A reading of Philippe Descola

Reading time: 32 minutes

Translation by AB – November 21, 2021


Foreword

Although Claude Lévi-Strauss is one of the best-known thinkers of the 20th century, anthropology remains a rather reserved science. His field of study, which covers human groups in all their dimensions, both “material” and “cultural”, nevertheless lies at the crossroads of many current issues. This relative discretion is perhaps due to anthropologists themselves who, studying “human substance”, would take nowadays a certain risk in popularizing their discipline. A physicist can indeed, without fear of anathema, talk about quantum mechanics to the wide audience, but an anthropologist may be afraid to bring up subjects relating to this now “incandescent” human substance. To make matters worse, there are many who think that Science expresses not truths but opinions.

However, the distinctive view of anthropology seems necessary while we are, among other issues, confronted with a problem that can be summed up as follows: the prevailing dualism that separates “nature” and “culture” seems incompatible with ecologism (in the broad and non-political meaning of “natural consistency of ecosystems”). Anthropologists know precisely other cultural models besides dualism which could perhaps inspire us, but they avoid going out of their discipline recklessly by suggesting any transposition whatsoever. Moreover, no cultural transposition is even possible other than very slowly or by force. Anthropology alone, while it seems necessary, is therefore not sufficient to cope with our “problem”. Our conviction is that we must, at the same time, consider technology as such, because our culture does not stem from an abstract dualism but from a dualism “embodied” in a technical environment.

It is therefore this theme that we are going to explore in the singular light of anthropologist Philippe Descola’s theses, which he develops in one of his major works, “Beyond Nature and Culture1, published in 2005. We must admit that, without educational background in anthropology, we have taken the risk of indulging in somewhat rudimentary schematizations, and even of making some errors of interpretation. The “reading” that we propose is not, however, a description or a text commentary but a rather informal application to some of our themes of part of the theses presented in the work and which relate more particularly to “integrating schemas of identification”. In a few words, it is a question of better understanding, thanks to these schemas, the very particular relationship that we maintain with our technical environment.

Translation note. We will quote several passages from the book. Each time, these will be our own translations from the book in French, simply because we do not have, at the time of writing, the English translation by Janet Lloyd. The pagination indicated will therefore be that of the original book published by Gallimard. However, Philippe Descola’s English terminology proposed here is consistent with publicly available accounts, summaries and editions of his work.


Layout

The dualism that appeared in the Age of Enlightenment, which separates “nature” and “culture”, would be replaced by what we call, in reference to the work of Philippe Descola, a “technological analogism”. This development is the subject of the paragraphs Problematic, The dualism in issue, Towards a “technological analogism”?.

We then summarize the work of Philippe Descola used in support of this “thesis” and which concerns the “integrating schemas of identification”: “Descolian” modes of identification with existing beings. These schemas are applied to the Technical existing beings to describe the analogical links that we maintain with them. Then, with “The Dizzying Prospects of Analogy”, to borrow the title of one of the chapters of the work, we go through the characteristics of the “analogism” and put in evidence the first manifestations of this “technological analogism”.

The following four chapters expose four types “clues” of this technological analogism that would hybridize, even replace, naturalism: #1. Continuities, #2. Discontinuities, #3. Algorithms, #4. The society of existing beings.

Finally, we consolidate the edifice with an allusion to another world-renowned anthropologist, Bruno Latour, then with a comeback to the question of the so-called “physicality” (Back to “physicality”), to finish with some brief Final remarks.

A Post-scriptum in the form of a free commentary and a plea for greater “technological diversity” completes this reading.


Problematic

“Nature” is certainly not the central theme of explorations devoted above all to the digital world, but among the “practical and intellectual implications of the computerization process” (About) there are genuine ecological disorders. However, there is a widespread idea that digital technology, once decarbonized, would be intrinsically “green” because it would be part of the solutions for maintaining our standard of living without harming the climate or biodiversity, for example by optimizing our energy consumption or limiting our travel.

Digital technology as such is obviously not a “devastating” technique (if we do not take into account the still uncertain evolution of its own consumption of scarce resources and its own greenhouse gas emissions) and it seems far from causing as much damage as transport, housing or agriculture. But digital technology is a kind of lever that amplifies and actualizes the beneficial as well as the harmful potentials of our technological environment. Indeed, it “cybernetizes” the entire global network of technical devices, thus perpetuating in unprecedented dimensions the history of the great technocratic organizations that historian Lewis Mumford called “Megamachines”. The elements of our Megamachine (including humans) are thus synchronized at long distance and in real time, loading the system with at least two “powers”: autonomy, which withdraws it from some cultural, moral or political determinations2, and the speed of expansion which accelerates and amplifies the impact of techniques behind which we are now always left, legally, politically or ecologically behind.

It is therefore appropriate to ask ourselves fresh questions about the modes of our relationship with this system which seems to elude us. Sociology and philosophy, among others, have taken up the question but without much practical success. They may fail to tackle the material dimension of the problem, always relegated to a blind spot, just as, on the scale of the individual, cognitive sciences have long considered “mind”, “intelligence”, “consciousness” … as immanent phenomena and the body as simple exchangeable hardware. On the scale of human groups, only anthropology considers this material dimension – i.e., physiology and the elements of the surrounding environment – equally, by considering purposely the structures that link the “material” and the “cultural”. This science can thus inform us more completely about our way of inhabiting a world that has become cybernetic and planetary.

