Tim Ingold

The Major and the Minor

There are two kinds of science. One of these has long been ascendant in the western tradition. It imagines a world of elementary constituents, particles of matter that interact and combine in ever more complex and diverse configurations to compose the world we know from experience. In this world, solidity is primordial, fluidity derivative, identity and constancy come before difference and variation, movement can be described as the displacement of a body from point to point across the void of space, and complexity can be factored out by way of the quantitative computation of its elements. But the world imagined by the other kind of science is opposite in every way. It is matter-full, not full of matter; its elements are given not as discrete particles but in the plenum of materials. Here the properties of things emerge not as the compound effects of punctuated interactions, but as variations or irregularities in the material flux. The slightest deviation, amplified in its effects, can spin out a cascade of more or less ephemeral forms. Differentiation and heterogeneity, then, are not so much statistical as topological, produced in the folding and crumpling of surfaces and volumes rather than the aggregation and dispersal of particulate substance. Things in this world are not naturally solid; they have to be kept that way and, like eddies in a stream, they will do so only for as long as the flow carries on.

Following Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, I shall call the first kind of science—the one with which we are most familiar—the science of the major.[1] I shall call the second the science of the minor. I shall insist that we cannot have one without the other, that the major always trails the minor like a thing and its shadow, even though the latter is routinely suppressed. This is as true of the sciences of life as it is of physics and chemistry, and as true of the sciences of mind as of those of life. It is with the latter that I am principally concerned here. I want to show that the theory of evolution by variation under natural selection, while almost universally accepted today, is written unequivocally in the major key. As such, it is fundamentally incomplete, shorn of the minor variations that are the essence of life itself. As Alfred North Whitehead observed long ago, there are two ways of apprehending living things: either from the outside, as the embodiments of evolved design, or from the inside, by joining with the generative movement of their growth and formation.[2] To follow the second course is to enter into an evolution in the minor key. But this is as much an evolution of mind as it is of life, if indeed the two can be distinguished at all. That is where wisdom comes into the picture.

In the major, the mind figures as a suite of cognitive capacities—or more comprehensively as an intelligence—fashioned like the body by the cumulative effects of natural selection. Intelligence, we suppose, is a property of the self. It belongs to the individual and underwrites its ability to interact with others in a way that is both intentional in its objectives and cognizant of the intentions of others. But in the minor, mind is not a property but a process, the infolding and unfolding of a continuum of affective relations. The mind infolded is what I shall call the soul. Wisdom, I shall argue, lies in its unfolding. If intelligence underwrites the power of intentionality, wisdom is about attending to things, both opening up and responding to their presence. Where the self is the seat of intention, the soul is the wellspring of attention. As the self is to the soul, so intelligence is to wisdom, the major to the minor. Wisdom, in short, is not an evolved capacity of mind but the mind evolving in the minor key. To bring wisdom back into our thinking about evolution, then, is not to speculate on the nature and origins of intelligent design. It is rather to recognize that there is another side to the evolutionary process that is about neither intelligence nor design, but about the ongoing generation of being, or in a word, ontogenesis. 

The Evolution of Life

To begin to unpack this rather condensed formulation, let me return to Whitehead. In Science and the Modern World, based on a series of lectures presented in 1925, Whitehead argued that there are two sides to what he called “the machinery involved in the development of nature.” The first, generally going under the rubric of “natural selection” and associated with the name of Darwin, has “a given environment with organisms adapting themselves to it.” The second, “the other side of the evolutionary machinery, the neglected side, is expressed by the word creativeness.[3] What is this creativeness to which mainstream science, according to Whitehead, has turned a blind eye? Many biologists, architects of the so-called modern synthesis of Darwinian theory and population genetics, were convinced that variation under natural selection is itself a creative force. One of them was Theodosius Dobzhansky, according to whom selection is the “antichance factor” that would test the genetic variations produced by chance mutation, in countless permutations and combinations, so as to arrive at adaptively coherent patterns. For Dobzhansky, selection is creative precisely because of its capacity not just to weed out deleterious mutations, but to construct such patterns from the building blocks of heredity. This creativity, Dobzhansky thought, bore comparison with the arts of invention, having all the qualities of intelligent design but with the selective figure of antichance substituting for any transcendent or mortal design agent. Indeed, we can regard every new pattern, he declared, “as an artistic embodiment of a new conception of living.”[4]

