All too human (still)

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Philippe Descola. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.015


All too human (still)

A comment on Eduardo Kohn’s How forests think

Philippe DESCOLA, Collège de France

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

I have enjoyed the pleasure of episodic conversations with Eduardo Kohn for more than twenty years. Within the greater community of Amazonianist anthropologists, we both belong to a smaller tribe, the people who have had the privilege to live in el Oriente, as the tiny portion of Amazonia under Ecuadorian jurisdiction is locally known, and who have established lasting bonds with the human and nonhuman denizens of this peculiar patch of the densely forested foothills of the Andes. In spite of the great differences in languages and ethos between the native groups that inhabit this part of the Upper Amazon, and also in spite of the variety of historical relations that these populations have maintained, or tried to avoid, with the main sources of colonial and postcolonial power, they undoubtedly share some habits that result from centuries of interactions between neighbors, some of them outsiders turned insiders. These habits have come to be shared in part by the scholars who have studied them, thus creating solid bonds of affinity among them. So, when Kohn was talking about the quichua-speaking Runa of Avila, I was in familiar territory. With the passing of the years, it also became obvious to me that here was someone who had an entirely novel approach to this complex hybrid assemblage we both felt attracted to in the Ecuadorian Amazon, an approach sustained by a triple expertise—a keen ethnographic sensitivity, a sustained attention to the pragmatics of language use, and an excellent grasp of ecological and biological processes in the Tropics. Kohn’s earlier publications amply confirmed this promise of originality, in particular his remarkably subtle analysis of how the interpretation of dog’s dreams pointed to a form of semiotic common ground between human and certain nonhumans (Kohn 2007).

However, in recent years, I had found it more and more difficult to grasp what Kohn was aiming at. In the conversations we had in Paris when he visited the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in 2011, I had the distinct impression that Peirce and the discussion of his semiology was massively occupying the front scene, while the Runa and the beings with whom they shared their lives were receding more and more in the background. And it was not until I started reading How forests think (Kohn 2013) that I began to have a clearer idea of what it was that Kohn had been groping for during all these years and to realize the scope and the novelty of the intellectual project that he has set out to accomplish.

The problem that Kohn brilliantly addresses in this book is part and parcel of a general predicament that some of us, associated with a so-called posthumanist approach, find ourselves enmeshed in. To put it simply, the project of repopulating the social sciences with nonhuman beings, and thus of shifting the focus away from the internal analysis of social conventions and institutions and toward the interactions of humans with (and between) animals, plants, physical processes, artifacts, images, and other forms of beings, this project, in its most recent form,1 has a dual and simultaneous origin in two very different intellectual lineages. One lineage, issued from the twin efforts of Callon and Latour, originates within the STS program and has set as its goal to eschew the traditional social-constructivist approach in the sociology of science in favor of an actor-network analysis that would partly strip humans of their hegemony as social agents. The other lineage has Lévi-Strauss as its apical ancestor and Amazonia as its field of predatory expansion. It originates in the ambition initially shared by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and I to sidestep some of the great anthropological dualisms—nature and society, individual and collective, body and mind—while retaining the basic structuralist idea that the world is not to be seen as the exclusive playground of humans but as a vast array of meaningful differences between qualities and beings that can be systematically organized, not in spite of, but because of these differences.2 These two independent lineages have become bedfellows, so to speak, in the so-called ontological turn for, in spite of the many differences that separate us, we share the same premises that the sources of the plurality of beings and regimes of existence lie at a deeper level than the sociocultural one traditionally studied by anthropology. This level, which may be called antepredicative or emergent—to use one of Kohn’s pet words—is the one where humans and nonhumans become aware of each other and develop modes of relating prior to the usual processes of categorization and communication embedded in historically and linguistically contingent frameworks.

