Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: Some Reflections on the Notion of Species in History and Anthropology

The text that follows was written by the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (Rio de Janeiro, 1951) in response to a questionnaire regarding the problem of species prepared and sent to him by Álvaro Fernández-Bravo, for e-misférica 10.1. The recent work of Viveiros de Castro is not too well known by American [English] readers. His most important English-language book came out twenty years ago, From the Enemy’s Point of View: Humanity and Divinity in an Amazonian Society (The University of Chicago Press, 1992). He recently published The Inconstancy of the Indian Soul: The Encounter of Catholics and Cannibals in 16-century Brazil (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2011), which is a translation of his previously published work. Among his most important recent works are A inconstância da alma selvagem e outros ensaios de antropologia (São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2000), Métaphysiques cannibals. Lignes d’anthropologies post-structurale (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2009), and the Spanish version of the same book, Metafísicas caníbales. Líneas de antropología postestructural (Buenos Aires: Katz, 2010). He has taught at the University of Chicago, Cambridge University, University of Manchester, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, Universidade de São Paulo, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil and is currently professor of Anthropology at the National Museum, Federal University of Río de Janeiro as well as researcher at CNRS, France.

The focus of the questions addressed to the author was organized around the topic of Multinaturalist Perspectivism, a concept developed in his work that emphasizes the point of view of Amazonian Indigenous peoples. Viveiros de Castro’s argument is to move out from the Amerindian world as an object of observation/study into an effort to look to the world (including its non-human components) from an Indigenous point of view. Not the return of the native, but the turn of the native, as he has stated. Amerindian perspectivism is a theory and vision of the world with a strong connection to “multinaturalism”, a category opposed to multiculturalism that assumes the coexistence of different “natures” as in Amazonian cosmology. These “natures” include non-human animal perception along with a human one, all of them sharing a common perspective or affinity. As the author put it, what matters is no longer to classify the species in which nature is divided, but to know how the species themselves take over this task (2010: 69), producing images of nature according to their perspective. In his books and articles, in active dialogue with Deleuzian philosophical positions, Viveiros de Castro refers in many opportunities to “species”, particularly in relation to the human-animal pair. Animals and humans share a common point of view, according to which different and moving “natures” are conceived.

The questions addressed to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro asked him to develop some of his concepts, particularly the relationship between Multinaturalist Perspectivism and species. Is the category of “species” still useful to understand the world? What is its value to produce knowledge? Is it possible to avoid the epistemic violence that has characterized taxonomies and racialist hierarchies in the History of Science in the West and continue thinking with “species”? Shall we preserve “species” as a conceptual tool or should it be abandoned at all? Is it possible to capture “species” and assign them an emancipatory function?

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: The Notion of Species in History and Anthropology

I do not have the competence to speak about the history of the notion of species in Western philosophy. In the case of anthropology, the notion comes into play in two distinct conceptual contexts.

In the first place, and most importantly—as it involves the very definition of the object of the discipline—anthropology has, from its outset, clung to the postulate of the “psychic unity of the species,” which is equivalent to the defining of the human species by its “psychic” capacities, meaning, in this case, cognitive capacities. This, in turn, presupposes a foundational discontinuity between our species and all others, given that the “psychic unity” suggests that our species counter-unifies all others into a single sub-psychic (or a-psychic) realm, which is exhaustively determined by an extra-psychic corporeality. The idea of species, in this case, works in a somewhat paradoxical fashion, given that for anthropology there is, strictly speaking, only one species—the human—which cloaks itself in the nature of a genus or domain, as the “ontic” or “empiric” differences among myriad living species are neutralized by the greater “ontological” or “transcendental” difference between this special species and the other mundane species. Humanity works here as a collective angel, in the sense that, for some medieval thinkers, angels were thought of as being individuals who were each a species in their own regard. The analogy with angels is not accidental, since humanity was frequently thought of as an entity “halfway between ape and angel.” It is unnecessary to emphasize that here the aspect of the “ape” pertains to the body while the “angel” signifies the soul or the “psychic unity.” Anthropology is congenitally dualist, and because of that the idea of species is less a way of situating man among a natural multiplicity than of radically setting him apart as unically dual and dually unique.

