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Tag: Anthropology

How forests think?

TSElosophers meeting 12.3.2021. Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Maija-Riitta Ollila, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl.

Kohn, Eduardo (2013) How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. University of California Press, Berkeley.


In How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn explores the question of how to create an analytical framework for anthropology that can include both humans and nonhumans. Kohn’s investigation is based in his long-term fieldwork in Ávila, a village of Quichua-speaking Runa people in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon. Kohn brings his readings of the semiotic theories of pragmatist philosopher Charles Peirce, the application of Peirce’s work to biology by Terrence Deacon, and a number of other theoretical reference points into conversation with his observations from Ávila. A central contention of the book is that “seeing, representing, and perhaps knowing, even thinking, are not exclusively human affairs” (Kohn 2013, 16). The TSElosophers read the book’s Introduction and first chapter, “The Open Whole”, which examine what it would mean for anthropology to take this claim seriously. This section also opens a number of questions about what doing so might tell us about how to live as humans in a world inhabited by many other kinds of living beings.   

Our Discussion

Kohn problematizes a conventional view of anthropology, arguing for the development of an “anthropology beyond the human” based on the assumption that there is more continuity between anthropos and other forms of life that has been recognized in the past. Kohn argues that by focusing exclusively on the processes of meaning-making that are unique to human language, the human sciences have so far overlooked the many ways in which all life is produced through the creation and use of signs (i.e. semiosis). “Provincializing” linguistic representation based on the type of signs that are used by humans alone would treat language as a very special human case of what Kohn holds to be a vastly more widespread phenomenon. Thus, this book invites us to entertain the possibility that other living beings, through their own ways of making sense of and representing their surroundings and relations, also think. This suggests we need to pay attention to the specific ways in which even, for instance, forests think alongside us, but not exactly like us.

Recurring questions surrounded Kohn’s elaboration of an extensive and idiosyncratic theoretical framework, which often felt cumbersome. Was all of it really necessary, and if so, where did this perceived need come from? Is it primarily relevant to a readership that is not familiar with ongoing paradigmatic debates within anthropology? The extended treatment of Pierce’s semiotics and conception of realism was helpful to those of us who were completely unfamiliar with his work, but Kohn’s strategy of interweaving it with his ethnographic material was not always successful, leaving many key points ambiguous. However, to be fair, since we read only a portion of the text, it is possible that the ideas opened up in these early sections are dealt with more fully in the remainder of the book.

Kohn periodically critiques other approaches he situates within the Posthumanities, particularly the work of Bruno Latour and Jane Bennett. He particularly charges that Latour mistakenly brings the human and nonhuman together using an “analytic of mixture” that elides meaningful differences between language and things (Kohn 2013, 56). Unfortunately, this line of argumentation is not further developed, remaining too vague to consider more thoroughly. What we can be confident in that Kohn aligns himself with some of the aims, but not the means of these other thinkers, while making the case that his own perspective is a viable alternative.

Our discussion pulled on the numerous loose threads left dangling in a tantalizing way from Kohn’s text. How does the concept of consciousness fit into his framework? Is self-awareness just a rare and exceptional aspect of becoming a self? Is Kohn completely rejecting the agency of inanimate matter even as he tries to more firmly ground it for living things? Should thinking be stretched beyond cognition in this way, or would another verb have avoided unnecessary confusion? Those TSElosophers hungry for answers will look to what insights the next chapters of How Forests Think hold. 

Overall, the TSElosphers found this book to be difficult but intriguing reading. Those of us who were enthusiastic about it focused on its potential to inform efforts to rethink human environmental ethics in the Anthropocene. However, we also questioned whether the particular approach Kohn takes creates the most fertile ground for new ideas in this area. In particular, the question was raised whether the book’s worry is only a worry about an allegedly too narrow window of analysis of anthropology – it is already well-known in many other fields of science, not least biology, that all living creatures communicate with their environment, yet not with human language. A strength of this work, however, is the way it got us talking about the possibility of seeing our human relations to the wider world in a new and surprising way.

