Tag Archives: Lévy-Bruhl

Kohn—How Forests Think

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

by Eduardo Kohn

[Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.]


“How other kinds of beings see us matters. Th at other kinds of beings see us changes things. If jaguars also represent us—in ways that can matter vitally to us—then anthropology cannot limit itself just to exploring how people from different societies might happen to represent them as doing so” (1).

“This book is an attempt to ponder the Sphinx’s riddle by attending ethnographically to a series of Amazonian other-than-human encounters. Attending to our relations with those beings that exist in some way beyond the human forces us to question our tidy answers about the human. Th e goal here is neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it but to open it. In rethinking the human we must also rethink the kind of anthropology that would be adequate to this task. Sociocultural anthropology in its various forms as it is practiced today takes those attributes that are distinctive to humans—language, culture, society, and history—and uses them to fashion the tools to understand humans. In this process the analytical object becomes isomorphic with the analytics. As a result we are not able to see the myriad ways in which people are connected to a broader world of life, or how this fundamental connection changes what it might mean to be human. And this is why expanding ethnography to reach beyond the human is so important. An ethnographic focus not just on humans or only on animals but also on how humans and animals relate breaks open the circular closure that otherwise confines us when we seek to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans” (6).

“I seek to contribute to these posthuman critiques of the ways in which we have treated humans as exceptional—and thus as fundamentally separate from the rest of the world—by developing a more robust analytic for understanding human relations to nonhuman beings. I do so by refl ecting on what it might mean to say that forests think. I do so, that is, by working out the connection between representational processes (which form the basis for all thought) and living ones as this is revealed through ethno-graphic attention to that which lies beyond the human. I use the insights thus gained to rethink our assumptions about the nature of representation, and I then explore how this rethinking changes our anthropological concepts. I call this approach an “anthropology beyond the human” (7).

“But symbols, those kinds of signs that are based on convention (like the English word dog), which are distinctively human representational forms, and whose properties make human language possible, actually emerge from and relate to other modalities of representation. In Peirce’s terminology these other modalities (in broad terms) are either “iconic” (involving signs that share likenesses with the things they represent) or “indexical” (involving signs that are in some way affected by or otherwise correlated with those things they represent). In addition to being symbolic creatures we humans share these other semiotic modalities with the rest of nonhuman biological life (Deacon 1997) … though signs may be extralinguistic (with the consequence that language can be treated as something more than symbolic) the contexts that make them meaningful are human sociocultural ones” (8).

“Life is constitutively semiotic” (9).

“This way of understanding semiosis can help us move beyond a dualistic approach to anthropology, in which humans are portrayed as separate from the worlds they represent, toward a monistic one, in which how humans represent jaguars and how jaguars represent humans can be understood as integral, though not interchangeable, parts of a single, open-ended story” (9).

“In sum, an anthropology beyond the human is perforce an ontological one. That is, taking nonhumans seriously makes it impossible to confine our anthropological inquiries to an epistemological concern for how it is that humans, at some particular time or in some particular place, go about making sense of them. As an ontological endeavor this kind of anthropology places us in a special position to rethink the sorts of concepts we use and to develop new ones. In Marilyn Strathern’s words, it aims “to create the conditions for new thoughts” (1988: 20)” (10).

“My argument is that we are colonized by certain ways of thinking about relationality. We can only imagine the ways in which selves and thoughts might form associations through our assumptions about the forms of associations that structure human language. And then, in ways that often go unnoticed, we project these assumptions onto nonhumans. Without realizing it we attribute to nonhumans properties that are our own, and then, to compound this, we narcissistically ask them to provide us with corrective reflections of ourselves … Forests are good to think because they themselves think. Forests think. I want to take this seriously, and I want to ask, What are the implications of this claim for our understandings of what it means to be human in a world that extends beyond us?” (21-22).

“Signs don’t come from the mind. Rather, it is the other way around. What we call mind, or self, is a product of semiosis. Th at “somebody,” human or non-human, who takes the crashing palm to be significant is a “self that is just com-ing into life in the fl ow of time” (CP 5.421) by virtue of the ways in which she comes to be a locus—however ephemeral—for the “interpretance” of this sign and many others like it. In fact, Peirce coined the cumbersome term interpretant to avoid the “homunculus fallacy” (see Deacon 2012: 48) of seeing a self as a sort of black box (a little person inside us, a homunculus) who would be the interpreter of those signs but not herself the product of those signs. Selves, human or nonhuman, simple or complex, are outcomes of semiosis as well as the starting points for new sign interpretation whose outcome will be a future self. They are waypoints in a semiotic process” (34).

