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Person, Idea of the


Western European ideas about the person have long centered on the duality between body and soul (in religious discourse) or between body and mind (in the domains of philosophy and psychology). Consequently, early anthropological interest in non-European ideas of the person tended to mirror such deep-seated European conceptualizations, focusing on the origins of the concept of the soul.

The preoccupation of evolutionary Victorian anthropologists with religion focused on the question of its origins. By and large, these thinkers were apostles of secularism and science, committed to the notion that religion and its associated ideas (the soul included) were outdated, survivals from human prehistory. Religion was a repository of conceptions, which, while not entirely irrational in and of themselves, were fallacious or erroneous. In particular, Edward Tylor, in his book Primitive Culture (1871), saw in the idea of the soul the most ancient and fundamental of all religious beliefs, the key to understanding the subsequent developmentbut also the ultimate irrelevanceof religious ideas:

It seems as though thinking men, as yet at a low level of culture, were deeply impressed by two groups of biological problems. In the first place, what is it that makes the difference between a living body and a dead one; what causes waking, sleep, trance, disease, death: In the second place, what are those human shapes which appear in dreams and visions? Looking at these two groups of phenomena, the ancient savage philosophers probably made their first step by the obvious inference that every man has two things belonging to him, namely, a life and a phantom. These two are evidently in close connexion with the body, the life as enabling it to feel and think and act, the phantom as being its image or second self; both, also, are perceived to be things separable from the body, the live as able to go away and leave it insensible or dead, the phantom as appearing to people at a distance from it. The second step would seem also easy for savages to make, seeing how extremely difficult civilized men have found it to unmake. It is merely to combine the life and the phantom. As both belong to the body, why should they not also belong to one another, and be manifestations of one and the same soul? (pp. 1213)

In Tylor's scheme, the idea of the soul constituted the core of the most primitive form of religion, Animism, both in the form of the worship of the souls of departed ancestors and in the idea that inanimate objectstrees, rocks, bodies of wateralso possessed souls and could be worshiped in their own right.

Durkheim's Critique

Émile Durkheim's (18581917) monumental treatise of The Elementary Form of Religious Life (1912) begins with the bold assertion that "a human institution cannot rest upon error and falsehood when I approach the study of primitive religions, it is with the certainty that they are grounded in and express the real" (p. 2). Durkheim definitely had Tylor in mind when he wrote these lines, and devoted an entire chapter of the book to a refutation of Tylor's theories. Specifically, he argued that Tylor's account of the generation of ideas of the double and the soul from primitive explanations of dreams was radically circular. Rather, such notions presupposed the very ideas whose origins they were supposed to explain. For Durkheim, ideas such as the soul, ancestor spirits, totems, or gods could not be derived from the experience, much less the speculations, of individuals. Rather, they were intrinsically social phenomena.

Nonetheless, Durkheim concurred with Tylor that the idea of the soul was fundamental to religion: "Just as there is no known society without religion, there is no religion, however crudely organized, in which we do not find a system of collective representations dealing with the soulits origin and destiny" (p. 242). Unlike Tylor, who drew for examples for his theories from around the globe and throughout history, Durkheim's examination of primitive religion focused on ethnographic accounts from Australia, and his discussion of the idea of the soul was correspondingly centered on Australian examples. According to native Australians, there exists a limited stock of souls. Each individual is a reincarnation of an ancestor, and all people are ultimately reincarnations of the original totemic alcheringa ancestors, powerful beings who existed in dreamtime and whose natures were merged with those of totemic species. For Durkheim, these representations addressed the critical problem of the relationship of society to the individual. The ancestral souls embodied the fundamental reality of society of which the individual was a particular manifestation.

Within the context of his discussion of the soul, Durkheim quietly introduced the idea of the person. The person, Durkheim suggested, represents the conjunction of an impersonal and personal principle, the soul and the body. The first, impersonal, derives from "the spiritual principle that serves as the soul of the collectivity the very substance of which individual souls are made" (p. 273), whereas the body, by situating this impersonal principle in a specific location in space and time, serves as the differentiating element. Hence, "individuation is not the essential characteristic of the person. A person is not only a singular subject that is distinguished from all the others. It is, in addition and most of all, a being to which a relative autonomy is imputed in relation to the milieu with which it interacts most directly" (p. 274).

The idea of the person, for Durkheim, squarely embodied the relationship between the individual and society at the very core of his approach to sociological theory. While it still reflected European dualistic thinking about body and soul, reading his own society's dichotomies into the thought of native Australians, it opened the way to new, less ethnocentric ways of understanding non-European conceptions of the person.

