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Whose truth is it anyway?

‘What does the fish remind you of?’

‘Other fish.’

‘And what do other fish remind you of?’

‘Other fish.’

Major Sanderson sat back disappointedly.

(Major Sanderson, the staff psychiatrist, talking to Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22)

At a recent anthropology conference I spoke to a PhD student who had just returned from fieldwork in Amazonia. As it often does among contemporary Amazonianist anthropologists, our conversation turned to perspectivism: the radically different way in which many indigenous Amerindians appear to view the world. The student told me that when she had started her PhD, her initial supervisors – neither of them Latin Americanists – insisted that she must read the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and especially his writings on perspectivism. The student then confided to me that once she got to the field perspectival ideas just did not seem to be of any importance in the lives of the people she was working with. Nevertheless, two years later here she was ready to present to an audience of mostly Amazonianists a paper considering the role of smells in perspectival terms.

I start with this anecdote not to criticise the student, whose presentation was very lucid, well-researched and argued, nor to dismiss the importance of perspectival theories, which I have used in my own research and will defend below. The encounter does, however, seem to encapsulate a particular trend in some current anthropological work in which the complex ideas, practices and social processes of everyday life are overlooked in the intellectual pursuit of radical alterity. While I might have dismissed my fears over this student’s particular focus on perspectivism at this early stage in her writing, our conversation occurred just as I had been asked to review Martin Holbraad’s new book, Truth in motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. What was striking was that the student’s approach appeared to parallel the ‘ontographic’ methodological instructions (p.255-6) that Holbraad lays out in the concluding chapter of his book. Truth in motion is arguably the clearest manifesto of the recent ‘ontological turn’ in British anthropology, and that like that movement also clearly owes a great debt to the work of Viveiros de Castro. So while I will focus on Holbraad’s ideas in this article, I want to embed my discussion within a wider consideration of this apparently new direction for anthropology and in conversation with the work of Viveiros de Castro.


Magnus Course has described the ontological turn as “a particular commitment to recalibrate the level at which analysis takes place” (2010:248), while Morten Pedersen echoes Holbraad’s own stress on ontography as “a heuristic analytical device as opposed to a fixed theoretical framework” (Pedersen 2012). This underlines the fact that, at least from their perspective, the work of these new ‘ontographers’ is less about producing new anthropological theories than about producing a new methodology that they feel will take them past what they see as anthropology’s fundamental inability to take the words and views of others seriously. At the heart of the movement lies a deep scepticism about the anthropological project as it has so far been conducted, based on the fundamental issue of representation, and the political issue of who controls that representation. For Holbraad, this debate centres around the issue of the distinction between nature and culture, of the ability for anyone to be able to talk of a world ‘out there’ in a way that is not fundamentally caught up in their own particular worldview.

As Holbraad puts it: “How might the ‘nonuniversality’ of the distinction between nature and culture be conceptualized without recourse to that very distinction?” (p.35). For him the answer is to seek out alterity and embrace it wherever possible, if necessary by creating new concepts and ways of thinking that allow ‘us’ and ‘them’ to move forward together into a new world of understanding. As he and his co-editors put it in the introduction to the edited volume Thinking Through Things:

An ontological turn in anthropological analysis… turns on the humble… admission that our concepts (not our ‘representations’) must, by definition, be inadequate to translate different ones. This, it is suggested, is the only way to take difference – alterity – seriously as the starting point for anthropological analysis (Henare, Holbraad & Wastell 2007:12)

The corollary of this view is Holbraad’s new ontographic methodology in which he explicitly subjugates ethnography to the search for this ontological alterity, exhorting ‘ontographers’ to search for apparent ‘logical contradictions’ in their ethnographic descriptions and then to produce (‘infine’) new concepts, new to both the anthropologist’s culture as well as the one under study, that will ultimately lend logical cogency to the initial contradiction and dissolve it in a newly shared understanding.