“We need to provincialize language because we conflate representation with language and this conflation finds its way into our theory. We universalize this distinctive human propensity by first assuming that all representation is some-thing human and then by supposing that all representation has language like properties” (39).

“To summarize: signs are not exclusively human affairs. All living beings sign. We humans are therefore at home with the multitude of semiotic life. Our exceptional status is not the walled compound we thought we once inhabited. An anthropology that focuses on the relations we humans have with nonhuman beings forces us to step beyond the human. In the process it makes what we’ve taken to be the human condition—namely, the paradoxical, and “provincialized,” fact that our nature is to live immersed in the “unnatural” worlds we construct—appear a little strange. Learning how to appreciate this is an important goal of an anthropology beyond the human” (42).

“Thinking with images, as I do here with the Sphinx’s riddle, and as I do throughout this book, with all kinds of images—be they oneiric, aural, anecdotal, mythic, or even photographic (there are other stories being “told” here without words)—and learning to attend to the ways in which these images amplify, and thus render apparent, something about the human via that which lies beyond the human, is, as I’ve been arguing, also a way of opening ourselves to the distinctive iconic logics of how the forest’s thoughts might think their ways through us. How Forests Think aims to think like forests: in images” (222).

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Luhrmann—Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft

Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England

by Tanya Luhrmann

[Luhrmann, Tanya M. 1991. Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.]