The dualism in issue

The concept of “nature” that we take for granted is not universal. We ourselves have given in to this evidence by writing that “The digital system […] unfolds on earth, in the stratosphere and even into space, a digital mesh of the globe that tightens into a continuous and latency-free, therefore natural, information environment” (Emergence of a digital natural environment). However, Philippe Descola reminds us that dualism, which considers “nature” separately from “culture”, is not a figure shared by all nor of all times; thus, for example3:

Unlike modern dualism, which deploys a multiplicity of cultural differences on the background of an eternal nature, Amerindian thought considers the whole cosmos as animated by the same cultural regime which is diversified, if not by heterogeneous natures, by different ways of grasping each other.

But we still remain convinced in the West that dualism must sustain a universal model even though it was not dominant before the Age of Enlightenment. In fact, it took root in parallel with the staggering progress of a Science which was to consider the “whole cosmos” as a single nature. Today, the situation may have changed. A careful reading of “Beyond Nature and Culture” has indeed inspired us this somewhat disturbing idea that the deployment of our technological environment, which we had thought right to compare to a natural environment, eradicates the dualism or, at least, hybridizes it with another modality that we will now look at.

Towards a “technological analogism”?

The French historian and sociologist Jacques Ellul develops the concept of “technological system” while the machines begin to form a system, even before the digital cybernetization which, in a way, makes it possible to complete this unprecedented gathering4 (Jacques Ellul and the Technological System). Technology thus constitutes an environment in its own right, made up not only of machines but also of relationships, processes, procedures, organizational schemas, etc. Jacques Ellul singularly highlighted the autonomy of this Technological System, which proceeds from a kind of internal logic, from quasi-natural laws. We agree to a certain extent with this statement. There is indeed a part of “determinism” in technological growth and in its modalities, such as ecological exhaustion5. But this vision also implies, as if by excess, that there is a kind of “natural order” in technology that our culture is meant to dominate. It is this automatic dualism, well anchored in our belief systems, which nurtures the illusion that, for example, we could fight global warming by reforming the Technological System, and that, like nature, this technical environment can always be “tuned” to fit our cultural expectations. The theses developed by Philippe Descola have gradually convinced us that, in fact, this “technical dualism” is more a storytelling and has never ruled our authentic relationship with technical objects.

Indeed, if Descola does not deal directly with this subject and does not evoke any ethnographic work relating to our technological environment, he describes other cultural schemas, which he calls “ontologies”, among which “analogism” seems, much better than dualism, to match our culture as it is technological rather than scientific. We will therefore qualify as “technological” this “analogism” which would find its origin in the particular relationships that we maintain with technical devices.

“Descolian” modes of identification with existing beings

Philippe Descola examines the various modes of relationship between human groups and the “existing beings” which inhabit their environments, drawing on a large body of ethnographic work. The aim is to identify a universal taxonomy of these modes. The term “existing being” remains a little bit vague so much it subsumes multiple “things” of the surrounding world – plants, animals, fluids, phenomena… – disentangled variously according to the languages and the perceptive habits. But this usual philosophical difficulty in no way compromises the analysis of Philippe Descola, who considers existing beings not ontologically but rather concretely as what we are in relation with. We will use in the same way the term “technical existing being” to name what we are in technical relationship with. These technical existing beings are not only technical objects but also processes, signals, schemas, whole cities…

According to Philippe Descola, the way we have to set a relationship with any existing being, which is an “other”, consists in considering it as a potential “I”. In the paragraph pointedly entitled “The Other is an “I””, he thus shows that the relation to existing being is mostly a relation of identification6 :

Operating well upstream of the categorization of beings and things revealed by taxonomy, identification is the capacity to apprehend and to distribute some of the continuities and discontinuities which are offered to our grasp by the observation and the practice of our environment.

This identification is carried out “ante-predicatively”, i.e., even before the consciousness of a world, of a body… and of the possible judgments that we make about them, notably through language. This is why this almost “physiological” relation of identification is universal. It thus goes through all cultures and founds an anthropological thesis that Philippe Descola can submit to hypothetical-deductive tests.

Unbeknownst to us, so to speak, we therefore seek to evaluate each existing being one against the only possible yardstick: ourselves. Yet, we think ourselves mainly according to the two modalities of “interiority” and “physicality”, two concepts which remain a little tricky in spite of their lexicographical familiarity. “Interiority” refers to almost everything that relates to our inner existence, our reflexive attributions, such as consciousness, feeling, expectation, joy, pain … The relation of identification in the light of this interiority then consists in estimating each existing being according to whether or not it has an interiority similar to ours. For example, the jaguar, the tree, the river… are they conscious? Do they have a soul? As for “physicality”, this is the broad set of our “material principles”: material, shape, hardness … We thus evaluate in the same way each existing being according to whether it has a physicality similar or distinct from ours. For example, are the toucan, the mountain, the corn… made of a comparable “matter”? Are they driven by similar dynamic rules?

