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This manuscript is not the official article that has been published in the journal Anthropology of Consciousness; please refer to the published article if you want to make reference to this article in your own research or publications
Special Section: The Future of a Discipline: Considering the ontological/methodological future of the anthropology of consciousness, Part II
Towards an Ethnometaphysics of Consciousness: Suggested Adjustments in SAC’s Quest to Reroute the Main(Stream)
Marc Blainey

Tulane University

In order for the valuable research published in the Anthropology of Consciousness (AoC) journal to have the impact it ought to have upon the anthropological mainstream, contributors must demonstrate that they appreciate the historical tradition of anthropology as an intellectual forebear. Although “ethnometaphysics” has been cited sporadically by anthropologists over the past half-century, it never really caught on as an interdisciplinary speciality like ethnobotany, ethnomusicology, and ethnomathematics. Pointing to the example of discord in the West between viewing psychoactive substances as either “hallucinogens” or “entheogens”, I reassert ethnometaphysics in an aim to revamp the overlooked coining of this sub-field by anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell. Such a position rebrands SAC’s alternative outlook in a way that could be seen by mainstream colleagues as less radical, thus giving the Society a more realistic opportunity to provoke progressive changes in the mainstream of our discipline.

KEYWORDS: ethnometaphysics, postsecularism, entheogens, hallucinogens, metaanthropology


The impetus for this article emerged from my continued bewilderment that the professional interests of Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness (SAC), outlined in this journal’s mission statement,1 have yet to gain prominence amid the mainstream pursuits of the anthropological discipline. Three recent papers that address this issue as it relates to SAC’s founding (Schroll and Schwartz 2005; Schwartz 2003; Williams 2007 [whose article inspired the “stream” metaphor used in the present text]) give accounts of the tension that exists between contrasting metaphysical views amongst anthropologists. Apparently, this tension has a long history in SAC, which, since its founding, has endured “a political split in the group between the more academically-oriented and the more ‘touchy-feelies’” (Geri-Ann Galanti, in Schroll and Schwartz 2005: 10-11). Thus, an internal conflict of priorities endures in SAC between detached scientific approaches to studying consciousness as opposed to those with a reliance on subjective experiences (see transcribed dialogues in Schroll and Schwartz 2005). This tension parallels the basic distinction between the physicalist-inclined dualism dominating the secular mainstream of Euroamerican society and the idealist-monist view of reality espoused by emergent New Age groups. In attempting to assuage this tension in the SAC community, this paper recommends a reorientation in the society’s focus towards the perspective of ethnometaphysics.

Ethnometaphysics is the study of how and why human cultures encourage individuals to assume degrees of assenting, dissenting, or neutral attitudinal stances regarding particular claims about the nature of reality (this includes subfields such as ethno-ontology and ethno-cosmology). I argue that this perspective could proffer a means of rectifying ontological discord between object vs. subject focussed interpretations, whereby different metaphysical views are conceived simply as mutually exclusive options or choices open to individuals and collectives about what is ultimately an arbitrary grounding of the human condition. On the question of how to go about presuming the nature of the relationship between observer and observed, the standpoint of ethnometaphysics that I am proposing provides a way of “agreeing to disagree” while at the same time advancing collegial scholarly debate.

Charles Stewart (2001: 326) identifies the commitment to secularism as a major characteristic of anthropology’s “mainstream Euro-American form.” However, the effects of postmodern fatigue in the anthropological mainstream portend an imminent post-secular2 shift of interest in our discipline towards more tenable conceptualizations of culture. Thus, if SAC can publicize itself as steeped equally in the scientific and philosophical notions that coincided with the foundation and historical growth of anthropology, the Society will be poised to welcome disillusioned mainstreamers in search of research goals that transcend postmodern critiques.

In order for the valuable research published in the Anthropology of Consciousness (AoC) journal to disseminate effectively into and have the impact it ought to have upon the anthropological mainstream (which is currently in a state of imbalance due to its predominantly secular interpretive agenda), SAC and AoC must first jettison the fallacious notion that we have nothing to prove to mainstream colleagues. The fact is that SAC does have something to prove: that its members appreciate the historical tradition of anthropology (and Western thought since the Enlightenment) as an intellectual forebear, without which the Society would not exist. In this paper, I propose that the adoption of the standpoint of ethnometaphysics would allow AoC authors to position themselves as cognizant of the broader historical and scientific goals of the anthropological mainstream. Such a position would rebrand SAC’s alternative outlook in a way that could be seen by mainstream colleagues as less radical and threatening, thus giving the Society a more realistic opportunity to provoke progressive changes in the mainstream.

