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Philippe Descola
2012 CNRS Gold Medal laureate

Philippe Descola - © CNRS Photothèque / Céline Anaya Gautier

With a background in philosophy, Philippe Descola specializes in the relations that human societies establish with nature. His ethnographic work in Ecuador revolutionized anthropological research in Amazonia. Gradually extending his scope to other societies and looking beyond the opposition between nature and culture, Descola has redefined the dialectic that structures humankind's relationship with the world and with other beings.

Born in Paris in 1949, Philippe Descola studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Saint-Cloud and ethnology at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.

A project leader for CNRS, Descola conducted ethnographic field research in the Amazon Basin from 1976 to 1978. Specifically, he studied how the Achuar Jivaro people identify natural beings and the types of relations that they maintain with them.

This experience provided the basic material for his doctoral dissertation, supervised by Claude Lévi-Strauss, which Descola completed in 1983: “Domestic Nature, Symbolism and Praxis in Achuar Ecology.” This work shows how the Achuar attribute human characteristics to nature, thus establishing a continuum between human and non-human life.

From relational ecology to the anthropology of landscape

Philippe Descola is the originator of “relational ecology,” the investigation of relations between humans, as well as between humans and non-humans.

His most recent work focuses on how universal modes of identification interact with modes of figuration and the use of images. Since 2011, Descola has been working on an “anthropology of landscape,” identifying the principles of iconic figuration and transfiguration of the environment at work in cultures that have no conventional tradition of landscape representation.

Senior lecturer (1987) and later academic advisor (1989) at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), professor and chair of Anthropology of Nature at the Collège de France since 2000, Philippe Descola has also served since 2001 as director of the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale (LAS) founded by Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1960.

 

CNRS films about Philippe Descola