Acupuncture: Science? Religion? Both? Neither?

Mike Brownnutt
Re-Assembling Reality
22 min readJan 21, 2021


How this puzzle makes us question everything we thought we knew about both science and religion.

Re-Assembling Reality #2. by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer

Soup: food or medicine?

Many visitors to Hong Kong look at shops selling dried mushrooms and ask whether the shop is selling food or medicine. It seems a simple enough question.

Is it food or medicine? (Credit: Brian Jeffery Beggerly)

We know what Western medicine looks like: it comes in a tablet, or possibly a liquid to be drunk or injected. We know what Western food looks like: it comes in a chicken, possibly with some vegetables and a slice of lemon. Medicine is for healing, which is why we give it to sick people; food is for nourishing, which is why we give it to hungry people. A packet of medicine lists the active ingredients. A packet of food lists the nutritional information. No one asks how many calories an aspirin has, and no one is concerned about the side-effects of a roast dinner. Medicine must go through numerous stages of scientific testing to demonstrate its efficacy. Food tastes good. The differences between medicine and food could not be more obvious or clear-cut.

Sometimes, though, we find something that is harder to classify. When you have a cold and your grandma gives you chicken soup, what is it? It is healing, but it is also nourishing. She gives it to you because you are sick, but it also fills you up. It is unregulated. It tastes good. Medical research has started to identify mechanisms by which chicken soup guards against colds.[1] Your grandma neither knows nor cares what the science says: eat it up, it’s good for you.

No one loses sleep over our inability to categorise grandma’s soup. Admitting the existence of chicken soup neither nullifies medical advances nor undermines the food industry. It might, however, give each area pause for thought about new opportunities open to them: What if restaurants sold food that was good for you? Or what if pharmacologists made medicine that tasted good? Academics, of course, may choose to tie their own hands and insist that they will only consider a thing to be either medicine or food, but not both. Your grandma is welcome to ignore them entirely and leave the academics to their folly. And shops in Hong Kong will go on selling dried mushrooms. The question, “Is this food or medicine?” is quite irrelevant. It’s good for you. Eat it up.

Acupuncture: science or religion?

Moving on from dried mushrooms, let us consider acupuncture. Is it scientific or is it religious? The arguments for different positions are legion. You will also find acupuncturists disagreeing with each other over it. There is a similar lack of consensus among Western medics, or Christians, or New Age-ers.

We are not so bold as to propose that an issue that has vexed so many before us can be conclusively settled here in a short essay. Instead, we shall attempt to shine a light on why the question is so vexing; why reasonable people can come to such different conclusions. In our earlier essay asking where’s the boundary between science and religion, we looked at the ways in which the interrelationships between science and religion are often framed. We noted that the entire framework rests on the assumption that we can spot the difference between science and religion, and we claimed that this assumption is — at best — somewhat shaky. We also set out pairs of ideas that are often viewed as dichotomous, for which it is often thought that one member of each pair relates to science and the other member relates to religion.

Two columns: The dichotomies in which we often think, and by which science and religion are often framed. (Source: Authors.)

It may not come as a surprise to find that this two-list-ism is a significant source of the difficulty in classifying acupuncture as either science or religion. In this essay, we will dig a little deeper into the problems of this two-list-ism, and we will show that it fails utterly when looking at certain practices in Asia, causing more confusion than clarity. We will then turn back to Western practices and suggest that two-list-ism fails utterly there as well. If we are able to think about acupuncture without falling back on the assumptions of two-list-ism, we may find better questions than whether it is best classified as science or religion. We may even find better ways to think about science and religion.

To start trying to get a handle on the situation, let us dig into the originating world view in which acupuncture developed, and the role that played. By this line of questioning, we will learn a lot about acupuncture. By this line of questioning, we will also (spoiler alert) learn precious little that gets us any closer to resolving the “science or religion?” question. On the bright side, we will be able to take solace from the fact that, in learning that the originating worldviews are less significant to the discussion than we might have imagined, we have at least learned something.

The role and significance of originating worldviews

It is possible, to some extent and under certain conditions, to adopt a practice without being bound to the fullness of the originating worldview. Acupuncture has historical connections to ancient Chinese shamanism and Daoism. It has also, in some respects, distanced itself from those historical ties. It is reasonable to consider these historical ties, both those which are broken and those which remain, and to ask whether this sheds light on our classification question. What were the religious ties? In what ways have they been broken? Are they so indelible that science must forever steer clear of that which was once religiously tainted? Does science care? Does science need to care?

