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Among the Trees: Pictures of the Human Person

Updated: May 17, 2021

Originally written for InterGifted, a wonderful international organization supporting gifted people, and published in their creative writing and art compilation, Gifts for an Emerging World.

For my contribution, I outlined my current views on who we are and our place in a world that is increasingly technological and ecologically troubled, but, as always, for those with eyes to see, filled with meaning, abundance, and promise.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you.

-- David Wagoner

Ann Arbor, Michigan is a city filled with trees. Trembling aspens, American beeches, hackberries, black maples, white oaks. Once as a small child I biked behind my older brother through a city park not too far from our house. Near the outskirts he glanced back, then vanished through a slight opening in a hedge. I stopped at the hedge, dismounted, and pushed my bike through the gap. He was gone. I churned the pedals up and down the street. He was nowhere. Nothing was familiar in the surrounding neighborhood, the yards, the front doors, other kids playing. Beyond the rooftops trees crammed with leaves towered everywhere. To my immature mind the world ended at the limits of my eyesight, with the walls of trees. I biked all through the neighborhood, but my home was gone, lost in the nothingness outside the trees.

Philosophical poverty can afflict us as much as material poverty. When our pictures of ourselves and the world shrivel and fragment, we cannot see possibilities for exploration, creation, healing, finding our home. Our imaginations shrink from the richly latticed realities within and among us, and within and among so many other creatures: boxwood hedges, tiger salamanders, Samoan moss spiders, mountain zebras, toadstools, tuataras, multitudes of beetles, red kites, cackling geese.

So what can I do to help counter this poverty and the divisions from the world around us that follows it? Pretty much what I am trained to do: imagine, synthesize, think carefully, and write. This essay is just a beginning. My long term goal is to construct a philosophically responsible picture of ourselves and our place in the world that will ground and validate design and action directed towards healing wounds within ourselves and between us and the rest of creation, especially wounds we have inflicted (often unwittingly or unintentionally) on other parts of creation. A picture that finds us in our created home by capturing the richness and intimacy of the relationship between mind and body, spirit and matter, and thereby the richness and intimacy of our relationships with each other and the rest of the world. My starting point combines work from the late philosopher David Braine, especially The Human Person: Animal and Spirit, and the cultural anthropologist Eduardo Kohn in How Forests Think.

Inner/Outer Dualisms: the Mental as Inner

“One might say that dualism, wherever it is found, is a way of seeing emergent novelty as if it were severed from that from which it emerged.” -- Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think[1]

“We have here a perspective within which at root human beings as deliberators or even as contemplators are external to what they administer so that they can regard it in a purely technical way, whether the ends they seek are pleasurable sensations or pleasurable inner biographies or some subjectively chosen external end or complex of ends. We may call this the technological mentality.” – David Braine, The Human Person: Animal and Spirit[2]

A child sprints through her yard to an aging live oak. Its thick branches grow nearly touching the ground and she leaps up and climbs from branch to branch, scrapping her knees on the rough bark. Small, elliptical leaves tickle her skin. Is she in direct contact with the bark, the leaves? Or is this contact mediated? How is it mediated? How does the climbing, or the tree, change her? How does she change the tree?

Touching the rough bark is an instance of perception. Wrapping her arms around a branch and climbing is an instance of intentional action as she acts according to a choice. Both perception and intentional action are operations of a conscious being, something with awareness. What is aware? How does the awareness work?

Think for a moment about a pattern, identified by the philosopher Albert Borgmann,[3] underlying our current technologies, a pattern that started to develop in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Consider stereo systems, washing machines, automobiles, mp3 players, and other devices; or more abstract technologies: fast food, elaborate traffic systems, bureaucracies with their impersonal, detached administration of benefits. These technologies embody a division between, on the one hand, isolated commodities and, on the other, a hidden machinery, often inaccessible and distant, that provides these commodities. Except to a few, the way an mp3 player together with earbuds produce music is opaque at best, while the music is easily accessible, something to consume at will, in contrast to a violin, which will produce music only with difficulty, but in which the mechanism producing the music is more or less transparent.