A conception of living is one thing, however; life itself is another; and to have constructed a design for a new form of life is not enough to fashion a living being. In an evolution that consisted only in the phylogenetic succession of designs and their modification, ontogenesis could be no more than a spin-off, expended within each generation in bringing about the replication of design elements in the next. Life, it seems, falls through the cracks of hereditary variation and recombination. And it was specifically the creativeness of the life process itself that Whitehead was after. His inspiration owed much to the philosophy of his French contemporary Henri Bergson. In Bergson’s understanding, there is nothing creative in the rearrangements of elements already known. It would be like shaking a kaleidoscope: every shake reveals a new pattern, but there is nothing in the new not already present in the old. Similarly, the recombination of hereditary elements—that is, of elements that, by definition, are already present at the inauguration of every new life-cycle—is bereft of creative potential. However, there is more to life and growth, Bergson insisted, than the reconfiguration of the known, and it was in this excess that he found the source of creative evolution.[5] It is as if life were ever surpassing itself, giving rise to further life as growth gives rise to further growth. This is the life of natura naturans, of nature’s becoming, rather than natura naturata, the infinite diversity of ready-created forms which so impressed Dobzhansky.

To refer to this process of nature’s surpassing itself, Whitehead coined the term “concrescence.”[6] Crescence means always undergoing creation—growing and developing—rather than that which is already created; the prefix con- means “together with, or alongside.” Literally, then, concrescence is the condition of things or beings undergoing creation together with or alongside one another. This is the condition of living beings, ontogenetically and relationally co-evolving. In order to grasp this evolution, however, it is necessary to imagine the world in a way that is very different from what is commonly assumed in the science of the major. The majority assumption is that a living organism is an object, albeit of great complexity, constructed from simpler elements by means of templates that have themselves been assembled from a basic biochemical vocabulary. This assumption, however, both depends on and in turn reproduces the imagination of a world composed of primordially discrete and enumerable entities. As nature “builds up” from the elementary to the complex, we suppose that it is the mission of science to “drill down,” to engineer in reverse what nature has first assembled in order to reveal what are often dubbed the building blocks of life and the principles of their construction. Indeed, the very idea of complexity precipitates its opposite, namely simplicity, with its connotations of singularity of form and homogeneity of substance. Merely to say of an organism that it is complex is to take it for a whole that can, in principle, be analyzed into its simpler parts.

However, there are things, in our experience, that defy such analysis. Is a crumpled piece of paper more complex than its planar equivalent? Do we simplify our clothes by ironing them? Is a river in spate, a stormy sea, or a cloud-ridden sky more complex than the gentle flow, flat calm, or ethereal blue of river, sea, or sky in fair weather? Questions of simplicity and complexity do not arise here because in every case, we do not start with a vacuum filled with matter but with a matter-full plenum, rendered heterogeneous through differential infolding and unfolding. The crumples of paper and crease-lines in fabric emerge as the material is first folded up and then unfolded. Likewise, the river’s eddies and ripples can be understood as the folds of its running waters, the foaming waves as folds of the sea, and clouds as folds in the crumpled air-mass of the sky. In every case, the fold is intrinsic to the material: difference, in other words, is brought about from within. It is interstitial. I refer to the process of folding, accordingly, as one of interstitial differentiation.[7] What if we were to think of life, too, as such a process? It would be the task of life, then, not to assemble parts into wholes, distinguished by the diverse configurations of their elements, but to draw things out from the primordially undifferentiated flux of potential and hold them there, albeit only for a while, until they dissolve once more. It would be a task, in short, of differentiation, not of construction.[8]

This is precisely how Bergson thought of it. Life in general, in his view, is movement or flow; it is the very substance of time or duration, and of our own existence as temporal beings. We cannot go against it, or resist it entirely, but we can temporarily draw it aside. Every living organism, according to Bergson, comes into being through such a deviation in the flow. You could compare it, as he did, to a whirlwind or to an eddy in the stream. Something—some irregularity of bank or bed—causes the otherwise evenly running waters to swerve. Amplified and accelerated under its own momentum, the swerve turns in on itself to become a vortex, holding back the waters caught up in it until they are released once again into the mainstream. Thus, while life in general continually advances, along a line that would be perfectly straight were it not for the irregularities in its course, particular manifestations of life lag behind, never stopping the flow but deflecting it into circuits, each of which is a life-cycle. Though we might imagine the life-form to be a relatively stable, self-contained object, with an inside and an outside, Bergson shows us that the appearance is deceptive, for in truth—as he put it—“the very permanence of their form is only the outline of a movement.”[9] Like the eddy in the stream, the living organism is not a container and it has no content. Its topologically convoluted surfaces, which defy any opposition between interior and exterior, are really but folds in the plenary fabric of the ever-worlding world.