Before getting into such questions, let us consider the ways in which Western medical practice has been separated from wider, particularly religious, worldview considerations. In the West, Modernism has separated science from religion, and (the concerns of this essay notwithstanding) many people think that it has done a good job of it. Medicine is placed firmly in the science category and as such, so the argument goes, is quite independent of religion. The doctor who gives you an injection does not tell you how to live your life. They may have an opinion on morality, or the afterlife, or transubstantiation, but none of those opinions are relevant to how they give you an injection.

Even under Modernism, however, the separation has not been total. Religious concerns about questions such as morality and the sanctity of life creep in for certain liminal cases. Nonetheless, such concerns can be dealt with under a separate topic of ‘medical ethics’. Ethicists work out the tricky questions regarding abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, animal testing, and the like. The answers that they come up with can then be bolted on to medicine, without impacting on the scientific core that makes up ‘medicine-proper’. The religious content of medicine is (under this picture) little more than the ethical content, and the ethical content is little more than a list of check-boxes to make sure we are operating within the required guidelines.

Each part of the body (Court) has a Court Official responsible for its good running. (Credit: Ognyan Dobrev)

How did we get to this point? Thousands of years ago, medicine in the West (to which contemporary Western medicine can trace some of its roots) looked very different. It was, like Chinese medicine, founded in antiquity by pagans. Like Chinese medicine, its practice was connected to healing, cultic rituals, and pagan worldviews. The boundaries between such categories were, at the time, somewhere between highly porous and non-existent. Over time, Western medicine has dropped various ideas, such as the notion that something’s shape provides information about its medicinal use. Likewise, Chinese medicine has dropped various ideas. While dropping some ideas, Western medicine, like Chinese medicine, has introduced new ideas that would have been incomprehensible to earlier practitioners. For Western medicine, theories that healthy nutrition depended on how the food balanced the body’s four humours was gradually dropped and replaced by explanations based on vitamins. In classical Chinese medicine, theories that illnesses were caused by demons were gradually dropped and replaced by explanations based on qi.

Within contemporary Western medicine, there are various aspects which a skeptic might take as cause for concern, but which are usually ignored as broadly unproblematic. For instance, there are multiple, sometimes contradictory, strands of medicine: concerning any given ailment, different practitioners may claim its cause is predominantly genetic, or environmental, or social. Western medicine uses terms that have meanings different to those used in the physical sciences: medics may talk about a person being “under stress”, or “under strain”, without regard for a physicist’s thoughts on force divided by area, or fractional linear extension. Western medicine has some scientific backing, though it faces a more significant reproducibility crisis than its proponents are comfortable admitting.

Again, point by point, similar concerns hold regarding Chinese medicine: there is a contradiction between those who view qi as something physical and those who view it as something non-physical. Those who refer to qi as an “energy” do not feel bound to anything that physicists would measure in joules. Research papers abound confirming many aspects of Chinese medicine, as they abound debunking many other aspects.

It is not our intention here to unpick the many issues at stake, much less provide a definitive answer. It may be that contemporary Asian practices are so far removed from the Daoism of the Yellow Emperor, and Western practices are so far removed from the Paganism of Galen, that such connections are no longer of concern. Maybe science can embrace Chinese medicine despite its religious roots. Maybe science should disavow Western medicine because of its religious roots. Maybe Chinese medicine could be accepted as scientific, if only it could sufficiently divest itself of the last whiff or religion.

Acupuncture needles. (Credit: Mark Kelly)

Many people who try to ‘modernize’ Chinese medicine adopt this last view: that if only acupuncture can distance itself sufficiently from religion, if it can align itself sufficiently unambiguously with Column 1, then it can become a proper science in the modern world. One might imagine that they have an uphill struggle, given how squarely acupuncture’s qi-based mechanism seems to fit with Column 2: it is based on an unproven belief in an immaterial, ineffable entity. One solution, therefore, is to drop all reference to qi. We can keep the acupuncture techniques that work, but drop the qi-based indigenous theory.

