The Task of Philosophy in the Anthropocene: Axial Echoes in Global Space 1786605562, 9781786605566

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Table of contents :
The Task of Philosophy in the Anthropocene
1 Environmental Cosmopolitanism as a Philosophy for the Anthropocene
2 The Coming of the Post-Axial Age
3 On Nature and Liberation
4 Eidetic Eros and the Liquidation of the Real
5 Odysseus on the Beach: Humanity between the Anthropocene and the Hubriscene
6 Starting from Ourselves as Living Beings
7 Philosophy’s Homecoming
8 The Uncanny Anthropocene
9 Which Way I Fly: Reforming Nihilism in the Anthropocene
10 Ecological Finitude as Ontological Finitude: Radical Hope in the Anthropocene
11 The Voices of Nature: Toward a Polyphonic Conception of Philosophy
About the Contributors
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The Task of Philosophy in the Anthropocene

Future Perfect: Images of the Time to Come in Philosophy, Politics and Cultural Studies Series Editors: Michael Marder, Ikerbasque Research Professor of philosophy, University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Spain, and professor at large, Humanities Institute, Diego Portales University (UDP), Chile. Patricia Vieira, associate professor, Spanish and Portuguese, Georgetown University, USA. The Future Perfect series stands at the intersection of critical historiography, philosophy, political science, heterodox economic theory, and environmental thought, as well as utopian and cultural studies. It encourages an interdisciplinary reassessment of the idea of futurity that not only holds a promising interpretative potential but may also serve as an effective tool for practical interventions in the fields of human activity that affect entire countries, regions, and the planet as a whole. Series Titles: The Future of Europe: Democracy, Legitimacy and Justice after the Euro Crisis Edited by Serge Champeau, Carlos Closa, Daniel Innerarity, and Miguel Poiares Maduro Taming an Uncertain Future: Temporality, Sovereignty, and the Politics of Anticipatory Governance Edited by Liam P. D. Stockdale The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future Edited by John Milbank and Adrian Pabst The Future of Meat without Animals Edited by Brianne Donaldson and Christopher Carter Manifestos for World Thought Edited by Lucian Stone and Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh The Task of Philosophy in the Anthropocene: Axial Echoes in Global Space Edited by Richard Polt and Jon Wittrock

The Task of Philosophy in the Anthropocene Axial Echoes in Global Space

Edited by Richard Polt and Jon Wittrock

Published by Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd Unit A, Whitacre Mews, 26–34 Stannary Street, London SE11 4AB Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd. is an affiliate of Rowman & Littlefield 4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706, USA With additional offices in Boulder, New York, Toronto (Canada), and Plymouth (UK) Selection and editorial matter © Richard Polt and Jon Wittrock, 2018 Copyright in individual chapters is held by the respective chapter authors. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN:

HB 978-1-7866-0555-9

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Available ISBN 9781786605559 (cloth : alk. paper) ISBN 9781786605566 (electronic) The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48–1992. Printed in the United States of America


Acknowledgmentsvii Introductionix Richard Polt and Jon Wittrock  1 Environmental Cosmopolitanism as a Philosophy for the Anthropocene Amos Nascimento


 2 The Coming of the Post-Axial Age John Michael Greer


 3 On Nature and Liberation Timothy Sean Quinn


 4 Eidetic Eros and the Liquidation of the Real Richard Polt


 5 Odysseus on the Beach: Humanity between the Anthropocene and the Hubriscene Gregory Fried


 6 Starting from Ourselves as Living Beings Luce Irigaray


 7 Philosophy’s Homecoming Michael Marder


 8 The Uncanny Anthropocene Byron Williston





 9 Which Way I Fly: Reforming Nihilism in the Anthropocene Jon Wittrock


10 Ecological Finitude as Ontological Finitude: Radical Hope in the Anthropocene Fernando Flores and B. Scot Rousse


11 The Voices of Nature: Toward a Polyphonic Conception of Philosophy Thomas M. Alexander


Index215 About the Contributors



Earlier versions of the chapters in this book by Thomas Alexander, Fernando Flores and B. Scot Rousse, and Michael Marder first appeared in Telos 177 (Winter 2016); they are reprinted with permission from Telos and the authors. An earlier version of Luce Irigaray’s “Starting from Ourselves as Living Beings” appeared in the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 46:2 (2015): 101–8; it is reprinted with permission from the journal and the author.


Introduction Richard Polt and Jon Wittrock

Anthropocene: the word has quickly become a byword for what many sense is a turning point in human and planetary history, an urgent new condition. It is surrounded not only by dread but also by curiosity: if we are truly entering an unprecedented and unpredictable epoch, new ways of understanding and dealing with ourselves and our world are bound to emerge in the coming decades and centuries. The byword that has captured our imagination points to a variety of problems in a variety of fields. First, there are problems of scientific fact, methodology, and nomenclature. The coinage “Anthropocene,” proposed by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer,1 may or may not be officially accepted by the geophysical sciences; this is, to some extent, a semantic issue. But, regardless of what we should call our current condition, scientists have mobilized to understand the complex and varied effects of human activity on our planet and to provide predictions and practical advice insofar as they can. There are also, of course, technical problems that face us in the Anthropocene. How can we accelerate the shift to green energy? What can we do to conserve species and remediate environmental damage? Can appropriate technologies enable the planet to sustain seven billion people (and counting) in the long run? And there are thorny political problems: whereas the drama of politics used to be played out against the backdrop of a natural world that was assumed to be stable and cyclical, the climate is now swiftly changing while politics is failing to respond quickly enough. At the time of this writing, the United States has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, which may itself have come too late in any case to avert catastrophic effects of climate change. As the glaciers melt, the pace of politics seems slower than glacial—subject as it is to the cyclical alternations of left and right, the inefficiency of democratic ix


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processes, the pressure of corporate interests, and the difficulties of changing the direction of the entire modern way of life.2 Art, literature, history, and the humanities at large are challenged to respond in their own ways to the Anthropocene by drawing on the accumulated reserve of human meanings and experiences to make sense of our new relationship to our planet.3 Religion and theology must also come to terms with the challenge that this new period poses to conceptions of humanity, the world, and the divine.4 What do philosophers—these often ignored, quarreling theorizers—have to contribute to these issues? Are they irrelevant? In fact, it can be argued that they have a special responsibility to participate in the discussion. Like every major phenomenon, the Anthropocene demands to be understood philosophically; furthermore, modern philosophy was itself a major contributor to the rise of modern technology and thus to the dramatic transformation of the earth. The methods and distinctions of thinkers such as Descartes can be credited, but also blamed, for humanity’s accelerated ability to analyze and alter its environment. More broadly, the philosophical aspiration to transcend the particular by rationally investigating essences eventually led to the universalizing theories of nature and humanity that have, in the modern age, dissolved former ecosystems and traditions. Thus, beyond the task of understanding the Anthropocene and its roots, philosophers may have a responsibility to ask whether there is anything that they, as philosophers, can do. Can we affect the future for the better? This is not the first volume to examine the Anthropocene from philosophical perspectives.5 But, as Byron Williston puts it in his contribution to this collection, “We simply need more philosophers thinking about the Anthropocene. Given the gravity of our situation, it is frankly amazing that this desideratum is not more widely appreciated in our discipline.” Furthermore, our collection has several distinctive features. First, we have challenged ourselves to think on the scale that the coming of the Anthropocene demands: a perspective that takes into account the entire history of philosophy and the history of the earth itself. The task requires ambition and risk. If we are really entering an unprecedented epoch, we must try to think radically and widely. The chapters in this volume make bold claims and try to imagine new possibilities. We have focused less on concrete, short-term recommendations than on exploratory ideas that may stimulate new directions. We thus accept the full (and daunting) scope of the tasks that philosophy has traditionally been assigned: to offer holistic views of history and the contemporary world, to critically scrutinize fundamental assumptions of other disciplines and within society at large, to venture into new areas of questioning (which may later develop into more precise sciences or areas of concrete inventions), and to

Introduction xi

offer new and arresting concepts, investigating their implications and visualizing unexpected connections. This does not necessarily entail that those engaged in such practices are consistently labeled “philosophers” or work within academia; conversely, not every academic philosopher engages in “philosophy” as understood previously. Our discussions thus spill out past any narrowly defined conventions of philosophical research. The current predicament calls for a wide variety of approaches that draw on the entire available range of options for thought and even try to extend that range. Thus, our readers will find discussions not only of Plato and Descartes but also of the Mayan Popol Vuh, Sophocles’s Antigone, the Upanishads, and the Odyssey. As these examples suggest, we are convinced that ancient sources remain relevant to the present and future. Karl Jaspers argued that world-changing philosophical and religious movements such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Hebrew prophecy, and Greek philosophy flourished across Eurasian civilizational or cultural spaces in an “Axial Age” in the first millennium BC, a hinge upon which history turned.6 (A more detailed account of Jaspers’s theory is provided by Amos Nascimento and John Michael Greer in their contributions to this volume.) We may distinguish between this “Axial Age” as a chronologically (and spatially) delimited epoch of human history and wider “axial” traits that have been and remain operative beyond these boundaries—thus, first, those traditions that can be traced to the Axial Age have of course not remained static but are in constant development, and, second, new traditions have emerged that are heavily influenced by an Axial heritage, Islam being the most obvious example. We may also question to what extent those axial traditions discussed by Jaspers and subsequent thinkers are alike or different and wonder how much of the perceived novelty of their innovations is due to our ability to read them and to trace their impact historically.7 Nevertheless, it is doubtlessly the case that axial conceptual figures remain influential today, and it is a characteristic mark of our axial forebears that we still, in a sense, relate to them as contemporaries: there are still Buddhists and Christians; people still seriously debate Plato and Aristotle; and nobody considers it very strange that we discuss, say, to what an extent Marxist narratives of history, or claims about human rights, have been inspired by Jewish and Christian traditions. Needless to say, we would exaggerate if we were to simply agree with one scholar who stated, regarding the Axial Age, that “no really new ideas have been added since that time.”8 Still, contemporary normative and descriptive debates relate to our axial heritage just as—to paraphrase Walter Benjamin—a blotting pad is related to ink: they are saturated with it.9 Furthermore, regardless of whether we accept the details of Jaspers’s analysis and his terminology, it seems that the human species now faces a turning


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point, a global crisis that challenges us to find deep sources of meaning and purpose. Axial traditions can help us find those sources—whether we try to retrieve ancient ideas by adapting them to our new situation or try to develop new ideas through confrontations with the ancients.10 What we must not do is simply assume that our established conceptual systems are up to the task of thinking through the Anthropocene, as if they were not laden with a history that is entangled with the rise of modern science, technology, and industry. It has not been possible for this volume to address all the major axial traditions nor do all our chapters focus on exploring them, but all our contributors agree that it is against the backdrop of millennia of cultural history that humanity is now facing the planet-wide effects of its growth and activities. Axial echoes resound through global space. Indeed, one of the major points of bringing up Jaspers’s contested notion is that it immediately emphasizes that the Anthropocene is becoming the new “axis” on which the entire globe turns. We are called to respond to this development in a global space that transcends previous cultural boundaries—through technological and communicative integration as well as through the ongoing industrialization of the world, which has brought so many blessings and so many risks. The axial legacy has always been ambiguous, and it remains so in the Anthropocene. Axial traditions conceptualized divisions between an immanent domain, or a world of the senses, and a transcendent domain, which provides an ultimate orientation for the former, and the promise of salvation or liberation from its woes. These traits in turn gave rise to competing paths to salvation, and if axial traditions transcended previous cultural boundaries, they also gave rise to new ones. In the words of Paul, “We were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”11 This, however, neither entailed the liberation of slaves nor did it prevent later conflicts within the emerging Church, between different churches, or between Christians and others. In the contemporary world, human rights and hopes for a cosmopolitan development have been evoked to transcend existing political and cultural boundaries, and proposals have also been made to extend the circle of moral and legal concern to all human beings, as well as other organisms that inhabit our threatened global biosphere. Yet the tensions between different paths to salvation, as it were, are alive, whether that salvation is ultimately tied to a transcendent realm or exclusively to our own world and its future. Nevertheless, the very ability to think critically and comprehensively, and to contrast our own world and its perceived problems to a radically different alternative, could be seen as one of the core contributions of axial thinking. Readers will find that several figures, in particular, recur in our chapters. Plato and Aristotle are present as the greatest representatives of ancient Greek thought. Bacon and Descartes are present as advocates of a new,

Introduction xiii

technologically powerful philosophy promising and foreseeing, to use a Baconian phrase, an “empire of man” over nature. Heidegger provides a sweeping vision of history, a critique of technological understanding, and a conception of the “world” as a field of meaningful disclosure that is threatened by the pervasive tendency to take an instrumental stance toward reality as a whole. That is, we face not only threats that would have been equally familiar to the people of the Axial Age—interhuman violence, cruelty, and oppression—but also the threat of a kind of “violence” of humanity over reality: the reduction of all beings, space, and time to a reserve of resources. Our contributors are sensitive to concerns that are typical of so-called continental philosophy. In particular, we are aware that theoretical developments are embedded in a larger life-world, to use Husserl’s term.12 Thus, science, technology, and philosophy always have a history and are part of broader cultural trends, including religion and politics. They are also the creations of living and mortal animals, who may need to rediscover their corporeality and their limits.13 Furthermore, against a narrowly logical conception of philosophy, we believe that emotions and moods, such as terror or anxiety, are not just subjective reactions, but valuable opportunities for thinking about our situation. If there was ever a properly terrifying moment, it is this juncture when we are starting to be besieged by human-influenced climatic disasters and we glimpse far greater upheavals in the not-too-distant future. Many authors in this collection develop what could be called a critical distance from natural science and technology. This does not mean that we deny the correctness of scientific findings or the utility of technological ­inventions—in fact, both are of course crucial in understanding and responding to the current ecological challenges. However, we try to reflect on the roots of science and technology, their place in human culture, their advantages and disadvantages, and their meaning. Science and technology have limits, and they form part of broader human pursuits and concerns that can only partially be framed in rational, explicit terms. As John Michael Greer puts it in his chapter, drawing on the work of Michael Polanyi, “Every verbal statement of knowledge depends on a substructure of tacit, personal knowledge which cannot be communicated in verbal form.” The Anthropocene touches many of these tacit issues that cannot be satisfactorily addressed through technoscientific means alone; they require philosophical and historical reflections that remain aware of their limits. To abandon philosophy and attempt to replace it with science would mean losing critical perspective and eliminating an indispensable kind of thinking. Furthermore, while science and technology can make clearly defined progress in some regards, it may well be that philosophy is challenged to return perpetually to its beginnings and to the most basic issues—and the ideal of progress may be one of the presuppositions of modernity that philosophy


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must call into question. An unthinking insistence on progress may block the arrival of genuinely new ideas, phenomena, and ways of life. * The challenge of living appropriately on a shared planet could be described as the task of environmental cosmopolitanism—a concept that Amos Nascimento explores in our opening chapter. Drawing on the multicultural and intercultural plurality proposed by Jaspers, Nascimento recognizes that a variety of worldviews can provide guidance to environmental actions. This plurality can lead to a global perspective, not necessarily through a top-down approach or state-centric institutions, but rather as a reflection on concrete communicative experiences related to particular contexts around the world with different environmental cultures. Cosmopolitan forms of collective environmental responsibility in the Anthropocene can help us address global anthropogenic climate change and environmental injustices. In preparation for such a development, Nascimento provides a broad overview of the conceptual and phenomenal characteristics of the Anthropocene and of many relevant philosophical ideas that we should keep in view. John Michael Greer also revisits Jaspers and takes a fresh look at the Axial Age, the period when theoretical thought rose to prominence in several centers of civilization. Greer points out that the spread of literacy is probably responsible for this flourishing, as well as for a tendency to value abstract thought over concrete experience and to believe that there can be “an explicit philosophical account of the entirety of the world.” This faith has been “a profoundly mixed blessing” in the modern age, all too often bringing with it a narrowly rationalistic conception of thought and of human progress. Now, Greer proposes, we should reassess the heritage of philosophy in a search for healthier and more sustainable ways of thinking. We may also need to look past philosophy itself and the “abstract intellect” in search of appropriate ways to dwell on the earth. Timothy Sean Quinn examines the transition from ancient philosophy, which took contemplation as its highest task, to the philosophy inaugurated by Bacon, which understands nature for the sake of mastering it and improving the human condition—a project that led, within a few centuries, to the radical transformation of the planet and to a cultural crisis that is powerfully expressed by Nietzsche. Quinn proposes that we must “reconsider the project of liberation from nature in order to correct our relationship both to nature and to liberation.” Modern philosophy voids nature of intrinsic purposes, but such purposes may be rediscovered if we can transcend the quest to manipulate nature and once again devote ourselves to understanding it. Freedom may then become a liberation by nature and not from nature. This does not mean a return to Aristotelian doctrine or to some fantastic prelapsarian state, but

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the revival of philosophy as a way of life that acknowledges human finitude while looking beyond it. Richard Polt’s chapter explores the ancient philosophical desire to grasp the essence or eidos of things and links this “eidetic eros” to the threefold process of “liquidation” in the Anthropocene—the dissolution of nature into resources, belongings into wealth, and truth into information. Polt argues that liquidation is, in part, an effect of the Cartesian method of understanding natural objects by analyzing them into simple, quantifiable elements—a method that destroys the “integrity” of things and allows them to be reconstructed in accordance with human will. Descartes’s vision of the essence of nature is a modern form of the eidetic eros, which thus bears some responsibility for the Anthropocene. But this eidetic impulse should not be abandoned; if we apply it to appreciating plural and emergent essences, it can contribute to an “integrative resistance” that counters the liquidating trends. Gregory Fried considers the Axial Age as a confrontation between a view of humanity that is rooted in family, tribe, and custom and a view that finds humanity in the ability to transcend particularity in order to recognize what is universal and shared. The Axial Age (as Greer also argues) represented the victory of the universal over the particular, at least in theory. In the Anthropocene, the world is being increasingly homogenized by this universalism, in the form of technological globalism; we now face a choice between the finitude of traditional human existence and the transcendence promised by the potential to master nature and transform human nature itself. Fried argues that a rejuvenation of philosophy in its Socratic form, as a “skeptical idealism,” is humanity’s best hope for preserving “the combination of situated finitude and transcendent universalism that most properly makes us human.” Perhaps we could begin to reestablish a balance by rediscovering our own animal condition. Luce Irigaray thus proposes that in order to develop a new, ecologically appropriate way of life we must become neither merely masters of nature nor its presumed caretakers, but participants in the living world—thanks to being faithful to ourselves as living beings (and thus as sexuate) and respecting our difference from other living beings. Our own natural needs for good air and food already imply a way of life quite different from that which has become the norm in industrialized society. Yet Western culture, she argues—including Western philosophy and its predominant kind of discourse—has failed to do justice to the living nature of human beings themselves, including both our needs and our desires. Philosophy should not “aim to master the strength of instinct,” but should draw vital energy from “our physical belonging,” including the sexual desires that transcend our needs and connect us to the world and other living beings. To acknowledge our bodies and our possible way to be integrated in the natural world would be more rational, Irigaray writes, than to objectify and exploit the earth. This


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healthier way of life would provide the basis for proper education, culture, and language. Michael Marder also reflects on what it means to reintegrate ourselves into the earth’s ecology. He proposes that in a time of ecological devastation, philosophers must rethink the oikos or home. What does it mean to be at home today or to come home? If philosophy, as Novalis says, is the urge to be everywhere at home, does this urge sacrifice real, concrete dwelling for the sake of an empty universality? Marder proposes that philosophy must choose between “eco-nomy” and “eco-logy.” Eco-nomy is a system of thought that attempts to create unity through laws that are established by a supposedly universal reason. In contrast, eco-logy accepts instability and singularity—the many ways in which the world resists human configuration. Where economy views all beings as fuel, ecology sees them as irreducible elements of a shared abode. Ecological thinking would be primarily relational, would appreciate growth in a qualitative sense, would embrace art as a way of articulating the cosmos, and would promote a sense of ethics focused on ethos as habitat. But can we be reconciled with nature and find our home in it? Or is our relation to nature fraught with alienation? In his chapter, Byron Williston argues that at this moment in history, we are faced with a tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar that should not be resolved all too quickly. With the aid of Heidegger’s reflections on the uncanny and on the “enframing” character of modern technology, Williston argues that if we allow ourselves to sink comfortably into the way of life that has become familiar to us in the modern age, we will only bring about “the cancellation of the possibility of a home.” If we try to secure our position by heightening our control over the earth, we will end up negating all genuine dwelling and all genuine security. Instead, we must combine home and homelessness, learning to live restlessly in a troubling epoch. This new philosophical “disorientation” must involve looking beyond Western categories and attending to indigenous ecological knowledge. Jon Wittrock’s chapter also draws on Heidegger, in the context of the question of possible political responses to the nihilistic effects of the Anthropocene. Wittrock situates Heidegger’s critique of nihilism in relation to contemporary debates on the meaning of autonomy and the measures needed to safeguard it. Thus, Wittrock asks, would it be possible to “reform nihilism,” just as social liberals and social democrats have sought to address the perceived problems of capitalism by means of reformist measures? As Wittrock observes, contemporary debates on autonomy are ultimately concerned with the question of meaningful autonomy over time and in space. Genuine freedom would thus require us to restore the significant, and even sacred, spatiotemporal dimensions of the world that have been undermined

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in the Anthropocene. The Heideggerian hope for a “new god” ought not to be dismissed lightly, but rather calls for a reflection on the role of “religious experience” in contemporary political and environmental concerns. Fernando Flores and B. Scot Rousse argue that the Anthropocene confronts us with the possible collapse of our world, in the Heideggerian sense—that is, the taken-for-granted way of life that guides and orients us in our everyday practices. Not only is the ecological niche in which we have flourished now in danger, but the world of meaning within which the modern, industrial way of life has made sense is facing closure. They take up Jonathan Lear’s claim that in the face of the impending collapse of one’s world, a peculiar form of hope, radical hope, is called for. By becoming receptive to the “drift of historical emergence,” we can cultivate a sensibility to the way historical moments ripen and gather around us. Radical hope can be fueled and guided by an active receptivity to the ways in which things and possibilities emerge. Today, Flores and Rousse suggest, a reconfiguration is gathering—and in order to discern and welcome it, we do not need to be creative geniuses but must rather be receptive to the converging forces so that we may glimpse the glimmer of a new clearing. Thomas Alexander also sees our current cultural world coming to an end, along with the ecological systems we have known so far. Part of the transformation of our culture, he argues, must be a transformation in philosophy—so that philosophy does not just think about ecology using established methods but finds an ecological way of thinking. Philosophy itself needs to be reconceived as a pluralistic ecosystem where “polyphonic” thought can thrive. A philosophy adequate to the Anthropocene must be both “naturalistic,” in a sense that does not reduce nature to what physics discloses, and “humanistic,” in a sense that does not exclude spiritual experience and care for the nonhuman world. Alexander proceeds to lay out four complementary voices in which nature and human can be invoked: the scientific, the humanistic, the ontological, and the transcendental. In order to find our way to a new culture that can survive and flourish in the Anthropocene, we will have to open our ears to this diversity of voices. * This volume forms part of a much broader discussion—humanistic, scientific, technical, religious, political, and personal—to which people around the globe, and not just academics and specialists, will contribute. Ultimately, the so-called Anthropocene will affect every human being to be born in the future—maybe even every organism that will ever live on Earth, as long as this planet exists. We hope that this collection will do its part to stimulate reflection on the concepts, methods, behavior, and historical legacies that we bring with us as


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we enter the Anthropocene—a reflection that may stand a chance of being deep and broad enough to face the vast challenges that are on their way. Richard Polt and Jon Wittrock NOTES 1. Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’ ” Global Change Newsletter 41 (May 2000): 17–18. 2. For one discussion, see Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015). 3. See, for example, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us (London: Verso, 2016), esp. chapter 2; Robert S. Emmett and David E. Nye, The Environmental Humanities: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017); Environmental Humanities: Voices from the Anthropocene, eds. Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017). 4. See, for example, Religion in the Anthropocene, eds. Celia Deane-Drummond, Sigurd Bermann, and Markus Vogt (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017). 5. See, for example, Climate Change and Philosophy: Transformational Possibilities, ed. Ruth Irwin (London: Continuum, 2010); Byron Williston, The Anthropocene Project: Virtue in the Age of Climate Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 6. See Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, tr. Michael Bullock (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953). Jaspers may have failed to correctly remember Hegel’s term Angel, confusing it with Achse; see Hans Joas, “The Axial Age Debate as Religious Discourse,” in The Axial Age and Its Consequences, eds. Robert Bellah and Hans Joas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 10. 7. See, for example, Shmuel Eisenstadt, “Introduction: The Axial Age Breakthroughs— Their Characteristics and Origins,” in The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations, ed. Shmuel Eisenstadt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), 1–25; Axial Civilizations and World History, eds. Johann P. Arnason, Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, and Björn Wittrock (Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill, 2005); José Casanova, “Religion, the Axial Age, and Secular Modernity in Bellah’s Theory of Religious Evolution”, 191–221 and Charles Taylor, “What Was the Axial Revolution?” both in The Axial Age and Its Consequences, eds. Robert Bellah and Hans Joas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 30–46. 8. Henry Bamford Parkes, Gods and Men: The Origins of Western Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1959), 71. 9. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 471. 10. See Bronislaw Szerszynski, “From the Anthropocene Epoch to a New Axial Age: Using Theory-Fictions to Explore Geo-Spiritual Futures,” in Religion in the

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Anthropocene, eds. Celia Deane-Drummond, Sigurd Bermann, and Markus Vogt (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017), 35–52. 11. 1 Cor. 12:13, New International Version. 12. Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, tr. David Carr (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970). 13. See Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2015).

Chapter 1

Environmental Cosmopolitanism as a Philosophy for the Anthropocene Amos Nascimento

Recent discussions of environmental philosophy have urged the need to acknowledge the geological role that humans play in altering the global configuration of the planet and to accept that we are now experiencing a new era, the Anthropocene. We are challenged to find new ways of doing philosophy and providing effective answers to challenges such as global anthropogenic climate change and emerging forms of environmental injustice. This chapter contributes to these philosophical discussions by characterizing global anthropogenic climate change as one of the most important challenges of contemporary society and by proposing the need for a more pluralistic approach when dealing with the Anthropocene. The problems are multiple, the human agents involved in this process are many, the cultural implications of their actions are manifold, the voices being represented are various, and, therefore, our answers need to account for a multiplicity of perspectives. A pluralist approach can be developed by means of an environmental cosmopolitanism that reinterprets the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Karl Jaspers and explores a variety of perspectives in matters related to the Anthropocene. FROM ANTHROPOZOIC TRANSFORMATIONS TO THE ANTHROPOCENE The term “Anthropocene” has been coined to characterize a new era in geological time in which large-scale transformations in the physical conditions of the earth are occurring mainly due to human action. Global alterations in the form and shape of the planet have happened in the past—as in the case of ice ages—and natural events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods continue 1


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to modify the environment in various locations. Now, however, compelling indicators support the claim that large-scale environmental changes are occurring at a faster pace in various regions and almost simultaneously, most likely due to the growing impact of human activities. The need for a new terminology has been championed by scientists such as Paul Crutzen, Jan Zalasiewicz, and others who argue that current environmental challenges can be traced back to radical human interferences on the planet since the eighteenth century and demand new ways of thinking and acting. Consequently, the concept of the “Anthropocene” is gaining wider acceptability. The Meaning of the Anthropocene One important philosophical task is to discuss and understand the meaning of this new term. The Anthropocene is being viewed as a designator for the massive anthropogenic impact on the natural environment. The new term appears to have growing explanatory power, but it can be met with skepticism or denial as well. To be sure, one can argue that grand-scale transformations have occurred in the past and continue to occur nowadays due to the way various species have appropriated natural resources for millennia through growth in their populations, grazing in large areas, damming of water bodies, or displacement of various objects. Thus, the global spread of a species from one region to another has the potential to cause considerable damage to several ecosystems; the “Great Migration” of large mammals in Eastern Africa can surely impact pastures and water resources in a large region; beavers can be blamed for building natural dams and flooding the areas they inhabit. If we focus on human beings, it can be said that the use of fire, hunting and gathering, agricultural practices, and building of artificial environments represent diverse forms of human interventions with the natural world that have been occurring for a long time. Combined, natural processes and human practices could have affected the world’s climate for millennia—as recent paleoclimatological studies of subantarctic ice cores seem to indicate.1 Why should we hold on to the thesis that large-scale environmental transformations are new phenomena that deserve a novel collective name? Why is “Anthropocene” the name to be chosen? Why now? In response to these and other questions, many point to the growing evidence that we are now experiencing something relatively new. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, a clear spike in several indicators of environmental impact became observable.2 Fire had always been a natural process for 65 million years before human ancestors were finally able to manage and use this energy for domestic purposes about 1.5 million years ago. However, the Anthropozoic use and control of fire and energy for industrial and military purposes became more widespread in

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England after 1750 and has accelerated worldwide since 1945. Thus, current fires induced by humans through agricultural practices and warfare not only outnumber natural occurrences by volcanoes, droughts, and lightning but are also combined with the burning of biomass, deforestation of biodiverse areas, radioactive contamination, meteorological interferences, and the emission of gases that have a high effect on biogeochemical cycles in various parts of the planet.3 “Anthropocene” is the term initially proposed by Eugene Stoermer and then popularized by Paul Crutzen as a way of summarizing the growing awareness of the human impact on geological states and biogeochemical processes.4 Crutzen, whose career has involved his participation in the debates around global winter, global warming, and climate change, proposes this new term because he considers that the “human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system.”5 Jan Zalasiewicz and his collaborators6 show that questions about the global anthropogenic impact on the environment have been raised previously in George Perkins Marsh’s book Man and Nature,7 in Antonio Stoppani’s use of the term “anthropozoic” in his lectures on geology,8 in Svante Arrhenius’s study on the influence of carbonic acid in the air,9 and in Chamberlain’s hypotheses on climate changes.10 Moreover, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky observed that the biosphere was being changed due to human interference, leading to a new evolutionary stage that he, Edouard Le Roy, and Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere during discussions they had in Paris in 1926.11 The term “Anthropocene” is meant to denote a new geological epoch. The earth is more than 4.5 billion years old and its evolutionary history is divided into eons, eras, periods, and epochs. Geologists estimate that the last period in the earth’s evolution, the Quaternary, began just 2.6 million years ago and includes two epochs, the Pleistocene and the Holocene: human influence began toward the end of the Pleistocene epoch and most of the changes leading to the current earth formations occurred 11,500 years ago, marking the Holocene, an extended period of climatic stability that allowed human beings to adapt more easily to their environment.12 Because humanity can be understood now as a global geophysical force whose impact is registered on geological strata,13 the International Commission on Stratigraphy and its Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy proposed that the new geological events related to climate change justify the inclusion of the Anthropocene as a new epoch. This also implies that the Holocene has terminated.14 The Anthropocene also implies a normative dimension that points toward a new environmental ethics.15 The very fact that the ancient Greek term anthropos is inserted in the discussion reveals many other issues that need to be spelled out. From an evolutionary perspective, it can refer to Homo erectus,


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Homo sapiens, and other stages in the development of the species. It can also indicate the need to demarcate and interpret the meaning of the humanities16 and their role in complementing natural science and social and anthropological research. Moreover, a focus on the anthropological dimension prompts us to define more clearly how to communicate about global anthropogenic climate change in order to motivate effective collective action. Moving in this direction, Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued that the idea of the Anthropocene “severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/globalization,”17 forcing us to reassess the legacy of the Enlightenment and to consider how to deploy human moral and intellectual resources to address the crises in this new era. In the field of literature, Lawrence Buell calls attention to the new ways in which ecocriticism can reflect on the Anthropocene to create new narratives about our relationship with the environment,18 while Bronislaw Szerszynski relies on Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to explore the metaphor of “the great stone book of geology” and, thus, employs literary techniques to interpret our current environmental predicament.19 Based on these discussions, we can consider various tasks of philosophy in the Anthropocene. A Conceptual Evolution An important task for philosophy is to help us clarify the scientific concepts used to deal with changes in geology, the atmospheric sciences, and other fields.20 Data about massive global changes have been available for some time, but it has taken some time for humans to connect the various factors involved and make sense of their continuous, growing, and global implications. The lack of clarity about what is being observed or experienced can be addressed by accounting for the evolution of the concepts we utilize to make sense of global environmental changes. In the 1980s, attention to large-scale changes was motivated by the research on the environmental impact of energy and fires generated by a hypothetical nuclear war, which would affect the incidence of ultraviolet light, atmospheric pollutants, and ionizing radiation. At the time, the argument was that this would possibly lead to a “global winter,” a new glacial age that could have a fatal impact on the global food supply, health, and other activities.21 Later, however, scientific attention shifted increasingly to the effects of human-induced or “anthropogenic” quotidian emissions on the atmosphere. This new focus revealed that an obvious rise in global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions coincided with drastic changes after the Industrial Revolution and was coupled with other factors such as change in orbital parameters, acceleration of geological dynamics, and sudden changes in atmospheric conditions. More recent measurements of these variables began to show the warming of atmosphere and oceans, melting of glaciers, changes

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in animal migration patterns, and many other factors pointing toward a “global warming” process.22 Evidence indicated that between 1906 and 2006 the earth’s temperature rose an average 0.74°C, and estimates for the twentyfirst century indicated a temperature rise between 1.8°C and 4°C, while the change in global temperature over the past 20,000 years had been estimated about 1°C per 2,500 to 4,000 years.23 Further studies not only confirmed this picture but also provided even more startling evidence of the anthropogenic causes of climate change. By 2008, CO2 concentrations had increased to 385 parts per million (ppm) and by 2013 the atmospheric concentration of CO2 surpassed the mark of 400 ppm at various stations, setting a new threshold for global climate change—400 ppm globally by 2015—well above a recommended target of 350 ppm as a condition to avoid radical increases in temperature.24 However, the corresponding change in the argument and the language shift from “global winter” to “global warming” in about a decade generated much confusion and obscured the debates on the topic. A consensus began to be established only slowly around a new concept, “climate change,” which would be robust enough to account for both the cooling in certain parts of the world and the warming in others. The concept of “climate change” was used by Thomas Chamberlain in the nineteenth century in his article “A Group of Hypotheses Bearing on Climatic Changes” (1897), but its current usage is due to Wallace Broecker.25 Broecker noticed the uncertainty around the different effects that emissions of industrial gases might have on the atmosphere and concluded that either cooling or warming could be the result of increased amounts of CO2 emitted through human activities. The resulting “greenhouse effect” led to changes in precipitation patterns, occurrences of droughts and floods, rise in sea level, and extreme variability in temperatures. Thus, from a philosophical point of view, the concept of “climate change” offered a much higher explanatory power than the reference to either cooling or warming processes. Yet many other factors would have to be integrated into this concept in order to clarify its meaning. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established in 1988, provided a widely accepted definition in its fourth Synthesis Report, which described climate change as “a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. It refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity.”26 However, in 2011, the IPCC slightly revised this definition in order to describe a “change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external


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forcings, or to persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use.”27 With this somewhat open definition, the IPCC allowed for the possibility that significant transformations could also be caused by other factors besides human activities. This wording appears to acknowledge some of the skeptical arguments we saw before. However, the subtle difference involves not only a reference to “natural internal processes or external forces” but also a reference to “persistent anthropogenic changes.” In its 2014 Synthesis Report, the IPCC provided more evidence that the direct human interference in climate processes was the main factor prompting all these considerations and reviewed the best practices resulting from the Kyoto Protocol signed in 1997 in order to prepare the ground for the political actions expressed in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2015). What do these discussions on global winter, global warming, and climate change tell us? First, they help us see that regional and planetary changes are occurring and can be observed in physical sedimentation, carbon cycle, hydrology, ocean acidification and rising sea levels, temperature, and biodiversity. These and other factors provide strong evidence for processes going on since the eighteenth century which were accelerated after 1945. These and other factors support the thesis that current environmental transformations are global and largely due to likely human causes, thus deserving to be characterized as anthropogenic. Consequently, the conceptual framework requires an upgrading in order for it to be more precise. From a philosophical point of view, it is, therefore, more appropriate to speak of a global anthropogenic environmental change. THE GLOBAL PLURALITY OF HUMANS: WORLDVIEWS AND THE ENVIRONMENT When talking about the human component implicit in the concept of the Anthropocene, there is a need for more differentiation. There are various ways in which humans affect their environment, different circumstances in which they are affected by it, and a plethora of human resources available to address the challenges brought about by global anthropogenic environmental changes. A task for philosophy would be to spell out the plural dimensions implicit in the concept of the Anthropocene. A Focus on Anthropogenic Factors The conceptual evolution in terms such as “Anthropocene” and “global anthropogenic climate change” reveals a history of environmental awareness of how humans interact with natural resources. It also documents the implicit

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philosophical process required to update and adapt our concepts and perceptions. The challenge now is to reflect on the “human” dimension in this whole process. Unfortunately, however, the IPCC reports and other studies in this complex field included only a timid discussion of the human dimension in climate change research. For instance, there are a variety of human practices that lead to higher emissions. Moreover, humans suffer the impact of climate change in different ways. Therefore, more analytical differentiations specifically related to the meaning of anthropos are necessary. The Anthropocene is not only a description of geologic, atmospheric, hydrologic, biospheric and other Earth system processes. It also integrates humanity into the picture more clearly by highlighting an anthropological dimension. This is evident in a corresponding evolution of concepts that go from anthropoid, anthropocentric, and anthropogenic to terms such as Anthropozoic and the Anthropocene. Thus, the Anthropocene offers an entry point for social, ethical, environmental, and political considerations that were missing in discussions about climate change.28 For example, James Ford, Will Vanderbilt, and Lea Berrang-Ford show that the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report had minimal references to indigenous knowledge, understanding, and voices on climate change.29 Moreover, the fact that industrialization in the Global North has had a great impact on poor populations in the peripheral areas of the Global South obliges us to consider issues of environmental justice and human rights.30 These populations suffer the indelible effects of global anthropogenic climate change on their livelihoods.31 Therefore, philosophical reflections on the Anthropocene need to spell out what we mean when we talk about the “human” and the plurality of human cultures. The Axial Age and the Plurality of Cultures Yet another task for philosophy is to account for human plurality in relation to global anthropogenic environmental change and the Anthropocene. We could rely on Karl Jaspers’s philosophy of the Axial Age to recognize a variety of cultural and religious worldviews that have guided human environmental actions for millennia and explain certain attitudes, practices, and philosophies that impact the environment.32 Jaspers began his career by publishing a psychological analysis of “worldviews”—Weltbilder or Weltanschaaungen, technical terms that reflect a Kantian legacy. In Psychology of Worldviews (Psychologie der Weltanschaaungen) he defines Weltbilder as patterns based on particular environments which enable an individual to make sense of objective reality, even under conditions of psychopathology.33 Individuals follow such cultural patterns that formalize their experiences, define what counts as an authentic life, and pursue their existential goals accordingly. In contrast, Jaspers


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conceives of a Weltanschauung as something universal, a philosophically defined comprehensive framework that corresponds to “the highest manifestations of the human being.”34 Accordingly, the subtitle of the first volume of Jaspers’s book on philosophy uses the term Weltorientierung, which could be translated as “orientation to the world.”35 In this book, he concludes that philosophical comprehensive frameworks orient our worldviews and require our acknowledgment that ethical and religious elements of various traditions are always in communication.36 Jaspers’s further considerations on the worldviews of groups and civilizations are registered in The Origin and Goal of History (Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte). In this book, he defines the Axial Age (Achsenzeit) as “the period around 500 BC, in the spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 BC,”37 in which “a common framework for the historical self-­ understanding” of humans evolved. He characterized this as “an age in which core categories emerged, based upon which we still define our thinking.”38 Here he highlights the plurality of collective worldviews and a positive relationship between religious and philosophical conceptions. He describes the Axial Age not necessarily as a moment but rather as a process of moving from myths to a more abstract and speculative process that could be observed simultaneously and independently in several cultures and geographical regions such as Persia, India, China, and Greece. He also affirms the possibility of evolution in human rights, including that “one of the preconditions for humanity is human solidarity, illuminated by natural and human law, continually betrayed and forever presenting its demands afresh.”39 Although Karl Jaspers has been characterized today as “a neglected thinker,”40 his thought on the Axial Age has recently gained renewed attention. To be sure, he can be criticized for generalizing an implicit understanding of Christian religion to other cultures, for being limited by Eurocentric perspectives, and for not including any African civilization in his schema of world history.41 Yet, despite these limitations, he definitely helped to perform a decentering of perspectives which is helpful today. Thus, the concept of the Axial Age has been reassessed more approvingly in several ways: Shmuel Eisenstadt has shown the presuppositions and current impact of the axial civilizations and other civilizations in the preaxial times—such as Egypt and Mesopotamia;42 Samuel Huntington recognized the plurality of civilizations and their role in a multipolar world, even though he concluded that this plurality would lead to a “clash of civilizations”;43 Robert Bellah uses Jaspers’s framework to interpret the tensions between secularism and post-secular societies;44 and Charles Taylor speaks of multicultural and intercultural relations.45 Similarly, Jaspers’s philosophy can be used to reflect on the intrinsic plurality of perceptions about humanity implicit in the Anthropocene,

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because his views on the plurality of worldviews can reveal alternative selfunderstandings of what we mean by anthropos today.46 Based on Jaspers’s theory, we can argue that philosophy itself and the various activities that contributed to global anthropogenic climate change in the Anthropocene rely on plural worldviews about the environment. Contemporary views on the environment are built upon deep foundations that can be traced back centuries and millennia, leading us to the cultures of the Axial Age. Contemporary philosophies reflect ancient worldviews, imply different ways of defining humanity, and yield plural values that guide humans and their relationship with the environment. INTERCULTURAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE ENVIRONMENT We can explore the task of using philosophy to reveal an intercultural plurality in relation to the environment and to global anthropogenic climate change. As an example, we can show how environmental philosophies emerge in South America, North America, and Europe—including a plurality of thinkers who develop different concepts. Surely, a similar process can be observed in other parts of the world.47 Postcolonial Perspectives from the Americas South America has been at the center of environmental debates since the sixteenth century, when the conquista of the New World led to the discovery of new species of plants and animals as well as to the violent encounter with and annihilation of indigenous peoples and depletion of natural resources. In his debate with Ginés de Sepúlveda in 1550, Bartolomé de Las Casas described how Spaniards were destroying the forests and other natural resources in Chiapas, Mexico, used the expression “destruction of the Indies,” and raised a universal claim for the human and environmental rights of indigenous peoples. Around the same time, the Scottish philosopher and humanist George Buchanan wrote about the Portuguese colonialism of the terra brasiliensis,48 which included the extinction of the Caesalpinia echinata or “pau-brasil” tree.49 Similarly, in the seventeenth century, Montaigne dedicated chapter XXX of the first part of his Essays to criticize the Europeans and praise the Tupinambás natives of Brazil, while in the eighteenth century, Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality reflected on similar issues to depict a state of nature and postulate the idea of a bon sauvage as a natural and authentic form of being directly connected to wilderness. These philosophers were concerned


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not only with the natural environment and changes occurring in the Americas but also with those whose humanity was being negated. This tradition cannot be neglected today as new environmental philosophies emerge in the continent. Philosophical studies can also reflect upon the fact that new crops such as maize, potatoes, squash, and cacao, which are so popular around the world today, were taken from the Americas and sent to the European continent, later serving as nutrition sources at a time of famine. Also, Europeans brought new diseases that decimated indigenous populations and attempted to develop natural areas that seemed inhospitable (e.g., the Amazon, Chaco, Caatinga, and the Altiplano). Discussions on global anthropogenic climate change today refer to at least two specific areas in South America that have a profound environmental impact on the globe: the subantarctic area of Patagonia and the Amazon forest.50 Natives from these areas are among the main victims of global warming and climate change. North America has a long history of environmental issues as well. The Southwest of the United States reveals the drastic consequences of changes that led to the formation of canyons and affected ancient and pre-Columbian civilizations such as the Anasazi. Native Americans in the United States and First Nations in Canada were victims of conquest and their natural resources were depleted. However, a distinctly American tradition of philosophy began to emerge in direct connection with these environmental issues. In New England, Emerson defended a form of metaphysics and spirituality based on nature because, in his view, God offers the gift of nature to humans who need to give back to nature. According to Emerson, American philosophers would differ from European thinkers by means of a closer connection to nature. Similarly, Thoreau defended the idea of “simple living in nature” and compiled his experiences in Walden, a book about living around Walden Pond, a lake in Massachusetts. In “Walking,” he summarizes his philosophy of nature by affirming that humans are a “part and parcel of nature.” In California, John Muir initiated the North American environmental movement, created the Sierra Club, and helped to establish National Parks. He insisted on the importance of “wilderness” and the need of policies to preserve wild areas but did not seem to care much about the many indigenous tribes who had lived in such an environment for centuries. These initial inspirations for a philosophical movement were then expanded during the twentieth century. Thus, in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, we find a “Land ethic” aiming at changing “the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it,” as part of a “biotic community.”51 These ideas were later taken up by J. Baird Callicott52 and others who developed environmental ethics as a new discipline after 1972, revealing the pernicious role of anthropocentrism as a worldview. As a critique of this perspective, they proposed new values

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such as animal rights, biocentrism, ecocentrism, deep ecology, and others.53 Eventually, this process led to the new field of climate ethics, which is more directly concerned with issues emerging from global anthropogenic climate change, including the fact that its agents are dispersed around the globe.54 As James Garvey states clearly, the harms of global anthropogenic climate change are global but will not be evenly spread.55 These examples show that Anglo-American thinkers have developed some specific tools to deal with their particular reality and the plurality of perspectives in their contexts. Recognizing this plurality of worldviews can help us define a new task for philosophy in the Anthropocene. Nature, Ecology, and Environment in Europe In Europe, there is a long history of concern with and reflection on “nature” which is registered in the philosophical canon. In the transition from the sixteenth century to the seventeenth century, we find discussions about the “state of nature”—as proposed by Hobbes, Locke, and other philosophers. Although this term is often interpreted in purely political terms, it has environmental and economic implications—including the justifications for colonialism and massive exploitation of natural resources in the Americas, which later contributed to global anthropogenic climate change. We can focus on two particular contexts as examples of different worldviews that lead to alternative ways of dealing with these environmental issues. In France, in other francophone regions, and in other parts of the world, Descartes is certainly a fundamental reference, albeit negative because his dualism between res cogitans and res extensa has served to justify anthropocentrism and the possession or depletion of natural resources. On the other hand, Montaigne’s Essais and Rousseau’s view of nature, sensibility, and the bon sauvage built an alternative tradition. Both currents emerge in different ways during the Enlightenment, as seen in the project of the Encyclopédie, where we find scientific and aesthetic views on the environment. With the influence of socialist and theological conceptions, a new discourse emerges in France at the beginning of the twentieth century as an antecedent to philosophical debates on the Anthropocene. Thus, Jacques Grinevald has shown the importance of Henri Bergson, Jean Le Roy, and Teilhard de Chardin in the 1920s as laying the ground for current philosophical discussions about the Anthropocene.56 And although Jacques Ellul’s critique of technology became a central reference in the 1960s,57 it was through André Gorz58 and others59 that political categories for environmental action were established in terms of a “political ecology.” Today, discussions about global anthropogenic climate change in the French context are seen mainly through these lenses. For example, Bruno Latour developed his own political ecology60 and then applied it


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systematically to discussions on climate change and the Anthropocene.61 This is expanded in his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, Facing Gaia.62 In all these authors we can detect a common worldview defined as political ecology. In Germany, Kant serves as a good starting point and offers some interesting connections to discussions on the Anthropocene worldwide.63 Kant started his career with studies in the natural sciences and physical geography, focusing on geological questions motivated by the Lisbon earthquake in 1755.64 After Kant, many other philosophers and scientists developed new categories for the study of “nature.” As a naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt led expeditions through the Americas and helped to map the natural resources on the continent,65 while Goethe developed his Naturphilosophie. In the nineteenth century, Marx elaborated his materialist and economic conception of “nature,”66 but it is in the twentieth century that we observe a new line of thought that proposes a conceptual transition from “nature” to “environment” (Umwelt), providing the basis for a new worldview. Also here, we find a constellation of authors in communication among themselves and wrestling with similar issues. For Husserl, the Umwelt is the common structure of everyday life that serves as a backdrop for communication while Natur is an abstraction necessary for objective scientific research. He later coined the term “life-world” (Lebenswelt) to expand on the idea that humans rely on a complex background of resources in order to maintain life.67 Jakob von Uexküll proposed a definition of Umwelt in rather semiotic terms, creating environmental research (Umweltforschung) as a new field.68 Finally, Heidegger expanded the phenomenological and semiotic frameworks as he deconstructed Umwelt to propose the existential idea of being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-Sein).69 These conceptualizations serve as backdrop for further contemporary developments that are unique to the German context, include various philosophers in dialogue, and provide a new perspective for the understanding of the human relationship with the natural world. This is not the only cluster of philosophers dealing with environmental issues in Germany. For instance, Hans Jonas used the term “ecology” in his critique of technological societies and proposed a “principle of responsibility” as a categorical imperative: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.”70 The Frankfurt School built on Marx’s legacy and reinterpreted traditional conceptions of nature: Karl Wittfogel developed a whole approach to environmental issues based on his studies about water resource management in China;71 Lukács understood “nature” as the objective realm of concern by the natural sciences,72 while Horkheimer and Adorno saw the Enlightenment and nature as two opposite aspects, concluding that the “domination of nature” was the main goal of the Enlightenment.73

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Building on these two traditions, Jürgen Habermas relied on Husserl to depict a “colonization of the lifeworld,”74 while Karl-Otto Apel advanced Jonas’s ideas to propose a macroethics of planetary responsibility as the answer to environmental problems.75 Yet, despite this rich tradition and promising philosophical discourses oriented toward practical environmental issues in Germany—which influenced environmental policies and politics, such as the Green Party—one of the challenges for current philosophers in the German tradition is to apply the available concepts to discussions about the Anthropocene. As we can observe in the four broad contexts we took into consideration —South America, North America, and Europe (France and Germany)— Jaspers’s definition of the Axial Age can be used to trace ancient worldviews, identify their development into new philosophies, and observe their application to environmental issues today. In these various contexts, there are many philosophers, different reflections on environmental issues, and particular experiences of human beings in different locations. They have developed philosophical tools that are now available globally to help us appreciate the plurality of human perspectives on the Anthropocene. Applying these tools and searching for a possible consensus on how to address global anthropogenic climate change through collective actions constitutes an important task for philosophy in the Anthropocene. THE TASK OF ENVIRONMENTAL COSMOPOLITANISM The focus on descriptions, gathering of scientific data, and projection of models to predict changes has led to downplaying the humanities and the various disciplines that can help us understand the role of human beings in the Anthropocene. Many philosophies have emerged in different parts of the world with different proposals, but now we need to find some commonality among these views, so that we can arrive at a consensual universal norm. Environmental cosmopolitanism can serve as a link between large-scale problems caused by human action and the large-scale collective actions necessary to address these problems. Environmental Cosmopolitanism The concept of cosmopolitanism can be connected to global anthropogenic climate change and to the Anthropocene in many ways.76 By linking two Greek words, cosmos and polis, cosmopolitanism denotes the integration of several parts into a consistent universal community that defines the environmental rights and duties of global citizens. The ideal of a cosmopolitan


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community is an aspiration, a global model that could help us spell out some meanings and implications of the term anthropos, which is constitutive of the Anthropocene.77 There is an original metaphysical meaning to cosmopolitanism, which denotes the universe and includes humans and other natural entities. Thus, many ancient philosophies during the Axial Age considered water, fire, air, and earth as essential elements of reality. This is a form of environmental cosmopolitanism in a metaphysical sense because it asks the question about the human essence and responds by connecting humans to nature in a very direct way. To be sure, this metaphysical assumption could be considered consensually universal in the Axial Age due to its essentialist, mythical, and religious worldviews, but this perspective is untenable today. Despite these criticisms, this metaphysical form of environmental cosmopolitanism continues to be available in contemporary societies and cannot simply be dismissed. For example, it is often affirmed that the relationship of Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest of the United States to their environment is based on similar assumptions. Throughout history, new meanings of cosmopolitanism emerged, which focused more on the political connotation of the term.78 In this case, the term emerges in the context of modern Europe, after the Treaty of Westphalia and its important impact on the definition of the nation-state. Moving beyond the limits of nation-states, a new political philosophy of cosmopolitanism defends the view that humans ought to have rights beyond arbitrary national limits. Thus, this kind of cosmopolitanism is better defined as a “right to world citizenship” (Weltbürgerrecht)—as expressed in Kant’s original terminology.79 Yet here too, there is an environmental component associated with the political and legal dimension of this term. This can be clearly observed in Kant’s philosophy and his decades-long concern with environmental issues. As a philosopher of the Enlightenment, Kant established a dialogue with many scientific developments in the fields of mathematics and physics as well as with ethical, political, and aesthetic trends during his lifetime. We can observe an internal development in the understanding of environmental cosmopolitanism within the specific framework of Kant’s philosophy. Initially, he focused his reflections on physical geography and studied the geological processes behind the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. In his studies about this earthquake we can find some quasi-metaphysical assumptions in his conclusion that nature often strikes back when humans overstep their boundaries and do not show respect for nature.80 Later, however, Kant submitted metaphysical claims to the scrutiny of science and proposed a “critical turn” in philosophy. As he lectured on physical geography for nearly four decades,81 he progressively added a human component to it, in a process that laid the ground for contemporary cosmopolitan studies on morality, peace,

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immigration and human rights, trade and colonialism, political organizations, and environmental concerns. Connecting natural processes and human morality, Kant concluded that natural events may indirectly force humans to realize their limitations and reflect on their moral duties. Accordingly, he concluded that earthquakes, tsunamis, violent storms, volcanoes, and other natural events often offer an opportunity for humans to exercise solidarity toward the victims of catastrophes.82 Yet another dimension of Kant’s conception of environmental cosmopolitanism is the aesthetic feeling of the sublime. In his Critique of the Power of Judgment, published in 1790, he shows how humans can be overwhelmed by nature and express fear, wonder, and other aesthetic feelings that ultimately lead to a kind of respect for nature.83 In fact, we can observe this aesthetic sensibility in the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, when eighteenth-century painters and poets described, very vividly, the growth of carbon emissions—which were defined by Joseph Black as “fixed air” in 1754. It is in his political writings, especially in his treatise of 1795 Towards Perpetual Peace, that Kant summarizes his views in an interesting statement: “The community of the nations of the earth has gone so far that a violation of right in one place of the earth is felt in all.”84 This allusion to an environmental right, a shared impact upon nature, and a common responsibility toward the earth and its natural resources not only summarizes his contribution to the idea of an environmental cosmopolitanism but also opens the possibility for an environmental interpretation of cosmopolitanism in relation to global anthropogenic climate change and the Anthropocene.85 Yet there are justified critiques of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment and Kant’s position. In fact, his cosmopolitanism has been reinterpreted and applied in a more contemporary moral, political, legal, and cultural terminology. For instance, Gerard Delanty defines cosmopolitanism as a new field to study issues of cultural pluralism and heterogeneity86 and Simon Caney argues for a “humanity-centered” cosmopolitan political morality that addresses issues of justice emerging as a result of climate change.87 Moreover, Thomas Pogge sees cosmopolitanism as a tool to combat global poverty, including the impoverishment resulting from environmental injustice.88 However, it is in Nigel Clark’s work that we see a closer reinterpretation of Kant’s physical geography and environmental cosmopolitanism.89 Clark considers recent geological and climate events to explore multiple ways of establishing a more direct connection between human actions and geological factors, taking into account the impact of anthropogenic activities on the natural environment. He also provides empirical evidence that catastrophic environmental events such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004 or Hurricane Katrina in 2005 indeed may motivate solidarity with humans and nature worldwide, thus generating a new environmental cosmopolitan attitude.


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We can relate this discussion to the Anthropocene by affirming the plurality of roles played by humanity. Humans can be seen not only as the culprit for recent transformations in the shape of the earth but also as victims of these transformations, as agents capable of responding to the negative results of their actions, as representatives of cultural values that express environmental concern, and as members of a larger community that includes humans, other species, and natural phenomena. A plural conception of the anthropos not only denounces the culprit for global anthropogenic climate change but also identifies the duties and responsibilities required to address current challenges. A pluralist conception of environmental cosmopolitanism can also reveal the various philosophical ways in which humans have responded to these challenges in various regions of the planet and postulate a possible consensus in terms of global action. This can be achieved—as suggested by Jaspers—by means of the interaction and communication among different philosophical perspectives. A new environmental cosmopolitanism is an aspiration, an ideal that can be built upon the various worldviews since the Axial Age and provide interesting insights for contemporary discussions on the Anthropocene. A Task for Philosophy in the Anthropocene I began this chapter by introducing the debates on the meaning and definition of the Anthropocene and showing how philosophical reflections can be helpful in understanding the conceptual shifts related to climate change. As a result, I proposed that “global anthropogenic environmental change” is a more precise definition of the underlying phenomena that characterize the Anthropocene. Moreover, I noticed that an important dimension in the very concept of the Anthropocene, the anthropos, remains poorly defined—­especially in relation to its inner plurality. Therefore, an important task for philosophy in the Anthropocene would be to flesh out a mere idea of humanity that, so far, is too general and cannot be assumed to be global. People from different contexts have had unique kinds of impacts and are suffering from differentiating effects of the Anthropocene—sea levels rising in one part of the world, flooding in another, massive hurricanes here, and droughts elsewhere. Also, they react differently to these effects based on their historical philosophical values. Due to these different factors, we need more information, more reflection, more plurality, and, most importantly, more communication in our considerations about who are the humans causing climate change, who are the humans suffering most from climate problems, and who are those taking responsibility and acting in solidarity. Our concern must be global, but with a focus on plurality and communication. An important task of philosophy is, therefore, to account for this

Environmental Cosmopolitanism as a Philosophy for the Anthropocene 17

multiplicity in the same way as we look for details in our search for empirical data. There are multiple methods available to help us with this task. Here I focused on the model offered by Karl Jaspers. In the same way as Jaspers applied this model to describe the fact that different civilizations emerged almost simultaneously in a few decades around 500 BCE, we can also use this model to observe how modern societies based on these civilizations continue to play an important role as worldviews that have been transformed, generating new environmental philosophies and perspectives for the twentyfirst century. The limited examples we discussed—South America, North America, and Europe (France and Germany)—need to be completed by other details related to other areas of the world such as Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. The metaphysical and epistemic models of environmental cosmopolitanism reveal possible examples, but a new environmental cosmopolitanism demands global collaboration and communication among philosophers from different regions and an ongoing dialogue about the meaning and the impact of the Anthropocene in their respective contexts. A new environmental cosmopolitanism would enable us to develop a new kind of reflection open to perspectives from different parts of the world. In conclusion, a program for environmental cosmopolitanism is an ideal for now, but this ideal can prompt open discussions on global anthropogenic climate change and environmental injustices according to a more human-oriented model for global environmental action. To be sure, the natural sciences provide strong evidence that regional and planetary changes in physical sedimentation, carbon cycle, hydrology, ocean acidification and rising levels, temperature, and biodiversity have led to a global environmental change, largely due to likely anthropogenic causes. Because research by the natural sciences provides only a timid introduction of the plural human dimension at play in all these processes, we need a corresponding humanitarian perspective to study the differentiated role played by the philosophical worldviews of various agents in relation to the Anthropocene. Environmental cosmopolitanism can fulfill this task. NOTES 1. Richard A. Kerr, “Humans Fueled Global Warming Millennia Ago,” Science 342:6161 (22 November 2013): 918. 2. Erle C. Ellis, Kees Klein Goldewijk, Stefan Siebert, Deborah Lightman and Navin Ramankutty, “Anthropogenic Transformation of the Biomes: 1700 to 2000,” Global Ecology and Biogeography 19:5 (2010): 589–606. 3. Paul Crutzen and J. G. Goldammer, eds., Fire in the Environment: The Ecological, Atmospheric, and Climatic Importance of Vegetation Fires (Chichester: Wiley, 1993). 4. Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’ ” Global Change Newsletter 41 (May 2000): 17–18.


