Revamping the Metaphysics of Ethnobiological Classification

Current Anthropology 59 (4):415-438 (2018)
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Ethnobiology has a long tradition of metaphysical debates about the “naturalness,” “objectivity”, “reality”, and “universality” of classifications. Especially the work of Brent Berlin has been influential in developing a “convergence metaphysics” that explains cross-cultural similarities of knowledge systems through shared recognition of objective discontinuities in nature. Despite its influence on the development of the field, convergence metaphysics has largely fallen out of favor as contemporary ethnobiologists tend to emphasize the locality and diversity of classificatory practices. The aim of this article is twofold: First, I provide a historical account of the rise and fall of convergence metaphysics in ethnobiology. I show how convergence metaphysics emerged as an innovative theoretical program in the wake of the “cognitive revolution” and the “modern evolutionary synthesis” but failed to incorporate both theoretical insights and political concerns that gained prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. Second, I develop a positive proposal of how to engage with metaphysical issues in ethnobiology. By integrating traditional research on convergence of classifications with more nuanced accounts of distinctly local categories, a revamped metaphysics of ethnobiological classification can make substantial contributions to debates about ontological difference in anthropology and about the relation between applied and theoretical ethnobiology.
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