Is Spinoza an analogist, naturalist or … animist? – A pocket memo…

As a part of my ‘pocket research design 2‘, I am reading Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture (see my selective pocket summary in progress here). While reading, ideas for my coming synthesis/pocket essay are beginning to condensate in my brain. Descola is a structuralist, (see my discussion here) and in order to take advantage of his work, it makes sense to go directly to the structural core of his thinking: the 4 ontological regimes, and the 2×3 modes of relationality.

In this memo, I would like to briefly reflect a little on how I imagine a path forward, in an effort to link Descola’s ‘system’ to my pocket research design 2:  “Pre-modern forager societies vs Spinoza’s polis. A model for a more sustainable way of life in our time?”.

In a broad perspective these are the overall questions at play here: How does Descola’s system relate to Spinoza’s thinking? In which kind of ontology/cosmology according to Descola’s typology should we place Spinoza’s thinking? And what about relationality? How do the 2×3 forms of relationality come into play in Spinoza’s visions for a society?

In order to process these questions, we need to complete the following tasks:

  1. a short paragraph synthesizing Descola’s system, thus preparing the tools for
  2. an analysis of Spinoza’s thinking in relation to the four types of ontology, and
  3. an analysis of Spinoza’s ideas about society through the lense of Descola’s 2×3 forms of relationality.

This requires a rather comprehensive text reading / hermeneutical effort, but for now, please allow me to do a risky improvisation using the debris of insight I have so far….

Let’s jump right into the core question, ie. where to place Spinoza in Descola’s typology. To do so, it’s relevant to take note on two aspects of Descola’s discussion on naturalism and analogism. He places the birth of the naturalist ontology in the renaissance, where the early stages of modern science took form. In his analysis of analogism, he points to commonalities between the ontologies of medieval Europe, (premodern) China and the Aztecs.

Since Spinoza lived in the transition  between the medieval and (proto-)modern period, it seems to make sense to place him historically, in a transition period between Descola’s analogism and naturalism. Another preliminary perspective has to do with Descola’s description of analogism, where he compares medieval Europe with (premodern?) China. Spinoza’s thinking has been linked by many scholars with taoism and similar Eastern ontologies. A third perspective is Spinoza’s method, which Spinoza himself describes in terms of natural science – in latin: more geometrico – the geometrical method . These two perspectives combined place him, again, somewhere between the two types of ontology, naturalism and analogism. This way, there seems to be reason to look for Spinoza’s thinking at an interstice between analogism and naturalism, from a historical as well as an epistemological perspective.

On the other hand – isn’t there a good deal of animism to Spinoza’s thinking?  Isn’t this evident from his blurring of the boundary between what’s me and what’s in my environment? IE the thought, that I, as an individual, am composed of a myriad of beings, all individuals, and that I take part in a larger organism, composed of me plus other beings that I interact with, a process of composition which, at the end, makes Nature as a whole, one being. And isn’t it also evident from the way Spinoza thinks of ideas? That my body exists for my as a physical extension as well as the idea of that physical extension, and that all that exists in Nature, a stone, a plant, a horse, a human being exist as a combination of idea plus physical extension? So in fact, a stone has an idea about itself, just as much as I have – but to a different degree. This is a very central trait to animism, – actually the name derives from it –  in the sense that everything is animated. A third point is Spinoza’s poignant anti-hierarchism. This is at least what a deleuzian reading would argue. According to Descola animist cultures – as opposed to what seems to be the case for those with a totemist ontology – are characterized by a very low to non-existent degree of hierarchy.

To finish off my improvisation. What I am  – sofar – thinking on this issue is, that it seems to make sens to place Spinoza – historically and epistemologically – somewhere between analogism and naturalism. However, there seems to be some kind of leap going on, that takes him out of his expected ‘thought habitat’, and – as opposed to his contemporaries – links his thinking with animism. The only one of Descola’s 4 ontological regimes that Spinoza’s thinking seems to leave untouched is totemism. I guess that this might have to do with the question of hierarchy, as I have hinted at above. It also might be related to the fact that Spinoza doesn’t see the world in terms of categories. The world and its beings are, to Spinoza, a myriad of individuals, relating to each other not so much according to their ‘species’ or some other possible categorization based on physical og mental characteristics, as seems to be the case for totemism. Individuals are relating and making connections according to local, context based features. In this sense, what we understand as ‘a human being’ might build a stronger relation to ‘a mouse’ than to another human being. This is similar to totemism, with the important difference that the spinozist man-mouse relation is not based on an idea of a societal relationship – connecting a certain society of people to a (generalized) species of mice. The relationship is ad hoc.