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5. Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369 (2011): 842–67. 6. Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Tiffany L. Barry, Angela L. Coe, et al., “Are We Now Living in the Anthropocene?” GSA Today 18:2 (2008): 4–8; Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Will Steffen, and Paul Crutzen, “The New World of the Anthropocene,” Environmental Science and Technology 44 (2010): 2228–31; Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Alan Haywood, and Michael Ellis, “The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time?” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369 (2011): 835–41; Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Richard Fortey, Alan Smith, et al., “Stratigraphy of the Anthropocene,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369 (2011): 1036–55. 7. George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (New York: Scribner, 1864). 8. Antonio Stoppani, Corsa di geologia (Milano: Bernardoni & Brigola, 1871–1873). 9. Svante Arrhenius, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground,” London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science 41 (fifth series, 1896): 237–75. 10. Thomas C. Chamberlain, “A Group of Hypotheses Bearing on Climatic Changes,” Journal of Geology 5 (1897): 653–83. 11. Jacques Grinevald, “Sketch for a History of the Idea of the Biosphere,” in Gaia: The Thesis, the Mechanisms and the Implications, eds. Peter Bunyard and Edward Goldsmith (Camelford, UK: Wadebridge Ecological Center, 1988), 1–34; Julia Nordblad, “The Future of the Noosphere,” Forum Interdisziplinäre Begriffsgeschichte 3, Jahrgang 2 (2014): 33–42; Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere (New York: Springer, 1998). 12. Zalasiewicz et al., “Are We Now Living in the Anthropocene?” 13. Jan Zalasiewicz, “The Extraordinary Strata of the Anthropocene,” in Environmental Humanities: Voices from the Anthropocene, eds. Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017). 14. Zalasiewicz et al., “Stratigraphy of the Anthropocene”; Zalasiewicz et al., “The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time?” 15. Paul Crutzen and Christian Schwaegerl, “Living in the Anthropocene: Toward a New Global Ethos,” Yale Environment 360, posted on January 24, 2011. http://e360. 16. Sabine Wilke and Japhet Johnstone, eds., Readings in the Anthropocene: The Environmental Humanities, German Studies, and Beyond (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). 17. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History,” Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009): 207. 18. Lawrence Buell, “Ecocriticism: Some Emerging Trends,” Qui Parle 19:2 (Spring/Summer 2011): 87–115. 19. Bronislaw Szerszynski, “The End of the End of Nature: The Anthropocene and the Fate of the Human,” Oxford Literary Review 34:2 (2012): 165–84. 20. Robert Frodeman, Geo-Logic: Breaking Ground between Philosophy and the Earth Sciences (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003). 21. A. Barrie Pittock, Thomas Ackerman, Paul Crutzen, Michael MacCracken, et al., eds., Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War: SCOPE 28. Volume I. Physical and Atmospheric Effects (Chichester: Wiley, 1985).

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22. J. T. Houghton, G. J. Jenkins, and J. J. Ephraums, eds., Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment, Report Prepared for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by Working Group I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). 23. S. Solomon et al., eds., Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). 24. James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Pushker Kharecha, David Beerling, et al., “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” Open Atmospheric Science Journal 2 (2008): 217–31; WMO (World Meteorological Organization), “Observed Concentrations of CO2 Cross 400 Parts per Million Threshold at Several Global Atmosphere Watch Stations” (2013). Accessed on October6, 2017. observed-concentrations-of-co2-cross-400-parts-million-threshold-several-global. 25. Wallace S. Broecker, “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” Science 189 (August 8, 1975): 460–63. 26. IPCC, Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 30. 27. Christopher B. Field, Vicente Barros, Thomas F. Stocker, Qin Dahe, et al., eds., Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation: A Special Report of Working Groups I and II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). 28. Simon Dalby, “Anthropocene Geopolitics: Globalisation, Empire, Environment and Critique,” Geography Compass 1:1 (2007): 103–18. 29. James D. Ford, Will Vanderbilt, and Lea Berrang-Ford, “Authorship in IPCC AR5 and Its Implications for Content: Climate Change and Indigenous Populations in WGII,” Climatic Change 113 (2012): 201–13. 30. Darrel Moellendorf, “Treaty Norms and Climate Change Mitigation,” Ethics & International Affairs 23 (2009): 247–65; Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas, “Preparing for a Warmer World: Towards a Global Governance System to Protect Climate Refugees,” Global Environmental Politics 10 (2010): 60–88; Stephen Humphreys, ed., Human Rights and Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 31. Andrew Hurrell and Sandeep Sengupta, “Emerging Powers, North-South Relations and Global Climate Politics,” International Affairs 88 (2012): 463–84. 32. Chris Thornhill, “Karl Jaspers,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta. Accessed October 6, 2017. http:// 33. Karl Jaspers, Psychologie der Weltanschauungen (München: Piper, 1919), 122. 34. Ibid., 1. 35. Karl Jaspers, Philosophie I: Philosophische Weltorientierung (Berlin: Springer, 1932). 36. Ibid., 392. See Elena Alessiato, “Human Being, World, and Philosophy in Karl Jaspers,” Humana.Mente Journal of Philosophical Studies 18 (2011): 69–86. 37. Karl Jaspers, Urprung und Ziel der Geschichte (München: Piper, 1949), 1. 38. Ibid., 19–20. 39. Ibid., 43. 40. Thornhill, “Karl Jaspers.” 41. Antony Black, “The ‘Axial Period’: What Was It and What Does It Signify?” Review of Politics 70:1 (Winter 2008): 23–39.


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42. Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, “The Axial Age: The Emergence of Transcendental Visions and the Rise of Clerics,” European Journal of Sociology 23:2 (1982): 294–314. 43. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 28, 41–55, 183–84. 44. Robert Bellah and Hans Joas, eds., The Axial Age and Its Consequences (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012). 45. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Charles Taylor, “Interculturalism or Multiculturalism?” Philosophy and Social Criticism 38:4–5 (2012): 413–23. 46. Szerszynski, “The End of the End of Nature,” 172–77. 47. Amos Nascimento, “Umweltphilosophie und Nachhaltigkeitsdiskurse in Europa: Der Aufbau interdisziplinärer und interkultureller Netzwerke für die Umweltforschung,” in Nachhaltigkeit, eds. Rosa Sierra and Anahita Grisoni (Frankfurt: Campus, 2017), 219–69. 48. Arthur H. Williamson, “George Buchanan, Civic Virtue and Commerce: European Imperialism and Its Sixteenth-Century Critics,” Scottish Historical Review 75:199, Part 1 (April 1996): 20–37. 49. Amos Nascimento and James J. Griffith, “Environmental Philosophy in Brazil,” Environmental Ethics 34 (Winter 2012): 377–97. 50. Ricardo Rozzi, Juan Armesto, and Robert Frodeman, “Integrando las Ciencias Ecológicas y la Ética Ambiental en la Conservación Biocultural de los Ecosistemas Templados Subantárticos de Sudamérica,” Environmental Ethics 30:S3 (Autumn 2008): 9–16. 51. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), 194. 52. J. Baird Callicott, In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989). 53. Robin Attfield, Environmental Ethics (Cambridge: Polity, 2014). 54. Stephen M. Gardiner, “A Core Precautionary Principle,” Journal of Political Philosophy 14:1 (March 2006): 33–60; Stephen M. Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). 55. James Garvey, The Ethics of Climate Change (London: Continuum, 2008). 56. Grinevald, “Sketch for a History of the Idea of the Biosphere”; Steffen et al., “The Anthropocene.” 57. Jacques Ellul, La technique ou l’enjeu du siècle (Paris: Armand Colin, 1954); Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, tr. John Wilkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964). 58. André Gorz, Écologie et politique (Paris: Galilée, 1975). 59. Catherine Larrère, Olivier Fressard, Alain Lipietz, Aline Barbin, and Enzo Lesourt, L’écologie politique d’André Gorz (Paris: Fondation de l’écologie politique, 2014). 60. Bruno Latour, “Moderniser ou écologiser? À la recherche de la ‘septième’ cité,” Écologie et Politique 13 (1995): 5–27. 61. Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004). 62. Bruno Latour, “Facing Gaia: Six Lectures on the Political Theology of Nature,” Gifford Lectures (2013). Accessed on October 6, 2017.

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arts-humanities-soc-sci/news-events/lectures/gifford-lectures/archive/series-2012-2013/ bruno-latour. 63. Sabine Wilke, German Culture and the European Environmental Imagination (Leiden: Rodopi/Brill, 2015). 64. O. Reinhardt and D. R. Oldroyd, “Kant’s Theory of Earthquakes and Vulcanic Action,” Annals of Science 40 (1983): 247–72. 65. Wilke, German Culture and the European Environmental Imagination, 67–103. 66. Alfred Schmidt, Der Begriff der Natur in der Lehre von Marx (Hamburg: Europäische Verlaganstalt, 1962). 67. Adam Konopka, An Introduction to Husserl’s Phenomenology of “Umwelt”: Reconsidering the Natur/Geist Distinction toward an Environmental Philosophy, doctoral dissertation, Department of Philosophy, Fordham University, 2008. 68. Jakob von Uexküll, “Die neue Umweltlehre: Ein Bindeglied zwischen Naturund Kulturwissenschaften,” Die Erziehung: Monatsschrift für den Zusammenhang von Kultur und Erziehung 13:5 (1937): 185–201. 69. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962); Casey Rentmeester, Heidegger and the Environment (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016). 70. Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 11. 71. Karl Wittfogel, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas: Versuch der wissenschaftlichen Analyse einer grossen asiatischen Agrargesellschaft (Leipzig: C. L. Hirschfeld, 1931). 72. Stephen Vogel, Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996). 73. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Noerr, tr. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007). See also Wilke, German Culture and the European Environmental Imagination, 45–56. 74. Jürgen Habermas, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991). 75. Karl-Otto Apel, Diskurs und Verantwortung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1988). 76. Simon Caney, “Cosmopolitan Justice, Responsibility, and Global Climate Change,” Leiden Journal of International Law 18 (2005): 747–75; Edward A. Page, “Cosmopolitanism, Climate Change, and Greenhouse Emissions Trading,” International Theory 3 (2011): 37–69; Amos Nascimento, “Immanuel Kant, the Anthropocene, and the Idea of Environmental Cosmopolitanism,” in Readings in the Anthropocene, eds. Wilke and Johnstone, 169–94. 77. Amos Nascimento, Building Cosmopolitan Communities: A Critical and Multidimensional Approach (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Amos Nascimento, “Humanity, Rights, and the Ideal of a Global Critical Cosmopolitanism,” in The Cosmopolitan Ideal: Challenges and Opportunities, eds. Sybille de la Rosa and Darren O’Byrne (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015), 13–38. 78. Amos Nascimento and Matthias Lutz-Bachmann, eds., Human Rights, Human Dignity, and Cosmopolitan Ideals (Surrey: Ashgate, 2014). 79. Immanuel Kant, “Toward Perpetual Peace,” in Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 311–51.


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80. Immanuel Kant, “Von den Ursachen der Erderschütterungen bei Gelegenheit des Unglücks welches die westlichen Länder von Europa gegen das Ende des vorigen Jahres betroffen hat” (1756), in Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. 1 (Berlin: Königliche Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1900). 81. Stuart Elden and Eduardo Mendieta, eds., Reading Kant’s Geography (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011). 82. Nigel Clark, Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet (Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2011), 92. 83. Rachel Zuckert, Kant on Beauty and Biology: An Interpretation of the “Critique of Judgment” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 64–86. See also Wilke, German Culture and the European Environmental Imagination, 42–45. 84. Kant, “Toward Perpetual Peace,” 330. 85. Nascimento, “Immanuel Kant, the Anthropocene, and the Idea of Environmental Cosmopolitanism.” 86. Gerard Delanty, The Cosmopolitan Imagination: The Renewal of Critical Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). 87. Simon Caney, Justice beyond Borders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Simon Caney, “Human Rights, Climate Change, and Discounting,” Environmental Politics 17 (2008): 536–55. 88. Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008). 89. Clark, Inhuman Nature.

Chapter 2

The Coming of the Post-Axial Age John Michael Greer

It can be difficult to remember at present that not much more than half a century ago, philosophy was routinely discussed in general-interest magazines and the better grade of newspapers, not merely in the academic press. Sartre was an international celebrity; the posthumous publication of Teilhard de Chardin’s Le phénomène humain received significant media coverage, and Random House’s Vintage Books label, among others, found a market for inexpensive mass-market paperback editions of major philosophical writings from Plato straight through to Nietzsche and beyond. Though philosophy was never really part of the cultural mainstream at that time, it had the same kind of widespread following as jazz or science fiction. Attendees at any reasonably large cocktail party had a reasonable chance of meeting someone who was into philosophy, and those who knew where to look in any big city or college town with pretensions to culture could find at least one bar, bookstore, or all-night coffee shop where philosophy geeks talked earnestly into the small hours about Kant or Kierkegaard. Furthermore, that level of interest in the subject had been common in the Western world for a very long time. Here in North America, at least—I understand that conditions in Europe are a little less dire at present—we have come a long way since then. These days discussions about philosophy in the North American media usually come from scientific materialists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson who insist that philosophy is nonsense. The occasional work of philosophy still gets a page or two in the New York Review of Books, but popular interest in the subject has vanished, and more than vanished: the truculent ignorance about philosophy displayed by Tyson and his many equivalents has become just as common among cocktail-party attendees as a feigned interest in the subject was a half century in the past. Largely shut out from the realm of public 23


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discourse, philosophy clings to a narrowing niche in the academic world, and current trends do not bode well for the continued existence of the institutional arrangements that give it what grudging support it still receives.1 At first glance, then, it may seem out of place to talk about what philosophy has to contribute to the so-called Anthropocene epoch.2 It is an open question whether philosophy as a living tradition will survive long even under current conditions; furthermore, the cascade of changes that have been set in motion by our species’ abuse of the biosphere will not necessarily spare the institutional arrangements that support the practice of philosophy just now. A glance back over the history of philosophy offers only qualified hope, since philosophy has died at least once in the history of Western philosophy itself, during the dark ages that followed the fall of Roman civilization. Even where classical literature clung to a tenuous existence during that hiatus, as in Byzantium, the living tradition of philosophy was lost and had to be rekindled from literary remains once conditions changed, first in the Muslim world and then in Europe. This way of looking at the prospects of philosophy conflicts with certain deeply held modern beliefs about the nature of history. The idea that an era of intellectual sophistication and subtlety can give way to an era of superstition and crude empirical generalization is unthinkable to many educated people today, even though history shows no shortage of examples. The further suggestion that the intellectual and philosophical triumphs of the past several centuries could give way to the sharply narrowed mental horizons of a new dark age is not merely unthinkable to many, but deeply offensive. Behind that reaction lies the metanarrative of progress, the modern world’s most widely accepted way of interpreting history.3 At the heart of the metanarrative of progress is a rhetorical strategy that assigns certain arbitrarily chosen events of past and present the status of irreversible forward steps in the grand march of humanity, and tacitly assigns a less significant status to events that fail to further movement in whatever direction the grand march of humanity is held to follow. The historical emergence of philosophy in the ancient world, alongside more recent events in the history of the discipline, has been assigned meanings of this kind tolerably often in the three centuries or so since the metanarrative of progress rose to prominence in the western world. The enlistment of philosophy under the banner of the metanarrative of progress played a pivotal role in the philosophy of history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in particular, and took many forms in the philosophical writings of that period. It received one of its most distinctive expressions at the hands of Karl Jaspers, who identified the historical emergence of philosophy in ancient times with what he considered the most important turning point in history, the coming of the Axial Age. To make sense of the very

The Coming of the Post-Axial Age 25

different turning point facing modern industrial culture at this stage of its history, and the ways that this transition can be expected to affect the project and purposes of philosophy, a close look at Jaspers’s theory and the realities behind it will be helpful. THE HINGE OF HISTORY? Jaspers introduced the concept of the Axial Age in his 1949 book Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (On the Origin and Goal of History). Like most twentieth-century European historiography, it built on the foundations laid by Hegel’s philosophy of history, but—also like most twentieth-century European historiography—it also reacted against the ideas of a more controversial figure in German intellectual life, the historian Oswald Spengler. Hegel famously argued for a theory of history in which the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, and the modern civilizations of Europe formed the three stages of a single narrative of human progress, to which the historical experiences of all other societies were mere addenda.4 That view was widely embraced in scholarship as well as popular culture throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In his own work, by contrast, Spengler proposed that human history cannot be made to fit any single trajectory, and that the metanarrative of progress in particular represents a drastic falsification of historical fact.5 In Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), his major work, Spengler argued that each great culture traces out its own historical trajectory, subject to common laws of development and decline, and this history unfolds in a predictable series of stages from birth to death. The intellectual life of a great culture is thus as distinct as its history: “Each Culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay, and never return. There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics, but many, each in its deepest essence different from the others.”6 From Spengler’s standpoint, as a result, the metanarrative of progress is a twofold falsification. To begin with, our civilization has risen but not yet fallen, and therefore judges its own history as well as that of other civilizations through the distorting lens of an incomplete experience of the historical process. On a deeper level, to Spengler, our idea of progress is simply a reflection of our own civilization’s necessarily ethnocentric sense of values. What makes our civilization “more progressive” than others? Simply that we embody, more completely than do other civilizations, the specific set of values our civilization happens to prize. What makes us sure that history is progressive in nature? Our myopic take on our own incomplete history, which has so far traced out only half of the normal cycle of rise and fall.


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In the face of this challenge, the metanarrative of progress had no shortage of defenders in twentieth-century European thought, and Jaspers was among these. Central to Jaspers’s project in On the Origin and Goal of History, accordingly, was the search for a weapon with which to refute Spengler’s assault. The intellectual stakes here were high, since Jaspers sought to prove that the rise of modern industrial civilization marked a permanent change in human affairs and not, as Spengler argued, the prelude to the Western world’s decline and fall. The concept of the Axial Age was born out of that search. Jaspers argued that the period between 800 and 200 BC represented an irrevocable turning point in human thought, a hinge of history dividing a lower from a higher realm of cultural and intellectual phenomena. Before the Axial Age, mythic thought, primitive superstition, the timeless repetition of archaic irrationalities; after it, philosophy, reason, revealed religion, humanity set free to pursue its truly human capacities—this, at least, according to Jaspers.7 Grant that claim, and it becomes reasonable to argue, as Jaspers did, that the further transformations of human thought that drove the rise of modern industrial civilization were equally irrevocable. Fair enough. Certain questions, though, follow from this claim, and these have to be faced in order to address Jaspers’s argument for the irrevocable nature of progress. What exactly was it that appeared with the Axial Age? Can anything be said about the cause of this apparent break with the past? And is Jaspers correct that the change heralded by the coming of the Axial Age is an irreversible event in human history? Trying to characterize the diverse cultural and intellectual phenomena that appeared between 800 BCE and 200 BCE in the eastern Mediterranean, India, and China, Jaspers indulged in very broad generalizations: “In this age were born the fundamental categories within which we still think today, and the beginnings of the world religions, by which human beings still live, were created.”8 This is true in a certain sense, but only so long as terms such as “we” and “human beings” apply only to those inhabitants of industrial societies who accept those categories of thought Jaspers considered fundamental, and embrace one of the world religions rather than any of the other religious or irreligious options. This is at least a questionable claim and requires considerably more justification than Jaspers gave it. Features of the Axial Age he considers distinctive suffer from a similar narrowness of focus. These include the end of myth, the rise of philosophy, the birth of speculative thought, and the emergence of “the specifically human in man,” that is, “what was later called reason and personality.”9 He seems to be correct that philosophy as such first appears with the coming of the Axial Age, and certain kinds of speculative thought appear with it, though others can quite readily be traced as far back as written records go; the rise of quantitative astronomical science in ancient Mesopotamia, enriched as it was

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with the soaring speculations of ancient astrology, is merely one of the more thoroughly documented examples. The claim that myth was somehow brought to an end by the intellectual breakthroughs of the Axial Age, on the other hand, cannot be justified at all without special pleading. Unless we agree arbitrarily to define “myth” in such a way that the term only refers to the sacred narratives of religions founded before the Axial Age, and use some other word to talk about the corresponding narratives of religions founded during and after that period, Jaspers’s claim simply is not true. Mythic discourse—the mode of explaining the world that relies on narratives of the deeds of superhuman beings—persists in all human societies; what happened with the coming of the Axial Age was simply that, for a time, mythic discourse became unfashionable among a large part of the educated elite, while it retained its hold on other strata of society. The claim that the Axial Age saw the first appearance of “the specifically human in man,” in the same way, depends on a set of entirely personal value judgments about what is or is not “specifically human.” Any such judgment risks excluding large numbers of our species, past and present, from the “specifically human.” By 1949, when Jaspers wrote, it should have been painfully obvious that this is a very dangerous game to play. At the same time, as already noted, Jaspers does appear to be correct that philosophy had its origin in the places and times he specifies. Certain other modes of human thought, including logic and formal mathematics, also appear to have had their beginnings in the same places and times. Since these modes of thought have played a foundational role in the most prestigious intellectual currents of our culture, Jaspers’s focus on their origin may not be misplaced. LITERACY AND THE AXIAL AGE If we grant Jaspers’s claim that the Axial Age is a historical reality, though, the second question brought up earlier—the question of its cause or causes— cannot be evaded. Jaspers himself recognized this and discussed a number of factors that might have brought about the Axial Age and its many transformations.10 Among the possibilities he considered were a common source in Central Asia, the impact of Indo-European invasions, and sociological conditions including the presence of many small states engaged in constant warfare. He concluded, however, that it is impossible to identify any historical cause for the coming of the Axial Age, while pleading gamely that he was not trying to suggest a supernatural cause for the phenomenon.11 Whether or not this surrender to the unknowable was an attempt to create an opening for a Christian apologetics of history, along the lines of the famous “God of the


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gaps” argument—a common enough strategy on one end of twentieth-century historiography12—it is by no means required by the evidence. If Jaspers was correct in saying that something genuinely new emerged in the eastern Mediterranean, India, and China at roughly the same period in human history, it would seem reasonable to inquire whether the human cultures in these places had evolved, shortly before the emergence of the core features of the Axial Age, some significant feature bearing on the life of the mind, which did not occur before that time and cannot be found elsewhere until a later date. It so happens that there is one such feature: the expansion of literacy beyond a scribal class. In a useful study of the roles of literacy in classical Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman culture, William V. Harris differentiates among distinct levels of literacy within a population.13 He uses the term scribal literacy for the possession of literacy solely by a scribal elite associated with palaces and temples, who use writing solely for record-keeping and other practical tasks. This is the context in which literacy existed in the ancient Near East, in Minoan and Mycenean societies, in Egypt until the New Kingdom, and in literate New World societies such as the classical Maya. Craftsman’s literacy14 is Harris’s term for the possession of literacy by a significant minority of the male population, including skilled craftspeople, landowners, public officials, and the like, while unskilled male laborers, farmers, the poor, and women generally remain illiterate. This differs, finally, from mass literacy, in which the majority of the population is literate, including both genders and most or all social classes. The transition between scribal literacy and craftsman’s literacy is the one that deserves attention here. We live in an age of mass literacy, and from that standpoint it can be difficult to realize just how drastic a change followed the end of the scribal monopoly on writing—a change that was not limited to social and economic effects, but reshaped the way that language itself was and is experienced.15 Consider an act of linguistic communication in an oral society. Lacking writing, every use of language was, and had to be, the performative act of a speaker or a group of speakers and could not be experienced apart from the whole context of the performance—a context that included gestures, vocal tones, facial expressions, and all the other nonverbal carriers of meaning that play a role in oral performance. In an oral society, language never stands alone. To a very great extent, this remains the case while literacy is the preserve of a small professional class of scribes. In a society with scribal literacy, written language remains tied to oral performance. The core scribal activities are taking oral dictation from illiterate persons, on the one hand, and reading written documents to illiterate persons, on the other. In a society with scribal

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literacy, in effect, a written document is a script for an oral performance, which enables that performance to be enacted at a distance in space or time. With the coming of craftsman’s literacy, this condition changes decisively for members of the literate community. When literacy is no longer limited to a professional class but spreads through a significant minority of the population, writing and reading are no longer bound to the context of public performance, and the individual reader, pondering a document in solitude, becomes a recognized phenomenon. One crucial consequence is that for the first time, language can be detached from the other elements of oral communication and experienced in isolation. The meaning of words, rather than the character and intentions of speakers, accordingly becomes central to learned discourse. The impact of this change can best be understood by observing the difference between mythology, the standard intellectual discourse of oral and scribal societies, and philosophy, the standard intellectual discourse of societies that have achieved craftsman’s literacy. Every mythology is a description of the actions and intentions of persons; every philosophy, by contrast, is a description of the properties and relations of abstractions. Mythology thus comes naturally in a society in which every linguistic act is part of a personal performance. Philosophy, in turn, comes naturally in a society in which words have become separated from the other, nonverbal elements of personal communication and can therefore be experienced and understood on their own as impersonal markers for abstract ideas. It is of course controversial to suggest that the rise of craftsman’s literacy, rather than some more impressive, elusive, or metaphysical cause, brought about the intellectual phenomena that Jaspers assigns to the Axial Age. The metanarrative of progress assigns these phenomena a place alongside the emergence of modern industrial society as irreversible forward steps in the grand march of humanity from the caves to the stars. To reinterpret them instead as unexpected side effects of a change in the social status of literacy is to challenge the assumption of the irrevocability of progress that lies at the heart of the metanarrative itself—an assumption that underlies a great deal of the rhetoric, and even more of the actions, that have brought humanity to its present impasse. Examine the vagaries of literacy across historical societies, however, and the suggestion I have made here gains powerful support. In post-Roman Europe, to cite only one of the many examples, literacy once again became the preserve of a very small body of religious scribes, and mythology promptly replaced philosophy as the common mode of intellectual discourse. Once literacy spread outside the monasteries, in turn, philosophy rose resurgent, and mythology once again began to lose its grip on the literate classes. The same sequence can be traced wherever a society has moved in either direction across the boundary between scribal and craftsman’s literacy.


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Thus, we can understand the phenomena of the Axial Age as the product of an important shift in the way literate individuals in ancient societies experienced language, and accordingly in the way their habits of thinking were conditioned by their use of language. That shift had sweeping consequences, and Jaspers was entirely correct in claiming that the complexities of modern thought still move in patterns first traced out by those ancient societies that first diffused literacy outside a scribal class. Jaspers meant to claim considerably more for the Axial Age than the side effects of a significant change in communication, to be sure, but a strong case can be made that the facts behind his sweeping generalizations can best be understood along the lines just traced out. THE TRIUMPH OF THE LOGOS If the phenomena of the Axial Age resulted from a shift of the kind just described, in turn, one of the most curious habits of thought that came in with craftsman’s literacy becomes easier to understand. This is the conviction that the truth about the world consists of ideas that can be expressed in verbal formulae, and that the rest of reality is merely an expression of the truth known in words. Put perhaps too bluntly, it is the belief that words are more real than the experiences they describe. Beliefs very often appear in their most uncompromising form when first articulated, before time and debate have the chance to force nuance upon them. Thus, it is no surprise that the conviction just outlined can be seen in its extreme form at the very dawn of philosophical reasoning, in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy. When Parmenides placed in the mouth of a goddess that the world known by reason is the true world, and the world experienced by the senses was purely illusory,16 he sounded the keynote of the Axial Age. The later history of Greek philosophy, in turn, was largely a matter of adding nuance to Parmenides’s claim. Plato’s concept of the Ideas and Aristotle’s application of verbal logic to the nonverbal phenomena of nature can usefully be seen as adaptations of the Parmenidean principle in the service of more thoroughly developed accounts of the world. The same opposition between a true world known by the powers of the mind and the false world constructed by the senses was even more central to Indian philosophy, which made the illusory nature of sensory reality its keynote from the age of the Upanishads onward. The same theme’s importance in the debates that shaped ancient Chinese philosophy is attested by the caution Lao Tsu puts at the beginning of the Dao De Jing: “The Way that can be described is not the eternal Way; the names that can be spoken are not eternal

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names”—a warning that would have been unnecessary had Parmenides not had his Chinese equivalents. The impact and intensity of the Axial Age’s trust in verbal formulae over experienced reality, however, can best be observed by watching its impact on religion. Religion, which relies primarily on mythological, rather than philosophical, discourse, fills many of the same roles in oral and scribal societies that philosophy fills in societies with craftsman’s or mass literacy. In societies that have attained craftsman’s or mass literacy, in turn, religion functions in large part as a kind of folk philosophy, using mythological discourse to express the common presuppositions of popular thought. These latter, in turn, tend to reflect the core commitments of learned discourse in a fashion reminiscent of a carnival funhouse mirror: inverted and distorted, to be sure, but still recognizably made in the image of its source. Thus, in all three of the seedbeds of the Axial Age, in the Mediterranean world as in India and China, the coming of craftsman’s literacy and the emergence of philosophy were echoed over the following centuries by the abandonment of an ancient mode of religious discourse and its replacement by a radically different religious language. The mode that was replaced may be described without too much inaccuracy as paganism: a religious sensibility that made traditional rituals and customs central to religious life, and either had no sacred writings or assigned them a secondary importance. Ancient Greek polytheism, the archaic Hinduism of the Vedas and the great Indian epics, and the scarcely remembered polytheism of classical China all fit this mode, as of course do many other faiths of past and present. The mode that came in with the Axial Age, by contrast, is the one that most people in the industrial world today associate with religion as a matter of course: a religious sensibility that makes belief in doctrines taught in a sacred scripture central to religious life and gives to traditional rituals and customs a secondary importance. The outspoken certainty of the Gospel of John—“In the beginning was the Word”—puts the central theme of the Axial Age in stark relief. That same triumph of the logos is echoed in the scriptures of Christianity and Islam, the principal religious products of the Axial Age in the Mediterranean; in the scriptures of Buddhism, the principal religious product of the Axial Age in India; and, in a fine display of history’s wry sense of humor, in the way that the philosophical texts of Lao Tsu and Confucius were taken up and redefined as scriptures by Chinese popular religion, the principal religious product of the Axial Age in China. Here again, it is revealing to trace what happened when societies that had achieved craftsman’s literacy lost that status, and once again relegated literacy to a small scribal elite, as happened in post-Roman Europe. Just as mythology took over from philosophy, a religious sensibility based on ritual


John Michael Greer

and tradition supplanted one based on creeds and theology; where the latter survived, they did so in fossil forms and took on functions far removed from their original context—for example, the creeds and prayers of Catholic Christianity took on the role of magic spells in early medieval Europe.17 The return of craftsman’s literacy, in turn, led in due course to the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, which reasserted the primacy of formal verbal statements of belief over ritual rooted in mythic narrative. The verbal formulae at the heart of Axial Age religions were always contested, both by proponents of alternative formulae and by mystics who challenged the validity of any verbal formulae. Yet the fierceness of the debates that surrounded such issues highlights the importance that verbal understandings of reality were assigned in the wake of the Axial Age. It was only after the Axial Age that adherence to a verbal statement became the acid test of commitment to a religion. An ancient Greek pagan expressed his or her commitment to traditional paganism by participating in rituals, celebrating festivals, and engaging in other religious actions, not by uttering some statement of belief. It was only after the Axial Age that rival religious factions turned to schism, persecution, and mob violence over questions of verbal formulae—for example, whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone. Such contentions were unimaginable in pagan societies; in the wake of the Axial Age, they became all too familiar. THE END OF THE DREAM Philosophy, to its credit, has generally avoided these extremes of behavior, and it has also varied significantly over time in the degree of animosity with which the defenders of one philosophical position have turned on proponents of antithetical positions. There have been periods in the history of philosophy in which competing schools confronted one another across a rhetorical no man’s land fortified with the intellectual equivalent of trenches and barbed wire, but there have also been periods in which different schools and thinkers have managed some degree of peaceful coexistence. This has become increasingly common over the past century. The great philosophical contentions of the nineteenth century had the unexpected result of demonstrating that it was impossible to prove the exclusive validity of any one account of the world to the satisfaction of open-minded individuals who had accepted some other account of the world. Among the many consequences of this demonstration was the undermining of any attempt to apply the metanarrative of progress to the history of philosophy. While philosophy can be said to progress in certain specific senses—for example, by elaborating languages of discourse and working out the implications of claims about

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the world in increasing detail—it has become increasingly clear that no more general concept of progress makes sense of its history. A distinction proposed by E. F. Schumacher may be useful here.18 Problems subject to investigation by the human mind, he suggested, fall generally speaking into two categories. Convergent problems are those in which inquiry, however diverse its starting points may be, converges on a single answer. The classic challenges faced and overcome by science are good examples of convergent problems: there is, for example, precisely one correct answer to the question of what set of numbers best models the movement of any given planet relative to the Sun. The history of that particular theme in planetary astrophysics traces the process by which a sequence of theories—Ptolemaic, Copernican, Keplerian, Newtonian, and Einsteinian—successively yielded improved approximations to the correct answer, as inquiry converged from wildly diverse initial hypotheses to exact mathematical formulae that agreed with every observation. Divergent problems do not have this characteristic trajectory. The classic challenges faced and not yet overcome by ethics, for example, are good examples of divergent problems. Different ethicists grappling with the same issue may come to widely differing conclusions, not because one ethicist is more accurate than the other, but because each builds an argument starting from a different set of presuppositions, and no argument favoring one such set over another has convincing force to those not already predisposed to accept it. The intellectual history of the nineteenth century demonstrated with tolerable clarity that the central concerns of philosophy are divergent rather than convergent problems. The inability of philosophy to converge on a final answer to the problems of existence thus became a central theme in twentieth-century thought, and received a great deal of thoughtful attention. The work of Michael Polanyi, as set out in Personal Knowledge and neatly summarized in The Tacit Dimension, is among the most useful explorations of this theme.19 Polanyi showed decisively that every human being knows things that cannot be communicated in words—the knowledge that enables each of us to recognize the faces of family members and friends is an obvious example. He proceeded to show that every verbal statement of knowledge depends on a substructure of tacit, personal knowledge which cannot be communicated in verbal form. Attempting to reduce this tacit knowledge to words requires dependence on an even wider range of tacit knowledge, resulting in an infinite regression. Thus, the old dream of an explicit philosophical account of the entirety of the world, the final expression of the old faith in the truth of verbal formulae, falls at last. Along with it falls the hope of a final philosophy to which all


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lines of inquiry will eventually converge—a hope that always depended on the assumption that a wholly explicit verbal statement of the nature of the world, relying on no tacit underpinnings, was possible. Polanyi’s work, and those of the many other twentieth-century philosophers who contributed to the same recognition of the divergent nature of philosophical questions, thus has a role in the history of philosophy comparable to that of Kurt Gödel in the history of logic. Gödel’s famous theorem, it bears remembering, did not bring about the end of logic. It simply drew a line under certain directions in which logical investigation had proceeded, so that further work could proceed along avenues not yet foreclosed. In the same way, the work of Polanyi and his peers shows that certain pretensions to which philosophers have occasionally been prone can no longer be defended. No final philosophy, no all-encompassing and wholly explicit synthesis embracing the fundamentals of human thought, will ever exist, and attempts to justify philosophy in terms of its movement toward some such synthesis, along the lines of the metanarrative of progress discussed earlier, are misguided at best. Yet it is a mistake to see this as a denial of the value of philosophy. Many things in the universe of our experience—sex, literature, and the enjoyment of beauty are among the obvious examples—cannot be said to progress in any sense that matters, but this hardly deprives them of their value and significance for human life. A comparable case can be made for the value of philosophy. Such a case, however, would need to be built on the basis of a clear sense of what exactly philosophy is for—a clearer sense, arguably, than most philosophers have demonstrated up to the present time. THE MEANING OF PHILOSOPHY The vision of the Axial Age offered by Karl Jaspers defines the value and meaning of philosophy in very different terms, to be sure. For Jaspers, even though the achievements of the Axial Age were the product of a small number of individuals and influenced only a minority of the people living in the three regions where the Age had its initial manifestations, even though the bulk of the population remained comfortably settled in its earlier primitive and mythic consciousness and promptly returned to earlier ways of doing things once the initial stimulus had worn off, what happened in the Axial Age marked an enduring transformation for all human beings everywhere. Those societies that had no part in the original transformation, he insisted, were doomed either to perish or to embrace the new reality.20 This sort of triumphalist rhetoric was common enough in nineteenth- and twentieth-century European intellectual culture, which was beset by a congenital inability to notice that every wave of the future inevitably breaks

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and rolls back out to sea. It was particularly common in projects of the sort Jaspers was pursuing. In defending the metanarrative of progress against such challenges as Spengler among others leveled against it, finding some way to privilege this or that historical event as an irreversible forward step in the grand upward march of humanity was a gambit that saw heavy use.21 If the phenomena Jaspers identified as the hallmarks of the Axial Age were simply the cascading intellectual side effects of the expansion of literacy outside a scribal elite, as this chapter has proposed, his claims regarding them require considerable reassessment. Fortunately, history is well stocked with comparable examples of modest changes that set immense consequences in motion. One such example offers a particularly useful lesson in the present context. Cultivating grains for human food is not that different, all things considered, from cultivating other plant crops, and plenty of human cultures had learned the trick of planting gardens long before the first grain-growing societies emerged in the Middle East.22 What made grain growing significant, though, was the fact that grains can be transported and stored for long periods without spoilage, and this allowed modes of economic centralization no earlier form of human subsistence had made possible. While societies that planted and harvested other, less durable crops stayed at the village level of organization, accordingly, grain-growing societies created the first cities, and evolved the city-state model of social organization, in which urban centers maintain complex economies with extensive division of labor, with craftspersons, religious professionals, government officials, artists, and scribes all getting their subsistence from grain raised by farmers in the surrounding agricultural hinterland. The entire suite of practices, technologies, and possibilities we now term “civilization” thus had its origin from the homely act of putting a different kind of seed in a patch of well-hoed ground. Over time, grain agriculture and the city-state economic and political model that emerged out of it spread over those portions of the globe that were well suited to it. The historical narratives of an earlier time liked to portray this as yet another irreversible forward step in the grand upward march of humanity, but research less rigidly constrained by the metanarrative of progress has revealed a far more nuanced tale. There are indeed parts of the world in which grain agriculture and the city-state system, once established, became an enduring reality. There are towns in the Mediterranean basin, India, and China, the heartlands of Jaspers’s Axial Age, that have been continuously inhabited for millennia, and still support themselves largely from the produce of their surrounding agricultural hinterlands. At the same time, there are also a great many places where agriculture and the city-state system failed. In some of those places, it returned after an interval, with or without improved techniques to stave off a second failure, while in others, no return took place, and archeologists there busy themselves


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today unearthing the remnants of long-abandoned buildings from beneath desert sands or tropical jungle growth.23 The failures as well as the successes deserve attention in any meaningful understanding of the consequences of growing grains. I suggest that the same approach might usefully be applied to the consequences of expanded literacy, philosophy among them. Like the practice of growing grain, the practice of diffusing literacy beyond a scribal elite opened up possibilities no one imagined in advance and set in motion a cascade of consequences that laid the groundwork for a great deal of modern culture. In both cases, those possibilities and consequences emerged promptly whenever the underlying practice became sufficiently widespread. Neither the practices nor their results were irreversible; there have been a significant number of cases in which, for various reasons, the practices have gone out of use, and their results went out of existence thereafter. Neither the practices nor their results, for that matter, were inevitable: there have always been human societies that, for various reasons, did not adopt one or both of them, and did without the results. A strong case can be made that, barring some event drastic enough to abolish either practice and put their recovery out of reach, both grain agriculture and more-than-scribal literacy, with all their consequences, represent enduring additions to the range of possibilities open to human societies and individuals. Getting from that claim to the notion that agriculture or philosophy must be privileged as steps in the inevitable onward march of progress, though, requires a conceptual leap for which no adequate justification has yet been offered. This way of thinking implies, in turn, that human history is not a convergent problem. The metanarrative of progress presupposes that all of humanity is proceeding along a single line of development toward a single goal; this is what lies behind Jaspers’s otherwise odd claim that the intellectual habits resulting from the coming of the Axial Age, limited as they are to minorities even in today’s industrial nations, somehow amount to “the specifically human in man.” If philosophy and the other products of the Axial Age are understood as possibilities rather than destinies, then human history presents no single line of progress. Instead, it offers a smorgasbord of options from which individuals and societies are within their rights to pick and choose, without that act of choice somehow making them less than specifically human. THE POST-AXIAL AGE Another lesson that can be drawn from the history of grain agriculture, though, has much to offer philosophers as our species moves deeper into a challenging future. As already noted, some regions are well suited to grain

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agriculture, while others are not. Even at present, when vast supplies of nonrenewable resources can temporarily be lavished on the project of growing grain in areas poorly suited for such projects, there are large portions of the earth’s land surface on which grain agriculture is not an option. As current stocks of fossil fuels, groundwater, topsoil, and other necessities are exhausted, the areas suited for agriculture can be expected to shrink considerably, forcing human societies in those areas to choose between retooling their subsistence strategies and going extinct.24 In past eras, when resource depletion and other challenges have forced reconsideration of overenthusiastic projects for expanding the global footprint of civilization, those civilizations that have survived have done so in large part through a process of discernment in which those commitments that made sense in the context of the time were set apart from those that did not. It was by such a process, for example, that the Roman Empire bought itself an extra millennium of life by jettisoning its vulnerable Western half and falling back on a more sustainable empire centered on Constantinople.25 A similar project on a more abstract plane presents itself as an essential project for today’s philosophers, and those of tomorrow, should philosophy as a living tradition survive the troubles of the near future. The legacy of the Axial Age, and in particular its obsession with verbal abstractions as distinct from other aspects of human experience, has proven to be a profoundly mixed blessing in recent centuries. Some part of the responsibility for the rising spiral of crises now besetting the industrial world, in fact, might reasonably be assigned to habits of thought that fixate on such abstractions as the metanarrative of progress, and ignore gritty realities such as the dependence of changes arbitrarily singled out as “progressive” on the rapid depletion of nonrenewable resources and the wholesale dumping of poisonous wastes into the biosphere. At the same time, the extraordinary development of abstract reflection and philosophical thought set in motion by the Axial Age has yielded much that may turn out to be of value to the human societies of the far future. Thus, one of the most significant tasks toward which philosophers might choose to devote their time and effort just now is the act of reassessing the heritage of philosophy from the Axial Age to the present, sorting out those ventures that proved to be productive from those that turned out sterile, those that taught useful ways of thinking from those that encouraged people to lose themselves in dysfunctional habits of mind, and so on. Such a reassessment is a divergent problem rather than a convergent one, to return to Schumacher’s dichotomy, for the terms I have just used in setting out the project—“productive,” “sterile,” “useful,” “dysfunctional”—are not objective properties toward which inquiry will necessarily converge; they are value judgments, and thus irreducibly dependent on context. The reassessment I am


John Michael Greer

proposing thus does not aim at a final synthesis of philosophy, but a diverse set of explorations from which the future will make its own choices. Consider, as an example of the reassessment I have in mind, the dichotomy I have borrowed here from Schumacher. Is it true that questions by and large fall into two categories, those that converge on a single answer, and those that diverge toward many answers? No doubt the point could be debated at length, but in the present context—the context of a discussion about what philosophers might do in the face of the converging crisis besetting modern industrial society—such a debate seems unhelpful to me. I suggest instead approaching the dichotomy as a tool rather than a truth, and exploring the uses and consequences of, say, recognizing this or that set of questions as divergent instead of convergent. Nietzsche’s critique of the pursuit of truth in the first section of Beyond Good and Evil is relevant here: the tempters and attempters whose importance to the philosophy of the future he proclaimed would be well suited to the work I have sketched out.26 Another worthwhile project relevant to the future of philosophy is the presentation of core philosophical ideas in forms suited to the ordinary literate public. As noted earlier, it is an open question whether current trends in North America and elsewhere will permit the survival of philosophy as a living discipline in the academy as presently constituted, and crises of the sort that can be expected in the near and middle future raise serious questions about whether the academy as an institutional phenomenon will long survive. It was largely in the form of summaries, encyclopedias, and popularizations written in late Roman times that philosophical thinking survived in the West after the fall of Rome, and it was from these sources that philosophy was rekindled as scribal literacy gave way to craftsman’s literacy in the Muslim world and medieval Europe. The same thing might be worth aiming for as industrial civilization moves deeper into crisis, with an eye toward the rekindling of philosophy as a living tradition after the deindustrial dark ages ahead. The same principle that led botanists to establish a seed bank on the Arctic island of Svalbard might inspire philosophers to create an idea bank; ideas, fortunately for such a project, can be stored in much more compact form than seeds and do not require refrigeration to stay viable for the long term. A third project, more challenging in some ways than the ones already mentioned, would involve sustained reflection on the incongruity between the mass literacy, universal education, and claims to intellectual superiority of contemporary industrial civilization, on the one hand, and the remarkable futility of attempts to turn contemporary industrial civilization from a self-destructive course by rational means. The failure of environmental activism to gain more than lip service from political institutions, even when

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the evidence of imminent crisis was overwhelming and the costs of inaction catastrophic, is a sobering lesson in the limits of reason. This same failure also poses a stark challenge to the metanarrative of progress. According to that metanarrative, the necessary sequel to the industrial civilization of our time must be some even more scientific, technologically complex, and intellectually rich civilization in the future, with yet more superlative examples of the same sort of civilization waiting in the wings. This faith is doubtless comforting for those capable of believing it, just as it would no doubt be comforting to children in the first days of fall to convince themselves that summer must be followed by an even sunnier and more pleasant season, and that by a season sunnier and yet more pleasant still. As a fair approximation of the first frosts of autumn spread through the industrial world, however, choosing imagined futures on the basis of their comfort value may not be the wisest option. As our political, economic, and intellectual institutions consistently fail to respond to imminent crises that are quite capable of ending the project of industrial civilization, belief in the inevitability of progress is hard to sustain on any reasonable basis. If the future follows Spengler’s model rather than Jaspers’s, and the future of industrial civilization tracks the ordinary process of decline and fall rather than the supposedly unstoppable march of progress from the caves to the stars, what remains of the grand faith of the Axial Age in the power of abstract reason? What of the convictions that verbal formulae created by human minds were truth itself, and nature merely their imperfect reflections? History is replete with discoveries that, while useful, turned out to be less so than their discoverers and promoters originally thought. The discovery of abstract thinking set in motion in the Axial Age may turn out to be an example of this kind. From Plato’s time down to the present, philosophers have been nonplussed by the discovery that the world is less amenable to rational interpretation and management than it appeared at first glance. This does not make philosophy useless. It simply means that more work needs to be done to differentiate those aspects of human life that can be understood and guided through reasoned exploration of abstract concepts from those that cannot. The human civilizations that built on the legacy of the Axial Age have witnessed a remarkable development of one narrow aspect of human capacity. Once the spread of literacy turned attention away from language as an act of individual performance to language as a sequence of conceptual abstractions, the abstract intellect and all that depends on it took center stage, and became crucial in the unfoldment of many of the transformations that followed. The failure of intellectual considerations to turn industrial civilization away from self-inflicted calamity, though, suggests that the one-sided development of


John Michael Greer

the abstract intellect may have passed its point of diminishing returns quite some time ago. Just as the human capacity for abstract thought remained largely undeveloped until the accident of more-than-scribal literacy refocused attention on it, furthermore other regions of human experience—the mythic, the religious, the emotional, the aesthetic, and others—may well conceal other capacities capable of equally remarkable development given the same sort of focused attention. It is impossible to know in advance whether or not these include the capacities that could have guided our species away from the rising spiral of self-inflicted environmental disasters it now faces. Since the abstract intellect clearly is not up to the task, however, it makes sense to look elsewhere. The impetus of the Axial Age has thus taken the project of human civilization as far as it can. That recognition might easily be fitted into some familiar metanarrative about the future, whether this is based on the currently popular folk mythology of progress or some other narrative structure, but that act of attempted normalization seems unhelpful to me. Instead, I suggest that the age before us might best be understood simply as a post-Axial Age, a period not yet amenable to any more substantive definition, in which attempts to make sense of the intellectual legacies of the Axial Age will have to grapple with the failure of our time to make good on the apparent promise of abstract reasoning. Projects of the sort already sketched out, should they yield results that survive the impending crises of our future, may well turn out to be helpful sources of raw material to the intellectual ventures of the post-Axial Age, just as equivalent ventures in late Roman times provided great assistance to the philosophers of the high Middle Ages and the Renaissance. If that potential is to be realized, though, a great deal of effort will be needed, and soon. Time is short, and the labor needed is not small. NOTES 1. Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead (New York: Random House, 2004). 2. The term “Anthropocene” implies, through its imitation of the names of geological epochs such as the Pliocene and Pleistocene, that humanity’s capacity to affect the planet on a geological scale will endure for a period comparable to other geological epochs—that is, several million years. It seems considerably more likely that the industrial system that enables human beings to have large-scale effects on the planet will be among the early casualties of the ecological crises now in motion. The so-called Anthropocene would thus better be termed the anthropic transition, a geologically brief interval separating the Holocene from a geological epoch to come. See John Michael Greer, “Confronting the Cthulhucene,” Dark Mountain 13 (Spring 2018).

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3. I have explored this theme in John Michael Greer, After Progress: Religion and Reason at the End of the Industrial Age (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2015). 4. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, tr. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975). 5. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 2: Perspectives of World History, tr. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928), 23–51. 6. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 1: Form and Actuality, tr. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926), 21. 7. Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, tr. Michael Bullock (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953), 2–8. 8. Ibid., 2. 9. Ibid., 3–4. 10. Ibid., 13–18. 11. Ibid., 18. 12. See, for one example out of many, Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1957). 13. William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 7–8. 14. The gender reference in this phrase is deliberate; in societies with craftsman’s literacy, literacy is almost entirely restricted to men. Literacy among women only becomes common in societies with what Harris calls mass literacy. 15. See, among other developments of this theme, Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Routledge, 2002); Eric A. Havelock, The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981); Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963); and Eric A. Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986). 16. Patricia Curd, A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2011), 53–63. 17. Valerie Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996). 18. E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977). 19. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962); Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966). 20. Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, 7, 19. 21. See, for one example out of many, Barfield, Saving the Appearances, which privileges a different set of historical events in the same manner to support a different historical metanarrative. 22. Colin Tudge, Neanderthals, Bandits, and Farmers: The Origins of Agriculture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998). 23. Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992).


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24. See John Michael Greer, Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2016). 25. Timothy E. Gregory, A History of Byzantium (Malden, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). 26. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to the Philosophy of the Future, tr. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1966); see especially section 42.

Chapter 3

On Nature and Liberation Timothy Sean Quinn φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ —Heraclitus

Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret. —Horace

If philosophy began with the discovery of nature, its present condition must be sorely vexed. Modern natural science and the technologies it spawned have effaced nature to such a degree that what it means to be a natural being seems hopelessly obscure, both theoretically and practically. Indeed, the very conviction that nature is the abode of the “first things,” or a term of distinction from what human beings do and make, would seem to dissolve when confronted with a power of human mastery potent enough to make that distinction nearly unintelligible. At the same time this age of prolific human mastery, appropriately christened “Anthropocene,” has provoked a sense of crisis. We recognize this crisis in what Max Weber aptly named “the disenchantment of the world,” in brief, a separation between a scientific account of nature that has no meaning for human life, and an experience of that same life reduced to conflicts of values.1 As this sense of crisis has deepened, the search for guidance within a natural or even supernatural order has slipped increasingly into irrelevancy. What is nature, if, as Hans Jonas has argued, the modern scientific concept of nature “contained manipulability at its theoretical core?”2 What is a human being, when the masters of nature have made themselves the object of mastery? In this situation, the ancient, primarily contemplative task of philosophy has come to seem not simply irrelevant but immoral, a questionable luxury, or an abdication of socially responsible action. On the other hand, technological solutions to a crisis engineered by unbridled technological expansion trap philosophy within the same self-conception that led to the present crisis, 43


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that is, as a project or task of emancipation. Even our stewardship of nature assumes our superiority to nature. When nature does survive, it does so typically in aesthetic ways, most notably as object of nostalgia. As Schiller explained, our sentimental longing for a nature effaced by the progress of civilization elevated nature to the status of a moral ideal unknown to our “ancient” forebears, who lived naïvely in harmony with nature.3 This naïve harmony is, however, lower, so to speak, than our sentimental longings, because the naïvety of the “ancients” is a moral naïvety: for all our envy of an ancient, pretechnological simplicity, our liberation from nature, both conceptually and physically, renders us their superior. Nostalgia mixes an idea of progress with a longing for an impossible return. Schiller’s nostalgia for a lost nature has later echoes in Nietzsche’s attempts at a return to Hellenism, his solution to the crisis of his age. At the same time, it preserves a vestige of the “ancient,” contemplative goal of philosophy, which has perhaps its clearest articulation in Aristotle. Importantly, this vestigial contemplative impulse, eclipsed but not wholly effaced by modern scientific and political demands for progress, reawakens a possibility of a concept of nature free from the sort of theoretical manipulability that Hans Jonas remarks. In fact, the crises of our age compel a search for alternatives, not only to our understanding of nature but also in the very tasks of philosophy. This search leads us ultimately to a return of sorts: to a premodern sense of nature and to a premodern sense of the goals of philosophy. To explore this possibility for return, I wish to consider three philosophers who grappled with questions of nature and liberation: Aristotle, Bacon, and Nietzsche. Aristotle is paradigmatic for an original sense of the contemplative task of philosophy and the purposive sense of nature that underscores it; Bacon, for the desire to conquer nature; Nietzsche, for a sense of crisis provoked by the Baconian quest, and for a collapse of horizons that compels a confrontation with premodern alternatives. By coming to terms with the challenges the thought of these philosophers poses not only to their own age but to ours, in short, the task of philosophy becomes a theoretical investigation with an eminently practical result: to reconsider the project of liberation from nature in order to correct our relationship both to nature and to liberation. NATURE AND CONTEMPLATION Ancient Greek philosophy understood itself as a theoretical or contemplative quest for knowledge of the “first things,” that is, as a quest for origins. It therefore oriented itself upon a particular concept of nature. Arguably,

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philosophy originates with the discovery of nature, that is, with the discovery that there exists something that is always, unaffected by human beings or gods, and therefore that stands beyond manipulation and limitless metamorphosis, only as an object of understanding and therewith a horizon of intelligibility. But nature is ambiguous; as Heraclitus writes, “Nature loves to hide.” As Aristotle argues in his Physics, nature comes to light, first, in contrast to nomos or convention, that is, laws and customs whose origin is in human decision, choice, or work.4 To be natural then is to have an origin of motion and rest within oneself. Nature also comes to light distinguished from techne, human craft, which nonetheless “partly imitates and partly completes” the processes of generation that can be discovered among natural beings.5 As Aristotle states the matter, “If one were to plant a bed and the rotting wood were to sprout, what sprouted would be wood and not a bed.”6 Nature understood in this fashion is both beginning and end; as end, it signifies not only the character or essence of a given being but also the good for the sake of which it moves and acts. For Aristotle, this dual notion of nature is at work in his concept of form, which is both eidos and morphe, the idea of something and its characteristic shape. Form then is, according to Aristotle, like a doctor doctoring, both an end and the motion toward the end.7 This duality of form Aristotle recognizes in his statement that form, while more truly the nature of something than its matter, is nonetheless not natural, because it lacks a principle of motion or rest.8 Aristotle gives perfect expression to this duality when he identifies the form with “the-what-it-was-to-be” (to ti en einai) of a being.9 This concept of nature is uniquely Greek; it makes no appearance, for example, in the Hebrew scripture, in which there exists no Hebrew word with an equivalent meaning, precisely because the entirety of what exists according to Genesis is a result of divine decree, y’mer elohim—a notion that remains at work in important and vestigial ways within early modernity. Nature so conceived is also comprehensively purposive, as Aristotle indicates in On the Soul; living and nonliving, human and nonhuman natures act for the sake of ends.10 The characteristically human end, the “human good” as he calls it in Nicomachean Ethics, consists in the excellence of the most human part of us, the rational part. This excellence, however, takes a variety of appearances: the building of cities and the contemplation of the whole. Ultimately, for Aristotle, contemplation is higher than action, because the things human beings make are passing; the act of contemplation is the closest human beings can come to a share in the eternal and unchanging order of things. Overall, the Aristotelian concept of nature is neither alien nor intrinsically hostile to human thinking and doing. Rather, its teleological character invites them. This aspect of nature becomes crucial when considering a


Timothy Sean Quinn

second hallmark of Aristotelian philosophy, that is, the primacy he awards the life of contemplation. Aristotle’s emphasis on the superiority of contemplation is pervasive in his writings. He asserts it in the concluding chapters of his Nicomachean Ethics; he praises it in the opening chapters of his Metaphysics; he uses it to set the goal for the educational program in the final book of his Politics. Curiously, however, Aristotle has relatively little to say about the nature of contemplation. His remarks about it in Nicomachean Ethics are in fact wonderfully ambiguous. In Book I, in his discussion of three predominant ways of life, Aristotle explains the goals and limitations of both the life dedicated to pleasures and the life dedicated to honor. But of the contemplative life, he says only that he will discuss it later.11 When we finally arrive at the place in the Ethics where one would expect that discussion, in Book X, Aristotle writes only that it has already been treated.12 This silence about the nature of contemplation is not clarified by Aristotle’s subsequent praise of the contemplative life, not in light of its object, which he never identifies, but in light of its secondary characteristics: its curious prospect for sustained pleasure, its self-sufficiency, its similarity to the lives of the gods. The person said to live this life, though, is not the philosopher, but the sophos, the “wise man,” who resembles the gods in the completeness of his thinking.13 The suspicion arises, in short, that perfect contemplation would render philosophical inquiry not merely irrelevant, but impossible. How then to understand Aristotle’s praise of the contemplative life? In the etymologically correct sense of the word, to be contemplative or theoretical is to be a spectator, removed from the life of action and production, and therefore from the demands of necessity and utility that freight most human lives. In his Metaphysics, for example, Aristotle tells us that the “science we are seeking,” a science concerned with origins and causes, emerges only after the perfection of productive arts has been able to address matters necessary or useful for the life of the body. The ensuing leisure we enjoy allows forms of knowledge to emerge that have nothing to do with production—not only philosophy but also poetry, mathematics, and the study of nature. In his Politics, Aristotle goes so far as to suggest that a life lived in occupation with necessary things, those things necessary for survival, is akin to living under a despotism.14 A life confined to production and fed by human acquisitiveness, Aristotle allows, is also politically dangerous, insofar as the incessant need for invention threatens the permanence of moral custom, rendering constitutions unstable.15 The human passion compelling contemplation, on the other hand, is wonder, thaumazein, a word later associated with miracles and magic, but which for Aristotle is connected to admiration and self-knowledge.16 In a passage echoing Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, Aristotle writes that human beings first wondered about what was at their feet, but

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eventually at the beauty of the heavens. Something of this notion of wonder survives in Kant’s celebrated reflection on his own experience of wonder.17 For Aristotle, wonder provokes a twofold liberation; freedom from the despotism of necessity allows for freedom from the despotism of ignorance and opinion, types of servility that damage what is most human in us, our natural “reaching out” (oregesthai) to know. But wonder also provokes a sense of subordination to the cosmos, a circumstance Aristotle states with perfect clarity in his Nicomachean Ethics: “It would be strange to think that the art of politics or practical wisdom is the best knowledge, since human being is not the best being in the cosmos.”18 In fact, the cosmos itself is better because it is everlasting, free from the fragility and contingency of human affairs. If the act of contemplation is best, human beings must embrace their finitude. The superiority of contemplation over human action and production assumes a relation to nature and to being beyond reduction to instrumentality, a view Aristotle expresses at the outset of Metaphysics IV.1: “There is a science that contemplates being as being, and what belongs to it in virtue of itself.”19 The “as” places the object of contemplation beyond any kinds, for example, being mathematical or being political, and therewith beyond the realm of human convention and artifice. The paradigm for and highest instance of this sense of being is, for Aristotle, an unmoved mover, whose being consists in the complete actuality of timeless contemplation, self-­ sufficient mind imitated both by human thought and action, and by the eternal, cyclic motions of the cosmos. It is therefore a purpose, the end for the sake of which all beings are and act. In its contemplation of the forms of the world, human mind imitates the self-contemplation of divine mind; to this degree, it participates in the eternal and everlasting motion of thinking, a pleasure it can enjoy only intermittently, given the limitations imposed upon us by matter and the body. Here, the teleology of nature intersects with what we might call a “teleology of wisdom”: purposive nature invites contemplation of purpose. To contemplate being as being then is to have a share in the divine; ironically, the most human part of us, intellect, exceeds the confines of our humanity. There is, therefore, something transgressive about the contemplative act: taking its bearings from human finitude, it seeks liberation from the confines of human finitude. This, in any event, is the view of poets who, according to Aristotle, complain that that the sort of knowledge with which philosophy is concerned, knowledge of origins, is hubristic, not fitting for human beings.20 Although Aristotle invokes Simonides to represent this opinion, the passage again recalls Sophocles’s Oedipus, who, until his fall, relies upon his own zetetic powers, rather than the gods. That is to say, he rejects the difference between himself and the gods, as will his daughter Antigone, later in the saga.21 If human reason can do without prophecy or hearsay, in short, it has no need of