Mauss: The Person as "A Category
of the Human Mind"

In a seminal lecture, which he delivered (in French) to a British audience in 1938, Durkheim's nephew, Marcel Mauss (18721950), was the first to bring the ideal of the person to center stage. Like Durkheim, he saw in the religious categories of so-called primitive societies a key to the understanding of modern European ideas. Citing examples from Australian societies as well as from Native AmericansZuñi, Kwakiutl, Winnebagohe stressed the importance of names for the establishment of personhood. Names as such were not necessarily the hallmark of the individual, but rather of a persona, a fixed role or position within a society. Thus, a clan or other similar group might possess a finite stock of names. The name typically represented, not only membership in a group but also a specific position within it, and so individuals might change names within the course of their lives. Such names, Mauss suggested, were akin to masksanother phenomenon he related to ideas of personhood. The theatrical metaphor was intrinsic to Mauss's argument. In relatively "primitive" societies, there were a relatively fixed number of "roles." Personhood in such instances reflected the individual's place within such a fixed scheme.

In his essay, Mauss contrasted this relatively fixed conception of personhood in non-European societies with a dynamic vision of the changing idea of personhood in Western Europe, through Greek philosophy, Roman law, Christian theology, and ultimately the Enlightenment. The end result of this evolution was a conception of personhood in terms of individual consciousness rather than as the embodiment of set social relationships. These ideas have been rejected by the overwhelming majority of anthropologists who reject any teleological dichotomy between European societies as essentially dynamic and non-European ones as static. However, if this part of Mauss's argument has fallen by the wayside, his insistence that conceptions of the person are culturally and historically constituted constantly subject to change provided the foundation for most subsequent anthropological writing on the subject.

The Anthropology of the Person since Mauss

While Mauss's essay provided inspiration to both French and British anthropologists, the implications of his work were developed in substantially different ways by anthropologists belonging to different national schools. At the same time, American anthropologists were to approach the problem from a very different starting point. In all three cases, concepts of the person were explored in the context of extensive fieldwork in specific cultures. Rather than generalizing from the vantage point of European categories, taken as the end point of a process of evolution, anthropologists grappled with non-European conceptualizations firsthand.

Griaule and the French school.

Marcel Griaule's work among the Dogon of modern Mali (then French Sudan) was to mark the French approach for at least a generation afterward. For Griaule, the complex esoteric cosmology of the Dogon, as revealed to him by his key informant, Ogotemmeli, constituted an intricate and sophisticated philosophical system, an alternative way of thought in no way inferior to European equivalents. Dogon ideas of the person are consequently one element of this entire system. Crucial to these ideas is the principle of the ideal duality of all creatures. In the original acts of creation, only the Creator's firstbornthe jackalwas created single, and it is for this reason that the jackal is the quintessential trickster and embodiment of disorder, but also the agent through whom truth is revealed to the diviner. After the jackal, a couple, the Nommo, were born: demiurges who represent the ideal dual order. Twins consequently represent the ideal birth, and human twins become the object of a cult as soon as they are born. Even ordinary humans have double soulskinndoukinndou one for each gender. The female principle resides in the man's foreskin, the male in the woman's clitoris; rites of circumcision and excision are consequently required at adolescence to transform ambivalently gendered children into fully male or female adults. In short, for Griaule, the Dogon myth of creation contained the key to their conceptions of personhood and of the world in general.

British social anthropology.

The British school of social anthropology, also profoundly influenced by the work of Durkheim and Mauss, adopted a less abstract and more sociological approach to the study of ideas of the person. E. E. Evans-Pritchard's pioneering study of Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937), published a year before Mauss's lecture, did not explicitly mention the concept of the person, but his explanation of Azande notions of witchcraft nonetheless represented a landmark in the ethnographic exploration of personhood. Witchcraft is a common explanation of misfortune among the Azande, and is caused by a grudge or ill will on the part of a witch. However, not all people are witches. Witches are born with innate witchcraft substance, inherited by boys from their fathers and girls from their mothers. It operates through mbisimu mangu, the soul of witchcraft, which travels from the body of the witch to the body of the victim, although the witch himself may not be conscious of the harm he is perpetrating. However, Evans-Pritchard was not simply concerned with the ideology of witchcraft in itself, but in the way in which these ideas underpinned the everyday actions of Azande, so that they understood and reacted to the ordinary misfortunes of everyday life through consulting oracles, attempting to cool the anger of witches, and ultimately pursuing vengeance when witchcraft proved fatal.

