Paris: Bull From the Old World

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December 29, 2014

A friend sent me the following text and footnote from Peter Skafish’s introduction to Viveiros de Castro’s book, Cannibal Metaphysics, (p. 10-11) which he characterizes as:

“perhaps the first attempt by a “real” anthropologist at doing speculative philosophy on the basis of ethnographic materials, and to lay out how anthropology has perhaps already been doing this for a long time[1].”

[1] “Paul Rabinow is the other one, if Latour is in a category of his own. Yet, Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) is as anti-philosophical as it is philosophical (in favor of casuistry over ontology, and pluralistic for moderns alone, and certainly not speculative or metaphysical. Consider Cannibal Metaphysics its opposite number.”

Deeply honored by this official pronouncement (let us call it a bull) from Paris against the moderns, cast in the fashionable Occidentalist mode (and moved, as I am, by the defense of the blessed end of Western metaphysics yet once again being announced from Paris and translated into English and disseminated from Minneapolis), brought to mind a book I encountered some time ago. The book is by Ruprecht Paqué, Le Statut parisien des nominalistes, Paris: PUF, 1985. (Original, Das Pariser Nominallistenstatut, Zur Entstehung des Realitätsbegriffes der Neuzeitlichen Naturwissenschaftaft, 1970).

The book is an erudite study of a statute—Statutum Facultatis atrium de reproprabtione quorundam errorum ockanicorum—issued on 29 December 1340 by the university authorities in Paris banning and excoriating the writings of William of Occam for their nominalism.

Paqué points out that this ostracism took place at a “spiritual turning point.” As he puts it: “The universal powers, the Popes and the Empire, which had been dominant until recently had passed the time of their apogee. By 1309 the papacy had relocated to Avignon.” [i] Furthermore, the growing body of translations from the Arabic of Aristotle (not only of his logical works but also the ethical and political treatises) nourished and stimulated a debate about the status of the Bible and the scholastic authorities.

One can see the events of that period as an intellectual and spiritual turning point or kairos. For, as Paqué observes, just as the via antiqua was achieving hegemony through the works of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas as well as the political consolidation they had achieved, they had to confront a new challenge coming from the English Franciscans led by William of Ockham, the via moderna. Strife ensued. Paqué writes that the statute was directed against the “pernicious subtleties » of those who “want to know more than is useful to know » and who thereby introduced intolerable errors in the interpretation of the Holy Scripture and in philosophy.[ii]

Ockham’s nominalist challenge differed from the older form of nominalism based on names. Rather, Ockham and his followers sought to bring together conceptual innovation and observed experience; they did so in order to challenge the reigning position of the Church and the University on the realism of universals. [iii]

This modern approach was ardently discussed in Paris in “clandestine reunions” and “nocturnal meetings”. The doctrine was met with an enthusiastic reception in the “inferior circles” of “foreign students” in Paris and caused the “most ferocious of responses” on the part of the authorities. When William of Ockham was summoned to Avignon by the Pope in 1324 to be reprimanded (or worse) he fled to Munich.

Leaving aside Holy Scripture (“Latour is in a category of his own”), indeed it is correct to observe that casuistry is not speculative metaphysics. As a learned anthropologist remarks:

“Casuistics postulates that it is possible to generalize over particulars (“cases”) via analogy and so to formulate conceptions of a more general order that are nevertheless not ultimately detachable from the cases from which they are extrapolated.” [iv]

This mode of analysis does not commit one to a specific ontology; nor does it rule out possible ontologies. The Jesuit ontology that framed the height of casuistic discernment is obviously not a desirable one. It would seem to us that one demand of our day is to explore and invent an ontology that is not monistic or (its sister term) pluralistic.

“Pernicious subtleties,” “knowing more than what one is authorized to know,” “clandestine reunions,” and “nocturnal meetings,” are enticing indeed—especially when they take place far from the authority of the aged citadels of Old Europe and the frigid factories of American dissemination.


Paul Rabinow is Professor of Anthropology, UC Berkeley


[i] Paqué, p.22.

[ii] Paqué, p. 25.

[iii] For a detailed discussion of these debates see: Alain de Libera, La querelle des universaux, De Platon à la fin du moyen age, Paris: Des Travaux/Seuil 1996. To ward off the anticipated charges of Occidentalism issuing from Paris, de Libera is also the author of the fascinating Averroès, L’intelligence et la pensee, Sur De Anima, Paris: Flammarion, 1998. The book is a translation and a commentary.

[iv] James Faubion, personal communication.

3 Responses to Paris: Bull From the Old World

  1. Dear Dr. Rabinow,

    I appreciate your erudition, but for the mere mortals among us, could you please translate what you have written just above? It makes no sense to me. (If not Dr. Rabinow, some greater angel among the commenters?)

    I get the double entendre of “Bull,” but still wonder about the meaning of “philosophical anthropology.”

    Yours in awe.

  2. Dear badanthro,
    If you re-read the first lecture of Foucault’s course on “the Birth of Biopolitics,” you will find a distinction about how to avoid both universals and historical particulars.
    The new blackmail coming from Paris is an attempt to force us into a false distinction of this kind.
    Perhaps the sense of a philosophic anthropology is (among other things) taking account how the distinction of true/false is established.

    thank you,

    • Thanks, Dr. Rabinow. I have Foucault’s book, and I will re-read that chapter. Your reply is very helpful! I’ve been reading Giorgio Agamben of late, but I always need to review the master of suspicion… 🙂

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