This technological pattern bears an uncanny resemblance to a view, equally pervasive, outlined by Braine,[4] of how the mental, that is, our awareness, perceptual experience, beliefs, emotions, intentions, sensations, or imaginations, relates to the physical, our bodies and their actions and patterns of behavior. This view sees the mental as something inner, logically segregated and causally and ontologically distinct from the outside world, including the body and its behavior and states. Suppose we want to understand, say, intentional action, the child climbing to a higher branch. Because, according to this view, her intent to climb is a mental event, we start inside an immaterial mind or some portion of her physical nervous system with an “act of will” or a “choice” conceived as an event logically distinct from her body and its interactions with the world. We connect this intention with bodily movements or behavior that are outside her mind by postulating causal relations between states of her mind or brain states and these bodily movements.

When describing or explaining experience and behavior, this type of analysis – whether applied to intentional action or some other experience or activity such as perception – breaks apart the unity of the human person along with her intimate immersion in the world by breaking up the person into an inner part, a brain or maybe a central nervous system or a disembodied mind, and an outer part, a body or some outer part of the body, through which, in mediation, the inner part touches and acts in the world. The constant motif in any analysis like this is a division of the human person into inner and outer parts and then the external connection of these inner parts to the world surrounding the person through the outer part.

And just as this view sees the external machinery of our bodies mediating all the relations of our inner mental lives with the world, so, in most current technologies, opaque machinery often mediates our relations with the world and with each other. The ease and quick availability of these technologies provide advantages, sometimes indispensable and life-saving advantages, but separate us from an intimate, organic relation to the world still manifested, say, in the skilled playing of a viola, the nurturing work of gardening, or in climbing a tree.

On a collective level, we largely adopted a picture of ourselves, along with technologies, that cut us off from organic interaction with the world and often with each other. The complexions of our lives reflect this division of so much of the world into isolated commodities and opaque machinery,[5] most of the machinery environmentally destructive, a heavy weight on creation and its other inhabitants. These divisions often result in feelings of political and even personal impotence and foster an ignorance and subsequent disregard for the effects of our lives on the rest of creation, including our fellow humans. Divided from the machinery that runs our daily lives, and even our own bodies, we feel powerless to take responsibility for many of the consequences of our daily actions but might feel responsible nonetheless; those of us who tend towards more thoughtful awareness might feel the burden of this responsibility more than others.

That thoughtful awareness, however, is a resource for envisioning and building an emerging world. We can draw on other pictures of the human person, from many philosophical and spiritual traditions, not only in understanding ourselves but in using this understanding to design alternative kinds and patterns of technology for relating to and “taking up with the world”[6] and with other creatures. I begin to sketch one picture. And only one: I hope many others will construct alternative pictures as well.

Diffused Wholes: We are Relata First[7]

“The mental, in perception, imagination, emotion, and intentional action, is not something which goes on in the brain and is not something which goes on in a distinct, non-material part of the human being or animal called the mind. Rather, the mental, in all these things, has to be attributed primarily to the human being as such as a psychophysical unity. The mental is inextricably linked, logically and not just causally, with the patterns of bodily behavior in which it is reflected, and it is this inextricability which [gives] us the conception of the human being as a unitary psychophysical whole rather than as an organized aggregate of parts ...” -- David Braine, The Human Person: Animal and Spirit[8]

“The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

“Our bodies, like all of life, are the products of semiosis.” -- Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think[9]

The child climbing the live oak is exercising a skill she develops in relation, in conformity, to the tree’s contours and character. She molds her thoughts – including intentions and perceptions – as well as bodily behavior and aptitudes to the tree and is thereby shaped in her totality by the live oak. And she engages not only with an individual, a particular live oak, but a system – the oak is a home for prokaryotes, fungi, molds, vines, insects, hawks and sparrows, squirrels – a neighborhood of organisms collectively participating in the surrounding, intersecting ecosystems.