In order to go further, it seems to make sense to do three comparative (pocket) studies, linking Spinoza’s thinking with respectively analogism, naturalism and animism…

Anyone out there who can help would be appreciated:-)


Reading Descola – a doubtful pitstop…. (memo)

As I have promised (myself) in my second pocket research design, I am reading French Anthropologist Philippe Descola’s book “Beyond Nature and Culture”, while writing a ‘selective pocket summary’ here. And while reading: thinking… I am attacking Descola’s mammoth work from various angles at the time. I am reading it as a pdf, in English and French, in paper format, in French, and listening to the text via an app that reads pdfs with an artificial voice. This way, I am immersing myself in the work at different speeds, in different parts, at the same time. I am also reading comments by other scholars about the work, for instance this one: “Descola’s Beyond nature and culture, viewed from Central Brazil” (link). I am also listening to Descola’s current lectures at Collège de France titled “La composition des collectifs: Formes d’hybridation“.

From a global perspective, I begin to see a fundamental issue around the question of Descola’s Structuralism. Here, I will make a short pit stop, giving this issue a few thoughts before moving on. As you know, what I am doing here, is pocket research, and therefore I must assess the relation between time invested and possible outcome for my research. Descola’s book is immense, and I am having some doubts that my time is well spent, if its foundation is not solid. What I am trying to say is, that there seems to be an incongruity between on the one hand Descola’s ambition about wanting to understand each ethnic group from its own point of view, ie. its cosmology or ontology, while on the other, he wants to install a “structural framework”, that would allow us (… and who are ‘we’?), to “set up a typology of possible relationships to the world and others, be they human or nonhuman, and to examine their compatibilities and incompatibilities.” The problem is – as is always the case with universalisms – the question of centrality. Why would someone want to collect and centralise knowledge about the whereabouts of other people? This is what Descola does with his ambition of a ‘typology’ with its four different “ontological regimes” ― animism, totemism, analogism, and naturalism. According to Descola he himself is a naturalist, as we are all, in the West. It would  be interesting to ask the question (as I believe Descola does somewhere in the book), how someone from one of the other ontological regimes would have conceived of a typology for the peoples of the world.

In any case, Descola’s endeavour makes me think about Max Weber and his ideal types. The idea is that we can’t access reality without categories. And reality is never really clean cut fitting into whichever category. It will always be a mix. This way, Descola’s argument would be (I am assuming), that real people will always live in some kind of mix, a hybrid between a combination of Descola’s ontological regimes.   So for instance a little bit of animism combined with 20% totemism, etc. So why would someone want to centralise information about people(s)? First of all, we have to remind ourselves about the early raison d’être of Anthropology, which was to provide colonizers with information about local indigenous groups, in order to provide the former with tools for controlling and subverting the latter. Of course, Descola is well aware of that (and he mentions it somewhere I think in the beginning of the text). On the other hand, collecting information about our surroundings, processing them, learning from them, is part of something essential to life (cf. my thoughts on Spinoza, communication and information in living systems). This is one reason why I have decided to keep on reading: My aim – as stated in my pocket research design 2 –  is to find out whether and how we Westerners might learn from “pre-modern forager societies” who adhere to “proto-ecological guidelines” to build a “bio-synergetic civilisation”. Another reason is part of my own personal intellectual history. Before taking my MA in Educational Anthropology, I was working – in a proto-academic fashion – on a model for what makes us a community

By continuing on the path traced out by Descola, I am being true to ‘my former  self’, trying to develop these earlier thoughts further, while of course submitting them to a sharp critical scrutiny.

In other words: I am going back to reading!! As to you, dear reader: Keep on pitching in with your ideas, comments and suggestions!