Philippe Descola can then define four universal modes, which he calls “ontologies”, and which set up a complete partition of humanity: “animism” (similar interiorities and distinct physicalities), “naturalism” (distinct interiorities and similar physicalities), “totemism” (similar interiorities and physicalities) and “analogism” (distinct interiorities and physicalities). Understood under this division, our naturalist culture thus recognizes a physicality similar to each existing being, of which Science is in charge of identifying the principles, but a human interiority incommensurable to the other existing beings (plants and animals in particular).

This ontological division is reminiscent in some respects of those applied to mental schemas, because a human group does not belong exclusively to a single ontology in the same way that an individual does not relate exclusively to a universal psychic type, but rather occupies a “base” which determines his or her state “at rest”. In the West, we thus come under a naturalistic culture that envelops us like a “psychological base”, a relation of identification by default with existing beings. This does not prevent us from sometimes maintaining other modes of identification to consider that, for example, some existing beings have an interiority similar to ours (animals, plants, robots, etc.).

Technical existing beings

A question then naturally arises: what kind of relation of identification do we assume towards technical existing beings, whether they are machines, software, devices or environments? Philippe Descola does not discriminate precisely these technical existing beings in the fauna from the existing beings, so we can assume that he considers them in accordance with the dualistic ontology: these beings would belong to a distinct interiority but a physicality, i.e., of material principles, identical to ours. Or, if he does not discriminate them, it is because the concept of “technical existing being” is hardly valid, the technical aspect of an existent having nothing “ante-predicative”. Indeed, what mechanism could operate in our heart of hearts an a priori distinction between technical existing beings among others?

Nevertheless, it happens something peculiar in front of technical objects, and perhaps even a kind of dismay as for our relations of identification and more largely as for our processes of “stabilization of certain characteristics of what happens to us7. This dismay seems to us mainly determined by the accelerated deployment of a technological environment which appears to our human group, in accordance with our cultural categorizations, as a “nature” which mixes with the “ordinary nature”. Our environment is henceforth hybrid and technique no longer shows up as a set of devices at our disposal function by function (flying, moving, counting, digging …) but, from this hybrid environment, as a proliferation of new existing beings with which we have to enter in relation, subjecting, as we had observed, our “I” to a tension of “dislocation” (The Body of René Thom (singularities)). This dismay could thus come from the impairment of the only modality that we hold universal, i.e., physicality.

It seems indeed, to think about it, at least dubious to grant technical existing beings a physicality similar to ours. For if this proliferation remains easily compatible with the feeling of distinct interiorities, it alters the perception of a physical community, if only because most of us only vaguely understand, if at all, how these technical existing beings work. We would therefore be involved in a moment of deep transformation of our relations of identification with the world in general, that is to say with all non-human beings, since technical relations, now in the majority, are shaping a new “habitus”.

“The Dizzying Prospects of Analogy”

We are therefore perhaps experiencing a profound amendment of dualism, or even its replacement by a new form of analogism that we have qualified as “technological”. Anthropology provides valuable clues of analogism drawn from ethnographic observations and that we will be able to spot in our own environment.

In the chapter entitled “The Dizzying Prospects of Analogy”, Philippe Descola takes us on a discovery of those human groups that perceive the non-human world as populated by internally and physically distinct beings. Faced with this proliferation of singularities, the spontaneous relation of identification requires a solution allowing “to make [the world] intelligible and bearable” (any individual immersed in Mundus Numericus sees quite well what this means). If, to put it simply, every form of existing being is absolutely unique, the ordering of the world can only be based on analogies. Here are a few of ours: the heart [ as ] the engine of blood circulation, the brain [ seen as a ] predictive system8, the digital web [ as ] … a web (and moreover analogically conceived as such), the robot [ as ] a pet, etc. Described in this way, this mode of arrangement of the existing beings seems quite familiar. Indeed, who has not felt lost in the face of the proliferation of technical existing beings and therefore has not established their own networks of analogies? We therefore suggest that the predominance of the technological aspect of our relationship to the world leads to a resurgence of this analogical ontology identified by Philippe Descola, in the form of a technological analogism that is spreading as the main mode of relationship to all non-humans.

If this is so, then Science based on the universal physicality of existing beings would henceforth only be valid for certain “regions of the world”. And indeed, if Science still seems to provide most of us, by its method and its extraordinary achievements, with the “laws of nature”, and seems to stay as a jurisdiction of universal truths, its hegemony today is, to say the least, disputed. The signs are innumerable and well known. Thus, the competition rages in school between scientific knowledge and religious beliefs9 ; vaccines have become, long before the coronavirus crisis, an object of belief as much as of science10 ; then comes the usual cohort of beliefs about medicine, astrology, cold fusion, homeopathy, faster-than-light particles, creationism, etc. In short, we don’t seem to be denied by the persistence of a faith in a Science that is to reveal the “universal physicality”.

