Professor João Pina-Cabral gives seminar on metapersonhood and transcendence
12th October 2017
The second lecture in this term's social anthropology seminar series, the theme of which is ethics in the contemporary world, was delivered by the school’s own Professor João Pina-Cabral on 3 October 2017.
Touching on his recent (2016) book World: An Anthropological Examination, as well as drawing on a wide array of influences, including Lévi-Bruhl and contemporary work on 'radical embodied cognition' in cognitive science and philosophy, de Pina-Cabral provided a formidable analysis of a topic central to many enquiries into ethics: personhood. An overarching message of the presentation was that, in order to understand better the ways that people make ethical decisions and moral judgements, it is necessary to account for how humans develop, learn and cultivate ethical sensibilities through constant participation in the environing world.
But de Pina Cabral also reminded us of the rich tapestry of cultural understandings of personhood documented in the ethnographic record. Using a snippet of ethnographic film from his own fieldwork at an Afro-Brazlilian temple compound in the coastal mangroves of Bahia (North-East Brazil), de Pina-Cabral elaborated upon Marshall Sahlins' concept of 'meta-persons', which refers to how non-human entities and beings are often attributed the status of personhood.
The notion that a non-human can be 'a person' raises important questions for the anthropology of ethics: in our notions of ethics and morality, how do we adequately account for instances when cultural traditions perceive non-human entities and beings as having the capacities for intentional action and moral judgement? To what extent does the ethnographic record problematise the common position that ethics is a distinctively human capacity? If ethics is not limited to humans, what makes an ethical subject?
(Report by Tom Bell)