Imagining realities beyond progress

TSElosophers meeting 7.6.2019. Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Milla Wirén, Otto Rosendahl

Tsing, A. (2012). The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Chapter 1: Arts of Noticing (s. 17-26).


The book tells an atypical story about commercial mushroom trade. Typically, economically-oriented stories focus on the modernity’s requirement of progress. Modernity perceives everything as resources for economic growth and humans as “different from the rest of the world, because we look forward (p. 21)”. Consequently, the ones unable to compete economically and secure their future tend to be categorized as less valuable. For example, the boom of Oregon lumber trade in early 20th Century was followed by the closures and relocations of lumber mills in late 20th Century. The progress that reached Oregon’s forests eventually moved to more efficient sites.

However, the author emphasizes that this was not the end of commercial activities in Oregon forests. The forests re-grew and became home to commercial mushroom picking, which connected to the strong East Asian demand for matsutake mushrooms. Commercial mushroom picking demonstrates supply chain practices of collaborative survival. It is a trade practiced mainly by “drop-outs”, but the tales of collaborative survival are not exceptional. For example, the author posits that similar supply chains developed in Greece after the recent financial crisis. Also, the intensifying environmental crisis is likely lead to more supply chains that rely on collaborative survival.

The reader is invited to feed their imagination by describing the hidden realities beyond progress. The stories of “drop-outs” are generally told only in relation to progress, e.g. the lay-outs in Oregon lumber mills were widely publicized. However, there is a stark difference in the supply chain structures between stable communities of healthy wage workers and open-ended gatherings of vulnerable foragers, including war veterans, refugees and undocumented immigrants.

The phenomena of collaborative survival is approached with an assemblage approach. Assemblage refers to an open-ended gathering that circumvents “sometimes fixed and bounded connotations of ecological ‘community’ (p.22).” The author emphasizes that her idea of assemblage is polyphonic, which refers to pre-harmonic music building on the intertwinement of the independent melody lines: each melody has stand-alone beauty. (In contrast, in post-polyphonic music the sounding whole has inherent hierarchies: there is the primary melody line, supported by the harmonic elements.) Hence, polyphonic assemblages revolve around circular and seasonal rhythms created by multiple actors that represent multiple species. Although polyphonic assemblages do not assume linearity of time or teleology of progress, improvement happens when emergent qualities transform gatherings into happenings with long-term impact.

Our discussion

Inspired by the article, TSElosophers discussed about overcoming some excesses of modernism. Firstly, we want to clarify that modern mindset is hardly the worst option as modern capitalism has supplanted totalitarian and unfair societal orders. However, this issue is complex since modern capitalism can also become combined with totalitarianism. Secondly, modernity’s requirement on progress promotes action based on external goals – e.g. career, money, appearances – rather than the intrinsic good in the activity, such as serving a greater ethical purpose. However, we see possibilities for learning intrinsically purposeful collaboration even in modern society. For example, people mastering horseback riding find out the inadequacy of giving the correct signals on the right direction and speed. Instead, one needs to create a connection with the other; to become aware of the horse’s mood and its needs.

Finally, the modernity’s demand for growth remains unsustainable. Increasing consumption neutralizes the effect of efficiency-increasing technological innovations. Also, the ignorance of other ways of living cause trouble for tribal cultures. For example, Ecuador’s government recently decided to drill oil in the ancient lands of the Waorani tribe (a decision later foiled by a court ruling). Instead of myopic approach on economic growth, we could emphasize ethical, spiritual, social, environmental or other forms of growth. Tribal cultures that are governed relatively fairly and sustainably, and the supply chains with collaborative survival, can inspire us in the pursuit for more holistic forms of growth.