If analogism seems familiar to us, it is also, Descola reminds us, that11:

It is perhaps during the Renaissance [ that it ] shone in Europe with its brightest lights, before fading into an underground existence from which its function of reducing uncertainty occasionally emerges, and to the great surprise of positivists, under the ancient guise of astrology, numerology, alternative medicine and all those techniques of deciphering and using similarities which remind naturalism of its fragile status and its weak antiquity.

We could add: and under the new guise of conspiracy, alternative truths or cognitivist doxa… Thus, do we not see better what constitutes, more than a new phase, a powerful return of analogism after a dualistic parenthesis which was, after all, fairly brief? Far from the Renaissance and the West, ethnology can also account for other lives “in analogism”12 :

The levels of the cosmos, the visible and invisible components of humans, plants and animals, the relationships between family members, social strata, occupations and specialties, meteors, foods and medicines, deities, celestial bodies, diseases, divisions of time, sites and orients, all of these elements were interconnected among the ancient Nahuas by a dense web of correspondences and reciprocal determinations, as they still are today for many peoples of Mesoamerica.

Replacing this enumeration with a modern inventory (the visible and invisible components of technical objects, the relationships between members of a social network, social strata, occupations and specialties, drones, vaccines, the great lords of the digital world, antennas, autonomous cars, the conquest of space…), how, again, can we not recognize this “dense web of correspondences” that we ourselves are constantly working on?

#1. Continuities

Beyond these new relations of identification which put our “I” to the test, contemporary Science also provides some clues of a possible return of analogism. We already observed this “aspect of our time” supplied by the “return of a form of reality without proper causes woven by enigmatic algorithms” (Return to Babylon), and which favors forms of reasoning by associations. “Case law” is gradually taking precedence over the “normative” endeavor. To better see, thanks to anthropology, the clues left by a Science which also adopts the characteristics of the time, let us return once again to reading Philippe Descola.

The world appears as a proliferation of existing beings that we sort out by a network of analogies. Thus, step by step, transitively, from small difference / resemblance to small difference / resemblance, unfolds, says Philippe Descola, a “Great Chain of Being”. Now “the theory of the Chain of Being presents a singular intellectual problem, probably typical of analogism, which is the articulation of the continuous and the discontinuous”. The advent of the continuous seems somehow immanent to analogism (additions in brackets, emphasis added)13:

Seen in the full extent of its development, the scale of the entities of the world [in its direction towards perfection] appears continuous, each element finding its place in the series because it possesses a degree of perfection scarcely greater than that of the element to which it succeeds and scarcely less than that of the element which precedes it.

We had already evoked this symptom of analogism using the image of the “toxin of the mathematical continuum”, this “toxin” being understood as a “contaminant” of our system of beliefs (The « Individual » in the light of information theories). In short, it requires “making any concept-object measurable on a continuous scale” which is nothing more than a mathematized system where the number acts as transit point. Here are three examples.

Evolutionary biologist David Krakauer proposes to measure the “level of individuation” of any system or process, whether natural or artificial, by observing that “Individuality can be continuous, with the possible surprising result that some processes possess greater individuality than others” (The « Individual » in the light of information theories)14. A kind of numerical analogism, which allows to make comparable heterogeneous existing beings on a scale of individuation, is here well at work. Second example, the psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi exposed in 2004 a theory of consciousness, the IIT (“Integrated Information Theory”) proposing to measure a gradual “capacity for consciousness” with a continuous function Φ (About artificial consciousness). Finally, the computer scientist Stuart Russell explains that “human values” would be entirely traceable in our behaviors and would thus become measurable thanks to the data we leave massively each time we act (Being Stuart Russell – The comeback of Moral Philosophy).

This “continuitism” more generally impacts the entire digitized society. So it is with social networks where abound more or less contiguous opinions, without absolute or even identifiable criteria of truth. This “toxin” thus consecrates in our system of beliefs a kind of “gender fluidity” not only sexual but henceforth universal, and the legitimacy of all existing being to access any concept: the “more or less alive”, the “more or less conscious”, the “more or less individuated”, the “more or less ethical”, etc.

One cannot help but be amazed by the similarities between this system of scales and that of the Nahua analogical worlds, which ethnography reveals some aspects. Thus tonacayo, “commonly used to designate the body as a substantial reality forming a discrete reality15, used in relation to humans and plants, the corn in first place. Thus tonalli, which “gives vigor, determination and capacity for growth, […] regulates body temperature and makes self-awareness possible” and which is not only the prerogative of humans but also of animals, plants and even inanimate objects. Thus teyolia, which is “the source of sensitivity, memory, “states of mind” and the formation of ideas” and that even the mountains have. Thus, finally, the ihiyotl, “described as a very dense gas emanating from a human, an animal or an object and acting as an attractor and a focus of influence on its surroundings”. The diversity of these types tonacayo, tonalli, teyolia and ihiyotl then induces a …

A scale of differences […] equally marked among the rest of the existing beings, made obvious in their gradual distribution along a continuum from hot to cold where, in addition to humans, took place plants, animals, minerals, celestial bodies, foods, diseases, deities, and many other things;

We could replace tonacayo, tonalli, teyolia and ihiyotl by consciousness, individuation, values, intelligence… and thus recognize a comparable cultural basis in the works mentioned above.

