Wisdom in the Minor Key

12 A Response to Tim Ingold: Evolution in the Minor Key

Karen Kilby

Tim Ingold’s paper is rich, suggestive, challenging, and even lyrical. He has managed to traverse an enormous intellectual range, from Alfred North Whitehead to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, from interpreters of Charles Darwin to interpreters of animism to topology, while even, at one point, giving us something reminiscent of a hymn of praise to wisdom from the Hebrew Bible—the soul is “there in the very incipience of the world, in its moment-to-moment coming—into-being…[in a] flow [which] has neither beginning nor end, neither origin nor destination” (compare, for instance, Proverbs 8:22–31).[1] There is a kind of intellectual virtuosity to the paper and it tends to confirm the impression that social anthropologists can be the most intellectually adventurous of all academics.

I want to begin by venturing a simplified account of what I take to be the three basic steps of the paper. In each of these steps there is a contrast, and each of the contrasts exemplifies the overarching contrast with which the paper begins, namely, the contrast between two ways of doing science, the major and the minor.

The first step is to adopt the perspective of Whitehead and Henri Bergson about life and its development. Over against more familiar and mechanistic views of evolution, this is an attempt to think about the development of life from within, not to see it as the gradual making-complex of what are, at an ontologically ultimate level, simple parts, but instead as something else, specifically, movement and flow. Ingold enriches this material, drawn from Whitehead and Bergson, with his own topological images of folding and unfolding. Both the image of the stream with its eddies and the image of the paper or cloth with its fold and wrinkles help us, imaginatively, to escape the presumed self-evident proposition that the way things evolve is from simple to complex, thereby escaping in turn the idea that, at its heart, reality is derived from lots of separate individual bits combined through processes of chance and selection.

The second step is to propose a parallel: if we understand life in these terms of flow and vortices within a flowing stream, we can also understand the soul­—or maybe just soul—as a vortex in the flow of awareness. Soul is contrasted with self, but an important element in this part of the argument is to bring out the inadequacy of imagining the soul as in the body, in the sense of being contained, bound, or locked up. If we have learned from animists that it is possible to think of interiority and soul in relation to more than human beings, we must not make the mistake of thinking of this interiority as a matter of “being contained within.”[2]

The third step is to expound on what such a conception of soul means for wisdom itself. Wisdom, Ingold proposes, is the transformative potential of soul, the world’s never-ceasing transformation of itself. The contrast here is between the wisdom of the soul and knowledge of the self, which is indicated in a whole series of sub-contrasts—intention/attention, self-protection/defenselessness, the world as object versus the world as milieu, and so on.

The first question I’d like to ask is about the overarching major/minor contrast. It would be easy to misread or mishear this as a contrast between good and bad: it would be easy to fall into the supposition that Ingold is proposing that the major is bad and the minor is good, that we should jettison the major in favor of the minor, the self in favor of the soul, knowledge in favor of wisdom. In fact, however, on a more careful reading, this is not what is being proposed, but rather that the major without the minor is inadequate. Ingold does not advocate a rejection of science in the major key, but recognizes its inadequacy when considered on its own and acknowledges the need for its shadow.

Nevertheless, we are left with a puzzle. Presumably one of the things that an advocacy for the minor, for the significance of soul and wisdom and so on, entails is a rejection of dualism. Presumably a dualistic, oppositional, this-or-that, a-against-b thinking is part of the mechanistic mindset of the major key, not part of a kind of thinking which focuses on flow and relationship as the ultimate base. Yet the whole pattern of Ingold’s argument, while not an out-and-out rejection of the major, is nevertheless strikingly oppositional—wisdom is defined in apparently absolute contrast with knowledge, just as is soul with self. There is, on the one hand, the self building up knowledge, brick by brick, in a sort of defensive stance towards an outside world which it treats as object; and, on the other hand, the soul’s vulnerable, non-defensive wisdom in inhabiting the world as its milieu. Might there then be a performative contradiction in Ingold’s argument, or at least some indication of an as-yet-incomplete intellectual project? The very moves Ingold makes to go beyond the too-limited thinking of the major, do these very moves exhibit, quite strikingly, the thought-patterns of the major?

A second question focuses more particularly on wisdom. Normally when we talk about wisdom, we also have in mind the possibility of its absence, of foolishness, naiveté, or stupidity. Some people, we would say in day-to-day language, are wise, and some are not; some decisions are wise and some are not. What, if anything, given this account of wisdom as “the world’s never ceasing transformation of itself,” would count as not wise?[3] Is there anything that is not “the world’s never ceasing transformation of itself?”

My questions so far have arisen from an attempt to follow the inner logic of Ingold’s argument, but what of the encounter between disciplines? How ought a theologian specifically respond to this argument? My own reaction, as a theologian, is to find it strangely familiar, in spite of all its obvious differences from what I usually read. In its breadth and ambition, in its attempts to reshape our ways of thinking at a deep level, in the difficulty of testing it, Ingold’s approach seems to me, if not actually a theology (because God is not mentioned) a kind of quasi-theology, the articulation of an over-arching vision not too different from what religions offer.

Does this mean, then, that a Christian theologian should feel sufficiently competent to go into professional mode, delivering an instant analysis and assessment, possibly critique, of the views presented in the paper? It depends on one’s understanding of the nature of interreligious dialogue, I think. In my own view, whatever the right response to the presentation of an overarching vision that differs significantly from one’s own may be, the one thing that cannot be right is a straight leap to judgment and evaluation. My only leap, then, will be to a final question: how, on the account offered in this paper, might we understand the relationship between doing science in the minor key and religious speculation?

KAREN KILBY is the Bede Professor of Catholic Theology at the Centre for Catholic Studies in the University of Durham. She is a systematic theologian who has worked on questions related to the Trinity, evil and mystery, and published books Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar. She has served as the President of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain and of the Society for the Study of Theology and was one of the editors of the Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology. She studied Mathematics and Theology at Yale and Cambridge, and did her PhD at Yale University, where she was a student of Kathryn Tanner and George Lindbeck.


[1] Tim Ingold, “Evolution in the Minor Key,” in Evolution of Wisdom: Major and Minor Keys, Agustín Fuentes and Celia Deane-Drummond (Notre Dame, IN: Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing/Pressbooks, 2018). In the New Revised Standard Version translation, Proverbs 8:22–31 reads: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
[2] Ingold, “Evolution in the Minor Key.”
[3] Ibid.


  • Ingold, Tim. “Evolution in the Minor Key.” In Evolution of Wisdom: Major and Minor Keys, Agustín Fuentes and Celia Deane-Drummond. Notre Dame, IN: Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing/Pressbooks, 2018.

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