  • based on 4 years of participant observation among magicians (Wiccan, Pagan, various occult groups) in London in the 1980s
  • “This study looks at ordinary middle-class English people who become immersed in a netherworld of magic and ritual, and asks a classic anthropological question: why do they practise magic when, according to observers, the magic doesn’t work?” (4).
  • “Magicians are ordinary, well-educated, usually middle-class people. They are not psychotically deluded, and they are not driven to practise by socio­economic desperation. By some process, when they get involved with magic—whatever the reasons that sparked their interest—they learn to find it eminently sensible. They learn to accept its core concept: that mind affects matter, and that in special circumstances, like ritual, the trained imagination can alter thephysical world” (7).
  • “The real issue is not that magicians become comfortable practising an irrational activity, but that when someone becomes a specialist, he finds his practice progressively more persuasive through the very process of interpreting and making sense of his involvement; this changing understanding may become progressively more opaque to outsiders” (7-8).
  • Magical ideas begin to seem normal in the process of becoming a magician: in this way, the involvement is more similar to becoming a certain sort of specialist than to producing a new theory” (312).
  • “How can a magician take his ideas seriously? Part of the answer is that the very process of learning to be a magician elicits systematic changes in the way that the magician interprets events. Interpretation depends upon a complex set of assumptions, biases, conceptual frames, knowledge, heuristics and attributive tendencies—intellectual habits in paying attention, in organizing what one notices, and in remembering it” (115).
  • “There seem to be three outstanding changes in intellectual habits.
    1. The magician learns what events count as evidence that the ritual has worked, and begins to find new patterns in sets of events, to see connections where previously he has only seen coincidence.
    2. Then, he acquires the knowledge shared by fellow practitioners—their common knowledge—which gives a depth and complexity to his practice, and allows him to discriminate between events in new ways, armed with these new categories and distinctions.
    3. Finally, he begins to use a battery of new assumptions—some of them explicitly formulated, others implicit in the conversation—which alter the types of remarks he takes for granted and does not question. The cumulative effect is as if the magician acquires new spectacles.” (115 numeric points added).
  • “I would argue that the rift between magician and non-practitioner is carved out by the very process of becoming a specialist in a particular kind of activity. Becoming a specialist often makes an activity seem sensible. The specialist learns a new way of paying attention to, making sense of and commenting upon her world” (115-16).
  • Becoming this type of specialist is important, “But as, if not more, important are the unsystematic experiences which, although they may have little to do with intellectual analysis, make the magician want to justify the practice, and which motivate him in the end to rationalize his commitment. These are the experiences which create bias” (176).
  • “Certain aspects of magical practice turn it into an engagement which many practitioners find compelling. They find the rituals deeply moving, the pre-ritual ‘homework’ engrossing, they dream with the images of magic’s potent symbols” (177).
  • There are four “distinctive categories of experiential response” to ritual magic practice. (All pg. 179).
    1. meditation and visualization—”the two techniques which magicians always learn upon becoming involved in practice. These are remarkable techniques: they change the practitioner’s phenomenological experience in relatively well-understood ways, and magicians are notably affected by their use.”
    2. magician’s language—”the linguistic style with which magicians describe their rituals and meditations. This style evokes a significant imaginative involvement with the ritual’s narrative and gives the magician concrete experience of the abstract terms of magical theory, like ‘contact’ or ‘power’. At the same time, the magician is told that no understanding of magical theory is complete or accurate: she can have confidence that the term refers to something, but she need not state unequivocally what it is.”
    3. ritual—There are three specific strategies a magician goes through to plan a ritual
      1. He is concerned to create a separate space and time,
      2. to exploit mind-altering techniques like chanting,
      3. and to alter the personality of the ritualist.
        • All these techniques take their central task to be setting ritual apart as something different, to be experienced almost as if it involved a different reality superimposed on the everyday.
    4. symbolism—”The use of symbolism is the most important element of the magician’s magical engagement. Symbolism plays many roles, and evokes many responses, and probably bears most responsibility for magic’s excitement. Magicians invent a mythopoeic history, talk about intimate feelings in symbolic terms, therapeutically reorganize their lives with symbolic ‘archetypes’. They also create a secrecy-shrouded mystery religion and talk of the ‘esoteric knowledge’ which their rites provide.”
  • “Throughout all this, the implication should be clear: magic is far more than a theory, and the pleasures of these other aspects—difficult to verbalize, difficult to forget—wed the magician more strongly than any intellectual analysis to a commitment to the validity of his practice” (179).
  • So… “Systematic changes in the style of intellectual interpretation make the ideas seem more believable; the satisfactions of involvement make the desire to justify the involvement even greater. Nevertheless, despite magic’s growing appeal, at some point in their practice – for some, throughout their practice – magicians confront scepticism, other people’s or their own” (270).
  • “magicians do not produce an elaborate philosophy which would describe all their beliefs, actions and desires as consistent, and substantively rational—oriented towards a genuinely desirable goal in the most effective manner possible. Instead, they justify the inconsistency with a range of arguments and make efforts to separate magic off and make efforts to separate magic off from the mundane by ritual and metaphor. Through practice, theory and styles of arguments, magicians insulate their magic from hostile criticism, real or imagined, and they acquire reasons to explain this separation … People rationalize rather than acting rationally, and strive for local consistency with a patchwork job of post hoc rationalization” (273).
  • “people tend to conceptualize themselves as unitary selves, coherent and all-of-a-piece. In order to understand their actions as part of that self, directed towards an end suitable to that self, they talk about ‘beliefs’ and ‘attitudes’ and ‘desires’, proposition-like assertions which explain why someone performs an action. If you see an aborigine eating grubs, you assume that he believes that the grub is nourishing, delicious, or imbued with sacral power” (307).
  • “In order to function effectively, humans—these interpreters of culture—must act as if humans do not act randomly, but in a way they can learn to anticipate and to which they can learn to respond. This involves attributing to them a set of proposition-like assertions about the state of the world – he is carrying an umbrella, he must believe that it will rain this afternoon – which they maintain over time” (307).

“the ethnography presented on modern magic and the persuasiveness which the practice obtains elicits three observations about belief. Let me summarize” (309).

  1. “First, it is optimistic to think that people have an ordered set of beliefs abouta particular endeavour which forms a consistent set with other beliefs which together describe the totality of thought and action. People are much fuzzier, and more complex, than that. The ethnographer can legitimately identify something like a belief when someone argues for a proposition, at least during the period when they are doing the arguing. But magicians argue in different ways at different times; some of them claim to believe one thing when practising magic, and another thing when not practising magic; others seem to be firmly committed to their practice, and produce arguments about relativism which do not seem entirely plausible in the face of their behaviour. “
  2. “Second, it is hubris—and bad ethnography—to assume that people act first and foremost because they are motivated by belief. The material on modern magic suggests particularly dearly that people often argue for a belief as a means to legitimize, and even to understand—to rationalize—the practice in which they have been involved … If someone goes to church as a regular part of his life, he is likely to argue for a belief in God. If he feels deeply spiritual when praying to God, he is more likely to be persuaded that God exists, for the religious framework provides a way to interpret that unusual feeling.”
  3. Third, magicians have beliefs; it is not true that becoming a magician simply involves learning to speak a new ‘language’ … That is more than a bow towards relativism: the assertion claims that apparently strange beliefs say nothing startling, but simply express conventional beliefs in new and surprisingways. Or, the assertion can be that in becoming a shaman, a Scientologist, a believer in something, someone is simply acquiring new terms to describe new experiences” (309).

