Anthropology Perspectivism
by
Marina Vanzolini, Pedro Cesarino
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0083

Introduction

Perspectivism is a concept originally coined by the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro to encapsulate indigenous conceptions that were already present in a range of ethnographies of Amerindian peoples from Lowland South America. Perspectivism refers to recurrent characteristics found in Amerindian mythology and cosmology, but it also relates to war, hunting, kinship, and other social phenomena. These reveal a particular configuration of distinctions between humans and nonhumans, which are irreducible to Western distinctions between nature and culture. Viveiros de Castro was responsible for providing the concept through the transformation of philosophical terms taken from authors such as Leibniz, Nietzsche, and Deleuze and Guattari. In this way, the author was able to explore the implications of Perspectivism as a concept in Amerindian ethnology and anthropological theory (see Conceptual Background).

General Overviews

Certain aspects of the concept of perspectivism, such as its essential difference to Western relativism, were present in a number of studies written by Viveiros de Castro’s students, especially in Lima 1996 and Lima 1999 on hunting practices and shamanism among the Yudjá (Tupi-speaking people from the Xingu River, Amazonia). Nevertheless, the general outline of the concept and its theoretical consequences are elaborated in two of Viveiros de Castro’s most important articles, Viveiros de Castro 1996 and Viveiros de Castro 1998. To understand its contributions, it is necessary to begin by a general presentation of its mythological aspects. Amerindian myths take place at a time when the cosmos’ multiple entities shared a generic human condition and were thus able to communicate with each other. Myths often describe how, at some point, this condition suffers severe disruption, which results in the transformation of the numerous types of humans that existed—already differentiated by the physical or behavioral traits characteristic of the nonhuman beings they would later become—into the different present-day species of animals, as well as vegetables, artifacts, and other kinds of beings. While in the “first times” all beings were perceived as humans and nonhuman at the same time (or in a flux of constant transformation into one or another of these forms), myths tell how they permanently finally adopt the animal (or other) bodies they have today—a process that Viveiros de Castro describes in terms of the transition from intensive to extensive differentiation. However, shamanism and hunting reveal that this previous human condition was not entirely overcome, since animals, objects, and spirits can still reveal an inner human form, usually associated with (what is commonly translated as) their “soul” or “double.” External nonhuman appearance is thus usually conceived as skin or clothing that hides a human interior. This body or skin is responsible for determining a specific point of view. Rather than an opposition between internal human essence and external nonhuman appearance, these cosmologies postulate a radical relationalism: While viewed by humans as animals, animals and other beings view themselves as humans and live in conditions similar to humans; that is, they have a social life similar to those who inhabit an Amerindian village. In some cases they may view humans as enemies, while in others they may perceive humans as animal predators, most commonly as jaguars. Humanity is thus the reflexive condition of a subject to itself, while animality is the condition of the body regarded from an external point of view. This ontological shift is condensed in the contrast between multinaturalism (different corporeal states that presupposes a similar human and cultural condition) and multiculturalism (the same and common nature or reality, regarded by different cultural points of view). Multinaturalism entails a relationalism (which is perspectivism), while multiculturalism entails a relativism (that must not be mistaken for perspectivism). Årjem, et al. 2004, although not directly used by Viveiros de Castro in his elaboration of perspectivism, offers good examples of perspectivist elaborarions written by Amazonian peoples themselves.

  • Årjem, K., L. Cayon, G. Angulo, and Garcia, M. 2004. Etnografía makuna: Tradiciones, relatos y saberes de la Gente de Agua. Gothernborg: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia ICANH.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written by Makuna Indians, the book is a an autoethnographic reference that has a number of interesting examples of perspectival situations and ideas in the words of the Makuna themselves.

  • Lima, T. S. 1996. O dois e seu múltiplo: reflexões sobre o perspectivismo em uma cosmologia tupi. Mana 2.2: 21–47.

    DOI: 10.1590/S0104-93131996000200002E-mail Citation »

    Stolze Lima’s article on Yudjá shamanism, personhood, and hunting was published in the same year as Viveiros de Castro’s comparative article on perspectivism and can be considered its conceptual complement.

  • Lima, T. S. 1999. The two and its many: Reflections on perspectivism in a Tupi cosmology. Ethnos 64.1: 107–131.

    DOI: 10.1080/00141844.1999.9981592E-mail Citation »

    English translation of Stolze Lima’s seminal article in which the main ethnographic source for the elaboration of perspectivism is presented.

  • Vilaça, A. 2005. Chronically unstable bodies: Reflections on Amazonian corporalities. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11:445–464.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9655.2005.00245.xE-mail Citation »

    Vilaça’s material on the Wari’ (Txapakura-speaking group from Rondonia State, Brazil) was central for the conceptual development of perspectivism. In this article, the author argues that the Amazonian notion of body does not correspond to a substantial identity but to the subject’s point of view of itself and others.

  • Viveiros de Castro, E. 1996. Os pronomes cosmológicos e o perspectivismo ameríndio. Mana 2.2: 115–144.

    DOI: 10.1590/S0104-93131996000200005E-mail Citation »

    The first attempt to articulate perspectivism, published in Portuguese. It offers the ethnographic and conceptual background for the concept, as well as a discussion on corporality, kinship, animism, and ethnocentrism. This condensed version of the text was translated into English (1998), revised in a second Portuguese version (2002) and also in an expanded English version (2012).

  • Viveiros de Castro, E. 1998. Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4.3: 469–488.

    DOI: 10.2307/3034157E-mail Citation »

    This article is the English translation of Viveiros de Castro’s original Portuguese essay on perspectivism. It was responsible for the international dissemination of the concept. The text was later republished in A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion, edited by M. Lambek (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 306–326, and Anthropology in Theory: Issues in Epistemology, edited by H. Moore and T. Sanders (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 552–565.

  • Viveiros de Castro, E. 2002. A inconstância da alma selvagem. São Paulo, Brazil: Cosac Naify.

    E-mail Citation »

    The book presents some of Viveiros de Castro’s most important articles on a variety of themes, such as ethnological models for describing Amazonian societies, kinship systems, shamanism, and his seminal article on perspectivism, all selected and revised by the author.

  • Viveiros de Castro, E. 2004. Exchanging perspectives: The transformation of objects into subjects in Amerindian cosmologies. Common Knowledge 10.3: 463–484.

    DOI: 10.1215/0961754X-10-3-463E-mail Citation »

    This presentation on perspectivism by Viveiros de Castro was published in the Common Knowledge Symposium Talking Peace with Gods: Symposium on the Conciliation of Worldviews (Part 1), which also benefitted from contributions by Bruno Latour, Tobie Nathan, Ulrich Beck, and Jeffrey Kripal. This combination of texts is particularly interesting for the contextualization of Viveiros de Castro’s ideas and other cosmopolitical proposals such as Latour’s (see also reference to Isabelle Stenger’s philosophy of science in Animism).

  • Viveiros de Castro, E. 2012. Cosmological perspectivism in Amazonia and elsewhere. HAU: Masterclass Series 1:45–168.

    E-mail Citation »

    A publication of four lectures given in Cambridge in 1998 in which Viveiros de Castro describes the principal ethnographic characteristics and theoretical consequences of perspectivism, incorporating more recent reflections on the possibilities of using this notion for describing systems of thought outside Amazonia.

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