Pocket research design 2: Pre-modern forager societies vs Spinoza’s polis. A model for a more sustainable way of life in our time?

As a part of my ‘pocket research program’, titled “Can we reason with nature?”, this is my second pocket research design. Here, I would like to follow up on a point, that Australian professor in environmental philosophy Freya Mathews raises in her article “Towards a Deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry” (read my pocket summary here):

“The outlines of a bio-synergistic civilization are still far from being worked out. Evidently such a civilization was – very faintly – fore-shadowed by pre-modern forager societies, or those of them at any rate that adhered to proto-ecological guidelines.”

I read two implicit questions in this paragraph that invite to a (pocket) research program:

  1. In what way can pre-modern forager societies be said to adhere to proto-ecological guidelines?
  2. How can these societies serve as a model for a bio-synergistic civilization?

I would like to address these questions, adding a spinozean conceptual framework to a pocket research design with the (working) title:

“Pre-modern forager societies vs Spinoza’s polis. A model for a more sustainable way of life in our time?”

Here is my plan: I want to

  1. find out more about the cosmologies of the Amerindian peoples, and whether they can be said to live according to ‘proto-ecological guidelines’. For this, I will read Philippe Descola’s book “Par-delà nature et culture”, and make a pocket summary, here.
  2. on this background I will write an essay about the extent to which these cosmologies might provide some kind of guidelines for a more sustainable way of interacting with our environment, in our current modern Western mass communities
  3. On the other hand, there is Spinoza’s pantheism, which is conceived in the run-up to modernity, and which explicitly refers to urbanity, the polis. Here I expect to read some Arne Næss and deep ecology. Probably also Matheron. We’ll see, when I get there.

An initial thought: I have often wondered why there are no more research done about a possible connection, between Spinoza’s thinking and pre-modern pagan traditions, including those whom the West must have had knowledge of from the colonies, at Spinoza’s time.

Will knowing nature make us better humans? Pocket research design 1

How can we create better connections amongst ourselves, and with our environment? Would we become better at connecting with each other if we were good at connecting with our environment? And vice versa?

This is my first ‘pocket research design‘, (read about my pocket method here), sketching the following ‘pocket research program’:

  • First, I read Australian professor of environmental philosophy Freya Mathews’ article Towards a Deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry. See my summary here.
  • Next, I discuss the question of a possible relationship between hierarchical societies and the way they treat their surroundings. Read my essay here.
  • Finally, I discuss what role communication and cognition play in living systems and their interactions. (Coming up)

Update 2018-06-09

My third bullet is a really important project, however, I have understood the necessity of digging more into some aspects of human-environment interaction, which is why I by May 3rd 2018 launched my ‘Pocket research design 2’: Pre-modern forager societies vs Spinoza’s polis. A model for a more sustainable way of life in our time?

Feel free to read, comment, share, etc.!

Descola – beyond nature and culture; a selective pocket summary

As a first step in my ‘pocket research program’ “Pre-modern forager societies vs Spinoza’s polis” (read more here), I am reading French anthropologist Philippe Descola’s book Beyond Nature and Culture (published 2013. Original title: Par-delà nature et culture (2005)). This is my selective pocket summary.

I am reading this mammoth work from a very selective viewpoint, in accordance with my pocket research design, namely to “find out more about the cosmologies of the Amerindian peoples, and whether they can be said live according to ‘proto-ecological guidelines’”.

I am publishing this draft while reading and writing. Here are my reading notes. Feel free to pitch in with your ideas, suggestions, comments, etc.

Beyond Nature and Culture

What is this book about? In the foreword to the English edition, American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins’ short summary of the entirety of the work comes in handy:

“The project is a comparative anthropology of ontology. Four basic ontological regimes of wide distribution―animism, totemism, analogism, and naturalism ― are developed from an investigation of the identities and differences between humans and other beings and things in matters of their physical makeup and subjective or mental capacities. Each of these major ontologies is associated with specific ways of forming social collectives and characteristic moralities, as well as distinctive modes of knowing what there is. Further, the major ontological configurations are cross-cut by several types of relationship―exchange, predation, production, and so on―that are variously compatible or incompatible with them.”

