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International Cosmos Prize

The Prizewinner 2014

Name Dr. Philippe Descola
Born on June 16, 1949
Nationality France
Title Professor, the Collège de France

Reason for Awarding

Professor Philippe Descola, a distinguished anthropologist, has conducted rigorous fieldwork among indigenous people living in Amazonia, South America. On the basis of his findings, he challenged the anthropocentric thoughts then prevailing in the Western world, and proposed the “anthropology of nature,” which considers nature and culture in an integrated manner. His achievements eminently conform to the basic concept of the International Cosmos Prize, which promulgates the Harmonious Coexistence between Nature and Mankind.

Professor Descola, one of the world’s leading philosophers and anthropologists, has carried out intensive fieldwork regarding the coexistence of humans and nature in the communities of the Jivaroan Achuar in Amazonia, South America. The main resources of the Achuar people are slash-and-burn horticulture and hunting; they have settled in two different types of habitats: riverine and interfluvial. Taking advantage of these ecosystems, the Achuar have maintained the profound knowledge and practices handed down from their ancestors. Professor Descola conducted a thorough study and analysis of these assets. Transcending the boundaries of the anthropological monograph, he has explored the fundamental relationship between humans and nature as the “anthropology of nature,” from a global perspective, thereby establishing a new model regarding nature and culture.

Generally, agriculture is an activity that destroys primary nature in order to plant profitable cultivated species. However, the Achuar protect useful wild species before felling and burning a new swidden, transplant wild plants from the forest, and protect seedlings of wild plants that germinate from seeds carried in the feces of animals. Through these processes, the Achuar have formed a forest with a much greater variety of species than is found in pristine forests. In other words, Professor Descola proved that appropriate human intervention has helped maintain the ecosystems perpetually.

On the basis of his research findings, he came to feel that nature and culture should be considered in an integrated fashion, so focused his attention on the four ontologies. Under the conventional paradigm, relationships between the human and non-human worlds were classified, according to the presence or absence of interiority and physicality, into animism, naturalism, totemism and analogism. Professor Descola advocated the significance of integrating and sublating these four philosophical ontologies, which until then had been treated individually.

It is a known fact that, due to large-scale development and conversion of forests into farmland, Amazonia is in danger of rapidly losing its rich forest ecosystems and biodiversity, thereby jeopardizing the traditional lifestyles, and even the lives, of indigenous people who have lived in close interaction with these ecosystems. With similar crises taking place around the world, it has become urgently necessary to establish a philosophy for minimizing the destruction of natural environments and to enable humanity to survive in harmony with nature. Professor Descola points out that, to realize the harmonious coexistence of nature and humankind, we should reflect on Western mainstream thought that involves the divide between nature and culture, so as not to allow the ravaging of nature to become a negative legacy for future generations. He asserts that we should give consideration to the significance of symbiosis, rather than limit our relations with nature to technological and economic issues. The research results and notions of Professor Descola are deserving of global attention now and into the future.

Professor Philippe Descola has developed a philosophical concept based on the results of his fieldwork highlighting Amazonian indigenous people’s view of nature and their activities in interacting with nature. His achievements are deemed to have universality that can be applied to various parts of the world in addressing environmental challenges, which accords exactly with the basic concept of the International Cosmos Prize. Moreover, Professor Descola has sounded a warning against dichotomizing nature and culture. This is in line with the objective of The International Garden and Greenery Exposition, Osaka, Japan, 1990, an event that was aimed at promoting public awareness that humans are part of nature by integrating the Oriental view of nature into the garden expositions traditionally held in Western countries.


1972 Master of Philosophy, Paris West University Nanterre La Défense (Paris-X)
1972 Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in Ethnology, Paris West University Nanterre La Défense(Paris-X)
1983 Ph. D. in Social Anthropology, Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales


1980-1983 Teaching Assistant at the EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)
1983 Research associate at the Maison des sciences de l’Homme
1984 Lecturer at the EHESS
1987-1989 Associate Professor at the EHESS
1989-2000 Director of studies (non-concurrent post) at the EHESS
2000- Professor and Chair in Anthropology of Nature at the Collège de France
2001- Director of the Laboratory of Social Anthropology (Collège de France/CNRS/EHESS)
2001- Director of studies (concurrent post) at the EHESS


1995 CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) Silver Medal
1997 Knight of the French Order of Academic Palms
2000 Knight in the French Legion of Honor
2004 French National Order of Merit
2010 Officer in the French Legion of Honor
2011 Édouard Bonnefous award from the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques
2012 CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) Gold Medal

Major Books

  • La Nature domestique : symbolisme et praxis dans l'écologie des Achuar, Paris, Fondation Singer- Polignac et Editions de la MSH, 1986 (English version; In the Society of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1994))
  • Les idées de l'anthropologie (avec Gérard Lenclud, Carlo Severi, Anne-Christine Taylor), Paris, Armand Colin, 1988
  • Dictionnaire de l'ethnologie et de l'anthropologie (avec M. Abélés, P. Bonte, J.-P. Digard, C. Duby, J.-C. Galey, M. Izard, J. Jamin et G. Lenclud), Paris, PUF, 1991 ; dernière rééd. 2010
  • Les Lances du crépuscule : relations Jivaros, haute-Amazonie, Paris, Plon, 1993 (English version; The Spears of Twilight (The New Press and Harper Collins, 1996))
  • La Remontée de l'Amazone. Anthropologie et histoire des sociétés amazoniennes (avec Anne-Christine Taylor), numéro spécial de la revue L'Homme, 126-128, 1993
  • Nature and Society : Anthropological perspectives (avec Gísli Pálsson), Londres, Routledge, 1996
  • La production du social : autour de Maurice Godelier (avec Jacques Hamel et Pierre Lemonnier), Paris, Fayard, 1999
  • Par-delà nature et culture, Paris, Gallimard, 2005 (English version; Beyond Nature and Culture (The University of Chicago Press, 2013))
  • La Fabrique des images. Visions du monde et formes de la représentation, Paris, Somogy & musée du quai Branly, 2010
  • L'Écologie des autres. L'anthropologie et la question de la nature, Paris, Editions Quae, 2011 (English version; The Ecology of Others (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2013))
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss. Un parcours dans le siècle, Paris, Odile Jacob et Collège de France, 2012