In a holistic analysis, wholes exist before parts. I picture the human being existing as a living whole before any of her parts; and being, at once, in her thoughts, actions, perceptions, emotions, intentions, behavior, and sensations, wholly mental and wholly physical. Following Braine’s analysis, I believe there is no level at which descriptions or explanations of human life or action are purely physical (as with materialism) or purely mental (as with traditional dualism and its postulation of a disembodied inner soul or mind). The most fundamental descriptions or explanations of human phenomena are necessarily “hybrid,” involving inseparably reference to the mental and physical aspects of a human person, including her outward behavior.[10]

We can use Kohn’s work to extend Braine’s analysis into the broader play of life. For Braine, we cannot disentangle the mental from outward bodily behavior and the physical more broadly; for Kohn, we find the mental also in the outside world and all the rest of life.[11] Drawing on C. S. Peirce’s theory of signs, or semiotics, in which signs extend far beyond, and far deeper than, human language, Kohn describes a world of life permeated by growing webs of semiosis and thereby permeated by thoughts – we think through signs and representations – and from which human thoughts, and symbolic language, emerge as only one diffused part of a whole.

Our mental lives, our minds, result from engaging the elaborate play of signs alive in the broader world. “All living beings sign”[12] and come to fit their habitats and become what they are through semiosis. Human selves emerge from, live within, and resemble a wider context of life and thought.

The term ‘diffused wholes’ is paradoxical, capturing our sense or goal of healthy individuality and integrity together with the sense that we are a part of each other and the rest of the world: that your good is part of my good, that our common good is a part of the world’s good, that the creation around us is a part of each of us, and its well-being a part and portion of our good and well-being.

Holistic pictures of the human person and the world of life provide philosophical soil for cultivating ways of life and designing and building homes, businesses, cities, governments, alternative kinds and patterns of technologies, that not only heal the wounds within and among us but spawn from out of these wounds and their healing new possibilities for growth and progress. The psychophysical unity of the human person originates from and exists within a broader unity (that in turn exists within an even broader unity, and so on, perhaps ad infinitum).

Equipped with the picture above (or others we construct), let’s set our imaginations free. What if our technologies reflected these holistic views? I wonder, can we envision technologies, or ways of “taking up with the world,” that, while preserving many of the advantages of current technologies and their scientific basis, also affirm as fundamental to our identities our relations to each other and other forms of matter, other life forms, other spirits? Instead of technologies that enable the damaging, energy-intensive, frenzied, escapist pace so characteristic of modern cities, can we conceive of, for example, technologies that encourage more skilled, organic, nurturing relations with creation, relations that in turn encourage and allow us to slow down to more consonance with creation, its patient pace, and its wise, varied rhythms of activity and rest?


Borgmann, Albert. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Braine, David. The Human Person: Animal and Spirit, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.

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

[1] Kohn [2103], 57. [2] Braine [1992], 13. [3] In this paragraph, I draw heavily (and all too concisely) on Albert Borgmann’s insightful analysis of technology in his [1984]. Borgmann refers to the contemporary pattern exemplified by technology as the device paradigm since it is most evident in devices such as phones or microwaves, though the pattern extends to more abstract technologies such as insurance systems. His [1984] provides detailed discussions of how the device paradigm pervades all aspects of contemporary life, including the relationship of technology to science, and how the device paradigm affects our politics and systems of justice, work and home life, and leisure. [4] This paragraph and the one following summarize (again, all too concisely) and, to some extent, interpret the description, analysis, and consequences of mind-body dualism and materialism with which Braine opens his [1992]. See in particular pp. 1-5, 11-16, and 23-33. Braine points out that contemporary materialism uses a “dualistic pattern of analysis” in its elimination or reduction of the mental to the brain or central nervous system and is thereby committed to the same inner/outer separation as dualism. [5] As Borgmann argues throughout his [1984]. [6] Borgmann’s phrase, used throughout [1984]. [7] The term ‘diffused wholes’ is a play on and extension of Kohn’s term ‘open wholes’ from his [2013]. [8] Braine [1992], 345. [9] Kohn [2013], 49. [10] The elaboration of this analysis is found throughout Braine [1992]; Braine uses the term ‘hybrid’ when developing his holism, especially its logic. See, for example, pp. 34-42 and chapter V. [11] In the next few sentences, I barely capture even one slim thread of the rich, stimulating tapestry of Kohn’s thinking in the first two chapters of his [2013], entitled “The Open Whole” and “The Living Thought.” I highly recommend his work. [12] Kohn [2013], 42.

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