Anthropological Metaphysics / Philosophical Resistance

From the Series: The Politics of Ontology

Photo by Ian Lindsay.

One of the key political stakes of the ontological turn lies less in concrete, actual politics than in a certain at once philosophical and anthropological politics—let’s call it, remembering the Valeryian sense of metaphysics as a fantastic form of thought emphasized by Viveiros de Castro, a metaphysical politics—that could be said to involve what Derrida once called “philosophical resistance,” a resistance through intellectual means to metaphysical structures themselves. Such resistance today takes place along three fronts, against what can be dubbed three different conceptualities: (1) the baseline anthropological metaphysics of the anthropologists; (2) the metaphysics—because, yes, that’s what it is—of modernity or the moderns (because, yes, the moderns exist and can be identified); and (3), finally, although we have no time to discuss it, the new metaphysics articulated by what are nonetheless some very old-school metaphysicians, by which I mean the metaphysics of speculative realism and allied currents in English and French philosophy. But this metaphysical politics also has an active, constructive side whose import lies in its “superior comparativism” and the transformations it can effect in the core of the metaphysical bases of the human sciences. I will make this last point apropos the work of Latour, Viveiros de Castro, and Descola, all of whom I take up here both because we in fact have well-developed ontologies and metaphysics within anthropologyand to emphasize that discussion of these should be part of a conversation like ours.

I say that we have to resist a certain baseline anthropological metaphysics because one of the signal contributions of a certain ontological turn in anthropology—one not necessarily reducible or identical to the current of thought usually associated with the term—is that the old anthropological project of a comparative and critical specification of the modern (and its various cognates: liberalism, the natural sciences, technology, capitalism) can no longer, following Viveiros de Castro's Métaphysiques Cannibales and the entire philosophical side of the Latourian corpus culminating in An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence, be segregated from the actual practice of metaphysics (an approach for which “ontology” is not exactly be the right word). In other words, like it or not, the anthropologists are becoming philosophers, and some of the only ones worth listening to. But if the new concepts they are laying out are not only to be understood but further deployed, very few people besides the anthropologists are going to be able to do it, which requires dispensing once and for all with the tacit metaphysics of anthropology, that poorly mixed, difficult-to-swallow cocktail of the phenomenological Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, and a little Marx, according to which everything human is constituted, in essence, from some mix of Zuhandenheit, lived experience, perceptual/cognitive forms, historical conditions, and that favorite metaphysical master concept of anthropology: practice. Unless that metaphysics is smoked out and exposed for what it is, the new, explicitly metaphysical metaphysics of anthropology—the other or alter-metaphysics of Viveiros de Castro and the empirical metaphysics of Latour, both quite aware that they are indeed metaphysics and of the distribution of the real they propose—will not be heard.

What exactly does the new, avowedly metaphysical metaphysics of the anthropologists offer a philosophical politics? Three things, each of which is an aspect of its active, constructive, transformative side. The binding, first of all, of metaphysical ontology to a comparative, pluralist specification of the modern. Among the many remarkable things about Latour’s An Inquiry Into the Modes of Existence is that it lays out a series of metaphysical proposals—about transcendence, beings, additions to their essences made to them by the various modes of existence, and transformation—without necessarily universalizing them, and instead subordinating them to a question about who and what the moderns are. What this link between comparison and metaphysics does is overcome the entire philosophical tendency to presume that ontology can be undertaken without an account of how it relates to peoples and traditions of thought external or marginal to modernity and it seeks instead to make ontology a project of specifying the modern. Metaphysics instead becomes “modernography,” and cannot be undertaken outside it.

As for the second political stake, the new anthropological metaphysics offers a means, perhaps unprecedented in philosophy, toward the transformation of modern, Western metaphysics, which is one of the most important points of Métaphysiques Cannibales and the part of Viveiros de Castro’s thinking that follows it. If philosophy has become particularly stale, if we suffer, as Catherine Malabou has put it, from a certain kind of metaphysical exhaustion, this is perhaps because (I offer it as a hypothesis) metaphysical thought can no longer rely for its materials on the Western canon, whose conceptual resources have become depleted. Even its margins are becoming too well tread to provide the materials for philosophical invention. Understanding forms of life and thought based on conceptual/cosmological coordinates radically different from those of the moderns, as the Amazonian case shows, requires us to resituate and conceive anew our fundamental categories and whatever basic form of thought underlies them. What this means, concretely, is that (1) so-called “subjects," "histories," and "truths," for example, that are marginal to, or not of, the modern West can be listened to and understood only if the concepts (i.e., of the subject, of history, and of truth) used to interpret them are profoundly transformed by the encounter. But something even more profound is also at stake: (2) the resultant transformations will effectively sustain philosophy—by which I mean conceptual thinking, from whatever discipline, capable of being transposed into other disciplines—far more than any originating merely from re-evaluations of the Occidental tradition. The best example of this in Viveiros de Castro’s work lies, I would say, in his notions of virtual affinity and the Amerindian “other-structure,” concepts with heavy consequences for the old Deleuzian virtual/actual couple and the notion of consciousness associated with them. While I can only gesture to this point, understanding Amazonian cosmology turns the philosophies of difference on their head while simultaneously continuing them.

The third political stake of this new metaphysics could be called its “externalist pluralism,” or, to steal an idea of Patrice Maniglier’s, “superior comparativism.” This last point is evident in Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture, a statement that some will find surprising, but I want to make clear (before it is inevitably given a thin assessment in the post-theoretical United States) how far this book goes in migrating metaphysics away from its home territories. Although Beyond Nature and Culture can be taken as offering merely an explanatory typology, it takes very little imagination to also see it as the first “geography of being,” a term I use to suggest that its quartet of ontologies is like a group of Heidegger’s dispensations of being or Foucaultian epochs but with the very crucial difference that modern metaphysics is not assumed to be primarily legible with respect to the past of the West. By taking a step out of history and time and onto a synchronic, geographical plane, Descola shows that modernity can be rendered intelligible when its basic ontological arrangements are contrasted with others external to it (not with, that is, arrangements supposedly internal to its history and thus itself). He thereby provides an alternative to the approach of a rather large group of post-Heideggerian thinkers, which includes Foucault and Agamben, who presume that the character of now-global modern problematics can be assessed through an account of an exclusively Western historicality. This preference for lateral, geographical comparison opens, moreover, the possibility of a truly planetary metaphysics, in a double sense: one that would see all peoples as philosophy’s intercessors, and that would also take the planet as a whole as a comparable unit, such that this world would be but one variant of others and thus not limited to the political-economic-ecological-collectivist possibilities imagined for it by the present neoliberal global order.


Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2013. An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. n.d. [2012]. “The Other Metaphysics, and The Metaphysics of the Others.” Unpublished paper.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. Forthcoming. Cannibal Metaphysics. Translated by Peter Skafish. Minneapolis: Univocal Press.