He also adds that

“Such is the general architecture. To thus state it, however, only betrays the richness of the text, which is marked by carefully described and analyzed ethnographic demonstrations, including much from the author’s own fieldwork among the Achuar of Amazonia”

This last point is of course relevant to my ‘pocket research question’, which is also why I have selected Descola as my primary reference. However, the overall project of the book is immensely relevant to my question, since it lines out a framework to rethink our current Western model in comparison with other ontologies – in my case notably the Amerindian cosmology, which I guess will be labelled as animism (I haven’t read that far, yet).

Reading on….



Does hierarchy kill nature?

After reading Freya Mathews’ article “A deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry”, (see my summary here)  – which I find very inspirational – I feel the need to further investigate some of the paths she’s laying out. Particularly I would like to dig more into her framework for a ‘deeper philosophy’ based on the two concepts conativity and least resistance. However, I also sense some internal contradictions in her arguments. Before addressing her conceptual framework in more detail, I would like to clean up my thoughts, by dealing with these latter.

The thing I can’t quite get to fit, when reading (and hearing) Mathews, is what I perceive as an inherent contradiction in her argumentation. On the one hand, she stresses the problems with modern civilization’s ‘impose and control’ behavior, that “effectively places us ‘outside nature’”, and has made us “ravage the living constituency of the biosphere”. On the other, she professes a “setting of optimal ecological targets for human population.” My point is that Mathews equates the coercive behavior of a collective with negative impact on the environment, while at the same time advocating for population degrowth, in a language that implies large scale coercion on human societies.

This raises two questions. First of all: Can we take for granted that a given society (human or not) which is organised according to hierarchical principles will necessarily have a negative impact on it’s surroundings? In the article “Social Ecology Versus Deep Ecology” from 1987, Murray Bookchin writes:

“Decentralism, small- scale communities, local autonomy, even mutual aid and communalism are not intrinsically ecological or emancipatory. Few societies were more decentralized than European feudalism, which in fact was structured around small-scale communities, mutual aid, and the communal use of land. Local autonomy was highly prized and autarchy formed the economic key to feudal communities. Yet few societies were more hierarchical.”

Following Bookchin, there doesn’t seem to be a direct correlation between a society’s degree of authoritarianism, and it’s negative impact on its environments. This brings to mind our current situation, where China – a country which we Westeners like to consider as authoritarian – seems to take the front as a green super power, leaving far behind the US, (formerly?) seen as ‘the leader of the free world’

This bridges to the second question that Mathews’ argument raises, which has to do with “setting a target for human population”. Bookchin writes – rather bluntly – about “the mistakes of the early 1970s with their hoopla about ‘population control’, their latent antifeminism, their elitism, their arrogance, and their ugly authoritarian tendencies”. Again, China comes to mind with its one child policy (1979 – 2015).

Since Mathews subscribes to “targets for human population”, is it fair to count her among the authoritarian, antifeminism, elitist etc. stances, Bookchin is rallying against? That Mathews is concerned with environmental as well as social issues, shines through in her comparison between the impose-and-control mode of our modern times with their extensive use of energy supplies, external to our own life-force, and earlier civilizations’ use of slaves “who have been treated as external to the social corpus”. However, reading Mathews, I haven’t sofar come across any particular spelled out strategy of hers for the implementation of a policy for population degrowth. Her focus seems to be on the ways in which we can educate ourselves to become attentive to nature. The implementation of these educational strategies seems to have to do with small scale endeavours, based in communities or educational institutions. In this way, Mathews’ thinking is leaning more towards panpsychism than ideology critique. Mathews’ panpsychism is inspired by Norwegian deep ecologist Arne Næss, and can be describes as a thinking , “in which the world (not just nature) contains many kinds of consciousness and sentience. For [Mathews], there is an underlying unity of mind and matter in that the world is a “self-realizing” system containing a multiplicity of other such systems”. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Mathews is building on Næss and through him, Spinoza, but she doesn’t make this connection very explicit, at least not in the text I am referring to here. The problem with Mathews’ argumentation is, as I see it, that she doesn’t manage to apply Spinoza’s thinking to its fullest, and thereby, she lands in some middle ground, where her effort ends in a kind of spiritualistic impasse. And the problem with that, is that in order to have an impact on the current dominant ideas about ecology, nature, climate etc., a vague spiritualism doesn’t speak with a very efficient voice. If I suggest a typical Dane that we solve our current ecological crisis through a ‘musical encounter’ with birds or whales, he would probably at its best have a good laugh.