At its heart this call appears to offer a critique of previous anthropologists as wilful Yossarians, seeing only similarity in everything around them and thus reducing the variation of the world to a uniform and uninteresting blankness. The alternative the ontographers offer is to become philosophers for others, fully elucidating and, at times, explicating apparently distinct understandings of the world. As I hope will become clear in this discussion, there is much to admire and appreciate in both this project as well as Holbraad’s intellectually rigorous book. I am also generally supportive of the political perspective upon which I believe the ontological turn, and its precursors, to be based. My concern is that this proposed methodological emphasis on alterity and then the preoccupation with philosophically supporting the particular ontological cases it throws up, such as perspectivism, have the danger both of overinterpreting, or perhaps over-intellectualising, alternative views and practices while also eclipsing a fuller and wider sense of the power of anthropological study itself. For me, anthropology’s strength lies precisely in its ability to find, describe and discuss both similarity and difference.


In an excellent early chapter, Holbraad outlines a particular understanding of the history of anthropological theory in terms of changing attitudes towards the relationship between nature and culture. Starting from a position of ‘evolutionism’ that saw ‘sociocultural variation… as an index of underlying human nature’ and an expression of human beings’ development as a species, the discipline eventually replaced this with ‘diffusionism’ that decoupled culture from nature and placed society and culture as ‘fields to be understood in terms of their own’ (p.19-23). Here, however, while anthropologists and ‘natives’ might have been considered as equal in terms of their truth-claims, anthropologists, in Holbraad’s view, still tended to claim the upper hand through arguing that “only some societies have devoted themselves to developing systematic methods and techniques that may ensure that their representations of the world are actually correct” (p.25).

For Holbraad this faith in anthropology’s own objectivity was then replaced by ‘social constructivism’, in which “the very idea of scientific truth began to be considered either naïve or dogmatic” (p.27) and the diffusionists’ continued reliance on “the idea of nature that stands outside the realms of society and culture” was taken away, replaced by the ultimate conclusion that “if culture is natural, so to speak, then nature is cultural” (p.29). In this view it is not just that societies vary in the manner in which they represent nature but rather that nature itself is best understood as differing for different people. Holbraad rightly points out the intellectual stalemate that this brought, and with which we mostly still seem to be living. On one side are the naturalists with their “point-blank-obvious intuition that there’s a world out there that both constrains and acts as a benchmark for the truth-claims we make about it” (p.32), on the other side are the constructivists who deny all claims to an ultimate truth.

Anthropology’s response, Holbraad suggests, has mostly been to critique the concepts of nature and culture themselves. From his perspective this approach is flawed, however, because it is still being argued from within a particular Western discourse and therefore it ultimately still retains and recreates the very distinction that it is trying to repudiate. Elsewhere Holbraad has gone even further to note that this idea of a single nature means a parallel assumption of a single humanity, reifying similarity over difference, such that:

anthropology has built the non-possibility of the Other into its own premise, as the study of an inclusively construed ‘anthropos’- what they call ‘humanity’. Once that logical move is in place then all Otherness must appear in the form of ‘variation’ (variation on the abiding theme of ‘anthropos’ of course) (Holbraad 2006)

For Holbraad then, the only way to escape this circularity, and the apparent inadequacy of our own concepts, is to see the limitations of our own concepts and then have a willingness to invent, or to use his word ‘infine’ (p.220), new concepts that will make sense of things that seem irrational from a particular perspective. Hence he does not deny that humans can exist in a single world, it is just that that truly ontologically shared world does not yet exist and it is precisely anthropology’s job to help bring it into being.