Perusing the latest volumes of AoC , I am struck by the high level of scholarship demonstrated by researchers, and the wide variety of approaches they employ in investigating the confluences of human culture and consciousness. I am therefore left to wonder why a professional society and its corresponding publication seem to be so easily dismissed by the rest of the anthropological community as a “fringe” group. This sentiment that academic colleagues hold pertaining to SAC is not overt, and I cannot cite any particular published reference to it. Rather, it is during “off-the-record” conversations with friends or new acquaintances I meet at conferences that I run across the perceived status of SAC as an academic pariah. It is this unnecessary gap—that between how SAC is perceived and the actual aims and achievements of its professional undertakings—that is obscuring the Society’s potential to contribute so much to the current developments of the discipline and Western thought in general.

In order to counter this misperception, I recommend a slight tweaking of the way in which SAC and its journal are framed, and suggest that the Society and its journal can gain a broader readership and membership while still fulfilling their primary objectives if they adopt a more explicit connection with the historical evolution of anthropological theory. Appropriately, in requiring a more inclusive focus that is readily familiar to scholars in the anthropological “mainstream,” SAC is already well positioned to reintroduce itself as a rare converging of anthropological interdisciplinarity when it comes to both empirical and theoretical research pursuits. At the same time, this interdisciplinary approach can be reframed as a perspective that undermines false dichotomies by heralding consciousness as the definitive judge in all things scientific and philosophic.

To this end, I propose that although AoC’s interdisciplinary “aims and scope” do not explicitly recognize it, there is an implicit metaphysical proclivity that is implied in the work of anyone who is drawn to study the anthropology of consciousness. While I have no statistics to back it up, conversations with many SAC members disclose an ostensibly anti-materialist stance which is also deeply cynical about the Cartesian dualism that so heavily favours physicalist objectives. It is plausible that SAC has been a victim of the age-old dualist paradigm persisting as the dominant metaphysical stance in Western thought since the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, it is precisely this discrepancy that gives SAC thinkers their interpretive advantage: the unique starting-point of consciousness, which, when conceptually liberated from the sterility of the Cartesian-divide, affords a mutual common denominator where all human beings, regardless of culture, can see themselves and each other universally as observers observing existence. As we now deal with the aftermath of decades of postmodern deconstructionism, there is a remarkable opportunity for all anthropologists to revisit the ontological roots of the discipline, what David Bidney (1995 [1953]: 156-182) termed metaanthropology (with subcategories such as metaculture, metaethnography, and metaethnology).3 My belief is that SAC and its journal are the best available venues for much-needed metaanthropological reassessments, precisely because this Society alone deals directly with consciousness as the core of the human experience.

I am interested here in articulating an ethnometaphysics where, instead of scrutinizing our own theories and methods (which is metaanthropology), scholars assess what culture is from a metaphysical perspective by seeking to explain how the processes of human culture act to shape and maintain metaphysical belief. Accordingly, just as the language of science has been used so effectively in various anthropological analyses, I propose that equally as much can be gained by using etic terms developed in the philosophical history of the West to tease out emic conceptions of human-being-in-the-world held by past and present non-Western systems of thought. The time has come for anthropology, a discipline whose principal concentration is the cultural intersection between individual and collective humanity, to take on the task of elucidating ways that the roots of Being are envisaged by different groups of human beings.

Ethnometaphysics as the Theoretical Junction of Culture and Consciousness
Although ethnometaphysics has been cited sporadically by anthropologists over the past half-century (Hallowell 1960; Tooker 1975, reprinted in Angrosino 2004: 107-119), and comprised the bulk of Teachings from the American Earth, a volume edited by Dennis and Barbara Tedlock (1992 [1975]), it never really caught on as an interdisciplinary speciality like ethnobotany, ethnomusicology, and ethnomathematics. I reassert ethnometaphysics in an aim to revamp the overlooked coining of this sub-field by anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell (1960: 20), who reasoned that:

Human beings in whatever culture are provided with cognitive orientation in a cosmos; there is ‘order’ and ‘reason’ rather than chaos. There are basic premises and principles implied, even if these do not happen to be consciously formulated and articulated by the people themselves. We are confronted with the philosophical implications of their thought, the nature of the world of being as they conceive it. If we pursue the problem deeply enough we soon come face to face with a relatively unexplored territory—ethno-metaphysics.

Of course, Hallowell acknowledged that this approach is problematic for the same reasons that all etic studies in anthropology inevitably misconstrue the emic conceptualizations of the scrutinized culture itself (see Viveiros De Castro 2004).  Nevertheless, I propose that the initial classification of the various ways different cultural worldviews persuade their members to conceive of the interface between the conscious observer and the phenomena that is observed (what we in the West traditionally call the mind-body problem [see Corcoran 2001]), can ultimately provide opportunities for scientific explication. For instance, why do some cultures view altered states of consciousness as “hallucinations” (i.e. distortions of the true reality as it appears in normal, sober cognition) while others view these altered states as “entheogenic” (from the Greek for “revealing of the god within” [Ruck et al. 1979], implying that our sober state misses some aspects of reality)?  For cultures and individuals with the latter perspective, a pre-existing metaphysic of mystical monism provides a rationale whereby the normal waking state is considered somewhat illusory. Such a viewpoint reasons that only by inducing mystical awareness can the true nature of reality as a harmonized whole be revealed. In such non-physicalist forms of monist belief, the observer expresses a faith that they are indeed connected to what they observe in an intimate way, rather than viewing themselves as a passive epiphenomenon, disconnected from a purely material world.

