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Tag: Pragmatism

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.

Pragmatism, once more

TSElosophers meeting 20.9. Kari Lukka, Jonathan Van Mumford, Ekaterina Panina, Otto Rosendahl, Joonas Uotinen, Milla Wirén

In his book “Pragmatism and Organization Studies”, Philippe Lorino (2018) introduces Peircean pragmatism as a position against mainstream representationalism in organizational studies. Representationalism assumes the semiotics of signifier/signified as a dyad, which leads to representation/reality dichotomy. In contrast, Peirce’s semiotics introduces situational perspectives as “interpretants” that dilute the accuracy of any signifiers to “a representamen” (a specimen among others). To put it differently, pragmatism relegates representations to a situational resource among other resources, whereas representationalism claims that “representation determines action; it is the source of action” (Lorino 2018, 33). Lorino credibly uses the early pragmatist concepts to challenge representationalism. However, many other process philosophies have already highlighted challenges to representationalism – also based on other streams of the philosophy of science – in mainstream organizational studies. For example, pragmatism can be viewed generally as aligned with the practice turn in social ontology (Friedrichs & Kratochwil 2009, 713) and the developments in process philosophy (Rescher 1996) are already somewhat reflected in organizational studies, e.g. in strategy-as-a-practice (Vaara and Whittington 2012). One of the issues discussed in this context was the flattening of history by Lorino – as he was at the same time drawing from the “old” pragmatists and the subsequent developments seeded by them, some of the insights that may have been revolutionary (and expressed as such by Lorino) do not seem quite as foreign to the contemporary reader familiar with the subsequent developments as Lorino emphasizes.

Lorino’s (2018) book sparked a lively discussion whether correspondence theory of truth is relevant or irrelevant for pragmatism. Pragmatists emphasize consensus theory on knowledge, but it seems that correspondence theory within the framework of consensus is not necessarily excluded. For Peirce, the main force that creates order and stability in the universal process comes from relational ‘attraction’ (Ormerod 2006), which is difficult to define narrowly. For example, a strong consensus of knowledge is achieved by the imminent destruction of the Earth by an asteroid in Trier’s film Melancholia (see Ch1, Zizek 2014). In Melancholia, the everyday attraction towards vitality changed to the overbearing attraction to heavenly bodies and horror. The consensus became formed without any credible claims to socially constructing of some other kind of reality; there was a strong convergence towards a singular understanding of reality in the context shown us by Trier – and the convergence of views in such a situation may well be in line with representatiolist correspondence.

We also discussed the Peircean “thirdness” in regards to the correspondence theory of the truth. The significant semiotic contribution of Peirce was to highlight the third element relevant in a concept: whereas de Saussure broke the concept into two components of the signifier (the word tree) and the signified (the thing growing from the ground, referred to with the word), Peirce introduced the importance of the interpretant (the one doing the referring to the tree, nuanced by the understanding of the tree by the utterer). In our discussions we pondered that in pragmatism, the correspondence does not necessarily flow in between the signified and the signifier, but is instead located in between the interpretant and the signified – for the one interpreting the growing thing as something that can be referred to as a tree, the uttering corresponds with the contextually created notion of truth. The example found in Lorino’s text about a group of piqueniquers highlights this: in viewing a flat stone it is referred to as a table. In the context of having outdoors lunch the interpretation of stone as a table is true, even though without the context a flat stone does not correspond with the general meaning of the word table.

Regarding scholarly research, Peircean pragmatists are bound to recognize the attraction of correspondence theory. In particular, it has (arguably to remarkable extent) produced beneficial results in (natural) sciences. Lorino (2018, 264) sums up the union of Peircean pragmatism with correspondence as follows: “Science would rather appear as an attempt to formulate beliefs […] in the effectiveness of action – for example, does the management of nuclear safety really avoid major accidents (and this “really” means something here)?” As pragmatists see the employment of the correspondence of theory of truth having less application options than realists, pragmatists focus on the development of useful beliefs instead of bare facts. Although this formulation seems to gnaw the foundation of a scientific worldview, it could be also understood positively: pragmatism potentially extends the scope of science. The scientific foundation of facts as ‘well-justified true beliefs’ are not completely taken away, but rather they are complemented with the consideration that facts are produced in a range of different situations and perspectives. Fact claims are also employed in relatively sinister occurrences, e.g. for manipulation and for adopting superiority.