If the continuous appears as the support of this analogical remedy for the proliferation of interiorities and physicalities, an amorphous continuum is however hardly habitable.

#2. Discontinuities

Continuity is more the by-product of an effort to organize existing beings – theoretical work attests to this – than a raw perception of the world since analogism is based on a negative relation of identification: each being is a priori singular both physically and internally. Philippe Descola thus describes analogism16 :

[…] analogism is a hermeneutical dream of wholeness that stems from an observation of dissatisfaction: taking note of the general segmentation of the components of the world on a scale of small gaps, it nurtures the hope of weaving these weakly heterogeneous elements into a web signifying affinities and attractions having all the aspects of continuity. But it is the infinitely multiplied difference which is the ordinary state of the world, and resemblance the hoped-for means of making it intelligible and bearable.

We see here a metaphor of the “dream of wholeness”, not hermeneutic but simply technological, of the pioneers of the web and now of the major digital players. Global digital edifices such as social networks and now the Metavers (Welcome in the Metaverse) weave a web of affinities between humans and non-humans which has all the “aspects of continuity” but which, built on a succession of small differences, inevitably splits into cliques the great “technical Chain of Being”. In a way, technological analogism produces social separatism.

This breakdown of existing beings in a partition has its methods, its schools and its ideologies. So, we could put here Wokism, Intersectionality, Gender Studies, Decoloniality, etc. which are all movements parallel to the advance of technical analogism against Western naturalism. While the fight against discrimination and inequality is an absolute imperative, it nevertheless also stems from this “Dizzying Prospects of Analogy” that Philippe Descola invites us to consider. Indeed, to use his words when speaking of analogy, this fight is “thinkable only if the terms which it puts in relation are distinguished at the origin, only if the power to detect similarities between things, and thus erase their isolation, applies to singularities17. The fight against discrimination and inequalities, a sort of aspiration to the “continuous”, obviously has no consistency if it does not at the same time continue to assign each “social clique” to its singularity (women, men, whites, blacks, the disabled, homosexuals…).

#3. Algorithms

It will take some time before, as in ancient China, “society, humanity, the world [become] the object of a global knowledge based on the sole use of analogy18. Indeed, we must give time to the analogical regularities to appear to us, a time increased by the extreme proliferation of existing beings which increases the combinatory of the associations. This ontology thus calls for a tooling:

To find oneself in the forest of singularities, it is necessary […] to have a reservoir of symbols and emblems allowing to code the diversity in a hermeneutic grid; this is why one delegates to semi-automatic mechanisms of computation and combination, but also to artefacts of which many populate our ethnographic museums, the care to reduce a too complex cosmos by incorporating its joints and its lines of force in manipulable figures.

We easily recognize the digital version of these mechanisms that at work today: big data, statistics, artificial intelligence, predictive algorithms… which populate our environment with existing “divination” techniques. It is useless to insist further on this “clue”.

#4. The society of existing beings

A last clue of technical analogism appears in the Law, to which it is now proposed to integrate non-humans. Since 2008, the Constitution of Ecuador has recognized nature as a subject of law. Colombia recognized the Atrato River as a rights holder in 2016, then the part of the Amazon that covers its territory in 201819. In March 2017, the New Zealand Whanganui River was recognized as a living entity with legal entity status and in India, the Ganges and one of its tributaries, the Yamuna River, both sacred, became subjects of law20. Thus, the Law, like the digital continuum, becomes a welcome ground for the gathering of existing ones made “analogous” including therefore, why not, technical existing beings such as robots and artificial intelligences (The hypothesis of the “Robot Person”).

Before that, in the 1950s, the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon himself had carried out a kind of philosophical gathering of the human and of the technical object, considering them as “individuations” in relation of composition (Gilbert Simondon, “philosopher of information”?). In the context of this reading, it is useful to note that he describes this composition relation as a “transduction”, an “operation by which two or more immeasurable orders of reality resonate and become commensurable by the invention of a dimension which articulates them and by transition to an order richer in structures21. Thus, the dynamics of individuation proceeds by resolving an incompatibility, which Simondon calls a “disparation”, between two realities that are in contact. Actually, we find ourselves in a radical “disparation” with the technical existing beings, since they have radically different interiorities and physicalities. Simondon nevertheless remained a naturalist, he who sought to join technical objects to our culture while keeping them in a physicality homogeneous to nature and its laws.

We thus observe that the technical analogism commits, whether by law or by philosophy, to structure a new human, non-human as well as technological “society of existing beings” to better guarantee respectful relations of the ones for the others.

Bruno Latour

Are we really experiencing a phase shift from naturalism to a technological form of analogism, or have we in fact “Never Been Modern”, as the anthropologist Bruno Latour already claimed some thirty years ago22? This question is somewhat lacking in precision, as Descola’s “analogism” and Latour’s “modernity” cannot be directly opposed; but this wording makes it possible to understand at little cost that a certain doubt grips anthropologists, not only about the persistence of naturalism but even, suggests Bruno Latour, about the fact that we have never lived under this mode of identification. Thus, says Descola, Latour “considers that we have never been modern, and that what I call naturalism is a sort of sooty superstructure, a great epistemological narrative, which has no effect in the practice of scientists and engineers, since they produce hybrids of nature and culture with all their strength, without this disturbing them too much23.