Radical critique of our modernist way of life inspired by animism

TSElosophers meeting 5.12.2018. Jonathan Mumford, Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Otto Rosendahl

Beyond Nature and Culture (preface, chapters 6 and 8), Philippe Descola 2013

Professor Philippe Descola, an anthropologist, motivates his book “Beyond Nature and Culture” (2013) with no less than saving the scientific field of anthropology. He is worried that of among the “modes of identification” – referring to the ways we essentially conceptualize ourselves – what he calls “naturalism” dominates the scene, both unnecessarily and with some highly problematic consequences. Drawing on anthropological findings and his own reasoning, he suggests a two-by-two matrix with four modes of identification. The dimensions of the matrix deal with whether living things (plants, animals and humans) practice continuity or discontinuity regarding their spiritual or physical self.

Physical continuity refers to thinking where the various forms of living things are physically connected by their evolution, exemplified by Darwinism. Discontinuity in this regard can be exemplified by creationism, typical of Christian religion. Spiritual continuity again refers to thinking according to which the various forms of living things are spiritually connected – while they look physically different, they all represent some common spirit of life. Discontinuity in this regard means thinking where different forms of living have a hierarchy. This can be exemplified by the nowadays typical take in the Western societies where us humans are staged as the ‘kings and rulers’ of the universe: As they are viewed (by us humans!) as mentally much more developed than other living creatures (animals and plants), we kind of self-evidently should gain this special position.

From Descola’s book, TSElosophers focused on reading and discussing just two cells of the matrix: Naturalism (physical continuity combined with spiritual discontinuity) and animism (spiritual continuity combined with physical discontinuity). Descola argues that only one mode of identification, naturalism, is needed to understand the majority of practices in our modernist Western-based societies. Physical continuity is strongly manifested in our wide-spread acknowledgement that humans have developed from other species through evolution. On the other hand, the same modernism also encourages us to perceive all other living things (animals and plants) as separated and (at least implicitly) inferior to us – consider the wide acceptance and consumption of industrialized meat products.

Animism that has been encountered in many anthropological studies among indigenous cultures is a logical counterpoint of naturalism as it combines spiritual continuity with physical discontinuity. In animist thought, just like humans, also animals and plants form communities. For example, animistic cultures have beliefs about peccaries making beer from maize and “jaguars [that] take their prey home for their wives to cook” (Descola 2013, 132). Also, the boundaries between human, animal and plant communities are limited by different physical constitutions, e.g. peccaries form human communities with other peccaries and jaguars form human communities with other jaguars. While animals, plants and humans are spiritually connected, only in special circumstances, such as dreams, they can visit their different physical domains. As for humans, for instance, only shamans have the capability to transcend the physical boundary and visit animal and plant communities.

Naturalism and animism produce different answers of the importance of humans. Naturalism emphasizes the superior intelligence and self-reflective capabilities of humans, which also imply a demand for a greater sense of responsibility from them – most often towards other human individuals. Pragmatic approaches to extend ethics beyond humanism focus on expanding the category of humans towards human-like beneficiaries. The reference point for ethics is hence always the humans. For Example, Peter Singer’s extensionist ethics considers all creatures that feel pleasure and pain as inherently valuable, while others can be treated just as objects of our observation or consumption. Any form of ethics in naturalism-dominated cultures is limited by the need to draw a boundary that spiritually severs a human individual from the majority of existence. In contrast, according to animism, all different physical forms of living are to be dealt in essentially equal terms, due to the spiritual union of all living things. Therefore, animism imbues, for instance, to humans with a desire to create intricate relations with a wide-range of communities: humans, animals and plants.

Descola’s analysis is intended to shake the dominance of naturalism in our culture. It makes us profoundly understand how the Western modernist practice of life, staging humans into the ‘superior position’, has led us to see the rest of the world as just objects serving our desires – essentially just potential resources for our production and consumption. Having read Descola, we became increasingly worried by the strongly expansionist drive in naturalism. Our key concern with naturalism is the deeply institutionalized and therefore taken-for-granted competition and consumption of resources, where the expansionist drive is out-reaching our planetary limits. For us, the key ideas of animism, where all living things should be treated with appreciation, all being our ‘brothers and sisters or cousins’ in their spirit offers a fundamentally different and at least thought-provoking approach to our practices of living. Such way of thought would immediately question the ethical grounding of our expansionist way of life, being based on the belief of ever-increasing growth of production and consumption, which is effectively just using the other living things as we please as resources at our disposal. Spiritual continuity in animism perceives its kin as successfully expanded into the world without any requirement of competition, conquest or status.