On the other hand, any attempt at introducing anthropologically (i.e. “psychically”) relevant discontinuities to the animal realm, understood as the residual domain of the non-human, threatens the homogeneity, and thus the integrity of the human species as one of coherent unity. It is as if there existed a zero-sum game between internal unity and external counter-unity: every meaningful internal differentiation of the external domain of the non-human threatens to differentiate internally the domain of the human, externalizing part of this domain as something quasi- or sub-human. In other words, everything takes place as if the only mode of exorcising racism (internal speciesism) were through the strengthening of external speciesism (the theory of human exceptionality). However, Lévi-Strauss, in his famous homage to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1962), already warned that the relationship between racism and speciesism is not one of discontinuity, but rather one of continuity. Speciesism anticipates and prepares for racism:

Never in the course of the past four centuries has western man been in a better position to realize that by arrogating to himself the right to raise a wall dividing mankind from the beast in nature, and appropriating to himself all the qualities he denied the latter, he was setting in motion an infernal cycle. For this same wall was to be pulled steadily tighter, serving to set some men apart from other men and to justify in the minds of an ever-shrinking minority their claim to being the only civilization of men. Such a civilization, based as it was on the principle and notion of self-conceit, was corrupt from the very start.

Secondly, the concept of species was mobilized in anthropology to account for a phenomenon whose intellectual history is indissociable from that very discipline, namely, the so called “totemism” or, more generally, the innumerable devices for internal differentiation of a society that resorts to the perceptible differences between living species (or, more generally, the so-called “natural kinds”) to think the segmentation of the socius in categories that are articulated horizontally or vertically. The classical interpretation of totemic phenomena saw them as manifestations of an originary identity between humans, animals, and other forms of life. If not the first, once more Lévi-Strauss was the anthropologist who inverted the terms of the problem and called attention to the fact that the identity between two different genera (the human and the generic non-human) was subordinated to the contrast between two systems of difference; the differences between “natural” species; and the differences between “social” species or segments that are internal to human society. It is worth noting that the explanation, although it emphasizes the internal differences of the non-human domain, continues to think through the “natural chain” (série natural) of totems as globally discontinuous in relation to the “cultural chain” (série cultural) of social segments. The father of structuralism, in the end, would cast the notion of species into an absolutely central role within his image of the “savage mind”: species appears as the central operator of an essentially classificatory reason, located halfway between the individual and the category. Moreover, for Lévi-Strauss, species is the empirical equivalent of the complete sign (signo pleno), halfway between the sheer concrete ostentation (the individual) and the abstract category (the concept). As a unit of a multiplicity, species appears as the very form of the Object to the savage mind. In this sense, the savage mind is Aristotelian (and vice-versa), as pointed by Scott Atran.

One should note that the first context of the use of the notion of species is anthropocentric—the human species is not a species like the others, for it expresses determinations that are inexistent in the other species, where taken as a whole. Indeed, it expresses a certain essential indetermination, an irreducibility towards those natural determinations that differentiate species among themselves. As we have seen, the human species is dual, being at the same time a species and a domain, an empirical entity and a transcendental subject who knows its own condition and, in this sense, frees him- or herself from it. The second context of use—totemic systems—remains anthropocentric to some extent, in that living species are thought of as being enmeshed in biunivocal relations with human sub-species (the totemic segments). Each totemic species corresponds to a “type” of human, it is a partial humanity; as if the universe, represented in miniature by the finite multiplicity of the totemic species, were in a projective homologic relationship with society. The relationship between society as microcosmos and cosmos as macro-society establishes a formal identity between internal and external relations.

