How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

by Eduardo Kohn

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Can forests think? Do dogs dream?
In this astonishing book, Eduardo Kohn challenges the very foundations of anthropology, calling into question our central assumptions about what it means to be human—and thus distinct from all other life forms. Based on four years of fieldwork among the Runa of Ecuador’s Upper Amazon, Eduardo Kohn draws on his rich


Can forests think? Do dogs dream?
In this astonishing book, Eduardo Kohn challenges the very foundations of anthropology, calling into question our central assumptions about what it means to be human—and thus distinct from all other life forms. Based on four years of fieldwork among the Runa of Ecuador’s Upper Amazon, Eduardo Kohn draws on his rich ethnography to explore how Amazonians interact with the many creatures that inhabit one of the world’s most complex ecosystems. Whether or not we recognize it, our anthropological tools hinge on those capacities that make us distinctly human. However, when we turn our ethnographic attention to how we relate to other kinds of beings, these tools (which have the effect of divorcing us from the rest of the world) break down. How Forests Think seizes on this breakdown as an opportunity. Avoiding reductionistic solutions, and without losing sight of how our lives and those of others are caught up in the moral webs we humans spin, this book skillfully fashions new kinds of conceptual tools from the strange and unexpected properties of the living world itself.
In this groundbreaking work, Kohn takes anthropology in a new and exciting direction–one that offers a more capacious way to think about the world we share with other kinds of beings.

Editorial Reviews

The Times Literary Supplement
"What’s so welcome about Kohn’s approach is that he walks a tightrope with perfect balance: never losing sight of the unique aspects of being human, while refusing to force those aspects into separating us from the rest of the abundantly thinking world."
"How Forests Think” is an important book that provides a viable way for people educated in Western philosophy to approach indigenous animism without being credulous or inauthentic. It is refreshing to read a book of this intellectual caliber that takes Runa stories seriously and enters into dialogue with their claims using the tools of Western philosophy."

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How Forests Think

Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

By Eduardo Kohn


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95686-5


The Open Whole

By a feeling I mean an instance of that sort of element of consciousness which is all that it is positively, in itself, regardless of anything else.... [A] feeling is absolutely simple and without parts—as it evidently is, since it is whatever it is regardless of anything else, and therefore regardless of any part, which would be something other than the whole.

—Charles Peirce, The Collected Papers 1.306–10

One evening while the grown-ups gathered around the hearth drinking manioc beer, Maxi, settling back to a quieter corner of the house, began to tell his teenage neighbor Luis and me about some of his recent adventures and mishaps. Fifteen or so and just beginning to hunt on his own, he told us of the day he stood out in the forest for what seemed an eternity, waiting for something to happen, and how, all of a sudden, he found himself close to a herd of collared peccaries moving through the underbrush. Frightened, he hoisted himself into the safety of a little tree and from there fired on and hit one of the pigs. The wounded animal ran off toward a little river and ... "tsupu."

Tsupu. I've deliberately left Maxi's utterance untranslated. What might it mean? What does it sound like?

Tsupu, or tsupuuu, as it is sometimes pronounced, with the final vowel dragged out and aspirated, refers to an entity as it makes contact with and then penetrates a body of water; think of a big stone heaved into a pond or the compact mass of a wounded peccary plunging into a river's pool. Tsupu probably did not immediately conjure such an image (unless you speak lowland Ecuadorian Quichua). But what did you feel upon learning what it describes? Once I tell people what tsupu means, they often experience a sudden feel for its meaning: "Oh, of course, tsupu!"

By contrast, I would venture that even after learning that the greeting "causanguichu," used when encountering someone who hasn't been seen in a long time, means "Are you still alive?" you don't have such a feeling. Causanguichu certainly feels like what it means to native speakers of Quichua, and over the years I too have come to develop a feel for its meaning. But what is it about tsupu that causes its meaning to feel so evident even for many people who don't speak Quichua? Tsupu somehow feels like a pig plunging into water.

How is it that tsupu means? We know that a word like causanguichu means by virtue of the ways in which it is inextricably embedded, through a dense historically contingent tangle of grammatical and syntactic relations, with other such words in that uniquely human system of communication we call language. And we know that what it means also depends on the ways in which language is itself caught up in broader social, cultural, and political contexts, which share similar historically contingent systemic properties. In order to develop a feel for causanguichu we have to grasp something of the totality of the interrelated network of words in which it exists. We also need to grasp something of the broader social context in which it is and has been used. Making sense of how we live inside these kinds of changing contexts that we both make and that make us has long been an important goal of anthropology. For anthropology the "human," as a being and an object of knowledge, emerges only by attending to how we are embedded in these uniquely human contexts—these "complex wholes" as E. B. Tylor's (1871) classic definition of culture terms them.

