What Hath Continental Philosophy to do With Environmentalism?

There is a very interesting essay here in the area of continental philosophy and environmentalism. The essay also highlights many of the areas discussed on this blog and also on Eric Reitan’s blog.

Here are some good quotes:

The issue of global warming was framed by natural scientists who “called unselfconsciously for deterministic social-scientific predictions of human inputs to the climate system for up to centuries ahead…. Human society and culture was thus in effect reduced to a behavioral stimulus-response mechanism.”43 Naïve natural-scientific assumptions about “brute facts” not only mask the extent to which environmental problems have social and cultural roots, we are told, but also unduly privilege technocratic expertise in a way that ignores the extent to which local people have superior knowledge of environmental issues that directly affect them.44 For postmodern social theorists, nature is best regarded as a socio-cultural construction, not as an independent given.

A constructive postmodern theory would also contribute to a re-enchantment of the world, without thereby fostering personal, psychological, or social regression. The world was dis-enchanted when modern natural science persuaded Western elites that the universe is a meaningless totality of matter-energy, and that humankind is an accidentally evolved species that invents gods as comforting, but pathetic illusions in the face of an ultimately pointless existence. Environmentalists often accept the validity of such naturalism in part because they want to align themselves with modern natural science, and in part because they think that denying transcendent domains will protect nature from arrogant anthropocentrism, humanity-nature dualism, and otherworldly contempt for nature. Unfortunately for environmentalism, Ken Wilber argues, the same naturalism is the basis for “the modern industrial ontology,” according to which “nature is the ultimate reality, nature alone is real.” 63 Dressing up naturalism with systems theory does not differentiate it from the very same naturalism that portrays nature as a complex mechanical totality that humankind can analyze and dominate.

In addition to having difficulties in accounting for human consciousness, naturalism has struggled to account for the ethical “ought.” Environmentalists who adhere to naturalism, however, often claim that humans “ought” to curb their striving to maximize fitness by gaining control over most of the Earth. If we are merely one kind of organism among countless others, however, why “ought” we—apart from merely prudential considerations—to limit our strivings? 20 One way to answer this question is to admit that reflective consciousness and morality are extraordinary phenomena that transcend naturalistic categories. Humans can and ought to reduce suffering, to respect life, to care for one another. Postmodern theorists rightly criticize naturalism for its inability to account for human experience.

The last sentence of that last paragraph is striking. It is, after all, the most important aspect of what we call being alive. This thing we call being “human” and the experience of that “humanness.” All that is summed up when we think of irony, humor, our sense of beauty, love, peace, morality, joy, thankfulness and gratitude, and our making of art, music, poetry, and literature and all the other terms we use to describe those and similar qualities or conditions—all those things are what make life “life” and beautiful and good. At the end of the day, no one cares about the often more mechanical and rote parts of life, but what we do care about and live for are all that is summed up by what it means to be “human.” Now, imagine a philosophy or world-view such as philosophical naturalism that is, not only incapable of accounting for the “human experience” but when it makes the attempt, tries to explain it away by reducing it to neurons firing and matter-in-motion.

It boggles the mind really. Why on earth would anyone believe something so contrary to our own experience, the history of cultures, and to the very sensibility of the best that has been offered by every culture in the areas of art, music, poetry, literature, architecture, science, philosophy, or theology? It is one of the great mysteries of modern times.

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2 Responses to What Hath Continental Philosophy to do With Environmentalism?

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Why believe it? Because it is true. You seem to be advocating a return to unconscious psychology, where our minds are magical emanations of the divine, and whatever they purvey to us has noumenal authenticity, even authority.

    Do I want to kill someone? God told me to do so, and thus it is good. Do I want to flaggelate myself to satisfy my god? As long as it “feels right”, so it is.

    Naturalism has freed us from this unbounded magical thinking and grounded our minds in our brains, where they are prone to many psychological abnormalities and unrealistic tendencies. Sorry to tell you, but things have really advanced from the Medieval times, when guilt was “proven” by torture and trials by fire, and the like. The naturalistic account (for feelings, etc.) is there, whether you like the story it tells or not.

    So, while you may denigrate naturalism as explaining “away” magic and other psychological fixations, the explanation stands nevertheless, and it is not possible for you to wave it away with a bit of rhetoric.

    As far as environmentalism goes, these are some interesting points. Its core is aesthetic and humanistic. But even in the most rational analysis, the issue is that while humans may successfully “dominate” nature, they may not do so wisely.

    We can't live without nature, while it can live without us. We live in it. And we still do not have to requisite knowledge or control to make sure that our “domination” actually serves our interests in the long run. There have been plenty of examples of short-run technological wonders that bit us in the long run, of which CO2 is now a glaring example. We know the current climate change is taking the planet to places it has not been for over 10 million years (when humans didn't even exist). This is uncharted territory, and we are not there due to a clear-eyed policy, but as the unintended consequence of using fossil fuels. Simple prudence as well as reason suggests that we stop this train before it turns into a collective wreck.

    Lastly, “For postmodern social theorists, nature is best regarded as a socio-cultural construction, not as an independent given.”

    Is this a joke?


  2. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “Why believe it? Because it is true.”

    Really! It’s settled then! Ummm, you beg the question here but the entire response does as well.

    “Naturalism has freed us from this unbounded magical thinking and grounded our minds in our brains, where they are prone to many psychological abnormalities and unrealistic tendencies.”

    Do you mean tendencies and abnormalities like philosophical naturalism? You may have just undercut the rest of your arguments.


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