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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.

‘Why did we never hear from this in all those years that we studied philosophy?’ That was the comment of some Master students in philosophy after I suggested A Pluralistic Universe by William James for their reading assignment. Indeed this late work of James is seldomly studied, or even discussed, in philosophy departments. It came to my attention through the biography of the pragmatist philosopher by Robert Richardson. Like James’ well-known work Varieties of Religious Experience, it is the result of a series of lectures, given first for an enthousiastic public in the U.K., and later repeated in the U.S. His academic colleagues rejected it almost unanimously, being without doubt the origin of its later absence in philosophy curricula.

And of course the book might be easily criticized, since it does not rest on a strong argumentative structure, but rather is an attempt to draw together insights from such widely divergent thinkers as the physicist-turned-psychologist Fechner (1801-1887) and the vitalist philosopher Bergson (1859-1941), in support of what is only the outline of a new ontology. An ontology which aims to surpass the boundaries of objectivism: expecting the Cartesian idea that a self-supporting thinking ego might describe the world as it is (as its object) to be false. One should acknowledge that ‘the Philosopher himself [is] taken up into the universe which he is accounting for.’ This makes any ontology provisional, makes us having to accept pluralism (giving up the effort to surmount conflicting ontologies into a definitive one), and potentially leads to a conception of consciousness as potentially continuous with a wider consciousness. Wider than the individual, or than reason, or than humanity.

In this work, published only a year before James’ death from heart disease, the philosopher tries to interconnect the ideas and passions which interested him all his adult life – radical empiricism, religion, psi research, and of course pragmatist epistemology. What I like so much in his attempt is that he (almost) succeeded in rendering human attempts to interact with the world (through theory, through practice, psychically and religiously) into a coherent view – a view that does not slide into an easy holistic or cosmological theory (which would have been another objectivist fallacy), but that accounts systematically for the inescapable limitedness of any ontology.

The consequence of all this is captured in one of those apt expressions the artist with words added to philosophical language: that the ‘universe’ (which presents itself as a ‘multiverse’) might not consist of entities springing all from a single source, but that its consistency might be described aptly enough as ‘strung along’. We experience continuity, coherence, concatenation without borders, without a definite whole supporting it. This should not lead us into relativistic or nihilistic desperation – it is, says James, the normal condition of human life. We do not need ‘logical considerations that hold good in all conceivable worlds’. ‘the philosophy of the future’ must take ‘the actual peculiarities of the world […] more and more elaborately into account.’ Not only those experiences filtered out by a positivistic censor, but also dreams, intuitions, apparitions – all those ‘wild beasts of the philosophic desert’ who present themselves in actual human lives.

William James lived from 1842-1910

Citations are from his A Pluralistic Universe. Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy, University of Nebraska Press 1996 [originally published in 1909]

Recommended reading on James is a.o.:

Robert D. Richardson William James in the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Houghton Mifflin Company 2006

Deborah Blum Ghost Hunters. William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death, Penguin Books 2006