Timothy Sean Quinn

gods; philosophy is a type of impiety. Aristotle’s rejoinder both confirms the poets’ indictment and seeks to reground piety on the ironic position of human reason. The philosophers indeed seek divine wisdom, which is either the wisdom the gods possess, or knowledge about the gods. That knowledge would of course have to include knowledge of whether there were gods: everything is, so to speak, up for grabs. The piety of philosophy is its recognition of human being as the most incomplete of beings, between beasts and gods, mortal beings striving for a share in the eternal. As Sophocles’s polla ta deina chorus reminds us, this striving to slip the limits of our mortality is part and parcel of the human condition. Of all the wonders, he writes, human beings are the greatest wonders of all. What is most wonderful about them is at the same time what is most terrifying: their ability to forget that the earth and ocean they plough with tillers and ships are in fact gods. Yet without that measure of oblivion, human reason could neither invent the arts nor found cities and laws: what is characteristically human terrifies, owing to its own powers to forget the limitations of its mortality. Ancient philosophy takes its bearings from this tragic oblivion, yet seeks a comic remedy, the self-sufficiency that only rational contemplation of the ends of natural beings can bring, and that renders the cosmos hospitable to human longings and deeds. FRANCIS BACON AND THE IDEA OF PROGRESS Modernity begins, by contrast, with a different relation both to nature and to liberation: Bacon, Descartes, and others seek liberation from human finitude by asserting the hegemony of the human. This new goal requires a replacement of ancient philosophical wonder with a science motivated by the desire to “subdue the necessities and miseries of human life.” Central to this new goal is a concept of nature that renders it subordinate to human instrumentality. Ironically, perhaps, it is Bacon and his early modern heirs who seal the connection between a purposive concept of nature and the primacy of contemplation over human production: to achieve the latter depends upon the former. This vision both of science and of nature is primarily a result of Bacon’s assimilation of two notions from Machiavelli: virtù and fortuna. The first, virtù, has a complex role in Machiavelli’s thought; in brief, it names a power to dominate. Unlike classical or Aristotelian aretē or excellence, Machiavellian virtù lacks any orientation toward the intrinsic goodness or badness of beings or actions: it displays itself in power exercised for the sake of power, more precisely, on behalf of preserving princes and their regimes. Machiavelli’s teaching about virtù depends, however, upon an assumption that all things, human and nonhuman, are ruled by fortuna or chance, and

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that there is no highest good. Fortuna Machiavelli likens to a violent torrent destroying all things before it unless it is “diked by suitable virtù.” According to Machiavelli, all human happiness and misery depend upon the prudent man’s exercise of power to dominate chance; exploiting the perils of fortuna is the deepest political problem to be solved.22 Much more of course could be said about Machiavelli’s teaching in these matters. Suffice it here to state that this Machiavellian backdrop is crucial for gleaning the degree to which a conception of political power stands behind the origins of modern natural science. Bacon agrees with Machiavelli on two matters in particular: that there is no good or purpose by nature, and that all things are hence ruled by fortune or chance; and that the solution to the problem of fortune turns on exercises of human power.23 Here, however, Bacon departs from Machiavelli: the greatest dangers arising from fortune are less from the behavior of subjects and princes than from the vicissitudes of nature, which render all human things vulnerable and fragile. Mastery of nature, therefore, would solve the most fundamental dangers of political life, the greatest hazard to which is mortality itself, but mastery on this scale depends upon a comprehensive knowledge of nature. It is then to physics rather than politics that Bacon looks; modern natural science is the handmaid of politics. Bacon argues on behalf of human mastery throughout the New Organon. His goal, he states, “is not the discovery of arguments but of arts . . . not of probable reasons but of indicators and directions for works,” by means of which “to overcome Nature by action.”24 Bacon makes this goal plain at the outset of his New Organon when he asserts, “Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced.”25 In the penultimate aphorism of Book I, Bacon, writing summarily, distinguishes three sorts of human ambitions: to extend one’s own power, to extend the power of one’s country, and finally to extend “the power and dominance of the human race itself over the whole universe.”26 This last ambition Bacon deems “without doubt the healthier and more noble than the others.” He therefore requests “the human race only recover its Godgiven right over nature, and be given the necessary power” to establish “the empire of man over things.” At the outset of Book II, Bacon announces the duties of this new empire in stark terms: “On a given body to generate and superinduce a new nature or new natures, is the work of Human Power.”27 This project of emancipation from nature turns, however, on a new concept of nature, as fortune. Aristotle, responsible for the regnant concept of nature, is therefore a special opponent. Aristotle, Bacon writes, is guilty of importing metaphysics and theology into the study of nature. His weapon of choice is a doctrine of “abstract forms and final causes,” the quest for which Bacon accuses of vanity: knowledge of final causes is impossible, born simply from the restlessness of human minds in search of reasons that would


Timothy Sean Quinn

render a seemingly fortuitous world more familiar, more homely.28 Bacon’s alternative to Aristotelian science therefore discards final causes in favor of laws of nature, a notion especially fruitful for mastery of nature to the extent to which it allows for a reduction of the entire cosmos, living and nonliving, to purposeless mechanical operations that can be duplicated experimentally. Experiment is indeed central to Bacon’s scientific endeavor; the goal of experiment, as he describes it in The Great Instauration, is to place nature “under constraint and vexed” so that it reveals its “secret motions,” that is, operational or mechanical knowledge.29 The phrase “under constraint and vexed” echoes Machiavelli’s infamous image of domination of fortuna: nature is to be tortured into submission. In this way, the notion of purpose does not entirely disappear from human life. Rather, it migrates, for Bacon, to the sphere of human choice and action. Thus, the beginnings of the modern worldview: a duality of a cosmos without purpose or intrinsic meaning, and a purposive world of human action upon that indifferent world, developing technologies that aid us in dominating it. It is here that we discover the origins of the modern idea of progress. For Bacon, the collusion between human knowledge and human power would overcome the “mean and contemptible progress” human effort has hitherto achieved. From our vantage point, ancient Greek wisdom “seems merely the boyhood of knowledge . . . it is good at chattering, but immature and unable to generate . . . fruitful of controversy, and barren of works.” Bacon allows, though, that future generations will see the present age in the same way as but the childhood of science and progress. Key to progress is the silencing of a purely theoretical or contemplative relationship to nature in favor of mastery of nature. In this respect, it is telling that Bacon’s final work, the New Atlantis, tells the story of a regime that has survived nearly 3,000 years owing to its power to resist those telluric disasters that ruined the “old” Platonic Atlantis by means of an advanced and technologically oriented science. The goal of this science, in the words of one of the “fathers” of the House of Salomon, the heart of the island’s project of human emancipation from nature, is “to enlarge the bounds of human empire, and the effecting of all things possible.” The phrase “all things possible” is striking for its neutrality regarding the uses toward which the technologies of the House will be put. It is illustrative of the gulf that widens over the course of modernity between the procedures of science and the human good, a gulf that can be anticipated already in Machiavelli’s opposition between an indifferent cosmos and the hegemony of human power. It is tempting to think that Bacon’s fictional House of Salomon is but a utopian dream, in contrast to the famous “realism” of Machiavelli. In the Epistle Dedicatory to The Great Instauration, however, Bacon calls upon his patron, James I, to found a house of studies responsible for “the collecting

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of a Natural and Experimental History, true and severe (unencumbered by literature and book-learning), such as philosophy may be built upon,” and that will render James a new “Solomon.”30 The connection with the House of Salomon of the New Atlantis is of course deliberate. The sense of mission suggested by the Epistle Dedicatory to The Great Instauration is matched by the commission granted at the close of the New Atlantis to the captain of the sailors who has been given a privileged tour of the House: to return to Europe to spread the Gospel of Bensalem—the actual name of this new Atlantis— “for the good of all nations.” Beginning with Bacon, in short, but even more emphatically at work in Descartes, is an idea of philosophy as project that makes novel political demands, a “syncretic union” between science and civil society.31 The language of foundations familiar in Bacon and especially in Descartes is a fitting metaphor for this sense of project: philosophy ought to model its activity on the work of master artisans and legislators, laying new foundations upon which to build houses and cities and regimes uninfluenced by the past.32 This notion of philosophy as a project involving the whole of civil society tends to suppress the ancient contemplative task of philosophy. While the life of contemplation, in Greek philosophy, was available only to the few with the leisure needed to be free from the confines of necessity, the modern project must involve everyone. In this respect, the modern project borrows from popular notions of Christian salvation, a promise made to humanity and not just the few, and in fact apes the rhetoric of salvation. In the first instance, the call for mastery and possession of nature recalls two passages in Genesis revealing first to Adam and next to Noah the duty of dominion over all creatures.33 In the second instance, the goal of scientific emancipation from the human estate is realized in the development of technologies that eliminate labor and promote indefinite pleasure, and medicine that will roll back the boundaries of senescence on behalf of indefinite life—in short, in a repeal of the twin penalties for original sin, labor and death.34 One may note in passing that Descartes’s Discourse on Method is composed of six parts, beginning with an erasure of the past and culminating in a world without suffering or death, a pattern that mimics the six-day creation of Genesis. Within modern natural science, in short, there lurks, as Nietzsche would later note, a concealed theology, albeit a secularized one, where the promise of salvation is laid at the doorstep of human deeds. Ironically, at least, the very terms of emancipation from the human estate established by Bacon and Descartes diminish the significance of the human. Particularly illustrative are the marriage laws on Bacon’s fictional island of Bensalem in the New Atlantis, and the Feast of the Family, the principal festival of the island’s civil religion. In the first case, all marriages are arranged; friends of the couple are allowed to see the prospective bride and groom


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naked, in order to report on “any hidden defects” in their bodies. By comparison, European men are compelled and corrupted by lust or by an overweening desire to enhance their estate by marriage. It swiftly becomes clear, in short, that the purpose of the marriage laws is to preserve proper hygiene: eros plays no role, as it does in Europe. The abstraction of marriage from erotic longing is also at the core of the Feast of the Family, which celebrates a father responsible for thirty offspring. “If there be a mother from whom the whole line is descended,” she is kept in a box from where she can observe the doings at the feast, “but remain unseen.” The phrase “if there be a mother” is striking; it suggests the mother’s only role is to procreate. In fact, the phrase gains a new meaning once the reader discovers among the technologies of the House of Salomon the ability to bring forth life “from admixtures of soil, without seed.” Even from these brief descriptions, one can tell that on Bensalem, procreation has become manufacture; as the perfection of the body becomes ever more prolific, its humanity diminishes. It is an object not of love but of work. Another index of this diminution of the human in the very act of perfecting it is the anonymity of the citizens of Bensalem. The only character in Bacon’s story with a proper name, Joabin, is identified as a Jewish merchant, therefore outside the predominant Christian mainstream of the island. All other characters are identified either in light of their duties, for example, “Governor of the House of Strangers,” or remain unidentified, appearing only in crowds so orderly that “no army stood in better battle array.” The uniform anonymity of the citizens is reinforced by the attempt to silence their erotic longings; little asserts one’s freedom and individuality as clearly as the objects of one’s desire. In Bacon’s view, then, what will guarantee the success of Bensalem, once James answers Bacon’s call to found his own House of Salomon, is the fact, gleaned from Machiavelli, that most human beings will be willing to sacrifice their freedom of thought and expression for the security and commodity brought about by scientific and technological progress. In this respect, modern liberation from nature forges, and even depends upon, a new sort of bondage, to the hegemony of human wills undirected by an eros for anything beyond continuance. This situation forms the spiritual horizon Nietzsche confronts in his call for a return to the Hellenic. CRISIS AND RETURN The past two centuries have been rich in voices raised against the dangers of modern scientific progress: Swift, Rousseau, Schiller, Nietzsche, and Heidegger especially come to mind. All point, although in different ways, to the dehumanizing results of the attempt to perfect the human condition and

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the corresponding loss of a persuasive answer to the question: what is it to be human? Yet the alternative to this state of affairs has not been as clear as the sense of crisis it provokes. Rousseau, for one, makes plain that it would be impossible “to destroy society . . . and return to the forests with the bears.”35 Schiller, following him, indicates that a return to a “naïve” harmony with nature is impossible, since what it means to be natural has been effaced by the progress of civilization. And Nietzsche, reflecting on the desirability of a critical “annihilation” of the present age, asserts that any attempt at a return to a prior conception of human life always remains freighted by the values of the very age from which it seeks to flee. In fact, Nietzsche is especially emblematic, not only of the sense of crisis that imbues modernity but also of the impulse for return. For Nietzsche, the crisis of the present age is visible in a collection of symptoms that fall under the general heading “the death of God,” in brief: the collapse of “our entire European morality,” the “total degeneration of humanity” into a herd corresponding to the rise of democracy and socialism; the elevation of objectivity in the sciences to a value whose moral expression is a loss of individuality; the ensuing reduction of education to “indigestible knowledge stones” that have transformed humanity into “walking encyclopedias,” useful for entry into the labor market; the pervasiveness of nihilism, loss of faith in all present convictions and loss of the will to overturn them.36 We, in short, live in the age of the “last man”; humanity as we have come to understand it has become untenable, merely awaiting “this monstrous logic of horror” soon to engulf Europe, with the collapse of faith in all prevailing traditions and values.37 The origin of the coming catastrophe is within Christianity; modernity arises from the degeneration of Christian notions of pity and “neighbor-love,” of which modern political liberalism is but the most intense expression. Thus, in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes: “And in fact, with the aid of a religion that indulged and flattered the loftiest herd desires, things have reached a point where this morality is increasingly apparent in even political and social institutions: the democratic movement is the heir to Christianity.”38 Particularly worth noting, however, is Nietzsche’s insistence that moral-political modernity is of a piece with scientific modernity. Again in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche links the growth of modern natural science’s expectations for emancipating human beings to “the effects of the democratic way of life,” and its promise of a matching sense of political emancipation.39 For Nietzsche, modern political life and modern natural science march hand in hand: social equality is the political correlate of scientific objectivity. The decline into mediocrity characteristic of modern society is the effect of our belief that “science is beginning to dominate life.”40 For Nietzsche, in fact, “physics too is only an interpretation and arrangement of the world . . . and not an explanation of the world, creating ‘aesthetic


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anthropomorphisms’ that ‘deify nature’.”41 Modern natural science, along with modern herd morality, are the “shadows of god” remaining after the death of the biblical God. From this swift summary we can glean the recalcitrance of the modern world to correction; for Nietzsche, only collapse and re-creation are possible. But this re-creation, looking forward to “philosophers of the future” and the arrival of the “overman,” has at the same time the look of return, to Greek antiquity. The urge to return is inevitable, since the principal impediment to liberating “philosophers of the future” is “a stupid old prejudice and misunderstanding” that has fogged our notions of what it is to be genuinely free; that prejudice, especially potent in Europe and America, is “a very narrow, restricted, chained-up type of spirit whose inclinations are pretty much the opposite of our own intentions and instincts . . . they belong to the ‘levelers . . . eloquent and prolific scribbling slaves of the democratic taste and its “modern ideas”.’ ”42 Abandoning the “democratic taste,” Nietzsche yearns for the dynamism of “the Greek conception of culture,” a “new and improved phusis.”43 His “untimeliness,” as he understands it, is a result of his having been “a pupil of earlier times, especially the Hellenic.”44 In fact, Nietzsche’s longing for return, evocative of Schiller’s earlier nostalgia for the naïvety of nature, is familiar across the breadth of his writings. Yet this sense of return is vexed by the demand to liberate “philosophers of the future,” free from the values that have made this age the age of the “last man.” Illustrative of Nietzsche’s dilemma is his longing for the overman, the man of the future, as harbinger for a return of the god Dionysus; the novelty of the overman is part and parcel of a return to the Greeks. Perhaps Nietzsche’s most emblematic image of this struggle between future and past, between progress away from modernity and a return to the ancient, is that of the child in “Of the Three Metamorphoses” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The first metamorphosis of the spirit, the camel, is freighted with the burden of outmoded values, wandering in the desert among the ruins of empty falsehoods and traditions. In the second metamorphosis, the spirit becomes a lion, confronting the “great dragon,” the “thou shalt” of duty and tradition, to which the lion roars his “I will.” Yet the lion is still defined by the very values against which he is locked in struggle. The lion in this respect is as impotent as the camel to create new values: both remain within the desert of the past. The third metamorphosis, the child, represents liberation: the “innocence of becoming” where the past is forgiven and the future free from defining responsibilities, the freedom of the child at play. While this final metamorphosis recalls the New Testament admonition to “become like children,” it has at the same time another, Greek source, as Nietzsche elsewhere makes clear. In his notebooks from this period, Nietzsche describes “the phenomenon artist” as a child at play: “ ‘Play,’ the useless, as ideal of one

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overladen with force, as ‘childishness,’ παῖς παίζων.”45 Elsewhere, Nietzsche notes with approval that the Greeks are “eternal children,” always at play. In a notebook entry from the time of Zarathustra, Nietzsche offers a succinct interpretation of the three metamorphoses with an eye to their implicit Hellenism: “Higher than ‘thou shalt’ stands ‘I will’ (the heroes); higher than ‘I will’ stands ‘I am’ (the gods of Greece).”46 The gods are the child eternally at play in a cosmos empty of meaning and purpose, but compelled by the will to create. In his notebooks from this same period, Nietzsche remarks his wish “to go back from Church fathers to the Greeks, from the north to the south,” before the “mechanistic stupidity of natural science and the noisy marketplace of ‘modern ideas.’ ”47 Nietzsche offers a perfect summary of this dialectic of progress by way of return when he, in Zarathustra, The Gay Science, and elsewhere, quotes in part a celebrated verse from Pindar: “Become who you are.”48 The act of becoming is henceforth an act of return to an ancient ideal of civilization effaced by Christianity and its modern degeneration: “Have I been understood: Dionysus vs. the Crucified.”49 The death of God gives way to the rebirth of gods. But this Nietzschean return to Greek gods and Greek values is not correspondingly a return to Greek notions of nature. In a telling aphorism from Book III of The Gay Science, Nietzsche warns us of three prevailing concepts of nature: the teleological-organic, the mechanistic, and the mathematical, all suggesting different modes of order. Between them, they embrace ancient and modern alternatives. By contrast, Nietzsche writes, “The total character of the world . . . is for all eternity chaos, not in the sense of a lack of necessity but of a lack of order, organization, form, wisdom, and whatever else our aesthetic anthropomorphisms are called.”50 Nature is necessity without order, a pure compulsion he later names, famously, “will to power.” Nature as will to power recapitulates Greek notions of destiny without a corresponding Greek sense of goal or purpose. “What is life?” Nietzsche asks in an early aphorism in The Gay Science. “Continually shedding something that wants to die . . . being cruel and inexorable against anything that is growing weak and old in us.”51 In a later aphorism Nietzsche explains, “in nature, it is not distress which rules, but rather abundance, squandering . . . the great and small struggle revolves everywhere around preponderance . . . around power in accordance with the will to power, which is simply the will to life.”52 Nature for Nietzsche is compulsion. The purposeless striving that is life matches the goalless motions of the cosmos: modern scientific nature grafted onto Greek notions of destiny. As Nietzsche notes at the outset of The Gay Science, human beings are in fact the most fantastic of animals, because they “cannot thrive without a periodic trust in life—without faith in the reason in life!” The characteristic human activity for Nietzsche is therefore the assertion of the will to power on behalf


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of the construction of new meanings and new goals, “1001 Goals,” as we find it stated in Zarathustra. In this respect, Greek contemplation becomes impossible. Although Nietzsche praises ancient notions of leisure and ridicules the modern penchant for constant activity, the contemplative acts that for Aristotle arise in leisurely circumstances become for Nietzsche either passive states that he likens to the reverberations of a lyre to ambient noise or acts of self-contemplation, exploring the heights and depths of human willing. In this respect, Nietzsche bears a strong similarity to the very modernity he wishes to oppose: faced with indifferent nature, he appeals to the construction of fresh horizons of meaning, expressive of our will to power—Baconian mastery, in effect, on the psychological and spiritual plane. For Nietzsche, as for his modern antagonists, human power remains higher than divine wisdom. For this reason, perhaps, Nietzsche finds the creative imperative both unavoidable and laughable. According to Nietzsche, this laughter is Greek: the “teachers of the purpose of existence,” Christianity and its modern heirs, have been “vanquished by laughter, reason, and nature: the brief tragedy always changed and returned into the eternal comedy of existence, and the ‘waves of uncountable laughter’—to cite Aeschylus—must in the end also come crashing down on the greatest of these tragedians.” Nietzsche’s attribution of this line to Aeschylus—in fact, a misquotation one must assume is deliberate—is telling: Aeschylus, the great Greek tragedian, writes on behalf of a comic remedy to the human condition. In the end, however, Nietzschean laughter is not Greek laughter after all. To laugh at human finitude, rather than quail in dread before it, requires that there exists God or gods; the human condition can be forgiven only if there is something higher. In the end, the lesson of Nietzsche is ambiguous. Responding to the modern jettisoning of morality by science, Nietzsche reduces science to a set of moral values, expressions of will to power and therefore little more than frail interpretations of a world bereft of meaning. At the same time, he urges a return to the Greeks on behalf of liberation from the shackles of those very Christian and modern values that have given rise to both modern politics and modern natural science. Longing for a new divinity, Nietzsche asserts the hegemony of the human; liberation, in the end, offers only a new sort of bondage, an eternal return to the endless effulgences of will, to amor fati. CONCLUSION Still, Nietzsche’s writings remain compelling, illuminating with great clarity the tensions faced in modernity: between science and morality, between nature and human power, between the search for wisdom and the hegemony of technique; between nature and liberation. As his writings make plain, modern scientific mastery has done little to ameliorate the sense of human frailty

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and of the fortuitousness of nature it was intended to resolve, and in fact canonizes it in Western political culture. Modernity, in short, preserves what it attempts to escape: a dread of looming catastrophe, and with it, a sense either of the expansiveness or impotence of human power to confront it. In this way, modernity renders us passive before the “monstrous logic of horror”: destiny without purpose, answered by power without dignity.53 But in preserving this sense of catastrophe, modernity simultaneously keeps alive a concept of return to a possibility eclipsed but not effaced: the Greek possibility. The hope for endless progress, or the sentimental longing for a lost world of natural simplicity, while proving equally delusive, invites reconsideration of alternatives to notions of nature in service of technological instrumentalizing of beings, and to the corresponding reduction of philosophy to tasks of emancipation. Liberation from nature, in short, invites liberation by nature; progress invites return. To respond to the invitation is to confront the fact of human finitude, a confrontation at the core both of ancient philosophy (and poetry) and of modern philosophy and natural science. As we have seen, the ancient concept of nature compasses human thinking and desire with the unassailable limit of our mortality. Ancient philosophical contemplation is a response to an embrace of human limitation: it redeems the ignobility of death by allowing human beings a share in the eternal. In this way, ancient philosophy becomes a mean of sorts between the comic and the tragic sense of life. Acknowledging the impossibility of final knowledge of the whole, it still pursues the immoderate pleasures of contemplation, an end in itself completed in the act of thinking. The noninstrumentality of mind is of a piece with the noninstrumentality of nature. It is to this extent that we, as mortal human beings, can be free. The direction of modern philosophy, in short, awakens a reconsideration of the meaning of mortality, and in particular, of its goodness. Ironically, to say the least, the modern attempt to emancipate human beings has led not to their divinization but their degradation, as the moral and political debacles of the previous century have made abundantly clear. At the same time, however, the degradation of humanity has been matched with its elevation; modernity, in spite of Nietzsche’s vision of monstrosity, is not merely Auschwitz and ecocide but also extraordinary medical progress and freedom, in some precincts of the globe, from the persistent fear of violent death. It is, though, the human cost of these impressive gains that vexes their permanence, making them fragile. Our century, facing new crises, political and now climatic, is therefore in a unique position to reopen the question of nature, a question approached well only through a reconsideration of the ancient alternative modernity attempted but failed to efface. This ancient alternative commits us, first, to rethink the autonomy of the sciences from philosophy, especially when the rupture between them, beginning in Bacon and Descartes, was the consequence of the subordination of scientific investigation to mastery


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of nature, that is, to an effectively political goal. Central to this rethinking is a reconsideration of the canonical status accorded to the notion of scientific method, a notion with a discretely Baconian-Cartesian provenance. Originally intended to purge the study of nature of any theological intrusions, as Bacon makes clear, the concept of method enforces a moral neutrality upon scientific investigation that preserves its objectivity at the expense of its direct human relevance.54 Scientific practice has become increasingly abstracted from considerations of the human good: knowledge without evident meaning apart from the “morally neutral” technologies to which it has become subordinate. What is at stake in practice is the dignity of the human beings on whose behalf scientific and technological progress is urged. Take, for example, the stunning and plural violations of the Nuremberg Code long into the 1990s, which led to the abuse of human research subjects on behalf of scientific advancement.55 As Hans Jonas has explained, the argument is often made that society can ill afford to stall progress. His rejoinder: what society can in fact ill afford is the instrumentalization of human beings by the very medical practices meant to save them.56 Progress is not a self-evident good. Hence, a second task for philosophy: to make us circumspect, careful about the direction of scientific and technological progress. It is here that the ancient, contemplative approach to nature emerges as a moral imperative rather than an immoral luxury. To approach the study of nature through the eyes of wonder rather than the vicissitudes of need is to regard nature first as a question rather than as material for technological exploitation. It is here that the issue of teleology, central to Aristotelian philosophy, returns for reconsideration: Aristotle’s teleological cosmos is most hospitable to human thinking and doing, in contrast to the indifferent mechanisms to which the cosmos of modern natural science is reduced. To regain a sense of a teleological cosmos, we have but to consult the teleology of human reflection liberated from the constraints of need and production: the possibility of thoughtfulness and contemplation reveals the goodness of the world. To return to ancient philosophy does not therefore require holding ancient views, but resuming an ancient practice: of philosophy, not as a technique for solving immediate problems, but as a way of life and being in the world. Central to this conception of philosophy is an acute awareness of the limitations of the human condition, and of the permanent tensions within it, between striving and mortality, wisdom and ignorance, the human and the divine. At the risk of sounding overly clever, morality depends upon mortality. Confronted by the moral neutrality of the sciences, even those bent on improving the human condition, philosophy is a critical and necessary reminder of the inevitability of human incompleteness. In the final analysis, then, philosophy can play a special role by not abandoning the past, by not allowing the reduction of knowledge to mere instruction in technique, but by inviting an intellectual return that would incite

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constant reexamination of the meaning of the progress we seek. The liberal arts, in short, can liberate us, precisely by keeping alive the conscience of our intellectual heritage, wherein lies true challenge and diversity of thought. Of course, it would be naïve to think that the revival of ancient philosophical habits could suffice to snuff out the worst tendencies of technological excess, or that the abandonment of scientific progress would not drown out necessary and skeptical voices. The tensions within our intellectual and political institutions are an outgrowth of the tensions within human life itself. Recognizing these dualities, we may be restored to a contemplative life, in full awareness of the hazards and the satisfactions of the human condition. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I am grateful to Jon Wittrock and Richard Polt for their invaluable suggestions for improvement of this chapter. NOTES 1. Max Weber, Essays in Sociology, tr. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 139. See also Pierre Manent, Democracy without Nations? A Defense of the Nation-State, tr. Marc LePain (Princeton, NJ; and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), 5–9. 2. Hans Jonas, Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974), 48. 3. Schiller, Naïve and Sentimental Poetry (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1966). See also Jean Starobinski, La transparence et l’obstacle (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), chapter V; and Jacques Taminiaux, La nostalgie de la Grèce à l’aube de l’idéalisme allemande (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967). 4. Physics II.1, 192b21–23. 5. Ibid., II.7, 199a15–16. 6. Ibid., II.1, 193a12–14. 7. Ibid., 193b12–21. 8. Compare Ibid., 193b6 with II.7, 198a34–b4. 9. Metaphysics I.3, 983a27. 10. On the Soul 415b15–17. 11. Nicomachean Ethics 1096a4. 12. Ibid., 1177a18. 13. Ibid., 1177a23–30. 14. Politics 1325a24. 15. Ibid., 1268b22–1269a27. 16. Metaphysics 982b11–20; 983a14. Note the use of the epithet “Thaumaturgus” or wonder-worker for Byzantine saints, for example, St. Gregory of Neocaesarea (213–270 CE) and St. Nicholas of Myra (270–343 CE).


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17. “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe . . . the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me”: Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, Conclusion. 18. Nicomachean Ethics 1141a21–22. 19. Metaphysics 1003a20. 20. Ibid., 982b29–983a11. 21. The name Antigone literally means “Anti-birth”; in her excessive piety she seeks to undermine the difference between human and divine. See Seth Benardete, Sacred Transgressions: A Reading of Sophocles’ Antigone (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2015). 22. See The Prince, chapter XXV: “How Much Fortune Can Do in Human Affairs, and in What Mode It May Be Opposed.” 23. Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 3.430, in Works, eds. James Spedding et al. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1900), VIII, 475. Bacon writes: “We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others who write what men do and not what they ought to do.” Ancient philosophers by contrast “make imaginary laws for imaginary commonwealths; and their discourses are as high as the stars, which give little light, because they are so high.” 24. Bacon, Works, VIII, 40–41. 25. Ibid., 67–68. 26. Ibid., 162. 27. Ibid., 167. 28. Ibid., Aphorism 48. 29. Bacon, The Great Instauration, Works, VIII, 48. 30. Ibid., 24. 31. See Richard Kennington, “Descartes and Mastery of Nature,” in Kennington, On Modern Origins: Essays in Early Modern Philosophy, eds. Pamela Kraus and Frank Hunt (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004), 123–44. 32. Descartes, Discourse on Method, second part, Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris: Vrin, 1964–76), VI, 11–13. 33. Genesis 1: 28: “God blessed them and God said to them: ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth.’ ” Compare also Genesis II.15 and IX.1. Finally, see also the Noahide commandments regarding consumption of animals, Genesis 9.1–5. Compare Nietzsche, The Gay Science §346 (Werke, vol. III). See also Martin Yaffe’s essay “ ‘Anthropogenic Effects’ in Genesis 1–11,” Telos 177 (Winter 2016): 16–42. 34. Genesis 3.15–19; Descartes, Discourse on Method, 62. 35. Rousseau, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), III, 207. 36. All references are to Nietzsche’s Kritische Studienausgabe (KSA), eds. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1967–1977). See Beyond Good and Evil §203 (KSA V); Second Untimely Meditation §§4, 5, 6, 7 (KSA I). 37. The Gay Science §343 (KSA III). 38. Beyond Good and Evil §201 (KSA V).

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39. Ibid., §204 (KSA V). 40. Second Untimely Meditation §7 (KSA I). 41. Beyond Good and Evil §14 (KSA V); also The Gay Science §109. 42. Beyond Good and Evil §14 (KSA V). 43. Second Untimely Meditation §10 (KSA I). 44. Ibid., Preface (KSA I). 45. KSA VIII, 2 [130], Fall 1885–Fall 1886. (References to Nietzsche’s notebooks take the form of volume number, section number, and entry number.) See also Birth of Tragedy §17 (KSA III, 1, 106). I am indebted to the late Robert Aaron Rethy for these passages and for his insights into Nietzsche’s thought. 46. KSA XI, 2, 25 [351]. 47. Ibid., XI 3, 41 [4], August–September 1885. 48. Pindar, Second Pythian Ode, l.172. The complete passage reads: “Become who you are, once you know” (γένοι οἷος ἐσσὶ μαθών). See The Gay Science §170 (KSA III). 49. Twilight of the Idols, “What I Owe to the Ancients,” §5 (KSA VI). 50. The Gay Science §109 (KSA III). 51. Ibid., §26 (KSA III). 52. Ibid., §305 (KSA III). 53. “Dignity” here intends what belongs essentially to a human being by virtue of his or her shared humanity. In this light, modern scientific technology, especially in the field of genetic enhancement, threatens to obviate any notion of a permanent “human nature” upon which notions of dignity are typically grounded. See the classic argument of Kant in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); see also more recent studies: Leon Kass, Brave New Biology: The Challenge for Human Dignity (London: University of London Institute of United States Studies, 2002); Michael Rosen, Dignity: Its History and Meaning (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2012). 54. See Bacon’s critique of the “Idols of the Mind,” and especially of the “Idols of the Theatre,” in his New Organon, Works, VIII. Compare Nietzsche’s remarks on the problem of objectivity in his second Untimely Meditation, §6. 55. A few infamous instances of human experimentation performed in violation of the norms of the Nuremberg Code are the radiation experiments performed at Oak Ridge, Tennessee (1960s through mid-1970s), Oregon State Prison (1963–1971), Fernald, Massachusetts (1946–1956), and University of Cincinnati (1966); the Willowbrook epidemiological experiment on pediatric patients (1956–1970); and the psychological experimentation on the siblings of teenage delinquents by New York State (1993–1996). 56. Hans Jonas, “Philosophical Reflections on Experimenting with Human Subjects,” in Philosophical Essays: From Current Creed to Technological Man (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

Chapter 4

Eidetic Eros and the Liquidation of the Real Richard Polt

A rivulet joins others in a stream. Streams merge into a river. The river cuts swiftly through the ice, bringing with it the very valley that channels it into the sea. Greenland is melting. The Antarctic ice shelves crack into monstrous, decomposing islands. The ancient and vast coral reefs, once teeming with life, fade into watery boneyards. Resources become available for transformation into liquid assets. Their distinctive, resistant characteristics are eliminated. They yield in the face of reduction, becoming nothing but streams of utility and wealth. Traditional ways of understanding the whole disintegrate into information. What was once obstinate, enigmatic, and overwhelming becomes accessible and measurable. It yields a numerical feed that joins the river of Big Data. With the obsolescence of older cultures and ideas comes the dissolution of what they held dear. What formerly had its own cohesion and momentum cannot withstand the methods of modernity. The integrity of things, species, places, and ecosystems is ending before our eyes. We are witnessing the liquidation of the real. For anyone who retains some awe before the mysterious powers of nature, the spectacle of liquidation is horrifying. For anyone with knowledge of the age of the earth, the speed of the process is shocking. Such knowledge does not come easily, as we find it difficult to imagine much before or after our lifetimes, which encompass all our possible direct experience; a century seems long. But from the evolutionary and especially the geological points of view, a hundred years is just a breath. Yet this immensity of geological time is being overtaken as we watch, within a few human generations. In only two centuries of organized industrial production, human beings have transformed and devastated the planet. The term “Anthropocene” expresses 63


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this frightening development—the event in which human time, an upstart emerging from a much vaster span, jars that immemorial time and sets the planet irrevocably on a new, accelerated course. Philosophers are challenged by this unprecedented event, the onset of the Anthropocene, to form new concepts and arguments. But they are also challenged to take responsibility for their own complicity in the event. The Anthropocene could never have gotten under way without modern technology, which in turn could not have arisen without modern natural philosophy. One can argue that the essence of modern technology is essential to the essence of the Anthropocene, and that this technology is based on a modern conception of the essence of nature. But do technology, modernity, nature, or the Anthropocene have essences at all, or does such language misunderstand the plural, empirical realities of our world? Is it all too typical of philosophers to posit essences? Is it perhaps the traditional, essentializing standpoint of philosophy that is at fault here? The beginnings of a reply require a brief review of that tradition and a closer look at the philosophical roots of what I have called liquidation. The Cartesian method so typical of modernity has many illuminating, liberating, and creative effects, but it does promote liquidation—increasingly so as the entire planet is modernized—and this method is bound up with a particular vision of the essence of nature. All the same, the philosophical passion for essence is not to be rejected. It is not necessarily complicit in liquidation, but can serve the cause of integration—the preservation of the wholeness and distinctiveness of being, goods, and truth. THE EIDETIC ORIGINS OF THE ANTHROPOCENE If we can speak of an Axial Age, essence is its axis. What was fermenting for millennia in myths and totems emerges, for a few minds, as a new type of experience: an insight into what things are. There is hope for new guidance from a clarity that no longer depends on stories and traditions, but lays claim to universality. The claim attributed to Thales that “all is water” strikes us as primitive and simplistic. It must have struck his contemporaries much the same way: only a small child could misuse a word so egregiously (obviously water is only one kind of thing), and could be so ignorant of the rich particularity of a world packed with events and individuals. But for Thales, “water” must have taken on a new meaning, a name for the hidden core of everything. What matters most in his thought is not some lost hydrophysical theory, but the very attempt to find the core, the essence, the eidos. This word means a vision, a sight. The attempt to catch sight of this sight must have been driven by an

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extraordinary new passion, a thirst to behold—an eidetic eros. But this passion may also lead to disdain for the surface, the particular phenomena. The essential can distract us from the existence of the individual. This is one interpretation of the anecdote that has Thales, staring at the sky, fall into a well. Nevertheless, Socrates turns to the eidos for existential reasons. He reads Anaxagoras because he hopes for an account of Mind’s intentions in ordering the cosmos—a story that would show him why the world is good, and thus help him live well. But Anaxagoras provides nothing of the sort, so Socrates resorts to a verbal and dialectical quest for essences as a second-rate way of trying to discover what is best (Phaedo 97b–100b). He conducts this quest with subtle and single-minded dedication, with an eros that sustains him through his long life and unjust death. Searching for a way to express this commitment, Plato has his Socrates compare the philosopher’s desire to know the forms to a sexual orientation (Republic 474d–475b). The winged mind of the philosopher, aroused and striving, is enraptured by the divine vision of the essences of all that is (Phaedrus 249c). As Marsilio Ficino puts it, the philosopher alone “is disposed to the amatory frenzy.”1 Aristotle’s desire to know is voracious and manifold, but again it centers on essence or form, the “being what it was” of things (to ti ēn einai). A thing’s form is its distinctive character and kind, its organizing principle, and its function or telos. Aristotle develops what Socrates failed to find: a teleological approach to the visible cosmos, where the many natures of things can be understood as tending toward their distinctive ways of fulfillment or ­actualization—their natural ends. Aristotle leaves us, then, with a world full of diverse essences, each of which has its own integrity—its own way of forming its parts into a whole, with its own tendencies and impulses. But modern physics tends to turn back to the radical simplicity of Thales—to push past the variety of natures and discover a single nature, an eidos that is intelligible in terms of the fewest possible elements and laws. This passion for simplicity is evident in Descartes, for whom corporeal nature has only one essential characteristic: extension. The motion of volumes, where motion has no intrinsic goal but is only a calculable change of position, is supposed to explain all perceptible phenomena. This uncompromising reductionism squeezes consciousness out of nature, necessitating a mind-body dualism. Dualism preserves the mind from being reduced to matter, but such a rescue operation would not be necessary if Descartes had not already impoverished the essence of matter by stripping it of all purpose, nonquantifiable qualities, and diversity of form. The Cartesian technique of comprehension consists of analysis and ­synthesis—breaking phenomena down and building them back up (Discourse


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on Method IV). The analysis is a reduction to simple truths that can be isolated and known with mathematical clarity. The synthesis reconstructs the appearance of the whole by systematically coordinating the individual factors. Descartes’s assumption here is that the whole is simply the sum of the simple parts. Therefore the whole must be disintegrated—disregarded insofar as it seems to have any integrity that might differ from the sum of the parts. The seeming whole is eliminated, liquidated, treated as a nonentity—to be replaced by a synthesis of simple, fully cognized elements. The procedure is vividly illustrated in the Second Meditation, where Descartes brings a piece of beeswax close to the fire and observes that, as it warms and changes its shape, all of its sensible qualities are altered. The wax’s true, invariable essence must be known by the intellect alone, and it proves to be nothing but spatial extension that can adopt an infinity of shapes. This example is not merely an example: the essence of all matter is conceived by Descartes as malleable volume in motion. All is wax. The liquefaction of the beeswax is an emblem of the liquidation of the entire universe. This liquidation is not just a theoretical exercise but an essential part of the project of becoming “masters and possessors of nature” (Discourse on Method VI) that Descartes shares with Francis Bacon.2 In Descartes’s vision of the essence of nature, the natural ends of things—the specific tendencies that seem to characterize things in their diverse natures—are eliminated. The sole source of purpose is now the human will, which intentionally redirects and steers natural objects. The Cartesian method of deconstruction and reconstruction implies the possibility of new construction. The method is a metaphysical spelling of nature, a kind of reading—and the ability to read implies the ability to write. When we can decipher nature, we can author a new nature. We can now rewrite our environment, our perceptions, and the intimate structures of our bodies. By the logic of modern technoscience, such rewriting is a near inevitability. Nature, disintegrated and reconstructed, enters the Anthropocene. For example, as soon as the human genome had been “spelled” into its constituent elements, it was made available for rewriting.3 Aside from some residual respect for nature that, from the modern point of view, can only seem superstitious, the only question becomes whether measures such as gene therapy are consistent with the general will of humankind. It seems, then, that the metaphysical reduction evident in early modern philosophy is the herald of a physical disintegration and reconstruction, a deliberate and scientifically guided assault on wilderness, a culling of the profusion of opaque and unmanageable events that nature thrusts upon us. In short, liquidation. Take Pavlov, who is famous for discovering the conditioned reflex. More precisely: Pavlov experimentally reproduced, analyzed, and quantified a

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phenomenon that everyone had understood as long as human beings had consorted with animals, including themselves. Everyone understood that animals learn to associate a perception with what usually follows it, and that they react accordingly. But in order to “discover” this truth, to prove it, to make the common understanding conform to the modern essence of accurate knowledge and quantified nature, Pavlov mutilated his dogs and made it impossible for them to get nutrition from what they ate, so they would be perpetually hungry in the short time remaining to them.4 That is, he cut the dogs apart and cut them off from their normal relationship to their environment. Pavlov “discovered” nature by creating a supremely unnatural situation. He disintegrated the whole in order to ascertain the parts, mastering a few letters of the biological alphabet. A similar interpretation of the modern form of the eidetic eros is developed by Heidegger in numerous texts. In Heidegger’s terms, the Cartesian objectification of beings is already “technological” and foreshadows the late modern regime of im-position (Ge-stell)—that is, the revelation of all existing things as “standing reserve” or resources, positioned within a system that sets them in order, holding them ready for manipulation by human will.5 As Heidegger puts it in 1965: In [Cartesian] method—that is, in this . . . anticipatory projection of nature as a domain of calculable objects—a decision has already been made, immeasurable in its consequences. For this decision means that everything not exhibiting the characteristics of mathematically determinable objectivity is eliminated as being uncertain, that is, untrue and therefore unreal. . . . The science thus projected, that is, this method, is the greatest assault of the human being on nature, guided by the claim to be maître et possesseur de la nature.6

The case against modernity, then, is that although modern methods effectively discover facts and regularities, they are based on a reductive and destructive conception of nature that is inevitably implemented in technology that mutilates and exploits the world. In Heidegger’s words, the planet becomes “a gigantic gasoline station.”7 The Anthropocene is underway. Should we accept Heidegger’s analysis? In recent decades, the philosophy of technology has shifted away from grand pronouncements that attempt to grasp the essence of technology in general—and that typically take technology as a degrading, impoverishing approach to reality. Critics of such views have rightly pointed out that technology is also enriching. With the ability to rewrite our environment, new complexities arise, and we owe many creative, liberating developments to the potential that was released by modernity. Technology has lightened the burdens of billions of people, and removed obstacles that would formerly have prevented them from living good lives (regardless of whether we conceive of a good life in terms of Aristotelian telos or Cartesian will).


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Post-Heideggerian philosophers of technology have pointed to the multiplicity of uses, users, and meanings with which technical devices and practices are entangled.8 These thinkers urge us to be sensitive to cultural and political contexts, and to be more fine-grained in our judgments. They also often remind us that human beings have always been part of nature, and have always used tools—so modern technology is not some new, external imposition upon a pristine world. Environmental and technical phenomena are always engaged in feedback loops whose effects are varied and unpredictable. These developments are welcome correctives to the globalizing judgments of Heidegger, for whom technology is the reigning way of revealing in the late modern age—the prism through which entities in general are experienced as mere resources. Heidegger’s attitude is stratospheric; he is ready to dismiss all the variety of technological relationships as inessential in comparison to the supposed essence of the phenomenon. Surely his vision is something of a caricature, and perhaps stands with the visions of Thales and Descartes as an example of the reductionism that can accompany the eidetic eros. In response to Heidegger, we must observe that to engage in modern science is not necessarily to adopt a reductive standpoint. A gifted naturalist in the tradition of John Muir can combine exact measurements and analyses, law-like generalizations, descriptions of species and individuals that draw on all the senses, and poetic expressions of awe in the face of the whole. A thoughtful neurologist such as Oliver Sacks can integrate clinical diagnoses with a phenomenological sensitivity to extraordinary ways of existing. Furthermore, science can serve the cause of conservation, and we certainly need to listen to scientific accounts of how our planet is changing and what we might do to mitigate the harm. Modern technology is not necessarily reductive, either. To turn to another stratospheric vision of modernity, Jacques Ellul characterizes “technique” as the rational determination of the single most efficient way to attain a set goal.9 In Ellul’s view, the rule of technique stamps out spontaneity and suppresses engaged, meaningful work. But many techniques and technologies do not have a single goal, but rather a range of possibilities that are only vaguely anticipated at their inception. Products such as automobiles and computers afford literally infinite uses. Such devices can be adopted and adapted for unpredictable purposes, can be used creatively, and can also be appreciated aesthetically as ends in themselves, not solely as means. Nevertheless, despite these legitimate objections to simplistic characterizations of science and technology, with the onset of the Anthropocene a stratospheric and global perspective becomes inevitable—not on philosophical grounds but for very concrete and practical reasons. We are becoming increasingly, irresistibly aware of how technology is transforming the earth and its atmosphere. The proliferation of modern technologies, made possible

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by modern science, has global consequences that are predominantly destructive. Beneath modernity’s complex and often creative compositions, a dark and monotonous ostinato is growing louder and louder. A new reduction is under way—a reduction not just in human thought, but on the vast and terrifying scale of the planet itself. This is a liquidation of the real, not merely a simplification of our conception of reality. The cascade of extinctions that we are witnessing, the depletion and pollution of land and sea, and the warming of the planet are likely only the initial stages of a destruction of life and place that is unprecedented in our experience. Thus, the stratospheric point of view is borne out. The Heideggerian account is becoming progressively more true and more applicable due to the cumulative effects of the metaphysical foundations of modern technology. The philosophical passion for essence, in its modern form, is at least one major factor that, in the long term, facilitates the real liquidation of actual essences. The powerful gaze that reduces nature to a single essence— nature as calculable and manipulable conglomerations of simple objects and forces—has, first in theory and then in practice, led to the elimination of species and the processing of things into natural resources. This is by no means the whole story of modernity and technology—but it is becoming the overwhelming story. THE THREEFOLD PROCESS OF LIQUIDATION Let us look more closely at this liquidation of nature into resources, and then at two closely related trends: the liquidation of property into wealth and truth into information. Modern technology preserves and extends the lives of human beings, enabling a population explosion, at the same time as it raises expectations for possession and consumption. Natural human desires for food, comfort, and pleasure are multiplied exponentially, and the means of satisfying these desires are made ever more efficient. Concomitantly, nature is treated as natural resources that await “development”—that is, enlistment in the neverending project of feeding our desires. Along the way, other species and their ecosystems are inevitably disrupted and destroyed. To be sure, human beings have always been part of environments and have affected them, but when the human population swells into the billions and modern techniques of knowing and using things are enlisted in the service of this population, the effects are unprecedented. One constant need in the global quest to extract and use resources— whether we are speaking of heavy industry, the production of consumer goods, or information technology—is the need for energy. Energy is the


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lowest common denominator of technological phenomena, the universal requirement. In Cartesian terms, in order to reduce nature to be our servant and our property, we must discover “the power and the actions” at the root of all natural phenomena, and then redirect those forces as we see fit (Discourse on Method VI). Our growing need for energy has created the most obvious and overriding environmental crisis of our times, climate change. The very idea of energy, in the modern sense, reflects the dissolution of essences that is typical of modernity.10 In premodern thought, there is no concept of energy as we understand it today. Aristotle’s term energeia means “being at work,” or actuality, whereas modern “energy” refers to power, that is, potentiality rather than actuality. Speaking more carefully, we cannot even say that modern energy is potentiality, for in Aristotle’s thought, potentiality (dynamis) is always the potential for a certain actuality to which it is subordinate (Metaphysics Θ). This actuality is specific to the type of being under consideration, for there are many natures, each of which is fulfilled or attains its telos in a distinctive way. Thus, there is the potential to see, the potential to move upward, the potential to rule over fellow citizens, and so on. There can be no such thing as sheer, undifferentiated power. In modern physics, however, the power to change things becomes the power to do “work” understood as accelerating a mass. This concept of work is independent of any consideration of the direction of motion, much less of any telos toward which things might be tending. So energy can, in principle, be generated and stored regardless of the specific purposes to which it will be put. In nineteenthcentury factories, coal-fueled steam engines turned massive shafts whose rotation functioned as a universal, purpose-neutral kinetic energy that could be transferred to machine tools in order to manufacture an endless variety of products. Similarly, regardless of how electricity is generated, it is available for computing, cooking, tasing a suspect, or lighting a Christmas tree. And just as energy is indifferent to its use, it is indifferent to its means of generation. That is, useful kinetic and potential energy can be generated by a variety of fuels, motions, and techniques. Some of these energy sources are more sustainable and renewable than others—and without a doubt, anyone who cares about the present and future of the earth hopes for the expansion of techniques such as solar power. But would a triumph of renewable energy put an end to the process of liquidation? All technologies—especially massive systems such as those required to provide energy to entire nations—have environmental impacts, some of which will be unforeseen and destructive. Wind turbines kill birds, dams destroy valleys, and solar installations disrupt desert ecosystems. The liquidation of species and places is retarded by sustainable energy, but not stopped. And there is also a more subtle effect of the modern project of resource extraction, by whatever means: the system invites us to understand things only as

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resources, which are to be exploited by the most efficient means available in order to yield purpose-neutral energy. This brings us to a less obvious aspect of the complex phenomenon I am calling liquidation: we run the risk of losing an appreciation for whatever integrity things may have held before they were plugged into the system. Things lose their status as wholes—unities that require specific parts and provide these parts with their functions. When things are broken down and treated only as resources, their integrity vanishes. We cannot even say that they are “integrated” into the system of resource exploitation, since that system is not a whole that relates organically to its parts. The system is indifferent to the resources that it uses: they are sucked in, dissolved, and spit out. This process, of course, includes “human resources,” who are hired and fired, retrained and equipped with “competencies,” or even, in extreme cases, liquidated. To borrow an example of liquidation from Heidegger, the Rhine as once experienced by a poet is not the Rhine that is set to work generating hydroelectric power.11 The point may sound nostalgic and sentimental, but when things and places are treated as efficiently utilized resources, we do tend to lose our understanding of them as unique beings with a distinctive wholeness that is proper to them, apart from our use of them. It may be that, even if we manage to avoid the most apocalyptic effects of technology, the Anthropocene will be an epoch when humans become ever more accustomed to seeing themselves only as human resources and resource managers, and seeing in things only the reflection of their own appetites. The time will have passed when we stood “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to [our] capacity for wonder”12—because both the grandeur of nature and our ability to wonder will have slipped away. In addition to the organized, massive exploitation of natural resources, a second liquidating force is the modern economic order. Everything, it seems, has a price; not everything is equally valuable, but all is commensurable, since all is subject to the same scale of value.13 All goods can be quantified and exchanged. Everything real tends to become a liquid asset, a financial resource. Such a system of value is necessary in order to facilitate the easy transformation of resources into energy, and energy into further resources. Hannah Arendt draws a useful distinction between “wealth” and “property.”14 A piece of property—say, a small house that has been owned by a family for generations, that belongs to these people and is a place where they belong—may have little monetary value. In contrast, a ten-figure bank account may consist of no property at all in the sense of belongings, but may simply be sheer wealth, pure liquid assets—the potential to buy anything that is for sale, without entangling oneself in any deep attachments. Modern economic systems tend to replace property with wealth. Money, of course, is


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an ancient invention, but in premodern societies, factors such as tradition and religion resisted the general monetization of things. Free-market capitalism is the most efficient system for transforming property into wealth, goods into money, belongings into purchasing power, or the real (“real estate” in a fundamental sense) into the liquid. The staunchest defenders of capitalism are absurdly called “conservatives” in the United States, but the system is designed to maximize liquidity and liquidation. No system could be less friendly to conservation.15 But it is not just capitalism that liquidates the real, and the Anthropocene should not be renamed the Capitalocene.16 Socialist regimes have undertaken massive projects that dislodge millions and obliterate ecosystems (like the Three Gorges Dam in China) or otherwise spoil and despoil the natural environment (like Norilsk, Russia, a far-north mining city created by the Soviets that is one of the most polluted places in the world). In socialist systems, the value of resources is not their market value, but their utility for the collective project as determined by authorities who represent “the people.” Under an ideology that curtails or abolishes private property, property is likely to become state-controlled wealth. Whether property becomes private wealth or public wealth, property proper is disintegrated. That is, things and places lose their status as irreplaceable, resistant wholes that can lay claim to people as well as belong to them. Just as natural things lose their integrity when they are processed as resources, property loses its integrity when it is liquidated into wealth. In both cases, a conceptual reduction implies a dissolution of the real: the system assesses things only as bearers of monetary value or utility for production and consumption, and consequently, that is how they are predominantly (though not exclusively) treated. Resource extraction and valuation tend to liquidate the essence of beings (their eidos or ousia, a term that originally meant “property”) along with the ties that bind belongings to people and bind people to places where they belong. The efficient management of resources and wealth requires a type of knowledge that can itself be managed. It is managed through the Cartesian method of division into unambiguously ascertainable parts and reassembly into manipulable composites. This is the third form of liquidation: the transformation of truth into information. Here I follow the general lines of Heidegger’s view that the primordial phenomenon of truth is “unconcealment” or “disclosedness”—the opening of a world, or space of significance, in which beings show up as pertinent and meaningful.17 This unconcealment is in effect in all human existence, but it need not be explicit; it operates primarily as an implicit understanding, a tacit grasp of what matters and of how things form a whole. This understanding can sometimes come to language in philosophy, as well as being highlighted

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in poetry or other works of art. A derivative form of truth is correctness—that is, the accurate correspondence between an assertion (or any representation) and a state of affairs. The truth of a correct representation presupposes the original disclosure of a world within which states of affairs can be revealed and representations can have meaning. Facts, as correct as they may be, can distract us from our imprecise and implicit grasp of the whole—a grasp that is not knowledge (like Pavlov’s experimental findings), but understanding (like our experiential sense of how we and other animals live). Such understanding is always historically conditioned and fallible, and always runs the risk of superstition and parochialism, but it is not, for all that, devoid of truth. It is even a primordial “truth,” because it is by way of an understanding of the whole that we gain our initial orientations and evaluations; this comprehension may be transformed by facts but cannot be replaced by them. However, particularly with the rise of computer science and cybernetics in the mid-twentieth century, we have developed techniques for turning all representations into conglomerations of binary nanoassertions or nanofacts: yeses and nos, or ones and zeros. This is another triumph of Cartesian method: wholes are methodically analyzed into unambiguous bits, and reconstructed in a way that makes new constructions easy. Vast regions of human expression are now digitized and available for analysis and transformation—they have become information resources. Experience is being displaced by data collection, which is largely automated, so that our machines generate trillions of nanoassertions that lie ready for processing—a processing that is normally conducted by machines as well. Like other forms of technology, information technology creates new, diverse, and often liberating or enriching opportunities. But we should not overestimate the diversity of informationally mediated culture. Much of it consists of variations on a few gimmicks, offered to an ever-curious public that consumes them in order to jockey for social status or get a fleeting enjoyment. Increasingly, the channels through which this cultural diversity is offered are narrowed to a few that are controlled by corporate technologists. Culture, too, is liquidated—turned into a feed, a stream of entertainment and data from which we constantly sip with little nourishment. And just as all modern technology is undergirded by the consumption of energy, which has liquidating effects, information technology is undergirded by the processing of binary data, which tends to corrode privacy, self-reliance, and property (creators’ ties to their creations). With the proliferation of Big Data—and “big” here means a volume unimaginably larger than the comprehensive capacity of any human being— it becomes more difficult to maintain the integrity of understanding and to respect the complex cultures we have inherited as our sources of unconcealment. There is a tendency to abandon our responsibility for understanding the


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whole—either by letting our sense of the whole be guided by unquestioned religious or political attitudes, or else by delegating the interpretation of the whole to scientific authorities and expert data analysts, while we simply focus on the information that pertains to our particular social function. Philosophy, understood as a meditation on the entirety of what is and on our place in the world, looks increasingly quaint and obsolete. We have considered three primary processes of liquidation: the liquidation of nature into natural resources, property into wealth, and truth into information. The three reinforce each other and developed together with the rise of modern technology, capitalism, and science. Modern industry requires and generates wealth, and consumes information in the form of research and development as well as by creating new devices and opportunities for information gathering and processing. Wealth both funds and stems from technology and information. Information industries make use of both technology and wealth. On a more abstract level, the threefold ontology of liquidation recalls the medieval doctrine of the transcendentals. Omne ens est unum, verum, bonum: every being is one, true, and good. One could say that within the system of liquidation, to be is to be a resource; to be true is to provide information; and to be good is to have value as a source of wealth. These modern ways of encountering, understanding, and valuing the world go hand in hand. As for the unum, the distinctive unity and integrity of each entity, it is precisely what is liquidated, sacrificed to the system. This has only been a rough sketch of the process of liquidation. It has other facets that we cannot discuss here. (For instance, a further transcendental, the pulchrum or beautiful, tends to be dissolved into monetized information— audiovisual resources.) Liquidation does not comprehensively characterize modernity, and it is not ruled by some iron necessity.18 Nevertheless, its internal logic and gigantic momentum have irreversibly changed our planet, and will continue to do so. For all the welcome, liberating, and surprising effects of modernity, its liquidating processes form a juggernaut that erodes what I have been calling integrity—the wholeness, uniqueness, and distinctive character of natural beings and places, of property, and of unconcealment. EIDETIC EROS AND THE INTEGRATIVE RESISTANCE What are the prospects for resistance to liquidation—for a countermovement that we could call integrative? Such a resistance would recognize and preserve existing wholes, cultivate new wholes, and integrate them into larger wholes. Does philosophy have a place within such a movement? I will make the case that the task of philosophy is neither technological nor political, but brings the ancient eidetic eros to bear on the challenges of the integrative resistance.

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Before we turn to the specifically philosophical task, let us consider whether there can be integrative technologies—technical forms of resistance to liquidation. To some extent, yes. Renewable energy, environmentally and socially appropriate devices, and sustainable methods of industrial production can alleviate some effects of liquidation. We should certainly look for technical ways to retard, or even reverse, processes such as extinctions and climate change that are overtaking our planet. Let us hope that improvements can be developed swiftly, and contribute to this development however we can. However, as I have noted, all large-scale technology has some destructive effects. Furthermore, there cannot be a purely technical solution if the very nature of modern technology is linked to modern ways of gathering and processing information that have liquidating tendencies, and to modern forms of wealth that also contribute to the disintegration of the real. Even in best-case scenarios, technical remedies cannot, by themselves, counter the more subtle forms of liquidation. The most desirable kinds of technology may be those that leave room for the non-technological—techniques and devices of limited scope that do not presume to intrude on every aspect of our lives, and thus make space for integrity.19 But what if such measures are simply overwhelmed by liquidating technologies, which are very well funded because they are so broadly desired? The habits, aspirations, and appetites of the billions combine to create a nearly irresistible force. The troubling implication is that democracy may be on the side of disintegration; we cannot assume that the majority of human beings will commit to resisting the long-run liquidation of the planet, especially if such resistance would have unpleasant and frustrating effects on them in the short run (say, the rest of their lives). It would seem that a nondemocratic authority is required in order to implement true resistance to liquidation. In fact, a number of countries are currently witnessing a rise in authoritarianism, which of course cannot succeed without some degree of popular support. Strongmen even secure the allegiance of their devotees by appealing to a certain fear of the liquidation of property and culture, and a wish for greater integration. The political right seeks to preserve wholeness through traditionalism, obedience, and nationalism—but these can easily become obscurantism, tyranny, and xenophobia, and crowd out philosophy and freedom. Meanwhile, of course, no one is asked to sacrifice any of the benefits of modern liquidation, but all are promised cheap energy and greater wealth. It appears that the authoritarians who ride the crest of populist movements have no higher vision, but are all too happy to promote liquidation as long as it secures their power; their political control is supported by systems of exploitation, expropriation, and surveillance. Is there a role for philosophy in such a world? Philosophy is thinking; thinking takes a lifetime, and it seems that the world has no time to spare. It


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is in the midst of an emergency, and reflection seems to be crowded out by the mounting crisis. All the same, the Anthropocene calls for philosophical thought, if indeed philosophy has some responsibility for the rise of liquidation and if the current crisis needs to be understood in philosophical terms. And it does. To begin with, is there anything wrong with liquidation, aside from the fact that some of its consequences are unpleasant and inconvenient for human beings? If there is something more deeply amiss, perhaps what is going on is a violation of human nature—the human essence. Furthermore, the Anthropocene is obviously not simply a human phenomenon: perhaps what is most troubling about it is precisely its effects on nonhuman organisms and places. All of this invites philosophical reflection on essences: is the true essence of nature violated by the modern projection of its essence as quantifiable, exploitable material? I have suggested here that the answer is yes, but that is far from proven. I have also assumed that there can be such a phenomenon as “integrity,” that things have a wholeness that is disregarded and dissolved by modern methodology, but this, too, calls for thought and debate. In order to understand the Anthropocene, we must reflect on the ancient question of whether the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.20 These are important topics for reflection. But is there anything that philosophers should do, besides thinking? When the climate gets rough, should they simply take refuge, as one crouches behind a little wall when a dust storm hits (Republic 496d)? Of course, philosophers are not just philosophers, but human beings. As consumers and citizens, they can do their part to use or develop better technologies, or to agitate politically for what seem to be better policies and governments. And as Albert Borgmann suggests, we can engage in “focal practices” that cultivate islands of integrity in a disintegrating world, such as habits of careful cooking or religious rituals. Like other people, philosophers can try to preserve “focal things” around which such practices coalesce.21 But is there anything that philosophers as such can and should do? Is there anything they can achieve as philosophers? This question could provoke some ambitious dreams. If philosophers are those who can achieve insight into the essence of nature, humanity, and technology, then would they not be the best qualified to direct our cultures and economies down more appropriate paths? Then rule by philosophers would be our goal in the Anthropocene. Hans Jonas put it well in 1979: Even now, hardly a decade after the first stirrings of “environmental” consciousness, much of the requisite knowledge, plus the rational persuasion, is available inside and outside academia for any well-meaning powerholder to draw upon.