In any case, the two interrogations intersect and that of Bruno Latour, more oriented towards the “modern” world, completes our reading. Indeed, Latour has already probed this difficulty that we have pointed out of having to distinguish the technological existing beings and to “arrange” them in some ontological category. He qualified of “hybrids” these mixtures of nature and culture which began to abound24:

When only a few vacuum pumps appeared, we still managed to classify them in two files, the one of natural laws and the one of political representations, but when we find ourselves invaded by frozen embryos, expert systems, digital machines, robots with sensors, hybrid corn, data banks, psychotropic drugs delivered on prescription, whales equipped with radiosondes, etc., when our newspapers display all these monsters at length of pages, and none of these chimeras feel well installed, neither on the side of the objects, nor on the side of the subjects, nor in the middle, we have to do something.

To conclude from the impossibility of “purifying” these existing hybrids (which he also calls “quasi-objects”)25, that is to say of separating their nature and their culture: “Let us say then that the moderns have cracked”! We have just offered a possible explanation here.

Back to “physicality”

In spite of the clues already mentioned, all that we claim would hardly hold if our report of “spontaneous” identification to the technological existing beings were not indeed founded on the feeling of a difference of physicality. We will therefore come back to this important point one last time. Philippe Descola specifies26:

Physicality is not the simple materiality of organic or abiotic bodies, it is the set of visible and tangible expressions that the dispositions proper to any entity take when they are deemed to result from the morphological and physiological characteristics intrinsic to this entity.

Faced with “natural” non-humans, be they plants, animals, rivers or climatic phenomena, it is possible to recognize a limited number of “tangible expressions”, easy to categorize, from which an order of physicalities emerges, whether they are similar or dissimilar. Humans can also “dissect” most of these existing beings and observe, again, very identifiable “morphological and physiological characteristics”: organs, fluids – blood, river water – the “hard” – bones, mountain stone – air currents, etc. On the other hand, the physicality of technological existing beings does not lean toward such simple characterizations for at least two reasons.

Firstly, “visible and tangible expressions” are no longer purely physical but are also distributed in myriads of semiotic effects. Information, data, numbers, shapes, images, notifications etc. are now so many expressions that make any purely “manual” categorization difficult or impossible.

Secondly, these entities can hardly be “dissected”27. Unlike the old technical objects available function by function and still “dismountable” like the camera, the car, the oven, the refrigerator, the plane, etc., today’s informational agents no longer lend themselves to this. We don’t really know how they work anymore because they are complex and, above all, they have neither substance nor contours, and their “tangible expressions” therefore have no rationale that would come from their “intrinsic characteristics”.

Thus, we are probably a little better confident about our hypothesis of a return to analogism based essentially on a physicality of the technological existent beings distinct from our own.

Final remarks

Philippe Descola himself observes signs of hybridization of naturalism. Asked this month in the French “Revue des Deux Mondes”, he declared28:

I just read a study by a young sociologist colleague who is investigating biodynamic viticulture. These winegrowers are immersed, as we all are, in a naturalist cosmology, but they are also very much influenced in their practices by Steiner’s anthroposophy […] which is more about analogism, the idea that the world is woven by multiple links of correspondences. Naturalism is being hybridized; elsewhere, for example, with animistic conceptions (in molecular biology or ethology).

We did not retain the rather tempting hypothesis of a “technological animism” which would consider the existing techniques as having a distinct physicality but a similar interiority. However, we have implicitly described this possibility, without yet benefiting from the anthropological perspective of Philippe Descola, when exploring this Attachment to Simulacra that we manifest for robotic existing beings. But as Philippe Descola has himself specified, we never belong in all circumstances to only one ontology and consequently, if the mode of the differences of physicality favored by our predominant relation to the technic environment seems well to “gnaw” our naturalistic culture to call the technological analogism as dominant modality, the animism can be called to become an ordinary variant of it.


Post-scriptum – About “Technological diversity”

The destruction of ecosystems, according to one view of anthropology, is the result of a poor consideration of non-humans in political assemblies, since they have a foreign interiority. To repair this will be, says Descola, “extremely difficult29. Indeed, as naturalists, our singular interiority legitimizes us to disregard all the others under the guise that we would be the only ones to legislate, whether by the means of Religion or Science, the universal physicality we all share. The Western human being has thus succeeded in separating Spirit and Matter and in freeing himself from the “gravitational attraction” of his environment. Cogito ergo sum

The singular interiority of the human being is not either a “species” interiority homogeneous for all humanity, but transportation and then global digital flows bring into contact myriads of regions of interiority that were more or less foreign to each other and that move towards homogenization (not without conflict). However, Philippe Descola, following his master Claude Lévi-Strauss, points out with great care the necessity to preserve some diversity30:

For my part, I think that the common value that we have inherited from the Age of Enlightenment is the imprescriptible rights of the human person, which represent an immense progress in the path of emancipation, especially in Europe at first. At the same time, this poses a problem in the sense that these values depend on a Eurocentric conception of the human person, which is itself very variable – anthropologists have been working on this question for decades. Moreover, these values are very anthropocentric by definition, since it is the human person that is taken into consideration and not the other non-human agents that surround us and with which we interact on a daily basis. This is why I would prefer to defend a normative value, and not a utilitarian one, which is diversity in all its forms: the diversity of life forms, of languages, of ways of conceiving the world and of acting on it.