Where animism is prepared to see the beneficiary in everyone, naturalism is geared towards seeing a resource in everyone. In our culture, aren’t we too often tempted to sanctify our consumption and politics with the belief that the economic expansion and technological advances will eventually lead to the salvation – or at the very least prevent its fall into damnation? Many of us live in this uncertainty-limiting vision, which may however soon prove to be only utopia. Change in our fundamental, paradigmatic thinking models, is never easy. Descola, however, notes that some eco-centric ethical theories already include holistic, i.e. not artificially bounded, well-being/viability considerations. Theoretically we may contend that human societies can form commitments to eco-centric ethics, which animistic (and totemistic) societies have demonstrated for us. The implication is that despite our genetic heritage, our societal values are not hard-coded to naturalism and may be over-ridden by the efforts of skilled, determined and patient programmers (yet with a risk of for better or for worse). However, the awareness of and interest in eco-centric ethical frameworks remain so far quite marginal. We would like to suggest that wise re-institutions of practices that are aligned with spiritual continuity could eventually lead to more mainstream commitment to the formation of eco-centrical ethical dispositions. An example of these marginal practices within the modern culture may be seen from our earlier blog post (ethical ascetic practices; Munro 2014)

On a final note, we are not sure why Descola motivated his research with the aim of saving anthropology. Descola referred to a wide range of anthropological research, which indicates that there are not any serious crises in their credibility. Possibly Descola’s theoretical efforts are pre-emptive: They certainly help to align anthropology better with post-humanistic philosophies. In summary, we believe that anthropological insights have potential to inspire us and develop our imagination in the development and adoption of practices regarding our society’s most pressing misgivings, such as our on-going contradiction between ecology and expansion.

When paying ones’ debt is wrong

TSElosophers meeting 13.11. 2018. Ekaterina Panina, Joonas Uotinen,  Kari Lukka, Milla Wiren, Otto Rosendahl

Debt – The First 5000 Years (chapter 2), David Graeber 2011


The central theme of the book (chapter) we read this time relates to the two stories about how money came about. The more prevalent story tells us that first there was barter, then money and finally debt, whereas Graeber insists that the reverse order is historically more accurate. This led to the following themes discussed at length and depth in the meeting:

  • What is the key point the author wishes to make with the book? We deduced that his main statement is that paying ones’ debt is not always the most moral choice, as there can be circumstances where this commonsensical notion actually causes more harm than good.
  • How can the boundaries between when it is, and when it isn’t “right” to pay debts be drawn?
  • The benefits of debt: debt as an investment implies a faith in a better future.
  • The necessity of this faith in the future – do we need the sentiment of going forward, towards “more”, or is this linear notion of time one root cause of the environmental problems we are facing (considering the finite nature of our planet)?


In the book, concerned about the power of debt to cause inhuman, immoral consequences to debtors (including examples of daughters being sent to prostitution, or people dying in thousands in developing countries as IMF and other creditors have demanded their debts to be repaid) Graeber asks whether it really is so that debts always need to be paid back?

To this end, he trails the historical development of credit. In chapter 2, he reviews the history of money and debt told today in economics’ textbooks. This story goes that first there was barter; then currency or money was developed to ease the economic exchange of stuff; and, later on, credit developed. By juxtaposing the story with anthropological evidence, he concludes that the now common narrative in economics is wrong. Actually, the opposite is true: the order would actually be that credit developed first, and from it, money. Barter in turn has never been a wider-scale social practice.