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To this, we—the growing band of concerned intellectuals—ought persistently to contribute our bit of competence and passion. But the real problem is to get the well-meaning into power and have that power as little as possible beholden to the interests which the technological colossus generates on its path. It is the problem of the philosopher-king compounded by the greater magnitude and complexity (also sophistication) of the forces to contend with. Ethically, it becomes a problem of playing the game by its impure rules. For the servant of truth to join in it means to sacrifice some of his time-honored role: he may have to turn apostle or agitator or political operator.22

Today, perhaps the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China comes closest to a regime of philosopher-rulers. The Chinese government has shown awareness of the environmental crisis, as it has been intensively developing green energy at the same time as it builds coal-fired plants. However, its overall trend seems to be liquidation. The natural landscape of China and its economic partners is being dramatically transformed as it is optimized for the exploitation of resources. Property is being liquidated into wealth, and people are mobilized as human resources; for instance, ancient villages are forcibly demolished and replaced by high-rise apartment blocks. Could there be a truly non-liquidating regime led by philosophers? The question brings us back to Plato’s thought experiment, composed not long after the birth of philosophy in the Axial Age. The Republic remains a pertinent and powerful exploration of the thirst for essence, the temptations of political power, and its pitfalls. The following points are intentionally suggested by Plato, in my view, but regardless of his intentions, the problems of rule by philosophers are on display in the Republic for our consideration. First, there is the daunting practical problem of how to get philosophers into power or educate the powerful into philosophy. But that problem is not necessarily insuperable (Republic 499c–d). A more subtle problem is whether “philosophers” even exist. They are first defined in the Republic as those who passionately desire knowledge of the truth of the forms—people on fire with the eidetic eros (475e–476a). But soon, Socrates speaks as though philosophers possess such knowledge (476d and 484b).23 He himself, however, confesses that he knows nothing, and he cannot state the content of the supreme essence, the form of the good (506c–e). He can only tell us that at the age of fifty, philosopher-rulers should be “led” to see it (540a). How? Even if philosophers who really possess knowledge come to power, their regime will not last forever. They will fail to calculate the nuptial number, the genetic formula that prescribes how to generate the best citizens (546a–547a). That is, the abstract knowledge of essences will, sooner or later, founder in the face of the complexity of the world of becoming.


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Finally, as long as such a regime lasted, it might very well have terrible— in fact, liquidating—features. Only radicals—those who discern the roots, and who are willing to uproot the deformed growths—will be willing to institute perfect justice. So philosopher-rulers, as political “artists,” will insist on a clean slate on which to delineate their ideal vision of humanity (501a). It seems that the eidetic logic, the logic of form, requires the elimination of all the de-formations that are sedimented in historical and cultural accidents. Socrates thus proposes exiling everyone over ten years old as the “quickest and easiest” way to start anew (540d–541a). In the totalitarian “just” city that is founded on this implausible act of violence, men and women will be deceived and bred like domesticated animals in order to produce children who best conform to the type, the essence (459c–460a). As for the deformed children, they will be disposed of (460c). It is easy enough to say that “we”—liberal, pluralistic philosophers—would never do such a thing. But since the masses will not always be on our side, we will have to resort to propaganda and compulsion. Inasmuch as tradition deviates from our vision of true essence, we will want to suppress that tradition. And are we so sure, anyway, that we possess the truth? Or that we are competent enough to apply the truth prudently to particular circumstances? Plato’s cautionary tale is as relevant today as it ever was. A merger between philosophy and politics is unlikely to solve the predicaments of the Anthropocene. We might also take the moral of Plato’s tale to be a harsh judgment on the eidetic eros itself. If the passion for essence has inspired totalitarianisms and, at least in its modern form, has contributed to the general liquidation of the real, then maybe the best thing for philosophers to do is abandon that passion and work to undermine it wherever it is found. Perhaps essentialism should finally be set aside in favor of better ways of thinking. What would take the place of essences? Most likely, narratives: genealogical accounts of the development of forces and factors in relation to each other. This kind of thinking (which is already found in Nietzsche and Foucault) might avoid some pernicious features of essentialism: its ahistorical, atemporal pretensions; its focus on universals to the detriment of particulars; and its tendency to isolate things instead of understanding them in relation. I have no quarrel with narratives; philosophers have a right and a need to tell stories and learn from them. However, to limit philosophy to narrative would be to lose the distinctive and crucial contribution that philosophical thought can make. We might even lose the very ability to think about essential distinctions such as that between essence and narrative. All human beings already think narratively—whether the story that has captured our attention is a religious myth, a national history, a family anecdote, or a piece of journalism or entertainment. But not all human beings have a passion for finding the sense of the story, for identifying its crux and core.

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A philosophical argument against that passion, a philosophical attempt to invalidate the eidetic eros, inevitably ends in self-defeat. If one insists, for instance, that we should limit ourselves to tracing the flux of relations, this is because one sees change and relation as essential to reality (as Nietzsche did). If one argues deconstructively that all attempts to establish stable definitions of essences will undercut themselves, one is expressing a view of the essence of meaning and language. Ultimately, one rejects essentialism because it is untrue to the essence. But anti-essentialism is not wrong to rebel against the traditional trend in metaphysics toward stasis and abstraction. This tendency may be due to certain superficial aspects of essence that distract us from the essential essence, as it were. For instance, an easy way to begin thinking about the essence of a tree is to ask what a birch, a palm, and a pine have in common, regardless of the peculiarities of individually existing plants. Treeness then seems to be an abstract universal, or even (for Platonists) an independently existing form. And since the tree was already a tree before we articulated its essence, its “being what it was,” we may even leap to postulating that there is some timeless essence of trees. But if a particular pine were the only tree in the world, it would be no less a pine, and no less a tree. Its treeness and pineness are characteristic of it, part of its distinctive way of being, regardless of whether other entities have the same essence. By the same token, there was no pineness before the first pine evolved, and when the last pine dies, pineness will die as well. (We have many more, all too factual examples, starting with the dodo and the passenger pigeon.) An essence, then, does not have to be eternal, universal, or necessary; it can be unprecedented, idiosyncratic, and fragile. This all implies that the love of essence does not have to exclude love for existence; they can go hand in hand. To love what is distinctive about a being is to appreciate what it and its kind bring to the world in their specific way. Love for the essence of an individual implies love for that individual itself. To see it destroyed is painful. To see its entire kind irreplaceably exterminated is horrifying. If essences can emerge temporally or historically, the love of essence can be combined with narrative. The eidetic eros does not have to be hostile to the shifting diversity of the world, with its emergence of new forms. In fact, it is by discovering and describing this eidetic diversity that philosophers can best serve it. We should not abandon our love of essence, but should lavish that love on the many phenomena, human and nonhuman, that are now threatened with liquidation. The philosophical gaze has never been infallible; our descriptions of essence will be contestable and imperfect. And to articulate an essence is not to preserve it; our descriptions may soon become eulogies. But if we train our attention on threatened things (including relations, events,


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places, practices, and moments), then we may make some difference, and open a few eyes. Let philosophers follow Thoreau to places where nature still shines through human constructions. Let them explore, sense, and reflect on the essences they encounter. Let them develop phenomenologies of glaciers or coral reefs, and speak of their experiences as they find and interact with these fragile realities. Let them learn from science, but also be open to nonquantitative ways in which things display their beauty and integrity. In addition to caring about threatened essences, philosophers should be on the lookout for emerging ones. New ways of relating to nature and to ourselves may be arising on the margins of culture and awaiting philosophical expression. Let philosophers go to Burning Man (a yearly art festival in the Nevada desert) or Factor e Farm (an experiment in “open source ecology” and locally built, sustainable technology). By describing these new phenomena, by encouraging appreciation for emergence, we can put up some resistance to the liquidating trend. This practice is not the invention of new essences from scratch, but it can help emergent essences gain momentum and flourish. Finding the words for a nascent eidos, articulating the direction in which essences are emerging, can contribute to their very emergence. In this way we can help to open pockets of freedom that provide breathing space—opportunities for new essences to blossom. We can also bring philosophy into the public sphere by participating in discourses that transcend academic research. Reaching a broader audience is not impossible. In some European countries, some philosophers attract audiences in the millions through books, periodicals, online media, and television. This is a trend in which many academic philosophers could participate to some degree.24 Public philosophical reflection is a delicate rhetorical task, requiring us to set aside jargon and esoteric references and find ways of speaking in accessible language, all while inviting further thought instead of creating the impression that philosophy can be reduced to easily intelligible slogans and memes. This is hardly easy in a time of information pollution, but by the same token, there have never been as many opportunities to communicate. And those of us who teach should not neglect our own classrooms, where students can be invited to reflect on the whole and challenge reductive assumptions. Will our ruminations and teaching change the course of the Anthropocene? In our current circumstances, optimism would be ludicrous, irresponsible, and unphilosophical. The work to be done now has to be done with a certain somber clarity about the losses that have already taken place and the many that are on their way. The momentum of modern industrial civilization and of the physical processes unleashed by that civilization is so vast that the efforts of one thinker, or of a thousand, are drops in the ocean. They will reach some people, move a few, and then almost surely be forgotten as the number of

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published words keeps rising along with sea levels. The effects of the sum total of philosophers’ efforts, including the anthology in which this chapter is being published, will probably amount to little more than nothing. But little is not nothing. To open the eyes of one person, even oneself, is an achievement. If a single human being is inspired to preserve a single endangered thing for a brief time in the face of the general liquidation of the real, then there was one noble event that stood against the tide of destruction. There is a satisfaction in expecting nothing while knowing that one did what is right, and did one’s best. One of the challenges for philosophers in the Anthropocene is to learn to find that satisfaction.

NOTES 1. Marsilio Ficino, Commentaries on Plato, vol. I, Phaedrus and Ion, ed. and tr. Michael J. B. Allen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 151. 2. For an elucidation of Bacon’s project, see Timothy Sean Quinn’s “On Nature and Liberation” (chapter 3) in this volume. 3. Andrew Pollack, “Scientists Announce HGP-Write, Project to Synthesize the Human Genome,” The New York Times, June 2, 2016, 2016/06/03/science/human-genome-project-write-synthetic-dna.html; Steve Connor, “First Human Embryos Edited in U.S.,” MIT Technology Review, July 26, 2017, https:// 4. “Pavlov would remove a dog’s esophagus and create an opening, a fistula, in the animal’s throat, so that, no matter how much the dog ate, the food would fall out and never make it to the stomach. By creating additional fistulas along the digestive system and collecting the various secretions, he could measure their quantity and chemical properties in great detail”: Michael Specter, “Drool: Ivan Pavlov’s Real Quest,” The New Yorker, November 24, 2014, 123–24. Pavlov also profited from selling these canine secretions (ibid., 125). 5. Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, tr. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 17–23. 6. Martin Heidegger, Zollikon Seminars: Protocols—Conversations—Letters, ed. Medard Boss, tr. Franz Mayr and Richard Askay (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 107. 7. Martin Heidegger, “Memorial Address,” in Discourse on Thinking, tr. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 50. 8. For representative recent studies by two leading post-Heideggerian philosophers of technology, see Andrew Feenberg, Technosystem: The Social Life of Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017) and Don Ihde, Heidegger’s Technologies: Postphenomenological Perspectives (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010).


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9. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, tr. John Wilkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 21. 10. On the following points, see Richard Polt, “Potentiality, Energy and Sway: From Aristotelian to Modern to Postmodern Physics?” Existentia 11 (2001): 27–41. For a more extensive and much-needed exploration of energy on the ontological level, see Michael Marder, Energy Dreams: Of Actuality (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). 11. Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 16. 12. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner, 2004), 180. 13. Frederick Douglass concisely expresses the experience of being treated as a liquidated asset: “We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination”: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, eds. John R. McKivigan, Peter P. Hinks, and Heather L. Kaufman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 40. 14. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 61. 15. “Under modern conditions, not destruction but conservation spells ruin because the very durability of conserved objects is the greatest impediment to the turnover process, whose constant gain in speed is the only constancy left wherever it has taken hold”: ibid., 253. 16. For such a proposal, see for example, Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (London: Verso, 2015). 17. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), §44. 18. For a deterministic account of modernity along these lines, see Peter Trawny, On Freedom: Technology, Capital, Medium, tr. Richard Lambert (London: Bloomsbury, 2017). In Trawny’s perceptive but exaggerated vision, freedom becomes a near impossibility. 19. Some of the best devices and techniques may be older, so-called obsolete ones: John Michael Greer, The Retro Future: Looking to the Past to Reinvent the Future (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2017). 20. For one ancient discussion see Plato, Theaetetus 203c–205e. In contemporary analytic metaphysics, this theme takes the form of controversies about emergent properties, supervenience, and top-down causation. See, for example, Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science, eds. Mark Bedau and Paul Humphreys (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008). 21. Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 196–210. 22. Hans Jonas, “Toward a Philosophy of Technology,” Hastings Center Report 9/1 (1979), reprinted in Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition, second edition, eds. Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 221. 23. On the two types of “philosopher,” see Gregory Fried, “Back to the Cave: A Platonic Rejoinder to Heidegger,” in Heidegger and the Greeks, eds. Drew Hyland and John P. Manoussakis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).

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24. For example, I have published two short essays for a broad audience that argue against equating human beings with computers or nonhuman animals, and argue that new, higher kinds of entities can emerge: “Anything but Human,” The Stone, The New York Times, August 5, 2012, anything-but-human/; “Reality Is Flat. (Or Is It?),” The Stone, The New York Times, August 16, 2012, My book The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century (Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 2015) is a quest for essence inasmuch as it seeks to find and articulate the guiding spirit of an emergent social phenomenon. I like to believe that the book also has an anti-liquidating, integrative spirit, inasmuch as it makes the case for sustainable practices, durable things, a life that is not obsessed with efficiency, and a relation to language that does not dissolve it into information.

Chapter 5

Odysseus on the Beach: Humanity between the Anthropocene and the Hubriscene Gregory Fried

Die ich rief, die Geister, Werd’ ich nun nicht los. —Goethe, Der Zauberlehrling

When we first meet Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem, he is on Ogygia, the island home of the demi-goddess Calypso. There we find him in hardly heroic form, sitting out on the beach, crying, as before now he had done, breaking his heart in tears, lamentation, and sorrow, as weeping tears he looked out over the barren waters.1

This, the poem tells us, he does every day, weeping alone on the shore, desperate for a way home to Ithaca (5.153), to his wife Penelope and son Telemachus. According to his own telling, Ogygia is the last of Odysseus’s mythic trials before he washes up on the shores of the Phaiakians, the first proper human community he has encountered after all his misfortunes and the final sojourn before his homecoming to Ithaca. Calypso had kept him on Ogygia for seven years, in complete isolation, wanting him as her husband, forever. At the moment of decision, after Hermes has brought her Zeus’s command to let him go, the goddess Calypso makes Odysseus no small offer, warning that if he knew what lay ahead, you would stay here with me and be the lord of this household and be an immortal, for all your longing once more to look on that wife for whom you are pining all your days here.2



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“Be an immortal”—in Greek, athanatos t’eiēs; more literally, “you would be undying,” or perhaps “amortal.” That is a choice nowhere else offered to a human being in Greek myth, although it is a gift sometimes bestowed by Zeus, as to Ganymede or Heracles. To have it as a choice is extraordinary, and yet even more extraordinary is that Odysseus turns the offer down in favor of wife, child, home, and the inevitability of death. Why? As he scans the “barren waters,” what he most longs “to look on” is “that wife”—Calypso will not deign to mention Penelope by name—but all he sees are sea and sky, divided by an endless horizon, with no hope for any real change or unexpected event on and around the deathless island of Ogygia. Odysseus chooses mortality not because he prefers death to an undying life but because it is precisely mortality that bestows a meaningful life. On Ogygia, the ocean vista appears to him “barren” because its horizon, as the meeting of sea and sky alone, offers nothing but an encircling, undifferentiated boundary without end, surrounding and imprisoning him. Ordinarily, in Greek, horizōn literally means an encircling boundary that sets a limit and that differentiates a place in its contours. Death, as the limiting horizon to mortality, is what both necessitates and grants the distinctiveness of his life: being the son of Laertes, being the king of Ithaca, being the father of Telemachus, and, above all, being the husband of Penelope. These limits, these horizons of his existence, are not a prison to Odysseus; they are what free him, paradoxically, to being pinioned to life in this home, with this family, connected to this community. Without the limitation of mortality, there is no need for generation, for biological reproduction as a feature of the life cycle. But on Ogygia, the horizon is a barren contradiction, a limit without limit, a prospect of despair for a sailor: endless sailing with no land in sight, no place to come ashore and plant one’s oar. The most powerful symbol for Odysseus of his mortal life, of rootedness to home and place, is the marriage bed he shares with Penelope: a bed he carved from an ancient olive tree, leaving its roots still deep in the earth, around which he built the home for his once young bride. Odysseus chooses this plantedness, this finite situatedness, this singular distinctiveness to his horizons, because it alone grants him a habitable world, a world in which choice matters. Odysseus understands and accepts that this meaningfulness is only possible as held within limits, as bounded by mortality, rather than the barren, undifferentiated horizon of an undying life on Ogygia. What I will argue here is that philosophy in the Anthropocene must reconcile two things that ordinarily clash. It must teach us to accept, and indeed to celebrate, our mortality in the world and the limitations of our condition, while at the same time permitting us to exceed the given. We need not welcome, let alone celebrate, death as the limit to understand that embodied

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mortality gives meaning to who we are, which is to be a finite being, connected to this family, this home, this community. The Anthropocene challenges us to think through how we have come to consider ourselves the masters of the extraordinary powers by which we now believe we can control nature, and whether that nature, itself transformed in relation to us, threatens instead to engulf us, as we accelerate past the markers of the human horizon as we have understood it hitherto. MASTERS AND POSSESSORS OF NATURE One way to understand the question of the place of philosophy in the Anthropocene is to recognize that we all now face the choice of Odysseus. It may at first seem extravagant to say that we are on the cusp of immortality, but the emergence of the Anthropocene presents us with a challenge no less allencompassing and alluring than the one Odysseus faced. His condition was literally liminal, and so is ours: standing on the shore, on the dividing line between one world and another. When Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer coined the term “Anthropocene” a short time ago, they intended it to mark an epoch not only in human but also in planetary history.3 The term “Anthropocene” signals that we have embarked upon an age where human beings not only inhabit and cope with their environment, but they also now to a very large extent mold that environment and therefore define an age of the planet itself, as Crutzen and his team explain in a subsequent article: Although Earth has undergone many periods of significant environmental change, the planet’s environment has been unusually stable for the past 10,000 years. This period of stability—known to geologists as the Holocene— has seen human civilizations arise, develop and thrive. Such stability may now be under threat. Since the Industrial Revolution, a new era has arisen, the Anthropocene, in which human actions have become the main driver of global environmental change.4

Other species have, of course, made an impact on their environments. Invasive species introduced to a region can devastate the local flora or fauna, and thereby even change the local ecosystem or even its geology. But as Crutzen suggests, the impact of humans in the Anthropocene is not just one of degree but of kind. As Homo sapiens, human beings have always responded to their environment, finding ways to cope and survive. However, while we have been especially creative and adaptive in this endeavor, we have not been alone in manipulating the environment: beavers build their dams; many bird species use tools to pry open trees or even as bait; ants construct extremely complex warrens, some complete with fungus farms. What distinguishes


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humans is that we have become, as Crutzen says, “the main driver of global environmental change.” Humanity is the “driver” because we push this change to the environment forward relentlessly, and we do so not at the local, or the regional, level but at the global level. No other species does or has done that, at least since the earliest microorganisms began the process of altering the gas content of the earth’s atmosphere. The most obvious result of such anthropogenic effects is climate change, which affects not merely regional systems but the entire globe, from pole to pole and up to the highest reaches of the atmosphere. Global climate change is an unintended negative side effect of the Anthropocene, of course, but it is the shadow side of the age’s aspiration, beginning in earnest with the scientific revolution and especially with the process of steam-powered and coal-fired industrialization just over 200 years ago. The intentional nature of that ambition, at least among the most far-seeing thinkers and scientists at the birth of the modern era, is perhaps best summed up by René Descartes’s declaration in the Discourse on Method (1637) that with the proper methodology, humankind might come to understand the fundamental forces and elements so well that we could become “the masters and possessors of nature.”5 That declaration is a codicil to Francis Bacon’s virtual declaration of war on nature, announced by the extraordinarily ambitious designation The Great Instauration of the Dominion of Man over the Universe, which was the subtitle to one of his early works, titled, appropriately enough, The Masculine Birth of Time (1603). For Christian Britons of the early modern period, that “dominion” would have come to resonate as the natural extension of God’s grant to Adam in the King James translation (1611) of Genesis 1:26, and Bacon meant his “Instauration” as a reclamation and renewal of that now universal patrimony lost by our first parents in the Fall: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” That “dominion . . . over all the earth” in Bacon’s hands becomes far more than simple stewardship or right of use. Bacon conceived his later work on the Instauration in six volumes, to mirror the six days of God’s creation, which illustrates the soaring ambition of his project. As Carolyn Merchant writes in a lucid essay on Bacon’s intentions for the new science, his goal of perfecting a method in science and technology extended far beyond manipulating and consuming nature and its products: Simply annoying and pestering nature, or “assisting and perfecting” it, was not enough. The new method required a far more fundamental transmutation. As Bacon stated in De Augmentis Scientiarum (1623), “a more subtle error . . . has

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crept into the human mind; namely, that of considering art as merely an assistant to nature, having the power indeed to finish what nature has begun, to correct her when lapsing into error, or to set her free when in bondage, but by no means to change, transmute, or fundamentally alter nature.” The new technologies, he wrote elsewhere, “do not like the old, merely exert a gentle guidance over nature’s course, they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.”6

As Marx would argue more than two centuries after Bacon, the destiny of humankind is, to use Merchant’s word, to transmute nature as far as possible from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom for humankind. For Marx, for example, the realm of necessity is how nature presents itself to humanity in history: as a hostile domain threatening human existence, demanding forced labor, thereby the division of labor, and thus class antagonism, all as the price for survival; the realm of freedom at the end of history begins only when work is liberated from this necessity—and even then, a residue of necessity remains in our labors to sustain life’s basic needs. POWER OVER FORM As the realm of necessity, nature still ultimately dominates humanity, whose Promethean tricks only succeed in fending off her attacks for a time without subduing her entirely. As the “Ode to Man” in Sophocles’s Antigone proclaims, in the realm of necessity, death is the boundary marker, the proof of a limit, proof that nature will always ultimately prevail against “man’s” devices: He [the paradigmatic human being] has the means to handle every need, Never steps towards the future without the means. Except for Death: He’s got himself no relief from that, Though he puts every mind to seeking cures For plagues that are hopeless.7

Bacon and Descartes had nothing but the best of intentions. We moderns, in prosecuting what Bacon called the project of “the relief of man’s estate,”8 have sought to do what humankind has always done: to cure disease, to fend off the elements, to enable more commodious living. But the aim to master and possess nature, and even more, to transmute it as our dominion, suggests more than a quantitative improvement in the human relationship to the world as the hostile “universe” of Bacon’s project. By breaking further in upon nature than Prometheus, who merely brought us fire as a powerful tool, the project of mastery, possession, and transmutation indicates a qualitative shift


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from the human relationship to nature as the realm of necessity to one that seeks to make us entirely free, imposing necessity upon nature rather than the other way around. Such an ambition is hubristic, Faustian, even god-like, because it respects no limit to what this mastery might achieve and what barriers it might transgress to get there. That makes death, what Sophocles identified as the ineluctable boundary marker of our finitude, the ultimate target of the modern project. It is no longer religious piety to aspire to immortality, no longer even a fanciful premise of science fiction. Immortality is the stated goal of serious scientific researchers, such as Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil. De Grey believes that, rather than a natural feature of human life, we should treat aging, the leading cause of death, as “a deadly, pandemic disease” that we can cure so that humans can live indefinitely.9 Kurzweil has predicted what he calls the Singularity, that moment in the near future when the pace of technological change will have become so powerful that human beings, as carbon-based life forms, will fuse with a new, silicon-based form of digital life, utterly transforming what we are and what life itself is, what is organic and what is machine body, what is real and what is virtual: The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever). We will fully understand human thinking and will vastly extend and expand its reach. By the end of this [twentyfirst] century, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence.10

Kurzweil is not alone. The techno-billionaires of Silicon Valley are aggressively investing their billions in scientific projects to conquer aging and death that are, apparently, not insane.11 The guiding assumption of this optimism worthy of Icarus is that death itself is a sort of disease—not a disease in the sense of an illness that can cause death but rather in the sense of an error, a genetic flaw produced by mindless evolution: death need not be an affliction imposed by natural necessity; instead, death is a contingent glitch in our natures, something about how the genetics that govern the development and maintenance of our bodies, from cell to entire system, entail an inborn obsolescence. But like a bug in a program, this glitch, in principle, can be repaired. Or so the aspiration intends, and in the final analysis, it does not matter that this repair or tweak may not actually be possible or realized. Nor does it matter that what is on offer is not absolute immortality, the complete impossibility of death, but rather only semi-immortality, or a-mortality—that is, the promise of an indefinite, but not infinite, continuity of life, because the body, even in digital form,

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would still be vulnerable to accident or violence. What matters is only that human civilization has crossed the symbolic threshold where immortality has become a credible goal of the modern scientific project. Of course, human beings have believed that immortality of some kind lay within their grasp before: as the reward, to the theists, of an eternal next life for pious virtue in this temporal one; as the attainment, according to some Stoics, of a wise conformity with nature; as the realization, for the Buddhists, of a state of consciousness that merges with emptiness. But what is different about the modern project of immortality in the Anthropocene is that it does not seek to harmonize our nature with a cosmic reality that encompasses the human; rather, it aims to transform nature itself, both human and beyond human, to mold nature to a goal of limitlessness. To treat aging as a disease is to think of death as an unnatural accident in a current biological wiring; it implies that what is truly natural for us is to live indefinitely, whatever transformed form such life takes, including the post-organic. Following Merchant, I will call this aspiration to the power of hyper-transformation transmutation. What is crucial about this aspiration to transmutation is that it does not matter that we may be deceiving ourselves about the prospects for achieving total victory of willed freedom over external necessity. What matters is that this ambition has now set the stage for humanity’s extravagant aspirations in the Anthropocene. It is as if the Copernican Revolution were overturned and humanity were putting itself back at the center of existence; it is as if, in the absence of a providential purpose, the whole point of a pointless universe has turned out to be nothing other than ourselves, the apotheosis of a self-divinizing narcissism that would inflict the self upon the universe permanently. As others, such as Yuval Harari, have pointed out, what this ambition entails is a radical, epochal shift in how nature itself unfolds.12 For the entire 3.5 billion years of life on the earth and, as far as we know, the 13.772 billion years since the Big Bang, science tells us that nature has organized itself according to chance, operating within the rational yet mindless laws of nature. From the formation of galaxies and stars and planets to the rise and fall of life forms on our own planet, all development has proceeded according to unguided events, in the sense that nothing determines them other than the laws of physics, broadly understood. Darwinian evolution proposes that each species, life in its various forms, originates, adapts, flourishes, and disappears through natural selection, the survival and reproductive success—or failure— of organisms whose genetic coding, based on the successive genetic mutation of their ancestors, made them more or less adaptive to an ever-shifting environment. No divine intent. No intelligent design. Just pure dumb luck. As Richard Polt indicates in chapter 4, the ancients were not unaware of this “mindless” account of nature. Anticipating Darwin, Aristotle (in Physics


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198b17–199a6) considered the possibly that life might organize itself by accident, with only the fit forms surviving, but then rejected this in favor of teleology.13 Socrates read his predecessor Anaxagoras hoping to understand how “Mind” operates on nature purposefully, only to discover that Mind, for Anaxagoras, is not an intentional, purposeful rationality but simply a placeholder name for mindless forces of nature. What is new in our modern hubris is that we stand on the threshold, on the shore, of overthrowing necessity in the form of chance by using our decidedly intentional minds to apply the laws of nature to nature itself in a bold new way. Rather than random chance governing the formation and expression of new forms of life, we can now conceive of governing that formation ourselves. We can imagine this mastery, even begin to do it with organisms through genetic engineering. It is we who would then become the Mind of nature. This is already happening with the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, a technique which can cut out or replace unwanted genetic code in an organism and splice in desired code, producing a substantially altered individual organism, even an entire new species capable of reproducing itself. This is not fantasy—it is real, and it is happening now as perhaps the most significant revolution in science in our history, because it aspires to replace the unintentional formation of life by nature with the intentional design of life forms by a living being within nature. The advocates of genetic engineering hope it will not only eliminate genetic illnesses such as sickle cell anemia, or alter mosquitos so that they cannot carry or pass on malaria, but also cure cancer and even aging itself as that glitch in our genetic programming that leads to the self-imposed obsolescence of the organism. CRISPR offers not just transformation, the adaptive modification to existing forms; it promises transmutation, which goes beyond transformation to manipulate the very building blocks of life— perhaps even, as some hope, to bridge a divide between organic life, which is all we have known so far, to inorganic forms of life that will revolutionize our understanding of what it means to be a species, let alone a human species, at all. For Kurzweil, this is a facet of the Singularity’s onset. Harari proposes three models of transhumanism: genetically engineered, but still recognizably human; cyborg, where humans merge with machinery and nanotechnology; and a genuinely post-organic post-humanity, where we merge with digital technology and become unrecognizable as human.14 The word “species” itself is a Latin version of the Greek philosophical term for “form” (eidos or idea), and so when Darwin asked about the “origin of species” he was asking what process, if not creation by the mind and word of God, gives each “life form” its distinctive, stable formedness, the boundaries that distinguish in a more than visual way the horse, say, from the donkey or the penguin from the duck. Modern science teaches that through all of cosmic

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history, random chance has directed the formation of all things, but now, assuming that we are the first sentient beings to conceive of and then arrive at the threshold of this power, we are about to enter an age of fundamental formlessness, what Richard Polt calls liquidation, where we direct what life forms come to be and perish by manipulating the genetic nature of living things. We aspire to a power by which nature has no inherent, given forms other than what we give to it, or at least what we leave alone. This ambition for power over form extends beyond individual organisms and species to the alteration of entire ecosystems through terraforming, the engineering of the environment by the manipulation of the laws of physics and chemistry. We are doing so unintentionally on the planetary scale through anthropogenic climate change, but there is no reason, in principle, that we could not do so intentionally, according to plan; indeed, some strategies for addressing climate change do just that by proposing technologies to recapture and store carbon emissions. What all this signifies is that for the first time, humans can aspire to design nature in radically transmutative ways, rather than being the mostly passive subjects of nature. That surely justifies giving this age a new name, but perhaps “Anthropocene” is not the right one, because the ambition for transmutation includes the life form that we ourselves are, too, as anthropos. Perhaps “Hubriscene” would be more appropriate as the name for the age we may be entering, for hubris entails a self-idolatry that respects no limits, and the titanic aspiration for immortality and mastery of nature epitomizes such pride run amok, a pride that makes the self quite emphatically the center of the universe. MIND AND COSMOS Design entails a plan, and a plan entails a goal. Socrates’s provisional understanding of the cosmos as mindful, as defined and determined by rational intent, and Aristotle’s understanding of nature as intelligibly purposeful, as teleological, have now gained a second life, but in decidedly new hands. Granted, humans cannot (yet) aspire to the creation ex nihilo of energy and matter and the laws that govern them, as these are truly the most God-like powers, but we now believe ourselves able to impose our design on what has been created. To echo Harari: the question for us now is, at this dawn of truly awesome new power, do we know what we want, now that we have this power, at least on promise? Another way of asking this is: what is our design on design? Will our designing be as arbitrary, conflictual, and chaotic as nature has been over the earth’s history, and as human designs have ever been? Or can we bring order to the overall design of all existence within our reach? And would that be even worse? As Harari puts it, “Is there anything


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more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”15 Bacon thought it unreasonable to worry that the new power he promised us would be mishandled, as we will see later, but consider CRISPR, which already allows us to edit the genetic code of living things so that they can become new life forms. While their libertarian streak16 might embolden Americans to take this power in individualistic directions akin to tattooing, piercing, and body sculpting, giving themselves tails or glowing in the dark, a dictator like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un might use it to breed new classes of humanoid life forms—warriors, workers, even enhanced clones of himself to ensure continuity of regime. Will this newfound freedom for selfcreation then prove itself only a sham freedom, where a meta-evolutionary natural selection will “decide” what forms of life survive, despite our pretensions to control the process intentionally? If we were to think “as if” Anaxagoras’s Mind did steer the cosmos, what intended purpose would it serve, at least up to now, that life forms have come into existence by natural selection, gain their species form through the random mixing and mutation of genes, and then invariably and eventually die? One answer is Heraclitus’s flux: the cosmos is an ever-changing flow of form into form; the conditions in which life can persist, even thrive, alter dramatically over time and in ways that existing life forms could not possibly anticipate (again, at least until now). To continue with the “as if”: random genetic change would be how Mind would guide, at the microlevel, which individual life forms flourish or fail. Natural selection entails that the success of individual organisms, over many generations of genetic mutation, introduces at the macrolevel of the species subtle but decisive phenotypical change, allowing an emerging species to adapt more successfully than others to new environmental conditions. Death of the individual organism is therefore the natural and necessary precondition for a more adaptive organism’s being able to take its place, occupying the shifting environment more successfully by making more effective use of its resources—at least until the flux of environmental conditions makes this life form obsolete in turn. That is how “Mind” might “design” life’s formation in concert with the constant shifting of environmental condition. What the Anthropocene, or perhaps more properly, the Hubriscene, promises is that we ourselves may take over this role of Mind, directing and engineering the adaptation of life forms at both the individual level and the species level, thereby liquidating, as Polt puts it, what essence or species has meant hitherto, which is entirely consistent with Heraclitus’s flux, except that we believe we can now ride the flow, even direct it. What this hypermodern project assumes, without warrant from history, is that the human mind can both understand the totality of environmental conditions and control them and all the consequences of transmutation well enough to call forth forms of life that truly fit in, adaptively and sustainably, at both

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the microlevel and the macrolevel. At the onset of the modern project, Bacon anticipated this concern: Finally, if anyone objects that the sciences and arts have been perverted to evil and luxury and such like, the objection should convince no one. The same may be said of all earthly goods, intelligence, courage, strength, beauty, wealth, the light itself and all the rest. Just let man recover the right over nature which belongs to him by God’s gift, and give it scope; right reason and sound religion will govern its use.17

What Bacon did not anticipate was that the magnitude of this hypermodern project to obtain “the right over nature” might lead to changes in “man” in relation to nature of such a degree that they might become transmutations in kind, beyond the purview of “right reason and sound religion.” Is this overweening ambition not madness? How could we ever have both the power and the understanding, let alone the wisdom, to accomplish this? To speak of “the human mind,” as if it were some collective intelligence acting rationally on the cosmic stage, flies in the face of human history. Certainly there have been individuals of staggering genius in the sciences, but they were precisely that: individuals, or at best small teams, not representatives of a collective human rationality and foresight. The exploration of nuclear fission, with its potentially staggering release of energy, by scientists such as Enrico Fermi, Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Friedrich Strassman, and Otto Frisch, has given us the very real prospect of planetary nuclear war, as Einstein himself feared. And despite Einstein’s intellectual genius, his cosmopolitan ethical sensibilities, and his advocacy for peace (contemporary versions of Bacon’s “right reason and sound religion,” perhaps),18 the proliferation of nuclear weapons has continued to the point where nuclear brinkmanship is now a feature of international relations. One staunch activist for tranhumanism, Zoltan Istvan, who has run for governor of California as well as U.S. president as a radical libertarian, has proclaimed that a “transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible.”19 The absolute control longed for by the Anthropocenebecoming‑Hubriscene implies both omniscience and omnipotence, which then must be united with unfailing goodness and wisdom, proportionate to the extraordinary power envisioned. Proponents of CRISPR and other profoundly transmutational technologies, such as George Church, assume that the intellect and rationality required to invent such marvels is the same rationality that will ultimately guide their application. They therefore also assume that astonishing scientific ingenuity is coextensive with wisdom, especially if one of the very purposes of such transmutation would be to make humanity (if that word even applies anymore) somehow more angelic or even immortal.


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But the decisive problem, the decisive limit to this ambition, is that living beings abide within the cosmos and therefore are always by definition finite, not infinite, or perhaps transfinite; they are always ultimately mortal and not immortal. Their vision can never rise to the level of a divine providence to survey all possible permutations in the flux of environment. Embodiment necessarily means a within-ness, a limitedness, that pins us to finite emplacement, perspective, and attachment, as Odysseus’s bed pins him to Ithaca. To ask for more than finitude is to ask to be not just a god but the God as transcendent, independent of the flux and vagaries of the cosmos, able to subsist simultaneously both within and without it, immune to passions and limitations of radically situated embodiment. And so do we now think we are capable of that? If so, and if hubris is an excessive, immoderate, overweening pride in the self, then the Anthropocene certainly will quickly degenerate into the Hubriscene. THE PARADOX OF THE HUMAN CONDITION But Pandora has already opened her box. It cannot be closed. Technologies such as CRISPR already exist; they now prowl the world. Just as happened with nuclear power, any technology that gives a decisive edge in the power plays of nations, or even simply in the strategies parents employ to raise their children for success, will be sought relentlessly and eventually be deployed beyond their inventors’ intentions. If the transformation and indeed the radical transmutation of the human species can give someone an edge, surely a ruler such as Kim Jong-un will want to put it to use, whatever the noble wishes of its inventors, whatever ethical norms responsible scientists, professional organizations, and nations adopt to control it. As Polt rightly argues, while individual crises may be averted or ameliorated by new scientific discoveries and technologies, the threats produced by technology in the Anthropocene as an aggregate cannot be fixed by technology. The problem is one of our place in the whole. Do we address the world as a cosmos, an integrated whole within which we inhabit a definite but bounded place? Or do we engage our world as a universe conceived on the model of the “internet of things,” where everything, as far as possible, is to be subsumed under the cybernetic beck and call of our digital dominion?20 Even if forms of infinitude, such as a‑mortality or total mastery of nature, objectively lie beyond our actual grasp, either now or in some transmuted, transhuman or post-human state, the fact that we already are beginning to act “as if” these infinite ambitions may be realized, by producing technologies such as CRISPR that lend credence to the Faustian project, the fact of that “as if” is already a radical departure from the human condition hitherto. Acting

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“as if” goes farther than Bacon or Descartes, who conceived the conquest of nature as a project and devised methods to bring it about, because now we are on the verge of embarking upon the Hubriscene and the most extreme logical consequences of that project. The more we aspire to the transhuman and the post-human, the more likely that we will negate, even despise, the limitations and attachments that have tied us to our humanity until now. The post-human project is calling on us as Calypso called on Odysseus: to forget Ithaca, his people, his home, his son, his Penelope. As human, we are bound to the attachments of mortality that have been bestowed on us by the contingencies of a natural embodiment that we did not choose, but within which we make the choices that further bind us, in love or hate or indifference, and so the aspiration to immortality demands as its price the gradual extinction of our humanity, for humanity itself must be transmuted to achieve it. The negation of the human condition as one of limits that tie us to place and time in favor of a transmutation not only of our nature but also of nature itself portends a radical nihilism, a pervasive destruction and devastation. This nihilism threatens us not only, or not even essentially, because it threatens us with the fate of the sorcerer’s apprentice, who unleashes powers he thought within his control but which end up nearly killing him. It does indeed threaten us with planetary cataclysms such as nuclear war and climate change brought on by our own unleashing of natural forces. But even more than these horrendous possibilities, this nihilism threatens to destroy what it means for us to have a place in the world, because all places, as we inhabit it as human beings, exist within limits, and not merely the limits of three-dimensional space. We are tied to landscapes, things, and people that define who we are because they bind us to them—not as a form of slavery, but as the precondition of our freedom for meaningful presence as finite beings. This is the significance of Odysseus’s marriage bed, itself formed from a tree still rooted in the earth. We all may recognize this phenomenon in the way that places or objects or a piece of music or a face can pinion us to the memories that define who we are, in our finite specificity. Hubristic nihilism ignores that we cannot transcend our limitations as such and therefore cannot escape them, no matter how much we transform ourselves, or how much power over nature we amass. How utterly bizarre and yet how entirely human that we forget this, for if it is natural to live, it is also natural to want to go on living, even past normal limits, even as fantasy, as the ancient story of Odysseus on Ogygia, which invites us to imagine ourselves in his place. And yet, to forget our limitations entirely would be to escape our boundedness within a contingency not of our own making for the sake of a freedom of utmost abstraction, in the literal sense of being torn away from the specificity of existence. We can discern this looming self-extermination of the human in the longing of those who hope to be absorbed into the Singularity.


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The “Ode to Man” in Sophocles’s Antigone anticipates the tragicomic, conflictual paradox that is the human condition. On the one hand, there is something admirable, even noble, about our hubristic tendencies. We till the land, harness beasts, build ships to capture the winds, and venture the surging sea; such audacity is an essential feature of who we are, our natural inclination not only to survive, but to expand our horizons even as we flirt with death. On the other hand, although we might forget it in the everyday hustle and bustle of our grand plans, we cannot outstrip death, which sets the limits to our endeavors and, if we pause to listen, reminds us, for good and for ill, of our place. If humanity hopes to tarry much longer than a blink of the eye in geological time, then philosophy in the Anthropocene must attempt the reconciliation of limitation and transgression. If we truly do face profoundly transmutative change to our very nature, we will have to discern what, if anything, remains of ourselves. I would suggest that what will remain constant, however powerful we become, however enamored we become of that power, and however much we become transformed, is the sheer given that we are innerworldy, that we cannot transgress beyond givenness itself. To be clear, the given is that specificity of existence that each of us finds ourselves enmeshed within as the fabric of a life that we did not and could not create or choose; givenness itself is not the specific, embedded texture of one’s own existence, but rather that this specificity is given to us in a temporality that cannot be clocked and in a way we can never explain. It means that we cannot reach back and decide to exist in the time and place that we do, that we cannot exist outside the cosmos with the power of a transcendent God to create ex nihilo. Otherwise, the will to power will consume us entirely, despite our pretensions to govern the future. Death is the reminder of the limit to our power, although it seems that we cannot abide even this outermost boundary. But at the same time, we must recognize that the drive to outstrip the given is part of us as well and what gives meaning to the world, as it is given, because that meaning must always be open to reinterpretation and reconfiguration if freedom is to mean anything at all as the core of who we are and not merely what we are. We will always reside within some form of givenness, but to respect the specificity of the given also means that we can and we must have the courage and insight to transcend some of our particular givens, especially when they cause us to question the meaning of the givens we inhabit. But is this not a contradiction? How can we both respect our limits and transgress them? Is there a way to finesse the modesty of recognizing our limits and the audacity of venturing up against them? Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of limit itself: if not tested, probed, even transgressed, we lose track of our finitude. The failure to test our limits would then be the obverse of impious hubris. It would be a betrayal of our promise as beings who

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challenge their limits. It would mean burrowing so deeply into our limitations that we forget them by sheer inertia and indifference rather than by arrogance and recklessness. If we do not destroy ourselves, the tragicomic endgame of the Anthropocene might simply be that we resolve this paradox of our nature by transcending ourselves in a form that merely makes indefinite the mindless comforts and distractions of a blinkered present, the apogee of the Last Man, or the bloated, self-absorbed humans of Wall-E; we would achieve the sublime of immortality only to make it ridiculous and pathetic. QUESTIONING AS AUDACIOUS HUMILITY What I want to suggest is that genuinely philosophical questioning may serve as the fulcrum to finesse the paradox. To question is to recognize a limit, something that one does not understand and has not mastered; to run up against a limitation is possible for animals, but to make those limits a matter for self-conscious questioning is characteristically human. This is why Socrates’s dictum that he knows he does not know is paradigmatic for philosophy, because without the drive to transgress the limit of notknowing, the Socratic dictum would be an epigram of defeat, a justification for indolent subjugation to the given. To question properly, and not just out of mild curiosity or arbitrary boredom is also to venture to challenge the limits of our understanding. A challenge need not be a sign of disrespect; in fact, it can be the essence of respect, because it shows that one takes a person, or a problem, or a predicament seriously as an occasion to reassess and reinterpret one’s own place in the world, as Jacob did by wrestling the angel. A question that ventures against the limit puts at risk one’s own self-understanding hitherto. To question is the soul of philosophy because it binds together our finitude, as our incapacity for fully knowing the whole, with our daring, our flirtation with hubris that ventures out of bounds. This conforms with the ancient name itself: philosophy, the love of wisdom. As one of my own teachers put it, drawing upon Socrates’s speech in the Symposium, the name should be eros-sophy, the longing for wisdom that comes over us, even unbidden, like the longing of love. Socrates himself says as much, comparing philosophy to Eros, born of the gods Penury and Resource, for it is ever in need, always longing and asking, and yet never despairing, always finding reason to go on seeking. Philosophy, then, must be a paradoxically audacious humility, one that can only make sense of our limits by venturing them. Philosophy is the audacity of the freedom to question tempered by a recognition of our inability to reach the outermost limit of questioning itself: some point at which we have settled all questions and will no longer need to ask, “Why?”


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To venture questioning as audacious humility—this may sound far too simplistic and at the same time too abstract to serve as a maxim for philosophy in the Anthropocene. But if there is no technological fix to prevent the ambitions of the Anthropocene from slipping into the boundless arrogance of the Hubriscene, then we must cultivate a fundamental attunement to our place in the world as a cosmos: a beautiful whole that escapes our mastery but which we may still approach as presumptively intelligible. If there is no way to close Pandora’s box, if, as Harari claims, the prospect of humans using new technologies to become trans- or even post-human is inevitable, then the spirit in which we approach the challenges facing us will be as important as the dangers and the opportunities involved. SKEPTICAL IDEALISM AND THE POLITICS OF THE HUMAN CONDITION An aspect of this attunement to an audacious humility applies to the political realm and offers a way to consider how the Axial Age emerged and how it has become the Anthropocene. One way to understand the onset of the Axial Age is as a confrontation between a conception of what it means to be human as rooted in the exclusivity of kin-group, tribe, and custom, on the one hand, and, on the other, a conception that locates the human in the ability to transcend particularity in order to recognize what is universal to all human beings. The Axial Age generally saw the victory of the latter over the former, at least in principle if not in practice. As Polt writes in his essay: If we can speak of an Axial Age, essence is its axis. What was fermenting for millennia in myths and totems emerges, for a few minds, as a new type of experience: an insight into what things are. There is hope for new guidance from a clarity that no longer depends on stories and traditions, but lays claim to universality.21

This may not sound political, but the inquiry into essence and form is radically political, because it proposes a standard, an ideal, that applies to all human beings, irrespective of time and place, as in America’s Declaration that “all men are created equal.” Karl Jaspers expresses this point well in The Origin and Goal of History: Man as we know him today . . . came into being [during] the Axial Age. . . . What is new about this age . . . is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face-to-face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognizing his limits

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he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences absoluteness in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence.22

Philosophical questioning in the Axial Age necessarily implies the possibility of confronting and transcending the particular givens of an inherited understanding of the world and of human conduct and institutions. But this transcendence is never complete, because it must always return to the finite particularity of embodied, situated human existence. Transcendence is always at most a situated transcendence that best loves its world by both challenging it and returning to it. At its best, the Axial Age supported what elsewhere I have called skeptical idealism: the trust that questioning can make better sense of the world only if it simultaneously respects its own limitations and the need for remaining open to revising the answers it produces through new and unexpected questions.23 To ask what any thing is or who we are is to seek an essence that transcends the myths and traditions that separate clan or tribe or ethnicity or nation as incommensurable, as incapable of recognizing the other or finding a way to understand them and share a world with them. In the realm of politics, it means abstracting from the quirks of a particular people’s history and conventions to ask about what is universal to all human beings and how that then should apply to ethical norms and political justice. There is a direct line, then, from what Polt calls the eros for essence in Platonic idealism to the universalism of the Enlightenment, human rights, and the equal respect for persons. The humanitarian impulse of the Axial Age meant that to fend off the arrogance and bigotry of self-idolatry and the oppression of those outside one’s kin and ken, one had to think in abstract, universal terms about being human. In its time, this was a radical challenge to the limits of community as bound up in traditional and mythological understanding, for it called upon us to break past the limitations of given norms to a more encompassing understanding of what it means to be human. But the Anthropocene, by threatening to eclipse the particular and the limited in favor of the ambition for absolute knowledge and control, takes the abstracting and universalizing impulse of the Axial Age and radicalizes it by negating situatedness altogether in favor of the promise of a complete transcendence of our limitations. Now, in the crisis of the Anthropocene, in a world increasingly amalgamated by the relentless universalism of globalism mediated by technology, we find ourselves facing the choice of Odysseus: the finitude of traditional human existence against the transcendence promised by the potential for the mastery of nature and the transmutation of human nature itself, even the hope of immortality through the conquest of aging or through the onset of the Singularity. In the Anthropocene, the once humane impulse to shed the particular and the situated in history and tradition has resulted in


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an abstraction so dizzying that in the age of globalism, many find themselves increasingly unmoored from the local traditions and affinities that give a sense of meaning to human life as the bounded belonging to place and time and community. From the panic induced by this unmooring emerges one of the darkest aspects of our finitude: a reactionary atavism that aggressively and explicitly rejects universalism and cosmopolitanism in favor of an unquestioning fealty to the given norms of a bounded community, even if that community is an idealized fantasy projected upon the past. At its very worst, this panicked atavism has given rise to forms of fascism wearing new masks, from the so‑called alt-right in the United States and Europe, to the exterminatory jihadism of the Islamic State in the Middle East, to the ethnic cleansings of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, or Myanmar. In the face of the universal run amok, the finite, the situated, has returned with a vengeance in what Samuel Huntington famously dubbed the “clash of civilizations,” which is, in its essence, a reactionary attempt to return to the pre‑Axial Age, where the innocence of the given was left unmolested by questioning. A spirit of audacious humility and skeptical idealism should recognize that what Polt calls the liquidation of essences by the global forces of the Anthropocene, from the sciences to neoliberal capitalism, goes too far in transgressing the finitude that gives human existence its rootedness in time and place and tradition. To respect what Simone Weil called “the need for roots,” as the “active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future,” is not to capitulate to bigotry and provincialism.24 It means not tearing out by the roots the olive tree around which Odysseus built his home as the pole and post of his marriage bed. Here again I agree with Polt, who writes that “anti-essentialism is not wrong to rebel against the traditional trend in metaphysics toward stasis and abstraction,”25 because universalism does indeed tend to drain the meaningfulness out of the attachments, the particularity and even singularity, that give our embodied, embedded life its warp and woof. Philosophical questioning may require the audacity to challenge the limitations of the given norms of our own tradition, to risk running up against these limits, and even to transcend them when they fail to orient us to justice or the truth. Nevertheless, this daring must not forget that all questioning must begin with the meaningful world as it is given and then return to the given after confronting a particular way of life to reformulate and then reintegrate it according to a new understanding that must be grafted to the old. A rejuvenation of philosophy in its ancient, Socratic form, as a constructively skeptical idealism, is humanity’s best hope to preserve the combination of situated finitude and transcendent universalism that most properly makes us human. Striking the balance to the paradox

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of our nature cannot end with a static posture. It requires constant adjustment in the light of our inability to master the whole of nature, which means an openness to questioning every answer we bring to bear. The attunement to philosophy as audacious humility may help in facing our own choice of Odysseus. It is the difference between seeing time, finitude, and mortality as a burden that we must transcend and welcoming these as a gift that grounds us and gives us a horizon that can orient us in mortal life as a venture, rather than leave us washed up in despair at the barrenness of existence. A gift is given, never demanded or required; genuinely receiving the gift and taking it on is a confession of finitude and limitation, because the gift implies a need one cannot meet oneself. For the gift of finitude, gratitude is the proper response, because finitude is just that, the gift. We cannot give it to ourselves; it is already who we are, and we can either embrace that given as a challenge or refuse it in a fit of self-negation. And yet, the impulse to transcend our limitations, our daring that always verges on hubris and selfidolatry, is also a gift of the human condition. How to reconcile these clashing gifts? They cannot be reconciled without destroying who we are; they can only be balanced as an ongoing politics of and within the human condition. In The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton suggests that we cultivate a new disposition in humanity’s relation to the world: a “radical intimacy,” by which I understand him to mean that we should treat persons and things in a way that preserves both our own finitude and their strangeness rather than only or merely as materiel for resource manipulation.26 Polt urges philosophers to “engage in ‘focal practices’ that cultivate islands of integrity in a disintegrating world.”27 Cultivating integrity means respecting a thing, a practice, a person as a bounded whole whose totality we cannot fully encompass. We let them be. That does not mean neglecting them or not engaging with them in a give-andtake; it means respecting our limitations and theirs. What about the prospect of our taking over from evolution and natural selection to design and engineer life forms, including our own? If this is truly inevitable, if the Anthropocene will necessarily become post-human, what could prevent it from becoming a monstrous Hubriscene might simply be the resolution to preserve the philosophical attunement of an audacious questioning that nevertheless respects limitation, not in the sense of limits imposed on the freedom of thinking, but in the sense of an integrity that is held together by the bounds and bonds of the situated embodiment of all finite beings. This does not provide a rule or principle for what we should or should not do in designing nature in and beyond ourselves, but it might encourage a sense of gratitude for finitude as the spirit of who we are and will be. If we take seriously the Socratic understanding of philosophy as an eros that cultivates questioning as a venture, a quest that navigates the straits between


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the poverty of our limitations and the audacity of our potential, then the mark of our remaining open to question will be our capacity to wonder. Both Plato (Theaetetus 155d) and Aristotle (Metaphysics 982b) said that wonder is the beginning of philosophy—not wonder in the sense of idle curiosity or listless pondering, but rather wonder in the Greek sense of thaumazein: a wonder that knocks you back and brings you up short in the encounter with something unexpected that sets your world on fire, even if for just a moment. Such wonder brings us face to face with our limitations, not in the frustration of encountering something we have not yet mastered, but in the joy of discovery, because it tells us there is more to the given world than we had believed, and it beckons us to risk venturing to explore the giving as ongoing. Wonder necessarily precedes all specific questions, because before we can so much as formulate a question, we must experience our mute finitude in the face of a radical challenge to the given that also lures us to surpass it. Wonder is the love that pinions us to the specificity of the world, oscillating between humility and audacity. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS My thanks to Richard Polt, Jon Wittrock, and Alex Pearlman, who commented on earlier drafts of this chapter. The chapter’s faults remain my own. The attentive reader will notice the influence of Martin Heidegger on this chapter. NOTES 1. Johan Rockström, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone, Åsa Persson, et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature 461 (September 24, 2009): 472–75. 2. Ibid., 93 (5.208–210). 3. Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’ ” Global Change Newsletter 41 (May 2000): 17–18. 4. Paul J. Crutzen et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature 461 (September 24, 2009): 472. 5. René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, tr. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1998), 35. 6. Carolyn Merchant, “The Violence of Impediments,” Isis 99 (2008): 749. 7. Sophocles, Antigone, tr. Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2001), ll. 360–64. 8. Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (Philadelphia, PA: Paul Dry Books, 2001), 34 (I.v.11). 9. Aubrey de Grey with Michael Rae, Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), 78. 10. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Penguin, 2005), 9.

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11. Tad Friend, “The God Pill: Silicon Valley’s Quest for Eternal Life,” The New Yorker, April 3, 2017, 54–67. 12. See Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: Harper Collins, 2015), especially chapter 20. 13. For a qualified defense of Aristotle against Darwin and Richard Dawkins, see David Roochnik, Retrieving Aristotle in an Age of Crisis (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013), chapter 2, “Nature Is Purpose,” especially 48–54. 14. Harari, Sapiens, chapter 20. 15. Ibid., 416. 16. For instance, there is the work of the political activist Zoltan Istvan, who wants to merge libertarianism with transhumanism; see his essay “The Growing World of Libertarian Transhumanism,” The American Conservative (August 8, 2017), http://www.the 17. Francis Bacon, The New Organon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 101. 18. See Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, “Why War?” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 22 (London: Vintage 2001), 195–216, where Einstein, in 1932, writes to Freud, “This is the problem: Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war? It is common knowledge that, with the advance of modern science, this issue has come to mean a matter of life and death for Civilization as we know it; nevertheless, for all the zeal displayed, every attempt at its solution has ended in a lamentable breakdown.” 19. John Hewitt, “An Interview with Zoltan Istvan, Leader of the Transhumanist Party and 2016 Presidential Contender,” ExtremeTech (October 31, 2014), https:// 20. The “internet of things” designates the realm of objects and devices, everything from refrigerators to cars to phones to medical implants in our bodies, that can have digital technologies embedded in them and be connected to the Internet to relay information and commands. For a discussion of the sociopolitical implications, see Philip N. Howard, Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015). 21. Richard Polt, “Eidetic Eros and the Liquidation of the Real,” in the present volume, 64. 22. Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, tr. Michael Bullock (New York: Routledge, 2010), 1–2. 23. See Gregory Fried, “Heidegger and Gandhi: A Dialogue on Conflict and Enmity,” in In the Wake of Conflict: Justice, Responsibility and Reconciliation, eds. Allen Speight and Alice MacLachan (New York: Springer, 2013), 47–62. 24. Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, tr. A. F. Wills (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1987), 41. 25. Polt, “Eidetic Eros and the Liquidation of the Real,” 79. 26. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 8. 27. Polt, “Eidetic Eros and the Liquidation of the Real,” 76.

Chapter 6

Starting from Ourselves as Living Beings Luce Irigaray

Ecology is very fashionable nowadays. However, just as the Western man pretended to dominate nature, to subject it to a culture presumed to be of higher value in relation to nature, today he intends to care for nature. Even if this gesture looks more ethical, it is nevertheless still inspired by a sense of absolute power toward life more than by a respect for life. It is also expressed in terms that favor the “object” and “the before oneself,” that is, what considers life as something outside ourselves, in comparison to the life that we are. Hence, our concern at best for the animal and plant worlds, but not yet the care for ourselves as living beings. Now, the first ecological gesture is to live and situate ourselves as living beings among other living beings in an environment that allows life to exist and develop. Before willing once more to be the masters of the world, it would be advisable to wonder about what being alive signifies, and whether we are really living, or how we could be or become living. Any other approach still corresponds to that of humans placing themselves outside the world in order to be capable of controlling it, for better or for worse, as the chorus proclaims during its first intervention in Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone. The question which must be asked is thus: How and why does the culture that we have constructed, especially in the West, not correspond to a cultivation of life itself, but is a culture which serves values that more often than not do not preserve life? To claim one is an environmentalist before questioning our cultural tradition does not really make sense. It is advisable for us to first wonder about what we considered to be subjectivity, as well as language.