The rhetorics of deep ecology with its insistence on humans’ parasitic abuse of Nature, as well as discussions of invasive species, etc. comes dangerously close to the imagery of right wing populism. The difference being that whereas the latter refers to specific ethnic or religious groups, and use natural science as a repertoire of metaphors for the unwanted ethnic group’s behavior (“jews/muslims multiply like rats”), the former refers to humanity as a whole (“we are a cancer to the planet”), and their reference to natural sciences is literal. What is common to both, is the expression of hatred. Hatred towards the other or to one self. In the end of the day, it’s no wonder that some people have a hard time telling the difference.

An argumentation that would have a much stronger impact is Bookchin’s assessment, that “throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe, [improvements in the quality of life and the status of women] reduced rates of population increase, in some cases leading to negative population growth rates.”

This is a pretty straight forward argument for how people’s taking care of each other can have a positive impact on their environment. Whether intended or not. In this sense, Bookchin seems to be giving a much stronger argument about a possible correlation between how we as humans treat each other and how we treat our surroundings.

To return to the somewhat primitive question in the title, I might conclude by saying that hierarchy does not in it self kill nature, or sustain it for that matter. On the one hand there is the Chinese model of population degrowth, imposed on the population through a top-down, authoritarian strategy and on the other hand there is a, let’s say, Italian or Japanese (non-)strategy based on cultural, socio-economic factors with the consequence that people do not (want to) reproduce. Does welfare lead to sustainable living? Well, in the West we might have a declining population growth, but it wouldn’t make sense to assert that our way of life is sustainable for the planet. In other words: hierarchy or not, welfare or not, at the end of the day, an ecological, economical and social sustainability must be based on cultural sustainability.


Bookchin, M. (1987). Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement. In Green Perspectives: Newsletter of the Green Program Project, nos. 4-5

Brennan, Andrew and Lo, Yeuk-Sze, “Environmental Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Mathews, F. (2011) A deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry. Organization and Environment. Volume: 24 issue: 4, page(s): 364-387

Sharp, H. (2011). Spinoza and the politics of renaturalization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Will knowing nature make us better humans? Can A deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry give us the answer?

Part of my ‘pocket research program’ 1: “Will knowing nature make us better humans”, here is my summary of Australian professor of environmental philosophy Freya Mathews’ article

Towards a Deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry (find the article as a pre-publication here)

I read this article on the backdrop of this pocket research question:

How can we create better connections amongst ourselves, and with our environment? Would we become better at connecting with each other if we were good at connecting with our environment? And vice versa?

Mathews writes: “The advent of the notion of biomimicry in design circles and the vision of a second industrial revolution based on it has, … moved us closer to the goal of planetary ecological integrity, closer than the traditional environment movement ever did.” However, she continues, “biomimicry remains vulnerable to co-optation by as powerful an anthropocentric mentality as that which launched the original industrial revolution and ravaged, in our time, the living constituency of the biosphere.” Therefore, Mathews argues, “a deeper philosophy of biomimicry is currently needed”.

Asking for “deeper, necessary principles in nature that in some sense render the design principles enumerated by biomimicry theorists intelligible”, Mathews comes up with two: the principle of conativity and the principle of least resistance. According to the principle of conativity, “all living beings and living systems are animated by a will or impulse to maintain and increase their own existence.” Mathews refers to the Jewish philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, who “defined conatus as the will wherewith everything strives to persevere in its own existence”. The principle of least resistance has to do with “the very particular manner in which [all living things] pursue their conative ends.” Mathews states that “they do so in a way that involves the least expenditure of effort on their part.” These two principles are intertwined, and form the basis of a stable ecosystem. Why? Because: “Living systems actively strive to persevere in their own existence and they choose to do so, logically enough, in those ways that least deplete their self-energies. These will generally be ways that least provoke resistance from others – ways, in other words, that are most consistent with the conativity of others.”

