A Philosophical Ecology

September 20, 2014 § 4 Comments


In my last two talks, I began to lay the groundwork for a philosophical ecology. Such a philosophy engages traditional philosophical categories—e.g, appearance and reality, ontology and epistemology, and the empirical and the transcendental—in a new light informed by an evolutionary and ecological framework. Below I summarize the ways in which each of these categories are transformed by the ecological insights of Alva Noë, Jacob von Uexküll, and Alfred North Whitehead. There’s much more work to be done in this area, but this at least gives us a sketch for how ecology will continue to transform philosophy in the coming years.

First, appearance and reality. Noë, von Uexküll, and Whitehead all deal in this distinction, albeit in slightly different ways. Noë deals in the phenomenological distinction between presence and absence. That which can be made present for Noë is related to the style or mode of access by which something can be made to appear. Similarly, von Uexküll follows the traditional Kantian distinction between appearing phenomena and inaccessible noumena, the latter of which serve as the cause for every appearance. We saw that Whitehead also plays in the language of appearance and reality, but also that he places this distinction in the context of evolutionary process. Each account thus opens out, in its own way, into an ecological zone that allows us to see that the distinction between what is present and what is absent cannot be fixed. Ecological philosophy means that, when we include evolutionary process, there is an ongoing breakdown between presence and absence, between appearance and reality.

Second, ontology and epistemology. If we accept Noë’s and von Uexküll’s ecological argument that embodiment and understanding are intimately linked, then we also encounter another breakdown or complication between ontology, the study of what is, and epistemology, the study of how we come to know what is. For if knowing and bodies are to a significant degree the same thing, then we are obliged to say that what a being can know is also the same thing as what a being can be. However, this does not amount to a full collapse of ontology into epistemology, as in the Kantian gesture we saw Whitehead reject earlier, nor does it result in a collapse of epistemology into ontology, as we see in what is sometimes called the “new materialism.”[1] Instead it means that ontology and epistemology are linked, recursively, within the concept of ethology. In other words, in order for a being to know otherwise it must also become otherwise. The concept of ethology thus allows us to accept that knowing and being are closely linked, but it also allows us to maintain what I see as a crucial division between what is known about the cosmos and what escapes translation into knowledge or experience.

Third, the empirical and the transcendental. Von Uexküll’s ethology and Whitehead’s philosophy of organism give the lie to Kant’s transcendental schema. For Kant, the transcendental refers to those structures of the human being that are a priori or that are independent of experience and that work to organize the in-flow of all empirical events. The transcendental in Kant’s formulation is a universal structure within which particular empirical occasions are shaped and unfold as contents of lived experience. However, from the ecological view, it is the transcendental structures themselves, or more precisely what Kant called the transcendental ego, that must be given a genetic account in terms of a more primary and ecological cosmogenesis.

If ecology is to become a new ground for philosophy, then the transcendental and the empirical need to be re-thought as relational and evolving categories: What is transcendental structure for one organism is empirical datum for another, and what is given as a structure that affords certain appearances is neither fixed nor universal; it is rather developed, multispecies, and plastic. In other words, if lived experience is grounded in a certain kind of cognitive structure that allows empirical content to emerge in a certain way, then it is also the case that the structure of the transcendental is itself grounded in an external ecology of actuality and circumstance. Thus if we can speak of an upwelling of a stream of consciousness within the empty, form-giving space of the mind, then we can also speaking of an inwelling stream of external activity, that, over historical and evolutionary time periods, gives shape to the organizing structure itself.

In the view of a philosophical ecology, then, the transcendental is not an empty, universal space within which phenomena can emerge in a particular way but is instead a historically saturated medium, a medium filled with the tributaries of achieved conceptual understanding along which flows of thought constellate themselves as partial organizers of experience and which allow the growth of new kinds of experience. Mind is just such an intersection of rivers and tributaries; not a dialogic of easily opposed terms (e.g., “empirical” and “transcendental”) but an ecologic, a creative multiplicity of convergent events preserved over time.