The discovery of “multinatural perspectivism” as the presuppositional ground for the Amerindian cosmologies—and in many cases as a doctrine explicitly elaborated in shamanism and native mythologies—led to the conceptual position of a non-anthropocentric virtuality of the idea of species. Perspectivism is the name we have given to a formulation culturally characteristic of the so-called “animism,” a cosmological attitude that consists of refusing the psychic discontinuity between the different types of beings that populate the cosmos, imagining all the inter-species differences as a horizontal extension, analogic or metonymic, of intra-species differences (and not, as in the case of totemism, as their “vertical” repetition, homologic or metaphoric). The human species then ceases to be a separate domain and starts to define the “universe of discourse”: all the species-specific differences appear as modalities of the human. This causes the human condition to cease being “special” and to become, instead, the default mode or generic condition of any species. The domain of nature characterized as a province that is counter-unified by the eminent unity of the human domain, in essence, disappears. Animism is “anthropomorphic” to the exact extent that it is anti-anthropocentric. The human form is, literally, the form from which all species emerge: each of the species is a finite mode of a humanity as universal substance. This includes the human species (as we understand it), which effectively becomes just another species: the differences between human sub-species (the social segments of a particular people or of different peoples) are of the same nature as the human “super-species,” i.e., those which we call natural species.

Perspectivism is the presupposition that each living species is human in its own department, human for itself (humano para si), or better, that everything is human for itself (todo para si é humano) or anthropogenic. This idea originates in indigenous cosmogonies, where the primordial form of the being is human: “in the beginning there was nothing,” say some Amazonian myths, “there were only people.” Thus, the different types of beings and phenomena that populate and wander the world are transformations of this primordial humanity.

Such an originary condition persists as a kind of “background anthropomorphic radiation,” making it so that all current species apprehend themselves more or less as intensely as humans. Insofar as they are not apprehended by the other species as humans, the distinction between reflexive or internal perspective and “third person” or external perspective is crucial. The difference between species ceases to be merely an external distinction, as it comes to constitutively incorporate a change in any being’s point of view. What defines a species is the difference between the internal and the external point of view of the species on itself of all the other species on that species in particular. Thus, on the one hand, all species becomes “dual,” consisting of a spiritual dimension (the interior human “person” of each species) and a corporal dimension (the “clothing” or corporeal equipment that is distinctive of the capacities of each species). Upon universalizing itself, the invisible/visible, first-person/third-person duality stops singularizing one single species and begins to define every species as such. There is no longer a “definition” of species that can be made from a species-independent point of view. Every species is thus a point of view about (and in relation to) other species, and everything that exists is a species of species (uma espécie de espécie), in other words, a “subject.”

To the extent that every species is formally composed of a similar inside/outside, soul/body, human/non-human perspective oscillation—since every species apprehended from another species’ point of view is not apprehended as human, which includes our own species when considered, for example, from the point of view of jaguars, or of peccaries (to whom we are, respectively, peccaries and jaguars, or cannibal spirits)—the passing between species is much more fluid than in the case of our exceptionalist and anthropocentric cosmological vulgate. The species are fixed for Amazonian cosmologies in the sense that pertinent global transformations generally took place in one go in the pre-cosmological world of myth (myths are, in essence, narratives of the process of speciation)—there is not a continuist transformism (transformismo continuísta), as our modern evolutionary biology would have it. But, at the same time the individuals of each species are able to “leap” from one species to another with relative ease, a process that is schematized principally in the imagery (imaginário) of alimentary predation: the incorporation by another species is frequently conceived as the integral transformation of the prey into a member of the predator’s own species. All of which seems to give meaning to Samuel Butler’s assertion that “there is no such persecutor of grain, as another grain when it has once fairly identified itself with a hen" (Life and Habit, 137). Another form of inter-species transformation is shamanism, which is the manifest capacity by certain individuals (of different species) to oscillate between the points of view of two (or more) species—being capable of seeing the members of both species as they see themselves, i.e., as humans, and thus being capable of communicating multiple points of view and rendering intelligible that which is noticeable only to them (the shamans), namely, the fact that each species appears to the other in a radically different way than it appears to itself.