I contend that reasserting the Western tradition of metaphysics within anthropology will encourage the growth of the notion that “the analysis of the metacultural postulates of a given culture, whether deductively inferred or intuitively conceived, is essentially a philosophical, or metaanthropological, undertaking and as necessary a part of anthropological science as the collecting of empirical data” (Bidney 1995 [1953]: 168-169). The ethnometaphysical approach that I am proposing blends the historical and scientific priorities of mainstream anthropology with an espousal of consciousness as the substrate within which all human experiences occur.

Historical and Current Affiliations between Anthropology and Metaphysics

A question arises: Does anthropology have anything to contribute to the field of metaphysics, that foundational domain of Western thought that Aristotle (Lawson-Tancred 1998) coined as the “First Philosophy”? From the relative dearth of attention paid to metaphysical ruminations by anthropologists over the years, the answer would appear to be that our discipline has very little to offer our colleagues in philosophy. Although anthropology would ultimately confound itself if it were to get caught up in all the abstract theoretical knots tied by metaphysicians over the years, I argue that, when the implications of anthropological study are considered, one cannot avoid stumbling across intriguing cross-cultural differences in interpretations of human-being-in-the-world.4 In this very significant way, anthropology’s distinct perspectives and insights into the workings of human culture may provide an indispensible supplement to the larger metaphysical enterprise. This can be accomplished plainly, by pondering how all culturally ingrained worldviews are themselves founded upon certain metaphysical presumptions. This anthropologically inclined ethnometaphysical inquiry posits culture as the “first-mover” of existential thought and belief about the world.

Despite the overall disregard for ethnometaphysics in recent decades, the presence of a handful of metaphysically inclined thinkers in anthropology remains considerable throughout the history of the discipline. Early uses of the word “anthropology” by intellectual giants of the 18th and 19th centuries denote the source of present-day anthropology’s all-too-often-ignored association with the study of humankind’s basal cognition (Zammito 2002; Adams 1998). Immanuel Kant, whose celebrated metaphysical philosophy fixated upon the common human propensity to confuse the knowable and the unknowable, conceived of “anthropology” as a discipline of “empirical psychology.” He wrote, “we can consider the human being solely by observing, and, as happens in anthropology, by trying to investigate the moving causes of his actions physiologically” (Kant 1998 [1787]: 541-542). In this short quote we witness Kant’s almost prophetic anticipation of the methods of modern ethnography and Bioanthropology. In fact, Kant was one of Franz Boas’ chief intellectual muses; Boas, the founder of modern anthropology wrote that Kant was “a powerful means of guarding students from falling into a shallow materialism or positivism” (as cited in Cole 1999: 125).

In the 19th century, another German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, attempted to demonstrate that anthropomorphic conceptions of God were based solely on human yearnings for a higher meaning. He declared that “divine wisdom is human wisdom; that the secret of theology is anthropology; that the absolute mind is the so-called finite subjective mind” (Feuerbach 1881: 270). Feuerbach beseeches in vain for the collective consciousness of humanity to wake up to the fact that all belief is founded on arbitrary metaphysical presumptions that are based purely on repressed desires. In contrast, Stewart’s (2001: 326) contention that Christianity “produced the notion of the secular, and one may argue that it is fundamentally a western religious concept” flips Feuerbach on his head, in that the secret of secular anthropology is theology.

Kant and Feuerbach are just two of countless philosophical thinkers who, from the nature of their writings, can be thought of as “armchair” anthropologists. When philosophical giants address issues of the human individual’s place within the larger group, they are tackling anthropological problems, but it is rare for anthropologists, who actually go out into the field to gather empirical data, to receive such widespread recognition. An example of this is again Hallowell, whose work dealing mostly with Anishinaabe peoples reflected on some of the same deep questions as the earlier philosopher-anthropologists just listed. However, Hallowell’s (1955: 76) experiences in the field gave him a relativistic empathy for the worldviews of the non-Western “Other,” and this in turn made him aware of his own culture’s ethnometaphysical bias:

The nature of the self, considered in its conceptual content, is a culturally identifiable variable. Just as different peoples entertain various beliefs about the nature of the universe, they likewise differ in their ideas about the nature of the self. And, just as we have discovered that notions about the nature of the beings and powers existent in the universe involve assumptions that are directly relevant to an understanding of the behavior of the individual in a given society, we must likewise assume that the individual’s self-image and his interpretation of his own experience cannot be divorced from the concept of the self that is characteristic of his society.