The Self and the Soul

Let us now turn from life and the organism to wisdom and the soul. For it is my contention that a parallel argument applies. I aim to show that just as the organism is a vortex in the flow of life, so the soul is a vortex in the flow of awareness or consciousness. In this regard, the soul’s enfoldment of wisdom stands in stark contrast to the intelligence of the self.[10] As wisdom is the shadow of intelligence, so the soul is the shadow of the self. To explain the contrast, we have first to address a confusion that afflicts much anthropological writing on the soul. This concerns the question of what it means to say of the soul that it is an interior property of being, in essence spiritual rather than material or physical. While the historical tendency in the Judeo-Christian tradition has been to narrow the soul to human beings, thanks to their exceptional mirroring of divinity, people of other faiths—or whose practices appear to rest on alternative ontological foundations—are reportedly more generous in crediting some form of inner life to non-human kinds.[11] Most generous of all are people known to anthropology as “animists,” including many indigenous folk around the world in regions as diverse as Amazonia, Southeast Asia, and the circumpolar North. For them, not only are animals and plants of every kind potentially and often multiply endowed with souls, but so also are manifold phenomena that we might think of as inanimate, from hills and mountains to rivers and pools, stones, and even artefacts.

If there is one characteristic of animism that we can all accept, writes Philippe Descola in his magisterial survey of the diverse ways human beings have sought to organize their relations with the world they inhabit, and to render this world intelligible, it is “the attribution by humans to non-humans of an interiority identical to their own.”[12] In this plethora of souls, common to all, beings and things of different kinds are distinguished, according to Descola’s account, by their physical properties. Animals, for example, are distinguished by their bodies, which enable them to operate in the particular ways they do: fish to swim, birds to fly, humans to walk, and so on. Everything has a soul, but everything also has its distinctive way of making its presence physically manifest in the world. Indeed, for Descola, this division between what he calls “interiority” and “physicality” is by no means unique to animism but underwrites all human efforts, whether practical or linguistic, to come to terms with being. For those of us raised in western societies and who consider ourselves to be “modern,” the same division appears in the familiar form of a dichotomy between mind and nature. What is peculiar to animism, distinguishing it—inter alia—from the naturalism of the west, is that the attribution of interiority is generalized across the board rather than confined to humans. Conversely, manifest differences on the plane of physicality are not assimilated in animism, as they are in modernity, to a universalizing concept of nature.

The concept of interiority, however, inevitably begs the question “interior to what?” This, I think, is where Descola goes wrong. In opposing it to physicality, he contrives to set up the interior as a bounded domain, set over against an exterior world. As the occupant of this domain, the soul appears to be contained. From the point of view of its possessor, it is “in here”; the physical world “out there.” Locked up inside its bodily or earthly container, the soul is immobilized. It cannot, then, be animate in itself; it cannot live or breathe. It can exist only as an abstract principle, of which life is no more than an exterior emanation. This is not unlike the way in which modern thought construes the intelligence of the self: as a hidden design agent that resides inside its hard bodily shell and pulls the strings of action. The self thinks, reflects, forms its own theories of what might be out there, or of the thinking of selves equally hidden from direct perception, considers its options and delivers its intentions. It is left to the body to engage in lively intercourse with the world. The mistake that Descola makes, along with legions of anthropological predecessors, is to suppose that the soul of animism is similarly enclosed within its physical housing, thereby insulated from the turbulence of worldly existence. For everything that people credited with an ontology of animism have been telling us points to the contrary.[13]

What they tell us is that the soul is itself the breath of life; that souls are not agencies but movements, that they are sites not of intention but of affectation, that they are not closed but radically open to the world and therefore vulnerable to attack or loss, that they are concentrations of energy and vitality that must ever remain in circulation if life is to carry on. How, then, should we think of the interiority of the soul? The answer, I suggest, is to shift to the minor key and enter into a plenary world of concrescence, where things—to adopt an apt expression from Erin Manning—are not yet settled but ever “edging into form.”[14] Interiority, in such a world, conveys a quality not of containment but of immanence. It means participating fully in the relations and processes that continually give rise to forms, rather than taking refuge within the bounds of forms already taken. To participate is to abide in the interstices of the world, in its differential becoming. It is to inhabit a fold in the surface of being wherein, as with the singular surface of a Möbius strip, its twin faces—of interiority and physicality—become one. Far from being opposed to physicality, as is the interiority of containment, the interiority of immanence runs into physicality, and physicality into interiority, with no breach of continuity.[15] Apprehended topologically, in the minor key, the world has only one surface, and every soul is borne along in its folds.