Before jumping to quickly to embrace that course of action, it is worth considering whether such actions — if possible — would even help. Consider the following objection by Marc Duke to the attitudes of certain medical practitioners:

“The entire universe, he feels, works to such a precise orderly fashion that it contains no mysteries beyond the scope of understanding. Because no supreme power, no Lord of Hosts, created the world, the forces behind life and death and illness and health are not beyond man’s comprehension.”[3]

This objection — that the medical practitioner in question has shorn the world of all that is mystical, ineffable, or transcendent, and reduced life to that which is understood and controlled by man — might have been leveled at the most materialistic, naturalistic, scientistic medic there is. It was, however, leveled against acupuncturists. Use of acupuncture in medicine was damned here, not for being too religious, but for being too scientific!

Indeed, there are reasons to argue that qi and yin-yang fit reasonably well in Column 1. They are not conscious, anthropomorphic entities that deliberately intervene in the course of things, the way gods are usually imagined to do. Qi theory posits regular and predictable flows of energy. It is more impersonal than personal. The theory of qi and the maps of meridians in the body are not the product of a divine revelation that you are expected to accept as a matter of faith: the concepts of qi, and the mapping of the body, are based on thousands of years of accumulated observations, that have been systematised, modified and adjusted over time. Thus, it seems to be knowledge based on repeated observation, rather than faith based on singular miracles, and it makes evidence-based progress rather than being a static dogma. Finally, diagnosis in Chinese medicine is based on an elaborate method of pulse-taking and observation of signs of the body — such as the tongue and skin colour; and acupuncture is about poking needles into the body. All of this is very concrete and physical — there is nothing mystical or ineffable about feeling a needle turning inside your body!

So is acupuncture science or religion then?! Some bits look like science. Some bits look like religion. Some bits look like some elaborate Rorschach test that could be all sorts of things depending on how you squint at it. One answer, then, is to say that it’s a bit like science and a bit like religion. Some people, however, are not happy with such wishy-washy sitting on the fence and take the opposite response: it’s neither science nor religion. It’s nothing, it’s total fantasy.

Concretely, is it fantasy?

Acupuncture does seem to draw on things that look like religion. And it seems to have some aspects that feel scientific. It may seem that such a chimera must be nonsensical. But that raises a puzzle: how could something that works sufficiently well to be the subject of ongoing scientific research and licensed as a legal form of medical practice in many countries (including many Western countries), be derived from total fantasy?

The typical answer to this question is to say that it works, but the purported mechanism is wrong. Over thousands of years, Chinese people randomly discovered something that works, and gave the wrong explanation. So now, we just need to abandon the wrong explanation, and replace it with the correct explanation.

But why is it then, that over the past two hundred years, Western medicine, unburdened by the ‘wrong explanations’ of qi and yin-yang, and armed with the correct explanations of how the physical world and the body operates, never discovered anything like acupuncture? Why was random experience and mistaken theory more effective in discovering acupuncture than ‘correct’ scientific methods and theories?

Here, we’d like to suggest that the confusion is the result of the two-columns framework causing us to ask the wrong questions. Let us instead start from a different direction altogether.

Ancient Chinese observed the world around them, and noted the oscillating, rhythmic nature of life. Night and day, winter and summer. They noted that people did different things at different times in these cycles, their bodies were in different states, and so were other things in the world. Night was cooler than day, and they went inside to rest at sunset, and went out for activity at sunrise. Winter was colder than summer, and they stayed inside and moved around less in winter, and spent the summer outside working in the fields. Not only did they do different things, but their body felt different. There’s a difference between being hot and being cold, between being active and being still. And in their lives, on a daily and seasonal basis, they regularly oscillated between those states. The other thing they noted was that these different states were associated with different places: it’s colder in the north and warmer in the south. They were more active when the sun was in the south and more still when the sun was invisible in the north.

Life follows regular rhythms: day and night, summer and winter, hot and cold. (Credit: Vian on Wikimedia)

They integrated their knowledge about these different cycles, comparing the common characteristics of the phases and types of movement within different cycles. Morning and spring are characterized by expansion, outward movement and increased activity, which they called yang; while evening and autumn are characterised by contraction, inward movement and decreased activity, which they called yin. They gradually developed a theory, which scholars often call the cosmology of systematic correspondences.[4]

Since the terminology of this cosmology is radically different from that of western intellectual concepts, making it sound exotic and even quaintly poetic, for the same of our discussion here, we have summarized some of its basic elements into the following theoretical outline, using modern-sounding language:

