Philippe Descola was born in Paris in 1949. He first studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure de Saint-Cloud before moving on to ethnology at the University of Paris X and the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE) (6th section). Appointed project director by the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research), he undertook an ethnographic study from 1976 to 1979 with the Jivaros Achuar indigenous people in Ecuadorian Amazon. His special focus was the environment, and his research became the topic of a doctoral thesis in ethnology under the supervision of Claude Lévi-Strauss, which he defended in 1983. After teaching at the University of Quito, he became a visiting scholar at King's College in Cambridge as well as research associate with the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme. He then joined the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) as lecturer in 1984, and later director of studies in 1989. During his weekly seminars and over a period of many years, he developed a novel approach to comparative anthropology based on the relations between humans and non-humans.
Appointed professor to the Chair in Anthropology of Nature at the Collège de France in 2000, Philippe Descola also began directing the Laboratoire d'anthropologie sociale (Laboratory of Social Anthropology) (UMR 7130), a joint project between the Collège de France, the EHESS, and the CNRS, while still continuing as director of studies at the EHESS. He has repeatedly been invited as guest professor by the Universities of Göteborg, São Paulo, Vienna, Rio de Janeiro, Chicago, Mexico, Buenos Aires, Louvain, Beijing, Montreal, Saint Petersburg, Uppsala and the London School of Economics. He also served as a fellow at the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung in Munich from 2007 to 2008. He has given lectures in over forty universities and academic institutions abroad, including the Beatrice Blackwood Lecture at Oxford, the George Lurcy Lecture at Chicago, the Munro Lecture at Edinburgh, the Radcliffe-Brown Lecture at the British Academy, the Clifford Geertz Memorial Lecture at Princeton, the Jensen Lecture at Frankfurt and the Victor Goldschmidt Lecture at Heidelberg. He has chaired the Société des Américanistes since 2002 and the scientific committee of the Fondation Fyssen from 2001 to 2009, as well as holding memberships in many other scientific committees.
His first book, La Nature domestique, published in 1986 by Éditions de la MSH and translated into both English and Spanish, describes and analyzes the ecology of the Achuar indigenous people as a network of sociability that connects the human and non-human actors in ways that ensure mutual determination of technical and ecological factors, assembling methods and representations. Les Lances du crépuscule, published in 1993 by Plonin in the "Terre humaine" collection and translated into English, Spanish, Portuguese, and German, is a personal account of his experiences living with the Achuar. He also shares with the reader how he was able to gradually develop an ethnographic understanding of people who are so fundamentally other. La Remontée de l'Amazone, co-written with A.-C. Taylor and published by L'Homme in 1993, provides an overview of anthropological, ethnohistorical, and archeological research on the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.
Written with G. Lenclud, C. Severi and A.-C. Taylor, Les Idées de l'anthropologie, published by A. Colin in 1988 and translated into Hungarian, focuses on a presentation of that science through an historical overview of the genesis of the issues it raises as well as tracing the relationships between anthropology and its connected disciplines.
An ongoing concern with education encouraged Philippe Descola to contribute to the monumental Dictionnaire de l'ethnologie et de l'anthropologie, published by PUF in 1991, a tool that has since become a standard reference text and been translated into Spanish, Italian, Rumanian, and Arabic.
Last but not least, Claude Lévi-Strauss. Un parcours dans le siècle, published by Odile Jacob and the Collège de France in 2012, presents a collection of lectures given in honor of the great anthropologist's centenary anniversary.
Now a standard reference in the field of environmental anthropology, Nature and Society, published by Routledge in 1996 and translated into Spanish, co-edited with avec G. Pálsson, brings together contributions by anthropologists currently investigating and attempting to transcend the traditional dualism between nature and society. Antropología de la Naturaleza, published by Lima in 2003, provides Spanish-speaking readers with an introduction to the main concepts of anthropology of nature. Par-delà nature et culture, published by Gallimard in its "Bibliothèque des sciences humaines" collection in 2005, translated in German, Spanish, and English, proposes a new approach to understanding the distribution of continuities and discontinuities between humans and non-humans. His approach is based on a structural concept of ontology, understood as a classification system for the qualities of living beings and a systematic approach to the relationships that unite them. Diversité des natures, diversité des cultures, published by Bayard in 2010 and translated into Italian, is a conference intended to introduce a young audience to the different ways they can understand and interact with plants and animals, and children amongst themselves. La Fabrique des images. Visions du monde et formes de la representation, published by Somogy in 2010, is Philippe Descola's catalogue of the exhibition of the same name that he curated at the Musée du Quai Branly, which took place from February 2010 to July 2011. Here he attempts to analyze images from all over the world in the light of the ontological structures he developed based on his years of research. Finally, L'écologie des autres. L'anthropologie et la question de la nature, published by Quae in 2011 and translated into English, uses an epistemological perspective to examine how social sciences have dealt with the relationship between societies and their environment.
In addition, he has published conference proceedings, popularization work, and over 120 scientific articles and chapters of books.
Awards and distinctions
Philippe Descola received the CNRS Gold Medal in 2012; the Édouard Bonnefous award from the Académie des sciences morales et politiques in 2011 and the CNRS Silver Medal in 1996. He is an Officer in the French Legion of Honor (2010) and the French National Order of Merit (2004), and a Knight of the French Order of Academic Palms (1997). He is a foreign member of the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.