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CARING FOR OURSELVES AS LIVING BEINGS Our cultural tradition wants any subject to be neuter and universal. However, such a subject amounts to a theoretical construction, not to the living being we are or ought to be. Our culture cuts us off from our natural roots, instead of contributing toward the cultivation of the natural beings we are. This tradition has, in this way, rendered us extraneous to our environment, extraneous to one another as living beings, and even extraneous to ourselves. We thus became divided between one part of ourselves, left to an uneducated nature, and another part, subjected to abstract and arbitrary laws with respect to our natural belonging. We get in touch with the world, with the other, with ourselves according to learned codes, but not starting from original impulses, attractions, or sympathies that have been educated toward the respect for our own life, for our environment, and for other living beings. Our vital energy, thus, got both paralyzed and perverted, instead of being adjusted through a connection with the outside with a view to our own growth and that of the world where we live. This unnatural energy has become a sort of mechanical force, which no longer finds its regulating principle in a living economy, and its increase no longer results from a good bodily health or from an energetic sharing with the cosmic universe and with other living beings. Rather, it amounts to the capitalization of a physical or spiritual force that ends in breaking the comprehensive harmony of the body, of the natural world, of the community of living beings, and, thus, acts violently against them, even when it intends to care for them. That is the case in most of our current interventions regarding the so-called natural world. We have subjected this world, within ourselves as well as outside ourselves, to a fabrication that prevents us from finding the living element in it. Even when we are in search of life, we continue bending it to our plans and productions instead of letting it be, grow, flower. We do not easily abandon our role of demiurges, not even in our recent ecological pretensions, because we do not begin with our being alive. Such a beginning would presuppose that we care for that which is necessary to our existence, the first need of which is to breathe in an autonomous way. Attending to the quality of air ought to be a priority for us, but we prefer many more secondary things to this concern: for example, providing ourselves with less essential manufactured products or traveling for pleasure, which leads to a more and more disquieting atmospheric pollution. The choice of our food is also dictated by constraints that are different from those of life itself, and, moreover, of its respect and cultivation. More often than not, they are our caprices, or those of our society, which decide on our way of eating without us paying real attention to our health and that of our environment. And, when our caprices

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are not the cause of our choices, the latter are often influenced by commercial pressures or by fashions, including medical fashions. Oscillating between caprices and a prescribed diet does not favor our physiological or mental equilibrium. Eating an appropriate kind of food with pleasure and in harmony with the environment contributes more toward such an equilibrium—a thing that is made easier by choosing the food that corresponds to the seasonal productions of nature which meet our needs at that time. It is not by chance that potatoes, walnuts, and chestnuts are harvested in the autumn and other root vegetables in the winter. They satisfy what our body needs in those seasons. But—alas!—humanity seems to apply itself to thwarting all that nature both requests from us and offers to us. On the one hand, this has damaged the earth itself as much as our health and, on the other hand, has encouraged the proliferation of all sorts of practices or products which are presumed to cure us of our lapses, but not without harming the harmony of the living whole, within us, outside us, and between us. A living being more and more is subjected to requirements that it does not choose, that cut it off from itself, and separate it from its environment, from others, rendering it more and more dependent on money. A greater respect for the natural order could spare us many individual, social, and environmental problems. Man is really not a very reasonable animal! Man also proves to be barely rational when he contributes to perturbing the functioning of his senses. Instead of educating them, so that they become a source of additional life and pleasure, he invents techniques which lead to their destruction, especially through an excess of light, of noise, of artificial fragrance or taste, to give only a few examples. Now, our senses are one of the mediators through which we can pass from a mere natural belonging to a cultured humanity, because they represent a privileged access to our communication with the world and with the other(s). Moreover, some traditions care about the cultivation of sensory perceptions in order to reach a spiritual connection with the world. There, sight, instead of being a mere means for appropriating a presumed object, is trained to convert such a manner of perceiving into a contemplative attitude that fits much better a cultivation of energy itself and a respectful relation to what we are looking at. I approach this question in several of my texts (see, e.g., I Love to You, To Be Two, and A New Culture of Energy), especially concerning listening or touching, and their possible way of taking part in an intersubjective relationship respectful of the life and the becoming of each one of us. No doubt, a cultivation of our sensory perceptions with a view to paying a greater respect to the world and to the other(s) corresponds to an ecological ethics more than their repression in order to reach an abstract and disembodied knowledge and spirituality, as is more often than not the case in our Western traditions.


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THE FIRST BIODIVERSITY WE MUST TAKE INTO ACCOUNT Another crucial aspect of an ecological ethics lies in the faithfulness to our sexuate belonging as a predisposition and a framework, starting from which we can work out our culture and our relations with ourselves, with the world, and with the other(s). Any living being is sexuate. If we consider ourselves as neuter individuals, we cannot behave in an ecological way. The negation of life is then at the root of our manner of being and acting. Now, such a conception of human identity inspires much of our thoughts, of our moral standards, of our social and political rules. It, then, transforms humanity into a universe foreign to life itself, which intends to subject life to our own making, and ends in an exhaustion of its resources, including those of human life. Our sexuate belonging intervenes both in our individuation and in its definition in a specific way: it is the first biodiversity that we must take into account. A sexuate living being cannot represent the entire world because it embodies only a part of the world. If sexuation contributes toward our individuation, if it maintains a passage and a relationship between the living humans of the same sex, and, more generally, between the living beings of the same sex from various species (especially of animals), it also defines all those as only a part of their species that must reckon with the other part to accomplish this species. The particularity of sexuate individuation entails respect for the other part of the individuation of the species, which forms with it the living environment of this species. The sexuation of the living is thus an essential key to an ecological ethics. It is also a crucial aspect of such an ethics, as it allows the species to survive through natural generation for which no fabrication can be substituted. Besides, whatever the technical mediations, the sex hormones must intervene to produce a new embryo. And it would be a pity if technical mediation would become substituted for an amorous union in the reproduction of living, as, alas, it is already the case for a part of the animals. Indeed, if sexual desire brings an additional energy, it is not the same with technique. Apart from the fact that opting for technique and not for life obviously does not amount to an ecological way of behaving, such a choice also does not help us to dwell in ourselves and relate to the other(s) ecologically. Still, in this case, as in many others, nature itself provides us with a solution, which combines a cultivation of life with a cultivation of pleasure. The amazing fact is that humans do not always receive this opportunity with gratitude and, instead, privilege artificial and costly solutions that bring about more suffering than delight. Humans really have a strange conception of reason, when they mistake education with the learning of abstract disciplines rather unnecessary for their existence, and this to the detriment of life itself, for

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which desire and love are the essential values. However, these two capital elements of life remain out of educational programs. Ought not all the moving discourses concerning the preservation of the vegetal or animal biodiversity first consider the ecological need for a cultivation of desire and love between us so that we get to cultivate our own life without imagining that this requires us to dominate nature, especially the nature of the other(s), because we lack an education of our instincts and a fulfillment of our desires? Desire is probably the most specifically human property. It shows an almost natural and continuous longing for transcending oneself. Now, instead of recognizing that transcendence already lies in nature itself, especially because of the duality of sexuate identities, humanity built up transcendences that often prevent us from dwelling in our own life, our own living environment, and from cultivating and sharing them. Our own microcosm must deal with another microcosm that remains transcendent to it. Before considering any other transcendence, it is essential that we respect this transcendence that trains us to coexist ecologically with the entire macrocosm without pretending to gather it into a whole that we could master. Rather, we have to situate ourselves in a network of relations, in which we accomplish the relations which correspond to our own life without encroaching on or substituting for those that are in accordance with the life of the other(s). Each living being presupposes a specific structuring of existence, especially through its sexuation. The lack of respect for such a property leads to ecological disturbances that, little by little, exhaust the resources of terrestrial life and our own human energy. Exploiting the properties of the living for aims other than a growing or blossoming of life itself also contributes toward such an exhaustion. However, are we not more often than not acting in this way with sexual attraction? Instead of using this energy as an additional life with our biological, relational, and cultural becoming in mind, we try to increase it, so as to rashly spend it. We do not make the most of it, but act toward it just as we act with respect to the natural resources of our planet, for the sole purpose of a supposed domination of man over nature, which ends in the exhaustion of nature’s fecundity. We treat the whole living world as a mechanism, the dynamism of which we could waste or revive according to our liking. But this is not the case and, furthermore, by acting in this way we transform some living beings into a source of vitality for others, something that does not amount to an ethical gesture, and ruins the relational economy between all living beings. Considering sexual desire to be a place of energy resources and not of exhaustion for the amorous partners ought to be an aspect of an ecological ethics and ought to participate in our education, including at schools. According to our tradition, the only morals to be respected when it comes to sexual attraction are those that subject it to the reproduction of the species, which


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amounts to caring about the survival, but not the cultivation, of humanity. However, those who have rebelled against such a moral code have not really worked to substitute it with ethical norms of respect for the sexuate identity of each living being as a condition for its ecological dwelling in itself and in the world. The modes according to which our love relations would be an opportunity to increase, cultivate, and share our natural energy have been also poorly envisioned. AN ECOLOGICAL CULTURE OF DESIRE The passage from need to desire, which probably represents the means to accede to humanity as such, has almost never been considered by our culture. To a large extent, this lack has rendered us scarcely concerned with ecology. We have mistaken culture with overcoming nature instead of being preoccupied with cultivating it, including in ourselves and between us. Hence, being cultivated generally means a subjection to a sort of death and not a becoming more alive, thanks to a cultivation of life. Instead of developing our desires with this purpose in mind, we have bent them to abstract ideals or imperatives that have suspended their growth, taking them away from a dynamic relation with the living world, especially with the other(s). Between any living being and ourselves, we have interposed an abstract screen that makes any energetic communion impossible. Each one is consequently sent back to the task of surviving and appropriating what it needs for that purpose, without caring about the other beings that are deprived of life, or worrying about the perturbations that such a way of existing brings into the economy of the whole world. Passing from need to desire could correspond to the use of additional neurons by a human being. In such a perspective, desire ought not to devote itself to the proliferation of investments or to their quantitative assessments but to the elaboration of a specifically human manner of dwelling within oneself or in the world. If transcendence is reduced to the existence of a higher being belonging to a world different from that in which we live, then we run the risk of not considering it to be an essential aspect of our way of humanly dwelling in the world. But if the transcendental dimension opens a way of relating to the other as different in order to respect his or her alterity, it can lead us to humanly construct the world by cultivating our relations in a manner that does not remain only instinctual. Our culture presents many proofs for the endeavor of human beings to go beyond their instinct. However, these endeavors—be they artistic, philosophical, or religious—more often than not aim to master the strength of instinct through using its energy for works different from the relations to the other or to the world, by which instinctual attractiveness has been awoken.

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Such a way of behaving does not train our relational belonging in a human way by including a transcendental dimension that would contribute toward cultivating life itself and our relationships as living beings. Furthermore, it is not ecological because it does not lead us to achieve our existence ethically as humans, which requires us to inhabit ourselves and the world in a specific way. Caring about the transcendental dimension participates in this, as it contributes toward the elaboration of a space and a time that are not merely physical, while remaining linked up to our physical belonging, so that we are not uprooted from our living existence. As such, sexuate belonging is especially crucial. As far as time is concerned, our sexuate belonging is the element that, while remaining present, oversteps the present because it places us in a genealogical becoming. But it also determines temporality in another way: desire itself defines the time of our existence. We have barely taken into consideration this aspect of temporality; we have not cultivated it enough, too quickly referring it to a beyond, instead of elaborating it as a temporal dwelling of our terrestrial existence. If desire prompts us to project ourselves into the future, it also opens a place in which we can dwell and live the relationships with the other, and any sort of alterity, if we respect the transcendence between us. Approaching the other, then, amounts to bringing closer two worlds and not only two bodies or two material presences. Beyond our skin, we inhabit an invisible space that we must take into account in order to respect life itself. Through relating to our sexuate belonging, we can easily perceive biological, morphological, and relational sexuate properties. Thus, each must build a manner of inhabiting the world that corresponds to one’s natural belonging and to that which one presupposes as the appropriate relation to space and time. A woman will be more inclined to cultivate her interiority and the hospitality that she can offer to the other, or even to the world, whereas a man will be more prone to project himself outwardly in order to discover his self or build himself a dwelling. Their meeting requires them to join these two tendencies and construct the structure that is needed for their coexistence. Succeeding in such an undertaking is not easy, but such a task is essential for reaching an ecological ethics. For a lack of carrying it out, each will extend beyond the environment in which he or she is situated without inhabiting it with respect for the existence of the other(s). Coexistence, in this case, does not mean that we are constructing a specifically human world but that we are stopping at the competitive juxtaposition of our attempts to build up an inhabitable territory. As plants or animals sometimes fight over the territory essential to their subsistence and their growth, humans fight over the cultural universe that they have constructed when they have not succeeded in inhabiting themselves and coexisting as living beings. They struggle for their survival through


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cultural substitutes because they have not created, among themselves, links that can provide them with an additional life rather than a death threat. This building of space and places, thanks to the relations of desire between us, is still lacking. It would be useful if ecology were to care about this instead of going no further than being concerned only about our needs. A lack of cultivation of desire harms both our own life and that of other living beings because, somehow or other, we transfer our unsatisfied and uneducated instincts or drives to them. With our human becoming and its sharing between us in mind, we ought to train our desire without letting an energy which is not humanly cultivated spill over into other living beings and, more generally, the surrounding world. Even the definition of our cultural values ought to contribute toward, or to be inspired by, a human culture of desire, especially in order to reach a truly ecological practice. Indeed, desire determines our way of inhabiting ourselves as living as well as of living in and sharing our environment. Desire is what joins together the different parts of ourselves but also the various beings of the world that surrounds us, either opening a place of coexistence with a respect for each other, which corresponds to a culture of life, or provoking a relation of domination that suspends the circulation of energy in us and between us. An ecological ethics can only be based on a desire for coexistence between all the living beings, a thing that requires deep cultural changes, including those concerning language itself. TOWARD AN ECOLOGICAL ETHICS OF DISCOURSE Our tradition bears witness to an intention of mastering the living world more than to a desire to coexist with respect for the difference(s) between the living beings. However, this latter possibility amounts to a really human task, which the struggle for survival does not allow all the living beings to carry out. It ought to result from a capacity for distancing oneself from immediacy that permits us to preserve the life of the other, whatever its difference from ours may be, instead of dominating it to our advantage. Now, our language is generally more of a tool for appropriating than a means to recognize and preserve the alterity of the other. Our language aims at grasping rather than at meeting, at communicating about something rather than at communicating or sharing with someone, at integrating everything or everyone in a totality that would be ours rather than at composing a world with the others. More often than not we waver between grasping things or others through words and a silent fusion or empathy, which lacks words. Our discourse intends to appropriate— first, mentally—the entire world, a gesture that we mistake for attaining our individuation, instead of attempting to discover this individuation, thanks to

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a cultivation of our natural identity and its sharing with other living beings. For that to be possible, however, we would need to listen to the verbal or not verbal messages of each one and try to agree or be in harmony with them. To succeed in doing that, our words must express a flowering of life and its sharing, not a domination of the living beings through a discourse that remains parallel to them, without really saying them, and that, instead, paralyzes their growing, their blossoming, and possible sharing. We really have not a lot of words to express a coexistence in life itself. To coexist generally alludes to a reciprocal tolerance toward politically or culturally opposing people(s) more than to a sharing of the air or the water among all the living. However, we communicate, and even are in communion with one another through air, water, the light and the warmth of the sun, and our earthly dwelling before any belonging to a more specific community. We lack words to express this universal sharing between us, a sharing that unites us on this side and beyond every definite culture, civilization, and even species, and the expression of which would be crucial to achieving an ecological ethics. All the living beings are more interrelated, whatever their difference(s), than our discourses let us assume, a deficiency which does not contribute toward the respect for our common belonging and for the environment that is necessary to it. And, by the way, we would probably pay more attention to the health of certain animals if we were to remember that we breathe the same air as them, and we would pollute the atmosphere less if we were to reflect about the fact that, in this way, we are making an attempt on the life of all, including that of our beloved baby or our preferred animal. We skip the stage of coexistence, and as we have intended to dominate our planet, we want the illnesses that we caused, because we have neglected life, to be cured by our sciences. In the same way, we would watch more carefully over the quality of water if we were every day informed about the fact that our bodies consist of such a high percentage of water. The language that we speak and exchange remains parallel to life without expressing and cultivating it, and without leading us to share it. Sexuation itself participates in a common property essential to life, but we consider that a discourse in the neuter is better than a sexuate language, which would provide a cultural milieu supportive for the existence and the growth of living beings, and for a sharing between them. Now, it is through relations respectful of their sexuation that living beings can take over the natural environment essential to the preservation and the growth of life, not only with the view to the survival and the perpetuation of the species but also to the blooming of specific cultural productions. To each sort of living being must correspond a suitable culture, and it is regrettable that the human species, especially in this aspect, has favored a culture which refers to death, giving way to a mere biological survival, instead of being concerned with


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a cultivation of sexual relations that, for animals, often represent the most evolved part of their behaviors, the part that goes beyond those necessary to a mere survival. As far as the vegetal kingdom is concerned, flowering could be evoked as an attractive additional production with respect to that of fruits. The human species bears witness to a real regression regarding this phenomenon that partly expresses itself through an inversion of the cultural roles in the courtship, at least in what remains of it. If the male bird must strive for charming the female of his choice, it would be up to the woman to charm the man in our civilization, alas, too often by the means of cultural artifices, such as makeup and clothes, more than through a specifically physical courtship. And the fact that biological survival is our only remainder of a culture of life probably explains that we have a tendency to reduce sexuality to its function in reproducing our species, whereas it has a crucial cultural role to play in a human evolution which remains incarnate, and in that of a cultural environment in continuity with the human natural life. This requires us to free our sexual desires from subjection to their function in reproduction and to wonder about the respective roles of the man and of the woman in the expression of these desires. It would also be worth wondering about the reason why humanity neglected the importance of sexuality as a source of culture and the usefulness of elaborating a language that could contribute toward such a cultural development. Some claim that the difficulty in achieving an upright position required a great part of the additional energy that humans have at their disposal, thanks to the size of their brain. No doubt, these assertions contain a certain truth: the difficulty in the evolution of the living that the appearing of humans imposed on them, at first, was the care about their survival and that of their species. One could also suggest that humanity has not yet discovered the best use of its additional neurons, especially with the cultivation of life in mind. And a problem it must solve is how to articulate its supplementary nervous cells with other cells, for example with its blood cells. Have they not been of use, for the first time, in constituting a kind of carapace to protect oneself instead of working toward a culture of life itself, especially in its relational elements? And that which we interpret as domination was perhaps a defensive more than an affirmative process. Today it would be a matter of modifying our logic and our language in order to carry on a specifically human evolution. This requires us to pay attention to a sexuation of discourse, which expresses the existence of two sexuate subjects without favoring one to the detriment of the other, and also to encourage all the syntactic and lexical means that make the communication between two different subjects easier, in particular by using verbs which mean an intersubjective relation without reducing one of the subjects to the

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object of the other: for example, “to speak to” or “to speak with” rather than “to speak of”; “to share between” or “to exchange between” rather than “to share something” or “to exchange something”; “to communicate with” rather than “to communicate pieces of information,” and so on. To think about this question is to discover how much we lack the verbs for saying our desire or our love without reducing the other to an object of our feelings. More generally, our language does not favor the relationships between two subjects, in particular between two differently sexuate subjects. The only relation between them that our tradition seems to take into account is that which aims at reproducing, a process left at a natural level and in which sexual desire recedes to give way to parental roles. The amorous union, which ought to represent the most accomplished gesture of the relationship between humans, remains, in this way, deprived of words and is fulfilled with a blind instinctive immediacy that is satisfied as an uncultivated exploitation of our nature, whatever the supposedly moral redemption through reproduction it allows for. Ought not an ecological ethics, not to say any ethics, to reverse the pyramid of values according to which our culture is structured? Ought not the transcendence existing between two differently sexuate subjects to be the first transcendence we must respect and cultivate, especially thanks to an appropriate intersubjective language, so that we ensure a passage from nature to a culture which remains faithful to life and its properties? Why have we misjudged such a reality, such a truth? Has not this misappreciation resulted in a division into the unspeakable opacity of our natural belonging, particularly regarding our sexuate identity, and a longing for transcendence, which stays rather opaque for us and that we project and suspend on an unknowable divinity, also unspeakable? Can the logic, the logos, which underlies such a relation to transcendence, ensure the cultivation of the living beings that we are? Do they not, instead, exhaust its reserves, and sacrifice them to abstract ideals, which use energy without caring for its growth and its blossoming? ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Many thanks to Michael Marder for his careful rereading of my English version of this text.

Chapter 7

Philosophy’s Homecoming Michael Marder

In his General Draft for an encyclopedia, Novalis famously jotted down that “philosophy is actually homesickness—the urge to be everywhere at home” (Fr. 45).1 Philosophers are not experts in this or that area of study; their love of wisdom knows, strictly speaking, nothing. Their “urge to be everywhere at home” stems from the fact that, by virtue of their vocation, they are preoccupied with being as a whole: with what happens “everywhere,” if not with the essential happening of this “what happens.” To remain faithful to their calling, philosophers must leave it up to economists, political scientists, ecologists, and other experts to make pronouncements on how things stand in their specific disciplines and on the best course of action in light of their technical knowledge. Instead of issuing empirical directives, it is up to philosophers to assess what being as being-at-home means nowadays; how the human and nonhuman manners of dwelling are increasingly menaced in the Anthropocene; and what “homecoming” might look like against the backdrop of the prevalent and much-vaunted existential homelessness. Since the late eighteenth century, when Novalis penned the fragment, the overall impression of homesickness has grown exponentially. The accelerated pace of modernity has brought with it unsparing uprooting and displacement, leaving little time for abiding in a physical locale or in thoughtful contemplation. We dwell nowhere because we dwell on nothing and in nothing. But, whether it admits this or not, philosophy has profited from the situation that has put the entire world in danger. How? On the verge of world annihilation, being as a whole, the philosopher’s Holy Grail, fleetingly appears as such. Mental experiments with the reduction of all reality Edmund Husserl carried out in the first volume of his Ideas coincided with World War I and were further substantiated by the invention and use of atomic weaponry after World War II. In the mélange of metaphysical indifference to any given 119


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place, technologies of mass destruction, and workings of political-economic globalization, the philosopher’s dream of familiarity with the world as such is finally realized, ending in a sheer nightmare. An offshoot of advanced nihilism: at home everywhere, philosophy bears witness to the vacuous whole that remains after the devastation of every place, which is always—actually or potentially—a place of dwelling. Everything actual is implacably rational when divested of its particularity and dissolved into the totality of the void, wherein metaphysical philosophy quells its homesickness. Martin Heidegger, in the 1928 lecture course The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, interprets Novalis’s “everywhere” in terms of “the world”: “To be at home everywhere—what does that mean? Not merely here or there, nor even simply in every place, in all places taken together one after the other. Rather, to be at home everywhere means to be at once and at all times within the whole. We name this ‘within the whole’ and its character of wholeness the world.”2 Yet the world-totality severed from the singularity of place is worldless. The home that exists everywhere but is neither here nor there is metaphysical (Heidegger would say: a world that passes for worldhood, the being-world of the world, wiping out the ontological difference in a modified form, where the world stands for beings, and worldhood—for the being of beings). Who is capable of dwelling in it? As temporal and spatial ­simultaneity—“at once and at all times”—of “being as a whole,” the world is tantamount to nothingness. Its worldhood revealed in the emptying of everyday sense by the lucidity of death, “within the whole” resembles “within a tomb.” Or, in the words of Franz Rosenzweig, “all cognition of the All originates in death, in the fear of death.”3 The world of metaphysics is Antigone’s crypt. Is this where philosophy has striven to return after its millennial odyssey? The fact of the matter is that, thanks to the creation or the discovery of the world-totality, being is now indistinguishable from nothingness, not just on conceptual but on practical everyday grounds, as well. At the moment of its homecoming, philosophy has not ventured very far from the initial stages of the Hegelian dialectic, notably from the formal identity of being and nothingness in The Science of Logic. As soon as “everything,” “everywhere,” and “at any time” are amalgamated in the One, the possibility of total annihilation becomes real, realizable, about to be realized. When all is One, all is lost; the One is, but may also not be, easily succumbing to negation in a single stroke. The One is more vulnerable and fragile than the many—a flaw it conceals by donning the mask of eternity, for instance, in the shape of the monotheistic God. Plant monocultures capitulate before parasites and disease more readily than robust vegetal communities that count on the diverse responses of its various members. Similarly, “being as a whole” buckles, all at once, under the force of

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negativity. Metaphysical homecoming is responsible for the most extreme homelessness yet. There are, nonetheless, plenty of intimations that “the One” and “home” are mutually incompatible. Assuming that philosophy is at home everywhere, it finds itself at home in the One. But, as a dwelling for the One, home adds something beyond and greater than the One, making up at least two with it. Not to mention that the dwelling has to part (against itself), creating a dehiscence (in Heidegger’s terms, Aufgang), in order to accommodate whomever and whatever dwells in it. Consequently, for Rosenzweig, the dwelling thwarts the desire of or for the One and is the opposite of a totality: “Reason is entitled to a home in the world, but the world itself is just that: a home; it is not totality.”4 Dwelling induces extreme unrest in the One that does not and cannot abide if it is to preserve itself in its unity and unicity. Or, in the words of William James, “all ‘homes’ are in finite experience; finite experience as such is homeless.”5 Also telling is Novalis’s precise expression that stresses the urge, Trieb, to be at home everywhere. This urge, striving, or drive is integral to philosophy. It is the physiological instantiation of the philia, or the love, that cannot be fulfilled, lest the philosophical impulse be extinguished in the certainty of foundations for knowledge, or in the security afforded by a system of thought. What (or who) does love revert to when it returns home? Even assuming that the drive was partially satisfied, philosophy would have arrived at a split dwelling, the very place of nonidentity and disquietude. As I put it elsewhere, “The home is not at home in itself.”6 Theologically, the homelessness of the dwelling idea was linked to the One by Gregory of Nazianzus, who, in the third theological oration, states to hen stasiazon pro heauton in an expression that, according to Carl Schmitt, may be translated as “the One is always at peace with itself,” or “the One is always in an uproar against itself” (Oratio theologica iii, 2).7 Stasis, after all, is a speculative-dialectical word at warpeace with itself, the word that suggests tranquility and unrest, abidance, and non-abidance. Everywhere at home, philosophy would be simultaneously at loggerheads and reconciled with itself and with its other. So, what does philosophy’s homecoming signify where the house (of being; of the One) stands divided against itself?—It signifies that philosophers cannot avoid taking a stand on the division of the home, oikos, between the organizational modalities of nomos and logos—the imposed law and the inner articulation of things. The decision on eco-nomy or eco-logy is primary and irrevocable; the rest of metaphysical, ethical, and epistemological issues are derivative with regard to it. Moreover, the fate of human and nonhuman forms of life hangs in the balance in this decision, which involves not only conflicting interests and visions of the good but also hidden genealogies of


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inhabiting the world, making oneself at home in it, or acknowledging and respecting its uncanny nature. Thus, before going any further, philosophy must consider whether it is, itself, an economy or an ecology of thought and of existence. Modern philosophy feels at home in a system of thought. Its “everywhere” is the systemic One. The system rests on the laws and philosophical conventions (nomoi) that hold it together and give it the semblance of unity. Because it fashions itself this way and recognizes nothing but itself, modern philosophy sees its preferred mode of organization throughout the world at large. Science follows the lead, construing our planetary home as an overarching system of ecosystems. The articulations of things and living beings themselves are supplanted by the norms of human thought (formal or dialectical logic, consistency, clarity and distinctness, verifiability, etc.), for which all elements are interchangeable, at least at the level of conscious and mathematical representation. The economy of a system is based on the commensurability of its parts, allowing the abstract, indifferent, and, in the last analysis, nihilistic reason to be at home at every point on the homogeneous grid, superimposed onto the world. In contrast, both premodern and postmodern philosophies participate in the ecology of thought, which is not unrelated to Gregory Bateson’s “ecology of the mind.” While the ancients celebrated the logos of the world, including its mysterious excess over human understanding, postmodern thought, since Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, has rejected the systematizing impulse of modernity. For the past century and a half, in progressive philosophical quarters, “being at home in the world” has connoted dwelling in and with uncertainty, instability, unpredictability, the inoperativity of cause-effect relations, and untamable singularity. The challenge we face is to move past the first (and, frankly, childish or adolescent) negation of the system and its nomoi; to evolve beyond the immanent critique of the totality (e.g., in critical theory of the Frankfurt School) or an indefinite suspension of laws and conventions (e.g., in deconstruction); to affirm the world’s own articulation or disarticulation, by perceiving afresh the senses of logos that are not in tune with its human, vocal, or ideational configuration. In broad brushstrokes, philosophy’s homecoming is contingent on how well it can meet this challenge, which will, in turn, determine whether or not a dwelling hospitable to life will be preserved on our planet. The unprecedented dilemma of contemporary philosophy is that it is expelled from the comfort of a system of nomoi, which even deconstruction has begrudgingly inhabited, as much as from the logos of the ancients. Together with thought, life itself is banished from its “comfort zone” due to the collective, intergenerational human footprint left on the environment in the age of the Anthropocene. Reckless economic manipulation of the world

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continues unabated, despite the environmental disaster it has triggered, because the contents of this world appear refracted through the prism of nomos, which inserts them into a system of natural resources a priori drained of intrinsic value (hence, lacking any and all incommensurability). Sadly, the strategy of accentuating ecology at the expense of economy is not a panacea from such suicidal rapaciousness. For one thing, ecological pronouncements are often vacuously moralistic and meaningless; they paint everything green, including a massive cultivation of plant communities to be thrown onto the pyre of “biofuels.” For another, the logos of the dwelling are rarely differentiated from nomos, so that ecology is vaguely represented as a totality, composed of a tangle of (quantifiable) relations. So much so that the word ecology could compete for the dubious title of the most overused and least understood terms in the twenty-first century. It has become, after all, the flatus vocis, an empty sound, or, literally the “breath of a voice,” which has rendered meaningless, together with the ecological logos, its (our) oikos. Perhaps, from the depths of their homelessness and destitution, thinking and life itself can be finally driven back to their dwellings, experiencing the urge, Trieb, which is mentioned in Novalis’s fragment, albeit far from the systemic-metaphysical “everywhere.” The rift that traverses the heart of the oikos will, however, remain ineliminable, as the movement of homecoming will fail to encounter a simple identity in the intimacy of the dwelling. Indeed, it will be necessary to accentuate this rift by elaborating, in nuce, the ecological and economic conceptions of energy, relationality, growth, art, morality/ethics, and thought—a task to which I dedicate the rest of my text. If none of the two frameworks can be forsaken, then it is up to us to learn how to live in a split dwelling, between economy and ecology. ENERGY One of the fundamental theses of the economic worldview, validated by relatively recent paradigms in physics, is that matter itself is temporarily detained energy to be released at human behest. As I wrote in Pyropolitics, “Global energy production, in the manner in which it is carried out today, depends on reorganising all life—be it past, present, or future, in us or outside us—in such a way that it would serve as fuel to be burnt without any discernable substantive goal or end.”8 With this, today’s notion of energy approximates that of money, into which all solid goods, in their determination as commodities, can dissolve at any given moment. The very language for addressing energy is economic: it is produced; it circulates; it is invested or wasted. The current linguistic and practical uses of energy blindly obey the basic meaning of economy as the imposed arrangement of the planetary dwelling. The


Michael Marder

ideality of nomos is guaranteed by a physical reality that loses its appearance of immediacy (i.e., the material, phenomenal forms of things) and is concretely analyzed by fire into the unapparent metaphysical substratum they all share.9 When everything and everyone is combusted or combustible, our planetary dwelling is hollowed out, robbed of its inimitable, singular inhabitants, treated as nothing but quanta of energy. Except that, in the meanwhile, the blaze of energy production and consumption has gotten out of control and is threatening to devour our entire oikos, in addition to its isolated contents. An ecological outlook on energy puts into spotlight the aggregation of the beings that share it, rather than their economic division and analysis into units of force. Remembering the articulating function of logos, we will notice that ecological energy draws beings together, while nourishing their differences that cannot be distilled to quanta of force. Born from these agglutinations, the dwelling itself is not a container preexisting everything and everyone that populates it, but the product of shared energy. Energetic articulations create and bolster the dwelling where they come into effect irrespective of the logic of exchanges, on the hither side of energy’s circulation and preservation. Needless to say, in the West, energy is a concept still bearing a visible Aristotelian stamp. Although it refers to work, ergon, which is not necessarily of an economic variety, it belongs to the realm of life, singularized by dint of the activity, energeia, assigned to each kind of soul (Nicomachean Ethics 1102a, 5–6). Provided that the soul fulfills its assignment with excellence, aretē, it will bring about a good life and happiness, eudaimonia, which, in the Medieval interpretations of Aristotle (particularly, by Avicenna) will be extended to nonhuman beings, as well. Now, the soul’s putting-to-work in living—in a word, its energy—is the autotelic end of life, energeia telos, that for the sake of which it lives. Happiness is what comes out at the end of this psychic work well done: “Happiness . . . consists in the use and putting-towork [energeia] of something” (Magna Moralia, 1184b, 30–6). For Aristotle, then, energy is not invested with economic interest, be it conscious or not, in self-preservation and survival, but is committed to the ecology of living well. Strange as it may sound, his is the energy of happiness and fulfillment, not of disappointment and endless waste. Play is one of the few, albeit already quite pale, phenomena still charged with energetic positivity in modernity. Following the few indications we have found in Aristotle, we may now specify that ecological energy is the articulation of singularities—those selffulfilling existences that do not convert the other into an object of need, a means subservient to their own ends. The dogma of total interdependence and generalized lack that reigns in ecological thought needs to be thoroughly questioned with regard to the Aristotelian energeia telos. The resonance and articulation of autotelic singularities align with the logos of ecological energy. But what (or where) is its oikos?

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It seems to me that, unless the inhabitants of our planetary dwelling, including ourselves, relate to each other as equal partners in living, within the plentitude of their ontologically happy lives, there will be no dwelling to speak of. In place of a dwelling, there will be a Great Chain of Being, reconstituted into the food chain. At the same time, equality among those who reside within the dwelling, built thanks to their energetic articulations, is not to be conflated with economic or numerical parity, neutralizing every qualitative difference. The ecological variation on the theme presents us with the possibility of equality among incommensurables, each of them contributing, singularly and indispensably, to the articulation of a common abode. Nothing could be further from utopian, wishful thinking than this: as soon as there is a dwelling, the externalization of energy in strife, in a struggle for survival, is quelled, if only temporarily, to pave the way to shared plentitude that, alone, permits living creatures to dwell. It is on the basis of this primary Sabbath of energy that tensions may subsequently develop, not vice versa. Much like mute violence, which, à la Hannah Arendt, erupts when logos is silenced, and, therefore, presupposes the prior unimpeded flow of speech. RELATIONS In the economic domain, relational sets amount to networks of exchange. Interrelated terms are nodes on a numerical grid that are, in principle, equalizable through money or through another abstract value postulate. Parties to economic relations, broadly conceived, do not inhabit a common world; they track in goods, including of the intangible kind, across the thresholds of their private dwellings. Environmental processes, too, are frequently portrayed as economic transactions, from the exchange of gases between an organism and its milieu to metabolic processes in digestion. In each case, the law of maximizing returns and ensuring compliance with individual interest sovereignly governs relations. Mutuality, consistent with a shared dwelling, is a by-product of commerce, as Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations. What does a noneconomic, ecological version of relationality look like? Without reflecting on this question, ecology cannot get off the ground, because its articulations presuppose the establishment of relations. Characteristically astute, Heidegger remarks on relational ontology that “we are not in a position . . . to experience purely in its own terms a relation that obtains between two things, two beings. We immediately conceive the relation in terms of the things which in the given instance are related. We little understand how, in what way, by what means, and from where the relation comes about, and what it properly is qua relation.”10 To restate his thought in our terms: an economy of relations is unsatisfactory, to the extent that, in


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conformity with nomos, two related beings have a relation externally thrust upon them. We can only appreciate relationality, “to experience [it] purely in its own terms,” from within, that is, by inhabiting a relation, by dwelling in it. The difference between economy and ecology in this regard is akin to the play of figure and background. Whereas the economic gaze focuses on discrete entities, subsequently reconciled under the law, ecological awareness is oriented toward the space in-between the two. Ecology is dwelling in articulation, not among deficient entities but in the midst of their energetic fullness. Distinct from economic relations expressed in numerical codes, ecological relationality requires the intervention of language. Of course, language cannot be confined to its human modality; with Walter Benjamin, we would have to insist on “the language as such” or “the language of things,” instituting an extended, material, embodied kind of relations. The point is that linguistic expression and, notably, the structure of the address, whether wordless or articulated in words, begins from dwelling in-between the two, not within the utility-maximizing interiority of each. Only in and through language does articulation allow beings be together, in a relation impervious to ­mathematico-economic additions and subtractions, divisions and multiplications. Ecological language is not, priore loco, a mesh of symbols or codes, in which economic thought finds itself at home; it is an articulation of the world that makes it propitious to habitation and discloses it as the shared in-between space-time coterminous with the participants in logos. GROWTH Economic growth, statistically measured in ratios and percentages, is both an example and the prototype for the modern understanding of growth, betokening an increase in measurable extension, which rarely (if ever) affects the quality of the thing that grows. We should not be misled by the prevalence of organic, or even organicist, language in economic discourse. The ideally endless quantitative increase of the same is only very loosely related to natural growth, to nature qua growth, implied in the Greek phusis. It does not leave any time for gathering at home, taking respite from constant augmentation, or growing otherwise, in a way that cannot be measured on the objectivenumerical scales of nomos. As a result, everywhere around us we observe the material propagation of commodities conducive to a culture of obsolescence and death. In an absurd parataxis (a side-by-side arrangement of things ostensibly lacking their own articulations), the world is filled with wildly proliferating material stuff that grows following the principle “plus one, plus one, plus one” in the service of economic meta-growth. That is the world, which new realisms

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and materialisms of different stripes and persuasions, from “object-oriented ontology” to “nomadic subjectivities,” elevate to the status of a norm. But what does it feel like to be at home there? The emphasis on nomadism is, at least, honest compared to other relevant strands of thought, given its unabashed praise for universalized, global homelessness. E. F. Schumacher’s 1973 study Small Is Beautiful counters unchecked growth with insistence on the curtailment of the economic scale to one that would be appropriate to sustainable human communities. Despite his laudable efforts, Schumacher’s argument simply opts for the other extreme and is wedded to his opponents’ understanding of growth in terms of a strictly quantitative increase. The same is true, on the ecological side of things, of the proponents of human “degrowth,” who deem highly desirable a substantial decrease in the numbers of Homo sapiens worldwide. It seems to me that, instead of valorizing the opposite end of the continuum on which numerically defined growth is mapped, it behooves us to upend the current spectrum of possibilities tout court and to try our hand at reconfiguring them. In other words, instead of choosing between the tendencies toward “more” or “less,” we must devise a qualitative, rather than quantitative, notion of growth and diminution. Should we look for clues to another conception of growth outside the economic realm proper, that is, in the sphere of psychic, cultural, or spiritual development? In hugely popular self-help books, it is fashionable to invoke “experiential growth,” inward and not readily perceptible, unlike the outward expansion of material “stuff,” with which capitalist systems of production and consumption litter the world. But is it really the case that we are dealing with a qualitatively distinct phenomenon here? I submit that “inner growth” is a soulful supplement to capitalism’s soulless despotism (to paraphrase Kant) and that, furthermore, it does not swerve away from the economic model. Fresh experiences are hoarded in the presumed hidden drawer of consciousness, such that the subject can capitalize upon them at will. Their accumulation turns out to be as meaningless as the accrual of physical goods that clutter the earth with non-decomposable matter. The option of dwelling in oneself, thanks to one’s inner growth, proves to be barren, if it requires one to withdraw from a hopelessly defective world into the ivory tower of the disembodied mind or into other sorts of “spiritual” life. The dwelling is not an inorganic enclosure, but a breathing-growingflourishing membrane articulating whatever and whoever is within and beyond it. To emerge from the self-destructive spiral in which we are caught up, it would be insufficient to address the economy of the mind or of matter alone. What needs to be repaired, above all, is the connection between the two, cut loose in the more recent conception of growth. Merely outward material growth and purely inward psychic growth alike are detrimental to human and planetary well-being, unless they are articulated,


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or rearticulated, with one another. Absent their ecological jointure, growth will ineluctably spell out an upsurge of worldlessness, the creation of paradoxical inner and outer places wherein dwelling is foreclosed. Conversely, if outward spread is related to inward experience again—for instance, by way of expressing it, though this is only one among many possibilities—then the two dimensions will keep each other in check, above all with regard to their mutual limitations and constraints. Forging again the tie between the inner and the outer will enable us to perceive a pivotal feature of nature as growth in all its modalities, modulations, or tonalities. As a tree externalizes its growth in the rings of the trunk, it expresses the results of its past life-activity. To us, nonetheless, vegetal growth, metonymizing natural proliferation, appears identical to mineral accretion. That is why both plants and living matter, through which they are defined, are interpreted as impassive and “dumb.” And that is also why, more importantly yet, we have become largely allergic to any mention of nature, which tends to be conceived as a sum total of external growth, disconnected from any interiority. ART We would do well to return to the etymology of “art” as “articulation,” the practice of fitting together or creating jointures (cf. the Indo-European root *ar- and the Sanskrit Ṛta—that which is properly fitted, order, rule, truth and so on). Prima facie, the order of art achieves the impossible insofar as it reaches back to a stage prior to the division between the active ordering of the world and the passive being-ordered by it. It catches sight of the dwelling before its segregation into economy and ecology. Hence, from Kant to Derrida, the philosophers who contemplated the ontology of art were correct to conclude that it is not a superfluous decoration, or, better, that in its superfluity, it touches upon the essential. The order of art reflects back to us the self-assembly of the cosmos, itself construed as the shining order of being. To say that art is an articulation is to harmonize the spatial and expressive/ spiritual senses of the jointure it enacts. Art permits elements of the world to come together, to show themselves in their own arrangement, and it sings the world’s self-ordering. In one sense, then, art is the articulation of the world. In another sense, however, it may (and should) articulate the world’s disarticulation, disorder, injustice. That is how Theodor Adorno comprehends the role of art: to hover at the limit of the unarticulated and inarticulable, preoccupying itself with the obscurity of suffering and irreparable damage inflicted on humanity by systems of oppression and domination. The ecology of art relies on this aporetic articulation of the disarticulated, dwelling in loss (not the

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least, in the loss of dwelling) and succumbing to the incurable homesickness for justice. But, rather than present an idyllic image of harmony, its articulations, themselves, must be broken (think of Adorno’s discussions of poetry after Auschwitz) so as to show, vividly, the tremendous divide between our homeless world and a just one. The economy of art, for its part, comprises artworks that are valued, purchased, traded, or bequeathed. Their articulatory potential greatly diminished, these objects are the pawns in a monetary scheme or, at best, in the artifice of a symbolic universe. The nomos of art hinges on adherence to formal stylistic guidelines, rules of execution, everything that defines craftsmanship as mastery over the materials. Instead of articulating the world in aesthetic logos, it imposes the (quite arbitrary) laws of artistic production. The so-called autonomy of art, traceable back to Kant’s Third Critique, nearly abdicates the task of articulation and flips into aesthetic auto-economy, an autistic selfarticulation, oblivious to the dwelling it was meant to put together. Much of contemporary art exemplifies this autism of being at home in itself, residing in the hermetically sealed self-reference of an exaggerated l’art pour l’art. MORALITY/ETHICS “Moral economy” is something of a tautology. Morality is an economy; the mores comprising it transcribe into Latin the Greek nomos, insofar as it refers to custom-bound styles of acting, habit, or character. Cicero’s justification for the introduction of the term “moral” in De fato (On Fate) is as follows: “quia pertinet ad mores, quod ethos illi vocant, nos eam partem philosophiae de moribus appellare solemus, sed decet augentem linguam Latinam nominare moralem [it pertains to character, called ethos (in Greek), while we usually term that part of philosophy “of character,” but a suitable course is to enrich the Latin language by naming it morality]” (I.1). As a rejoinder, we might recall that, before designating habit, ethos was habitat, a habitual, customary dwelling place. Injecting “morality” into Latin, Cicero borrowed from the Greeks the rendition of ethos as habit and left habitat behind. He shifted the sense of the term closer to an artificially constructed rule than to a dwelling place. Morality is an economy without oikos, the externality of custom divorced from the interiority of living together. Not surprisingly, moral philosophy takes the shape of a system, substituting for the missing dwelling. All Kant had to do was to emphasize the metaphysical nature of this system, notably in The Metaphysics of Morals, where moral laws “hold as laws only insofar as they can be seen to have an a priori basis and to be necessary.” “Indeed,” he continues, “concepts and judgments about ourselves and our deeds and omissions signify nothing moral if what they


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contain can be learned merely from experience.”11 After Cicero has taken the first step toward the becoming-metaphysical of morality by ignoring the ties that bind mores to the habitat, the place where they developed, Kant makes the second step by decoupling them from habits, or repeated experiences, and grounding them on a priori foundations. Kant’s transcendental move rules out dwelling in the rarified atmosphere of the moral law. For obvious reasons, the system of morality is worldless: it hovers above the world and is tethered to the laws of pure practical reason that “commands how men are to act even though no example of this could be found.”12 More singular than an empirical example, yet more universal than a generalization from recurrent events, metaphysical moral economy foists its external measure onto the human dwelling. From its detached standpoint, it overviews the totality of the oikos and consents to its emptying, that is, to the annihilation of the entire world in the name of justice: Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus, “Let justice be done, though the world perish.”13 Such unmitigated destruction is the logical consequence of moral economy’s not having a foothold in the world of experience and disrespecting the logos of the world. The depletion of human and nonhuman habitats corresponds to the tightening of the transcendental law as a compensatory mechanism for the discarded relations among beings. Ethical ecology is gradually supplanted by a moral economy, which, at its advanced stages and in parallel with the autonomy of aesthetic judgment, abnegates the hard work of articulating the dwelling. No longer held together, the world can only disintegrate, its decline witnessed by transcendental reason, concocted, in part, in order to anaesthetize the mind in the face of its collapse. Nietzsche grasped exceptionally well the economic aspect of morality (Sittlichkeit)—in particular, of slave morality—that originates from the unpayable debt of the living before the dead. His definition of Sittlichkeit in the supplementary materials of On the Genealogy of Morality?—“Nothing other than simply a feeling for the whole content of those customs under which we live and have been raised—and raised, indeed, not as an individual, but as a member of the whole, a cipher in a majority.”14 Moral economy transforms each individual into a number, “a cipher in a majority” that gains its power and its place from blind identification with the whole. Empowerment is here inseparable from disempowerment and an exorbitant increase in deadly, borrowed energy. “So it comes about that through his morality the individual outvotes himself,” Nietzsche quips.15 The moral law is a law of numbers, replicating the principles of modern politics and inauspicious toward the exigencies of dwelling. But those rare, truly autonomous individuals who escape its clutches also do not get a chance to dwell. Amoral but not, thereby, ethical, “the magnificent blond beast” is “avidly prowling round for spoil and victory.”16 There is

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no noble ecology of ethos in Nietzsche, as the articulations of logos remain foreign to beastly amorality. Whereas the leveling nomoi of slave morality erase the distance necessary for dwelling, auto-nomy magnifies this distance, blowing it up to unsustainable proportions. Tellingly, neither staying lodged in the system as a cog in the wheel of a collective machine nor taking one’s vote away and getting off the collective bus, becoming an Aussteiger as the Germans dub it, earns one the right to dwell. Nothing other than an ethical ecology will restore the non-transcendental possibility for dwelling, which moral economy has spirited away from us. Ethical thought and practice need not recoil to parochial belonging to a place in protest against the norm of placeless morality and amorality. They can, rather, try to recover the minimal dwellings we inhabit against all odds, namely our bodies and the world of the elements. These oikoi, at once intimate and anonymous, are imperiled, on the one hand, by the dream of dwelling virtually, as consciousness uploaded onto a super-computer, and by the worsening pollution of the air, water, and earth, on the other. We are in the middle of a process of dissociation—of bodies from minds, of lives from the milieus that nourish and sustain them, of the elements from each other—happening at the zero-point of world destruction. The logos of ecology, insofar as it pertains to ethics, undertakes a reverse project of articulating bodies and elements, among themselves and with one other, so as to renew the possibility of dwelling. In my work on the philosophy of vegetal life, and especially in Plant-Thinking,17 I have shown how plants carry out this articulation, bridging the elements and making the world livable. All that remains is for us to follow their lead, gathering the dwelling wounded and parceled out by economic rationality, in a uniquely human style: through learning to think. THINKING The economy of thought consists of rules and methods that promise to predelineate the path toward an objective truth. Although its name reverts to logos, formal logic is the staple nomos of thinking. The only dwelling it can warrant is the ether of abstraction for the disembodied mind, while leaving the thought-free body homeless. The metaphysical mind-body split separates what is sheltered within from what is left outside the eidetic dwelling. It leaves the material world as a whole bereft of a dwelling. Within the framework of the economy of thought, the shortest path to the truth is the finest, as lex parsimoniae, also known as “Occam’s razor,” makes clear. Ironically, however, in seeking the simplest solution possible, metaphysical philosophy not only economizes thought but also economizes on thought. For thinking to remain true to its name, it would not tread a


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readymade path but follow a tortuous road toward “what is,” back to the world in which we already are. It would not simplify what is to an underlying unity but aspire to give the diversity of the world its due in thought. And it would not only analyze, judge, and segregate but also articulate, contemplate, and assemble. Thinking, therefore, is ecological, whereas metaphysical thought is economic. Let us take, for example, the reduction of the world to a basic unity, which does not fail to seduce ecologists, as well. To accomplish this feat, the economy of thought initially needs to retreat to the “first principles,” from which the rest of reality could then be deduced. Caring for its purity, metaphysics dwells in these principles, its unquestionable nomoi. If and when it emerges from the ideality of its constructed dwelling, the economy of thought slips the building blocks, drawn from metaphysica generalis, underneath the rest of the world, wherein it can finally feel at home. Nonetheless, the world’s oneness results from the projection of metaphysical laws onto a dwelling that does not exist. As the gap between this fantasized, “principled” oikos and our planetary dwelling (forced, within certain limits, to fit the ideal mold) widens, so the environmental crisis grows in severity, mirroring the logic of economic crises masterfully outlined in Marx’s Captial. The ecology of thinking commences, on the contrary, from the here and now, expanding into multiple articulations between the mind and the body, among human subjects, and between human and nonhuman forms of life. It concedes that bodies, plants, animals, rivers, mountains, forests, and so forth, have their own logoi, untranslatable into the abstract logos of philosophy. Being everywhere at home, for the ecology of thinking, means supporting a wealth of articulations and appreciating each dwelling, each relation, each energy field it encounters for what it is. Constitutively an-archic, unencumbered with immutable principles, the ecology of thinking welcomes a plurilogue among all forms of existence, the last refuge for life itself. *  *  * At the close of metaphysics, philosophy comes home otherwise, circling back to our planetary dwelling devastated by millennia of economic exploitation. It awakens to a world of dwindling energy resources, truncated relations and booming networks, mounting waste on an earth transformed into dumping grounds, art auctions, rigid moralizing, and irresponsible amorality. It is, thus, sent back to a lopsidedly economic and economized world, which is largely its own doing. The task of philosophy that has finally descended to the polluted and violated, homeless earth is not to invent better (more efficient, more sustainable, less destructive) methods for organizing the world. Instead of imposing a new nomos onto the earth, it must discern from the articulations of its inhabitants what a shared dwelling is; in what sense it parts against

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itself to accommodate whomever and whatever dwells in it; and how it can be maintained without division or appropriation. NOTES 1. Novalis, Philosophical Writings, ed. and tr. Margaret Mahoney Stoljar (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 135. 2. Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, tr. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), 5. 3. Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, tr. William W. Hallo (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), 3. 4. Ibid., 13. 5. William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), 125. I thank Richard Polt and Jon Wittrock for flagging this reference. 6. Cf., Michael Marder, “Ecology as an Event,” in Eco-Deconstruction: Derrida and Environmental Philosophy, eds. Matthias Fritsch, Philippe Lynes, and David Wood (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018). 7. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology, tr. Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward (Cambridge & Malden: Polity, 2008), 122–23. 8. Michael Marder, Pyropolitics: When the World Is Ablaze (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015), 89. 9. Novalis, again: “A problem is a solid synthetic mass, which is broken up by means of the penetrating power of the mind. Thus, conversely, fire is nature’s mental power and each body is a problem”: Philosophical Writings, 48. 10. Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, tr. Peter D. Hertz (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1982), 83. 11. Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary Gregory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 9. 12. Ibid., 10. 13. Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” in Kant, Political Writings, ed. H. S. Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 123. 14. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 136. 15. Ibid. 16. Ibid., 25. 17. Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 65–67, 178.

Chapter 8

The Uncanny Anthropocene Byron Williston

One of the most striking aspects of the Holocene is that during this time, apart from a few historically important exceptions like the Little Ice Age (ca. 1285–1815), humanity could largely forget about the climatic background of its doings.1 The advent of the Anthropocene means that the idea of a separation from nature that this forgetting induced, allowed, or expressed was mostly illusory. All the while our influence on the Earth system was building, from the Agricultural Revolution to the Great Acceleration (1945), and beyond. This means not only that there was always some convergence between the human and the natural, culture and the earth, but also that we had the luxury of ignoring it for most of that time. This option is no longer available to us. How should we comprehend this new reality? The Anthropocene is an uncomfortable and disorienting concept for us because it is forcing us to take notice of a fundamental—and creative—tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar. As I will show, it is for this reason the uncanny age par excellence. Two themes are often found in early framings of the Anthropocene: that of convergence and that of rupture. Here, rupture refers to what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls “gaps or openings in the landscape of our thoughts” made manifest by the announcement of the Anthropocene.2 Something has been revealed to us that exceeds our traditional modes of understanding. In particular, Chakrabarty thinks that three such modes have been challenged. The first is our reliance on familiar “regimes of probability” that seem no longer to hold in an age of radical uncertainty. The second is the need to “supplement” our understanding of ourselves as individuals with a specific story about our species identity. And the third is the need to move beyond anthropomorphic framings of reality to a wider appreciation of our place in the mostly 135


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nonhuman biosphere.3 On this understanding, there is now a fundamental epistemic-existential break with Holocene being-in-the-world. As for “convergence,” the new epoch is said to reveal a coming together of earth history and human history.4 One way this shows up is in calls for a new disciplinary hybridity. Even the purely stratigraphical approach to the Anthropocene suggests the need for disciplinary cooperation, perhaps even fusion. For example, Matt Edgeworth has coined the term “archaeosphere” to denote the layered tangle of earth and artifact beneath our feet that is now the proper object of investigation of both geology and archaeology. This sphere is, he suggests, a kind of carpet covering large areas, on which the furniture of the human world (its buildings, bridges, monuments, pylons, oil-rigs, telegraph poles, roads, railway viaducts, cities, shantytowns, parks, airports) stands and is supported, and into which it will eventually crumble. Deep-layered in places, threadbare and patchy in others, this carpet of near-global extent provides the surface on which people carry out their lives. Like a carpet, it is so well-used it is taken almost totally for granted.5

Let me make three points about this. First, it is important to emphasize that the “carpet” extends over nearly the whole planet, though it is thicker in some places (Manhattan) than others (the Siberian taiga). This reminds us that the Anthropocene is also the “post-natural” age in which the human fingerprint is virtually everywhere.6 Post-naturalism forces us to confront nature as a largely “built” environment and this means that we humans cannot understand what we are, apart from our technological impositions on the “natural world.” Second, although Edgeworth is talking explicitly about the need for a disciplinary fusion of archaeology and geology, it is telling that the earlier passage also refers to the subterranean layers as the compressed material remains of human cultures. This implies that a comprehensive understanding of the Anthropocene—even one that begins at the relatively narrow level of stratigraphical analysis—must draw in all those disciplines that encompass human meaning-making: history, philosophy, religion, literary studies. Finally, the largely tacit character of the carpet is worth reflecting on. Although we often memorialize particular pieces of the earth that have personal importance for us—by burying our dead there, for example—we do not often think about the more general fact that the vertically compressed space beneath our feet contains a highly coded record of our collective past existence.7 Only when we ponder what some hypothetical future investigators of the archaeosphere might make of our remains does this thought becomes perspicuous. Now, suppose we were to achieve the sort of disciplinary convergence envisaged here, and that this new understanding were translated into our politics, morality, and social structures. It might make sense to describe

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this achievement as a first step toward repairing the rupture that, according to Chakrabarty and others, currently defines our condition. In this case, convergence would presumably describe a sort of homecoming for humanity, an indication that we have come to accept our epistemic limitations, the pitfalls of excessive individualism, and our place in the biosphere. Among other things, this would constitute a moment of reconciliation with the larger wholes of which we are a part, an overcoming of rupture. As such it is doubtless something to welcome, but there’s a danger lurking here. If we are not in fact equipped (yet) to make adequate sense of the new epoch, how we really fit into the larger geobiospherical whole, we might settle on patterns of understanding that simply entrench old habits of thought and action. In this case, it might make sense to resist the urge to full reconciliation and convergence, at least for a time. These points open onto the main theme of this chapter: the idea that the early Anthropocene is an age of both rupture and convergence, and that a key task of philosophy now is to help us get a grip on the phenomenon so conceived. My argument in this chapter is that the concept of the uncanny as it is developed by Heidegger can help us understand both the descriptive and normative dimensions of what is going on now. This is because the uncanny is an interplay of two elements—the familiar and the unfamiliar—that map neatly onto the convergence/rupture distinction. To help clarify the logical structure of the uncanny, I begin with a look at some concepts—most prominently alienation and reification—that bear a family resemblance to it. Next, I turn to Heidegger’s thinking on the uncanny in both the early and middle periods of his thinking. Next, I apply the results of this analysis to the Anthropocene, and conclude with some brief reflections on the task of philosophy in the uncanny Anthropocene. WHAT IS THE UNCANNY? If the new epoch is one of profound disorientation, what concepts can we draw on to understand our place in it? Because of its historically rich pedigree and current vogue among some environmental philosophers, alienation is a fit starting point for analysis. To be alienated from something is to experience a form of isolation or separation from it that one also judges should not exist, and should accordingly be repaired if possible (or at the very least faced squarely). As Rahel Jaeggi puts it: An alienated relation is a deficient relation one has to oneself, to the world, and to others. Indifference, instrumentalization, reification, absurdity, artificiality,


Byron Williston

isolation, meaninglessness, impotence—all these ways of characterizing the relations in question are forms of this deficiency.8

Alienation is therefore best understood as a “relation of relationlessness.”9 That is, the concept posits a connection between two things that ought to be present but that is missing or distorted, leading to a pervasive loss of meaning or feeling of impotence. For example, according to Marx, because our species-being consists in socially productive labor, an essence or power that is exploited in the service of surplus value production under capitalism, workers are cut off from—alienated from—that which most properly belongs to them. Both the products of their labor and their fellow workers (with whom they must compete for scarce work) then confront them as hostile powers. For Jaeggi, this is essentially a failure of “appropriation”: labor is externalized activity that is meant to transform the world in a manner that reflects the values and ideals of the producers considered as a collective, but under the sway of capital it instead spreads mental and physical exhaustion, anomie, mutual hostility, and impotence.10 Here, there is clearly still a relation among the relevant constituent elements because workers function with each other and grapple to transform the physical world to suit human purposes. But the relation is distorted through the production of surplus value and so Jaeggi seems correct to say that we should speak of a relationless relation in this case. Insofar as it reveals the logical core we are seeking—the relation of relationlessness—alienation is a helpful concept. But its connection with reification in some of the Marxist literature limits its value for our purposes. For all its power and scope, this is just how we should diagnose Vogel’s influential analysis of the problem of alienation, for example. Vogel is a staunch post-naturalist: he thinks that there is no such thing as “nature,” only the built environment. When we realize that virtually everything is built, we will be in a better position to criticize the way it has been built in some cases. The key is to see the building where we might have been inclined to see nature or the bare given: It is the illusion of naturalness that [Marx’s] account of alienation is concerned to unmask: alienation has to do with the appearance of something as natural, eternal, untouched by human action, that in reality is built through human practices, and so is essentially socially constructed. For Marx . . . alienation consists in our failure to recognize the human, social, and most important the practical origin of the world we inhabit.11

This is an important insight because reification—mistaking the constructed for the given—is an important tool in ideologically inflected attempts at domination of one group of humans by another (or all of nature by humans).

