Forests, Signs, and the ‘weird’ Peirce

I like it when new and unread books are standing on my desk, waiting for me to read them. In my student days in the eighties of the last century, when course programs where published in a booklet in the summer, I used to get the new prescribed half meter of books as soon as possible and put them there in front of me – creating the excitement of anticipation for the next year of study. Nowadays my years of teaching have no end, they are like a circle that begins again when it reaches its fulfillment. Studying has become an even greater joy as it is my reward when course administration, grading, actual standing for the classroom leaves any spare time. Among those new books have been, for some time, the titles by two Eduardo’s: Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Cannibal Metaphysics, and Eduardo Kohn’s How Forest’s think. Preparing my next conference paper, the time to read them has come (and I have to make haste to get my presentation ready in time!) Although very different in style and argumentation, both books show in unison that much creative philosophy is done outside philosophy departments. Here we have anthropologists who delve into the works of philosophers to question the ontological presuppositions that stand in the way when they try to understand how their research subjects, ‘non-Western’ peoples, understand the world and interact with it.

While still reading the introduction of Kohn’s book I got a pleasant surprise – that it will be the old pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) who will provide for Kohn the groundwork for understanding how forests, and animals, all living creatures for that matter, think. Kohn announces that he will draw on ‘the “weird” Peirce [that is on] those aspects of Peirce’s writing that we anthropologists find hard to digest – those parts that reach beyond the human to situate representation in the workings and logics of a broader nonhuman universe out of which we humans come.’ This made me happy as it again brought me back to an important period in my years of study: following the courses of one of our most excellent teachers – Gabriel Nuchelmans (1922-1996), who taught philosophy of language and analytic philosophy. All very broadly understood. Nuchelmans wrote sturdy and thorough books on philosophical problems, and specialized articles that were just as thorough, all of which will only be familiar still to those who specialize in the history and philosophy of logic. As a teacher he just passed on some of his wide readings in whatever interested him. One year he passed on his knowledge of pragmatism – and although at first I did not know how to fit this in with my mostly ‘continental’ interests, over the years my notes of this course would be the only ones that I always kept – which in retrospect can be seen as a predicting sign of my later return to the material.

For years it was mostly William James that interested me, first his Varieties of Religious Experience, and later his Pluralistic Universe. Works that I still consider to challenge standing frameworks of thought and to be indispensable if one tries to begin to build a critical ontology of the spiritual. In the article by Eugene Taylor which serves as an introduction to the centenarian edition of the Varieties, I read about the influence of Swedenborgian thought on James, but also on Peirce, as both longtime friends participated in the circle of James’s father, and in experiments that aimed at understanding spiritual communication. I only knew Peirce as having contributed to logic and philosophy of science/epistemology, so this came a bit as a surprise to me. But now I find that Peirce’s ability to think beyond philosophical modernism, seeing relation and signification  as the basis of thought rather than immediate intuition and mental clarity (which one can call the unfounded dogma’s of modernist thought) – forms the inspiration for those that are creatively moving beyond modernism by different paths, as Kohn does while trying to understand the world as understood by the peoples of the Amazon.

When I will be reading along, I will not only follow Kohn’s path of a semiotics of the forest, but I will also remember the mysterious smile of professor Nuchelmans when he spoke about Peirce’s weird categories of ‘firstness, secondness and thirdness’. And also how this old-fashioned professor lifted his hat for female students, calling them ‘mevrouw’ (mrs) – and then again how he left his comfort zone of the history of logic when he felt the need to criticize Heideggerianism. Then his face gained more color, and his voice betrayed suppressed excitement – and one felt the echoes of the struggle against the irrationalities that had swept over Europe only fourty years ago. Nowadays Nuchelmans’ suspicions of Heidegger have been vindicated by the publication of Heidegger’s explicitly racist notebooks. But that is perhaps not the most important thing in which Nuchelmans’ teaching put up signposts. More important was how his own work showed that digging into abstract stuff like logic, grammar, and structures of thought did not have to lead away from real world issues. As goes for the work of the ‘weird’ Peirce – which invites us to think the human in relation to the non-human in a thorough philosophical manner – work that is very relevant in these days, when it becomes more and more visible that the human, all too human issues that have led modern civilization, are destroying the possibilities to lead enjoyable lives for so many. Let’s try to read the signs of other ‘living ones’, and forests are not the least among them.

  1. Aristoteles dacht al dat dieren konden denken. Maar kunnen wij mensen dat ook? Daarvoor moeten we nog veel lezen, tekens begrijpen van dieren, bossen en wellicht ook van mensen. ‘Mevrouw’ zeggen lijkt me een goed begin.

  2. onesis said:

    I suppose, Angela, that if any philosophers were to have their most important insights extinguished, on the grounds that they were racist, or sexist, or parochial, or limited in some other way, then the history of philosophy would be greatly diminished.