The main problem that the second lineage has had to confront is the structuring role of symbolism, which was inserted in its initial program by Lévi-Strauss when he claimed that language offered both a model for the whole of social life and a hope that that the study of the latter may become one day as scientific as the study of the former. Language, and the language-like properties of symbols, is fundamental for Lévi-Strauss, both in its Saussurean dimension (meaning as arising out of contrastive features) and in its praxeological dimension (social interaction envisioned as an exchange of linguistic signs). And what Lévi-Strauss sometimes calls the symbolic function is a language-like ability of humans to give sense to the world by detecting in it salient features that can be organized in contrastive sets. Now, if the dealings of humans with nonhumans are taken in that sense, then it impedes the course of purging anthropology from its anthropocentrism, because nonhu-mans, devoid of linguistic abilities and capacities for symbolism, will always be the passive objects of human cognition and inventiveness, mere bundles of qualities that humans detect and organize in symbolic patterns. If nonhumans must become agents in their own right, then they have to be able to escape this symbol-induced passivity. There are several strategies of avoidance to circumvent this problem but none is entirely satisfying. For example, one can reason in terms of Gibsonian af-fordances, giving some active leeway to the object represented for it to draw the perceiver in its sphere of influence; or one may try to avoid altogether the use of the words “symbolic” and “symbolism,” or eschew the very idea of representation, thus hoping that the processes they qualify will just disappear as problems by not being referred to; or one may focus on nonsymbolic signs, images for instance; or, in the last resort, one may wallow in phenomenology.

Kohn’s own solution to this problem is simple, elegant, and radical. Following Peirce’s triadic semiology, he argues that iconic signs (that share likenesses with what they stand for) and indexical signs (that are in a relation of spatial or temporal contiguity with what they represent) have to be brought into the anthropological agenda, not only as supplements to symbolic signs and to enrich humans semio-sis—a move that others have made too—but also, and above all, because icons and indexes are the signs that nonhuman organisms use to represent the world and communicate between life-forms. Their study thus offers a way to bring together humans and other living beings within a more embracing semiosis and it provides a foundation for an anthropology “beyond-the-human.” In other words, there is no need to shun representation as if it were a malevolent and Eurocentric process of dissociation between things and words that impedes a true access to, and a wholesome experience of, the richness of the world. For there are other forms of representation than those that use symbols, so that rendering present something absent, either because it is no longer there or because it has not happened yet, converts all beings who possess this disposition—all organisms according to Kohn—into selves.

A remarkable aspect of How forests think is the complex—and often beautifully written—intermingling of subtle theoretical propositions with an even subtler ethnography. Chapters 3 and 4 in particular contain among the most profound analyses that have been written on the difficult question of what it means, in what I call an animist ontology, to say that a nonhuman is endowed with a “soul,” and of how it is possible for a human to communicate with animals and to inhabit their points of view. Kohn claims, and it rings true, that he was led to his “anthropology-beyond-the-human” by the Runa themselves, and not out of philosophical ruminations. The accounts that his hosts gave him of their relations with other beings point out to, and amplify, “certain properties of the world,” and thus, these accounts not only lend themselves to interesting ethnographic analysis but also provide food for philosophical generalizations; they are not only “good to think,” they are also “good to think with.” Such is, among other examples, the case of the analysis of why the Runa interpret literally their dogs’ dreams while they interpret metaphorically their own. The Runa’s dreams give them access to, among other fields, the domain of the spirit masters of animals, where everything is twisted in the sense that what the Runa see there is what these spirits see—game animals as domestic animals, forest vegetation as planted gardens—and not what humans usually see. As dreamers enter into the point of view of the powerful beings that they visit, they thus have to resort to a metaphorical interpretation of their dreams to redress this vision and to render it productive for their own use. Dream interpretation, such an important feature of the daily lives of native people in Amazonian Ecuador, becomes a device that “aligns the situated points of view of beings that inhabit different worlds” (Kohn 2013: 141). By contrast, the Runa interpret literally the (mainly iconic) signs that they decipher in the sleep behavior of their dogs and they use with them a “transspecies pidgin” because, in a large measure, the dogs partake of the view that their masters have of other beings, as humans daily draw dogs into their own subjective domain. Here Kohn brings the classical Amazonian theme of the continuities and discontinuities of perspectives between different species to a new level of conceptualization thanks to his refined analysis of the semiotic regimes that denote each of these subjective states.