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But the alienation/reification pair is, for our purposes, prematurely normative. It is constituted by a desire for its own annulment or sublation. The relationlessness is, essentially, a distortion of reality that must be healed or overcome, and the sooner the better. This is why Jaeggi notes, correctly, that a sense of deficiency is at the heart of the concept of alienation, the implication being that reconciliation must happen now. But this call for convergence is too early and too Hegelian to fit an epoch that has barely begun and whose various tensions have not been sufficiently thought through. For example, do we realize yet just how weird the world is becoming because of climate change? One of the most striking graphs produced by paleoclimatologists shows average annual temperatures in Greenland over the past 100,000 years, a period spanning the late Pleistocene and the Holocene. The horizontal axis displays the temporal spread, the vertical axis the temperatures. The period up until the Holocene shows a wildly uneven saw-tooth structure, whereas the Holocene shows a much higher average temperature with fewer extremes. It is like a prolonged period of planetary hyperventilation followed by a much shorter one of calm breathing.12 However, evidence now suggests that the period of relaxation is about to come to an abrupt end. In other words, projected beyond 2050, temperature fluctuations will roughly mirror the pre-Holocene structure—that crazy zigzag—only in a much higher register. This is, as scientists have put it, a “no-analogue state” for the planet on any timescale that matters to our efforts to inhabit the place successfully.13 There will likely be ten billion people by century’s end, all of them scrambling to adapt to an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide—perhaps 750 parts per million—last seen when alligators roamed above the Arctic Circle. Notwithstanding the pronouncements of techno-optimists, we have literally no idea how to cope with this reality and yet it is rushing to meet us. This thought should keep at bay facile musings about the harmonious convergence of human and earth history in the Anthropocene. Most of what we have “built”—physical structures, religions, empires, our planet-spanning system of communications, our agricultural systems, our diverse moral conceptions, even our bodies—is an artifact of the great Holocene calm. However foreign some of these cultural products may seem to us, they all arose in that little sliver of time in the upper-right corner of our graph. For instance, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant reimagines a post-Arthurian landscape inhabited by ogres, dragons, and pixies. The threat of imminent war between Saxons and Britons hangs in the air. It is all immensely strange but in a way that also makes sense to us because of the constancy of the climatic backdrop between then and now. We can see these characters’ doings as the plausible possibilities of a shared world. I do not mean we could really decide to embark on a quest to slay a dragon whose foul


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breath corrupts human memory; only that this possibility may be less strange to us than life in a world in which billions of people are in perpetual migration, every year millions of hectares of forest are ablaze, many coastal cities have been abandoned, malaria is everywhere, the possibility of nuclear war hangs in the air, the one percent have retreated into impenetrable fortresses, eschatological fantasy has become conventional wisdom, and so on. The concept of the uncanny can help us make sense of this new strangeness, so let us turn to it. EARLY HEIDEGGER ON THE UNCANNY In his history of the American environmental imaginary, Jedediah Purdy argues that in the Anthropocene “beauty and sublimity have been supplanted by a response to nature that makes room for the uncanny.”14 I do not agree that the first two concepts, especially the sublime, are in the process of being “supplanted” at all,15 and Purdy neglects to tell us very much about the uncanny. But he is basically correct that the uncanny is the new attitudinal norm. To feel uncanny is to be askew with respect to something—a place, a time, an event, or another person—that one expects to be or behave the way it customarily has. Here are two examples to help us get our bearings. In the film The Exorcist III, there is a scene depicting a demon-possessed grandmotherly woman scurrying like a spider on her hospital room ceiling, peering down to the floor with a smile. It is the very image of the uncanny: the homely overtaken or inhabited by something foreign to it. The strangeness lies in the coming together of the two terms or elements. Closer to this chapter’s theme, I recently saw a photo of an iceberg hulking in the background of a pretty, rural cottage off the northeastern coast of Newfoundland. Icebergs are seen there regularly at that time of year (late spring) but this one was ten times larger than anyone in the area can remember seeing. In the context of a rapidly melting planet, the image is both beautiful and terrifying, sublime and uncanny. Compared to the concept of alienation, the uncanny is under-theorized by philosophers. Heidegger’s treatment of it as das Unheimliche (the unhomely), and of the human as the der Unheimlichste (the most unhomely), stands out for its depth and sophistication. The concept is present in a substantive way in two distinct phases of his thinking. The early treatment is found in two sources, Being and Time (1927) and the Introduction to Metaphysics (1935), the later (from his middle period more generally) in Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister” (1942). Tracking the full development of Heidegger’s thinking on this issue over these sources and years is beyond the scope of my analysis, but

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I do want to sketch the broad features of the movement. I will look at the early treatment in this section, the later treatment in the next. In Heidegger’s Being and Time, the uncanny is bound up with the existential-ontological analytic of Dasein, and is also firmly tied to the concept of Angst (anxiety). The latter is a constitutive feature of Dasein’s being-in-the world. For Heidegger, we exist for the most part in the “tranquilized familiarity” of the They (das Man). This is a falling or fleeing from the recognition of our radical finitude. Anxiety can pull us out of this “absorption,” these ways of being comfortably at home (Zuhause-sein), in the process allowing us to apprehend our fundamental not-at-homeness.16 So what Dasein flees is full recognition of its radically contingent and finite character. The flight defines the various inauthentic ways of being that Dasein tends to take up in response to this state of affairs, all of them ways of settling for the easy truths and ways of life of the They. Note that the picture offered here is about Dasein’s constitutive nature. It is therefore an emphatically unhistorical claim, although for Heidegger susceptibility to inauthenticity can vary historically. Heidegger revisits the concept of the uncanny eight years after Being and Time. In the midst of an interpretation of the thought of Parmenides, the Introduction to Metaphysics contains an analysis of the first choral ode from Sophocles’s Antigone, the textual focus for the analysis of the uncanny. Here is the opening of the ode in Heidegger’s translation: Manifold is the uncanny, yet nothing uncannier than man bestirs itself, rising up beyond him.17

The uncanny in its manifoldness is the “overwhelming” (das Überwältigende), the unpredictably violent “sway” (das Walten) of nature’s forces. These prevent us from living in manner that is entirely unendangered or “homely” (heimisch). But humans are said to be the most uncanny because they—we—are doubly uncanny: first as part of the general sway, beings among other beings making up the ontic order, but also because humans characteristically “step out, move out of the limits that at first and for the most part are accustomed and homely, because as those who do violence [der Gewalt-tätige] they overstep the limits of the homely.”18 In the ode, this violent stepping-out is manifest in humanity’s relentless push to conquer, plow, harness, discover, and control other things. It is the relentless urge to shape or build the ontic in the face of often hostile counterforces. I want to focus on two key points about this and related texts. First, Heidegger constructs his interpretation of the ode around a series of conceptual dualities, the most important of which for our purposes is that of “justice” (dikē) and “knowing” (technē). As Heidegger points out, dikē has as little to


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do with the moral-juridical as technē does with the construction of propositions. What Heidegger has in mind is rather making broadly construed (technē)—“the ability to set Being into work as something that in each case is in such and such a way”19—and overall “fittingness” (dikē), the larger “order.” His claim is that the two exist in creative tension in Dasein’s way of existing in the world. That is, Dasein projects itself constantly in such a way that it violates the fitting-together of the larger order, only to see that order reasserts itself in its turn. The picture of the human enterprise on offer is something like an ontologized version of Malthus, our urge to innovate technologically leading us perennially into disaster: “doing violence must shatter against the excessive violence of Being.”20 The second point is aimed at Heidegger’s interpretation of the following lines from the ode: Everywhere trying out, underway; untried, with no way out he comes to nothing.21

About which, Heidegger comments: For when human beings are everywhere underway in this sense, their having no way out does not arise in the external sense that they run up against external restrictions and cannot get any farther. Somehow or another they precisely can go farther into the and-so-forth. Their not having a way out consists, instead, in the fact that they are continually thrown back on the paths that they themselves have laid out; they get bogged down in their routes, get stuck in ruts, and by getting stuck they draw in the circle of their world, get enmeshed in seeming, and thus shut themselves out of Being. In this way they turn around and around in their own circle.22

Think of what the ecological crisis reveals to us. In a stirring summation of the recent environmental science, Barnosky and Hadly argue that we have reached or are approaching critical tipping points with respect to population, pollution levels, climate change, species collapse, the spread of toxins and diseases, and the possibility of resource wars.23 But we are precisely stuck in our response to this state of affairs. As Heidegger points out, this does not mean we feel constrained, with literally nowhere to go, but rather that the way forward is simply an intensification of the way that got us here. On this understanding of our situation, adaptation to crisis can proceed only through the application of more technoscience to the crises we have created through technoscience. These points should have made Heidegger more sensitive in this text to the necessity of moving away from an essentializing analysis of Dasein to one that is more historically informed (a point raised just earlier). Of course,

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Heidegger does turn toward a more fully historicized analysis of Being in the later period, but it is merely hinted at in 1935. We will not be able to make sense of the Anthropocene unless we follow Heidegger in this respect, seeing the new epoch as part of the culmination of metaphysics in the age of enframing (Ge-stell). Enframing is technoscience’s way of ordering the standing-reserve (Bestand) comprehensively. It represents a culmination of the tradition of concealment going back to Plato because it is a form of “challenging” that “not only conceals a former way of revealing, bringing-forth, but [also] conceals revealing itself and with it that wherein unconcealment, i.e., truth, comes to pass.”24 All unconcealing is also a concealing, but to conceal unconcealing itself, as the modern technological enterprise (perhaps uniquely) does, is to aspire to total domination of the conceptual and epistemic field (and also, by extension, the field of praxis). When our technologies have become so dominant that they threaten the integrity of the Earth system, and we cannot conceive of any way out of our impasse save with the application of more technology— turning around and around in our own circle—then we have reached this stage. This, I submit, is exactly where things stand on the threshold of the Anthropocene. When Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon-Mobil and current U.S. Secretary of State, said that climate change is “just an engineering problem,” he expressed this standpoint with utmost clarity.25 Again, humans are the uncanniest of all beings because we make civilization through the interplay of dikē and technē, recognizing that in our necessary stepping out of the homely we impose our forms on an often recalcitrant world. It is one thing to do this in the relative calm of the Holocene. However, as Clive Hamilton notes, in the Anthropocene, nature “opens her arms not to embrace but to crush us.”26 Now, our “building” must necessarily be correspondingly violent. This just means that the enterprise of staying alive and thriving by building worlds is going to become terribly risky in the decades to come. Many of our efforts will shatter on the rocks of an unforgiving and ornery Earth system. Total failure is not inevitable, but if we do not craft alternative ways of pressing into the “and-so-forth” we will find ourselves lost in the overwhelming. The trick in the age of the post-natural is therefore not, as some deep ecologists like to imagine, to back away from the project of world-shaping, but to engage in this shaping without enframing the real. Here then is the paradox that defines our age: the persistent reassertion of the homely in the form of intensifying technoscience will lead to radical homelessness, the cancellation of the possibility of a home. This, in my view, is what Heidegger means by the “plunge into the unhistorical” that awaits us if we do not alter course. We should be suspicious of the homely in the age of enframing, for it is likely to be expressed as the desire for ever more control of the Earth system,


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leading inexorably to the negation of all homeliness or security. Taken together, then, Being and Time and the Introduction to Metaphysics give us a picture of the uncanny that places overwhelming emphasis on the experience of rupture, stepping out into the overwhelming (and its consequences). As I have said, because we need to deepen our understanding of the Anthropocene rupture, Heidegger’s thinking on this point is crucial. But abiding in rupture is not an end in itself. We step out of the familiar because it has, for one reason or another, become untenable for us. But building a new home is the point of such stepping out. To illustrate this, let us examine the distinct treatment of the uncanny in Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister.” MIDDLE HEIDEGGER ON THE UNCANNY We can appreciate the transition in Heidegger’s thinking by noticing the difference in his interpretation of the figure of Antigone over these years. She, of course, is cast out from the “hearth” because of her decision to defy King Creon of Thebes by reclaiming her brother Polynices’s dead body from the battlefield, in defiance of the king’s decree that it be left there to rot. Antigone is caught and cast out, and Heidegger wants us to reflect on the philosophical significance of this being-cast-out, alienated, the unhomeliness of her new life. In the early telling, Antigone’s plight is of a piece with the understanding of Dasein in Being and Time. The stress here is on the heroic attempt to break free of the shackles of the They. The latter perspective is represented by the chorus in Antigone, translated by Heidegger as follows: Let him not become a companion at my hearth, nor let my knowing share the delusion of the one who works such deeds.27

Heidegger opposes the “defensiveness” of the chorus,28 but in 1942 this appears to change. In Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister,” Antigone is transformed from daring hero to prodigal daughter. Capobianco claims that there is thus a “remarkable transformation” in Heidegger’s thinking between 1935 and 1942 on this score, but this surely overstates the case.29 It is true that the later interpretation stresses the becoming-at-home (das Heimischwerden) over the strifely contest of dikē and technē. But this is merely a change of emphasis, for the strife is always aimed at securing a home and the quest for a home is always strifely. So while the Introduction to Metaphysics stresses the encounter with the unfamiliar—the concomitant of which is that Dasein becomes a “stranger in the ontic”30—Hölderlin’s Hymn The “Ister” stresses the search

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for the familiar. But the essence of the uncanny is the ability to hold to the tension between the two moments. We can grasp this difficult position more perspicuously if we locate it in relation to two salient dangers of the Anthropocene. The first is that strife becomes an end in itself. Think again of the concept of violence. De Beistegui is correct to emphasize a distinction in Heidegger between violence and hyper-violence or nihilism.31 Violence is the necessary imposition of form on the world, and it surely comes in degrees. The imposition is relatively gentle in the Holocene but will be ramped up in the Anthropocene. Nihilism, on the other hand, seeks total domination of the Earth system. This is not possible in the Anthropocene, but the fantasy that it may nonetheless persist.32 And political praxis may cleave to the fantasy rather than the reality, with devastating consequences. The second danger lies at the opposite end of the spectrum—that we will seek to evade strife at all costs. In other words, that we will, as Capobianco puts it, seek only “to dwell, calm and gladdened, in nearness to Being.”33 The search for a fundamental form of security is an understandable reaction to life in a precarious, no-analogue state. Elsewhere, I have argued that we are seeing increasing signs of a worrisome reaction to ecological crisis that takes the form of quietistic world-weariness and political withdrawal. The thought seems to be that because disaster appears inevitable we should seek refuge in contemplation of our smallness in the grand scheme of things.34 This is meant in part to provide a cosmic sense of security and it is easy to see how late Heidegger’s understanding of Being can be of philosophical service here. Julian Young certainly understands Heidegger this way.35 But if the search for security becomes a paramount existential goal, we are likely to entrench forms of social organization that are deeply problematic. This is in part because large-scale withdrawal from the political scene will simply enhance the position of the most powerful. World-weariness is the opium of the Anthropocene. So, perhaps paradoxically, the two dangers I have identified—strife without security and security without strife—come to much the same thing. In Heidegger’s language, they are essentially ways of turning around and around in our own circle. Although one of them gets there by pushing the strifely contest between technoscience and nature and the other through the desperate search for a secure home, they both arrive at a negation of the uncanny. Dissatisfaction with these options demands that we say more about exactly what uncanny inhabitation of an epoch might involve. We need to abide, somehow, in the strifely search for a home, or the homely encounter with strife, never allowing an aimless strife or complacent at-homeness to overtake us. What might this mean for us?


Byron Williston

THE UNCANNY ANTHROPOCENE Of course, we could not recognize a home as even potentially ours if we were not seeking a site for what is familiar, but the site is also unavoidably unfamiliar so new ways must be invented to help us live there. This is, for instance, the central tension or challenge in so much science fiction literature about colonizing the galaxy. Like travelers to a distant planet, we want to know what to bring along so that we may flourish in the new place. However, the provisions we are interested in here are not purely material: they have to do with the values and techniques we need to help us live better at the new site. A comprehensive list would require far more space than I have available here. But perhaps we can begin by focusing on two areas of concern. The first has to do with moral values, the second with the place of ecological science in our lives. Richard Wolin’s claim that the “decisionism” of the early period facilitated Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism is difficult to gainsay. For early Heidegger, particular choices will respond to the situations we encounter, but the choice to choose is itself without justificatory ground. Dasein must be resolute in the face of its fundamental choices, rejecting the conformist promptings of the They. It is not just the values of the crowd that are to be rejected, but the entire spectrum of “decadent” Western political values. But of course, as it happened for Heidegger and his contemporaries, political values were embraced not ex nihilo but rather by drawing on a selectively constructed and racialized Aryan mythological past. Against this fabulist backdrop, Western values became, to invoke a distinction that was crucial to the emerging selfunderstanding of Weimar mandarins, the stuff of rootless Zivilisation rather than organic, authentic Kultur. Decisionism wedded to völkisch nationalism produced what Fritz Stern calls Kulturreligion, the “main link between all that is venerable and great in the past and National Socialism.”36 Weimar mandarins thought they were living in a time of deep spiritual and political crisis. We too have tough choices to make, and the past is no infallible guide, but our specific historical placement matters immensely. Having lived through the event of Auschwitz—and its historical descendants in Bosnia, Rwanda and the like—we cannot be naïve about the dangers of totalitarianism and crimes of atrocity. We have, alas, not moved beyond such political options: our elites might yet turn to them when the going gets really tough. All of this is to emphasize that our political choices in the Anthropocene will not unfold in a historical vacuum any more than Heidegger’s did, but for us the totalitarian option ought to be, as it evidently was not for him and his contemporaries, morally unthinkable. It is crucial to say this now because the current rise and spread of chauvinistic nationalism across the Western world will almost certainly be bolstered by looming resource scarcity.

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We are the inheritors of a moral tradition with its roots in the European Enlightenment. This is a complex tradition but at its core is a commitment to moral cosmopolitanism, the claim that the vital interests of any entity plausibly deemed a moral subject deserve protection (other things being equal). The category of moral subjects not only includes all living humans, obviously, but it also encompasses future generations and, I would argue, the nonhuman members of the biosphere as well. To the extent that any of these entities has vital interests, which our actions can affect negatively, we have duties of constraint toward them, duties that can be codified in a system of politically enforceable rights. Of course, there is much detail to add about what other values we can preserve at the new historical site—and surely the new climatic conditions will have something to say about this—but the broadly cosmopolitan picture I have just sketched is a good enough start. This brings us to the role of ecological science at the new site. Think in this connection of Jeff Malpas’s understanding of Heidegger’s Kehre. Malpas argues that the latter is best understood as “topographical”: it is a philosophical switch of emphasis from time to “place” as the focus of the analysis of being-in-the-world, a switch that also entails a rejection of the ontological primacy of “space” considered as Cartesian res extensa.37 For Heidegger, we “dwell” when we safeguard the world—our myriad places—inasmuch as the latter provide the matrix for meaningful persistence with other humans, the earth, and the relevant subset of our traditions. More to the point, we dwell when and only when we build with such “conservationist” goals in mind. Because, as we have seen, our current path is leading the Earth system to a no-analogue state, our goal should, I suggest, be to conserve as much as we can of the planet’s still functioning ecosystems. That is, we should dwell as maintainers of Holocene-like environmental conditions for as long as we can. In other words, the task of the early stages of the Anthropocene is to keep the “dying patient” of the Holocene alive for as long as we can.38 I do not mean we should simply continue doing what we are already doing. The late Holocene is also, of course, the age of Ge-stell and that attitude is the cause of the current malaise. So, we should think of our task, abstractly, as Holocene-like conservation without Ge-stell’s totalizing impetus. Fortunately, we have the tools to understand this task more concretely: the concept of planetary boundaries developed recently by Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum. The boundaries are meant to describe a “safe operating space” for humanity. There are ten of them: the extinction rate, climate change, novel entities (alien species), stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus, freshwater consumption, land-use change, and loss of ecological functions.39 The beauty of the planetary boundaries construct is that it gives us a way to quantify conservationist goals with respect to the identified areas of concern.


Byron Williston

It is crucial to note that turning to science for some answers to our predicament does not mean we are condemned to the futile turning around in our own circle about which Heidegger warns. To the contrary, the planetary boundaries concept is a scientific tool which can be used against heedless technological and economic expansionism. The task of living within the boundaries is an implicit critique of blind extractivism, the challenging reduction of nature to standing-reserve. Ecological science, on this understanding, is politically radical. It is anti-Ge-stell. One might still balk at the hubris involved in the idea of “managing the biosphere,” as Rockström and Klum put it, but there is something precious about this attitude now.40 In the Anthropocene, the only meaningful choice is between unintentional and intentional management of the Earth system. “Management” sounds workaday but here it is also more grandiose: it describes our perpetually and creatively stepping-out into the unhomely and unfamiliar in search of the homely and familiar. Following Heidegger, we should not deceive ourselves about the nature of this management: as I have been arguing, it means inserting ourselves “violently” into the ontic order. But our violence need not be nihilistic. That is the razor-thin line we are now walking. We are technological entities, so we must step out and build. Heidegger is correct to say that in the age of Ge-stell we build in ways incompatible with “dwelling.” But we also have alternatives that do not involve the wholesale rejection of our technological way of being-in-the-world. In this section, I have focused on what we should preserve in the unfamiliar time that awaits us. Though familiar in one sense, the cosmopolitan moral ideal and the planetary boundaries concept are also unconventional approaches to deep problems. But because the focus on the familiar might invite some complacency, I want to close by returning briefly to the importance of disorientation, this time under the heading of philosophy’s task. THE TASK OF PHILOSOPHY IN THE ANTHROPOCENE If the analysis so far is correct, then the modern age is defined by a deep homeliness. This does not mean everyone feels secure. Those whose lands are daily being lost to rising tides certainly do not. It only means we see no way out. To be oblivious of Being—to “abandon” it, as Heidegger also says41—is, among other things, to be unaware of any alternatives to the prevailing ontic order. This is not disorientation, but rather tunnel vision, a deeply entrenched and largely unwavering way of being oriented in space and time. The significance of Amitav Ghosh’s description of our current “derangement” vis-à-vis the climate crisis is that he understands this. For Ghosh, the derangement consists not just in the fact that we have brought the climate to a potentially

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catastrophic tipping point, but that we are as a collective evidently incapable of grasping that we are doing this.42 This is a perfect example of being stuck in a cultural rut. The primary task of thinking is therefore to disorient us anew. This is what Ghosh wants novelists to do, because he thinks they are mostly still writing in one way or another about the “regularity of bourgeois life,” a theme completely unfitted to the new reality.43 Roy Scranton, drawing inspiration from Peter Sloterdijk, has argued that in the Anthropocene we need a revival of philosophical humanism, understood as “the disciplined interruption of somatic and social flows, the detachment of consciousness from impulse, and the condensation of conceptual truths out of the granular data of experience.”44 The notion of disciplined and disciplinary “interruption” reminds us that the pivotal job now is to point to and help cultivate the moral traditions, political practices, and artistic and scientific forms that can show us a way out of the inward turning that currently defines and constrains us. Bruno Latour has recently suggested that the Anthropocene is “a war for the definition and control of the Earth.”45 I think that is exactly right, and that philosophy must locate itself on the side of the planet and all those who seek to live gracefully on it. Philosophy’s ceaseless questioning cannot, as it so often is, be an end in itself. It must instead be a questioning guided by the search for a new home. So here, briefly, are two recommendations for a philosophical practice that is attentive to the existential demands of the new epoch. These are schematic suggestions, and of course they are not meant to be exhaustive. My point in raising them is simply to help concretize the rather abstract notion of the uncanny, particularly its disorienting aspect. My hunch is that if philosophers took them both seriously, we might begin to see way out of the cultural rut we currently inhabit, thus “interrupting” the status quo in potentially fruitful ways. First, we simply need more philosophers thinking about the Anthropocene. Given the gravity of our situation, it is frankly amazing that this desideratum is not more widely appreciated in our discipline. Philosophical interest in climate change, especially among ethicists, has burgeoned in the past twenty years or so, but the total number of philosophers in this area is still quite small. Perhaps more of us should contemplate setting aside further reflection on, say, cognitive realist versions of propositionalism, in order to help humanity make sense of the current threat to civilization (which after all contains philosophy departments). In particular, we need a revival of two areas of philosophical inquiry that have come on somewhat hard times. The first is the philosophy of history, moribund since roughly the end of the nineteenth century; the second is existentialist-inflected investigations of meaning in life, currently enjoying a modest upswing of attention among analytic philosophers. Robust development of these two subdisciplines, across the


Byron Williston

mostly phony continental-analytic divide, could provide a genuine benefit to the larger culture.46 The second recommendation is that philosophers grapple much more thoroughly than they have so far with indigenous ecological knowledge. In the Americas, indigenous peoples have been thinking about how to inhabit the biosphere responsibly for well over 10,000 years, but their insights have been at best marginalized by settler culture for the past 400 years or so. In Canada, for example, there is currently a push for “reconciliation” between First Nations peoples and settler peoples, but in my view the enterprise lacks focus. Were we Canadians to come to understand ourselves as inhabitants of a dangerous new epoch we might discover a better way forward precisely through the realization that none of us is any longer safe, that the Anthropocene is challenging the very idea of what home consists in (as I have been arguing here). Here are two areas where this suggestion could find some purchase. First, there is our understanding of political territory. By the end of the century there could be as many as 250 million climate refugees. The moral pressure to increase the porosity of our borders as a response to this crisis will be immense. It might in this context be a good thing for some of us to loosen our emotional and ideological attachments to currently circumscribed political territories. My suggestion here is that we could learn how to do this by looking at indigenous peoples, many of whom have never recognized these territories. In this process we will invariably disorient ourselves with respect to existing notions of national purity and sovereignty. Second, we would do well to take indigenous understandings of time more seriously than we do. In particular, we should embrace First Nations peoples’ commitment to thinking seven generations ahead as we make decisions about land use, resource allocation, and so on. This would be a powerful antidote to the current tendency to “discount” the future. If philosophers were to look more to indigenous peoples than economists for guidance about the value of future people, we might find a way to build a genuinely intergenerational polity. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Many thanks to Jon Wittrock and Richard Polt for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this chapter. NOTES 1. Throughout this chapter, I will be referring to “humanity,” “us,” “we,” and so on as a more or less undifferentiated whole. This is a merely heuristic device and is not meant to deny the often profound social and political divisions that have existed among humans over the ages. This is a somewhat vexed issue in the social scientific

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literature on the Anthropocene. My own view, which I do not have space to defend here, is that it is possible to employ the heuristic device of a single humanity while remaining sensitive to the divisions. For a similar view, see Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (London: Polity, 2017), chapter 3. 2. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Anthropocene and the Convergence of Histories,” in The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch, eds. Clive Hamilton, Cristophe Bonneuil, and Francoise Gemmene (London: Routledge, 2015), 45. 3. Ibid., 45–46. 4. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 197–222; Byron Williston, “The Sublime Anthropocene,” Environmental Philosophy 13:2 (2016): 155–74. 5. Quoted in Stephen Graham, Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers (London: Verso, 2016), 292. 6. See Stephen Vogel, Thinking Like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015); Simon Hailwood, Alienation and Nature in Environmental Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Andrew Biro, Denaturalizing Ecological Politics: Alienation from Nature from Rousseau to the Frankfurt School and beyond (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005); Byron Williston, “The Question Concerning Geoengineering,” Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology 21 (2017): 199–221. 7. Graham, Vertical, 284–85. 8. Rahel Jaeggi, Alienation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 5–6. 9. Ibid., 25. 10. Ibid., 14. 11. Vogel, Thinking Like a Mall, 80. 12. Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 69. 13. Ibid., 109. 14. Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 230–31. 15. See Williston, “The Sublime Anthropocene.” 16. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1962), 189/234. (The first page number refers to the German original, the second to the pagination of the translation.) 17. Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, tr. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 112–163. 18. Ibid., 116–168. 19. Ibid., 122–177. 20. Ibid., 124–181. 21. Ibid., 113–164. 22. Ibid., 121–175. 23. Anthony D. Barnosky and Elizabeth A. Hadly, Tipping Point for Planet Earth: How Close Are We to the Edge? (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2016). 24. Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, ed. William Lovitt (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 27.


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25. Quoted in Matt Daily, “Exxon Chief Calls Climate Change Engineering Problem,” Reuters (June 27, 2012). Accessed June 6, 2017 at article/us-exxon-climate-idUSBRE85Q1C820120627. 26. Hamilton, Defiant Earth, 48. 27. Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 113/165. 28. Ibid., 126/183. 29. Richard Capobianco, Engaging Heidegger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 62. 30. Katherine Withy, Heidegger on Being Uncanny (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 109. 31. Miguel de Beistegui, Heidegger and the Political: Dystopias (London: Routledge, 1998), 127. 32. Byron Williston, The Anthropocene Project: Virtue in the Age of Climate Change, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), chapter 2. 33. Capobianco, Engaging Heidegger, 68. 34. Williston, “The Sublime Anthropocene.” 35. Julian Young, Heidegger’s Later Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). 36. Quoted in Richard Wolin, The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of Martin Heidegger (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 25–26. 37. Jeff Malpas, Heidegger and the Thinking of Place: Explorations in the Topology of Being (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 25. 38. Williston, “The Question Concerning Geoengineering.” 39. Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum, Big World, Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 65. 40. Ibid. 41. Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell, rev. ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 213–66. 42. Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). 43. Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 25. 44. Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 2015), 91. 45. Bruno Latour, “Telling Friends from Foes in the Time of the Anthropocene,” in The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis, ed. Clive Hamilton, Cristophe Bonneuil, and Francoise Gemmene (London: Routledge, 2015), 151. 46. Byron Williston, “Climate Change Ethics,” in Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene, vol. 4, ed. Michael Goldstein and Dominick DellaSalla (Oxford: Elsevier, 2017), 45–52.

Chapter 9

Which Way I Fly: Reforming Nihilism in the Anthropocene Jon Wittrock

THE ANTHROPOCENE, AUTONOMY, AND THE AXIAL AGE The Anthropocene—a name for a new geological epoch in which human activities impact radically and dramatically on the planet and the ecosystems the species inhabits—could be grasped in its symbolic as well as some of its empirical aspects by referring to global air traffic. Not only does the increase in air traffic signal the spread of prosperity, the increased ease with which goods and people move around a “shrinking world,” the emergence of newly and no-longer-so-newly industrialized countries across the globe, and thereby a shift of the economic and political balance of power, but it also intersects with the many fears this development carries with it. Thus, there is the fear of terrorism, the sudden emergence of disruptive natural phenomena, the increasing migratory flows, the speed with which pandemics may now spread, the anxieties of increasing wealth divides generally, and a pressured middle class in wealthy countries. The third estate huddle in the cramped and magically shrinking seats of “cattle class,” while the global elites sip champagne in their comfy compartments, or simply travel by private jet instead. Indeed, the entire, emerging global system may be likened to a modern jetliner, so increasingly secure and inclusive in one sense, while simultaneously so vulnerable to sudden intrusions by the disgruntled, or to the “pilot errors” of incompetent or deluded politicians. And, of course, air traffic also invokes the fears of ecological devastation, of the rapid transformation of local holiday “paradises” in the wake of mass tourism, and the pollution of the atmosphere threatening global ecological disaster. If aircraft accidents and larger disruptions, whether caused by terrorism or volcanic eruptions or other natural events, expose the vulnerability of the 153


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contemporary global air traffic system, they also simultaneously uncover the astounding safety and regularity of its normal running. Those—an increasing number, worldwide—who have the means, can currently fly around the planet with relative ease and impressive security. The shadows cast by the perception of current crises, and the future developments they herald, however, bring to mind a few lines from Paradise Lost: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.”1 These few words of poetry illuminate core contemporary dilemmas of political debates. If libertarians and broadly egalitarian liberals (including social democrats) quarrel about the extent of permissible state intervention in the lives of individuals, and the opposed priorities of different interpretations of genuine autonomy, republican thinkers remind us not only to attend to structural relations of domination in the present, but also that liberty must be protected over time: it is not enough to secure a precarious liberty in the present, but one must also seek to guard its maintenance, and attend to the structural relationships one finds oneself lodged within.2 Even this, however, is arguably not enough. Autonomy is a question of the coercion, formation, and abilities of agents, but also of the range of options they can choose from.3 Imagine being situated within an immense, dark cube, with no hindrances to do whatever you like, or go wherever you desire. This would probably not be an appealing situation, even to the most hardcore of libertarians. Imagine, furthermore, being provided by a beneficial authority with a jetpack to fly around inside this cube and enough food and water to last you a lifetime—still not satisfied? I did not think so. A prison entails not only constraint of movement in a limited area according to preset rules but also containment in an area of experiential deprivation. Autonomy as unconstrained movement is not enough: what most people who value freedom are actually after is, rather, meaningful autonomy over time. We want there to be some structural safeguards against our autonomy disappearing, or being radically cut down, tomorrow. And, whether we favor liberty from the state or advocate extensive state intervention to realize autonomy by providing us with equality of opportunities and the redistribution of resources, we need a world to discover, people to interact with, things to craft and use, landscapes to roam around, animals, plants, and ecosystems. Some also value some cultural traditions enough, and find them vulnerable enough, to think that the state should support their reproduction, while others point out that landscapes and organisms need likewise be protected, for those alive now and those who may come after us.4 Autonomy—a, perhaps the, core theme of contemporary political philosophy within the West—is not valuable to most people without a world to explore. The presupposition of a valuable existence is that there is a world to exist within. This presupposition was more or less taken for granted throughout human history, but can no longer be so. With the increasing sophistication

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of the modern sciences and their attendant technologies, we have not only discovered how precarious our situation as a species has always been—nestled as we are within a brief time space of relative security and stability that could be shattered at any time by a disaster of planetary proportions—but we are also constantly acquiring new means of annihilating ourselves. On the one hand, then, human action may intentionally or accidentally transform the planet into what would seem, to a surviving human being, a hellish landscape indeed. If coming crises devastate life on this planet, we may leave behind a hellscape; those who inherit it, if any do, will then indeed find out, if they can fly, that which way they fly is hell. On the other hand, however, if we ourselves are hell, it does not matter where we go: no matter how lush the forests, how gleaming the seas, how kind and welcoming the people, we will only encounter hell. To put it less dramatically, there is the wider issue of phenomenological receptivity: a merely distributive paradigm of justice5 risks glossing over not only social structures of roles and positions but also the fundamental observation that we do not distribute fixed, constant substances or goods, since human beings are capable of a wide spectrum of phenomenological variation in the experience of any such substance or good: it is not only a matter of distributing rights, opportunities, and resources, but there is also the question of how we communicate about, and perceive, any physical entity. Similarly, time is experienced, not as a fixed resource, but as boredom, or something we lack, or as flow, or as coming to a halt in wondrous openness.6 Space is not a matter merely of acres and kilometers, but of a topography of meaning, joining together to form a domain of cultural significance. These are themes that are central to Martin Heidegger’s critique of nihilism, which will be examined and developed later. What Heidegger was ultimately after is the dynamic whereby we adopt certain existential stances (how we think and act) and how that, in turn, impacts how beings emerge phenomenologically. Our interaction with other human beings follows a logic of reciprocity, not simply in the sense of trust or mistrust, but also in the sense that our way of approaching the other impacts how the other responds to us, thereby unveiling this or that aspect of who they are, and can be. Our interactions with animals work in analogous ways. Less obviously, however, our interaction with what we consider to be nonliving beings also follows a certain phenomenological dynamic. Even if we do not materially change our surroundings, our ways of perceiving them change depending on our own existential stance, and following from our behavioral patterns. We may meditate, or ingest drugs, or dance and drum, or fast, so that our phenomenological trajectories, our ways of experiencing beings and time, are transformed. Everyone with the slightest knowledge of the history of religion knows this. What is less clear, however, is what kind of political impact this knowledge should have for contemporary, secular politics.


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Here we may invoke the notion of an Axial Age, proposed in the middle of the twentieth century by Karl Jaspers, and subsequently developed by other scholars.7 Jaspers observed that several important conceptual innovations emerged roughly simultaneously, in the first millennium BC, religious and philosophical revolutions that still impact us to a large degree. In approaching the concept of an Axial Age, we obviously encounter questions as to the actual novelty and similarity of supposed “Axial” traditions as distinct as Confucianism, Buddhism, Greek Philosophy, and Hebrew Prophecy, and we also have to acknowledge that there has been a considerable degree of innovation and reinterpretation since then—Islam is an obvious example.8 Hence, we could distinguish between a chronological Axial Age and the spatiotemporal extension of wider “axial” traditions that are neither monolithic nor unchanging, nor all alike.9 Nevertheless, an interesting facet of these debates is that they remind us of the questions concerning the relevance of these traditions in a contemporary global space, and outside of the confines of any particular religious tradition or institution. Perhaps a confrontation with the impact of axial traditions can help us in considering the presuppositions of meaningful autonomy in the Anthropocene? Religion is an ambiguous concept, tied to a host of concepts, narratives, and practices, some of which we may laud, and others of which we may reject as we adapt them to contemporary conditions. For example, the notion that human rights have been inspired by Christian theology, and may combat cruelty and injustice on a global scale, is rather a cliché by now, as is the observation that Marx’s works and their impact on people can be seen as immanently eschatological, prophetical, or quasi-religious.10 More broadly, we may embrace calls for justice, or germs of an ethical universalism, found in many religious and philosophical traditions, and secularize and extend them—hence we may argue, for example, with Peter Singer, in favor of an “expanding circle” of moral concern, including nonhuman living beings endowed with interests and the capacity for suffering, while not relying on any specific religious narrative, tradition, or institution.11 In other words, we may appropriate what we find valuable in axial traditions in a broader sense, and seek to reach consensus on a nonreligious conceptualization of ethical universalism, human, and even animal rights. Thus we could well agree with Augustine, for example, when he complains about the brutality of gladiator games, pitting people against each other to the jeers of the spectators, without necessarily sharing his Christian faith; we may likewise, even if we are nonbelievers, appreciate those aspects of the emerging Christianity of antiquity which, as David Bentley Hart puts it, entailed recognizing “the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity.”12 Are the problems of the Anthropocene, however, the same as those of the Axial Age and antiquity? Is it enough to draw upon critiques concerning interhuman violence and domination? Some would undoubtedly agree with

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Singer that we need to take the interests of animals into account as well— something which has obviously been a concern to several religious traditions, but could be extended beyond them. But what about wider “nature?” When Singer draws his circle of moral concern, he stops at stones, for example: “It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer.”13 This is not to say that we should not preserve stones, if we so desire, but that is not because the stone will suffer, but because we may appreciate the stone in its current state. Obviously, there may be a host of social and cultural reasons for respecting stones: maybe they are considered sacred according to some religious or ideological narrative, and hence, to kick them would be to disrespect a certain human group. Nevertheless, the events of the Anthropocene, with its drastic increase in human powers over the natural world, and the threats that this brings with it, do appear to call for a more extensive response than simply human rights, especially narrower conceptions of them. Thus, we may call for environmental and animal rights, and religious believers may develop variants of ecotheology. In the following, however, I will turn to another possible angle on the problems of the Anthropocene, engaging with the thought of the later Heidegger, a thinker who offers helpful ways of thinking about the contemporary impact of axial traditions. In so doing, I will rely on a simple analogy: just as socialists have developed reformist strategies in relation to the perceived problems of capitalism, drawing upon the works of Marx and Engels, we could draw upon the works of Heidegger and attempt to develop reformist strategies in relation to what he called nihilism. By recourse to his critique, then, I will attempt to open up for contestation some areas that are frequently neglected or marginalized by contemporary mainstream political philosophy, as well as within wider public debates. I will thus seek to appropriate a few, core concepts recurring within those works, and sketch some possible pragmatic implications of my interpretations of them. I will take on three crucial notions advanced by the later Heidegger—those of god, event, and sheltering. I will neither reject the concepts proposed by Heidegger entirely nor embrace them without reservation. Rather, I will argue that Heidegger’s thought remains relevant in considering the role of public communication for questions of meaningful autonomy, as well as in his raising the question of the potential impact of extraordinary phenomenological experiences, or “events.” A CONTEMPORARY CRITICAL TASK: REFORMING NIHILISM The nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed the emergence of grand, critical narratives, which, however, have had widely distinct trajectories in


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terms of institutional and party-political outcomes. Notably, while Marx’s critique of capitalism came to inspire revolutionary as well as reformist movements, where the latter came to be incorporated as normal elements of the established party systems of many liberal democracies, nothing of the kind can be said of those critiques of nihilism which were inspired by Nietzsche’s extensive examinations of the subject: briefly put, while there are and have been many social democratic movements, which have attempted to critically address the flaws of capitalism while accepting the political mechanisms of liberal democracy, the same does not hold true when it comes to nihilism, even though the National Socialists lauded Nietzsche and used his works for propagandistic purposes. “Nihilism” has more often come to be used as a dismissive term for whatever a certain author dislikes, and there has been no mass political movement explicitly aiming to take on the problems of nihilism by way of democratic reformism, while there have indeed been successful movements responding to the perceived problems of capitalism in this way. Is there something about critiques of nihilism that make them essentially unfit for a development corresponding to that of reformism in relation to capitalism? If so, is this because these critiques are flawed—too vague, or perhaps not pointing to relevant problems—or is it rather that the problems examined by critics of nihilism are of such a nature that they cannot really be addressed by means of party politics and modern institutions? What interests me, then, is the question of whether we can use nihilism as a meaningful, contemporary critical concept and approach the phenomena to which it then refers by means of democratic reformism. Thus, what motivates me in the following is a very simple analogy: if capitalism has been criticized and approached by reformist movements, could the same be true of nihilism? Could we reform nihilism? That, of course, again, depends on what we understand by the term “nihilism”: does it refer to some real problems, which can actually be addressed by political measures, and which are not already addressed by some other equally or more useful term? In the nineteenth century, the idea of being a “nihilist” spread, along with its associated vagueness about what, exactly, that entailed; for example, “I am a socialist, nihilist, republican and everything that can be contrary to the reactionaries,” eccentric Swedish writer August Strindberg exclaimed with characteristic enthusiasm in 1880.14 The major philosophical force in formulating a critique of nihilism was Nietzsche. The notion of nihilism has often referred to a loss of values, above all moral ones, reaching an abysmal end point in the labor and death camps of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes. In this sense, nihilism comes close to evil, as an absence of good, or simply a lack of morality, love, or care. Here, nihilism has become, above all, an ethical or moral concern, and it is tied to a historical development of rupture or regress, where altruism, or care, or morality, or moral values are

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lost, or lose their meaning and capacity to actually inspire action; in a striking simile that Hannah Arendt was fond of, moral rules and standards “could be exchanged,” with the advent of National Socialism, “for another set with no more trouble than it would take to exchange the table manners of a whole people.”15 Nihilism could become the reverse, or dark mirror image, of a vision of history in terms of moral progression: instead of progress toward a more desirable state of human interaction, we arrive at an image of history as the regress toward an increasingly repulsive one. Or nihilism could be equated with the dark side of modernity, but not, however, necessarily as empirically excluding moral progress: it is possible to perceive modern history as essentially a movement of moral-progressive promise and nihilism intertwined, and at times triggering each other. For example, it could be asserted that promises of historical salvation and justice have resulted in not only tangible benefits but also legitimized movements and regimes that have entailed large-scale murder and violent oppression. There is, however, another notion of nihilism, not as the reverse of or lapse in moral progress, but rather as pointing to that which is excluded from the promises of moral progress, even if these were consistently realized. Here, nihilism becomes a term through which to highlight problems that might well be pervasive even in a socially just, morally enlightened, and peaceful world. If nihilism in the former sense concerns a crisis of interhuman relations, in the latter sense, it pertains to a crisis in the relations of humanity to both other human beings and to that which is not human, including not only other living beings, but all beings and time. Ultimately, this is a question of what I have called the dark cube, or of the preconditions for meaningful autonomy over time. I believe this latter strand of critique is a more promising source of critical-conceptual mining, since the former strand is already addressed by ethical critiques and norms of human rights and hopes for justice. That is, to label genocides as examples of nihilism might well be done, but it adds little in combating genocides, or in formulating norms and institutions that prohibit them. To focus on critiques of nihilism as concerning questions beyond such problem areas may add something more, however, since they point to less explored problems that are not already addressed. In the following, I will thus turn to Heidegger’s critique of nihilism and its contemporary “consummation” on a global scale, in the erection of planetwide technological and purposive-rational systems. To Heidegger, the technological colonization and communicative integration of the planet was a great threat, not only in an ecological sense, or because of the dangers of nuclear war, but because it covers over our actual experience even as it radically transforms our immediate surroundings and the way in which we dwell, work, and organize time and space, while simultaneously making us comfortable and forgetful of our finitude. Some would laud this as basically a


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great success, if only we could address the threats of ecological catastrophes and the warlike tendencies of our species, but Heidegger viewed it as a disastrous development either way, since it changes the way in which we relate to beings and time by way of a generalization of an instrumental, reductive stance toward them. Now, there are, it seems to me, at least two basically different ways to appropriate the varied works of the later Heidegger in relation to this global development, which correspond to two intimately intertwined tendencies within those works themselves. The first type of appropriation focuses on the role of a particular people and perhaps a specific political entity in resisting, and possibly transforming, the dangers Heidegger perceived. This tendency can be not only explicitly political, as in Heidegger’s support for the National Socialist regime and calls for a German renewal, but it can also appear in a milder, cultural strand, calling for German poets and thinkers, following in the path of previous German (and Greek, mostly) poets and thinkers. In both cases, a certain cultural environment resists the dangers of a scientifically and technologically driven globalization. Those who desire to appropriate this Heidegger but are neither German-speaking nor Germanophiles have to do it by way of applying him to their own cultural context by way of analogy. The second way of appropriating Heidegger, however, takes heed of the fact that we are indeed speaking of a global development, which can be expected to result in similar pressures and concerns everywhere on the earth, more or less symmetrically. Here, we do not care about a specific cultural context but rather hope that a few human beings here and there will share a similar experience of something being fundamentally wrong about this brave new world, something elusive, beyond the grasp of our common critical languages (calls for social justice, human rights, even ecological awareness), and these “few and rare” may coalesce, more or less simultaneously and possibly without coordination, exactly since they are facing similar concerns, stemming from roughly symmetrical, global pressures.16 This Heidegger can be appropriated without any kind of calls for a particular cultural renewal. This is a Heidegger, potentially, of the left, perhaps even a liberal Heidegger! Is there something we can do more concretely, however, about the themes surveyed earlier, and perhaps even politically in the narrower sense of party politics, political reform, and publicly supported institutional setups? In the following, I am not asking whether such a development is likely, but whether it is conceivable, so that we can translate it into somewhat more concrete proposals. CRITICAL CONCEPTS: SHELTERING, GOD, AND EVENT Heidegger’s basic view was that scientific theories concerning objects may indeed be correct, but they are not true. To us, things glitter and glimmer;

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we can perceive those we love as surrounded by a warm glow, or as radiant with luminosity; water in the sacred spring or trees in a grove will appear in ways that evoke, in many at least, a sense of a phenomenological surplus, an overflow that is not captured by a scientific explanation of these phenomena as calculable objects and processes. This does not refute such explanations; it only points out that they do not capture the full “truth” of the way things appear to us, and neither do they manage to incorporate all of being into one coherent theory, without limitations and the possibilities of further discoveries. We can always posit a “nothing,” something beyond the limits of what we presently observe or infer. And even if we were to arrive at a broad consensus around a scientific, corroborated theory about consciousness that would clearly explain and predict phenomenological variation, this theory still would not amount to experiencing the world as we experience it. At best, it could exhaustively describe the causes of our experiences, and predict their future trajectories given certain factors. The later Heidegger also argued that a broader problem of nihilism consists in the construction of purposive-rational systems that are aided by modern technologies and satisfy human desires, a development that comes to colonize the human world and penetrate its very depths. Hence, we are witnessing, in his terminology, the “consummation of nihilism” on a global scale, in the “darkening of the world”17—or in other words, the erection of purposive-­ rational systems of production, communication, and habitation which increasingly structure our everyday lives and impact how we perceive reality. In considering these processes, the later Heidegger offers the notion of the “sheltering in beings of the truth of beyng,” to speak with one of the translations into English of Heidegger’s posthumously published Contributions to Philosophy.18 Relying on a phenomenological approach, we could interpret the notion of sheltering as allowing for the phenomenological plenitude of a being, which thus “shelters the truth of being”; it is by allowing for the “sheltering” of phenomenological plenitude in a single phenomenon, apprehended as a whole, that the actual “truth” of “being” can indeed be conveyed to us, through a being. That is, something as simple as a body of water could, on the one hand, be perceived as a “sacred” spring, since it is connected to a theophany or some crucial political event, but, on the other hand, simply perceiving this body of water in all its phenomenological plenitude—it glitters and shimmers, there is a play of light and shadow, we can hear the sound of it—reminds us of the richness of what we actually experience, and that the world within which we find ourselves is ultimately overwhelming, aweinspiring, and enigmatic, as are we, ourselves. Heidegger speaks of sheltering in terms of the “strife between earth and world” (also prominently explored in the famous essay “The Origin of the Work of Art”), that is, between our attempts to construe an intelligible human world and the limits of our understanding of the ultimately elusive


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phenomenological surface which appears to our senses.19 This conceptual pairing is brilliantly subversive, since it firmly locates that which is “transcendent,” which eludes our grasp and evokes awe, in the very materiality or concreteness of what we perceive; “earth” here replaces any notion of a sacred sky or heaven, which is why I think this formulation of Heidegger’s is much more successful, in its elegant simplicity, than his later notions of the “fourfold” of gods, mortals, earth, and sky. What Heidegger sketches here, then, is an alternative to “the sacred”: that is, the sacred is not something belonging to a god, it is not something storing or conveying a divine or magical force, or revered by recourse to the fact that it is linked to either a divine event (a theophany, a miracle) or an external event of human history (a national monument), but rather, a being can “shelter” the truth of being, in its phenomenological plenitude. This does manage to capture something more general, and yet it is also the outcome of a highly idiosyncratic understanding. Idiosyncratic, yes, but not necessarily restricted to Heidegger or Heideggerians. On the contrary, is not this exactly the phenomenological aspect of something “sacred” which even the most ardent atheist and perhaps believer in the epistemological and even ontological primacy of the natural sciences could accept? An austere sacredness, unbound to any specific time or space: any body of water, any duration of time, any walk in the woods, could entail an event of sheltering, and a reminder of surplus and limits. Sheltering would combine a reminder of phenomenological plentitude with one of the enigmatic nature of being: there is always an ontological surplus, something that escapes our understanding, just as there is a phenomenological surplus which escapes any attempt at exhaustive linguistic communication. We could thus, for example, reflect on our public use of language, and on how the way we describe and portray beings may lock in our understanding of them within a rather narrow spectrum of possibilities. By reflecting upon what language reveals and conceals, we may come to remember how our world of experiences is much richer than what we tend to communicate, and we may retrieve moments of illumination and phenomenological trajectories that are withheld deep within our memories. And by not being simply caught within the web of Heidegger’s own arresting concepts and enigmatic silences, we may think further, on how to attend to that which was the core of his later thinking: the dynamic through which beings come to appear and come together. This does not necessarily imply following Heidegger’s calls for poetic thinking, but we could reflect not only upon how the dehumanization of human beings precedes genocides but also upon whether the way in which we communicate about animals, nature, and wider reality impacts how we approach them. We could also actively erect spaces for “sheltering”: that is, spaces for the perception of phenomenological plenitude, and protected, sheltered temporal intervals. Since we do not know the answers to questions

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concerning the ultimate nature of consciousness, or whether there is a god or some similar entity, we may still focus on what we do experience and develop our phenomenological receptivity—a relevant undertaking whether we believe in an afterlife or not. This way of appropriating the later Heidegger thus entails embracing an austere agnosticism, an insistence on fundamental ontological uncertainty, on the ultimately enigmatic character of being, that is to say, we do not ultimately know what it means for something to be. We can observe beings, we can construe more or less correct theories about them (according to criteria like predictive and explanatory accuracy, theoretical coherence, and corroboration), we can observe continuously grander and continuously more minute objects, we can trace the interplay of forces, and quite literally look back in time, as well as predict or speculate about the future. But we may do well to remember that we ultimately, still, do not know what it means for something to be. We should retain a degree of modesty, and reverence, in the face of the unknown, and perhaps unknowable. There are further crucial elements of Heidegger’s critique of nihilism, however. As the earlier Heidegger pointed out in Being and Time, when we use a hammer, we do not encounter it theoretically: we do not look at it and study it, but take part in a weave of practices.20 When we are absorbed in an activity, we tend to take its constituent elements for granted; it is only when the hammer breaks down that we have to investigate it, to know how it functions, what has failed, and how to fix it. This observation, however, concerns more than hammers: when an understanding of finitude penetrates our psychological defenses, we reflect on our existential aims; when ecosystems break down, their taken-for-granted effects become visible, and we may reflect upon them and how to adjust our collective existence; if we live in societies where conflicts are alleviated by economic growth and upward mobility, the absence of these factors will allow for a deepened reflection on what holds our societies together and binds us to each other, and any failure of a social glue would reveal it, previously invisible, as such, and so on. Similarly, when we are overcome by awe and wonder, or submerged into an explosion of light, or feel as if we are pervaded by what one witness calls “liquid love,” this will cause a reflection on our everyday experience of the world, which is otherwise beyond our grasp.21 There are, in fact, not only phenomenological limit experiences, dramatic shifts, but also less dramatic, smooth trajectories out of that consensus reality which we typically communicate. And there are different culturally accepted ways of communicating such shifts and trajectories out of the common (in both senses of the word). Heidegger invokes the two notions of god and event, and he places these two increasingly at the center of his later thought. To put it briefly, Heidegger appears to think of “gods” as shared names for certain states of consciousness


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which dramatically elude our interpretative frameworks but are simultaneously incorporated into a symbolic order, and his notion of Ereignis, while literally translating into English as “event,” is clearly meant to at least partly signify something else than an event in an ordinary sense of the word.22 Just as Plato’s idea signifies exactly that which is not immediately visible, Heidegger’s event signifies exactly that which is not an “event,” an occurrence in ordinary communication. Several different interpretations of this—to Heidegger himself, crucial—concept have been offered. I believe the most interesting one would point to “events” that destabilize our ordinary, phenomenological and potentially ontological understanding of the world. Such an event can then either be reintegrated into an existing interpretation of reality or result in a new one, or some mixture of the two (a partial reinterpretation). All of these, then, in turn invoke a horizon of understanding being, which implies that other ways are simultaneously repressed. I interpret Heidegger as pushing toward a unification of what we can perhaps call the “transcendental” and the “mystical” interpretations. Intense, destabilizing experiences relativize our ordinary way of experiencing beings, and hence they imply that beings emerge in this way or that—that the very way in which beings appear to us varies. And then this has to be thought historically. The way in which beings appear to us varies historically, and destabilizing experiences themselves can be foundational to such variations, but they can also be reintegrated into existing heuristic frameworks, or simply dissipate into uncertainty. However, if we want to trace the phenomenology of extraordinary phenomenological events or trajectories, we should do so with an awareness of their nuances, while the notion of Ereignis is only one, single concept. Would we not want several concepts to really map the rich phenomenological terrain we are after? If we would like to use the concept of Ereignis more generally, but narrowed down to a meaning of phenomenological “events,” we still face some tough questions: does it signify, more specifically, say, what W. T. Stace called the introvertive type of “mystical consciousness” (an experience of the unity of all things), or the extrovertive type (an experience of “void”),23 or a broader range of what is commonly called “religious” as well as “aesthetic” experiences, or perhaps what Kant called experiences of the “sublime?”24 Furthermore, just like the notion of event, that of gods, too, is hardly clear, resulting in quite different interpretations. To some, a “god” is simply a symbol for shared practices; to others, it may be that which eludes our cognitive grasp of the world; and for yet others, something we invoke when speaking of those experiences which are phenomenologically overwhelming—or it may be all three, but if so, do all have to be present? Is the concept meant to capture what people have actually meant by using the word “god” throughout history, or what some people have meant, or what those with the greatest insight have meant, or what Heidegger

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thinks people of the future should mean? Should “god” invoke the limits of metaphysical, cognitive certitude, of the reach of observation or inference, the overwhelming phenomenological abundance of some experiences that call for interpretation to be reintegrated into a semblance of symbolic stability, or something we unite around in pursuing paths of phenomenological exploration, perhaps in conjunction with certain cognitive, emotional, and bodily practices? EMPIRE AND DEUS EX MACHINA What is really original and interesting about the later Heidegger’s critique, it seems to me, is that it integrates into a critical analysis of a contemporary global dynamic a consideration of phenomenological “events,” beyond established organized religion. Heidegger famously hopes for a god that would save us.25 Even if one would hypothesize that similar pressures around the globe would provoke similar counter-reactions, however, there is no obvious reason to expect that these growing communities of dissenters would converge around a shared “god.” Yes, there are certainly “Heideggerians,” but even they disagree on the meaning of his concepts, not to mention what practices they call for; so they simply form yet another fragmented community among countless others, reacting in various ways against the pressures, similar in character but asymmetric in effect, of contemporary, global, technological, economic, environmental, and cultural developments. This, then, is the dead end Heidegger walks into, the logical end point of his later thought, which ends in the call for a god, the appearance of a deus ex machina. Extraordinary states of consciousness make this dynamic of variation more visible. Following in Heidegger’s path, we may distinguish between viewing history, historisch, as a sequence of occurrences playing out, as it were, like set pieces on a board in accordance with our own ontological interpretation (our own historically situated worldview), and seeking to understand it, geschichtlich, which entails perceiving it in terms of events, of receiving fateful disclosures that open up a space for interpreting beings and their interrelations. It is indeed a superficial understanding that grasps history without seeking to trace phenomenological shifts, how people have perceived the world and spoken and thought about it differently, and how intense and overwhelming experiences of awe and wonder, luminosity and love, transcending the everyday and ordinary, have shaped history and had a huge cultural impact. One does not understand actual human history without taking these elements into account, and it is a valid point of Heidegger’s that the way we speak of these things easily becomes reductive or trivializing. Also, the notion of fateful disclosure, or Geschick, remains relevant. Fate


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has been rendered mythologically in terms of a thread, that is, as signifying how things are interconnected. What Heidegger implies is that we should try to perceive these threads in a dual way: that beings are interconnected, and how. Again, the metaphor of a web comes to mind: we can seek to trace the thread in terms of causal chains, but also in terms of how we perceive and interpret the phenomena which are so connected. When Heidegger, in speaking favorably of Heraclitus, claims that his own notion of Ereignis is thought in a way which is no longer according to ancient Greek thinking, since it entails thinking historically (geschichtlich), what is he trying to say?26 With the discovery of history, as a new and vast continent (but not necessarily the one we expected to find!), new perspectives open up. We are able to trace not only the relativity of culture-bound ontologies but also the crucial impact of “events” on human history. We are beginning to perceive the broader pattern which, however, must not be reduced to a pattern; we must also understand the intensity and impact of extraordinary states of consciousness, since otherwise, we still only grasp history historisch. What would it entail to think historically—geschichtlich—today? Attempts to conceptually capture the developments of a contemporary global space, or salient aspects thereof, have, during the past few decades, evoked notions of empire, often resting upon a comparison with the Roman Empire of antiquity. We may play indeed endlessly with such analogies: perhaps the United States is like Western Rome and Europe like Eastern Rome, even if the two have never quite combined into an integrated order comparable to that of Rome. Or the current global capitalist and political orders constitute a socially stratified empire, or perhaps we could speak of an “imperial mode of living” characterizing the consumer classes of the global North?27 Perhaps planetary technological integration constitutes the fulfilment of the promises of that “empire of man over things” heralded by Francis Bacon?28 The rhetorical strategy of invoking empire is, obviously, one of resistance: the empire as a polemical concept, referring to a set of norms, narratives, and practices that should be resisted. But more interesting are the echoes of the dynamic whereby Christianity came to not simply resist the Roman Empire, but absorb it, and be absorbed by it. This logic of absorption implies that the resistance must pervade and take on the form of imperial space, while both merging with and transforming it. If we portray the empire as global capitalism, the rhetoric would imply that capitalism may be absorbed by the resistance, and its machines put to new use, within that same imperial—global—space. If the empire, however, is a matter of an imperial space of calculable objects and forces, tied to technological and purposive-rational systems, what would that imply for the logic of absorption? I think Heidegger ultimately indicates that the “site” under threat today is not simply a physical site, but the very “event” of the emergence of a god, since the “violence” is primarily

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a matter of language and thinking.29 It is less the storming of Jerusalem by the Romans, and more the confusion of Philip K. Dick.30 This is why the response should be a new language and way of thinking. It would certainly be fascinating if something “divine” manifested within the spacetime of the sciences and a global space of technological systems, in an analogous manner to the way in which Christianity spread within, and pervaded, Roman imperial space, thus escaping the fate of particularistic responses defending one city or sacred site against the entire might of the empire. We may envisage various possibilities here. Capitalism could appropriate everything and religion be transformed entirely into business, selling meditation courses, perhaps packets of ascetic, psychedelic, and phenomenological exploration with expert guides, and the whole thing would become completely commodified. Or neurotheological explorations could continue, and become increasingly refined, and we would learn exactly how to manipulate the brain in order to conjure up extraordinary states of consciousness, aided by technology—a deus ex machina, indeed!31 These two possibilities could also converge in interesting and frightening ways.32 As of yet, however, these remain speculative possibilities. Until we reach consensus on a comprehensive and corroborated theory of consciousness, however, we appear to remain in a situation where there is still a “gap,” one of several that atheists complain that theists reach for in defending a “God of the gaps.” And even if those gaps are closed, theologians still rely on faith or the intuition that God exists, say a sensus divinitatis that renders faith in God, or some version thereof, epistemologically “warranted.”33 Furthermore, the theist may retort against arguments from religious and ontological pluralism that although these may have different psychological effects, they do not in themselves constitute arguments against faith.34 Neither does the complaint that “faith” in itself is a peculiar way of approaching these questions, with its own cultural and chronological specificities. And we may always postulate a God, and rely on the mysteries of the unknown. Furthermore, in contradistinction to ascetic, monastic, and meditative traditions, Heidegger does not even provide us with a broader outline of the bodily and mental practices that may aid us in the phenomenological exploration of the emergence of beings and nature of consciousness. Unlike, say, John Cassian, Heidegger does not offer us a clear path for phenomenological exploration; his strangeness is not anchored in clearly outlined practices.35 So what would “reforming nihilism” entail? REFORMING NIHILISM IN THE ANTHROPOCENE The analogy I set out from was one between critiques of capitalism and critiques of nihilism: if social democrats have transformed Marx’s more