The essential difference between this “perspectivism” and our own “multiculturalism” is that this variation of point of view does not only affect our “way of seeing” a world that would otherwise be objectively exterior to the point of view and larger than any possible point of view; it is an ontologically and epistemologically infinite world. In the first place, the perspectivist “world” is a world exhaustively composed of points of view: all beings and things in the world are potential subjects, hence the entities that “we see” are always seeing beings. That which we experiment is always a subject of a possible experience: every “object” is a type of “subject.” Secondly, the difference between species is not a difference of “opinion” or “culture” but rather a difference of “nature”: it is a difference in the way each species is experienced by others, i.e., as a body, as a collection of affections that are vulnerable to the senses, of capacities for modifying and being modified by agents of other species. The world as seen by another species is not the same world merely seen differently, rather, it is “another world” (“outro mundo”) that is seen in the same manner. Each species, by seeing itself as human, see the other species (that is, the world) as we—those who apprehend ourselves as human—see them. Every species see the world in the same way. There is only one point of view, the point of view of humanity. What changes is the point of view of this point of view: which species is seeing the world upon seeing itself as human? If it is the species of jaguars, then they will see (those we see as) humans as if they were peccaries, because human beings eat peccaries (and not other humans). All humans share the same culture—human culture. What changes is the nature of that which they see, according to the body these referential humans possess. The point of view is in the body. Perspectivism is not merely a theory of representation (of nature by the spirit), but rather a pragmatic of corporeal affection. It is the species-specific potency of each body that determines the correlative objective of universal cultural categories that are “applied” by all species in their human moment.

The living species, the difference between the species, therefore, is a fundamental concept in perspectivist worlds. But there species is not as much a principle of distinction as it is a principle of relation. To begin with, the difference between species is not anatomical or physiological, but behavioral or ethological (what distinguishes a species is much more its ethogram—what they eat, where they live, whether they live in group or not, etc.—than its morphology). In this sense, the differences between “species” do not lend themselves to be projected onto a homogenous ontological plane, unless we define corporeality as the constituent of such a plane; however, this corporeality is a heterogeneous and relational totality of affections rather than a substance endowed with attributes. Differences in the feeding habits of jaguars, peccaries, and humans, differences in feeding habits among human groups, the physical appearance of different animals and diverse peoples—all these differences are equally taken as differences that express diverse bodily affections. De jure, it is not more difficult for an Araweté to transform into a Kayapó than into a jaguar. The transformation processes implicate only qualitatively discrete affections. Furthermore, inter-specific differences (diferenças inter-específicas) are blocs of relational virtualities, of modes of relative positioning of species among themselves. The difference between species is not a principle of segregation but of alternation: for what defines the specific difference is that two species (unlike two given individuals) cannot “be” both human at the same time, which means that both species cannot perceive themselves as human one for the other, or else they would cease to be two different species.

If we project perspectivism onto itself, and onto our own multiculturalism, we will be compelled to conclude that it is not possible to be at the same time perspectivist and multiculturalist. Nor is this even desirable. We must conclude, therefore, that these two anthropologies are inter-translatable (commensurable), but are incompatible (no dialectic synthesis is possible). I have been speaking in terms of “anthropologies” because I understand every cosmology to be an anthropology, not in the trivial sense that human beings are only able to think through human categories—the Indians would agree, but they would disagree that only our species is “human”— but in the sense that even our anthropocentrism is inevitably an anthropomorphism, and that every attempt to go beyond this “correlation” is merely an anthropocentrism in the negative, which still does and always will refer to the anthropos. Anthropomorphism, far from being a speciesism, as is anthropocentrism, be it Christian, Kantian, or neo-constructivist, expresses the originary “decision” to think the human as rooted within the world, not above it (even if at only one side of its dual being). In a world where every thing is human, humanity is an entirely different thing.


Translated by Frederico Santos Soares de Freitas and Zeb Tortorici


Álvaro Fernández Bravo is an Associate Professor at Universidad de San Andrés and researcher at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas de la Argentina (CONICET). Álvaro has been involved in international education for several years. He worked as Director of Undergraduate International Programs at Universidad de San Andrés and coordinated the Summer Spanish Program at the same University. As the director of NYU Buenos Aires he has been working hard to generate positive relationships with local institutions. He is currently teaching Spanish American Short Story at NYU Buenos Aires. Álvaro has published numerous books and articles, among which are: Literatura y frontera (1999), El valor de la cultura: arte, literatura y mercado en América Latina (2007), and a new edition of Mi fe es el hombre by María Rosa Oliver (2008). His articles appeared in Margens/Márgenes, Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana, Nepantla and the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies.

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