Environmental Philosophy and the Philosophy of Nature
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The Philosophy of Nature

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Environmental Philosophy

An interesting developmental fact about the western philosophical interest in Ecology, Biology and the major life sciences, as well as Environmental Philosophy and the study of nature in general is that in western Philosophy "Nature" as a theme begins in earnest within early 20th Century Philosophical discussions, but Nature as the subject matter is quickly eclipsed by an intense fascination with the language used to talk about Nature. For two thirds of the century questions about language dominate the philosophical arena. Not until the 1970s does the discussion eventually gather around a completely demystified nature, one considered to be a Cultural Construct. Before the very notion of "Man's Environment" becomes problematic, Environmental philosophy must downplay the gender critique and center its discussion in relation to the habits and anomalies of living beings as they become, themselves, cultural constructs in the way bodily systems and functions are described and defined and eventually applied to some concept of Nature, one that either lingers problematically haunted by any number of metaphysical notions, or a new one born from some collection and rearrangement of previous studies.

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Environmental Issues

The philosophy of nature is interesting because nonhuman life is considered an important topic of discussion. How are we to define relationships and responsibilities to nonhuman beings?

Environmental Thinkers
Environmental Theories & Concepts

Environmental Concepts

Classic Nature Writing

Two of the most exciting classical nature writers are Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Fifty years apart and from opposite coastal lines and ranges, these two writers attempt to capture in words the electrifying intensity of the commercial commodification of Wild Nature with plenty of angst and even some naked bodily celebration, if not without some Puritan guilt.

The Marrow of Incarnation
Merleau-Ponty's Ontology of Nature

The beginning line of the introduction to his first major work indicates the direction Merleau-Ponty's philosophical career was to take. He writes: "Our goal is to understand the relations of consciousness and nature: organic, psychological or even social." (SB, p. 3) And it is evident this theme was still with him at the end of his life, for there are numerous references to this selfsame goal in his last work-in-progress, The Visible and the Invisible. For example, he writes: "Do a psychoanalysis of Nature: it is the flesh, the mother." (VI, p. 267) And on the very last entry of this unfinished work, he jots down an outline to a threefold scheme. It reads:

My plan:

I The Visible
II Nature
III Logos (3)

Under this he puts down a few clarifications to what he means by these words, and given them, we can see that Merleau-Ponty is attempting to reconsider these 'concepts' in light of what has been handed down to us through the Western tradition, but in such a way as to escape all the presuppositions embedded within them. He says:

Since the enigma of the brute world is finally left intact by science and by reflection, we are invited to interrogate that world without presupposing anything. (VI, p. 157)

And, in working though what he means by "the intertwining," it becomes evident that these three interrelated words (visibility, nature, logos) were to become cornerstones of a new philosophical paradigm, one which was to be set against traditional concepts such as "mind," "matter," and "logic." This new paradigm was to overcome many of the traditional dichotomies which have plagued philosophy from the very beginning. It was to be a phenomenological ontology of nature, one which would call into question the whole tradition of western metaphysics, not only as it pertains to the persistent and irreconcilable dispute between rationalist and realist conceptions of the world, but also as it pertains to those 'postmodern non conceptions' as well. Once set free, this new ontology would be able to shoulder the task of interrogating directly "the mute or reticent interlocutor of our questions," the primordial presence of the il y a (VI, p. 129).

This return to preobjective Being is no easy task, since it seems to demand a reinstatement of the original wonder in the face of our being in the world which spurred philosophy in the beginning. "We do not even know in advance what our interrogation itself and our method will be" (VI, p. 158). It seems to insist on our being satisfied with the absence of both grounds and explanations, for it requires, not only the exclusion of formal logic, but all concepts which have been tainted by objective thinking. As he says, "We must, at the beginning, eschew notions such as 'acts of consciousness,' 'states of consciousness,' 'matter,' 'form,' and even 'image' and 'perception'" (VI, pp. 157-158). This statement strikes us as incredible since the directory of concepts he is flagging for us includes a term which epitomizes Merleau-Ponty's entire philosophical career: the "primacy of perception." But he makes clear what he means here:

We exclude the term perception to the whole extent that it already implies a cutting up of what is lived into discontinuous acts, or a reference to "things" whose status is not specified, or simply an opposition between the visible and the invisible (VI, p. 158).

This fragmentation of the world is the problem which this return to ontology is addressing. But, we are caught within our questioning stance, hemmed in on one side by our metaphysical concepts which shatter experience and destroy our faith in the body's aboriginal ability to tell the truth; hemmed in on the other side by the fact that this new beginning can only be activated through an interpretation, one which dangerously, though Merleau-Ponty claims superficially, resembles the perpetuation of the very idealist enterprise we are intending to destroy. We must find a way back to a certain attitude, and thus a certain relationship we indwell towards the world.

Let us therefore consider ourselves installed amongst the multitude of things, living beings, symbols, instruments, and men, and let us try to form notions that would enable us to comprehend what happens top us there (VI, p. 159; VI, p. 183).

We must find our way back to that opening which exists before our "perceptual faith" becomes stained by the presuppositions of science and religion. We will refine our meaning of the term 'perception' so as to bring it into a new vocabulary which will address the very encounter between language and Nature, language and Being...

Notes: Works by Merleau-Ponty: VI, The Visible and the Invisible.

Environmental Ethics

With the sudden realization that wild places were rapidly disappearing from the planet, a great concern for saving the wild occurred in the 1970s, but the traditions and theories highlighting the need to save wild things and wild places can be seen clearly in nature writers and nature philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ethical relationships with animals reaches back much further, to the pre-Socratic thinkers.

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