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extensive calls for communism into pragmatic politics within the framework of liberal democracy and mixed economies, could we do something similar pertaining to Heidegger’s critique of nihilism? What Heidegger is intervening in, in his own peculiar way, is the debate as to which elements of religious traditions should be appropriated in addressing contemporary problems. Now, it is important that we remember that Heidegger’s hope for a god is no eschatological anticipation in a Christian sense. Heidegger is not hoping for the parousia; rather, he is saying that phenomenological events have played an important role in resisting the integration of everything as resources within rational systems—the consummation of nihilism grasped as a set of observable processes. Phenomenological exceptions have been intertwined with the erection of normative and physical boundaries around sacred domains, spatial as well as temporal. There are several interesting questions to consider here. First, and most obviously, we could consider erecting and extending spatiotemporal demarcations, delimiting ordinary instrumental usage. In contemporary states, this is a question of national monuments and sites, holidays, wildlife reserves, and the like. Such domains could conceivably be extended, although we do not appear to have to draw upon Heidegger here. More interestingly, however, we could consider sources of normative arguments. While thought experiments and intuitions are frequently called upon by secular moral and political philosophers, social and political as well as phenomenological events may also be relevant and, in both cases, call for interpretation to yield a normative direction. Thus, first, we may well argue that “human rights need to adjust to the context of globalization, in much the same way they adjusted earlier to the Holocaust,” and that “in a globalized world, the human rights obligations of states are simply not enough. Mechanisms need to be created that ensure the accountability of other actors”; “These actors include influential economic powers whose actions drive people into poverty.”36 If the conceptualization of globalization is extended to incorporate the Anthropocene, we may call for an adaptation in the face of ecological crises, ecocide, and solastalgia. This could entail a much more extensive protection of ecosystems, habitats, and animal rights, as well as protected temporal domains, against those forces of acceleration that Heidegger complained about.37 Again, however, we do not appear to need to draw upon Heidegger’s critique of nihilism to make these points.38 As for the public use of language, Heidegger is more immediately relevant. Human rights are supposed to protect human dignity and autonomy. We may easily perceive how calls for individual autonomy, as against state intrusion and coercion, clash with calls for social and economic rights, requiring taxation and state regulation. We may call for animal rights, which would then set limits for human autonomy. However, as for dignity, is this simply a redundant notion that has unfortunately been incorporated into the discourse

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on human rights? Not necessarily: if dignity is grasped as a boundary against discursive and behavioral dehumanization—describing some human beings as filthy animals, and treating them as if they belong on the lowest conceivably rung of the social ladder—this appears to be a step in the direction of genocide.39 Accepting this argument, however, we would need to consider the discursive treatment of animals as well as, possibly, all beings. This, at least, is what Heidegger appears to say, cautioning us against terms such as “objects” and “reality,” as already reflecting an instrumental stance, where resources are called upon for use.40 Heidegger’s argument is fully consistent with debates on human rights, with the crucial difference, of course, that many of us do not believe that inanimate nature “suffers” from our treatment of it. Nevertheless, even if we maintain a more or less clear line of demarcation between living and nonliving, we could argue that reducing away phenomenological plenty makes our own autonomy less meaningful, as well as worrying about the implications for our autonomy over time, if the way in which we communicate about beings and time indeed contributes to ecocide. And as for animals, the analogy is much clearer: just as we could argue that a reductive or dehumanizing communication about human beings may threaten their autonomy over time, so we may worry that the way in which we think and communicate about animals threatens their meaningful autonomy in the present and over time. Again, the logic of Heidegger’s argument fits well within the broader confines of debates on autonomy, dignity, and human rights. As for phenomenological events, if we perceive the extension of instrumental utility to everything as a problem, it is not that far-fetched to think that a “god” would aid in setting limits to it. This is not claiming that religious traditions have always set boundaries to instrumental usage in a laudable manner, but that this is one aspect of what they have done that could be appropriated and extended beyond them. Just as with human dignity and theology, we are not saying that theology and Christian institutions have always and successfully protected human dignity; rather, it is saying that at their best, they have done so, and that this tendency may be appropriated and extended beyond them. We are thus faced with a fascinating question: Do extraordinary states of consciousness, which have been foundational to many religious traditions, and incorporated within the heuristic and institutional frameworks of them, necessarily have to be thought of either as a matter of “organized religion” or as fragmentation? Would it be possible to institutionalize paths of phenomenological exploration, outside of religious traditions, in contemporary secular democracies? If so, could they carry their own normative implications, in relation to the perceived problems of the global space of the Anthropocene? Phenomenological exploration may be invoked as a way of decreasing the need for material consumption, as a path


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toward phenomenological openness, or experiences of the unity of all things may serve as impulses toward an “expanding circle” of ethical concern, just as such experiences were channeled, in the Axial Age and antiquity, into a resistance against violent brutality and oppressive order. In a postwar text—composed for the occasion of the sixtieth birthday in 1955 of his friend, enigmatic German author and quixotic magical realist Ernst Jünger—Heidegger cautions against “re-active attempts to oppose nihilism that, instead of entering into a critical encounter with its essence, undertake a restoration of the past.”41 If we turn to religious traditions to withstand nihilism, as the appropriation of everything as resources, we are thus failing to confront nihilism as a global phenomenon, and failing to reach its roots. If, however, we resort to “giv[ing] up all metaphysics and replac[ing] it with logistics, sociology, and psychology,” then “the same flight presses upon us.”42 Religious traditions integrate “events” symbolically and institutionally (to a differing degree, of course), whereas the sciences have often glossed them over as insignificant. There are two ways in which resorting to existing religious traditions could conceivably become “re-active” here, in the sense of failing to adapt to the present circumstances. First, if instrumental pressures are global, it would make sense to call for global counterpressures; again, the analogy would be with human rights. Second, however—and I believe this is what Heidegger intended—if the “violence” of the contemporary world is not only one of the oppression, exploitation, and dehumanization of human beings— although it is also that, obviously—but also to an increasing extent an issue of instrumentalizing all beings, and time, then the counterpressure should be adjusted accordingly. Thus, a creative response would need to entail a proactive confrontation with the contemporary context. If we do not believe that the “events” of theophanies and religious revelation are encounters with a monotheistic God, but rather that a monotheistic God is a way to symbolically integrate such events in a certain cultural space, just as coenobitic coexistence is a way of integrating them institutionally in a certain organizational framework, it would actually make sense to consider whether we could change both of these aspects of integration, and redirect the arrows of their normative force against the perceived problems of a contemporary global space. Hence, if we only emphasize “axial” traits as containing a normative force reacting against interhuman violence and dehumanization, we fail to take into account present problems of a more generalized “violent” instrumental reduction of all beings and time. This is the ingenious and fascinating argument I read Heidegger as advancing. If so, his skepticism against modern ideological narratives also becomes easily comprehensible:43 again, to the extent that these simply replace eschatological divine agency with individual or human collective agency, reacting against the perceived problems of interhuman violence

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and dehumanization, they repeat, albeit in modified form, counterpressures against such elements, which were present in the Axial Age and are still with us, but fail to perceive the radically new conditions of “nihilism” in the Anthropocene. It is not necessary to walk into a false dichotomy at this point: we need not either embrace Heidegger’s critique fully, or reject it in its entirety. Even the staunchest critic of Heidegger’s style of thinking has to concede, I take it that the argument he advances can be at least to an extent empirically backed up. There is a whole spectrum of intermediate possibilities here: for example, the publicly sanctioned pursuit of phenomenological “events” could be adopted for reasons of health and hedonism, as a counter to an increased reliance on the consumerist satisfaction of desires, or as a valid source of normative stances on an “expanding circle” of ethical concern, that is, an experience of the unity of all things, even if we only believe it to be an event of the brain, could be interpreted metaphorically, as providing normative force to an expanded ethical concern. No matter what our take on the extension of autonomy across space, we should also confront the questions of meaningful autonomy over time. The themes surveyed earlier pertain to a question which lies at the heart of political existence: the question of the common, of concerted action and the possible debates and consciously adopted variations of it that characterizes human beings as political animals.44 Such questions are raised in the context of a space of political existence, reliant on practices of the reproduction of order, nestled in physical processes. If that context changes, questions may emerge, as well as answers, which may seem strange indeed to those currently relying on and taking for granted certain practices of reproduction in an existing spatiotemporal context, which may become subject to drastic and overwhelming change. Philosophy may be ascribed many tasks, but one of the core traits of philosophy that people tend to hold up as exemplary is that of conjuring up original and arresting concepts and visualizing surprising conceptual connections. Philosophy in this sense is like a cognitive dance: there are contested opinions about what is good and bad philosophy, which tend to overlap more and more over time, but they cannot be quantified or put into precise criteria. We do not know beforehand if a certain philosophical path will turn out to be useful, and, if so, which parts of it will be. We only know that philosophy has, hitherto and intermittently, played a “useful” role roughly analogous, at times, to engineering and the sciences, and at other times, to the arts. Creatively engaging with Heidegger’s critique of nihilism may allow us to escape the threat of the dark cube, or at least some aspects of that threat, but there are certainly no guarantees that it will. Where danger is, disaster may follow.


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NOTES 1. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. John Leonard (London: Penguin Classics, 2000), 75. 2. “Liberal” and “republican” refer here to the meanings these terms have in political theory, rather than in party politics and polemics in public debates. See, for example, Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in The Liberty Reader, ed. David Miller (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2006), 33–57; Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 2013); Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Quentin Skinner, “The Republican Ideal of Political Liberty,” in Machiavelli and Republicanism, eds. Gisela Bock, Quentin Skinner, and Maurizio Viroli (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). I could, of course, pile on references here, but it is not my intention to delve deeper into the debates between various strands of libertarianism, liberalism and republicanism, and their various other critics. 3. See, for example, Martha Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). 4. See, for example, Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) and Peter Singer, “Environmental Values,” in Unsanctifying Human Life: Essays on Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 306–23. 5. See Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ; and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1990). 6. See, for example, Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 40–42 and Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2011), 590. 7. See Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, tr. Michael Bullock (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953). 8. See The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations, ed. Shmuel Eistenstadt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986). 9. See The Axial Age and Its Consequences, ed. Robert Bellah and Hans Joas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012). 10. See, for example, Jürgen Habermas, The Crisis of the European Union: A Response (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), 89; Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), 43; and Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute—Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting for? (London and New York: Verso, 2001), 2. 11. Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983). 12. David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Ann Arbor, MI: Sheridan Books, 2009), 167. 13. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 7–8.

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14. August Strindberg, Ordet i min makt. Läsebok för underklassen (Lund: Celanders förlag, 2012), 7. My translation from the Swedish original. 15. Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), 43. 16. See Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event), tr. Richard Rojcewicz and Daniela Vallega-Neu (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012), 317. 17. Ibid., 94. 18. Ibid., 8–9. 19. See Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964) (London: Routledge, 2009), 139–212. 20. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 68–70. 21. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 255. 22. Martin Heidegger, Mindfulness, tr. Parvis Emad and Thomas Kalary (New York: Continuum, 2006), 205–9. 23. W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1973), 131. Further debates have concerned the relevance of cultural contexts as opposed to transcultural categories and implications. 24. Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, tr. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 128–59. 25. Martin Heidegger, Philosophical and Political Writings (New York: Continuum, 2003), 38. 26. Martin Heidegger, Seminare, Gesamtausgabe, vol. 15 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1977), 343, 366–67. 27. See Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, “Global Environmental Politics and the Imperial Mode of Living: Articulations of State-Capital Relations in the Multiple Crisis,” Globalizations 9:4 (2012): 547–60 and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001). 28. Francis Bacon, The New Organon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 224. 29. Cf., for example, Martin Heidegger, Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 269–70. 30. See Josephus, The Jewish War (London: Penguin Books, 1981), 287–387 and The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, ed. Lawrence Sutin (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 165–316. 31. See, for example, Andrew Newberg, Principles of Neurotheology (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010). Newberg, it should be noted, is not too happy about the term “neurotheology,” but has come to accept it; see his preface to Principles. 32. See, for example, Philip K. Dick, Ubik (Boston and New York: Mariner Books, 2012), 10–18, for an uncanny literary vision. 33. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). 34. Ibid., chapter 13.II.


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35. See, for example, Philip Rousseau, Ascetics, Authority, and the Church in the Age of Jerome and Cassian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978). 36. Koen de Feyter, Human Rights: Social Justice in the Age of the Market (London and New York: Zed Books, 2005), 2. 37. See Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012), 94–97. 38. See, for example, Hartmut Rosa, Alienation and Acceleration: Towards a Critical Theory of Late-Modern Temporality (Malmö: Nordic Summer University Press, 2010) and Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). 39. See Michael Rosen, Dignity: Its History and Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 156–60. 40. See Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, tr. and ed. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977). 41. Heidegger, Pathmarks, 296. 42. Ibid. 43. See, for example, Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy, 21–22. 44. See Aristotle, The Politics and The Constitution of Athens, ed. Stephen Everson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 13.

Chapter 10

Ecological Finitude as Ontological Finitude: Radical Hope in the Anthropocene Fernando Flores and B. Scot Rousse

The proposal that the earth has entered a new epoch called “the Anthropocene” has touched a nerve. By focusing attention on the fundamental vulnerability of our planetary abode and the responsibility that human beings bear for failing to care properly for it, the term acquires an elevated rhetorical potency, not to mention a sense of practical urgency. The question—What is to be done?—imposes itself, albeit uncomfortably. The human organism has been able to flourish in an ecological niche whose unraveling has been vastly accelerated on account of our own activities and industries. With the gradual undoing of this hospitable ecological niche, we find ourselves participants in the long history of emergence and disappearance of entities on this planet, entities that emerge and flourish in a temporary clearing whose contingent conditions eventually revoke the vital opening. One unsettling part of having our ecological finitude thrust upon us with the term “Anthropocene” is that, as Nietzsche said of the death of God, “we” ourselves are supposed to be the collective doer responsible here, yet this is a deed which no one individual meant to do and whose implications no one fully comprehends. For the pessimists about humanity, the implications seem rather straightforward: humanity will die. Yet the death that we are facing cannot be assumed to be simply biological death or extinction. Indeed, even if we are not running headlong into a mass extinction and wholesale biological demise, we do seem to be facing the possibility of an ontological death. Our ecological finitude is the harbinger of our ontological finitude. The vulnerability we confront in the Anthropocene is what Jonathan Lear, in a different context, called ontological vulnerability.1 Following a certain strand of the reception of Heidegger’s interpretation of death, we understand ontological finitude as the finitude of our historical 175


Fernando Flores and B. Scot Rousse

world, where a world is relatively coherent and holistically organized “clearing” in which things, people, and possibilities show up, make sense, and matter.2 Worlds die too. The ways of life they enable can become impossible, ceasing to make sense and matter. The constitutive susceptibility of all human worlds to their eventual collapse is what we mean by ontological finitude. As presumed denizens in a dawning Anthropocene we are called to assume this ontological finitude as our own. It is important to appreciate now that the very term “Anthropocene” has generated a sometimes acrimonious debate, as a recent backlash against certain assumptions and narratives of the “anthropocenologists” has demonstrated.3 For one thing, the claim that the activities of human beings have had a decisive and destructive impact on the earth’s environment rests upon a false dichotomy between human Society/Culture and Nature/The Environment. That is, the very notion of an Anthropocene as it is usually understood assumes that there is such a thing as the environment “out there” and that it should be left to its own affairs as though it were a neutral, monolithic, and exogenous container for the organisms, including human beings, who happen to live in it.4 For another thing, the term “Anthropocene” etymologically lays responsibility for the shifts taking place in our climate and ecology at the feet of an abstract, unified, world-historical agent called “the Anthropos,” instead of laying responsibility at the blood-, carbon-, and capital-soaked feet of a few industrialized nations.5 A rejection of the tendentious abstraction of the anthropos and its supposed separation from Nature has generated a kind of terminological game among critical Anthropocene commentators: take the anthropos out of the Anthropocene. Suggested alternatives include Capitalocene, Androcene, Thermocene, Thanatocene, Phagocene, and others.6 Granting the importance of these conflicts of interpretation, they do not productively draw us into a serious confrontation with the phenomenon of ontological vulnerability raised by the very notion of an Anthropocene, however flawed and fraught the term itself may be. This ontological vulnerability is one of the defining issues of the historical epoch we have inherited. The calling we have now to respond to the Anthropocene (however, this “we” gets interpreted) is tinged by the possibilities both of overwhelming tragedy and of historical heroism. According to one sobering book among the vast proliferation of texts addressing the core of the Anthropocene, namely, global climate change, we today face a crisis that is “uniquely global, uniquely long-term, uniquely irreversible, and uniquely uncertain.”7 How can we begin to face up and respond to this ecological and ontological finitude? Echoing a provocative recent formulation of the issue, the question becomes: How can we learn to die?8 As we have said, this question cannot be posed in the everyday sense of the

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word die. An impending death does not mean simply that we are going into extinction. To say that we are dying is to say that we are heading into a future in which our current world as the scene and abode of our taken-for-granted practices, projects, and identities will collapse. This future is unimaginable from the perspective of our present. If our world is collapsing, how can we prepare a possibility for succeeding generations to emerge into a new world, a new configuration of practices, of what makes sense and matters? Our approach in this chapter will be based on an ontological reinterpretation of the meaning and importance of death and finitude. In this we take up the suggestion by Jonathan Lear that, in the face of the impending collapse of one’s world, a peculiar form of hope, radical hope, and a peculiar kind of imaginative excellence for new possible ways of going on are called for.9 Yet we will have to go beyond where Lear leads, for the conception of radical hope he puts forth is vacuous. According to Lear, radical hope means holding on to a “commitment . . . only to the bare possibility that, from this disaster, something good will emerge,” where “something good” will involve some radically reimagined and reoriented way for the Crow way of life to go on.10 On our way to articulating a more robust form of radical hope in the Anthropocene, we will also consider and criticize Hubert Dreyfus’s response to the limitations of Lear’s proposal. For Dreyfus, pretechnological marginal practices left over in our culture from past historical worlds could provide a foundation for a reconfiguration of our current world, a way of emerging revitalized from world collapse. But Dreyfus’s backward-looking orientation is one-sided: our world is also a forward-directed historical drift, with new possibilities and marginal practices emerging in the present. By becoming better attuned to the onward drift of historical emergence, we can summon a more fecund radical hope that will enable us to participate with greater care in the unfolding of our ecologically and ontologically fraught historical moment. ONTOLOGICAL VULNERABILITY In Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Jonathan Lear presents an interpretation of what he calls the “collapse,” “devastation,” or “breakdown” of the cultural world of the Crow Indian. The breakdown of a world is different from the breakdown of a characteristic thing or relationship that we normally find within that world. In this section, we retrace some of Lear’s steps so that we can draw on his interpretation of the significance of world collapse when we present our interpretation of the significance of the Anthropocene.


Fernando Flores and B. Scot Rousse

The breakdown of a world is what you can call an ontological event, an event that radically reconfigures the field or space (like the Heideggerian “disclosive space”) within which our lives unfold. This is why Lear himself uses the terminology of a field of occurrences: the breakdown of a world is a breakdown of the field in which and in terms of which things happen and matter to people. In Lear’s apt words, the breakdown of a world is the breakdown of “a field in which occurrences occur.”11 Our susceptibility to the breakdown of our field of occurrences is what Lear calls our ontological vulnerability. Thus, although Lear’s penetrating book is concerned specifically with the breakdown of the Crow Indian world, he claims to be articulating a general or structural vulnerability affecting the human condition as such: “What I am concerned with is an ontological vulnerability that affects us all insofar as we are human.”12 All worlds are constitutively susceptible to such collapse. When the Buffalo Leave Lear pursues his exploration of our ontological vulnerability by way of a reflection on some “haunting words” uttered by Plenty Coups, “the last great chief of the Crow nation.”13 In retrospective conversations, Plenty Coups refused to relate any stories about events in his life or the activities of the Crow after their confinement to a reservation and the decimation of the buffalo they traditionally followed and hunted. Lear quotes Plenty Coups: I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened.14

The last phrase—“after this, nothing happened”—is what preoccupies Lear and should preoccupy us as well. This utterance gives expression to the phenomenon of ontological vulnerability that also confronts our world in the Anthropocene. To say that “nothing happened” is not to say that everyone stopped what they were doing and passively sat around; it is not to say that “nothing occurred” anymore. As Lear puts it, with the leaving of the buffalo, “What we have in this case is not an unfortunate occurrence, not even a devastating occurrence like a holocaust; it is a breakdown of the field in which occurrences occur.”15 The encompassing field of intelligibility and affectivity within which and in terms of which the traditional activities got their point and mattered is what broke down. Hence, even if the bodily movements and psychological intentions that used to constitute traditional activities took place, they did not count as the traditional activities, because they could no longer matter in the same way: the broader field of interrelated activities and

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significance in terms of which the bodily movements and intentional states counted as the traditional activities was no longer “there.”16 Following Heidegger, Lear insists on a distinction between entities that show up and make sense in a world, and the world itself as a “space” or “field” within which entities can make sense and things can happen. Why does the absence of a particular entity within the world—the buffalo in the case of the Crow Indians—trigger the breakdown of the encompassing field of occurrences? The answer is that the buffalo were the ontical focal point, a locus of gathering for the whole Crow identity and the Crow world. Things mattered and made sense, counted as disaster or blessing, victory or disgrace, crucial or trivial to a Crow to the extent that they stood in some relation to activities bound up with the roaming hunt of the buffalo, including the preparations for and engaging in battle with traditional enemies (like the Sioux), and the celebration of victory or mourning of defeat. The buffalo gathered the world of the Crow; that is, the buffalo ontically founded the “worldhood” of the Crow world. For Heidegger, a world is a field constituted by the interrelations between characteristic equipment; the (or a set of) identities and roles of the people who use the equipment; and the (or a set of) shared norms, rules, and standards for the appropriate and excellent ways to use the equipment and carry out the requirements associated with the relevant identities and roles. It helps here to consider as an analogy the “world” of a cooperative game such as baseball. The world of baseball is made up of an array of equipment (bats, balls, bases, gloves, etc.), roles (pitcher, catcher, batter, umpire, audience), norms (no swearing at the catcher, no spitting at the audience), standards (the ball is to have such and such a weight), and constitutive rules (three strikes and you are out). So, it is only in the space or world of the game that some action can count as a “strike,” “foul ball,” or a “home run.” Just standing around and swinging a stick at a ball cannot be a strike.17 Strikes take place—occur—in the world of the game. Without the world of the game being sustained, there can be no baseball occurrences, nothing baseball-like would be able to happen. The same general structure holds true for all cultural worlds—the world of the Crow, and our own world. Ontological vulnerability is what we have called the constitutive susceptibility to collapse of any historical world. That we are intrinsically marked by such vulnerability should not come as any surprise to us. People get hints of the possibility of world collapse on a personal register when they undergo identity crises or anxiety attacks in which everything they took for granted and thought to define them now shows up as trivial and pointless. Going to any history museum confronts you with artifacts from bygone collapsed worlds, the paraphernalia of which are now but relics, lifted out of their former field of occurrences as an ontical residue of a way of being that had


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formerly flourished. While it may be thus lodged into our commonsense that worlds are susceptible to collapse, as we all know that languages die, we tend not to pay attention to this finitude or live in the light of its significance. Here, again, is Jonathan Lear: But a culture does not tend to train the young to endure its breakdown—and it is fairly easy to see why. A culture embodies a sense of life’s possibilities, and it tries to instill that sense in the young. An outstanding young member of the culture will learn to face these possibilities well. The situation we are dealing with here, however, is the breakdown of a culture’s sense of possibility itself. This inability to conceive of its own devastation will tend to be the blind spot of any culture.18

Our purpose in reviewing Lear’s interpretation of the collapse of the Crow world is to suggest that, in the face of the Anthropocene, our ecological vulnerability can usher us into an appreciation our ontological vulnerability, thus shining a cold hard light on what Lear earlier calls “the blind spot” of our own culture: we are called to face and respond to the eventual collapse of our own world. It is in this context that Lear’s notion of radical hope takes on its relevance to our current situation. Before turning to an account of radical hope, it is worth reflecting on Lear’s description of the role played by the buffalo in focusing and organizing the Crow world and how this may be relevant to thinking about our own world today. What, if anything, might be our buffalo? And to what extent is the Anthropocene a threat to our buffalo and thus to the stability and viability of our world? Our Buffalo? To answer such questions adequately and to begin to explore in more detail how the Anthropocene can be understood as a forced confrontation with the ontological vulnerability of our current world, we need first to take account of some structural differences between our current world and the Crow Indian world as presented by Jonathan Lear. The Crow world, at least as described by Lear, was a traditional society with a highly unified hierarchical social structure and comparatively circumscribed range of social roles and identities (e.g., chief, elder, hunter, warrior, mother). Given the largely traditional structure of Crow society and its stable shared understanding of the normative criteria for what counts as an excellent way of life, it is relatively straightforward to identify the elements of their culture that focus their world and practices—roaming with and hunting the buffalo, doing battle with the traditional enemies, and so on. Because of this, Lear (and Plenty Coups) can locate in the buffalo an ontological focal power: without the buffalo, nothing can happen.

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Our current world in the age of the Anthropocene (which we characterize in more detail later), on the other hand, is post-traditional and highly differentiated. Vast arrays of identities, spheres of value, and social roles are available and yet little shared understanding obtains regarding what counts as an excellent form of life and what grounds such normative claims. Furthermore, whereas the Crow world was relatively localized, our current world is increasingly globalized such that the events in one subworld (e.g., buying a pair of blue jeans, or writing an e-mail on a smartphone) are intimately interconnected with events in another subworld, perhaps on the other side of the globe (garment workers in Bangladesh, workers at Foxconn in China). Moreover, the subworlds on our globe are interconnected by an ever-growing computer network and transportation system, not to mention capitalism itself (as in our examples). As a general way of characterizing our current world, we roughly follow Heidegger’s account of the “enframing” (Ge-stell) character of modern technology which takes our natural environment (including ourselves and each other) as a pool of natural (and human) resources, or the “standing reserve” (Bestand), on hand to be optimally used up with maximal efficiency.19 In this world, there is no pervasively shared sense of what makes a way of life excellent, though, in a rough caricature, the dominant way of being is one in which the efficient execution of one’s job, efficient satisfaction of one’s desires, and efficient accumulation of material wealth count as the good life. Because of all of this, it is challenging and perhaps impossible to come up with a singular answer to the question: What is our buffalo? Is there some inner-worldly entity that serves the same ontological gathering function that the buffalo did for the Crow? It seems unlikely that there is any one thing that serves the same world-gathering function and that holds together and focuses all of the dispersed practices comprising our world. Is it the automobile? The smartphone? Both of these seem to point, differently, in the right general direction, but neither seems to capture the appropriate ontological significance. The Heideggerian account of modern technology can provide another clue. Perhaps our buffalo is the fossil fuel that we have relied upon systematically since the maturation of the Industrial Revolution in order to power the machines and technological devices whose sprawling pervasiveness is the characteristic mark of our world and whose unending pollution has propelled us to the threshold of the Anthropocene. Our dependence on this buffalo has now begun, in the Anthropocene, finally to undermine the continuation of the way of life in which it so prominently figures. Every year brings new devices which soon become a necessity so that we can keep up with the others striving to keep up with modern life, devices with which we can more fully be available for communication, keep track of the extensiveness of our friends


Fernando Flores and B. Scot Rousse

and contacts, measure the rhythms of our bodies, find the most efficient route to avoid traffic, monitor the temperature of our home, and engage in various life hacks while efficiently taking advantage of the ever-expanding Internet of Things. Perhaps, pushing this line of thought further, our buffalo is not fossil fuels, since one can imagine nuclear power and the so-called renewables eventually taking the place of fossil fuels. Perhaps our buffalo is a kind of entity at a higher level of abstraction: energy itself, the portable energy we harness from the natural world in order to power the machines and devices without which our current form of life and world would be unimaginable.20 Such speculations can go on, but we do not have to conclude here what to designate as our buffalo. Whether it is our technological devices themselves or the energy with which we power our devices, or something else, the ontological significance of the Anthropocene is such that our field of occurrences—whatever its “buffalo”—is susceptible to collapse. What is to be done? Radical Hope and the Possibility of Cultural Reconfiguration In the second half of Radical Hope, Lear outlines his interpretation of the virtues that were open to the Crow in the face of the collapse of their world. According to Lear, what the Crow required was a peculiar kind of hope, radical hope, and an extraordinary excellence of the poetical imagination so that, in response to the breakdown of a world, currently unforeseen and radically new possibilities for going on might be revealed.21 Radical hope, for Lear, is a stance of a commitment to possibility. But this is a peculiar kind of commitment: it is a commitment to something completely indeterminate and currently unimaginable: “The commitment is only to the bare possibility that, from this disaster, something good will emerge: the Crow shall somehow survive.”22 Lear adds later that the “aim [of radical hope] was not merely the biological survival of the individual members of the tribe—however important that was—but the future flourishing of traditional tribal values, customs, and memories in a new context.”23 Such a survival is what we can call “ontological survival,” the survival of the Crow way of being and a world, the continuation of the Crow field of occurrences. Radical hope is a stance of maximal openness or receptivity to radically new possibilities in a situation of heightened ontological vulnerability, a situation in which one’s way of life has become impossible. Hubert Dreyfus has posed a potent skeptical challenge to Lear’s interpretation of Plenty Coups’s actions and radical hope.24 We will frame our appropriation of the notion of radical hope in the context of the Anthropocene as a correction of Dreyfus’s alternative to Lear’s view. According to Dreyfus, Lear’s emphasis on the “bare possibility” of a future continuation of the world is just too empty to

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be of any real relevance.25 Dreyfus points out that Lear provides no concrete example or explanation of how one could “take up traditional values that have become unintelligible.”26 In turn, Dreyfus offers his own Heideggerinspired approach to the reinterpretation of traditional practices: what he calls “reconfiguration.” Dreyfus contends that leftover practices from previous phases of a cultural world remain operative in the margins of a current mainstream culture. Cultural “reconfiguration” happens when these marginal practices get reinterpreted and made central again in the culture, gathered into a new configuration of significance or cultural paradigm. One of Dreyfus’s favorite examples of a recently failed, but still illuminating, attempt at cultural reconfiguration was the Woodstock music festival of 1969.27 “Even though it failed,” Dreyfus remarks, Woodstock “helps us understand that we must foster our receptivity and preserve the endangered species of pretechnological practices that remain in our culture, in the hope that one day they will be pulled together in a new paradigm.”28 We fully agree with Dreyfus’s reservation about the emptiness of Lear’s notion of radical hope as well as the lack of orientation in Lear’s position regarding the possibility of cultural reconfiguration. However, Dreyfus’s own account of reconfiguration is overly constrained and backward-looking. Reconfiguration is a Janus-faced phenomenon. The marginal practices that provide the material and impetus for cultural reconfiguration do not come only from the marginal leftovers of the past. Dreyfus’s account of reconfiguration fails properly to account for what we will call historical emergence. The emergence of new entities and the happening of unexpected events harbor ontological power that could enable a reconfiguration of a world. There is a more robust account of world reconfiguration—one that allows for but does not develop in detail the crucial role of historical emergence— sketched in Disclosing New Worlds, a book on which both Dreyfus and one of us (Fernando Flores) collaborated.29 In that work, Flores, Dreyfus, and Spinosa refer, for example, to Sherry Turkle’s research into the incipient practices in the early years of the Internet to provide an example of how new marginal practices of “identity morphing” (having multiple screen identities and avatars that are different from normal everyday identities) emerged along with the personal computer and the connectivity of the Internet and began to reconfigure cultural practices around identity and relationships.30 Additionally, in the phenomenology of the historical entrepreneur, Disclosing New Worlds gives further clues to the way everyday practices get reconfigured: “Genuine entrepreneurs are sensitive to historical questions, not the pragmatic ones, and . . . what is interesting about their innovation is that they change the style of our practices as a whole in some domain.”31 An example given in Disclosing New Worlds is the way King Gillette contributed to a


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change in the style of personal hygiene with his introduction of the disposable razor, a tool that is no doubt part and parcel of the overall emphasis on efficiency characteristic of our technological epoch. Yet what we are here calling “historical emergence” and “reconfiguration” need to be further developed, especially with regard to the task of responding to our ontological vulnerability as foisted upon us in the Anthropocene. We are historical beings who live in historical worlds, that is, worlds that undergo reconfigurations of their field of occurrences over time. In the history of the West, we have had a few major cultural reconfigurations, milestones along the path that Heidegger called “the history of being,” such as the shift from the Homeric world to the classical Greek world of Plato, the shift brought about by Jesus, and the massive reconfiguration from the medieval to the modern world as focused in the writings of Descartes. Regardless of whether this is the real history of being, or just the history of what philosophers have said about being (as Rorty once quipped), we can say this much: our fields of occurrence are not static; they are constitutively susceptible to the ongoing drift of historical reconfiguration. Even though we cannot predict the outcome or control the overall direction of such a shift, we can learn to be actively receptive to what is gathering. Historical and ontological change is not always an event that happens to us; as the peculiarly historical entities that we are (world disclosers), we can participate in this unfolding. In order to do so, we need to cultivate our own historical receptivity, our ability to detect the ripening of newly emergent possibilities in a historical moment. We can only briefly gesture here at what it would mean to cultivate our receptivity to historical emergence. As we have briefly mentioned earlier, new practices, along with new entities, technologies, identities, and ultimately new understandings of what is important and possible, emerge on the margins of the present and shape our trajectory into the future. While it is no doubt true that our worlds are rooted in practices of the past (as Dreyfus emphasized), the way the past practices shape our future trajectory is always open to changes that transpire and emerge unexpectedly in the present. To see examples of this phenomenon, it helps to look to the characteristic components of the everyday network of equipment (like disposable razor blades, cell phones, or automobiles) which we use in our daily activities and which shape the habits and overall style of our being in the world. One just has to look again at the way the personal computer, and then the smartphone and mobile connectivity emerged and cascaded in recent decades, reshaping the style of our everyday practices in areas such as communication (text messaging and photo and video sharing); education; peer-to-peer financial transactions; food consumption (delivery services); books; streaming services for television, movies, and music; transportation services (“ride sharing” applications); and everyday getting

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around (the ubiquity of GPS systems). Even though many of these practices still remain largely in tune with the technological enframing way of being dominant in our times, we can nevertheless see them as emergent marginal practices that may eventually be gathered into larger-scale, yet hitherto unforeseen, cultural reconfigurations that will draw us to relate differently to each other and our natural environment.32 The earlier examples provide hints of how small-scale contingent emergences of new components in our everyday “equipmental contexture” (to use a phrase from early Heidegger) can accumulate and eventually gather into broader shifts in our world, our sense of identity (i.e., of who we are and what we stand for) and field of occurrences. Think too of how electricity went from a strange, marginal curiosity manipulated by magicians to pervading almost every aspect of our lives and radically expanding our horizon of possibilities. Such reconfigurations are not limited to the kinds of backward-looking detection of marginal practices left over from previous historical worlds and pretechnological understandings of being. Nor are they limited to the heroic cultural figures like Descartes and Jesus. World reconfiguration is a skill every human being as an essentially historical being is capable of cultivating, if we develop the right sensibilities for observing and participating in the ongoing emergent transformations in our practices, attitudes, and surrounding equipmental context. In refining this ability, we amplify our receptivity to new possibilities (and threats) emerging on the present margins. Such a heightened sensibility for everyday historical emergence would provide the forward-looking complement to Dreyfus’s backward-looking openness to marginal practices left over in a culture from the past and can help provide us a more robust orientation in responding to the potential collapse of our current world. Yet there are no guarantees and no formulae to follow in such a navigation of the drift of history.33 It is important to emphasize that such emergent shifts in our worlds happen not just on the level of things and technologies but also in our conversations, political sensibilities, and predominant global moods. Indeed, the ongoing discursive explosion around the Anthropocene (and climate change more generally) is an indication that a shift in global mood and openness to new possibilities is gathering. Thus, the radical hope and imagination for a future shift in our practices does not have to be a hope or imagination for the “bare” possibility that something will change; it can be a hope and imagination fueled by an active receptivity to the ways in which things and possibilities historically emerge. With the emergence of new marginal practices, new technologies, and new forms of art in initially circumscribed domains, world reconfiguration transpires and can be focused and accelerated by suitably sensitive participants in our historical drift. Again, this is not a matter of waiting for someone to


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become the next Jesus or Descartes. The kind of shifts we are talking about happened with Pasteur for public health, with Faraday for electricity, with D. W. Griffith for narrative cinema, with Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights, with Black Sabbath for heavy metal music, with Steve Jobs for mobile connectivity, and so on. And such shifts are happening today in a still more diffuse way with questions about gender and sexual orientations, as popular shows like Transparent reveal and focus—and with issues surrounding the human being’s relation to the earth, as the intensifications of Anthropocene and climate change discourses reveal. HISTORICAL EMERGENCE In an earlier account of what we call “the drift of historical emergence,”34 we elaborated on the example of the emergence of practices and attitudes around vaccination and public health that transpired on the basis of Pasteur’s detection and interpretation of microorganisms, but we intend for the account to be generalizable.35 What began as a marginal observation of unidentified squiggling shapes in his microscope, a microscope he was looking into in order to investigate a breakdown in the fermentation of alcoholic beverages, ended up eventually radically reconfiguring our cultural practices and understanding around health, cleanliness, and well-being. The whole phenomenon of “public health” as we know it today (with things like standard vaccinations) emerged in Pasteur’s wake. But Pasteur should not be seen as some kind of prototypical creative genius. What Pasteur was able to do was be maximally receptive to the historical forces gathering around him, while thereby also opening a space for a whole cascade of subsequent developments in our practices around infection, contagion, and health. Microorganisms had been observed a century before under the microscope of Anton van Leeuwenhoek, but these observations did not have the same world-disclosive import as Pasteur’s. This is not due not only to Pasteur’s superior sensitivity to the significance of what was before him but also to the greater momentum picked up in the gathering of the historical moment itself by the time of Pasteur. In our terminology, the historical moment was ripe for Pasteur’s observations to generate a faint glow or fulgor, a dawning of a reconfiguration in our field of occurrences. Fulgor is a word in Spanish that means “glimmer” or “faint glow.” We prefer to leave the word untranslated, because we use it as a technical term to capture the moment when a new configuration of our practices begins to appear, casting an initially faint and unfocused new light on our horizon of possibilities. Thus, a fulgor is the dawning of a new reconfiguration in a clearing, in the Heideggerian sense of Lichtung (the open space or field in which

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occurrences occur).36 In the context of a pre-established form of life and routine of practices, new openings to the future emerge at first as a fulgor in the faint light of which new understanding and practices can further develop; these may eventually turn into the new technologies and practices of tomorrow, altering our space of possibilities. A moment of fulgor has, for the suitably receptive observer, a characteristic mood of unsettlement accompanied by a sense of promise and a feeling that what is beginning to be understood exceeds one’s current ability to grasp and express it. This is often the result of observing and holding onto an anomaly.37 In this context, we use “anomaly” not in Kuhn’s technical sense, but in a related sense to refer to an emergent and unexpected upsurge that has the potential to upset and reconfigure our taken-for-granted way of doing things. Pasteur was initially responding to a breakdown in the fermentation process, but his observation of strange, anomalous, microscopic, moving shapes (what we now call “bacteria”) eventually produced a fulgor for him pertaining to the phenomena of infection and contagion. For this initial fulgor to emerge in the first place, a whole range of historically contingent practices, concerns, and technologies had to have already emerged so that they could contribute to and be focused in the shift about to take place. In Pasteur’s case, the microscope as an item of equipment had to have already been on the scene, as did the recently emergent discipline of chemistry, the long-standing practice of fermenting alcoholic beverages, shared public concerns with plague, concerns with improving surgical practices, concerns with livestock mortality, and growing interest in cleaning up densely packed urban areas; all of these elements and more accumulated and created the opening in which Pasteur could be receptive to the fulgor moment in which he could find a new, ultimately world disclosive, significance in the squiggling, weird shapes underneath his microscope. Although he himself was not aware of this as such, Pasteur demonstrated the kind of “imaginative excellence” (in Lear’s words) that can enable someone to contribute to the disclosure of a new world. With the discursive explosion surrounding the Anthropocene, as well as climate change more generally (e.g., with Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical), with fossil fuels as cheap and yet as contested as ever, with climate disaster events such as “super storms” visiting us with greater frequency, with rising middle classes in India and China that will put exponentially greater pressures on the stability of the earth’s environment, with the shifts in emergences pertaining to all of the new technologies we mentioned earlier, can we now detect the gathering of new historical forces, the setting of a stage for a new fulgor that may reconfigure our world? Do we have the historical sensibility to locate our new buffalo? Can we adequately expand our “imaginative excellence” as historical beings, or has our ontological vulnerability been already too drastically exposed? Again, the intuition we have explored here


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is that, as historical beings, we can all cultivate an imaginative sensibility to the way historical moments ripen and gather around us, not only through refocusing marginal practices left over from the past, but by focusing new marginal entities and practices that emerge in the present. Of course, we cannot expect that any shift in a sub-domain of our practices will trigger a wholesale reconfiguration of our world that will stimulate an alteration of the habits and practices that have so degraded our natural environment. But we can transmit an increased general sensibility to historical emergence, the ontical cradle of being, which can feed our imagination and overall receptivity to shifts that may start out as marginal, and incrementally gather and be focused in a heretofore still unanticipated shifts in our ways of life. In this way, we can heed Heidegger’s own call to prepare a “new beginning” and a “last god” to succeed our technological epoch, and we can do so by cultivating practices of actively receiving and navigating the emergence of being from things. HUMAN BEINGS IN THE HISTORY OF NATURE Our ontological vulnerability is not something to bemoan or an ailment for which we should seek a cure; it is part and parcel of our historical way of being. The possible collapse of our world is at the same time the possibility for the emergence of a new world (or worlds), new configurations of our field of occurrences. Whether or not we succeed in heightening our sensibilities for a more active participation in the drift of historical emergence, and whether or not this is of any use in activating our imaginations for new and alternative ways of going on in a new beginning, we are now invited (if not compelled) to reinterpret ourselves as belonging to the long history of emergence and disappearance of entities and species on this planet. Let us assume this historical belonging in a mood of gratitude rather than despair (as though there is nothing for us to do about it, since global capitalism and technology are too entrenched and unhindered for us to change anything) or techno-arrogance (as though we can count on the progress of technology and geoengineering eventually to solve all problems for us once and for all). We have been able to take for granted as a stable background condition the ecological niche in which our species evolved on the planet. Yet now, the cumulative impact of our activities is beginning to undermine the very ecological conditions that enabled our lineage to emerge and proliferate in the first place. Our bubble is bursting, to use a metaphor from Peter Sloterdijk.38 It was only within a specific ecological niche that our species, like any, was able to emerge and flourish. All such ecological niches also have their vulnerability, their own buffalo, so to speak, that enable them to function as a coherent and vibrant whole. The carbon dioxide and other side effects of our ways of life are compromising the stability of our ecological niche. Whether

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or not we are able to develop the sensibilities for monitoring and navigating the waves of historical emergence in such a way that we can be actively receptive to what is gathering in our current historical moment, we can nevertheless be grateful at having been granted the chance to linger for a while in this contingent history of nature. Perhaps our disappearance will provide the opening for new and wondrous worlds. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS In preparing this text, we have benefitted from conversations and exchanges with Hubert Dreyfus, Francisco Gallegos, Richard Polt, Khang Ton, Terry Winograd, Jon Wittrock, and Lee Worden. NOTES 1. Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 50. 2. The strand of Heidegger interpretation we have in mind is rooted in the work of John Haugeland. See Haugeland, Dasein Disclosed, ed. Joseph Rouse (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013). Lear himself mentions how much his account of ontological vulnerability was influenced by Haugeland’s interpretation of Heidegger. 3. “Anthropocenologist” is a term introduced by Christophe Bonneuil and JeanBaptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, tr. David Fernbach (New York: Verso, 2016). Bonneuil and Fressoz productively urge us “to learn to distrust the grand narratives that come with the Anthropocene concept” (49). 4. See Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, chapter 2, “Thinking with Gaia”; Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (New York: Verso, 2015), especially part III, “Historical Nature and the Origins of Capital”; Matthew Lepori, “There Is No Anthropocene: Climate Change, Species Talk, and Political Economy,” Telos 172 (Fall 2015): 103–24, especially 114 and 118, doi:10.3817/0915172103. See also, in the same issue, Zev Trachtenberg, “The Anthropocene, Ethics, and the Nature of Nature,” Telos 172 (Fall 2015): 38–58, doi:10.3817/0915172038; and Christopher Cox, “Faulty Presuppositions and False Dichotomies: The Problematic Nature of ‘the Anthropocene,’ ” Telos 172 (Fall 2015): 59–81, doi:10.3817/0915172059. Another articulate voice expressing these concerns is Kathleen Morrison, “Provincializing the Anthropocene,” SEMINAR 673 (September 2015), 76. 5. See again, Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, chapter 4, “Who Is the Anthropos?”; Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, chapter 7, “Anthropocene or Capitalocene?”; Lepori, “There Is No Anthropocene,” 124. See also Eddie Yuen, “The Politics of Failure Have Failed: The Environmental Movement and Catastrophism,” in Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, eds. Sasha Lilley et al. (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012), 40.


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6. On “Capitalocene,” see Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Jason W. Moore (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2016). On “Androcene,” see Trish Glazebrook, “Gynocentric Bio-Logics: Anthropocenic Abjectification and Alternative Knowledge Traditions,” Telos 177 (Winter 2016): 61–82, doi: 10.3817/1216177061. The rest of the suggested terms in our list come from Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, Part III. One need not look far for yet further entries into the game of taking the Anthropos out of the “Anthropocene.” 7. Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman, Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 8. In fact, the authors specify that climate change is “almost” unique in each of these characteristics, but add that it is “definitely unique” in combining all four. 8. With this formulation we refer to Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2015). 9. Lear’s account of radical hope is brought to bear on climate change also by Allen Thompson, “Radical Hope for Living Well in a Warmer World,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 23:1–2 (2010): 43–59, doi: 10.1007/s10806– 009–9185–2; and Byron Williston, “Climate Change and Radical Hope,” Ethics and the Environment 17:2 (Fall 2012): 165–86, doi: 10.2979/ethicsenviro.17.2.165. These accounts pertain more to the virtue-ethical implications of radical hope in the face of environmental collapse, rather than the ontological implications that concern us here. 10. Lear, Radical Hope, 97. 11. Ibid., 4. 12. Ibid., 50. 13. Ibid., 1. 14. Ibid., 2. 15. Ibid., 34. 16. Ibid., 43 and 49. 17. Here we are drawing on Haugeland, “Dasein’s Disclosedness,” in Dasein Disclosed. 18. Lear, Radical Hope, 83. 19. Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, tr. William Lovitt (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1977). 20. On the relevance of the phenomenon of energy for the Anthropocene, see, in the present volume, Michael Marder, “Philosophy’s Homecoming,” especially 123–25. See also Marder’s Energy Dreams: Of Actuality (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). 21. Lear, Radical Hope, 93, 117 and 146. Lear also mentions courage as an important virtue for those facing world collapse. 22. Ibid., 97. 23. Ibid., 145. 24. Hubert Dreyfus, “Comments on Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope,” Philosophical Studies 144:1 (2009): 63–70, doi: 10. 1007/s11098–009–9367–9. 25. Ibid., 68.

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26. Ibid., 69. 27. Ibid., 69. For an extended discussion of the Woodstock example, see Dreyfus, “Heidegger on the Connection Between Nihilism, Art, Technology, and Politics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, second edition, ed. Charles Guignon, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 345–72. See also Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (New York: Free Press, 2011), 127ff. 28. Dreyfus, “Comments on Radical Hope,” 69. 29. Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores, and Hubert Dreyfus, Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997). 30. Ibid., 13. 31. Ibid., 42–43. 32. For an account of the way technological devices and connectivity are shifting social habits, see Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2012); for a less alarmist interpretation, see Danah Boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014). Another notable recent popular book in this literature dedicated to monitoring and commenting upon the shifts in our practices elicited by technological emergence is Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (New York: Viking, 2016). 33. Moreover, rather than there gathering one unified world, in the wake of the age of enframing, what might emerge is a plurality of temporary local worlds across which we will be drawn to move. For discussion about the emergence of a plurality of temporary local worlds as opposed to a unified, singular post-technological world, see Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Spinosa, “Highway Bridges and Feasts: Heidegger and Borgmann on How to Affirm Technology,” Man and World 30:2 (1997), 159–78, reprinted in Hubert L. Dreyfus, Background Practices: Essays on the Understanding of Being, ed. Mark Wrathall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 198–217. 34. The account of historical emergence that we only briefly sketch here is based on an approach we developed in a study presented in 2013 to the Chilean government. The study, Surfing towards the Future: Chile on the 2025 Horizon, was produced by the Chilean National Council on Innovation for Competitiveness, which was led by Fernando Flores between 2008 and 2012. The notion of a “drift” of history (as opposed to, say, a teleologically guided or a nomothetically determined process) is partially inspired by the evolutionary theory of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. See, for example, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1998), chapter 5, “The Natural Drift of Living Beings.” For an account of technological drift that we have found particularly illuminating, see W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (New York: Free Press, 2009). 35. Our take on Pasteur has been influenced by Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, tr. Alan Sheridan and John Law (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).


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36. We would like to highlight in passing that the fulgor phenomenon, which can be elicited from a development in technology or, say, an ecological crisis, or the disappearance of buffalo, reveals the intertwinement (rather than the separation and differentiation) of the Heideggerian dimensions of being and beings (or the ontological and the ontical). In this way, our account can be seen as beginning to provide a response to a worry Richard Polt has raised about Heidegger’s tendency to insist on a separation between being and beings. Polt writes of a “need to challenge Heidegger’s conviction that beings cannot ground be-ing [Seyn],” adding that “the attempt to find being emerging from beings is an important alternative to Heidegger’s separation of be-ing (the event of emergence) from all beings”: See Richard Polt, The Emergency of Being (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 245–46. A fulgor is precisely a way in which being emerges from beings. 37. For Flores’s earlier account of this sense of unsettlement and how this sense of “anomaly” relates to the way Kuhn uses the term in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), see the chapter on entrepreneurship in Flores et al., Disclosing New Worlds. 38. Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles: Spheres Volume 1: Microsphereology, tr. Wieland Hoban (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2011).

Chapter 11

The Voices of Nature: Toward a Polyphonic Conception of Philosophy Thomas M. Alexander

What is the relation of philosophy to the recognition of a new geological period, a new fate of the earth? This period, the “Anthropocene,” is characterized by the cumulative technological impact of our species upon the ecology of our planet, amounting now to an ecological crisis. But the question posed may be taken in different ways. Should philosophy, however traditionally understood, simply now turn its interest to matters of global ecology? Or is a new realization for philosophy also required—what would it mean for philosophy to embrace self-reflectively its own practice in terms of global ecology? The former approach yields applications of accepted methods of philosophy (such as analytical or phenomenological) to a new range of ecological topics. But the latter asks for philosophy to question its traditions and methods and to pose what it might mean to develop an ecological way of philosophical thinking. This chapter attempts the latter question. Can philosophy think not only about ecology but also ecologically? I take “ecology” far more broadly than simply designating a more complex understanding of the interrelations of species to each other and to the biophysical environment. The Anthropocene also poses the question of anthropos, the human being. Human beings do not merely inhabit a biophysical environment. We strive to inhabit worlds of meaning and value. This is a drive or fundamental need for our kind as much as the need for air, water, and food. Without inhabiting a world of meanings and values we cease to flourish and eventually die. So this dimension of our existence is both a biological and a ontological fact. I have elsewhere designated this need as “The Human Eros.”1 Though the eros for meaning is biologically rooted, it realizes itself on a dimension of cultural, symbolic existence. Thus cultures can be understood to be “spiritual ecologies”: they are environments of meaning within which human beings inhabit the earth to sustain human being. 193


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Today we are also experiencing a crisis of meaning. The spiritual ecologies of the past may simply cease to be adequate as the impact of the Anthropocene becomes impossible to ignore. Some cultures—some “spiritual ecologies”— may be unviable ways for us to continue to exist, particularly those cultures most responsible for the crisis today and most unresponsive to it.2 Those who try to inhabit the earth by means of a failing spiritual ecology will experience a crisis of meaning as they experience a crisis in physical existence. Insofar as spiritual ecologies are vital to our existence, any threats to a given culture will be met by its members with denial and then destructive rage. Worlds do not die gently. The only alternative will be the development of spiritual ecologies, ways of life, which are viable ecological forms of inhabitation. That is, we need to develop cultures that both sustain the human need to experience the world with meaning and value and do not involve ecologically destructive practices. They must embody ecological wisdom. Modernity’s legacy is deeply challenged on this point; its themes have reflected and furthered the very dynamisms that have led to the current crisis. In the past five centuries we have been using ever more powerful technologies, guided either by short sighted desires blind to long-range consequences or by a series of evanescent ideals that shapeshifted and then eluded us as we approached them. The defining struggles of the past century already seem quaint: the struggles of the old colonial empires, of capital and labor, of political ideologies. Communism, the nemesis of the Cold War, now fades away as democracy becomes corporate plutocracy. Religious fundamentalisms try to return to the long-lost past, often by violence, while liberal democracies find themselves manipulated by multinational corporations. Clearly, the time at hand is one in which humanity needs to think hard. It was also during the period of modernity that philosophy became institutionalized as a profession. It bears in its very professional self-conception the history of those times, never more so than when philosophy understands itself as a “science” or directly in service to “science” (even, perhaps especially, when it becomes a reaction to science). “Science” itself has been variously construed. Often it is simply a vague way of saying “mathematical physics,” hearkening back to Galileo and Descartes. Positivism was perhaps the most extreme case of philosophy trying to reconceive itself in terms of science. Still, phenomenology initially presented itself as an alternative “science” and pragmatism tried to broaden scientific method as a more general form of inquiry. Insofar as our current situation demands attention to our ecological existence, it is important to note that most twentieth-century philosophical movements embraced methods that never heard of the word “ecology.”3 Much philosophical reflection on ecology as a subject is carried out methodologically in a pre-ecological manner. We might well ask what such philosophies actually have that might help us to “think like a mountain,” in Aldo Leopold’s words. By this expression,

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Leopold meant we should take the standpoint of the whole ecosystem and not that of just one species, especially if that species is Homo sapiens. Moreover, it means to look beyond the species, taken by itself, for a perspective that sees interspecies dynamics in maintaining overall environmental balance.4 It means overcoming our love of contemplating self-enclosed essences or analyzing wholes down to ultimate atomic building blocks and adopting instead a pluralistic outlook that stresses interconnections, relations, processes, and evolution. Adopting new habits of thought is not easy, for we depend on habits to think at all. Even John Dewey’s own cultural naturalism, which centers upon the interactive organism-environment relation and offers itself as “ecologically friendly,” often succumbed to the modernist concern with mastery of nature.5 Thus, there is the question of how philosophy, embodying in itself the habits of modernity as it does, may lead to new genuinely ecological habits of thinking. Can philosophy come to “think like a mountain”? The ecological philosophical approach looks beyond focus on the “species” of philosophical positions to grasp their interactive dynamics, their function in an ecology of thought. My point is that in using philosophical methods of the recent past—and philosophy must use its past—we must remember that they are not only largely unaffected by an ecological outlook but often present impediments to ecological thinking. This approach would include seeing the need for a “natural history” for philosophies, a functional view that includes their transformational historical developments and adaptive behaviors. I take the following claims as central for an ecological outlook: 1. Biodiversity is an inherent characteristic of healthy environments. 2. The interaction of species and the physical environment constitutes its own dynamic pattern. 3. To understand any given species involves understanding its role in the overall ecology over time, that is, its evolution along with the evolution of the environment. The adoption of this outlook transformed how individual species were understood, not to mention how such entities as “environments,” largely ignored, came to be objects of direct study. In what ways could philosophy learn from these points? Let me contrast some of the dominant assumptions of philosophy as it has been practiced with the previously mentioned theses: 1. Diversity is an inherent problem for philosophy insofar as it seeks to be realized in one unified outcome. 2. Diversity is failure to conform to a paradigm, not creative adaptation.


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3. Philosophy must be understood in terms of itself and not essentially in terms of its relation to its sociopolitical or cultural context. 4. Philosophy develops from its internal critique and does not bear an essential relation to its history, much less its embedded history in culture. Philosophy (especially in the Anglophone world) tends toward a monoculture in which alternative approaches, especially those identified with “foreign” movements, are unrepresented and dismissed. Instead of a pond with many species and free oxygen, Anglophone philosophy more resembles a pond covered with algae that are asphyxiating alternative organisms. Or, at best, we have a pluralism of indifference and noninteraction, a pluralism of puzzled tolerance and a political coexistence of live and let live, aiming at survival in our ethnic enclaves and fending off assimilation. I hope it is obvious that a global age does not need this sort of pluralism. We still need to go beyond “tolerance” or some ideal of “inclusiveness” by tokenism and move toward a realization of pluralism in thought, genuine “ideodiversity,” as part of what it means to think ecologically. LOGOS, ENTELECHY, AND THE FOUR VOICES OF POLYPHONIC THINKING The following discussion is an attempt to articulate an ecological pluralism in thought. Let this be called “polyphonic thinking,” where “polyphony” indicates mutually responsive diversity. I wish to exhibit it in relation to two basic modes of thinking and their four “voices.” The modes have a tensional range, each one like an axis with contrary extremities or vectors. The tendencies constitute the various distinct “voices” that become articulated along the range of the continuum of each axis. The axes are those of conceptual understanding (“Logos”) and self-actualization (“Entelechy”). Each axis expresses a fundamental concern that human existence, anthropos, has; each can constitute a way of existing with meaning. The axis of entelechy has as its tensional vectors (1) ethical action in the world—the development of worldly virtue (aretē)—and (2) inward self-transformation by wisdom of a higher nature (gnōsis). Along this axis, then, one may move toward fulfilment in the human world of action and culture or toward the transcendental voice that seeks a higher realization beyond the ethical or political world by a transformative spiritual insight.6 These diverging tendencies belong to the same continuum and so there are an indefinite number of intermediary inflections along its range. Likewise, the axis of logos may be conceived as a continuum constituted by the tensive contrast between (1) a concern to understand the world in terms of a collection of discrete facts (epistēmē), an “ontic concern,”

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and (2) a concern to understand the being that underlies these various beings (theōria), an “ontological concern.” The former may be said to mark the epistemic or “scientific voice,” the latter the theoretic or “ontological voice.” Thus, we have the axis of entelechy defining the range between the humanistic voice and the transcendental voice, and the axis of logos determining the range between the scientific voice and the ontological voice. These axes define possible orientations in which both nature and the human may be invoked for thinking. The tropes or inflections along these vectors may also be more or less open (polyphonic) or closed (monophonic) to any or all of the other voices.7 The voice of epistēmē, the “scientific voice,” for example, may articulate itself along a continuum that ranges from the monophonic extreme of reductive materialism—a scientistic attitude in which the humanistic, ontological, and transcendental voices are dismissed— to the polyphonic extreme of a richly inclusive outlook, such as Charles S. Peirce’s semeiotic view of nature.8 Likewise, the humanistic voice may have a monophonic extreme, such as the narrow utilitarianism of Bentham or even Socrates’s strict focus on virtue, finding no time for “things in the sky or under the earth.” Or the humanistic voice may find expression in polyphonic breadth of outlook of Goethe or Hegel. These axes and their tropes are not meant to be exhaustive; my aim is to use them to show the difference between polyphonic thinking and monophonic thinking. Types of polyphonic voices can be responsive to each other. The more polyphonic a voice becomes, the more it exhibits an ecological orientation. Insofar as these polyphonies all modulate relationships between human existence and nature, they can be regarded as forms of “naturalistic humanism.” This term may stand for the interactive field of polyphonic voices. “NATURALISTIC HUMANISM” “Naturalism” and “humanism” must be taken with caution, as both are highly compromised terms. Nevertheless, I do not think they should be sacrificed, for both the theme of nature and that of human existence are central to an ecological outlook. There is a danger in doing serious philosophy with any word that ends in “-ism.” Such a term is often an excuse for not thinking, evoking a vague sense of what is meant. “Naturalism” and “humanism” are no exceptions. “Naturalism” is especially problematic because the most common meaning given to the term today is “rejecting the supernatural,” as if this latter term were self-evident.9 But God (or the gods) may be considered to be “natural” and the natural may be regarded as divine. The Greek gods were born of phusis, children of nature like us, except they were “ever living,” whereas we were destined to be mortal. Even the atomism of Epicurus retains


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the gods as natural beings, blissful atomic aggregates floating between the galaxies or intermundia. Or, as with pantheism, the natural and divine may be identified. Xenophanes, says Aristotle, beheld the All and declared it to be God, theos.10 The Stoics concurred. Nature and God are the same for Spinoza (Deus sive natura), but nature here includes infinitely more than the physical cosmos. Or the divine may be part of nature. John Scottus Eriugena (often mistaken for a pantheist) makes nature the most inclusive category, embracing God, being, creation, and the uncreated.11 Similarly, the “panentheist” evolutionary theologies, like those of Whitehead or Hartshorne, make God part of the creativity of nature. Such naturalisms have brought the divine into nature. It is perverse, then, to dictate at the outset that naturalism must “reject the supernatural.” To do so represents an instance of monophonic thinking, making naturalism synonymous with reductionistic materialism, the limitation of “what there is” to answers provided by “science,” that is, physics. To challenge reductionism, as Thomas Nagel did in Cosmos and Reality, is to invite scarifying criticism, driven largely by the fear that something “supernatural” has been introduced.12 I believe this predisposition toward both scientism and reductionism as defining “nature” are elements of the modern revolution that need to be questioned.13 The habit of turning toward physics as “the” explanation is highly limited in ecology even if one tries to stress the mechanics of “homeostasis” in terms of “energy.”14 The organism-environment relation is primary and complex; as Dewey emphasized, it is not simply a physical space with a living being dropped into it. The organism extends beyond the skin and the environment enters deep beneath it. Ideas of biodiversity and natural history—the development of species and their environments—must be added. But more is certainly required if one is to “think like a mountain.” What of the ways of nature as disclosed in other modes of human experience than scientific knowledge: nature as beautiful or sublime, as sustaining or hostile, as rich with meaning or empty of it? Human beings are parts of nature so, in that sense, culture is “natural.” And this would then open up the spiritual dimensions of our existence. Our “being-in-the-world” is part of how we are “being-in-nature.” “Naturalism,” then, need not be used in its restricted “naturalistic” sense, especially if one views nature as something open to question—to invoke—and not predefined to fit our tribal prejudices. Ecological thinking must insist on its own use of “nature” and “naturalism.” Furthermore, let us stipulate that the associated term “naturalist,” often used to designate those espousing “naturalism” in the scientistic sense, shall stand instead for those who have a genuine interest in or concern with nature. Care for nature is a basic orientation in their way of existing. Emerson records the following in his Journal upon having visited the Jardin des Plantes and seen its orderly array of diverse species.