interpretive driftslow, often unacknowledged shift in someone’s manner of interpreting events as they become involved with a particular activity. As the newcomer begins to practice, he becomes progressively more skilled at seeing new patterns in events, seeing new sorts of events as significant, paying attention to new patterns … there seems to be a slow, mutual evolution of interpretation and experience, rationalized in a manner which allows the practitioner to practise. The striking feature, I found, was how ad hoc, how seemingly unmotivated, this transformation became. Magicians did not deliberately change the way they thought about the world”

cognitive dissonanceIn the fifties, Leon Festinger (and others) developed a sociological theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’ to understand intellectual discomfort. Its most famous application concerned an American flying saucer cult which predicted that the world would end on 21 December. On 22 December—after the prophetic failure—the adherents began to proselytize, for the first time, claiming that the world had been miraculously redeemed. Festinger interpreted this as an attempt to reconcile their considerable commitment to their belief with the embarrassing evidence of its falsity by creating social support for a somewhat transformed version of it” (271).

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Lukes—Some Problems about Rationality

Some Problems about Rationality

by Steven Lukes

[Lukes, Steven. 1967. “Some Problems about Rationality.” European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie / Europäisches Archiv Für Soziologie 8 (2): 247–64.]



  • A discussion of the question: “when I come across a set of beliefs which appear prima facie irrational, what should be my attitude towards them?
    • Should I adopt a critical attitude, taking it as a fact about the beliefs that they are irrational, and seek to explain how they came to be held, how they manage to survive unprofaned by rational criticism, what their consequences are, etc?
    • Or should I treat such beliefs charitably: should I begin from the assumption that what appears to me to be irrational may be inter­ preted as rational when fully understood in its context?
    • More briefly, the problem comes down to whether or not there are alternative standards of rationality” (247, bullet points added).
  • To answer the question, Lukes;
    1. distinguishes the different reasons something can be called irrational—”There are, for example, important differences and asymmetries between falsehood, inconsistency and nonsense” (247).
    2. separates out different criteria of rationality that have become confused by theorists
    3. attempts to determine which of these criteria are context-dependent and which are universal

