What an Ontological Anthropology Might Mean

From the Series: The Politics of Ontology

Photo by Ian Lindsay.

Ontological anthropology seeks to open us to other kinds of realities beyond us. What are the stakes? Doing anthropology ontologically addresses this political question by reconfiguring both what the ends of such a practice might be as well as the means by which we could achieve them.

All good anthropology has always been ontological in that it opens us to other kinds of realities. And it has also always been political. We undertake such an exploration for a reason—it is part of a critical ethical practice. But the kind of reality that anthropology has been so good at exploring has been restricted to one—that which is socially constructed. This, of course, is a real real, and we can tap its transformative potential. The problem is that it is a kind of reality that can make us blind to other kinds of realities and it is a kind of reality that, on this planet at least, is distinctively human. What is more, the political problems we face today in the Anthropocene can no longer be understood only in human terms. This ontological fact demands another kind of ethical practice.

These observations put me somewhat at odds with the three takes on ontology laid out in the position paper by Holbraad, Pedersen, and Viveiros de Castro. These are: (1) ontology as the search for essential truth—how things are (characterized as bad); (2) anthropology as the critique of all such possible essences—how things should be (also bad, because it relies on an unexamined ontology—social construction); and (3) ontological anthropology as the exploration and potential realization of other reals—how things could be, otherwise(good).

Note that Ontology1 is a lot like Nature and Ontology2 a lot like Culture. Now, I’ll be bad: What is the Ontology1 of Ontology2? What is the Nature of Culture? I think we can and need to be quite formally precise about what this is: Culture is that contingent system, wherever it is found (or wherever we project it), in which relata are co-produced by virtue of their relationships to an emergent system of other such relata. But what is the Nature of Nature? This is much more complicated. My concern is that when we discard this monolithic Nature, we actually, in this rejection, stabilize it. Nature for me would include all sorts of not-necessarily human dynamics and entities that are quite difficult to essentialize—like the reality beyond humans of generals and constitutive absences; the generative logics of form; nonhuman modes of thought, which involve relational logics that do not work like culture or language; nonhuman kinds of value, telos, and selves; souls, and even spirits. These can, if we let them, emerge through ethnographic—or, following Holbraad et al.—“ontographic” engagement. I would say that they are real (Ontology1) but this is suggested to me by the ways their properties have come to work their ways through me in ways that remake me.

I take Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s (2009) call for the “permanent decolonization of thought” seriously, but what colonizes our thinking is language, or more specifically a form of thinking that is (on this planet) specific to humans. This is a mode of thinking that involves, technically speaking, symbolic reference, which is what produces things like social construction as well as the conceptual difficulty we have in relating to and harnessing what lies beyond social construction.

The problem is that we cannot do this sort of decolonization by just thinking about it, or thinking with other humans—the “Alters”—about it, because this only recolonizes our thinking by a human way of thinking. (I’m not arguing for a turn to phenomenology or panpsychism, but I do worry that we are thinking too much from within human thought.)

Let me illustrate. My recent book (Kohn 2013) is an ethnographic/ontographic exploration of how certain humans, the Amazonian Runa, relate to the beings—animals, ghosts, and spirits—of a tropical forest. This book is called, How Forests Think (Ontology1, perhaps), not How the Runa Think Forests Think (Ontology2). In this book I am not just telling you how it is that forests think (bad Ontology1). Rather, I’m attempting a kind engagement with Runa thinking with thinking forests such that this sort of sylvan thinking (which is no longer human, and therefore not just Runa or mine) can think itself through us—making us over in ways that could make us otherwise (Ontology3).

In finding ways to allow thinking forests to think themselves through us, we cannot just walk away from Ontology1—how things are—because Ontology2 (social construction) is not just a western ontology, but a human one. The point is that we have to be able to say how this is (Ontology1), so that in recognizing its limits we might open ourselves to that which lies beyond it and us (toward something much stranger than what we take monolithic Nature to be). Our human way of being is permanently being opened to that which lies beyond it. This is an ontological fact that, if recognized, can allow us to tap these other kinds of reals in order to develop another kind of ethical practice in the Anthropocene, one that could include, in some way or another, those many other kinds of beings that lie beyond us and with whom we make our lives.


Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2009. Métaphysiques cannibales: Lignes d'anthropologie post-structurale. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.