Let us return to Bergson’s image of the living organism as a vortex brought about by a swerve or deviation in the current of life. We have noted that the vortex is not a container and it is not contained; it is rather an ever-emerging form of turbulence. The soul, likewise, can be envisaged as a vortex in the stream of consciousness, continually winding and unwinding, infolding and unfolding, in an unceasing circulatory movement. Here’s philosopher Michel Serres, in The Birth of Physics, baring his own soul: “I am myself a deviation, and my soul declines, my global body is open, adrift. It slips, irreversibly, on the slope. Who am I? A vortex.”[16] Serres’s soul is not inside his body; on the contrary, it seems that his body is like a ship in a maelstrom, adrift in the vertiginous tumult of his own soul. Only at the eye of the vortex does stillness reign. Like the vortex, the soul arises in a deviation, a transient “falling out of step” with life, as Gilbert Simondon describes the process of ontogenesis—or what he calls individuation—wherein the metastable forms of being emerge from the generative flux of becoming.[17] In this falling out of step also lies the work of memory. Indeed, in a certain sense, the soul is memory, understood not as a faculty of cognition but as a winding up of the generative forces of life which—like the winding of a spring-loaded clock—both holds out against the passage of time and charges the body with incipient movement. In this charge lies the potential for future transformation.

Wisdom is Ecological

That brings me back, finally, to wisdom. My thesis is that wisdom lies in the transformative potential of the soul. I have four points to make in support of this thesis. The first is that wisdom is quite different from knowledge; indeed, they may operate at cross-purposes. The self, in carving out a place for itself in the world, seeks the safety and security of established positions. Every increment of knowledge adds another stone to the walls with which it shores itself up against the onslaught of physical externality. Thus, knowledge breeds inattention, as the self is driven ever further within a citadel of its own making. The soul, by contrast, is defenseless, and therein lies its wisdom. Whereas knowledge treats the world as its object, for wisdom the world is its milieu. Knowing is about fixing things within the concepts and categories of thought; wisdom unfixes and unsettles. To know is to have things accounted for, explained away, or embedded in context so they no longer trouble us; to be wise is to bring things back into the fullness of presence, to pay attention, and to care. Knowing is rational and intellectual; wisdom relational and affective. Knowledge has its challenges, wisdom has its ways; but where the challenges of knowledge close in on their solutions, the ways of wisdom open out to a process of life. Where knowledge protects, wisdom exposes; where knowledge makes us safe, wisdom makes us vulnerable. Knowledge empowers, wisdom does not. But what wisdom loses in power it gains in existential strength. For while knowledge may hold the world to account, it is wisdom that brings it to life. Knowledge is in the major key, wisdom in the minor.

My second point is that wisdom is fundamentally attentional. It continually draws our awareness out into the world, rather than referring it back to an originating intention in the mind of the subject. For an act to be intentional, according to the psychology of cognition, it must be founded in an evolved capacity to grasp what is “out there” within the frame of received concepts and categories. You first have to know with what or whom you are dealing; only then can you interact with them. In the case of other persons, this means speculating on their mental states, or on what their intentions might be, on the evidence of observed behavior. In short, you have to be in possession of what psychologists call a “theory of mind.” Closure, here, is the default position, from which we are supposed to attribute intentions, motives and standpoints to others. But the soul, as we have seen, is not a sanctuary. It does not aim to theorize about the world, or about other minds, from within the space of its own reflections. Rather, it already mingles with the ebbs and flows of the phenomenal world, even before there can be subjects with intentions, or objects toward which these intentions are directed. The soul is there in the very incipience of the world, in its moment-to-moment coming-into-being. In its wisdom it cuts through the transverse connections between intentions and their objects as a river between its banks. This flow has neither beginning not end, neither origin nor destination. For as life generates further life, wisdom perpetually surpasses itself.