Along the lines of grounding the empirical and the transcendental within a larger ecology of being, Peter Sloterdijk writes of, “the one earth, which serves as the bearer of world formations,”[2] and that the “[earth] is now the transcendental star that comes into play as the locational condition for all self-reflections,”[3] a star that “carries flora, fauna, and cultures”[4] and that is, “the exemplary hybrid in which the empirical is unified with the transcendental.”[5] Thus in the ecological view it is the transcendental which is attached to and dependent on the terrestrial. In this geocentric account—in many ways an inversion of Kant’s so-called Copernican Revolution—it is the geological conditions of the Earth that closely entangle, ground, and enable the activity called philosophy.

To conclude, then, a philosophical ecology complicates relations between appearance and reality, between ontology and epistemology, and between the empirical and the transcendental. Stated in general terms, philosophical ecology sees an ongoing breakdown between structure and content, between matter and meaning. Appearance and reality are not fixed domains but are ecologically entangled and reversing territories. Knowing and being are not two separate activities but are deeply linked capacities driven by the concerns, values, and decisions of organisms. Space and time are not fixed containers within which events unfold but are rather emergent features abstracted from the adventures of entities themselves. This means that ecology is not about organisms in environments—surrounded by them, situated by them, and so on—but that ecology is an event much more ambiguous in nature; the possibility space is itself ecological, evolving, and recursive. Reality in this sense has something like an ecological structure, and the cosmos is something like an ecological event.

[1] Cf. Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

[2] Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital (Malden, MA: Polity Press 2013), 10.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Ibid., 250.

Upcoming Talks Near and Far

September 15, 2014 § 3 Comments

Stunning Macro Photographs of Insects[Image: Yudy Sauw]

Just a quick update on some speaking events. This Friday, September 19, I’ll be speaking on a panel in San Francisco at the California Institute of Integral Studies. This talk will largely be a repeat of the panel presentation on Cosmopolitics we gave at the IBHA conference this past August—though this time with more Cosmopolitics and less Big History. If you live in the Bay Area feel free to stop by. The event is free and runs from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.

Further down the road, I’ll be participating in a number of ways at the 10th International Whitehead Conference to be held at Pomona College in June of 2015. In terms of speaking, I’ll be presenting on two panels: “Late-Modernity and its Reductive Monism” and “The Universe Story and Inclusive History as the Context of Meaning.” Outlines for both tracks are available here.

For the first talk I plan on exploring Vicki Bell’s ecologies of concern in the context of my own research on concepts (see here and here). The second talk will again focus on Cosmopolitics. I haven’t sketched out the details yet, and there’s still a ways to go before the event, so I am anticipating that my thinking will evolve between now and then. I do have a sense though that the first talk will center specifically on human beings, focusing on epistemology, critical philosophy, and politics, and that the second talk will focus more on cosmology and speculative philosophy. No doubt many of my notes for both talks will appear in some form on Knowledge Ecology. 

Lastly, in addition to the panel presentations, I’ll also be doing some footwork helping to assemble the track on Whitehead and eco-politics.

Histories of Lived Experience

August 8, 2014 § 14 Comments

tumblr_n7v7s4CrVw1qzngato1_1280[Image: Edward Burtynsky]

Earlier today I delivered a talk on ethology, ecology, and aesthetics as part of a panel on Cosmopolitics at the International Big History Conference held in San Rafael, CA. I am posting my talk below, which you can also find in .pdf form here.

Histories of Lived Experience: Intertwining Ethology, Ecology, And Aesthetics

Adam Robbert, San Francisco, CA

Paper presented at the International Big History Conference, Dominican University, San Rafael, CA, August 8.