He claims that only by introduction of money and interest rates did credit become decoupled from considerations of the needs and situations of all involved: what started out as a simple trust-based I-owe-you that helped people to rely on each other in circumstances where someone had a surplus at anothers’ time of need and vice versa, became an industry in itself. The focus shifted to numbers that do not heed the real life circumstances: when trust between the debtor and debtee was removed and interest rates introduced, debt took on a life of its own. He argues that our confusion of debt as a moral duty is just that – a confusion, and that not all debts need necessarily to be paid back.

On the way, he also argues that it was the economics’ story of development of money, and credit that allowed markets and monetary credit to be artificially disentangled from other social institutions and phenomena. This is because the story makes the development of currency and ensuing monetary credit seem like natural, good solutions to practical problems involved in barter, that all of humanity would have done earlier. This would have entailed the understanding that these institutions are natural, somehow, they need to be maintained by police force and law, and that they can be detached from considerations of other aspects of life and morality. This would, in turn, make these institutions further inhumane supporting the idea that debts need to be paid back unconditionally.

The chapter and the book elicited discussion on several tangential topics. We discussed that credit seems to have positive aspects to it. We considered that Graeber did not give a balanced handling to the issue of debt. He concentrated on the immorality in debt relationships,  although monetary debt may also lead to beneficial outcomes. For example, it (1) enables transition of wealth from where it is in excess to where it is scarce; and (2) it enables people to initiate projects that would otherwise be beyond their reach financially. However, Thomas Piketty’s finding in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014) that returns on capital grow faster than returns on labor seems to pose the question that is the function (1) illusionary?

We hypothesized that the transition from a cyclic experience of time to a linear time likely relates to the appearance of monetized, interest-growing credit. There was controversy over what came first: the need to enhance future or monetized, interest-growing credit. It might also be that before monetized credit people got from neighbors what they needed as a kind of a gift and when their neighbors were in need they would reciprocally give what the neighbors needed – and only with the appearance of monetized credit would also the idea of enhancing future, and of linear, progressive time, appear. However, never mind the order, the notions of linear time and the “better” tomorrow seem to be linked.

Graeber’s book inspired us to discuss the relation between markets and well-being. From the anthropological evidence and discussion on alternative distribution and production mechanisms, arose the topic of what are the limits of markets to yield well-being. As Graeber observes, more intimate, familial, “warm” relationships between people do involve exchange of services and goods; but not through money.
Indeed, an effort to “balance the accounts” in such a case so that no
“imbalance” anymore exists between “credits” and “debits” be they monetary or not, seems to be a violation of such a relationship, a sign of a will to terminate such a relationship. He gives an example of a father who asked his son to pay back all the costs associated with the son’s upbringing resulting in the son, after paying the debt back, never to contact the father again. Anthropologically, barter, where one seeks to maximize one’s own benefit without regard to the other, seems to only happen between people who are neutral, possibly hostile towards each other. It, then, seems that salable commodities can never replace such relationships and introduction of money to such exchange violates and destroys such relationships that likely are crucial for human well-being. This notion sheds a different light to for example
contemporary attempts to commodify well-being into salable services: by replacing social relationships with money, also the main component of value in such services, namely the exact social relationships, disappear.

We also discussed ecological sustainability and its relation to interest-growing credit. Is endless growth necessary? Why, when we
see that the human impact on some of the boundaries of our planet are already threatening our existence? But if we lose the faith in the always better tomorrow in aligning collective action to pursue that better tomorrow, how can we replace that as an enabler of collective action? We need to find alternative coordination mechanisms for our societies.

All in all, while the book appeared somewhat confusing and possibly one-sided, it seems to raise worthy issues. After all, as the other side of the debate is amply occupied, this voice of dissent is welcome. We
liked how Graeber exposed the often hidden assumption by which our institutions of private ownership, markets, and interest-growing credit would be the natural consequence of human development towards better, and questions that assumption: there are many other ways of organizing societies and the merits of each may need reassessment. Also, we enjoyed the questioning of the moral supremacy of paying
ones’ debt as it indeed seems that there are cases when paying back the debt is not the “right” thing to do, no matter how counter-intuitive that for a contemporary member of the current socio-economic system may seem.

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