  1. Entities are part of rhythmic systems.
  2. Rhythmic systems oscillate between two alternative dynamic states.
  3. The two alternating states are characterised by expansion and contraction. The expanding state is called yang and the contracting state is called yin.
  4. The expanding and contracting states are relative to each other. An expanding state gradually turns into a contracting state and vice versa.
  5. Entities are themselves rhythmic systems, and their condition is shaped by the relations of expansion and contraction of their constituent elements.
  6. The relationship between expanding and contracting states generates a dynamic energy field. This energy is called qi. Qi manifests different qualities in different configurations.
  7. Energy flows between elements of the system in different states, following pathways based on the shape of the energy field.
  8. There are optimal and sub-optimal relations between expanding and contracting states within the system. Under sub-optimal conditions, the system will break down. Under optimal conditions, the system will flourish.
  9. System maintenance and recovery are based on adjusting the relationships between the two dynamic states.
  10. Optimal relationships will generate an energy field with an optimal circulation of qi, and will manifest as health, vitality, and prosperity.

In the case of acupuncture, the technique involves inserting needles at specific points in order to modify the energy field of the body, based on an understanding of the body as a rhythmic system as described above.

A notable aspect of this theory is that it has moral values built into it. It considers that entities are systems made of relationships, and that healthy relationships are harmonious, dynamic, and full of vitality. That implies a whole set of values: that it’s important to tend to relationships and to seek the optimization of the relationships that constitute a system — whether that system is the body, the family, all of society, or the human habitat.

Like any body of theory, over the centuries these ideas have evolved, there were disagreements and debates, new concepts were proposed, others were dropped, new approaches were tried, and the theory was applied, with variations, to different domains. The domains to which this particular theory has been applied include tending to the human body, maintaining health and treating illnesses (including Chinese medicine, Chinese herbs, acupuncture, qigong, martial arts, and yangsheng longevity techniques); architecture and gardening; relations with the living environment (fengshui); relations between the living and the dead (Chinese Buddhism); relations with the stars, deities and spirits (Daoism); and social and political relationships (Confucianism). In all of these domains, the theory was applied with variations sometimes significant enough that practitioners in one domain might reject the ideas and practices common in another domain. But the theories continued to have sufficiently similar elements that the boundaries between domains are also blurry and ideas from one domain relatively easily flow into another domain. Note that while the domains might roughly map onto Western categories like “medicine”, “sports”, “ecology”, “religion” or “politics”, the domains are based on different types of relationships rather than on different types of objects.

Let us mention in passing that science finds itself in a similar situation. Western science has some basic ideas about the regularity of the world. These ideas are applied (albeit in wildly different manners) to different domains, including tending to the human body, maintaining health and treating illnesses (medical science), architecture (civil engineering), gardening (horticulture), the living environment (ecology); stars (cosmology), social relationships (sociology), and so forth. The variations between these domains are sometimes significant enough that practitioners in one might reject the ideas and practices common in another domain. (For example, ecology is by nature holistic, while physics is by nature reductionist. Even more significantly, the life sciences are defined by a notion — life — for which the physical sciences have no conception.) Still, the theories have sufficiently similar elements that the boundaries between domains are blurry, and ideas from one domain relatively easily flow into another domain. (This is why we can have bio-physics, neuro-psychology, and medical engineering.) We can therefore note that while worldviews involving qi and yin-yang can be sprawling, this does not on its own necessarily tilt the scales for or against classification as science or religion.

Our purpose here is not to assess whether the theories developed with qi and yin-yang are correct or not, or whether acupuncture is an effective application of the theory. And we are barely any closer to being able to clearly opt for acupuncture being straight-down-the-line science or straight-down-the-line religion, at least as far as the terms are often usually understood. But the theories are clearly not random, and they are not a pure fantasy. Not only were these theories used to develop practices such as acupuncture, but the theories themselves have been constantly enriched by the experience and observations of practitioners in different disciplines such as acupuncture, martial arts, architecture, and government.

What happens, then, if we decide to keep the technique of acupuncture that ‘works’, while dropping the underlying theory that (supposedly) does not represent the ‘genuine mechanism’ behind what is happening? By doing that, we discard the set of ideas and principles that guided the development of acupuncture. We discard the set of ideas and principles that makes acupuncture only one component of a much broader system of knowledge covering multiple domains. And we discard the moral values and ideals that underpin the system of knowledge.

Acupuncture: both or neither?

Typically, Modern people will admit that there may be some value in this theory and its moral ideals. But it is not scientific. They therefore argue that, if we cannot disentangle the ‘non-scientific bits,’ it should be kept separate from the practice of medicine. People can study it as philosophy if they’re interested in it.

