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For New Ways of Relating to Traditional Knowledge

Manuela Carneiro Da Cunha
p. 31

Notes de la rédaction

Excerpts from the Inaugural Lecture 22 March 2012

Source: La lettre, no. 33, May 2012

Texte intégral

1For several decades in the twentieth century traditional knowledge was compared and set apart from science. The criterion was rationality, which Hilbert, Carnap, and the Vienna Circle sought to establish as the basis and preserve of Science.

2Although Gödel proved such an objective to be unattainable as early as 1931, it was only around the 1960s that philosophy of science definitively acknowledged it. As a consequence, anthropology went on comparing the systems of knowledge that it described with the (obsolete) assertions of logical positi­vism about science.

3Now that science’s positivist project has been eroded, relationships between traditional knowledge and science cannot be envisaged in the same terms. But I am not using this reminder to advocate that we simply equate science to traditional knowledge. On the contrary, it is necessary to understand and highlight their conceptual, institutional and historical differences.

4Science as we know it has retained a fundamental distinction from classical Greece: that which separates theoretical know­ledge, episteme, and know-how, techne. Science, as Jean-Pierre Vernant has shown, is the reasoning, the discussion, the demonstration; it is time – and this is what more contemporary anthropology shows us – to re-establish the importance of techne in the constitution of knowledge in general.

5The category of “knowledge” or something that comes close to it seems to be present in any society. It is also everywhere unevenly distributed, and distinguished according to specializations and hierarchy. In contrast, there is a surprising diversity of regimes of knowledge. The status and nature of knowledge, what it is, its genres and kinds, its specific hierarchy; its forms of attribution and validation; the rights and duties that order it; its conditions of access, transmission, circu­lation and memory; all this and much more characterizes a particular regime of knowledge and underpins its func­tioning. This regime, provided it is robust, is what presides over the ceaseless borrowings. But it is also within its framework and thanks to it that discoveries and innovations occur.

6It is therefore important to preserve not only the content but also the systems of traditional knowledge themselves, letting them follow their own paths, without isolating them. And then we also need to innovate with forms of research collaboration that involve them as full partners.

7Most indigenous knowledge ontologies are incompatible with ours. Ultimately, is that so important? Today’s physics simultaneously accepts two ontologies, general relativity and quantum mechanics, which for the time being are mutually incompatible.

8I would therefore argue for a diversity of ontologies and of knowledges, and urge us, as we did in the past, to continue recording these methods and findings without seeking to reform these systems, and to do so by setting up networks to empower them as partners and stakeholders in their own right.

9But there is more. It is through contact with these forms of thinking which differ from ours that we can become aware of our tacit assumptions, that which goes without saying, thereby limiting what can be said. Georges Canguilhem wrote: “the episteme is the soil in which only certain forms of discourse can grow”. Becoming aware of other forms of thinking suddenly allows us to invent, to think differently – to multiply the epistemai. Thus, ethnopharmacologists are not simply in search of new molecules: far more ambitiously, they are looking­ for new models of therapeutic action. I am therefore not necessarily recommen­ding borrowings, but drawing attention to the simple and surprising and liberating effect of realising that one is not compelled to think in set terms: it was by removing just one of Euclid’s postulates that Lobatchevski and Bolayi were able to conceive of geometry differently. Whether Leibniz’s binary numbering was truly inspired by China or recognized itself in it is less important than the exemplary fact of a scholar who was able to realize the implications of there being a different way of thinking. All of a sudden, other worlds are possible.

• Videos of lectures available online at

• The Chair is funded by the French Development Agency.

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Manuela Carneiro Da Cunha, « For New Ways of Relating to Traditional Knowledge », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2015, consulté le 20 février 2017. URL :

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Manuela Carneiro Da Cunha

Anthropologist, has been a professor at the University of São Paulo and at the University of Chicago, member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

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