In fact, as exemplified by Hallowell’s transcending of the ethnocentric narcissism that still pervades much of Western philosophy, it could be that anthropology is itself the most enlightened form of philosophical inquiry because it adequately recognizes that all individual consciousness is culturally embedded (see Marías 1971: 36). However, SAC’s persisting obscurity coincides with the wider anthropological community’s ignoring of the great existential ideas and debates associated with why anthropology arose in the first place.

In this century, two exceptional anthropologists stand out in my mind as the leading figures in an existential approach to our discipline. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ernest Becker “had a checkered academic career, largely because his work failed to fit within academic departments” (Judis 2007). Although Becker was professionally handicapped, because his interdisciplinary ideas were so ahead of their time, he is finally receiving the recognition he deserves among contemporary psychologists (Liechty 1995; Pyszczynski et al. 2003). However, his four penetrating books (Becker 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975), all of which demonstrate how the human knowledge and subsequent fear of mortality act as the principal motivating factor behind all cultural and psychological strivings, have yet to attain the respect they merit within Becker’s home discipline of anthropology. All the same, I offer the following quote from The Denial of Death, Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, as an expression of a basic fact from which ethnometaphysical inquiries can commence:

Man needs to infuse his life with value so that he can pronounce it ‘good’... We don’t know, on this planet, what the universe wants from us or is prepared to give us. We don’t have an answer to the question that troubled Kant of what our duty is, what we should be doing on earth. We live in utter darkness about who we are and why we are here, yet we know it must have some meaning. What is more natural, then, than to take this unspeakable mystery and dispel it straightaway by addressing our performance of heroics to another human being, knowing thus daily whether this performance is good enough to earn us eternity. [Becker 1973: 155-156]
In this way, Becker cogently encapsulates what human cultures essentially are: various arbitrary ways to feign answers to what is positively unanswerable about the experiential phenomenon of conscious existence.

Fate has been more just to Thomas Csordas, a leading figure in theoretical discussions of embodiment (Csordas 1994) who is perhaps the most existentially adept anthropologist in the academy today. In discussing his theory of the primordial religious impulse in an article entitled Asymptote of the Ineffable, Csordas (2004: 172-173) gets to the heart of an existential approach to anthropology by highlighting alterity, the immediate experience of otherness relative to self:

The relevant dichotomy is between the essential and the contingent, and the current theoretical bias is in favour of the contingent. The objection to positing an essence is valid when that essence has a specific content that is abstract and invariant. What I have called attention to, on the contrary, is an alterity that is experientially concrete but has no content prior to its elaboration in an ethnographic or historical instance. Alterity is not an essential thing but an essential displacement...From this duplicity, this gap...develops an uncanny array of religious forms precisely because of the inevitable contingency and indeterminacy of existence.
Csordas masterfully weaves an analysis that eludes metaphysical dogmatism as he manages a post-postmodern compromise acknowledging the dynamic coexistence of materialisms and idealisms, and between dualisms and monisms. Most anthropologists already recognize that depending on how one looks at something, it can either be scrutinized according to its physical contingencies through scientific means or have its metaphysical essence contemplated philosophically. Indeed, David Hurst Thomas (1986: 37) considers the goal “to generalize about the human condition...anthropology’s holistic cornerstone.” Csordas merely brings attention to the fact that theoretical extremisms—in this case the current bias against anthropological endeavours concerned with metaphysical essences—can only work to hinder our discipline’s initially balanced objective to be both a particularistic and holistic study of humankind.

Like all attempts to venture beyond the boundaries of one’s home discipline, perhaps we have been hesitant to tackle metaphysical questions head-on because of the lack of training available in graduate school. It appears that whereas in its infancy the big existential questions were considered as part and parcel of anthropology, such interests are now largely dismissed as essentialist over-generalization. According to Fiona Bowie (comment in Csordas 2004: 176), the anthropology of today “has become increasingly the study of human beings in their local context rather than the study of humanity.” I anticipate that the anthropology of tomorrow, the discipline that will be expanded and reshaped by the next generation of scholars, can find a cooperative balance between myopic specialization and interdisciplinary overextension; matching anthropology’s theoretical advancements of the past hundred years with the quintessential metaphysics of its 18th century origins.

Crash Course in Metaphysics

The development of the school of Metaphysics in Western thought can be conceived as akin to a framework of punctuated equilibrium, with revolutionary outbursts separated by long periods of dogmatically restricted squabbling over the most recent paradigmatic rupture. These infrequent ruptures are regularly brought about by the sudden emergence of innovative, but nevertheless diametrical geniuses over a relatively short period of time, often within the span of sequential generations.