Section I

  • compares five different answers to the initial question (of how to deal with the seemingly irrational).
    1. when involved in primitive religion and magic, there is no problem, because these beliefs can be seen as purely symbolic.
      • “Thus the first answer to our problem amounts to the refusal to answer it, on the grounds that it is nonsensical (Leach), or irrelevant (Firth), or misdirected (Beattie)” (250).
    2. the rationality of the belief is completely incomprehensible to modern thought. Understanding it would mean “tracing our steps, for many centuries, back into the dim past, far back to the time when we also possessed the mind of primitive man. And the gates have long closed on that hidden road” (Eldon Best qtd, 250).
    3. Primitive belief systems are an attempt at explaining phenomena, which in itself is a totally rational act that requires rational thought processes.
      • This is how Tylor, Frazer, and Evans-Pritchard see things
        • Evans-Pritchard breaks it down: “They considered that primitive man had reached his conclusions about the efficacy of magic from rational observation and deduction in much the same way as men ofscience reach their conclusions about natural laws. Underlying all magical ritual is a rational process of thought. The ritual of magic follows from its ideology. It is true that the deductions of a magician are false-had they been true they would have been scientific and not magical-but they are nevertheless based on genuine observation. For classification of phenomena by the similarities which exist between them is theprocedure of science as well as of magic and is the first essential process of human knowledge. Where the magician goes wrong is in inferring that because things arealike in one or more respects they have a mystical link between them whereas in fact the link is not a real link but an ideal connexion in the mind of the magician. [ … ] A causal relationship exists in his mind but not in nature. It is a subjective and not anobjective connexion. Hence the savage mistakes an ideal analogy for a real connexion” (251).
        • Durkheim also breaks it down: tis through [primitive religion] that a first explanation of the world has been made possible. [ … ] When I learn that A regularly precedes B, my knowledge is enriched by a new item, but my understanding is not at all satisfied with a statement which does not appear rationally justified. I commence to understand only when it is possible for me to conceive B in a perspective that makes it appear to me as something that is not foreign to A, as united to A by some intelligible relationship. The great service that the religions have rendered to thought is that they have constructed a first representation of what these intelligible relationships between things might be. In the circumstances under which it was attempted, the enterprise could obviously attain only precarious results. But then, does it ever attain any that are definitive, and is it not necessary ceaselessly to reconsider them ? And also, it is less important to succeed than to try. [ … ] The explanations of contemporary science are surer of being objective because they are more methodical and because they rest on more rigorously controlled observations, but they do not differ in nature from those which satisfy primitive thought” (253).
    4. Emphasize how magical and scientific thinking are fundamentally different,
      • magic is prelogical, meaning “not constrained above all else, as ours is, to avoid contradictions. The same logical exigencies are not in its case always present. What to our eyes is impossible or absurd, it sometimes will admit without seeing any difficulty” (254, quoting Lévi-Bruhl).
    5. The seemingly irrational in primitive societies should simply be seen as rational to those societies
      • “According to Winch’s view, when an observer is faced with seemingly irrational beliefs in a primitive society, he should seek contextually given criteria according to which they may appear rational” (255).
      • to Evans-Pritchard, in Witchcraft and Oracle Among the Azande, “It is an inevitable conclusion from Zande descriptions of witchcraft that it is not an objective reality. The physiological condition which is said to be the seat of witch­ craft, and which I believe to be nothing more than food passing through the small intestine, is an objective condition, but the qualities they attribute to it and the rest of their beliefs about it are mystical. Witches, as Azande conceive them, cannot exist” (256).
        • Winch has a problem with this because it relies on “objective reality”

Section II

  • “Beliefs, or sets of beliefs, are said to be irrational if they are inadequate in certain ways:
    1.  if they are illogical, e.g. inconsistent or (self-) contradictory, consisting of or relying on invalid inferences, etc.;
    2. if they are, partially or wholly, false;
    3. if they are nonsensical (though it may be questioned whether they would then qualify as propositions and thus as beliefs);
    4. if they are situationally specific or ad hoc, i.e. : not uni­versalised because bound to particular occasions;
    5. if the ways in which they come to be held or the manner in which they are held are seen as deficient in some respect” (259, bullet points added).

Section III

  • (Lukes asserts) some a criteria of rationality are universal, “i.e. relevantly applicable to all beliefs, in any context, while others are context-dependent, i.e. are to be discovered by inves­ tigating the context and are only relevantly applicable to beliefs in that context” (260).
    • for instance if a society “has a language, it must, minimally, possess criteria of truth (as correspondence to reality) and logic, which we share with it and which simply are criteria of rationality” (262).
  • He explicitly argues (against Winch): “that beliefs are not only to be evaluated by the criteria that are to be discovered in the context in which they are held; they must also be evaluated by criteria of rationality that simply are criteria of rationality, as opposed to criteria of rationality in context [c]” (260).
  • Lukes the goes into a incredibly convoluted process through which he vindicates earlier assertions referring to them as rational (1) [universal] and rational (2) [context-dependent] and confusing everyone.
  • In the end, he finds that:
  • “One may conclude that all beliefs are to be evaluated by both rational (1) and rational (2) criteria. Sometimes, as in the case of religious beliefs, rational (1) truth criteria will not take the analysis very far. Often rational (1) criteria of logic do not reveal anything positive about relations between beliefs that are to be explicated in terms of “provides a reason for”. Sometimes rational (1) criteria appear less important than “what the situation demands”. In all these cases, rational (2) criteria are illuminating. But they do not make rational (1) criteria dispensable” (264).
  • So: “If both sorts of criteria are required for the understanding of beliefs (for they enable us to grasp their truth-conditions and their inter-relations), they are equally necessary to the explanation of why they are held, how they operate and what their social consequences are. Thus only by the application of rational (1) criteria is it possible to see how beliefs which fail to satisfy them can come to be rationally criticised, or fail to be. On the other hand, it is usually only by the application of rational (2) criteria that the point and significance that beliefs have for those that hold them can be grasped. Rational (1) and rational (2) criteria are necessary both to understand and to explain” (264).

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