While this may seem like a very philosophical problem and debate its deeper importance is made clearer if we trace the origins of this approach. Holbraad explicitly notes his intellectual debt to scholars including Roy Wagner, Marilyn Strathern and Bruno Latour – scholars he describes as sharing “a desire to think (and do) anthropology beyond representation” (p.xvi). However, I think it is particularly illuminating to focus on the influence of Viveiros de Castro, to whom the book is dedicated and to whom Holbraad’s epilogue is directly addressed. In an after-dinner speech Viveiros de Castro gave at the ASA conference in 2003, the deeper political edge of his own anthropological approach was made clear. In it he noted his belief, based on his experience of coming of age during the period that included the 1968 student uprisings, in anthropology as an “insurrectionary, subversive science… the instrument of a certain revolutionary utopia which fought for the conceptual self-determination of all the planet’s minorities” (2003). Viveiros de Castro argues that for him and others a key task of anthropologists was to “[enable] the thought of American peoples to escape the ghetto in which it had been enclosed since the 16th century” (2003). In this context he notes that Lévi-Strauss’s ‘la pensée sauvage’ did not signify – as in the unfortunate English translation of the book title – ‘the savage mind’: “To us it meant untamed thought, unsubdued thought, wild thought. Thought against the State, if you will” (2003).

Here the political importance of taking alternative visions of the world seriously becomes clear: it is not a merely philosophical matter but rather is above all a political act, countering a history of colonialism and exploitation.[3] Against a Western intellectual imperialism that ultimately subordinates all others to a particular understanding of the world and understands and explains their actions and beliefs from that perspective, is placed an alternative intellectual future in which different perspectives meet and interact in relative equality. It is this view and objective that, as I understand it, underpins Viveiros de Castro’s anthropological project and that the ontographers have sought to carry forward. The intellectual and political importance of this project is clear, particularly in the Brazilian context, or in other settings where people are still deeply engaged in questions over the role and future of indigenous or minority groups within a nation state. Holbraad and the other European-based academics involved in the ontological turn seem even more ambitious, however, in wanting to make this approach, with its focus on the absolute equality of ontological differences and the creation of a newly shared future, apply to all anthropological endeavour, wherever it occurs. The reason why Holbraad’s book is so interesting is precisely because it offers an early example of putting this analytical approach at the heart of an anthropological study. In this case Holbraad’s focus is on the Afro-Cuban practice of Ifá divination in Havana


If this article has so far been taken up with philosophical questions and debates then it in no small measure reflects the structure of Holbraad’s approach, which is much more focused on his intellectual forbears and logically constructed arguments than on ethnography per se. While this reflects Holbraad’s emphasis on taking the intellectual basis of Ifá seriously, as I am using his monograph as the focus of this discussion – and ultimately I believe that it needs to be judged according to its relation to its ethnographic subject – I need to give a brief account of Ifá divination here.

Clients come to babalawos, the ‘priest[s] of Ifá’ (p.76), for divinations for a variety of reasons, but essentially to provide insight into their lives. At the centre of Ifá are the oddu, the mythical verses that are split into 256 accounts that are then associated with specific divinatory configurations. At a divination the babalawo uses certain instruments to divine which oddu are applicable to the client’s case and recites and discusses them. Divining can be done using various elements but the most formal and elaborate divination ritual, and the one that Holbraad concentrates on, involves the use of palm nuts and a divining tray. Here the tray is covered in divining powder and after various initiatory activities the babalawo casts the nuts. He does this by holding 16 of them in his cupped hands before clutching as many as he can in his right hand and lifting them away from the left hand. If none are left, or more than three, then the action is discounted; but if either one or two nuts are left in the left hand then an appropriate number of lines are drawn in the powder on the tray. This is then repeated seven more times until there are two columns of four marks. Each set of four binary marks gives 16 possible combinations, which when combined with the other set gives 256 overall combinations (16×16). Each combination is associated with a particular oddu which the babalawo can then recite and interpret in terms of its relevance to the client.

While Holbraad does eventually describe a generic divination, he is not really interested (as he makes clear from the start) in the ethnographic specifics of individual consultations or even the wider social setting and contexts in which they occur. Instead Holbraad is focused on how divination is understood from the perspective of its practitioners. Thus while he writes that “one may admit straight out that divinatory verdicts are open to doubt” (p.68) for him this would reflect an etic position that fails to take at face value practitioners’ own views, the fault he finds in all previous anthropological approaches to divination, including the work of Evans-Pritchard and Boyer. Instead his key insight is that oracular verdicts are not just understood to be true but rather are “the kinds of things that could not but be true” (p.55). For practitioners – and Holbraad tends to focus on the babalawos themselves although his overall argument appears to include the clients as well – it is meaningless to talk of doubt, as the truth of a divination lies at the heart of the very definition of what a divination is: “To doubt oracular truth is to doubt whether it is oracular” (p.69).