This pattern begins with Plato’s musings on the difference between the way we perceive things in the world and how those things actually exist apart from our sensation of them (the famous idealist doctrines of his Theory of Forms and Allegory of the Cave; see Cornford 1941). This provoked Aristotle’s forceful response to what he saw as Plato’s hasty desertion of the brute, objective laws of an ordered natural world. Hugh Lawson-Tancred (1998: xxiii), a renowned translator and editor of Aristotle’s work The Metaphysics, recognizes Aristotle’s successful opposition to the dominant Platonism of his time as “the intellectual foundation for the received metaphysics of the Western world.” Embodied in the disagreement between Plato’s and Aristotle’s systems is the respective distinction between idealism, where the observer’s perception of reality is held to be primary, and materialism (also called physicalism), where the observed world is considered the primary basis upon which to begin judging reality.

The next milestone upheaval came during the enlightenment with the writings of René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. Just as Aristotle is recognized as the father of Western thought in general, “by an almost universal agreement among philosophers and historians, René Descartes is considered the originator of modern philosophy” (Lafleur 1960: vii). Besides being the leading figure of the scientific revolution, the success of this 17th century French thinker’s “Cartesian dualism,” a metaphysical view holding the substances of mind and body to be entirely distinct, established the pre-eminent authority of mathematics in all ensuing Western thought. Even “today, those sciences that have the greatest degree of mathematical rigor have better reputations for accuracy and believability than those sciences whose formulations cannot be achieved mathematically” (Matthews and Platt 2001: 412). Presumably, the astonishing capacity of mathematics to predict and repeatedly demonstrate order and symmetry helped the hard sciences to attain dominance in our culture because they can provide formulaic explanations and means for manipulating the material aspects of nature.5

Spinoza, an immediate 17th century successor whose historical influence has been overshadowed by Descartes, is nevertheless an intellectual giant in his own right. His philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (Spinoza 1677), put forward an anti-Cartesian view of “monism, which asserts that there is one and only one substance” (Feldman 1991: 10).

The fact that Aristotle’s and Descartes’ more materialist leanings have left such a profound historical impression on how Western culture views itself in relation to reality is a fascinating illustration of the modern Western predisposition towards the external-material aspects of nature:

The first thing to say when considering the truth of physicalism is that we live in an overwhelmingly physicalist or materialist intellectual culture. The result is that, as things currently stand, the standards of argumentation required to persuade someone of the truth of physicalism are much lower than the standards required to persuade someone of its negation. (The point here is a perfectly general one: if you already believe or want something to be true, you are likely to accept fairly low standards of argumentation for its truth). [Stoljar 2009: 17]
By separating mind from body, Descartes envisioned a material world that exists apart from the phenomenon of experience. This balanced duality was reorganized under Kant (1998 [1787]), who made it possible to eschew the problems of metaphysics and the conscious observer as noumena (i.e. empirically inaccessible), thus elevating the priority of phenomena, that which can be studied empirically, as the only realm worth studying. What followed was the ostensible common sense of present-day materialism/physicalism where consciousness is acknowledged as a pesky epiphenomenon, a mere blemish on the “standard model” of explaining a universe that is otherwise closed under physics. It is this metaphysical predisposition of modern Western culture towards the physical side of Cartesian duality that undergirds the prevailing popular faith in technological innovation, industrialism, and consumerism as inevitable and altogether beneficial expressions of progressive human achievement.
Reasserting an Ethnometaphysics in SAC

My proposal, which stresses the spatiotemporal variability of cultural ideation, follows from the historically inclined thought of the philosopher/archaeologist R. G. Collingwood, who took great interest in how metaphysical views have changed through time. His particular viewpoint is described in a retrospective edited volume as follows: “What actually emerges from Collingwood’s Essay on Metaphysics is a kind of cultural anthropology of metaphysics, a study of different world views entertained in the course of history by individuals and groups of individuals…His own attempt to unmask systems is to show that systems are historically determined by changing outlooks on nature” (Rotenstreich 1972: 199; see Collingwood 1940). Writing prior to the Second World War, the anthropology of Collingwood’s time was drastically different than the more mature discipline we are grappling with today. Yet, his timeless notion that metaphysical systems are dependent upon the cultural specificities of place and time demands a renaissance; I advance Hallowell’s ethnometaphysics as the revival of Collingwood’s historical perspective, using the techniques of modern ethnography.