By such an approach, we can keep the two columns neatly separated: the effective technique under Column 1, and the woolly philosophy under Column 2. Even though it does not quite look like a religion, it’s OK to put oddities under Column 2 — because, after all, Column 2 is irrational!

Many Modern people who appreciate acupuncture — and Chinese medicine more generally — agree with this project of separating it into Column 1 and Column 2 parts. There are heated debates about where to draw the line. Some people think that Chinese medicine is fully a science — most of it can go under Column 1, and just a few old superstitions can go under Column 2. Others think there are only a few useful things to put under Column 1 — the odd herb that has effective medicinal active ingredients, or some good massage techniques — and the rest can go under Column 2. While such disputes may get heated, the point of contention is what columns to put things in. But almost everyone in Modern times agrees on the basic dichotomy of the two columns.

Unfortunately, that entire project — of carving things up and assigning them to separate columns — hits a fundamental problem. Just as acupuncture was developed under the framework of qi theory, qi theory was not developed in the abstract, as some philosophy derived from first principles. It was developed through observation and practice in the material world of the body, the environment and society. The practice was shaped by the theory, and the theory was shaped by the practice. Consequently, for the acupuncturist, things in Column 1 depend on Column 2, and things in Column 2 depend on Column 1! They cannot be teased apart without losing something essential.

In light of this necessary interconnectivity, the acupuncturist can turn the nihilistic accusation of “it is nothing” back on their accusers. The dichotomising view says that things are either subjective or objective. Things are either immanent or transcendent. Science deals with one type, religion with the other. Any worldview that cannot see this is so confused as to not be worth engaging with.

The acupuncturist could argue, by contrast, that our subjective experience is shaped by the objective world around us, and the objective world around us is only encountered through our subjective experience. We experience no body without experiencing a mind, and we experience no mind without experiencing a body. Every view of the immanent which is not lost in triviality must point beyond itself, and any conception of the transcendent is a conception that we have here and now. Any worldview that cannot see this is so confused as to not be worth engaging with.

What is this science, which thinks it can abstract knowledge from the knower, and which speaks of objects without subjects? What is this religion, which comforts the soul and ignores the body, or which speaks of immaterial morality in the face of material struggle? These are nothing; meaningless; a confused irrelevance.

The world in which we live, with our beliefs and our values, in our bodies, in relation with other people, and with the world; this world is suffused with the visible and invisible, the material and immaterial, the progressive and static. Such things are all, of necessity and inextricably intertwined. How should we know our world but by knowing it as it is, not by attempting to separate it out into things which it is not. Rather than expressing concern over acupuncture because it apparently cannot be fitted into a single column, should we not express concern over science and religion because they apparently can each be fitted into a single column?

Science and religion: straddling columns

How are we to respond to the challenge laid by our acupuncturists? We have three options:

1) They are wrong. We can, in fact, separate out things that deal with Column 1 from things that deal with Column 2, and have them still be significant, meaningful, interesting areas of consideration.

2) They are right. One cannot separate the two columns without stripping the practices under consideration of their significance. Science, being limited to Column 1, and religion, being limited to Column 2, are trivial and irrelevant to human existence.

3) They are right. One cannot separate the two columns without stripping the practices under consideration of their significance. However, science remains significant because it is not limited to Column 1, and religion remains significant because it is not limited to Column 2.

In closing, let us return to typical Western pictures of science, and typical Western pictures of religion; the kind of practices that Ian Barbour may have recognised as ‘science’ and ‘religion’ back in 1980s Scotland. We will argue that, despite the way in which they are often portrayed, science and religion — as they are practiced in the West — utterly fail to fit into the stereotypical two-list-ism picture. As such, we would select option three: things that fit into a single column are largely irrelevant to human endeavours, and neither science nor religion fit into a single column. While what we provide here is little more than a thumb-nail sketch in support of that claim, the forthcoming essays will flesh out these ideas in much greater depth.

The Butterfly Nebula. Ten trillion miles across. Twenty quadrillion miles away. At two hundred thousand degrees celsius, the central star burned so hot that it would go un-noticed until it started ejecting material at 1.3 million miles per hour. (Credit: Hubble/NASA)

Science, at its heart, calls our gaze from the here and now to that which lies beyond. Invoking immaterial forces, described by non-physical numbers, transcending the visible world around us, drawing us on to that which cannot be seen: atoms, because they are too small; galaxies, because they are too distant; wave-functions, because they are too paradoxical; the big bang, because it is singular. The breath-taking beauty of images from Hubble, or the mind-bending complexity of string theory, abstracts us from the mundane needs to the day-to-day and lifts our eyes to the ineffable.