This then is the key moment of alterity that Holbraad takes as being at the heart of his task to take Ifá practitioners seriously, and it is how he differentiates his own work from previous anthropological approaches. As with Viveiros de Castro, Holbraad’s approach is an important antidote to work which, as he sees sit, would seek to offer only an outside explanation of the practices of others. For Holbraad though, it is not enough to offer this insight and then go on to discuss its implications in terms of how babalawos and consultants react to and use consultations, nor even perhaps the wider implications for other aspects of Cuban beliefs, life and society. Instead Holbraad sees his task as delineating the deeper philosophical principles that might underpin such a view and then contrasting them with ‘Western’ understandings. It is this quest that forms the heart of the book.

In line with the ‘ontographic’ methodological instructions that he lays out in his conclusion (p.255-6), Holbraad doesn’t rely so much on ethnography as the work of other anthropologists, philosophers and other thinkers for inspiration and comparison in taking this project forward. His method is to consider the logic that appears to underlie both Western and Ifá definitions of truth to unpack why the indubitability of Ifá divination is a problem from a Western perspective. He builds his arguments through detailed and complex philosophical debate mostly involving critiques of alternative interpretations. In essence, though, he traces the ultimate incompatibility in the two systems of thought as lying in the Western ontological position that truth is “a relationship between a representation and a fact” (p.74). Thus:

The practitioner of divination may insist, blue in the face, that doubtful verdicts are not verdicts. But if verdicts are taken to be representations they must be doubtful, so the practitioner’s insistence makes no sense (p.74).

Instead Holbraad shows how the concept of truth in Ifá divination rituals cannot be understood representationally but rather must be understood recursively by facing the fundamental alterity in Ifá ontology, such that ‘truth’ lies only in the oddu themselves, and the diviner’s job is to align the world, or at least the world of the consultant, to the ‘truth’ of the Oddu. As Holbraad explains:

The key claim is that, in order to make sense of the constitutive indubitability of truth in Ifá, divinatory truths must be conceived as acts of definition (rather than representation) that effectively transform the world upon which they purport to comment (p.xxiii).

He therefore proposes an understanding of Ifá truth as ‘motile’ rather than representational. A traditional anthropological understanding might be to see the chosen oddu as representing a particular ‘truth’ that must then be interpreted in light of the client’s circumstances. Instead Holbraad argues for understanding the ‘truth’ of the oddu as on a trajectory that the skilled babalawo must then combine along with the client’s own circumstances, to bring them together into a single new trajectory.

Understood in this way, every divination cannot but be true, because every divination enacts this transformation upon the consultant. As surely as any patient coming out of a medical surgeon’s operating theatre has been physically changed, regardless of their eventual health outcome, a consultant is now living with their oddu and their divination has thus been truthful. For Holbraad then, this exposition has achieved his original goal of understanding Ifá divination from the perspective of practitioners.

Having produced this compelling account of Ifá, however, Holbraad is not content to rest his analysis here, returning instead to the question of anthropological methodology itself. Specifically he argues that his notion of motility and the bringing together of two separate paths is a useful way to think about the anthropological endeavour and specifically his new ‘ontographic methodology’. That is, that an anthropologist, faced with an alternate view of the world, should bring her own understandings together with that of the alternate ontology to create new concepts such that, ideally, people from both cultures could move forward together in a newly shared understanding of the world. So in this way Holbraad has come full circle, using the insights gleaned from using his own ontographic method on Ifá divination to then reinforce and further elucidate his own methodology. If this intellectual dexterity seems a little too neat, the coincidence of the ethnographic subject somehow reflecting and reinforcing the anthropologist’s own methodology, then it points to a key criticism that can be made of Holbraad’s approach, as well the ontological turn more generally.