Inevitably, as in any bold program that purports to reformulate the foundations of a domain of inquiry, Kohn’s propositions raise a series of controversial points. The first of these has to do with the high degree of polysemy of the concepts and expressions he uses. To begin with what may appear to be a trivial question, I wondered why there was a plural to “forests” in the title. Although Kohn’s “anthro-pology-beyond-the-human” is meant to deal with any set of life-forms anywhere, the actual analysis he provides are geared to a specific set of interactions between a specific set of organisms within a specific geographical setting: the Runa do not live in the taiga forest of Northern Siberia, in the oak forest of temperate Europe or in the pine forest of middle-eastern mountains, they live in a very particular environment, the montane forest of Eastern Ecuador, with ecological features that are uncommon elsewhere in Amazonia,3 and I doubt that many of Kohn’s analyses would apply in other types of ecosystems. He acknowledges that implicitly: every forest, every mountain, every lake thinks in its own way, because the semiotic network it affords, and the forms generated by the ecosystem within which this semiotic network unfolds itself, are geared to specific life-forms, to specific causal features of the environment, and to specific interpretants. The pluralization of “thinking forests” seems to me indicative of Kohn’s tendency to progressively expand the range of meanings of his concepts way beyond the initial boundaries he fixed for them, with the result that they lose in extension the productivity they had acquired in their original definition.

I will give a few examples only. Expanding somewhat Peirce’s definition of a sign as something that stands to somebody for something in some respect, Kohn qualifies this somebody as a self, not necessarily human, provided it is the somebody for whom the sign is meaningful. It follows from this definition that the elongated snouts and tongues of anteaters can be described as interpretations of the geometry of ants’ tunnels in the sense that they have become signs, for the contemporary anteaters, of how past anteaters have transmitted to them a certain fitness to the forest environment. Although Kohn concedes that this is an interpretation “in a very bodily way” (2013: 74), one wonders whether the concept of “interpretation” has not been stretched here beyond recognition, and to the point where its usefulness becomes dubious. In a famous chapter of his, A Sand County almanac, Aldo Leopold (1949) urges the reader to “think like a mountain,” that is, to envision ecological processes as if one were the actual seat of the interactions between organisms on its slopes (in that case, the relationship between wolves, deer grazing, vegetation, and erosion). There is no interpretation to speak of here, only the transposition of a relational experience at another scale and it is written in a simple Thoreau-like, anecdotal way, but it may capture better than a semiotic approach the vital necessity to inhabit other points of view. And in fact Kohn falls back on this very definition of selves a little later in the book: “all beings, and not just humans, engage with the world and with each other as selves, that is, as beings that have a point of view” (Kohn 2013: 132, my emphasis). But, if being a self is the outcome of having a specific point of view, and if having a specific point of view is the product of certain bodily dispositions and of occupying a certain position in the ecology of relations (a common enough qualification of what it is to be a self in Amazonia), then the whole notion of a cosmic semiosis may become superfluous because what is at stake here is how living and nonliving beings relate to each other according to the types of connection that their physical assets allow. Some of these connections may fall under the rubric “interpretation” or “representation,” if they involve iconic and indexical signs taken in the widest sense but most of them will probably be the outcome of nonrepresentational physical and chemical processes of the type that von Uexkiill brought to light.

