Semiosis is at the centre of Kohn’s framework for explaining how the forest “thinks”. Kohn relies heavily on Charles Peirce’s notion that signs should be defined broadly to include those with and those without linguistic properties. Peirce’s tripartite division of signs is well known. Icons are signs of likeness, reflecting the properties of that to which they refer, in the way that a photograph is – or as the sound tsupu does, representing a peccary who slips into a pool of water in the forest. (Kohn writes: “Once I tell people what tsupu means, they often experience a sudden feel for its meaning: ‘Oh, of course, tsupu!’”) Indices, by contrast, point to something else, as when a palm tree crashes down in the forest and a monkey understands that something dangerous may be happening and that it needs to move. All life, for Kohn, participates in icons and indices, whereas the third type of sign – symbols – involve convention and are unique to humans. When we link signs with all of life, we break out beyond “the conflation of representation with language” that characterizes most of anthropology and even “posthuman approaches that seek to dissolve the boundaries that have been erected to construe humans as separate from the rest of the world”.
By the time a person has finished dissolving the “boundaries that have been erected to construe humans as separate from the rest of the world,” he will doubtless think screaming in the trees is an achievement.
Apparently, plants evolved to think, but we didn’t. Funny that.
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