What is the significance of meaning in Big History? There is a great diversity of opinion on this issue. For example, Eric Chaisson, one of the original board members of the IBHA, holds that Big History must let go of concepts such as intentionality, subjectivity, and, presumably, meaning, in order to understand evolution objectively.[1] Conversely, the focus of my talk is that an understanding of meaning is necessary for an understanding of evolution at its most fundamental level. A central claim of my talk is that we have to understand that which is meaningful to organisms if ever we hope to comprehend the history of evolution on Earth. My talk thus offers a non-anthropocentric and aesthetic account of meaning in the context of geological history. Ecology from this view is an ongoing entanglement of meanings, concerns, and decisions, and it marks the space where the division between matter and meaning breaks down.  « Read the rest of this entry »

Blind Brain Theory and Enactivism: In Dialogue With R. Scott Bakker

June 11, 2014 § 7 Comments

tumblr_mkwlanqOci1qzngato1_1280[Image: Hannah Imlach]

Last week I posted a short essay on the question of meaning, style, and aesthetics in the ecological theories of Alva Noë and Jacob von Uexküll. The post resulted in a long and in-depth discussion with science fiction novelist and central architect of the Blind Brain Theory (BBT) of cognition, R. Scott Bakker. Our conversation waded through multiple topics including phenomenology, the limits of transcendental arguments, enactivism, eliminativism, meaning, aesthetics, pluralism, intentionality, first-person experience, and more. So impressed was I with Bakker’s adept ability to wade through the issues — across disciplines, perspectives, and controversies — despite my protests that I felt it worth excerpting our dialogue as a record of the exchange and as a resource for others interested in these debates. Whatever your views on the philosophy of mind, Bakker’s unique position is one you should familiarize yourself with — if only, like me, so that you can find better ways to dispute its unsettling consequences. To provide a little context to the dialogue I am re-stating my central claim and concluding paragraph from the earlier post: « Read the rest of this entry »

Noë and Uexküll: Ecology, Style, and Meaning

June 3, 2014 § 40 Comments

tumblr_mm96ib07g81qzngato1_1280[Image: Tomas Rak]

I have been exploring Alva Noë’s actionist account of perception and cognition in terms of an ecological account of the subject-concept relation. In my previous posts (here and here), I have emphasized a level of conceptual understanding that presupposes both language and the capacity to learn new concepts, or, more interestingly, I have described the way in which a subject can never really learn anything new but rather can only become someone with a new set of conceptual capacities through learning and practice. In this view, the subject-concept relation is ecological insofar as the concept has a symbiotic relation to the subject that both displaces and creates new conceptual capacities. To be more specific, and to repeat my phrasing from the earlier posts, learning initiates a symbiosis between subject and concept that ends in the merging of the concept with the subject and of the transformation of the subject through its understanding of the concept. « Read the rest of this entry »

Traditions of Unknowing

May 30, 2014 § 10 Comments

04-Dennis-Wojtkiewicz-fruit_4[Image: Dennis Wojtkiewicz]

In my last post I offered a two-part description of the concept: the concept-as-tool and the concept-as-capacity. I then suggested both these definitions come together in the learning process. Learning, in this view, is a transition of the concept as an external tool into the concept as an acquired capacity. I concluded by suggesting that the transition into the concept-as-capacity phase reveals the ecological nature of the subject-concept dynamic. In this mode of understanding, a subject is not the kind of being that can simply acquire new concepts while remaining identical to him or herself. Instead, from the ecological view, learning initiates a symbiosis between subject and concept that ends in the merging of the concept with the subject and of the transformation of the subject through its understanding of the concept. « Read the rest of this entry »

Concepts as Capacities and as Tools

May 23, 2014 § 12 Comments

In Alva Noë’s recent work Varieties of Presence we are given an enactive (or “actionist”) account of perception and cognition. In this post I want to explore a few elements within Noë’s text that I find myself in substantial agreement with—his account of meaning and perception, his understanding of “access” as a form skillful engagement, and his nonrepresentational account of concepts, for example—but I also want to seize upon what I see as an important ambiguity in Noë’s work. In his description of concepts, Noë vacillates between two definitions: In the first definition, Noë draws on the etymological root of the word “concept” to suggest that concepts are tools used for “grasping” phenomena, while in the second Noë follows Wittgenstein’s assertion that understanding is a kind of ability or capacity, and that concepts are nothing but ways a body can achieve access to its environment. Rather than declare that one of Noë’s definitions should take precedence over the other, I want to suggest that both definitions—concepts as tools and concepts as capacities—represent two different moments within the transformative act we call “learning.” « Read the rest of this entry »


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