Underneath this very cautious posture of praise for diversity is perhaps this anthropologist’s warning that Claude Lévi-Strauss had been less careful to state: “World civilization cannot be anything other than the coalition, on a global scale, of cultures each preserving its originality31. This assertion is based on the absolute necessity, for any species, to preserve a minimum distance between groups of individuals in order to allow each of them to find their own solutions and thus to permanently regenerate the reservoir of possibilities for the whole species. However, the human species is today confronted with a problem of “density” which favors the contact and the fusion of the world civilization in a homogeneous block. This is why Claude Lévi-Strauss32:

[…] never believed in progress in its optimistic, linear and cumulative version. For this anti-Hegelian, who did not adhere to the sense of history, globalization and the migratory flows it entails will never be a panacea! This explains why he was able to give some credence to the empirical notion of a “tolerance threshold” concerning immigration.

One understands a little better here the prudence and the discretion of anthropology… Obviously, this anti-universalist position earned Lévi-Strauss very strong criticism, especially from the left. Whatever one thinks of it, Claude Lévi-Strauss certainly spoke as an “acculturated” man, but above all as an anthropologist and field ethnologist. Philippe Descola thus simply recalls33:

[…the astonishment that every anthropologist carries as a vocation, the perpetual surprise in the face of the world’s diversity. When one decides to take it seriously, being confronted with facets of this diversity does not leave one unharmed.

Neither one nor the other remained unharmed, and it is precisely this personal shaking perhaps more intense than in any other discipline, poured into science, that makes all the interest of anthropological material: it can “shake” us in our turn. Philippe Descola thus insists, after Lévi-Strauss, on the anthropological necessity of this cultural diversity to allow human civilization to perpetuate by regularly reseeding itself.

We also understand this anthropological alert as an invitation to favor “technological diversity” in order to better respond, among other things, to ecological challenges. By “technological diversity” we do not only mean the multiplication of techniques but above all the ethnographic diversity of technological systems, that is to say societies of human, non-human and technical existing beings. This idea of “technological reseeding” had notably inspired the beautiful initiatives of the engineer Corentin de Chatelperron, like this world tour of low technologies on board his “Nomade des Mers34.

We should perhaps consider to “de-globalize” the technological system in order to give ourselves the possibility of inventing local regimes, better adapted to the cultures, resources and associated environments (some signs of decoupling are already observable). This “dream” will obviously not be shared by the progressives, but it would nevertheless be a progress of a completely unprecedented nature, a source of innovations likely to reseed our poor reserve of solutions.


