Should anthropology respond to the Enlightenment separation of humanity and nature by continuing to assert the autonomy of the social and cultural domain from its biological base? Or should it favour an understanding of forms of life as emergent within fields of relations not confined to the human?
One of the intellectual mainstays of the European Enlightenment was the separation of humanity from the 'state of nature'. Thanks to their possession of reason and conscience, human beings were thought capable of breaking the bounds of instinct that held other creatures captive, and of forming communities that could aspire to morality and progress. Civilisation itself was defined by the degree to which humans were raised both above the rest of the animal kingdom and above 'the animal' within - comprising dispositions that humans were supposed to share with the beasts. As humanity exceeded nature, so the symbolic domains of culture and knowledge were held to exceed the one biophysical world within which they were forged. Anthropologists have responded to this thesis in two ways. They have either followed the example of many of the peoples among whom they have worked in rejecting any a priori division between nature and humanity in favour of an understanding of forms of life as emergent within fields of mutually conditioning relations, not confined to the human. Or they have continued to assert the ontological autonomy of the social and cultural domain from its biological 'base', and with it, the distinctiveness of sociocultural anthropology vis-à-vis the science of human nature. In this panel three internationally distinguished scholars - Signe Howell, Gisli Palsson and Terrence Deacon - will address the question of whether these two positions can be reconciled, by responding to a position paper to be prepared in advance by Tim Ingold.
Signe Howell (University of Oslo)