Michael Scott in discussing the ontological turn has cited Alfred Korzybski’s famous saying: “Mistake the map for the territory – mistake a philosophical system for the world – and the map will overdetermine the inquiry” (Kyriakides 2012:415). In this view the philosophical ideas become an end in themselves, not linked to raising further ethnographic questions or elucidating other social and cultural phenomenon but rather held up as precious jewels to be admired in isolation. Certainly when Holbraad links his ontographic conclusions back to his own methodology one feels that he has made a philosophical step too far. Yet even before this there is a question of whether it is his own intellectual pursuit that is guiding his analysis rather than any real interest in the practices of Ifá divinations and their participants. In the first instance this is emphasised by Holbraad’s reluctance to bring to life the voices of babalawos and their clients which means that the ideas that he presents as being at the heart of Ifá come much more in his own voice than that of his informants. This leaves him open to the criticism that he is ‘ventriloquising’ the voices of his informants to fit his own theoretical preoccupations (see Ramos 2012:490). Beyond this, however, Holbraad’s methodology and writing can be more broadly accused of both essentialising and exoticising Ifá ontology. In the first place by distilling one particular aspect of it, making the search for and understanding of its point of ultimate alterity so precious that nothing else matters. In the second place by reifying and fixing this understanding in place as if it is stable and shared uniformly. And finally by emphasising the radical alterity of the concept, such that it can only apparently be understood by others through the creation of new and newly-shared concepts.

Reflecting the long gestation of the book itself, Holbraad is aware of various forms of this critique but interestingly he chooses to defend himself by further emphasising the detachment of his methodology. He notes that there is a basic “misapprehension involved in this line of complaint, namely the assumption that recursive analyses are even in the business of providing accurate representations of the people studied” (p.249). He argues against holistic approaches that might wish for a fuller picture of Ifá practices arguing that such an approach loses something of the essence of Ifá divination in the continued search for similarity. He also notes: “So, as in divinatory infinition, truth in our analytical infinitions becomes a matter of internal cogency rather than external match” (p.254). I am not, however, convinced by this argument, and its related assumption that Holbraad, or anyone emphasising his ‘ontographic’ or philosophical approach, has definitively distilled and understood what is going on.

Interestingly, much of the limited ethnography that Holbraad does provide is concerned with practitioners’ and their clients doubts about Ifá. Holbraad includes this precisely to bolster his claim that ultimately divinations are indubitable but the reader is left with questions of how far this ontological position would hold and also of a reality in which people seem much more willing to live with ambiguity than Holbraad’s statements would suggest. For example, Holbraad describes a woman who was told that her problems stemmed from needing her mother’s forgiveness. The woman rejected this divination, noting that “I’ve spent the past hour talking and crying with my mum, trying to work out what I’ve done to her. I asked her for her forgiveness but she didn’t give it because I haven’t done anything!” (p.204). Holbraad notes that a few weeks later the girl decided that the divination was wrong because “those gentlemen weren’t babalawos”, leading Holbraad to conclude that her belief in the power of divination remains intact (p.212). If the divination wasn’t true then it wasn’t a divination.

Holbraad supports this interpretation by arguing:

To interpret her criticism as a breach with the logic of divination as such would be equivalent to doubting whether, say, ‘love thy neighbor’ is an inherent principle of Christian practice on the grounds that many Christians… are less than loving to their neighbors (p.212-3).

This seems a particularly telling comparison in the sense that the Christian creed is based on specific scriptural passages (Matthew 22:39 & Mark 12:29) and is therefore indisputably part of Christian ‘beliefs’ regardless of the actions of Christian people.[5] While Holbraad may be intent on giving equal weight to Ifá notions, the fact remains that its central creeds do not exist in a generally accepted, textual form. As such, and particularly in relation to his assertion of the indubitability of Ifá divination, there may be a fluidity at the heart of the system itself, let alone in the minds of its adherents and practitioners that Holbraad’s interpretation fails to capture.