1. Philippe Descola / Gallimard – 2005 – Par-delà nature et culture
2. This essential fact, expressed here in a somewhat sketchy way, should be analyzed further. Indeed, there are companies and organizations leading our techniques. Indeed, there are politicians who play the resulting power games. But our thesis is that these companies, these organizations, these politicians… are themselves “vassalized” in the meaning developed in Elon Musk, vassal spécial (in French).
3. Ibid.1 p.30 – “Contrairement au dualisme moderne, qui déploie une multiplicité de différences culturelles sur le fond d’une nature immuable, la pensée amérindienne envisage le cosmos tout entier comme animé par un même régime culturel que viennent diversifier, sinon des natures hétérogènes, des façons différentes de s’appréhender les uns les autres”.
4. Or to “close” it in the quasi-mathematical sense of a “transitive closure”
5. Without a technical or scientific culture of this “physical” determinism, ecological thinking misses an essential catch and sometimes decays into ineffective yellings.
6. Ibid.1 p.168 – “Opérant bien en amont de la catégorisation des êtres et des choses révélée par la taxinomie, l’identification est la capacité à appréhender et à répartir certaines des continuités et discontinuités qui sont offertes à notre emprise par l’observation et la pratique de notre environnement”.
7. (in French) Philippe Descola / Cahiers philosophiques 2011/4 (n° 127), pages 97 à 104 – 2011 – Cognition, perception et mondiation
8. (in French) Stanislas Dehaene / Collège de France – 21 février 2012 – Le cerveau vu comme un système prédictif
9. (in French) José-Luis Wolfs / Revue internationale d’éducation de Sèvres n° 77 – avril 2018 – La concurrence entre savoirs scientifiques et croyances religieuses à l’école
10. (in French) Sandra Lorenzo / Huffington Post – 31 août 2017 – Comment les vaccins sont devenus un “objet de croyance autant que de science”
11. Ibid.1 p.285 – “C’est peut-être à la Renaissance [ qu’il ] a brillé en Europe de ses feux les plus vifs, avant de s’effacer dans une existence souterraine d’où sa fonction de réducteur d’incertitude affleure occasionnellement, et à la grande surprise des positivistes, sous les dehors anciens de l’astrologie, de la numérologie, des médecines alternatives et de toutes ces techniques de déchiffrement et d’usage des similitudes qui rappellent au naturalisme son statut fragile et sa faible antiquité”.
12. Ibid.1 p.301 – “Les étages du cosmos, les composantes visibles et invisibles des humains, des plantes et des animaux, les relations entre les membres de la famille, les strates sociales, les occupations et les spécialités, les météores, les aliments et les médicaments, les divinités, les corps célestes, les maladies, les divisions du temps, les sites et les orients, tous ces éléments étaient interconnectés chez les anciens Nahuas par un lacis touffu de correspondances et de déterminations réciproques, comme ils le sont encore maintenant pour bien des peuples de Méso-Amérique”.
13. Ibid.1 p.283 – “Vue dans toute l’envergure de son développement, l’échelle des entités du monde [ dans sa direction vers la perfection ] paraît continue, chaque élément trouvant sa place dans la série parce qu’il possède un degré de perfection à peine plus grand que celui de l’élément auquel il succède et à peine moins grand que celui de l’élément qui le précède”.
14. David Krakauer, Nils Bertschinger, Eckehard Olbrich, Jessica C. Flack & Nihat Ay / Theory in Biosciences 139, 209-223(2020) – March 24, 2020 – The information theory of individuality
15. Ibid.1 p.290 et suivantes – French text not provided here.
16. Ibid.1 p.281 – “[…] l’analogisme est un rêve herméneutique de complétude qui procède d’un constat d’insatisfaction : prenant acte de la segmentation générale des composantes du monde sur une échelle de petits écarts, il nourrit l’espoir de tisser ces éléments faiblement hétérogènes en une trame d’affinités et d’attractions signifiantes ayant toutes les apparences de la continuité. Mais c’est bien la différence infiniment démultipliée qui est l’état ordinaire du monde, et la ressemblance le moyen espéré de la rendre intelligible et supportable”.
17. Ibid.1 p.281 – “[…] pensable que si les termes qu’elle met en rapport sont distingués à l’origine, que si le pouvoir de déceler des similitudes entre les choses, et d’effacer ainsi leur isolement, s’applique à des singularités”.
18. Ibid.1 p.287 – Remarks by Marcel Granet reported by Philippe Descola. Not provided in French there.
19. (in French) Droitsdelanature.com – 9 avril 2018 – Historique : l’Amazonie reconnue sujet de droits en Colombie
20. (in French) Laure Cailloce / CNRS Le Journal – 17 mai 2017 – Le droit peut-il sauver la nature ?
21. (in French) Wikipédia – Transduction (Simondon)
22. (in French) Bruno Latour / La Découverte – 1991 – Nous n’avons jamais été modernes. This book has been translated by Catherine Porter and published in 1993 under the title We Have Never Been Modern.
23. (in French) Cahiers philosophiques 2011/4 (n° 127), pages 23 à 40 – 2011 – Entretien avec Philippe Descola
24. Ibid.22 p.72
25. These quasi-objects seem to have some features in common with what we have called, following Dominique Cardon, “moral machines” (PageRank, Parcoursup and other Moral Machines).
26. Ibid.1 p.169 – “La physicalité n’est […] pas la simple matérialité des corps organiques ou abiotiques, c’est l’ensemble des expressions visibles et tangibles que prennent les dispositions propres à une entité quelconque lorsque celles-ci sont réputées résulter des caractéristiques morphologiques et physiologiques intrinsèques à cette entité”.
27. We have recently explored this subject and recalled that Technique and Digital are intrinsically opaque and that thus “A technical artifact can only function as a black box (or black process)” (The “progress” unveiled by Photography (with Henri Van Lier)).
28. (in French) Revue des Deux Mondes – Novembre 2021 – Philippe Descola, « Protéger la diversité sous toutes ses formes », propos recueillis par Hortense Guégan.
29. Ibid.28 p.43
30. Ibid.28 p.42 – “Pour ma part, je pense que la valeur commune que nous avons héritée des Lumières, ce sont les droits imprescriptibles de la personne humaine qui représentent un immense progrès dans le chemin de l’émancipation notamment en Europe dans un premier temps. En même temps cela pose problème en ce sens où ces valeurs dépendent d’une conception eurocentrée de la personne humaine, laquelle est elle-même très variable – les anthropologues travaillent d’ailleurs sur cette question depuis des décennies. De plus, ces valeurs sont très anthropocentriques par définition puisque c’est la personne humaine qui est prise en considération et non les autres agents non humains qui nous environnent et avec lesquels nous agissons au quotidien. C’est pour cela que je préférerais défendre une valeur normative, et non utilitaire, qu’est la diversité sous toutes ses formes : la diversité des formes de vie, des langues, des façons de concevoir le monde et d’agir sur lui”.
31. Claude Lévi-Strauss – 1952 – Race et histoire
32. (in French) François Paoli / Revue des Deux Mondes – Novembre 2021 – Grandeurs et limites d’un humanisme
33. Ibid.28 p.53
34. (in French) Wikipédia – Corentin de Chatelperron

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