ontology

Cosmology has also fallen out of favor for anthropologists studying non-Western settings, as it has stood for the discipline’s classic ethnocentric sins: cosmologies imply a timeless, stable holism, a spiritual order to which all activity is irrationally subjected. Cosmologies in this sense appear essentially “primitive” or unenlightened, efforts “to bring the vagaries of the world at large under a unitary mode of cognitive or symbolic control" (Abramson and Holbraad 2014, 5). Stanley Tambiah, for instance, in his famous essay on the Thai “galactic polity,” described how a common radial arrangement of villages and political orders in Southeast Asia had been interpreted by anthropologists in “the cosmological mode” (1977, 72), as repeating the fundamental, pre-existing archetype of a mandala. But, Tambiah argued, the order of the galactic polity did not simply express an underlying cosmological order; rather, political and cosmological orders interacted with each other, within historical parameters. It was, he suggested, not possible to distinguish between cosmological and other domains—they were integrated into a social totality. Where cosmologies have seemed naively holistic and omnicausal, this may have been a consequence of anthropological analysis itself, which chopped up the social scene looking for coherent worldviews that prefigured the order found in other domains like kinship, economics, or politics.

Recent efforts in anthropology to recuperate an interest in cosmology (e.g. Abramson and Holbraad 2014) have sought to discard the concept’s more problematic ethnocentric entailments, typically rejecting the presumed holism and a priori status critiqued by Tambiah, and most commonly, rejecting the implicit hierarchy in the term. The West has its cosmologies, too (see, e.g., Sahlins 1988, Toulmin 1992, Chu 2010), and indigenous cosmologies should be treated symmetrically to those, as genuinely world-making in their own right (Latour 1993, Viveiros de Castro 1998).[1]

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1 Insofar as the recuperation of cosmology has been associated with the “ontological turn,” and its attendant interest in the multiplicity of worlds, I find Paul Kockelman’s definition of ontology a usably rough synonym for cosmology: “ensembles of assumptions regarding the underlying constitution of, or salient patterns in, the world” (2013, 3). For Kockelman, ontologies are the “roots and fruits” (2013, 3) of interpretation and experience in the world.