Thus, while in Holbraad’s description there is a clear all or nothing choice between accepting the ‘truth’ of divination or not believing in it at all, one is left wondering how this process developed and wondering about the many people caught in that liminal stage between absolute belief and none at all. As with the unnamed woman above, but also in the life histories of Holbraad’s central figures of Javier and Javielito, people are clearly not acting at all times as if divinations are indubitable. Rather, as I have found in my own engagement with Amerindians’ perspectival ideas, it seems likely that many of the people he interacted with live in a much greyer area in which they are willing not only to doubt but also to explicitly hold both belief and non-belief in their minds at the same time. This points to a number of aspects of such beliefs, first their ability to change and to differ between individuals, or in the same individual over time, and also the deeper question, that strikes at the heart of Holbraad’s project, of whether a single, internally logical system of thought actually exists in these cases. There is thus a fear that in producing a clear, logical argument about the ‘nature’ of Ifá divination Holbraad has produced a thing that, much as it can be philosophically defended, really exists for no one except himself.

Holbraad might counter that my critique undermines alternative ontologies, apparently deeming them ‘less rational’ than our own and therefore precisely undermining the ontographic imperative to ‘take them seriously’. I would counter this by arguing ‘symmetrically’ (Latour 1993:92) that I also don’t entirely recognise the ‘Western’ ontology against which Holbraad contrasts Ifá. As with his ventriloquism for Ifá one can argue that Holbraad has set up a particularly reified and clearly defined notion of Western truth that is equally unrepresentative (pun intended). In the first place there is a question of who ‘we’ are in this equation, particularly in a contemporary reality in which anthropologists, not to mention ‘Westerners’, have a variety of personal, cultural and ontological backgrounds.[6] Moreover, as Venkatesan has written:

Ontologies, theories of being and reality, have histories (and genealogies). They are also not necessarily transcontextually stable. Who among us has not shouted at a car or a printer for ‘deliberately’ breaking down when one is racing to make a deadline? (Venkatesan 2010:154)

The question then becomes whether the philosophers’ version of ‘our’ rationality has ever had much relation to non-philosophers’ thought processes. Thus, it is not that in rejecting Holbraad’s ontology of Ifá that I am taking it less seriously than ‘Western’ thought. Rather I follow Richard Handler’s insistence that: “Others are no less capable of rationality and no more prone to rationalization (however we may define those two terms) than we are” (Handler 2004:489).

Here it might be argued that Holbraad just has divergent aims from an anthropological approach that focuses on everyday interactions and “accurate representations of the people studied” (p.249). Elsewhere he has emphasised the philosophical and intellectual basis of his quest:

If culture, at whatever level of abstraction… is a set of representations produced by the people we study, then it quite properly is said to ‘belong’ to them: ‘Nuer’ culture, ‘Western’ culture, etc. Not so for ontology, which is just a set of assumptions postulated by the anthropologist for analytical purposes (Holbraad 2010:185 my emphasis).

The deeper issue here is that in choosing this methodology for considering other people, Holbraad fundamentally undermines the political act that lies at the very foundation of the ontological turn. That is, Holbraad can be seen as enacting a similar form of intellectual imperialism against which Viveiros de Castro railed in his original championing of ‘the savage mind’ (2003). By all means let us have philosophers debate all manner of possible ontologies, but we cannot let them claim to be the only ones who have ‘truly’ elucidated what is going on.

The ontological turn’s critique of previous anthropological approaches was that in its assumption of shared humanity it had built ‘the non-possibility of the Other into its own premise’ (Holbraad 2006, see above). Arguably it seems that Holbraad’s strict methodology, with its intensive focus on alterity, is potentially just as destructive to the anthropological endeavour.[7] In stressing alterity, Holbraad creates purified versions of ‘the Other’ that end up bearing little relation to people’s lives and deny their ability to interact with others, as they have and do on a regular basis, prior to any ontographic intervention. As such the ontographer seems to start speaking for the people being studied and denying their own agency in their inhabited world. As with his creation of a particular notion of Ifá divination, Holbraad reifies alterity to the point that he seems to forget that his informants are interacting with each other, and him, on an everyday basis (cf. Carrithers 2010:186). This is not to say that Holbraad’s approach is without merit, it is only that, to my mind, his obsession with alterity drives him to act as imperiously as those against whom Viveiros de Castro originally pitted the anthropological method.