A homeless person. About the same size as you. Quite close by. Not very hot. Not very fast. Still goes un-noticed. (Photo: Public Domain)

What a contrast science provides to the mundane callings of religion, which consistently draws us back to the very concrete needs of the widow and orphan visible before us. Religion presses us to hear their explicit cries for material aid to fulfil their human needs of regular meals, lest they face immanent hunger.

This, of course, raises a new question: how did we manage to so warp our conceptions of science and religion that we did not realise straight away that they necessarily and consistently cross between columns? Did we believe that the laws of physics were material objects? Unlikely. Did we suspect that scientists somehow dealt in anything other than abstractions? Hopefully not. Did we think that religion had no concern for the poor? Surely not. Did we imagine poor people to be intangible, transcendent, mystical beings? Not a chance! And yet here we are.

Bruno Latour, on seeing how warped our presentations of science and religion have become under two-list-ism, observes:

“Thus, even to assemble a stage, in which the deep and serious problem of ‘the relationship between science and religion’ could unfold, is already an imposture — not to say a farce — that distorts science and religion beyond all recognition.” [5]

There is a discussion to be had. It is of vital importance in the modern world that we are able to engage in that discussion. But it is not the discussion — not even close to the discussion — that many people think it is. We hope, through the coming series of essays, to get to grips with what the discussion is, or could be.

In Re-Assembling Reality, we’re questioning the relationship between science and religion based on what people do, rather than on what they say they do.

Click here to read the next essay (#3) in the series, on Packing and Unpacking Religion: Why we can’t agree on whether Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism are religions.

Click here to read the first essay (#1) in the series, on Where’s the boundary between science and religion? It’s not where you think.

Join the conversation and receive updates on the latest posts in this series, by signing up for the Re-Assembling Reality newsletter.

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.


[1] K. Saketkhoo, A. Januszkiewicz, and M.A. Sackner, “Effects of drinking hot water, cold water, and chicken soup on nasal mucus velocity and nasal airflow resistance.” Chest 74 (1978):408–10; Stephen Rennard, “Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro,” Chest 118 (200):1150–1157.

[2] World Health Organization, Acupuncture: Review and Analysis of Reports on Controlled Clinical Trials (World Health Organziation, 2002).

[3] Marc Duke, Acupuncture (Pyramid House, 1972), 164.

[4] See Manfred Porckert, The Theoretical Foundations of Chinese Medicine: Systems of Correspondence (MIT Press, 1978); Paul Unschuld, Medicine in China: A History of Ideas (University of California Press, 1985) 54–61. In fact, it is impossible to know exactly how the core notions of Chinese cosmology initially arose. The earliest record of the key terms of yin and yang and their associated qualities is to be found in the Book of Odes (shijing), a collection of poems dating from the 11th to 7th century BC. The account we have just presented is based on the assumptions of the Durkheimian sociology of knowledge, as laid out in Emile Durkheim’s classic The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Free Press, 1995 [1912]. Trans. Karen E Fields), which claims that the basic categories of systems of classification are derived from the experience of social life. This insight was developed by the Sinologist Marcel Granet in his Festivals and Songs of Ancient China (Routledge, 1932 [1919]) offering a sociological explanation for the origin of Chinese cosmology as recorded in the Book of Odes. For a discussion of these ideas, see David A. Palmer, “Cosmology, Gender, Structure, and Rhythm: Marcel Granet and Chinese Religion in the History of Social Theory”, Review of Religion and Chinese Society 6 (2019):160–187. An alternative explanation is proposed by Philippe Descola, who, basing himself on Granet’s work, claims that Chinese cosmology is a form of “analogical ontology” that can be found in many cultures, in which the core concern is to bring order to a fragmented cosmos by finding analogies and correspondences between the qualities of the myriad beings, bringing them all into the unity of an integrated conceptual system. See Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[5] Bruno Latour, “‘Thou Shall Not Freeze Frame,’ or How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate.” In Bruno Latour, On The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (Duke University Press, 2010), 112.



Mike Brownnutt
Re-Assembling Reality

I have a Master's in theology and a PhD in physics. I am employed in social work to do philosophy. Sometimes I pretend that's not a bit weird.