In an essay titled "On the Concept of the Person among the Tallensi" (1973), Meyer Fortes explicitly developed Mauss's insights with specific reference to a particular West African culture:

observance of prohibitions and injunctions relating to the killing and eating of animals, to distinctions of dress, to speech and etiquette, to a wide range of ritual norms, to the jural regulations concerning marriage, property, office, inheritance and succession, play a key part in the identification of persons. Persons are kept aware of who they are and where they fit into society by criteria of age, sex, and descent, and by other indices of status, through acting in accordance with these norms. By these actions and forms of conduct they, at the same time, show to others who they are and where they fit into society. (p. 282)

Seen in this light, an individual's birth is merely the first step in the process of turning him or her into a full person, a process which only ends with death, when, as an ancestor, one may eventually become a full person. Tallensi personhood is thus not a feature of the individual per se, but of the individual's interaction with society as a whole. For Fortes as for Evans-Pritchard, this process of interaction was played out in the miniature crises of everyday life.

American anthropology and the problem of personality.

During the first half of the twentieth century, anthropologists in the United States were far less influenced by the theories of Durkheim and Mauss than by the work of Sigmund Freud (18561939). Rather than evincing interest in "the person" as a category of thought, they focused on the formation of the individual personality in different cultures. Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture (1934) is the most famous example of this approach. For Benedict, each culture has its ethos, its style, which characterizes its art, its ritual, its ideology, the emotional tenor of social relationships, and so on. Individual children are raised in conformity with this ethos, internalizing patterns of feeling as well as of behaving. Those with little natural aptitude for the predominant ethos are deviants, though deviance in one culture can well be normality in another. Moreover, cultures may also have established deviant roles, such as the berdache in Native North America, a person who was born biologically male but who dressed as a woman, adopted women's occupations, and sometimes even married another man.

In the 1960s, Clifford Geertz attempted a synthesis between the American emphasis on personality and Mauss's conception of the person, most notably in his essay, "Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali" (1966). Geertz focused on those aspects of Balinese culturenames and titlescentral to Mauss's formulation of the development of the idea of personhood. However, for Geertz, these component features of the Balinese conception of personhood were expressions of an overall Balinese ethos. Children are given a personal name, but this is generally a nonsense term and rarely used to address or refer to them. Children are more generally known by standard birth order names, and adults (except for childless adults, who in some sense remain socially children themselves) by tekonyms"father (or mother) of so-and-so (their first child)." Balinese status titles as well as names serve

to stress and strengthen the standardization, idealization, and generalization implicit in the relation between individuals whose main connection consists in the accident of their being alive at the same time and to mute or gloss over those implicit in the relation between consociates, men intimately involved in one another's biographies, or between predecessors and successors, men who stand to one another as blind testator and unwilling heir. (Geertz, pp. 389390)

In short, the Balinese concept of the person, in keeping with the Balinese ethos, is depersonalizing, at least from a European point of view.

These different approaches to the study of the idea of the person, whether French, British, or American, have convincingly demonstrated that there is no single "primitive" conception of personhood, much less of "the soul." The different cultural constructions of "personhood" around the globe cannot be interpreted in terms of narratives of the progressive emergence, either of rationality or of individuality, in Europe as opposed to the rest of the world, as nineteenth and early twentieth century theorists attempted to argue.

See also Identity: Identity of Persons ; Identity: Personal and Social Identity ; Personhood in African Thought ; Religion ; Sociability in African Thought ; Society .


Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1934.

Carrithers, Michael, Steven Collins, and Steven Lukes, eds. The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Translated by Karen Fields. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. London: Oxford University Press, 1937.

Fortes, Meyer. "On the Concept of the Person among the Tallensi." In La Notion de Personne en Afrique Noire. Paris: Colloques Internationaux du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, No. 544, 1973. Reprinted in his Religion, Morality and the Person: Essays on Tallensi Religion, edited with an introduction by Jack Goody, 247286. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Geertz, Clifford. Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali: An Essay in Cultural Analysis. Yale Southeast Asia Program, Cultural Report Series 14, 1966. Reprinted in his The Interpretation of Cultures, 360411. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemelli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. London and New York: Oxford University Press for International African Institute, 1970.

Mauss, Marcel. "A Category of the Human Mind: The Notion of Person; the Notion of Self." Translated by W.D. Halls. In The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History, edited by Michael Carrithers, Steven Collins, and Steven Lukes, 125. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Tylor, Sir Edward Burnett. Primitive Culture, London: John Murray, 1871. Reprinted in 2 vols. as The Origins of Culture and Religion in Primitive Culture. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958.

Robert Launay

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