Ecological Metaphysics

October 7, 2014 § 24 Comments

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[Image: Neil Krug]

[Update: Leon responds to some of my questions here.]

Leon Niemoczynski writes an interesting post on ecological metaphysics here. While we have our differences concerning the contemporary philosophical landscape, Leon and I agree quite strongly that ecology represents something like the future basis for philosophy. However, while he lists quite a few resources for thinking philosophy through ecology, and ecology through philosophy, we don’t get much in the way of articulating what, exactly, makes a philosophy or a metaphysics ecological. Leon writes:

The key ideas for [American and Continental] traditions, I think, when it comes to developing an environmental philosophy that is inspired by recent positions of speculative philosophy in realist and materialist orientation, is that these metaphysical positions are developed so that they are thoroughly ecological.  Thus, “speculative naturalism” is an ecological metaphysics as much as it is a realist and materialist metaphysics.

Okay, but what does “ecological” in this context mean? To be sure, there are some references to the process tradition, to naturalism, to actor-networks, to materialism et al., but we don’t get an account of what specifically differentiates an ecological metaphysics from any other kind realist, materialist, or naturalist metaphysics. This raises an important question: What are the precise criteria for identifying philosophical ecologies?

For Leon, is philosophical ecology just naturalism updated?* Does a philosophy concerned with creatures and relationships necessarily constitute it as ecological? I don’t think so. Lest we simply render ecological metaphysics as Nature 2.0., I’ve suggested a preliminary definition of an ecological metaphysics where ecology is the breakdown between structure and content. This is the most general definition of ecology I have been able to formulate. In the biological sense, the breakdown between structure and content applies to organisms and environments, to genetics and epigenetics, to genotypes and phenotypes, to nature and nurture, to cultural history and biological history. In a more philosophical key, this formulation references the breakdown between the transcendental and the empirical, between the ontological and the epistemological, and between appearance and reality. (I have a recent paper on this breakdown here and a shorter synopsis here, both of which place aesthetics as an important category for philosophical ecology, a move I think Leon would affirm.)

Whitehead of course is a key influence for me here, but so is Isabelle Stengers, if not more so. Not enough has been written on the entanglement of the physics of laws (read “structure”) and the physics of phenomena (read “content”) she details in Cosmopolitics. Readers of Whitehead will notice that Stengers’s entanglement of laws and phenomena mirrors very closely Whitehead’s ontological principle, and it also comes close to the physicist Lee Smolin’s reading of cosmic evolution and the emergence of physical laws. In the case of Whitehead, Stengers, and Smolin, it’s not enough that we think of physical laws as atemporal and necessary. Instead, we must understand that the laws themselves emerged at a point in cosmic history and that they are in an important sense immanent to and entangled with all phenomena. Ecology is an entanglement of laws and phenomena; the real is ecological, evolving, recursive; the cosmos is an ecological event.

Here there’s a breakdown of structure and content at a very basic cosmological level, which leads us to a related point about ecological metaphysics: the cosmos is historical all the way up and all the way down, all the way backwards and all the way forwards. Leon quotes the popular Whiteheadian aphorism “Other cosmic epochs are possible” to get at the same point, but when he writes, “The adventure of the natural world and the agencies within it is far from over [emphasis mine]” I have to disagree. And I also have to point out that Leon is contradicting himself. (Earlier in the post Leon writes, “There is no super-order or container of “Nature.”  There is, on the other hand, agencies and networks, or better, creatures and relationships.”) Thus if ecology is a general condition that describes the breakdown of structure and content, and if there really are cosmic dimensions to this statement, then the adventure of the natural world and the agencies within it is precisely what’s over.

This ongoing breakdown is, I think, where we need to start with philosophy and ecology.

*If naturalism is the route we choose to take, I think whatever “naturalism” means these days must come to grips with Steven Shaviro’s “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature.”

Evolutionary Transcendentals

September 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

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[Image: Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian]

In response to my previous post on philosophical ecology, Claire Fanger writes, “This is helpful, illuminating and thought provoking as always; and yet I feel as though it struggles with the dichotomies it seeks to move past. I want to suggest that all the dichotomies you explore here have in common that they seem to posit an infinitude of being and a finitude of knowledge seeking to grasp it.”

I think Claire is right, and I should have been more clear about the context for the previous post. The points on appearance and reality, ontology and epistemology, and the empirical and the transcendental were excerpted from a longer essay wherein I deal with precisely the issue Claire raises.

Below I excerpt the section of my paper that deals with questions related to the ontological status of transcendentals and with how to conceive of related questions (e.g., “ground”) from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. It’s becoming clear to me that what I’m after is some version of a geophilosophy that affords a description of something we might call evolutionary transcendentals or an ecological a priori. Here is the relevant excerpt:

Whitehead’s cosmology acknowledges that the conditions of possibility of human experience have their own conditions of existence set by the ecological conditions of reality. In Whitehead’s approach, the ground, to use a traditional philosophical term, is not a primordial layer that sits as a backdrop upon which events occur; rather, for Whitehead the ground is a shifting and co-implicative terrain of diverse and evolving beings, a collision of multiple trajectories, lured in different ways by different concerns and possibilities. In Whitehead’s view, space and time are not containers but are instead emergent features spun off from the adventures of entities themselves. Stated in other terms, the conditions of possibility for human experience and knowledge are not Kantian a priori categories of the mind alone, nor even a fixed layer of some special substance, instead the condition of possibility for human experience, or any other being’s experience, is a multispecies collective of other beings, both living and non-living. (pp. 6–7)

I have also uploaded the full paper, which goes into all these questions in more detail, here. (I mentioned before this is a modified version of the IBHA paper I gave in August.)

A Philosophical Ecology

September 20, 2014 § 19 Comments

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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. « Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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