But if causanguichu is firmly in language, tsupu seems somehow outside it. Tsupu is a sort of paralinguistic parasite on the language that somewhat indifferently bears it. Tsupu is, in a way, as Peirce might say, "all that it is positively, in itself, regardless of anything else." And this admittedly minor fact, that this strange little quasi-word is not quite made by its linguistic context, troubles the anthropological project of making sense of the human via context.

Take causanguichu's root, the lexeme causa-, which is marked for person and inflected by a suffix that signals its status as a question:

Are you still alive?

Through its grammatical inflections causanguichu is inextricably related to the other words that make up the Quichua language. Tsupu, by contrast, doesn't really interact with other words and therefore can't be modified to reflect any such possible relations. Being "all that it is positively in itself," it can't even be grammatically negated. What kind of thing, then, is tsupu? Is it even a word? What does its anomalous place in language reveal about language? And what can it tell us about the anthropological project of grasping the various ways in which linguistic as well as sociocultural and historical contexts form the conditions of possibility both for human life and for our ways of attending to it?

Although not exactly a word, tsupu certainly is a sign. That is, it certainly is, as the philosopher Charles Peirce put it, "something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity" (CP 2.228). This is quite different from Saussure's (1959) more humanist treatment of signs with which we anthropologists tend to be more familiar. For Saussure human language is the paragon and model for all sign systems (1959: 68). Peirce's definition of a sign, by contrast, is much more agnostic about what signs are and what kinds of beings use them; for him not all signs have languagelike properties, and, as I discuss below, not all the beings who use them are human. This broader definition of the sign helps us become attuned to the life signs have beyond the human as we know it.

Tsupu captures to some extent and in some particular way something of a pig plunging into water, and it does so—weirdly—not just for Quichua speakers, but to some degree for those of us who may not have any familiarity with the language that carries it along. What might paying attention to this not-quite-wordlike-kind-of-sign reveal? Feeling tsupu, "in itself, regardless of anything else," can tell us something important about the nature of language and its unexpected openings toward the world "itself." And insofar as it can help us understand how signs are not just bounded by human contexts, but how they also reach beyond them. Insofar, that is, as it can help reveal how signs are also in, of, and about other sensuous worlds that we too can feel, it can also tell us something about how we can move beyond understanding the human in terms of the "complex wholes" that make us who we are. In sum, appreciating what it might mean "to live" (Quichua causa-ngapa) in worlds that are open to that which extends beyond the human might just allow us to become a little more "worldly."?


In uttering "tsupu," Maxi brought home something that happened in the forest. Insofar as Luis, or I, or you, feel tsupu we come to grasp something of Maxi's experience of being near a wounded pig plunging into a pool of water. And we can come to have this feeling even if we weren't in the forest that day. All signs, and not just tsupu, are in some way or another about the world in this sense. They "re-present." They are about something not immediately present.

But they are also all, in some way or another, in and of the world. When we think of situations in which we use signs to represent an event, such as the one I've just described, this quality may be hard to see. Sitting back in a dark corner of a thatched roof house listening to Maxi talk about the forest is not the same as having been present to that pig plunging into water. Isn't this "radical discontinuity" with the world another important hallmark of signs? Insofar as signs do not provide any sort of immediate, absolute, or certain purchase on the entities they represent, it certainly is. But the fact that signs always mediate does not mean that they also necessarily exist in some separate domain inside (human) minds and cut off from the entities they stand for. As I will show, they are not just about the world. They are also in important ways in it.

Consider the following. Toward the end of a day spent walking in the forest, Hilario, his son Lucio, and I came upon a troop of woolly monkeys moving through the canopy. Lucio shot and killed one, and the rest of the troop dispersed. One young monkey, however, became separated from the troop. Finding herself alone she hid in the branches of an enormous red-trunked tree that poked out of the forest canopy high above.

In the hope of startling the monkey into moving to a more visible perch so that his son could shoot it Hilario decided to fell a nearby palm tree:

look out!
ta ta
I'll make it go pu oh
watch out!

Ta ta and pu oh, like tsupu, are images that sound like what they mean. Ta ta is an image of chopping: tap tap. Pu oh captures the process by which a tree falls. The snap that initiates its toppling, the swish of the crown free-falling through layers of forest canopy, and the crash and its echoes as it hits the ground are all enfolded in this sonic image.

Hilario then went and did what he said. He walked off a little way and with his machete began chopping rhythmically at a palm tree. The tapping of steel against trunk is clearly audible on the recording I made in the forest that afternoon (ta ta ta ta ...)—as was the palm crashing down (pu oh).

Lowland Quichua has hundreds of "words" like ta ta, pu oh, and tsupu that mean by virtue of the ways in which they sonically convey an image of how an action unfolds in the world. They are ubiquitous in speech, especially in forest talk. A testament to their importance to Runa ways of being in the world is that the linguistic anthropologist Janis Nuckolls (1996) has written an entire book—titled, appropriately, Sounds Like Life—about them.