Much the same can be said about Kohn’s extensive conception of life (and its paradoxical use to limit the scope of expansion of an anthropology-beyond-the-human). This is a very biophile book, although quite different from Tim Ingold’s peripatetic biophilia (Ingold 2011): many things and processes are alive, from signs and thoughts to self-organizing phenomena, not because they are in flux but because they eventually “do things” in the world. Hence a clear distinction within nonhuman beings between those that are alive (and think, represent, interpret) and those that are not: “life thinks; stones don’t” (Kohn 2013: 100). But the stones upon which I stumble “do things” in the world, so does an image of the Virgin, radioactivity, a sundial, and many other “lifeless” and “thoughtless” objects. Conflating, as Kohn does, agency, thought, and semiosis thus leaves a great many nonhumans unaccounted for and expelled beyond the limits of an anthropology-beyond-the-human—which perhaps should better be rechristened then as a “biosemiology.” This is unfortunate. In spite of the conceptual fuzziness of the merely descriptive label of “nonhuman” (that most of us who use it readily acknowledge), introducing this catchall category in the social sciences nevertheless signaled an ambition to recruit scores of new actants so as to render the theater of worldly interactions more complex and, in the end, more interesting to study. Expelling some of them from the stage will impoverish the life of the others.

Another difficulty I see in Kohn’s pansemiotic approach is that, if taken seriously, it should require a real investigation of how nonhuman life forms actually deal with iconic and indexical signs. Meanwhile, we have to rely on what the anthropologist says the Runa say about nonhuman semiosis that, after all, is barely one step removed from what Kohn criticizes in the traditional anthropological accounts of the relationships between humans and nonhumans. When Kohn was asked by the Runa to sleep face up so that a prowling jaguar may eventually see him as a being capable of facing back, and thus spare his life, he had to trust his hosts that they were right and be confident that the way in which they thought that jaguars are seeing humans was relevant to his life in the forest. And this is probably sound knowledge, as there are other cases elsewhere where people recommend staring back at large felines so as to discourage them from attacking humans.4 But in that case, as in all the other instances where Kohn says that he was led by the Runa to infer that an organism was interpreting a sign, we would also have liked to know what investigations on, say, animal ethology, cognition, and perception, or on biomimetism, or on plant communication, had to say about it. Better still, I would have liked Kohn to follow in the stride of a new generation of young scientists who straddle the frontier between human ethnology and animal ethology,5 and see him study in effect how reciprocal interpretations of behavioral and environmental signs have built up the respective knowledge of coevolving humans and animals. At least, I hope that this will be the next step taken by Kohn in order to expand his remarkably stimulating and innovative research agenda. ¡Adelante compadre!


Grubb, P. J., J. R. Lloyd, T. D. Pennington, and T. C. Whitmore. 1963. “A comparison of montane and lowland rain forest in Ecuador I: The forest structure, physiognomy, and floristics.” Journal of Ecology 51 (3): 567–601.

Ingold, Tim 2011. Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. London: Routledge.

Jalais, Annu 2010. Forest of tigers: People, politics, and environment in the Sundarbans. London: Routledge.

Kohn, Eduardo 2007. “How dogs dream: Amazonian natures and the politics of transpecies engagement.” American Ethnologist 34 (1): 3–24.

———. 2013. How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County almanac: And sketches here and there. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lescureux, Nicolas 2006. “Towards the necessity of a new interactive approach integrating ethnology, ecology and ethology in the study of the relationship between Kyrgyz stockbreeders and wolves.” Social Science Information 45 (3): 463–78.


Philippe Descola
Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale
Collège de France
52, rue du Cardinal-Lemoine, 75005 Paris, France


1. Of course, this project can claim a number of prestigious forebears that predate its contemporary formulations, Gregory Bateson being the leading one.

2. The panorama is obviously more complex than what is sketched in this crude typology. Apart from those two lineages, and in friendly disagreement with them, a number of influential individualities have also challenged the anthropocentrism of the social sciences from a variety of standpoints. Among my favorite are Augustin Berque, Tim Ingold, Marylin Strathern, and Roy Wagner.

3. See, for instance, Grubb, Lloyd, Pennington, and Whitmore (1963).

4. For instance, villagers in the Sundarban mangrove forest of the Bay of Bengal wear human face masks on the back of their heads so as not to be attacked from behind by tigers (Jalais 2010).

5. For an interesting example see Lescureux (2006).