With the recent publication of a monograph entitled Existential Anthropology, Michael D. Jackson (2005) has finally initiated a domain of our field that deals exclusively with the ways that culture defines and regulates interpretations of Being; a domain that until now, has been left solely to the philosophy departments. Building on Jackson’s (2005: xxviii) recent call for “an anthropology whose object is to understand, through empirical means and expedient comparisons, the eventualities, exigencies, and experiences of social Being,” I assert that an ethnometaphysics can refine this new sub-discipline of existential anthropology by broadening its intellectual territory. Jackson (2005: xii) cautions that cultural categories “all too readily entice us into the trap of subverting or eclipsing the events we want to fathom with vocabularies that glibly substitute the complexity of existence for the parsimony of theory.” On the contrary, I must reject the suggestion that this concern should act as an all-embracing axiom regarding an existential anthropology, and assert that a responsible categorization of cultures according to the metaphysical beliefs they espouse is practical for anthropological endeavours. With suitable disclaimers, a loose categorization of cultural worldviews according to the dominant metaphysical themes they favour can proceed by identifying “Principle Characteristics” akin to Michael Winkelman’s (2000: 66-69) table of “Magico-Religious Practitioner Types.”

In the following case study, I seek to show how clear-cut categorizations are possible when traits of cultural belief are subjected to rigorous ethnological comparison relative to a finite list of ethnometaphysical types. Even though there is great variation in the particulars of how different individuals and cultures view existence, there are nevertheless a limited amount of essential beliefs according to which the relation between the conscious observer and the observed world can be framed; although philosophical metaphysics provides a much more complete rendering of the complexities inherent in this fundamental relationship, it can ultimately be arranged into simple dichotomies. Examples of such ethnometaphysical distinctions include that between seeing observer and observed as part of the same entity (monism) and seeing them as separate entities (dualism), or between forms of physicalism and idealism.

Hallucinogens or Entheogens?: An Illustration of Ethnometaphysical Disparity in the West

As an example of the utility of ethnometaphysical analysis, I point to the question of why the earnest ritual ingestion of entheogens (psychoactive plant and chemical substances used as spiritual sacraments [Forte 1997]) is so widespread amongst ideologies that have been categorized (albeit problematically) as “shamanistic”? Following R. Gordon Wasson’s (1980: xv; Winkelman 2000: 3) partition of cultures according to their keenness for or aversion to mushrooms (mycophiles and mycophobes respectively), I will term cultures with a dedication to entheogens as entheophilic, while those (like our own) that largely disdain the effects, calling them “hallucinogens,” are classified as entheophobic.

A notable exception to the entheophobia dominating Western socio-politics is the growing popularity of Brazilian-based “Ayahuasca Religions” like the Santo Daime and União do Vegetal (UDV). These are syncretic belief-systems that mix elements of Catholicism, Afro-Brazilian spiritualism, and indigenous shamanism with the sacramental use of a psychoactive tea. Of these, the Santo Daime church, which has approximately 4000 members (most of whom are located in Brazil), has now expanded to every inhabited continent (Labate et al. 2008: 27). European Santo Daime congregations, which I am presently studying for my Ph.D. dissertation research, boast hundreds of converts in 14 countries, a demographic presumably associated with the broader spectrum of New Age subcultures (Groisman 2000, 2009). Santo Daime and UDV converts are openly flouting the secular, entheophobic norms of Euroamerican culture by identifying with an entheophilic ideology. But, instead of situating themselves in an adversarial position relative to the entheophobic majority, this religious minority is gaining recognition and earning acceptance through traditional legal channels: after the Santo Daime and the UDV won cases in Holland (District Court of Amsterdam 2002) and the U.S. Supreme Court (Meyer 2005) respectively, France is the only nation where a court has opposed these religions’ use of ayahuasca (Küfner et al. 2007). SAC would do well to emulate these tactics, in that the Society can only gain acceptance from our discipline’s mainstream if it is willing to maintain a discourse according to the historical common ground of anthropological theory.

Perhaps the most fruitful classificatory venture with respect to the ethnometaphysical distinctions underlying entheophilic and entheophobic worldviews is the neurophenomenological model, which designates Euroamerican culture as monophasic while recognizing most other cultures as polyphasic (see Winkelman 2000: 3; Laughlin et al. 1992). Winkelman (2000: 25) identifies the neurophenomenological approach as a “structural monist perspective,” accounting for both physical (matter) and spiritual (mind) extremes, as well as pondering the interaction between them. In identifying the deeply ingrained disinclination of the standard Western enculturation process to esteem atypical forms of consciousness, monophasic logic arguably stems from a foundational view of the observer as merely a passive window looking out unidirectionally on an external materiality. This echoes Charles D. Laughlin’s (1999) characterization of Euroamerican culture as “materialist,” in that it is “primarily concerned with tracking external events while in the waking state.” Such a portrayal is quite similar to Benjamin Whorf’s (1941) model of the Standard Average European (SAE) worldview where the reification of externality relegates internal consciousness to the epiphenomenal domain of the “imaginary.” Regardless of the label used, one need simply consider the legal and religious norms of Western society where the only sanctioned psychoactive substances are coffee, nicotine, alcohol, and painkillers (aimed at lessening both physical and mental discomfort without prompting deep existential reflection). For the average Euroamerican, any suggestion that the external world’s integrity is to some extent reliant on the observer’s observing of it (such as with some esoteric corollaries of quantum mechanics or as is commonly experienced in altered states of consciousness) presents a grave threat to ideological norms. Hence, the popular disapproval of entheogenic experiences as “hallucinatory” invokes accustomed ethnometaphysical beliefs that routinely become defensive whenever the primacy of external reality is questioned in our culture.