In contrast to Holbraad’s approach, I would also note that Viveiros de Castro while recognising the artifice of his own model has also produced something of unquestionable use for helping to further elucidate previously misunderstood instances and interactions. The most obvious example, used repeatedly not only by Viveiros de Castro (1998a:475, 1998b & 2004) but also by Latour, is to reread the example taken from Lévi-Strauss of Amerindians drowning Europeans to discover whether their corpses were subject to putrefaction (1973:384, quoted in Viveiros de Castro 1998a:475). Viveiros de Castro uses the insights of perspectivism to turn Lévi-Strauss’ observation that “the proof that they were true humans is that they considered that they alone were the true humans” on its head:

Now everything has changed. The savages are no longer ethnocentric but rather cosmocentric; instead of having to prove that they are humans because they distinguish themselves from animals, we now have to recognize how inhuman we are for opposing humans to animals in a way they never did (Viveiros de Castro, 1998:475).

As Latour has shown, the potential power of this insight is great and, as with the wider aims of the ontological turn, can be used to undermine and divert particular Western intellectual traditions and assumptions (Latour 1993, 2002, 2004 & 2009). Thus while the pursuit of perspectivism may have gone too far in certain cases (Ramos 2012:482) its underlying importance is retained. While it might be argued that Holbraad’s work could lead to similarly wide insights, the fact is that, discounting the self-serving discussion of his own methodology, Holbraad has not yet used his apparent insight into the indubitability of Ifá divination to tell us anything else about Cuban life, the history of Ifá or anything wider about social, political, intellectual or cultural interactions.

To my mind the remedy for these apparent weaknesses in Holbraad’s approach is found precisely in the central tenet of anthropology which Holbraad seems so keen to downplay, namely ethnography. Michael Carrithers noted something similar in his contribution to the 2008 GDAT debate:

One of the features of anthropology as a discipline is precisely that it isn’t philosophy, but that the union card is ethnography, and the union card of ethnography is actually going and encountering people… This means, I think, that it’s radically empiricist in a way that it’s hard for philosophy of any kind really to wrap its head around what that empiricism would or could actually be, in the terms in which anthropologists actually practice it (Carrithers 2010:196).

The power of ethnography is seen in responses to perspectivism where, in contrast to Holbraad’s purely intellectual pursuit, it is ethnography that has shown how and why Amerindian thought is much more complex than the basic philosophical inversions that lie at the heart of Viveiros de Castro’s work (Turner 2009, Course 2010).[8] While these differences might be taken as grist for the ontographic mill, the reality is that the ontographic process of purification that Holbraad appears to exemplify is likely only to take us further away from the complexity of reality. Thus, while philosophers may be able to sit around and consider the possibility of these alternatives, it tends to be ethnography, the actual words, actions and ideas of other people that generates alternative versions that are much more complex and novel than anything ‘we’ can dream up. To my mind, Holbraad’s method does not allow us to break free of our own conceptions and thus ‘really’ understand ‘the other’. Instead his method is likely to produce new intellectual rails along which such understandings are going to be judged.

Holbraad, in the conclusion to the book, contrasts the ‘strength’ of Western intellectual arguments with ‘oracular’ divinations noting that it was the lack of the former in the latter that so worried earlier anthropologists. It was this that led him to seek out a deeper understanding of divinations to show why such argumentation was not needed. Yet, ironically it is precisely his own search for a ‘strong’ intellectual underpinning of divination that in his writings seems to rob divination of its own complexity and underlying self. Thus, while the ‘strength’ and ingenuity of Holbraad’s own arguments are to be applauded the real lacuna in his work is the lack of ethnography that would allow the reader to judge his pronouncements more fully as well as see how these apparently different notions of truth play out in the everyday world and may have wider implications. In a country (i.e. Cuba) synonymous in the international arena with politics, revolution and alternative socio-economic activities it would not seem out of place to wonder whether Holbraad’s insights might relate to things of wider import than his own philosophical musings.