    I studied philosophy as an undergraduate in the 70s, in Australia, and the work that reinforced the distinction between the Anglo-American analytical philosophy I was taught back then, and Continental philosophy, was Karl Popper’s The open society and its enemies. The enemies, according to Popper, are historicists, and Heidegger was firmly in his sights.

    It took me another 25 years to “rediscover” Heidegger for myself. I had to overcome my revulsion at his racist associations, in order to uncover his profound insights. But this was only one example of my having to deal with my various revulsions. Another was at eugenics, which was most definitely practised in my own country on Aboriginal people and people with disability, and some of the most prominent proponents of eugenics were left wing thinkers, who were otherwise opposed to totalitarian regimes. The image I had of the political world suddenly became much less clear. Racism is only one manifestation of exclusionary politics, and this is underpinned by exclusionary metaphysics.

    Poststructual thought appeared on my conceptual radar as a way forward, and this is avowedly pluralistic. I see this as introducing a requirement, that when we write philosophically, that we pay attention to possible nuances of meaning that may occur in the minds of a diverse audience. Far from the author being dead, the author has to find ways to communicate into a plurality, anticipating and welcoming responses, particularly critical ones. Writing philosophy cannot just be for a single discipline, or for select academic colleagues working on an already defined set of problems using information already to hand.

    These developments have taken so called “Heideggerian” (historicist) thinking well beyond exclusionary politics. As I see it “being-there” (Dasein) is in a relationship with a vast array of being’s-here, where “here” is wherever thinking takes place (and if that includes forests thinking, then well and good). It may well be that humans are “thrown” into the world (a hostile alienating environment, necessitating taking sides), but can also be “gathered-in” by inclusive ways of thinking and doing together.

    What I hope we may be witnessing is a revival of peripetatic philosophy, a philosophy of walks, where people walk together as they think, and where a diversity of ‘walks of life’ are represented.

    • Thanks, David, for your comment. It touches many different points. Let me give my thoughts to a few…

      In my student days (1978-1987) the left-right / analytic-continental atmosphere was still very much in place, and I hated it. I learnt as much from my analytic as well as from my Heideggerian professor. Some time ago I wrote a blogpost about my hopes that left and right would be in the past – I see them coming back very fast though… but they always bring simplicities with them. Popper was caught up in that atmosphere, but I see him as more ‘left’ then we saw his work back then.

      I don’t know if Heidegger was really a historicist – there are of course different phases in his work. The centrality of ‘Gelassenheit’ in some of his work goes against the historicist (we can know the goal of history and have to make society in accordance with that knowledge) idea. Derrida’s idea of eschatology (to be distinguished from teleology) comes somewhat near to it, but Derrida involved himself in political and moral issues actively, so there is a dynamics there as it is in his thought.

      Yes, what would the world be without all the ‘great’ sexist and racist and pro-violence philosophers?! 🙂 The point is of course that the philosophers do not stand on their own, but express and articulate ideas that are permeating society. In the human being good and bad are always mixed, that is the problem for those who want to be good. One can carefully study the bad strains in our thoughts and behavior and try to weed them out, and then one will have forgotten other ones.

      I see this process of criticism therefore not as resolving anything once and for all, but as a learning trajectory. Helping to save some lives from destruction or utter misery on the way counts, I think.

  3. onesis said:

    Thank you Angela. The important theme in your post was about forests thinking, of which I have no doubt, and all the forest creatures have to live by their wits as well. I love it that they have super developed senses. I am in awe of the way the little animals that come in and out of my house demonstrate minds of their own that work in accordance with their senses, perhaps in ways that ours do not. We have these little dunnarts, tiny marsupials, that play all around our kitchen. They maybe feel secure here. There was a snake last week nosing around the back door as well. It too knows there is something going on inside the kitchen and would like to sniff around.

    • Oh, those are nice stories you share, about the forest and animals where you live! I look up what a ‘dunnart’ is – they look very intelligent! Although they are nowhere to be found here, I found that my language has a beautiful name for them, which you might want to know: ‘smalvoetbuidelmuizen’ – which means something like smallfootmarsupialmice. 🙂

      And to make a connection between the primary theme and the secondary one – perhaps the problem with focussing too much on oppositions like continental-analytical / rightwing-leftwing philosophy is that it makes people forget to listen to the other living ones.

  4. onesis said:

    How very beautiful Angela. Yes to all of that. I shall tell my wife your word for ‘dunnart’. She will be highly amused. Since the dunnarts came into our kitchen (there are two, male and female, and they play games right in front of us) there has been no mice or rats come in. No cockroaches either, or spiders. Dunnarts eat such creatures and seem to have a deterrence over rodents. Before the dunnarts came, we had a frog that lived in our house for seven years. But one night a bush rat came in and bit the frog on its foot. After that the frog went away. I trapped the rat in a live trap and released it back into the forest.

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