What Philosophy Can Learn from Anthropology
By Justin E. H. Smith
I have gradually become convinced that historians of philosophy --my colleagues, and by training myself-- are going about a cluster of very interesting questions in entirely the wrong way. These questions, I think, may be much more adequately answered from an anthropological point of view.
According to one widespread account, modernity came into being as a consequence of the sacrifice of nature. The Scientific Revolution literally killed nature by transforming it from a living and holistic system of interconnected entities, human and non-human alike, acting intentionally in accordance with their natures, into a dead system of atomic particles being moved about, without intrinsic purposes, but only as a result of extrinsic physical forces. This new scientific cosmology would also bring with it, the story goes, a new philosophical anthropology, as humans came to see themselves as radically separate from, and opposed to, a natural world in which they as thinking intelligent agents could have no part. The world, which now operated according to entirely different laws than those that governed our own thinking, was 'disenchanted', as Max Weber would later put it, literally gutted of any cosmological significance --where cosmology is understood as some model of the interrelatedness of the heavens, the earth, animals, humans, super-human spiritual entities, and perhaps also God-- and reduced simply to extended particles endowed with mass, figure, and motion.