So, how come we humans have screwed it up so miserably? Mathews argues, that although we are conative beings, we are also “endowed with reflexive awareness”, and therefore, “we can reflect upon our own nature, and, by reflecting upon it, modify it.” Although conativity “will remain our fundamental impulse … the ‘existence’ to which we are dedicated will now be conceptually mediated rather than merely corporeally given”. We are thus able to “choose our ends in accordance with our discursive systems”, and these will inevitably “vary from culture to culture”. Therefore, what we conatively pursue, “may not conform to the principle of least resistance”. And for Mathews this means, that our “ends may clash with the ends of others”.

So, basically what she is saying is, that we human beings are able to reflect, to engage in abstract thinking, and therefore, we can choose to do things that do not match our basic instincts. We are cultural beings, and therefore we are capable of stepping outside the “conative template path laid down by nature”. And this may leads us to “act … in an ‘impose and control’ mode, that effectively places us ‘outside nature'”.

But how can we be sure, on the other hand, that everything a non-human living being does, will always benefit its surroundings? Mathews’ answer would be that beings who fail the principle of least resistance will be wiped out by natural selection. Since they would spend more energy on their survival than they have – and thereby causing more damage to the surroundings than necessary – they wont be able to procreate. According to “a necessity arising from the logical dynamics of evolution”, living systems “evolve an existential disposition that leads them to favour this modality [the path of least resistance]”.

So how does this relate to our current crisis? The keyword for Mathews is energy. Since we, in modern civilization, have gained access to “virtually unlimited supplies of energy”, and “since that power has been derived from external energy supplies, and has not been drawn from our own life-force, we have not been self-depleted or self-decreased by expending it.” In this way, we have avoided “the usual selective consequences of impose-and-control behaviour – only because the energy we have been using to do this has not been our own.”

Our capacity as human beings of reflexivity seems thus to be the cause of the mess we have brought to the planet. But – and here comes the good news – reflexivity is also the key to make it all good again. “As reflexive beings we can grasp the logical force of the conative template laid down by nature and choose to re-conform to it” writes Mathews.

We need to ask the question of “what the life system wants us to want”, as Mathews puts it. This requires that we cultivate “a certain sensitivity to the self-directed patterns-of-unfolding of others”. This adaptation to the conativity of others can take place in two ways. As “a result of deliberation” or “as a result of communicative encounter or exchange”.

Deliberation, Mathews suggest, can go through the methods of science or natural history. However, a thourough insight into the conative tendencies of biological systems requires “a significant expansion of traditional biological and ecological sciences”. The problem is, that “traditional science simply fails to register conativity”, because “its wholesale objectification of natural systems leaves no room for the dimension of self-meaning”. Without the sensitivity towards the self-meaning of other living systems, we will not be able to attune our own ends to theirs.

This is where the second way of adaptation comes into the picture: communicative encounter. “Direct communication” with another living being will allow us to “discover [its] conativity”, and “adapt our own conativity to its”. This communicative encounter “might induce it to disclose us its own sense of self”, which “might be achieved via some form of self-expression or self-revelation intrinsic to that entity”. What would this kind of communicative encounter look like? Mathews gives the example of a possible ‘musical encounter’ with birds or whales. The bird or the whale may then “begin to express its sense of itself”, whereafter “cross-species patterns of sound may be created which express but enlarge the musical signatures of both parties.” This will leave both parties “moulded by the encounter”, and our conativity will be “bent towards the conativity of our musical confreres”.

In the last part of the article Mathews discusses how a “bio-synergistic civilization” might be worked out. She mentions a possible inspiration from ‘pre-modern forager societies’, although she doesn’t find it “entirely clear how the bio-synergistic principles of earlier forager societies could be re-invoked in the context of modern mass societies”.

Her suggestions for a possible model includes the use of solar energy, the consumption of bush foods, and “the setting of optimal ecological targets for human population.”

Turning back to my initial question, whether we become better at connecting with each other if we were good at connecting with our environment, Mathews’ article doesn’t answer the question fully. But it sets up a necessary conceptual framework, from which I will discuss the question in my next blogpost, coming up!