A "word" such as tsupu is like the entity it represents thanks to the ways in which the differences between the "sign vehicle" (i.e., the entity that is taken as a sign, in this case the sonic quality of tsupu) and the object (in this case the plunging-into-water that this "word" simulates) are ignored. Peirce called these kinds of signs of likeness "icons." They conform to the first of his three broad classes of signs.

As Hilario had anticipated, the sound of the palm tree crashing frightened the monkey from her perch. This event itself, and not just its before-the-fact imitation, can also be taken as a kind of sign. It is a sign in the sense that it too came to be "something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity." In this case the "somebody" to whom this sign stands is not human. The palm crashing down stands for something to the monkey. Significance is not the exclusive province of humans because we are not the only ones who interpret signs. That other kinds of beings use signs is one example of the ways in which representation exists in the world beyond human minds and human systems of meaning.

The palm crashing down becomes significant in a way that differs from its imitation pu oh. Pu oh is iconic in the sense that it, in itself, is in some respect like its object. That is, it functions as an image when we fail to notice the differences between it and the event that it represents. It means due to a certain kind of absence of attention to difference. By ignoring the myriad characteristics that make any entity unique, a very restricted set of characteristics is amplified, here by virtue of the fact that the sound that simulates the action also happens to share these characteristics.

The crashing palm itself comes to signify something for the monkey in another capacity. The crash, as sign, is not a likeness of the object it represents. Instead, it points to something else. Peirce calls this sort of sign an "index." Indices constitute his second broad class of signs.

Before exploring indices further, I want to briefly introduce the "symbol"—Peirce's third kind of sign. Unlike iconic and indexical modes of reference, which form the bases for all representation in the living world, symbolic reference is, on this planet at least, a form of representation that is unique to humans. Accordingly, as anthropologists of the human we are most familiar with its distinctive properties. Symbols refer, not simply through the similarity of icons, or solely through the pointing of indices. Rather, as with the word causanguichu, they refer to their object indirectly by virtue of the ways in which they relate systemically to other such symbols. Symbols involve convention. This is why causanguichu only means—and comes to feel meaningful—by virtue of the established system of relationships it has with other words in Quichua.

The palm that Hilario sent crashing down that afternoon startled the monkey. As an index it forced her to notice that something just happened, even though what just happened remained unclear. Whereas icons involve not noticing, indices focus the attention. If icons are what they are "in themselves" regardless of the existence of the entity they represent, indices involve facts "themselves." Whether or not someone was there to hear it, whether or not the monkey, or anyone else for that matter, took this occurrence to be significant, the palm, itself, still came crashing down.

Unlike icons, which represent by virtue of the resemblances they share with objects, indices represent "by virtue of real connections to them" (Peirce 1998c: 461; see also CP 2.248). Tugging on the stems of woody vines, or lianas, that extend up into the canopy is another strategy to scare monkeys out of their hidden perches (see frontispiece, this chapter). To the extent that such an action can startle a monkey it is because of a chain of "real connections" among disparate things: the hunter's tug is transmitted, via the liana, high up to the tangled mat of epiphytes, lianas, moss, and detritus that accumulates to form the perch atop which the hiding monkey sits.

Although one might say that the hunter's tug, propagated through the liana and mat, literally shakes the monkey out of her sense of security, how this monkey comes to take this tug as a sign cannot be reduced to a deterministic chain of causes and effects. The monkey need not necessarily perceive the shaking perch to be a sign of anything. And in the event that she does, her reaction will be something other than the effect of the force of the tug propagated up the length of the liana.

Indices involve something more than mechanical efficiency. Th at something more is, paradoxically, something less. It is an absence. Th at is, to the extent that indices are noticed they impel their interpreters to make connections between some event and another potential one that has not yet occurred. A monkey takes the moving perch, as sign, to be connected to something else, for which it stands. It is connected to something dangerously different from her present sense of security. Maybe the branch she is perched on is going to break off. Maybe a jaguar is climbing up the tree ... Something is about to happen, and she had better do something about it. Indices provide information about such absent futures. They encourage us to make a connection between what is happening and what might potentially happen.


Asking whether signs involve sound images like tsupu, or whether they come to mean through events like a palm crashing down, or whether their sense emerges in some more systemic and distributed manner, like the interrelated network of words printed on the pages that make up this book, might encourage us to think about signs in terms of the differences in their tangible qualities. But signs are more than things. They don't squarely reside in sounds, events, or words. Nor are they exactly in bodies or even minds. They can't be precisely located in this way because they are ongoing relational processes. Their sensuous qualities are only one part of the dynamic through which they come to be, to grow, and to have effects in the world.

In other words signs are alive. A crashing palm tree—taken as sign—is alive insofar as it can grow. It is alive insofar as it will come to be interpreted by a subsequent sign in a semiotic chain that extends into the possible future.


Excerpted from How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Eduardo Kohn is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at McGill University.

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