Thirdly, while wisdom is different from knowledge, it is very close in its meaning to skill. For skill lies not in the imposition of form from without, upon homogeneous matter, but in the division, from within, of materials that have their own vitality and inclinations. The wise practitioner knows to respect these inclinations and to work with them rather than against them. In effect, wisdom—just like life itself—is a process of interstitial differentiation. It draws out form from within the flux of materials. The judgement of wisdom, therefore, does not sit in sovereignty over the world, but enters into it, always in medias res, going along with things and splitting them this way and that. It is not transversal, delivering a final verdict for execution on the basis of information received, but longitudinal, following the grain of the world’s becoming and bending it to an ever-evolving purpose. The very etymology of the word “skill” points to judgment of this kind. With its roots in the Middle Low German schillen, “to make a difference,” and in the Old Norse skilja, “to divide, separate, distinguish, decide,” it also shares an etymological affinity with the word “shell,” a casing that is opened up by splitting or cleaving along the grain.[18] Thus wisdom is not a faculty, not a supplement that is added on to a being that perhaps some have and others do not. It is not possessive at all, but existential. Wisdom is not what you have but what you are. It is a way of going along in the world, and it has paths rather than end-points.

Wisdom, in short, evolves in the minor key. It is alive with transformative potential, but this is not a potential that is ever realized. For wisdom does not transform the world: it is rather the world’s never-ceasing transformation of itself—that is, its worlding. This is my final point, and once again it distinguishes the minor from the major. In an evolution in the major key, as we have seen, every life begins with a novel conception and ends with its material realization. In the same vein—and referring specifically to human life—we speak of education as enabling the immature human being to fulfil his or her potential. Once fulfilled, the potential is exhausted, used up. Wisdom’s potential, on the other hand, like that of life itself, is both inexhaustible and undestined. One can never say of life, or of wisdom, that it is ever closer to its realization or further from it. For it is a movement not of closure but of opening: an opening to experience, to becoming, to difference. Like a spring from its source, wisdom continually wells up from within the continuum of affective relations that animates the soul. To borrow another phrase from Erin Manning, wisdom is the “potential for a collectivity alive with difference.”[19] But this is not collectivity as it would be understood in the science of the major, as a plurality of discrete individuals. It is rather an ecology of relations, unfolding from the inside in a continual movement of interstitial differentiation. This unfolding is an evolution in the minor key. And wisdom, as its dynamic, is not cognitive but ecological.

TIM INGOLD is Professor and Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He has carried out fieldwork among Saami and Finnish people in Lapland, and written on environment, technology, and social organization in the circumpolar North, on animals in human society, and on human ecology and evolutionary theory. His recent work explores environmental perception and skilled practice. Ingold’s current interests lie on the interface between anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. His books include The Perception of the Environment (2000), Lines (2007), Being Alive (2011), Making (2013), and The Life of Lines (2015).


[1] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004), 398.
[2] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 465.
[3] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 465. All quotations from Whitehead in this paragraph are from the same page.
[4] Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Chance and Creativity in Evolution,” Studies in the Philosophy of Biology, edited by Francisco J. Ayala and Theodosius Dobzhansky (London: Macmilllan, 1974), 329.
[5] Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, translated by Arthur Mitchell (London: Macmillan, 1922).
[6] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929), 410.
[7] Tim Ingold, The Life of Lines (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), 23.
[8] Contemporary developmental biology is beginning to come round to this view. See, for example, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Developmental Plasticity and Evolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Sonia E. Sultan, Organism and Environment: Ecological Development, Niche Construction, and Adaptation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
[9] Bergson, Creative Evolution, 135.
[10] This comparison of the soul and the self draws much of its inspiration from Roy Wagner. See Roy Wagner, The Invention of Culture (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1975), 93–94.
[11] This contrast between western and other traditions should not be overdrawn. Aristotle—and following him, Thomas Aquinas—had no hesitation in attributing souls to animals, and even plants. The human soul was nevertheless always considered unique in its capacity for self-reflection.
[12] Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, translated by Janet Lloyd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 129.
[13] As Eduardo Kohn argues in his study of the Runa of the Ecuadorian Amazon, animism not just a way of making intellectual sense of a world “out there.” Rather, “it captures an animation that is emergent with life” (Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013], 94).
[14] Erin Manning, The Minor Gesture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 112.
[15] Tim Ingold, “A Naturalist Abroad in the Museum of Ontology: Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture,” Anthropological Forum 26.3 (2016): 311.
[16] Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics, translated by Jack Hawkes (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2000), 37.
[17] Gilbert Simondon, “The Genesis of the Individual,” in Incorporations, edited by Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Zone, 1993), 297–312.
[18] Tim Ingold, Anthropology and/as Education (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 42.
[19] Manning, The Minor Gesture, 6.



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