In sum, “humans do not have doors and windows open to the world: they are in the world; they even are the world (Lorino 2018, 40).” We discussed along the lines of this pragmatist proclamation, especially concerning the human capabilities for connecting with their world. Anthropological studies from non-western cultures illustrate that humans have great potential for a thorough connectedness (Descola 2013). Unfortunately, the connectedness in western culture is often visible only in material terms (Descola 2013): We generally believe that humans have become a relatively advanced instantiation of animal evolution. Spiritual connectedness, however, would mean further avoidance to dichotomize man and nature. Regrettably the attraction towards one dichotomy allies itself often with others, e.g. reality/representation, human/natural and beneficiary/resource and representations on reality are typically used to exploit natural resources for human beneficiaries. These dichotomies come with implicit justifications of human beneficiaries’ superiority. With these dichotomies, it becomes practical and natural to neglect non-human beneficiaries, as well as those humans considered merely as “resources”. TSElosophers support scientific practices that emphasize developing everyone’s sensitivity and respect for their world in a holistic sense. Pragmatism offers one potential starting point in this regard, but also it would need widening of scope to be more helpful in the development of beliefs that would genuinely take into consideration the huge social and ecological challenges of our time and the near future.

Strawmen of “mainstream” and pragmatism

TSElosophers meeting 8.3.2017
Milla Wirén, Kari Lukka, Otto Rosendahl, Jonathan Van Mumford, Henning Christner

On Acting and Knowing: How Pragmatism Can Advance International Relations Researchand Methodology, International Organization 2009
Jörg Friedrichs and Friedrich Kratochwil

Quick summary:

The article criticizes the mainstream social science methodologies that subscribe to the ontological realism and the correspondence theory of the truth. It proposes adopting the philosophical underpinnings of pragmatism to fulfill the purpose of social science: to enable orientation in the social realm(s). The following key themes were discussed:

  • In its purpose to induce change in the prevalent “positivism” dominated methodologies, the authors succumb to reducing the “mainstream” into a strawman, ultimately ignoring the rich streams of other alternative approaches
  • Is the role and importance of theory mainly instrumental? Can theory be evaluated only through the practical insights that it provides, or is there any inherent value in the theoretical (episteme, scientific) knowledge building?
  • In defining the “wrong” and “right” methodological approaches, don’t the writers actually suggest a level of realism they argue against?

Longer outline of discussion:

The article is well written and makes its points eloquently, with skillful use of examples. However, the version of pragmatism promoted raised some eyebrows in our discussion. We interpreted the methodological suggestions as based on instrumentalism: the purpose of social science is to have a purpose of solving an issue (“enabling orientation in the social world”), which makes this approach a soulmate of the Flyvbjergian (2001) approach. As our group consists of individuals who value theoretical knowledge (the episteme) as the main aim of science and its key resource in conducting, for instance, social science that matters, this approach was not easily swallowed.

We agree on the notion of social ontology: the reality we perceive is constructed through our perceptions, to an extent even in the natural sciences, but monumentally more so when we’re dealing with the “intersubjective meanings and value relations” constituting the social realm. However, unlike Friedrichs and Kratochwil propose, we find the epistemological approach of grounding our knowledge in consensus (either internally in a given group or externally enlarged) questionable: any theory, by its very nature, requires at least some correspondence to whatever is in the context considered more true than something else – while fully acknowledging that any such correspondence can be shown to be faulty by subsequent theorizing. While we seem to slightly disagree about the existence of objective truth(s), to be a theory, the string of concepts needs to assert a certain level of existingness – otherwise there simply are no theories, just idiosyncratic concepts and perceptions instrumentally molded to suit a purpose.

To our reading the authors render both the “mainstream” research and the pragmatist alternative(s) into strawmen: the first adhering to naïve realism and the second to following the “anything goes as long as it (by consensual agreement) fills a purpose” interpretation. However our notion of pragmatism is different: fundamentally it shies away from taking a firm stand on the ontological nature of reality, but merely suggests that only within the realm of intersubjective, in interaction with surrounding elements, is the understanding of the object in question formulated. Put simply, the object may or may not be objectively something, but the way we intersubjectively make sense of it is what we ground our actions on. The strength of pragmatism lies not in the answers it provides to the ontological questions, but in the epistemological avenues it offers to “knowing” about the object via following the actions that result from that “knowing”.

The eloquent simplicity of the article is both its merit and downfall. It succeeds in acting how it preaches, namely existing because of a purpose, and the tone of the article well suits the aims. However in its parsimonious rendering of both the “mainstream” and pragmatism, it succumbs to logical inconsistencies and – in our minds – the grave sin of unappreciation of episteme. Had they followed the logical outcome of the socially constructed ontology they tout, they wouldn’t have been able to take such a strong stand towards how science should and should not be carried out.

It seems that we have a recurring theme in our readings about the “raison d’être” of science – a pertinent theme as most of us come from highly practitioner oriented disciplines. Is science ultimately glorified problem solving or is there a more “immortal and divine” quality to it?



I would like to question: is the knowledge (the episteme) the main aim of science? Instead, I very much subscribe to the Aristotelian idea that practical wisdom (the phronesis) is the primary virtue – in science and for the scientists. However, contrasting with Flyvberg (2001), I would define practical wisdom differently. Practical wisdom is not only practical relevance. Instead, it is the primary virtue which includes all other virtues (also the production of new knowledge) in a balanced manner (i.e. unity of virtues). What I’m trying to say here is that the main aim of science might as well be to constitute virtuous scientists – and the rest will follow.

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