Indeed, it is possible to categorize the metaphysical predilections of non-Western cultures just like we categorize our own. Such an endeavour could commence following the rubric set out by Winkelman, with rigorous variables designed to let the beliefs distinguish themselves rather than being dispensed with outright by what Edith Turner (1993: 9) has termed “the positivists’ denial.” Such monophasic denial of what other cultural worldviews maintain is an unseen realm or “Otherworld” is apparent in the usage of the term “hallucinogen,” where the entheogenic experience is presumed to consist of illusory sensations.

There is thus a foundational assumption that hinges on a single question about “pre-theoretic intuitions” (Güzeldere 1997: 2): Towards which metaphysical stances are your beliefs or personal idiosyncrasies already inclined? It is a foundational principle of ethnometaphysics that the way someone feels comfortable imagining the rudimentary structure of the world prior to their consideration of metaphysical quandaries is an outright determinative of how they will initially go about answering said quandaries. Ethnometaphysics accounts for the fact that it is the cultural upbringing that establishes an individual’s values of ontological aesthetics. Such preconceptions are consistent with schema theory, the recognition of the “bounded, distinct, and unitary...abstract representations of environmental regularities” that are postulated as the filters of our culturally-informed organization of experience (Mandler 1984: 55-56; cited in D’Andrade 1995: 122). The schema concept dates back at least to Kant (1998 [1787]: 273), once again illustrating anthropology’s indebtedness to this 18th century thinker.

Of course, anyone is capable of overcoming their predispositions upon confronting enough evidence to the contrary, but it is clear that many beliefs persist despite forceful confutation demonstrated empirically (e.g. deniers of biological evolution). Each individual exhibits some beliefs that deviate from their native culture’s ideological norms, but the important point is that each culture is distinguished by its collective encouragement of certain preferences concerning what are otherwise arbitrary dilemmas. But what schemas about the nature of reality are presupposed in Euroamerican culture’s monophasic entheophobia and likewise, the polyphasic entheophilia of many “shamanistic” worldviews? I contend that this dichotomy can be explained as stemming from the predominance of fundamentally opposing explanations of the relationship between the conscious observer and that which is observed.

Yet, as mentioned earlier, categories of metaphysical belief are much more complicated than a simple dichotomy between monism and dualism, even though they can ultimately be combined into these broader distinctions. Even within our own Western tradition, there exists an immense variety of metaphysical schools. Monisms are subcategorized into types such as substance monism (further divided into neutral, idealist, and physicalist varieties), existence monism, and priority monism, but although “there are many monisms...what they have in common is that they attribute oneness” (Schaffer 2007). Dualisms, on the other hand, are represented by such subcategories as interactionism, epiphenomenalism, parallelism, as well as predicate, property, and substance dualism, but in all forms, “‘mind’ is contrasted with ‘body’” (Robinson 2003).

There are also a multitude of physicalisms or materialisms, with subgroup categories such as “Supervenience,” “Token,” “Type,” “Reductive,” “Non-Reductive,” “A Priori,” and “A Posteriori” (Stoljar 2009). Although these physicalisms are all distinct metaphysical subcategories, they find common ground in their shared conviction that the ultimate basis of existence is essentially physical in nature. Indeed, generic physicalism still represents the dominant metaphysical paradigm amongst Western scientists (Barušs 2003: 20; Frith and Rees 2007: 9) and philosophers (Alter 2007: 396; Seager 2000: 340). The ideology of physicalism regularly coincides with a faith in the empirical sciences as a progression towards “a final and complete theory of the world, regardless of whether we can formulate it,” faith in attainable objectivity, “explanatory reductionism,” atheism, and the notion that the whole of reality is closed under physics (Stoljar 2009: 12-13). But such a physicalist endeavour surely excludes that part of reality that we all recognize intuitively as the qualia of phenomenal experience. Thus, even though the cognitive neurosciences presume that “consciousness is as consciousness does,” there is an additional aspect of human reality that is the brute subjective feeling of what it is like to experience; when exposed to critical scrutiny, such a topic reveals the subjective stance that “consciousness is as consciousness seems” (Güzeldere 1997: 11).

