Skip to main content

30% Off New Releases: Explore the List

Harvard University Press - home
The Institutions of Meaning

The Institutions of Meaning

A Defense of Anthropological Holism

Vincent Descombes

Translated by Stephen Adam Schwartz

ISBN 9780674728783

Publication date: 03/11/2014

Request exam copy

Holism grows out of the philosophical position that an object or phenomenon is more than the sum of its parts. And yet analysis--a mental process crucial to human comprehension--involves breaking something down into its components, dismantling the whole in order to grasp it piecemeal and relationally. Wading through such quandaries with grace and precision, The Institutions of Meaning guides readers to a deepened appreciation of the entity that ultimately enables human understanding: the mind itself.

This major work from one of France's most innovative philosophers goes against the grain of analytic philosophy in arguing for the view known as anthropological holism. Meaning is not fundamentally a property of mental representations, Vincent Descombes says. Rather, it arises out of thought that is holistic, embedded in social existence, and bound up with the common practices that shape the way we act and talk.

To understand what an individual "believes" or "wants"--to apply psychological words to a person--we must take into account the full historical and institutional context of a person's life. But how can two people share the same thought if they do not share the same system of belief? Descombes solves this problem by developing a logic of relations that explains the ability of humans to analyze structures based on their parts. Integrating insights from anthropology, linguistics, and social theory, The Institutions of Meaning pushes philosophy forward in bold new directions.


  • Vincent Descombes is one of the most exciting philosophers writing in France today. Readers of The Institutions of Meaning in the Anglo-American world will discover some familiar ideas (holism, social practice theory of meaning), but developed in an original way and associated with modes of thought (anthropology, sociology) not usually encountered in this context. This book is sure to interest both philosophers working in the area of language and mind and people working in the area of social theory.

    —Charles Larmore, Brown University


  • Vincent Descombes is Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.
  • Stephen Adam Schwartz is a Senior Lecturer in French at University College Dublin.

Book Details

  • 392 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

From this author