Descola has redefined the dialectic that structures humankind's relationship with the world and with other beings.

Born in Paris in 1949, Philippe Descola studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Saint Cloud and ethnology at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, where he completed a dissertation under the supervision of Claude Lévi-Strauss. His career began as a CNRS project leader, conducting ethnographic field research in the Amazon Basin from August 1976 through August 1978. He lived among the Achuar Jivaro people of Ecuador, studying how they identify natural beings and the types of relations that they maintain with them. This ethnographic experience provided the basic material for his doctoral dissertation, completed in 1983 and entitled “Domestic Nature, Symbolism and Praxis in Achuar Ecology.” This work highlights how the Achuar attribute human characteristics to nature, thus establishing a continuum between humans and non-humans. Following this ethnographic experience, Descola became a senior lecturer (1987) and later academic advisor (1989) at the EHESS (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales).

Over the course of his career, Descola has published many influential works that have been translated into English, including Domestic Nature (1986), The Spears of Twilight (1993), Beyond Nature and Culture (2005) and Claude Lévi-Strauss: a Career Spanning a Century (2012).

He is a foreign member of both the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. President of the French Americanists Society since 2002 and an officer in the Order of the Legion of Honor (2009), Descola was previously awarded the CNRS Silver Medal in 1995 for his anthropological work on relations with nature (knowledge, customs, etc.) in tribal societies.

An initial ethnographic project among the Achuar Jivaro people of Ecuador

Working in close contact with the Achuar Jivaro people from 1976 to 1978, Descola studied their singular ways of representing themselves and interacting with their environment. The Achuar maintain daily relations (through incantations, messages, etc.) with non-humans (plants, animals, meteors…), which they endow with human properties. As a geographer, ecologist and anthropologist, Descola collected ethnobotanical samples, measured the dimensions of the tribes' gardens, and showed how these individuals attribute human characteristics to other natural beings. Plants and animals are seen as “people” endowed with a soul and an independent life, capable of interacting and forming a continuum with humans. This is reflected in the Achuars' myths, which recount that in the beginning all beings had a human appearance. Although plants and animals have lost this appearance, they nonetheless retain a sociability that is similar to whole persons' social life. Descola identifies a series of “worlds” that structure the Achuars' relations with their environment: the house, garden, forest, river, etc. For example, even though it is cleared by men, the garden is essentially a space for women who do the planting, weeding, harvesting, and perform the associated rituals, like singing incantations to the guardian spirit of the garden.

From Amazonian ethnography to the anthropology of nature

Following up on this fieldwork, Descola began investigating how these very specific circumstances could be generalized to provide a broader insight into human beings and human behavior. In a sense, he wanted to “understand the unity of man through the diversity of the means that he adopts for objectifying a world from which he cannot dissociate himself” (excerpt from his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, 2001). In his book Beyond Nature and Culture (2005), he compares how different societies conceive the relations between humans and non-humans. Descola goes beyond the dualism that opposes nature and culture, showing that it is by no means universal and that, even in Europe, it emerged relatively late in history. He uses a dual contrast based on two criteria, “physicality/psyche” and “identity/differentiation,” while distinguishing four identification systems (the “four ontologies”) that make it possible to define the frontiers between self and non self in human societies: totemism, animism, analogism and naturalism.

Naturalism is the belief that nature exists, in other words, that certain entities owe their existence and development to a principle unaffected by human will, and that nothing occurs without a reason, whether it be transcendental or inherent to the natural world. This belief is typical of Western cosmologies as far back as Plato and Aristotle. Nature is that which isn't part of culture, and is distinct from human knowledge and know-how. While nature is universal, culture distinguishes between humans and non-humans and between the various human societies. The naturalism characteristic of our Western societies creates this border between the self and the other by pitting the concept of “nature” against “culture.” It determines our societies' point of view, the way they perceive others and the world. All physical bodies are subject to the same laws, but only humans have interiority.

Animism is the opposite of naturalism: humans and non-humans have the same interiority but are differentiated by their bodies and what their inherent physical properties enable them to do. Animism is characteristic, for example, of the native tribes of the Amazon Basin and the American Far North, as well as the indigenous populations of Siberia.

In totemism, groups uniting humans and non-humans derived from the same ancestral prototypes are thought to possess similar physical and moral qualities (for example fast, quarrelsome, of angular shape…), and thus to differ from other totemic groups of humans and non-humans with other qualities (slow, placid, of rounded shape…). The Australian Aborigines society is the best example.

Lastly, analogism is based on the idea that the world's elements are different, both physically and morally, so that it becomes vital to establish relations of correspondence between them through analogical reasoning. China, Europe until the Renaissance and the ancient Mexican and Andean civilizations provide good illustrations.

Philippe Descola is the originator of “relational ecology,” which investigates the relations that humans establish with non-humans and with other humans. His work in this area makes it possible to distinguish human societies and understand them better according to the different properties that they perceive in the world.

Towards an anthropology of landscape

In his most recent work, Philippe Descola has focused on how universal modes of identification interact with modes of figuration and the use of images. In an exhibition entitled La Fabrique des Images (“The Image Factory”) that he organized at the Quai Branly museum in Paris, he showed how the form and content of a culture's most common representations reflect the contrasts that are characteristic of the different ontologies.

Since 2011 Descola has been working on an “anthropology of landscape,” identifying the principles of iconic figuration and transfiguration of the environment at work in cultures that, unlike Europe and the Far East, have no conventional tradition of landscape representation.


© CNRS Photo Library/Céline Anaya Gautier. Photo available from the CNRS photo library,

Philippe Descola

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