In contrast to the dominance of dualism and physicalist monism in the West, I suggest that what we are dealing with when we consider the various accounts of both Westerners and non-Westerners who claim to have had beneficial experiences with entheogenic intoxication is a fondness for a metaphysic of mystical monism. For instance, the traditional stance of Western science with regard to entheogens has been to identify them as “hallucinogens” and their effects as “hallucinations,” characterizations that disclose the dualist/physicalist inclinations of Western thought in general. This is furthered by the “objective” portrayals found in pharmacological volumes where the ingestion of “hallucinogenic” mushrooms containing the active compound psilocybin are said to cause “disturbances in thinking, illusions…and impaired ego functioning” (Julien 2005: 612 emphasis added).

Yet, regardless of this vast scope of micro-ideologies within modern Western thought, there remains a formidable stigma in scientific circles against individuals who fail to tow the metaphysical line of discriminating between the “real” natural world of the senses and the “unreal” supernatural world (Barušs 2003: 20). This latter domain of inquiry is so taboo that rather than even addressing it, it is common for anyone actually expressing belief in reality beyond the senses to be discredited outright7. I am in no way espousing my personal beliefs. I intend merely to highlight that metaphysical belief either way is arbitrary; it is this realm of arbitrariness that is central to the discussion of the effects of entheogens, so often dismissed uncritically as mere hallucination. The cultural distinction here is crucial, as Graham Harvey (2006: 145) notes in his recent survey of animistic cosmology with regards to the therapeutic effects attributed to entheogen-induced altered states of consciousness: “the point is, of course, that people who consider themselves helped in this way think that what they are enabled to see is what is really there—the false vision belongs to those who cannot or will not see.”
Addressing Problems in the Ethnometaphysical Classification of Cultures
In anthropological treatments of human behaviour and belief, there exist clear problems of interpretation, where any attempt to portray accurately the way that a non-Western “other” views the world is ultimately distorted by the very fact that it must first be made comprehensible within our own semantic structure. Viveiros De Castro (2004: 4) outlines this perennial difficulty of our discipline as “the process involved in the translation of the ‘native’s’ practical and discursive concepts into the terms of anthropology’s conceptual apparatus.” As Viveiros De Castro points out, this problem can never be fully circumvented, it can only be acknowledged and controlled for.

Another obstacle that currently stands in the way of efforts to develop a system of ethnometaphysical classification is the prevailing attitude that metaphysical thinking is outmoded, because it is presumed by many that our culture now operates according to the flawless epistemology of the scientific method. Whereas “in previous philosophical epochs metaphysics was routinely regarded as the pinnacle of philosophical speculation,” Lawson-Tancred (1998: xi) highlights that “it has been argued in the twentieth century (and before) with great force, elegance and coherence that there is no point in studying [metaphysics].” The entheophobic notion that only knowledge gleaned in the normal waking state of consciousness is reflective of true reality has led some to the conclusion that:

We can explain much of what makes us human by recognizing that we are natural Cartesians—dualistic thinking comes naturally to us. We have two distinct ways of seeing the world: as containing bodies and as containing souls. [Bloom 2004: xii]
But Bloom’s argument that the way in which young children view the world proves that adults are meant to likewise conceive of a dualistic reality belittles our capacities for intellectual imagination. Thus, his justification of mind-body dualism amounts to a defence of naïve realism, as alternative states of consciousness and their associated forms of “common sense” are absent from his considerations of how we ought to consider the nature of our selves.

However, as Hegel’s (1807) brilliant framing of phenomenology shows, consciousness can never truly know things-in-themselves; thus we are limited to recording and describing the sensations of phenomena as perceived by consciousness and what these sensations say about the entities in question. For instance, we cannot actually witness what an atom or subatomic particle looks like, and must instead formulate models and metaphorical diagrams to express an inevitably hypothetical structure. The same goes for whether or not the world is one or two (or both?), in that any stance on this issue is ultimately grounded in either unconscious or conscious faith. In the case of Bloom’s arguments for dualism, he has done nothing more than to reiterate intuitions that Descartes expressed centuries ago.

It is just as easy to envision a monistic reality with an allegory of an iceberg floating in an ocean: Both entities are made of water and can completely integrate into or disintegrate away from each other, and both can evaporate into water vapour. This metaphor of the three states of water (hard, soft, and invisible) could be employed to represent how interaction between mind and matter (a huge problem for dualism) occurs; just as different states of the same H2O molecules result from temperature change, the interaction between the mental and material states of a monistic substance could likewise be constantly in flux relative to environmental conditions of the mind-brain. Mystical monist views (such as that linked with entheophilia) appreciate this distinction between particular manifestations or formal states taken by the substance that makes up reality, while still maintaining a deeper monistic metaphysic. Accordingly, I propose that it is the duty of an ethnometaphysics to ignore the philosophical questions about how many or what substances the world really consists of, and instead address the social scientific question of the resultant beliefs and behaviours of individuals once they adopt a stance on the side of a particular variety of monism, dualism, physicalism, or idealism over and against the alternatives. The way a person acts toward the world is thusly a direct correlate of their culturally informed metaphysical convictions.

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