Any discussion touching on the relationship between philosophy and anthropology would be incomplete without reference to Ingold’s well-known dictum: “Anthropology is philosophy with the people in” (Ingold 1992: 695-6). Viveiros de Castro used it in his 2003 speech to the ASA emphasising the importance of ‘native thought’ in the philosophical project: “If real philosophy abounds in imaginary savages, the geophilosophy implied by anthropology strives to articulate an imaginary philosophy with the help of real savages” (Viveiros de Castro 2003). For Ingold the key advantage of anthropology over philosophy was precisely to lessen the ‘exclusivity’ of such intellectual pursuit by enlisting ‘the help of ordinary people’ (Ingold 1992: 695-6). In taking this notion of ‘native philosophy’ forward in his work, however, Viveiros de Castro steadily detaches anthropological thought from any ethnographic reality. He ends up arguing for “an anthropological theory of conceptual imagination” that creates “those intellectual objects and relations which furnish the indefinitely many possible worlds of which humans are capable” (Viveiros de Castro 2003).

It is this call that I believe Holbraad and, to various degrees, his fellow anthropologists within the ‘ontological turn’ have followed in their subsequent work. In its inherent critique of prior intellectual endeavour that might be deemed not to have taken the thoughts and ideas of others ‘seriously’ enough, this approach is important. Yet Holbraad also explicitly takes this intellectual trajectory full circle saying “What is at stake are the ideas, not the people who might ‘hold’ them. So if… anthropology is philosophy with people in it, I’d say [Ingold] is right, but only without the people” (Holbraad 2010:185).

And in taking the people out Holbraad loses his possible interlocutors who might limit his reification and exoticisation of their concepts beyond any emic recognition. Moreover, his approach, rather than bringing equality to cross-cultural intellectual debate by emphasising the need to bring a particular philosophical depth to apparently alien concepts, reinforces a very particular intellectual approach to the world. Logically, if we have removed the people from anthropology then all that is left is philosophy. The philosopher may worry that anthropologists see only undifferentiated fish populating an uninteresting world but just because we use a category to make comparisons does not mean that we are blind to the intricacies and possible separations and contradictions within it.

“So long, and thanks for all the fish”



Thanks to Liana Chua, Magnus Course, Amit Desai, Peter Gow and Jon Mitchell for their astute comments and suggestions. Any opinions and errors remain entirely my own.


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  1. [1]The Amazonian electric eel, Electrophorus electrus.
  2. [2]Arapaima gigus, a gigantic Amazonian fish that must breathe surface air in order to survive.
  3. [3]For Viveiros de Castro, as for many other anthropologists, this engagment with the political goes beyond their academic work to encompass public engagement and activism for and with indigenous peoples.
  4. [4]Cod, most commonly used to refer to the dried and salted form that is a staple part of the diet of many Spanish and Portuguese speaking communities that circle the Atlantic Ocean.
  5. [5]I would go further to argue that the Biblical Canon often has little relation to the actual worldviews and actions of individuals who would call themselves ‘Christian’.
  6. [6]I thank Liana Chua for her discussion on this issue.
  7. [7]I should note here that Holbraad pushes back against this point by arguing that “recursive analysis proceeds, not by seeking to verify some first principle of alterity, but rather by submitting the prior supposition of similarity to systematic testing so as to determine the exact degree to which it may or may not be carried” (p.249). His argument being that he accepts the existence of similarity but weeds through it to get at the point of alterity that he finds the most interesting. In practice this means that even if he intellectually acknowledges the existence of similarity his work leaves no real space for it.
  8. [8]In referring to Turner’s critique it is important to note that in the foundational (English) text for perspectivism Viveiros de Castro makes the clear observation that “This inversion, perhaps too symmetrical to be more than speculative” (1998a:470).
  9. [9]Used in Peru to refer to the Amazonian, pink, river dolphin.

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