Systematic comparison reveals totemism to be a second-order ontology: A critical assessment of Descola’s four-field ontological model

Matthew Walsh , Sean O'neill, Armin W. Geertz, Jesper Sørensen, Felix Riede, Rane Willerslev

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This paper builds upon the considerable theoretical heuristic of Phillippe Descola’s four-field ontology schema. It takes a critical look at how anthropologists categorize domains of thought in cross-cultural perspectives. It investigates whether categorizing ontological reckoning in broad, ahistorical contexts is a fruitful analytical heuristic exercise, suggesting that cross-cultural studies of philosophical and epistemological phenomena carefully consider the contrasts and commensurability between the units of analysis under assessment. We question whether Descola’s distinctions between animism and totemism in particular represent operationalizable and comparable units of analysis and offer findings that suggest animism is a foundational ontological phenomenon upon which other ways of understanding the natural world might be cognitively and culturally built upon. Thus, we suggest that animism is an independent variable in the contexts of cross-cultural comparisons of ontology, and that other forms of ontological reckoning within Descola’s schema may be taxonomically subordinate, dependent variables.
TidsskriftJournal of International and Cross-Cultural Studies
StatusAfsendt - 2020