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Not a form so grotesque, so savage, nor so beautiful but is an expression of some property inherent in man the observer—an occult relation between the very scorpions and man. I feel the centipede in me—cayman, carp, eagle, & fox. I am moved by strange sympathies, I say continually, “I will be a naturalist.”15

A naturalist is one who has an informed care for nature, not someone who espouses some “ism” that exhibits carelessness about nature and is concerned only for some abstract doctrinal claim. Quine may be a “naturalist” by some criteria, but not by this one. Likewise many other philosophical “naturalists” actually are not naturalists: they really have no interest in nature and use the term completely abstractly. So an ecological philosophy not only must insist on using the term “naturalism” in the richest sense, but will use “naturalist” to denote one who has a genuine orientation of care or concern toward nature. This defense of the term “naturalism” also provides a defense of the term “humanism.” Traditionally “humanism” simply referred to the movement inspired by the early Renaissance humanists who rescued the literary heritage of the classical world and promoted its positive, “this-worldly” view of nature and humanity. It was not, as it has become in the United States, identified with a militantly atheistic outlook (as any examination of the writings and lives of the humanists—Petrarch, Ficino, Erasmus, or More, all Christians and one a martyr—will testify). More broadly, humanism came to denote a broad interest in the study of culture and the meanings embodied not only in languages but in the arts, institutions, and history of humanity—that which is expressed by the German word Geist or “Spirit” and the correlate term Geisteswissenschaften, the humanities or “human sciences.” But “humanism” is a troubled term today not only by its recent connotation of atheism (under the aspect of “secular humanism”) but as a point of attack by deep ecologists who view human nature as ecologically evil. As we need a complex view of naturalism, so we need a complex view of humanism. “Humanism” should signify a deeply focused concern for the extent of human nature and its works—not least of which are those environments of meaning, those “spiritual ecologies,” that cultures weave for us so that our desire to experience meaning may thrive. Humanism is care for anthropos, human existence. More specifically, it is a concern or care for spiritual ecologies that serve the human eros. As with Emerson’s idea of a “naturalist” as one who really cares about nature, so let us use “humanist” to mean someone who really cares about human cultural existence. In this sense, humanism opens up “the realm of spirit.” “Spirit” can be taken to be the way in which something lives on the earth. For human beings this involves cultural existence as its “spiritual ecology,” as its “home” or oikos. This “home” or life of meaning may be that of the personal, individual life, the family, a community, a state, a people, or a civilization. Thus, ecological naturalism is also an ecological humanism.


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THINKING AS INVOCATION Such, then, is the “naturalistic humanism” set forth here. It means, above all, a genuine care for nature in all its modes of invocation and for the human in all its modes of invocation. Let us now see how a polyphonic or ecological approach to the question of nature-and-the-human may proceed. Invocation is a gradual, receptive, and reflective manner of approach to a subject matter. It seeks to invoke or call forth its subject. Charles Peirce called this imaginatively receptive, playfully open state “musement.”16 One might also think of the later Heidegger’s use of Meister Eckhart’s term Gelassenheit, “letting be” or “releasement,” a thinking without ego or will.17 The Western tradition has generally taken a self-willed, disciplined view of thought. Although epitomized in modern philosophy as the centrality of the search for method, the roots of this view can be found in Hellenic and Hebraic cultures. Hesiod’s Theogony tells of the struggle by the gods, especially Zeus, to dominate disorder and impose cosmos, and this was carried over into the Greek philosophical tradition: the triumph of cosmos over chaos. The Greek philosophers from the outset incorporated this narrative. In Hebrew mythology, God commands the world into ordered existence in successive stages. Each step of creation in Genesis is due to God’s will.18 Both the Greek and the Hebrew creation accounts may be contrasted with the Mayan Popol Vuh. As in Genesis, the primal gods also speak the world into being—they say “mountains” and mountains emerge. But the manner of speech, however, is not command but evocation, a calling forth. The mountains “unfold” like a mist and then separate from the water. As Mayan scholar and translator Dennis Tedlock explains, “It is as if the mountains were there in the primordial world all along and were revealed, little by little, as the clouds parted.”19 This speaking invites the subject to come forth, to emerge from the mist, to actualize itself in reciprocity. The act of speech also strives to hear what it itself is saying. Perhaps we can begin to think of invocation as involving some degree of Peircean playfulness, Heideggerian receptivity and Mayan evocation. Let us now turn to examine the four ways—four “voices”—in which nature and the human may be invoked—voices I have designated as the scientific, the humanistic, the ontological, and the transcendental. They are voices in that polyphonic ecology of thought I call “humanistic naturalism.” NATURE INVOKED BY THE VOICE OF EPISTE¯ME¯ As noted, the dominant meaning of “naturalism” is taken to be defined by its opposition to the supernatural. Humanistic naturalism regards that as only one of the many possible tropes of nature as invoked by the voice of

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epistēmē. Epistēmē aims at an articulate knowledge of nature as a system of facts grasped through cognition. In its narrow form, this view sees nature as “the object of science.” And “science” is then understood as “the study that grasps reality,” knowledge of ta onta, the things that are. This is a version of a more fundamental presupposition that reality is most fully manifest as known. If one holds that there are other ways of knowing besides those of empirical science, one begins to move away from the limited version of scientific naturalism. The philosophy of Aristotle is richly polyphonic, balanced between the scientific and ontological voices. But the ontological voice may also be monophonic. The forms of rationalism, beginning with Parmenides, equate the real and the known while rejecting an empirical conception of science as knowing in its fullest sense.20 Both assumptions express the conviction that the real is fundamentally grasped in conceptual linguistic articulation, logos.21 The ways in which epistēmē itself is conceived or inflected are determined by the assumptions as to what science is and which science is taken to be the paradigm. These assumptions in turn determine the relationships of the various sciences to each other. Thus, nature or reality often becomes constituted by the object of whatever science is deemed the paradigm of “Science” in general. Mathematics (or mathematical physics) occupies this position in the modern era: not only is nature thought to be truly understood primarily as it shows itself through this method, but also the other sciences are ranked in terms of how closely they approach or fall away from mathematics. Modern science began with Galileo’s identification of the physical and mathematical orders, by which he transformed Platonism into a reductive materialism. Plato saw the ideal perfection of mathematical forms as an argument as to why they could not be physical objects. Thus, mathematics for him could only be a criterion for judging the degree physical beings were good or poor copies of their ideal patterns. Galileo saw that any physical body or motion could be exactly mathematically described, no matter how “imperfect” it was by Euclidean standards. This led to the thesis that the real was physical and mathematical, and so mathematical physics became the paradigm of science. The nonreductive hierarchy of nature for Aristotle actually supported the idea of a plurality of sciences, each with its own proper object and its own principles or archai. But the modernist conception of science understood everything in terms of one mathematical science in which all things were transformations of a common material substance. Many sciences would ultimately be aspects of one basic science—the positivist dream of “the unity of science.” Hence modernism’s drive toward a “monophonic” form of invoking nature as the object of its ideal of science. What I am describing here are general tendencies. Certainly there are exceptions. Classic views of nature tended to be nonreductive, but atomism embraced materialistic reductionism. Modernism aimed for reductive


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materialism, but Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialism was a vigorous protest against it. The temperament of modernity made the discovery (and subsequent printed dissemination) of Lucretius’s De rerum natura a far more momentous event than its original publication in antiquity.22 Today this form of modernism is illustrated by reductionists like Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson in biology, for example, rather than by “holistic” biologists like paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, geneticist Barbara McClintock, or ecologist Eugene Odum. In philosophy, the views today of Daniel Dennett or Paul Churchland express the same form of restrictive naturalism, with reductive forms of genetic and neural physiology being the paradigm science for them. The tendency these versions exhibit is monophonic: other voices are unheard and ignored. Scientific naturalism need not exist only in a restrictive, monophonic form. There may be degrees of resistance to this extreme. I have already mentioned Gould, McClintock, and Odum. One can add microbiologist René Dubos (1901–1982), who was also a polymathic environmental humanist.23 Paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) developed an evolutionary theology and was influential on one of the giants of evolutionary biology, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900–1975).24 And once we look at sciences of human nature, it becomes harder to push truly reductionistic agendas. The tension is reflected even in psychoanalysis in the contrast between Freud’s materialistic view of the psyche and Jung’s ultimate concern with symbolic self-understanding and self-transformation. Whatever the standing of the specific hypotheses, insofar as such forms of scientific concern become open to humanistic and even transcendental voices, they are “polyphonic.” In terms of naturalism in philosophy rather than the sciences, we also see positions that are less restrictive than extreme, narrow types of reductionism. John Searle resists equating the brain to a computer, and Hilary Putnam argued for a functionalist view of mind and a realistic ontology. Quine held a limited version of naturalism, but still he argued against positivism’s analytic/ synthetic dichotomy and for a comparatively holistic view of knowledge as “the web of belief.” Even Wilfrid Sellars sought to make some room for the “manifest image of man” (the dimension of intentionality) in contrast to (though ultimately dependent upon) the scientific one.25 Their positions tend toward the more extreme forms of monophonic naturalism, but remain somewhat open to certain humanistic issues. The more inclusive forms of scientific naturalism (those open to humanistic, ontological, and transcendental dimensions) exhibit what I would call an “ecological” disposition. That is, they display: (1) an acceptance of complexity as an irreducible, integral feature of nature; (2) a concern to grasp nature in terms of interactive systems and vital relations rather than in terms of

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ultimate, fixed identities (ultimate atoms, static forms, “facts,” or whatever); (3) a temporal and developmental view of form as carrying with it its “natural history” as well as its creative possibilities; (4) an interactive view of human experience, including the process of knowledge, that acknowledges the provisional, fallibilistic, contextual, and pragmatic as inherent to the enterprise, that is, an “ecology of mind.” Perhaps, after Aristotle, the supreme example here—certainly the supreme example in American philosophy—would be Charles Peirce. Peirce argued forcefully that we must understand reality through science, but he conceived science incredibly broadly, aiming at the truly real general features of the world, with nature itself as a system of signs with degrees of emergent feeling.26 Peirce had one of the most integrative minds in Western philosophy and thus is a supreme example of a polyphonic thinker. But what of the oikos or home that scientific naturalism offers for spirit? I have characterized this voice as epistēmē: the meaning of existence is found through the rational articulation of nature in the form of scientific knowledge, however that may be conceived. In the classical world, such knowledge was largely contemplative, though not entirely, as the examples of Archimedes or Galen show. The modern approach to science is largely aimed at the end of “the mastery of nature.” Scientific knowledge of human nature falls within this project as well. Hobbes presents his “science of man” at the beginning of Leviathan precisely to show that the state can be conceived of as a vast collective machine that turns the raw power of human desire and fear to constructive and peaceful ends. The theme of understanding human reality through the idea of material power pervades the modern era. The “ecology of spirit” offered by scientific naturalism ranges between the Greek ideal of contemplation of nature as a fulfillment of the natural power of wonder and understanding that Aristotle finds to be fundamental to us as human beings27 and the practical aim to guide nature’s powers to satisfy human desire. The “life” or spirit of science offers itself as a way of fulfilling the human eros on a variety of levels—the rigors of a disciplined analysis of nature, aesthetic delight in the spectacle of an aspect of nature itself, such as a species or a geological epoch, advancing control of cruel disease or creating new technologies that affect our own daily existence. Books like Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle or Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf indicate the way in which the life of science itself is a home of the human spirit. Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac opens a new dimension that goes beyond contemplation and control to a more inclusive life, namely responsible dwelling, in which the aesthetic, ethical, and intellectual interests in nature coalesce into an ecological mode of human existence. Leopold goes beyond the idea of control to that of conservation, including a “land aesthetic” as well as a “land ethic.” The role of the scientific observer is also that of participant and


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the development of scientific understanding is also a path of self-realization, with the self being understood as self-in-nature, as ecological. NATURE INVOKED BY THE VOICE OF HUMANISM There is also a “voice” invoking nature primarily as it enters into human life and experience, that is, nature as it reveals itself in and through human nature. Human nature in the scientific voice appears as the knower. In the humanistic voice it is the ethical and political that predominate. Nature is the “world,” the context or stage of human existence. The world may be the scene of conquest, exploration, and adventure, but the human drama is always at the center. Both the Hebrew and classical sources of Western civilization had an almost exclusive view of nature in this manner. In the Tanakh, nature enters in as part of a moral story: the Garden of Eden, the Flood, the parting of the Red Sea, Moses ascending Mount Sinai, the crossing of the Jordan, and so on. In classical culture, nature is primarily the scene for the hero’s adventures, as in The Odyssey. Pre-Socratic naturalism, from the Milesians to the atomists, does elevate the focus on nature as phusis, but this is the exception to the rule. Greek and Hebrew culture were highly attuned to the humanistic voice. While Chinese culture has a deep receptivity for the role of nature, thanks to Daoism and, later, Buddhism, the dominant tradition, Confucianism, is fiercely anthropocentric with its main concern for the ethical, social, and political ways, exemplified in its veneration of ritual and history.28 Insofar as any philosophical or cultural outlook has a fundamental disposition toward focusing upon the issue of the meaning of human existence, it can be understood to be a modulation of entelechy. Meaning is realized through self-realizing action more than by cognition or scientific inquiry. The humanistic trope arises from a legitimate concern human beings have for their own experience and existence. It, too, may be more or less monophonic or polyphonic. There are humanisms that are restrictive, exclusively focused on the human world and indifferent or even hostile to the scientific, ontological, or the transcendental voices. Greek culture, while primarily focused on the human world, was strongly disposed toward the development of inquiry into nature for its own sake. It also developed from this a concern for the ontological voice, beginning with Parmenides and culminating in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and, later, the transcendental voice—the gnostic call for self-transformation—as we see in the Hellenistic schools and Neoplatonism. In this sense, its humanism was polyphonic. But there are restrictive or monophonic forms of the humanistic voice, closed to one or all of the other three voices that I have distinguished. Perhaps, as noted already, the foremost example of being closed to all but the

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humanistic voice itself in classical philosophy is Socrates, who (as he says in the Apology and the Phaedo) set aside curiosity about the nature of the heavens as long the problem of how to live well, the “care of the soul,” eluded him. The skepticism of Montaigne or Hume or the existentialism of Nietzsche or Sartre would be other, later examples that tend toward the restrictive form. Sartre’s relation to nature, epitomized in the famous description of the chestnut tree root in La nausée, sees nature fundamentally in the mode of disgust, as the antihuman, the en soi, or in-itself. By contrast, there are nonrestrictive forms of the humanistic voice. Plato’s humanism is a fairly inclusive, polyphonic form, open as it was to questions of cosmology and ontology as well as science, though ultimately these are pursued for the Socratic end of the welfare of the soul. The Christian humanism of Erasmus is sensitive to the transcendental voice but rejects the ontological (which he identified with scholastic metaphysics). The secular humanism of Voltaire rejects both the transcendental and ontological voices, except for a thin deism, while remaining open to the scientific voice. The early period of Santayana’s thought culminating in The Life of Reason shows a polyphonic humanistic naturalism in a robust form.29 The work of John Dewey stands perhaps as an even more dramatic instance of an inclusive naturalism that retains its humanistic focus. Nature for him is the scene within which human existence is enacted: “ ‘Experience’ denotes the planted field, the sowed seeds, the reaped harvests, the changes of night and day . . . that are observed, feared and longed for; it also denotes the one who plants and reaps, who works, rejoices, hopes, fears, plans, invokes magic or chemistry to aid him.”30 The oikos or home of spirit in this form of naturalism finds itself in the idea of civilization as forms of expression. The philosophies of civilization, such as we find in Vico, Dilthey, and Cassirer, present us with further examples of this polyphonic humanistic voice as well. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work is humanistic with a sympathy for the ontological voice. The thought of Martin Buber or Emmanuel Levinas is humanistic with an openness to the transcendental. NATURE INVOKED IN THE VOICE OF ONTOLOGY The scientific voice seeks knowledge of nature in terms of its various components, ta onta, beings, or entities, assembled as a system of facts. But there is also a way of invoking nature through the question of being as such, beginning with the being of nature. Like the voice of epistēmē, this ontological voice seeks understanding through conceptual and linguistic articulation, through logos. But this mode seeks a reflective breadth and depth, a generality of outlook that the Greeks called theōria, that the factual orientation of


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epistēmē does not have. That these two, epistēmē and theōria, are different tendencies of logos is evident in the way in which many scientific naturalists take a hostile view of metaphysics (even while appealing to tacit metaphysical principles) and the way in which many metaphysicians and ontologists take a critical or even hostile view of science. The ontological dimension as something contrasted with the order of phusis became explicit with Parmenides, who put being and nature in stark opposition. This inaugurated a crisis that set being as one, changeless and only known by reason over against the world of motion and plurality perceived by the senses, phusis, so that nature was in fact “not being” (mē on) and so was not. Insofar as nature was understood to be that which is born, becomes, grows, acts in a definite manner, changes, and passes away, being stood forth as the denial of all such traits: ungenerated, indestructible, one, continuous, and so on. For Parmenides, the meaning of being was summed up in the third person present indicative singular: It-Is (esti). It was the struggle of subsequent classical philosophy (and of much subsequent Western thought) to reconcile the language of being with the features of nature. Hence we see Plato undertaking to understand nature as a “moving image of eternity” in the Timaeus and Aristotle’s prolonged analysis of natural being in the Physics as “that which has the source of motion in itself” to the intricate analysis of “being qua being” in the Metaphysics that exhibits both generic “whatness” and individuality, “thisness.” The medieval philosophers had to rethink the ontology of nature in terms of nature as “creation” produced by one single source and origin. The moderns are likewise caught up in trying to rethink the ontology of nature on a new paradigm that comprehends nature as both a physical and mathematical dynamism. Thus, while Hobbes’s view of nature as fundamentally body may be contrasted with Leibniz’s view of body as derivative and a function of immaterial active substances, both are attempts to grapple with the ontology of nature. In the twentieth century, too, we see various ways of trying to articulate an ontology from the question of nature. These range from reductive positions to Whitehead’s process philosophy, the later Santayana’s “realms of being” that extend beyond the realm of matter, and the later Heidegger’s struggle to renew the question of being by a reengagement with the experience of nature as phusis. Thus, in addition to the concern with nature as a system of facts, there is a distinct voice that raises the issue of the being of nature and the question of being itself. To the extent that a concern for nature opens up to this voice, we have a naturalism polyphonically attuned to the ontological voice. But, just as the voice of epistēmē may be closed to other voices, so the ontological voice, the voice of theōria, may be closed to one or all of the other voices. That is, there may be polyphonic or monophonic ontologies. An ecological ontology would be as polyphonically open as possible.

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NATURE INVOKED BY THE TRANSCENDENTAL VOICE The fourth trope or voice by which nature and the human may be invoked is the transcendental. This may sound paradoxical. Is not the transcendental that which transcends nature? From a materialist interpretation of nature, the transcendental is automatically excluded, and so appears contradictory. As we have seen, there are other views of nature, even when they are attuned primarily toward the epistemic voice. Transcendental philosophies often have especially powerful views of nature as something not alien to higher stages of self-reflective consciousness. Plato expends much attention in his Timaeus on the account of the physical world as a living being modelled on nonphysical Forms by the Divine Craftsman. But the dialogue is meant not just to put forth a cosmology grounded in ontology, but to change the life of the reader. This is a transcendental aspect.31 Plotinus likewise devotes two of the six Enneads to questions about nature, such as matter and time. And in Ennead III.8 he gives an account of nature as “silent contemplation.” The Neoplatonic endeavor was to awaken “the god in us.”32 The Romantics discovered a spiritual value in nature, influencing German idealism and American transcendentalism. Nature becomes a key moment in the process of self-realization. We have already seen the importance of nature for Emerson. We can add here Thoreau’s famous entry from his Journal (March 5, 1853). Having received a letter from the secretary for the Advancement of Science to reply stating his “preferred branch of science,” Thoreau reflected, “The fact is I am a mystic, a transcendentalist and a natural philosopher to boot. Now I think of it, I should have told them at once that I was a transcendentalist. That would have been the shortest way of telling them that they would not understand my explanations.” Thoreau was one of the most careful and accurate observers of the natural world of his day, but his end was one of spiritually awakened consciousness. Thus, the question of nature as well as that of the human receives important expressions in the transcendental voice, or gnōsis. Although transcendence of nature as a realization of self-knowledge may be the ultimate concern, and so understood as an orientation of the energy of eros, the desire for meaning, there is an important way in which nature is invoked in this process, and some of our finest nature writing attests to it. Transcendence is really a form of self-realization, an expansion of perspective and understanding that allows a reinterpretation of the ordinary. We accept too easily Kant’s distinction between the transcendental and transcendent which ultimately rests upon the noumenal/phenomenal distinction. This was a product of Kant’s compromised struggle to maintain a scientific vision of a world governed by mechanistic causality while yet allowing for moral freedom. The idealists, I believe, understood perfectly the defects of Kant’s “solution” and developed


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the implications of his philosophy in the only direction possible—for in the very act of seeking to find the limits of knowledge, Kant had already “transcended” them. Self-knowledge was the dynamism of reality, and this knowledge was inherently transformative. Idealism is really a form of gnōsis, the knowledge that achieves selfrealization as self-transformation. Thus, by “transcendental,” I mean that concern with the ultimate truth that actualizes who and what we are, not as practical ethics does but by awareness of a deeper truth. In this sense it meets the needs of the human eros, but in a different mood from the humanistic one of ethical engagement or cultural expression. One can point to the teachings of the Upanishads as a (monophonic) paradigm example of this quest: tat tvam asi, that thou art. The idea that “knowledge” involves both selfrealization and transformation is probably as ancient as humankind, for this is the nature of the shaman’s wisdom. A shaman serves his tribe by entering into the world of the primordial powers (which are part of “nature”), where one may undergo many changes and acquire the healing knowledge to help the people flourish. Indeed, any genuine religious feeling or sense of the holy invokes this transcendental dimension. To re-emphasize, this “transcending” is really a transformation of the immanent, a metamorphosis of awareness and existence rather than a “departure” from the world. When God tells Moses: take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground (Ex. 3.1–6), what is changed is Moses’s perception, not his place. The figures of traditional religions are archetypal ways of symbolizing the personae or faces of the sacred, but to the gnostic quest they are but doors to higher and more inward truth.33 The Sufi poet Rumi says that when you stand inside the Ka’aba (the holy shrine of Islam) you no longer need to know which direction you must face in order to pray.34 From outward forms, one moves to various techniques ways of attaining this altered consciousness of existence, such as by means of meditation, yoga, shamanistic vision quest or Sufi dancing. The transcendental mood, like the others, may be voiced in a restrictive or inclusive sense. The restrictive or monophonic mode may exclude some or all interest in science, culture, or metaphysical reflection. A rigorously focused mystic may turn from the world as illusion and seek pure focus of devotional consciousness. One with humanistic concern may, like the Buddha, choose to spend life as a healer and teacher. On the contemplative or ontological side, there may be genuine philosophical mystics like Plotinus, Shankara, or Nagarjuna who seek to articulate at the level of discursive reason the modalities of nature, being, and that beyond being, while recognizing that such articulations are ultimately inadequate. The transcendental voice may be receptive to the scientific one. Proclus, Ibn Sina, and Schelling all had a genuine interest in the sciences—Ibn Sina being one of the greatest physicians of the medieval period. In the spectrum of American philosophy, as I said, the

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transcendentalists offer prime examples, beginning with Emerson’s Nature and Thoreau’s Walden. Emerson’s quest was to transform our experience of the world and ourselves from the dead, secular machine of the Enlightenment into a living, creative spiritual presence, to make the “axis of our vision coincident with the axis of things.”35 The path they chose was to turn to the natural world as a means of achieving a fresh, “American” perspective that was not altogether crippled from the outset by the inherited culture of Europe. In Nature, Emerson begins with describing nature as the “Not me,” but he comes to re-create the world in the act of poetic perception as the immanent act of the divine so that its opacity becomes transparency.36 Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond was not undertaken for the sake of “roughing it”—the frontier would have been better for that—but as a living sermon on how we can live life awake, marking the “nick of time” with clear, transcendental perception.37 The “form of life” exhibited in Walden, Thoreau’s travel books, and, above all, his Journal are testaments to the transformation of our existence that is at the heart of transcendentalism more than any “idealist” doctrine.38 The transcendental voice, then, may also have its polyphonic as well as monophonic expressions. POLYPHONIC PHILOSOPHY AS ECOLOGICAL THINKING It was my proposal that if one took the most inclusive form of each of these four “voices,” one might begin to develop a conception of polyphonic philosophy, a way of thinking that hears and responds to the other voices and their ways of invocation. I tried to illustrate this with the invocation of the themes of nature and the human. An ecological perspective asks that we be able to value the mutual interrelations of highly divergent species to understand the way an environment works, to “think like a mountain,” in Aldo Leopold’s expression. I am extending this idea to philosophy insofar as philosophy has mostly taken a singularly monophonic and tribal orientation. Polyphonic thinking can hear and respond to different voices and, insofar as those voices are themselves polyphonically uttered, they can respond as well. Philosophy can and should have diversity in its orientations, and each can legitimately take its focus. But it need not be exclusionary and thereby oblivious to or dissonant with other forms. Such thinking, I believe, can be creative, exploratory, and experimental. Our original question had to do with the relation of philosophical reflection to what has been termed the “Anthropocene.” I have presented what I term an “invocational” approach to the various ways in which a subject may be called forth by thought and I suggest that the polyphonic diversity of these orientations


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may be ways in which that subject gains depth. We have three-dimensional vision because we have two eyes viewing the world at different angles, which are nevertheless mutually informative to the optical center. We achieve a more coordinated sense of space because of plurality of perspective. So I think that the plurality of voices in philosophy can gain a sense of depth of a subject. But this will be only insofar as philosophy is polyphonically achieved. NOTES 1. See Thomas M. Alexander, The Human Eros: Eco-ontology and the Aesthetics of Existence (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013). 2. See the contribution by Fernando Flores and B. Scot Rousse in chapter 10. 3. The term “ecology” was coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel but was only really established in the 1950s by Eugene Odum in his groundbreaking textbook Fundamentals of Ecology. See Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 192 and 362. 4. See Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948), especially the section “Thinking Like a Mountain” in “Part II: Sketches Here and There.” By this phrase I mean to be able to see philosophical positions as interactive but different components of a cultural ecology. One tries to take the inclusive, ecological perspective (the “mountain’s” perspective) and not the limited, static outlook of one of the systems (species) alone—coyote, deer, or sportsman. 5. Inspired by James’s The Principles of Psychology in the 1890s, Dewey worked out a genuinely ecological model of the organism-environment relation by 1896 in “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology.” See John Dewey, The Early Works, vol. 5, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972), 96–110. “Cultural naturalism” was Dewey’s own term for his philosophy; “instrumentalism” was simply his theory of inquiry. 6. By “transcendental” I mean self-transformative insight such as one finds in the Upanishads, the Enneads of Plotinus, or the New England transcendentalists. I do not find Kant’s distinction of “transcendental” and “transcendent” helpful in designating an impulse of human ontological desire. 7. Monophony is characterized by a single or dominant melodic form, as in plainsong (like Gregorian chant) or simple popular songs. 8. By “scientism” I mean the attitude that dogmatically claims only “science” (as if it were one thing) can disclose the real and determine what truly is. Insofar as physics becomes the paradigm, the ultimate science, this view usually coalesces with reductive materialism. 9. See, for example, the introductory essay by Kelly James Clark in The Blackwell Companion to Naturalism, ed. Kelly James Clark (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), 1–2. For an older example, see Naturalism and the Human Spirit, ed. Yervant Krikorian (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944). 10. See Aristotle, Metaphysics 986b 21.

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11. John Scottus Eriugena, Periphyseon (De divisione naturae) I.1. 12. Thomas Nagel, Cosmos and Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). See Nagel’s defensive response to his critics in “The Stone” in the New York Times (, August 18, 2013. For an emergentist view of nature and mind, see John Dewey’s Experience and Nature (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1925, 2nd ed. 1929; critical edition, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985, as Later Works, vol. 1). Emergentism, while retaining an evolutionary view of nature, accepts that new forms of existence (e.g., life, mentality) can emerge from conditions that do not exhibit these forms. 13. Though a fixture of modern materialisms, the thesis that an effect cannot have more reality than its cause is a direct importation of Platonism, explicit in Proclus’s Elements of Theology and familiar to us from Descartes’s “Third Meditation.” 14. As for example, Gregory Bateson in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Chandler Publishing Co., 1972) and Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (New York: Dutton, 1979). Eugene Odum had to stress the “hard science” behind ecology to win acceptance of it as a legitimate form of science, though he himself held to a holistic conception of it. 15. Emerson, Journal, July 13, 1833. It is worth noting that many so-called philosophical “naturalists” would be excluded by this requirement, as they have no real interest in or understanding of nature. 16. See Charles S Peirce, “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God,” in The Essential Peirce, vol. 2, ed. The Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998), 434–35; also in Collected Papers, vol. VI (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), sections 311–12. “Musement” is a playful, imaginative reverie in the search for explanatory hypotheses. Peirce developed the idea from Schiller’s “play drive.” 17. See Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, tr. John M. Andersen and E. Hans Freund (New York: Harper Colophon, 1966); the full version of the dialogue in which Heidegger introduces the concept is included in Country Path Conversations, tr. Bret W. Davis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010). 18. Of course such a theologically central topic as “creation” is subject to widely varying interpretations. The JPS Torah Commentary to Genesis, ed. Nahum Sarna (New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989) says that the verb “to create” (Genesis 1.1) or b-r-’ “is used in the Bible exclusively of divine creativity. It signifies that the product is absolutely novel and unexampled, depends solely upon God for its coming into existence, and is beyond human capacity to reproduce” (5). It connotes “divine fiat without reference to any inert matter being present.” “God said” is read to mean “God willed” or “effortless and absolute sovereignty over nature” (7). A very different interpretation is taken by Martin Yaffe, one more akin to the Mayan view: “ ‘Anthropogenic Effects’ in Genesis 1–11 and Francis Bacon,” Telos 177 (Winter 2016): 16–42. Historically, the former interpretation has been dominant and so defining for Western culture. 19. Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life, rev. ed., tr. with commentary by Dennis Tedlock (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1996), 65–66, 226. The insight actually comes from Tedlock’s Mayan teacher Andrés Xiloj.


Thomas M. Alexander

20. At least in Western philosophy; with Parmenides comes the fateful identification of “It-Is” (ἔστι) with “knowing” (νοεῖν). See DK 3: “For to know and to be are the same.” 21. This is also first clearly stated by Parmenides: only Being can be said, as The Way of Truth repeatedly insists. 22. The first discovery of a manuscript of the De rerum natura by Poggio Bracciolini occurred in 1418; it was circulated in handwritten copies (the original was eventually lost). The first printed edition came in 1473. The quiet literary enclaves of Epicureans in Roman times hardly carried any scientific impact. 23. René Dubos, A God within (New York: Scribner, 1973) and The Wooing of the Earth (New York: Scribner, 1981). 24. See Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959) and Dobzhansky, Mankind Evolving (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962). 25. See W. O. Quine, Ontological Relativity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969); W. F. Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” in Science, Perception and Reality (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1963); John Searle, “Is the Brain a Digital Computer?” in Philosophy in a New Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). 26. Here is a prime example of how doing philosophy by “isms” is fraught with danger, for by traditional pigeonholing by -isms, Peirce is an “ideal-ist,” not a “­naturalist,” and yet he was infinitely more interested in nature from a scientific standpoint than a “naturalist” like Quine or Sellars. 27. Metaphysics I.1 980 a 21. 28. “The stables caught fire. The Master, on returning from court, asked, ‘Was anyone hurt?’ He did not ask about the horses.” Analects X.17, tr. D. C. Lau (New York: Penguin Books, 1979). 29. As the titles in the volumes indicate: Reason in Common Sense, Reason in Society, Reason in Religion, Reason in Art, Reason in Science. 30. John Dewey, Experience and Nature in Later Works, vol. 1, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), 18. 31. The Timaeus was to be part of a tetralogy to show how a city like that idealized in the Republic might be actualized. The Timaeus itself was to outline a teleological view of the world—one such as a young Socrates had hoped to find in the book of Anaxagoras, but did not. Only the unfinished Critias remains of the rest of the series. Presumably Plato reconceived the project and the Laws was the result. Book X of the Laws comments on the harmful effects upon the young of a nonteleological, materialistic view of the world. 32. See Plotinus’s last words as he died in the biography by Porphyry. 33. As the lesson in the Upanishads goes: Vighdhadha asks Yajnavalkya how many gods there are. 3006, answers Yajnavalkya. How many really? Asks the disciple. 333 is the response. And so on until the final answer is given: one, and that is pure consciousness, Brahman. (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, III, 13.) 34. Rumi, Mathnawi II, 1765–75. Muslim culture requires one to face toward the Ka’aba in Mecca while praying, and so buildings throughout the Islamic world have markers indicating the proper direction.

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35. Emerson, Nature, chapter VIII: “The axis of our vision is not coincident with things, and so they appear not as transparent but opake. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself. He cannot be a naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit. Love is as much its demand, as perception. Indeed, neither can be perfect without the other. In the uttermost meaning of the words, thought is devout, and devotion is thought. Deep calls unto deep. But in actual life, the marriage is not celebrated. There are innocent men who worship God after the tradition of their fathers, but their sense of duty has not yet extended to the use of all their faculties. And there are patient naturalists, but they freeze the subject under the wintry light of the understanding. Is not prayer also a study of truth—a sally of the soul into the unfound infinite? No man ever prayed heartily, without learning something. But when a faithful thinker, resolute to detach every object from personal relations, and see it in the light of thought, shall at the same time kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections, then will God go forth anew into the creation.” 36. Nature, Introduction and chapter I; see “The Oversoul,” “Intellect,” and “The Poet.” 37. In Walden’s first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau states, “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.” 38. “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is an effort to throw off sleep. . . . We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical means but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. . . . I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover I had not lived.” Walden, chapter 2, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.”


Adorno, Theodor, 12, 128 – 29 Aeschylus, 56 alienation, 137 – 40, 144 Anaxagoras, 65, 92, 94, 212n31 animals, xiii, 5, 9, 11, 60n33, 67, 73, 78, 83, 99, 107, 110 – 11, 113, 115 – 16, 132, 154 – 57, 162, 168 – 69 Anthropocene, concept of, ix, 1 – 4, 6 – 7, 16, 40n2, 43, 63 – 64, 87, 93, 135 – 36, 153, 175 – 76, 193 anthropocentrism, 10 – 11 anthropos, 3 – 4, 7, 9, 14, 16, 93, 176, 193, 196, 199 Apel, Karl-Otto, 13 Archimedes, 203 Arendt, Hannah, 71, 125, 159 Aristotle, xi – xii, 30, 44 – 50, 56, 58, 65, 67, 70, 91 – 93, 104, 124, 201, 203 – 4, 206 Arrhenius, Svante, 3 art, x, 54, 73, 78, 112, 128 – 29, 149, 161 – 62, 171, 185, 199 atheism, 162, 167, 199 Augustine of Hippo, 156 autonomy, 130, 153 – 54, 156 – 57, 159, 168 – 71 Avicenna, 208

Axial Age, xi, xiii – xv, 7 – 9, 13 – 14, 16, 24 – 32, 34 – 37, 39 – 40, 64, 77, 100 – 102, 156 – 57, 170 – 71 Bacon, Francis, xii – xiv, 44, 48 – 52, 56, 58, 66, 88 – 89, 94 – 95, 97, 166 Barnosky, Anthony, 142 Bateson, Gregory, 122, 211n14 beauty, 34, 47, 74, 80, 95, 100, 140, 198 – 99 Bellah, Robert, 8 Benjamin, Walter, xi, 126 Bentham, Jeremy, 197 Berkeley, George, 202 biodiversity, 3, 6, 17, 110 – 11, 195, 198 Black, Joseph, 15 body, 46 – 47, 52, 65 – 66, 90, 94, 108 – 9, 115, 131 – 32, 139, 182, 206 Borgmann, Albert, 76 Broecker, Wallace, 5 Buber, Martin, 205 Buchanan, George, 9 Buddhism, xi, 31, 91, 156, 204, 208 Buell, Lawrence, 4 Byzantium, 24, 37 Callicott, J. Baird, 10 Caney, Simon, 15 215



capitalism, 72, 74, 102, 127, 138, 157 – 58, 166 – 67, 176, 181, 188 Capobianco, Richard, 144 – 45 Cassian, John, 167 Cassirer, Ernst, 205 Chakrabarty, Dipesh, 4, 135, 137 Chamberlain, Thomas, 3 China, 8, 12, 26, 28, 30 – 31, 35, 72, 77, 181, 187, 204 Christianity, xi – xii, 8, 27, 31 – 32, 51 – 53, 55 – 56, 88, 156, 166 – 69, 184, 199, 205 Church, George, 95 Churchland, Paul, 202 Cicero, 129 – 30 Clark, Nigel, 15 climate change, ix, 1, 3 – 7, 9 – 13, 16 – 17, 70, 75, 88, 93, 97, 139, 142 – 43, 147, 149, 176, 185 – 87 complexity, 67, 69, 77, 198, 202 computers, 68, 73, 83, 131, 181, 183 – 84, 202 Confucianism, xi, 156, 204 Confucius, 31 contemplation, 43 – 48, 50 – 51, 56 – 59, 109, 119, 132, 145, 203, 207 – 8 cosmopolitanism, 13 – 17, 102, 147 – 48 cosmos, 13, 47 – 48, 50, 55, 58, 65, 93 – 94, 96, 98, 100, 111, 128, 198, 200 CRISPR, 92, 94 – 96 Crutzen, Paul, ix, 3, 87 Dao De Jing, 30 Daoism, 204 Darwin, Charles, 91 – 92, 203 Dawkins, Richard, 202 death, 25, 51, 57, 86, 89 – 91, 94, 98, 112, 114 – 15, 120, 126, 175 – 77. See also mortality de Beistegui, Miguel, 145 deconstruction, 66, 79, 122 de Grey, Aubrey, 90 Delanty, Gerard, 15 democracy, ix – x, 53 – 54, 75, 158, 167 – 69, 194

Dennett, Daniel, 202 Derrida, Jacques, 4, 128 Descartes, René, x, xii, xv, 11, 48, 51, 57, 64 – 68, 70, 72 – 73, 88 – 89, 97, 147, 184 – 86, 194 desire, 52, 57, 65, 69, 75, 77, 110 – 14, 116 – 17, 121, 139, 154, 161, 171, 181, 194, 203 Dewey, John, 195, 198, 205 Dick, Philip K., 167 dignity, 57 – 58, 61n53, 156, 168 – 69 Dilthey, Wilhelm, 205 disease, 10, 89 – 91, 120, 142, 203 Dobzhansky, Theodosius, 202 Dreyfus, Hubert, 177, 182 – 85 dualism, 11, 65, 131 Dubos, René, 202 dwelling, 111 – 13, 115, 119 – 32, 147 – 48, 203 earth, 14, 161 – 62; history of, x, 3, 63, 87, 93, 136, 139; human dominion over, 60n33, 88, 143, 145, 149; human responsibility toward, 15, 148, 194; human transformation of, 1, 3, 5, 16, 48, 68, 88, 131 – 32, 176 Eckhart, Meister, 200 ecocide, 57, 168 – 69 ecology, xv – xvii, 11 – 12, 80, 107 – 17, 121 – 28, 130 – 32, 142 – 43, 145 – 48, 150, 153, 159 – 60, 175 – 77, 188, 193 – 200, 202 – 4, 209 economics, xvi, 11 – 12, 28, 35, 39, 71, 76 – 77, 119 – 21, 132, 150, 153, 163, 165, 168 economy and ecology, xvi, 121 – 50 Edgeworth, Matt, 136 eidos, 45, 64 – 65, 72, 80, 92. See also essence Einstein, Albert, 33, 95 Eisenstadt, Shmuel, 8 electricity, 70, 185 – 86 Ellul, Jacques, 11, 68 emergence, 79 – 80, 166 – 67, 183 – 89, 203, 211n12

Index 217

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 10, 198 – 99, 207, 209 energeia, 70, 124 energy, 2, 4, 69 – 71, 73, 75, 77, 93, 95, 108 – 12, 114, 116 – 17, 123 – 25, 130, 132, 182, 198, 207 Enlightenment, 4, 11 – 12, 14 – 15, 101, 147, 209 environmental ethics, 3, 10 environmental justice, 1, 7, 15, 17 Epicurus, 197 Erasmus, 199 Eriugena, John Scottus, 198 eros, 52, 65, 67 – 68, 77 – 79, 99, 101, 103, 193, 199, 203, 207 – 8 essence, x, 45, 64 – 70, 72, 76 – 80, 94, 100 – 101, 138, 195 essentialism, 14, 78 – 79, 102 ethics, 3, 10 – 11, 13, 33, 46 – 47, 109 – 11, 113 – 15, 117, 129 – 31, 208. See also morality ethos, xvi, 129, 131 evolution, 3 – 4, 63, 90 – 91, 94, 103, 116, 195, 198, 202 experimentation, 50, 61n55, 66 – 67, 73 Faraday, Michael, 186 Fermi, Enrico, 95 Ficino, Marsilio, 65, 199 final cause, 49 – 50. See also teleology finitude, 47 – 48, 56 – 57, 86 – 87, 90, 96 – 99, 101 – 4, 121, 141, 159, 163, 175 – 77, 180 food, 4, 35, 69, 108 – 9, 125, 154, 184, 193 form, 45, 47, 49, 55, 65, 77 – 79, 92 – 94, 100, 124, 145, 199, 201, 203, 207 fossil fuels, 37, 181 – 82, 187 Foucault, Michel, 4, 78 Francis I, Pope, 187 Frankfurt School, 12, 122 freedom, 47, 52, 54, 57, 75, 80, 82n18, 89, 91, 94, 97 – 99, 103, 154, 207 Freud, Sigmund, 105n18, 202 Frisch, Otto, 95

Galen, 203 Galileo, 194, 201 Garvey, James, 11 gene editing, 66, 92, 94 genocide, 159, 162, 169. See also Holocaust Ge-stell (enframing, im-position), 67, 143, 147 – 48, 181 Ghosh, Amitav, 148 – 49 global warming, 3, 5 – 6, 10. See also climate change global winter, 3 – 6 God, 10, 27 – 28, 49, 53 – 56, 88, 92 – 93, 95 – 96, 98, 120, 167, 170, 175, 197 – 98, 200, 208 Gödel, Kurt, 34 gods, 31, 45 – 48, 55 – 56, 95, 99, 162 – 69, 197 – 98, 200 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 12, 85, 197 Gorz, André, 11 Gould, Stephen Jay, 202 Greek philosophy, 33, 44, 51, 156, 200 Gregory of Nazianzus, 121 Griffith, D. W., 186 growth, 2, 108, 113, 115, 117, 126 – 28, 163 Habermas, Jürgen, 13 Hadly, Elizabeth, 142 Hahn, Otto, 95 Hamilton, Clive, 143 Harari, Yuval, 91 – 93, 100 Hart, David Bentley, 156 Hartshorne, Charles, 198 Hebrew Bible, 45, 51, 88, 200, 204 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 25, 120, 139, 197 Heidegger, Martin, 121, 125, 175, 184 – 85, 200, 206; on dwelling, 121, 147 – 48; on event, 164 – 65, 169; on gods, 163 – 66, 168 – 69, 188; on nihilism, 155, 157, 159 – 63, 168 – 71; and politics, 146, 160; on technology, xiii, 52, 67 – 69, 71, 148,



160, 181; on truth, 72 – 73, 160, 178, 186; on uncanny, 140 – 45; on world, xiii, 12, 120, 147, 161, 178 – 79 Heraclitus, 43, 45, 94, 166 Hesiod, 200 Hinduism, 31 Hobbes, Thomas, 11, 203, 206 Holocaust, 57, 129, 146, 168 Holocene, 3, 87, 135 – 36, 139, 143, 145, 147 homecoming, 85, 119 – 23, 137 homelessness, 119, 121, 123, 127, 129, 131 – 32, 141, 143 Homer, 85 – 86, 184, 204 homesickness, 119 – 20, 129 Horkheimer, Max, 12 hubris, 47, 90, 92 – 100, 103, 148 humanism, xvii, 4, 149, 197, 199 – 200, 202, 204 – 5, 208 human rights, xi – xii, 7 – 8, 15, 101, 156 – 57, 159 – 60, 168 – 70 Humboldt, Alexander von, 12 Hume, David, 205 Huntington, Samuel, 8, 102 Husserl, Edmund, xiii, 12 – 13, 119 Ibn Sina, 208 idealism, 101 – 2, 207 – 9 incommensurability, 71, 101, 123, 125 India, 8, 26, 28, 30 – 31, 35, 187 indigenous peoples, 7, 9 – 10, 14, 150, 177 – 82 individualism, 94, 137 Industrial Revolution, 2, 4, 15, 87, 181 information, 63, 69, 72 – 75, 80, 83n24, 105n20, 117 injustice, 1, 15, 17, 128, 156 integrity, 63, 65 – 66, 71 – 76, 80, 103, 143 Ishiguro, Kazuo, 139 Islam, xi, 24, 31, 38, 102, 156, 208 Istvan, Zoltan, 95 Jaeggi, Rahel, 137 – 39 James, William, 121, 163, 210n5

Jaspers, Karl, xi – xii, xiv, 1, 7 – 9, 13, 16 – 17, 24 – 30, 34 – 36, 39, 100, 156 Jobs, Steve, 186 Jonas, Hans, 12 – 13, 43 – 44, 58, 76 – 77 Judaism, xi, 45, 156, 200, 204. See also Hebrew Bible Jung, Carl, 202 Jünger, Ernst, 170 justice, 7, 15, 78, 101 – 2, 129 – 30, 141, 155 – 56, 159 – 60 Kant, Immanuel, 1, 7, 12, 14 – 15, 47, 127 – 30, 164, 207 – 8 Kierkegaard, Søren, 122 King, Martin Luther Jr., 186 Klum, Mattias, 147 – 48 Kuhn, Thomas, 187 Kurzweil, Ray, 90, 92 language, 28 – 30, 39, 79, 83, 114 – 17, 126, 162, 167 – 68, 180 Las Casas, Bartolomé de, 9 Latour, Bruno, 11 – 12, 149 Lear, Jonathan, 175, 177 – 80, 182 – 83, 187 Leeuwenhoek, Anton van, 186 Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, 206 Leopold, Aldo, 10, 194 – 95, 203, 209 Le Roy, Edouard, 3 Levinas, Emmanuel, 205 liberalism, 53, 78, 154, 158, 160, 168, 194 libertarianism, 94 – 95, 154 literacy, 28 – 32, 35 – 36, 38 – 40 Locke, John, 11 logos, 30 – 31, 117, 121 – 26, 129 – 32, 196 – 97, 201, 205 – 6 love, 52 – 53, 79, 97, 99, 101, 104, 111 – 12, 115, 117, 121, 158, 161, 163, 165, 213n35 Lucretius, 202 Machiavelli, Niccolò, 48 – 50, 52 Malpas, Jeff, 147 Malthus, Thomas, 142

Index 219

Marsh, George Perkins, 3 Marx, Karl, 12, 89, 132, 138, 156 – 58, 167 mastery of nature, 49 – 50, 57–58, 66 – 67, 88, 93, 96, 101, 195, 203 materialism, 12, 23, 127, 197 – 98, 201 – 2, 207 mathematics, 25, 27, 46 – 47, 55, 66 – 67, 122, 126, 194, 201, 206 McClintock, Barbara, 202 Meitner, Lise, 95 Merchant, Carolyn, 88 – 89, 91 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 205 metaphysics, 10, 14, 17, 29, 46 – 47, 49, 66, 69 – 70, 79, 102, 119 – 21, 124, 129 – 32, 143, 165, 170, 205 – 6, 208 Montaigne, Michel de, 9, 11, 205 morality, xii, 4, 15, 43 – 44, 46, 53 – 54, 56 – 58, 110 – 12, 117, 123, 129 – 32, 136, 139, 142, 146 – 50, 156 – 59, 204, 207, 213n38. See also ethics More, Thomas, 199 mortality, xiii, 48 – 49, 57 – 58, 85 – 87, 91, 96 – 97, 103, 162, 197. See also death Morton, Timothy, 103 Mowat, Farley, 203 Muir, John, 10, 68 mysticism, 32, 164, 207 – 8 myth, 8, 14, 26 – 27, 29, 31 – 32, 34, 40, 64, 78, 86, 100 – 101, 146, 200 Nagarjuna, 208 Nagel, Thomas, 198 narratives, 4, 24 – 27, 29, 32, 34 – 37, 39 – 40, 78 – 79, 156 – 57, 166, 170, 176, 200 nationalism, 75, 146 National Socialism, 146, 158 – 60 natural resources, 2, 6, 9 – 12, 15, 69, 71, 74, 111, 123 Neoplatonism, 204, 207 Nietzsche, Friedrich, 23, 38, 44, 51 – 57, 78 – 79, 122, 130 – 31, 158, 175, 205

nihilism, 53, 97, 120, 122, 145, 148, 155, 157 – 61, 163, 167 – 68, 170 – 71 nothingness, 120, 161, 178 Novalis, 119 – 21, 123 nuclear power, 95 – 96, 182 nuclear weapons, 4, 95, 97, 119, 140, 159 Odum, Eugene, 202 oikos, 121, 123 – 24, 129 – 30, 132, 199, 203, 205 ontology, 74, 120, 125, 127 – 28, 142, 147, 162 – 67, 175 – 84, 193, 197, 201 – 2, 204 – 8 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, ix, 6 Parmenides, 30 – 31, 141, 201, 204, 206 Pasteur, Louis, 186 Pavlov, Ivan, 66 – 67 Peirce, Charles, 197, 200, 203 Petrarch, 199 phenomenology, 12, 68, 80, 155, 161 – 65, 167 – 71, 193 – 94 phusis, 54, 126, 197, 204, 206 Pindar, 55 plants, 9, 35, 79, 107, 113, 120, 123, 128, 131 – 32, 154, 205 Plato, xi – xii, 30, 39, 50, 65, 76 – 78, 101, 104, 143, 164, 184, 201, 205 – 7 Plenty Coups, 178 Plotinus, 207 – 8 pluralism, 1, 16, 78, 167, 195 – 96 Pogge, Thomas, 15 Polanyi, Michael, 33 – 34 pollution, 69, 80, 108, 131, 142, 153, 181 Popol Vuh, 200 post-humanism, 92, 96 – 97, 100, 103 post-naturalism, 136, 138, 143 pragmatism, 168, 183, 194, 203 Proclus, 208 progress, xiii – xvi, 24 – 26, 29, 32 – 37, 39 – 40, 44, 50 – 55, 57 – 59, 159, 188 property, 71 – 75, 77



Purdy, Jedediah, 140 Putnam, Hilary, 202 Quine, Willard Van Orman, 199 reductionism, 65, 67 – 68, 160, 169, 197 – 98, 201 – 2 reification, 137 – 39 relationality, 111, 113, 116, 125 – 26 religion, x – xi, 7 – 8, 26 – 27, 31 – 32, 51, 53, 72, 74, 76, 78, 95, 136, 155 – 57, 164 – 65, 167 – 70, 194, 208 renewable energy, 70, 75, 182 Rockström, Johan, 147 – 48 Romans, 24, 28, 37 – 38, 40, 166 – 67 Romanticism, 207 Rorty, Richard, 184 Rosenzweig, Franz, 120 – 21 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 9, 11, 52 – 53 Rumi, 208 Sacks, Oliver, 68 Santayana, George, 205 Sartre, Jean-Paul, 23, 205 Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph, 208 Schiller, Friedrich, 44, 52 – 54, 211n16 Schmitt, Carl, 121 Schumacher, E. F., 33, 127 science: limits of, xiii, 12, 52 – 53, 160 – 61, 198, 201 – 3; methods of, 58, 66, 201, 205; modern, 43, 48 – 58, 66 – 68, 74, 88, 92 – 93, 122, 203; philosophy and, 23, 33, 57 – 58, 80, 194, 197, 206; technology and, xiii, 43, 50, 66, 88, 95, 142 – 43 Scranton, Roy, 149 Searle, John, 202 Sellars, Wilfrid, 202 sexuality, 34, 65, 110 – 13, 115 – 17, 186 Shankara, 208 sheltering, 161 – 62 Singer, Peter, 156 – 57 Singularity, 90, 92, 97, 101 Sloterdijk, Peter, 149, 188

socialism, 11, 53, 72, 157 – 58 Socrates, 65, 77 – 78, 92 – 93, 99, 197, 205, 212n31 Sophocles, 46 – 48, 89 – 90, 98, 107, 120, 141, 144 Soviet Union, 72 space, xii – xiii, 97, 113 – 14, 126, 147, 155, 159, 162, 166 – 67, 171, 178 – 79, 186 – 87, 198, 210 Spengler, Oswald, 25 – 26, 35, 39 Spinoza, Baruch, 198 Stace, W. T., 164 standing reserve, 67, 143, 148, 181 Stern, Fritz, 146 Stoermer, Eugene, ix, 3, 87 Stoics, 91, 198 Stoppani, Antonio, 3 Strassman, Friedrich, 95 Strindberg, August, 158 sublimity, 15, 99, 140, 164, 198 Swift, Jonathan, 52 Szerszynski, Bronislaw, 4 tacit knowledge and understanding, xiii, 33 – 34, 72 Taylor, Charles, 8 technology, xiii, 42, 52, 57 – 58, 64, 67 – 69, 74 – 75, 92, 96, 100, 136, 143, 148, 159 – 60, 166 – 67, 181 – 85 Tedlock, Dennis, 200 Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre, 3, 11, 23, 202 teleology, 45, 47, 55, 58, 65, 92 – 93, 191n34, 212n31. See also final cause telos, 65, 67, 70, 124 Thales, 64 – 65, 68 theology, x, 11, 32, 49, 51, 58, 121, 156 – 57, 167, 169, 198, 202 Thoreau, Henry David, 10, 80, 207, 209 Tillerson, Rex, 143 time, xiii, 29, 63 – 64, 79, 98, 100, 102 – 3, 113, 120, 126, 139, 148, 150, 154 – 55, 159 – 60, 162, 209 totalitarianism, 78, 146, 158 transcendence, 101, 111 – 13, 117, 207

transcendental, 74, 112 – 13, 130 – 31, 164, 196 – 97, 200, 202, 204 – 5, 207 – 9 transhumanism, 92, 95 – 97, 100 truth, 30, 33, 39, 72 – 73, 77 – 78, 102, 128, 131, 143, 149, 161, 208 Turkle, Sherry, 183 Tyson, Neil deGrasse, 23 Tzu, Lao, 30 Uexküll, Jakob von, 12 uncanny, 122, 135, 137, 140 – 41, 144 – 49 Upanishads, 30, 208 Vernadsky, Vladimir Ivanovich, 3 Vico, Giambattista, 205 violence, xiii, 9, 32, 57, 78, 91, 108, 125, 141 – 43, 145, 148, 156, 159, 166 – 67, 170, 194

Index 221

Vogel, Stephen, 138 Voltaire, 205 water, 2, 12, 14, 37, 64, 115, 131, 147, 154, 161 – 62, 193, 200 wealth, 63, 71 – 72, 74 – 75, 77, 95, 153, 181 Weber, Max, 43 Weil, Simone, 102 Whitehead, Alfred North, 198, 206 will to power, 55 – 56, 98 Wilson, E. O., 202 Wittfogel, Karl, 12 Wolin, Richard, 146 wonder, 15, 46 – 48, 58, 71, 104, 163, 165, 203 Xenophanes, 198 Young, Julian, 145

About the Contributors

Thomas M. Alexander is a professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where he specializes in American philosophy, with a focus on the thought of John Dewey. He is the author of John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling (1987) and The Human Eros: Eco-ontology and the Aesthetics of Existence (2013). He has also regularly taught courses in aesthetics and classical philosophy. He is past president of The Society of the Advancement of American Philosophy. Fernando Flores (PhD, University of California, Berkeley) is a former Cabinet Member and senator of Chile whose publications include Understanding Computers and Cognition (with Terry Winograd; 1987), Disclosing New Worlds (with Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Spinosa; 1999), Building Trust (with Robert Solomon; 2003), and Conversations for Action and Collected Essays (2013). Flores was also recently director of the Chilean National Council on Innovation for Competitiveness, where he produced Surfing Towards the Future: Chile on the 2025 Horizon (2013). Flores is the co-founder of Pluralistic Networks, an organization devoted to developing abilities for coordinating action in today’s pluralistic world. Gregory Fried is a professor of philosophy at Suffolk University, Boston. He is the author of Heidegger’s Polemos: From Being to Politics (2000) and (with Charles Fried) Because It Is Wrong: Torture, Privacy and Presidential Power in the Age of Terror (2010). With Richard Polt, he has translated Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics (2nd ed., 2014), Being and Truth (2010), and Nature, History, State (2013). 223


About the Contributors

John Michael Greer is an independent scholar in the fields of nature spirituality and environmental issues. Among his many books are The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (2008), The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered (2011), and After Progress: Reason and Religion in the Twilight of the Industrial Age (2015). Luce Irigaray is the author of Speculum of the Other Woman (1985), This Sex Which Is Not One (1985), An Ethics of Sexual Difference (1993), The Way of Love (2004), To Be Two (2001), and other influential works exploring feminism, psychoanalysis, and the history of philosophy. Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Spain, and professor-at-large in the Humanities Institute at Diego Portales University (UDP), Chile. He is the author of numerous articles and books in the fields of environmental philosophy, phenomenology, and political thought. His most recent monograph is Energy Dreams: Of Actuality (2017). Amos Nascimento is a professor of philosophy at the University of Washington in Tacoma and Seattle, and affiliated with the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Program, the Department of Germanics, and the Jackson School of International Studies. He is the author of Im Zwielicht der Aufklärung (2009) and Building Cosmopolitan Communities (2013). He has edited Grenzen der Moderne (with Kirsten Witte; 1997), A Matter of Discourse: Community and Communication in Contemporary Philosophies (1998), Human Rights, Human Dignity, and Cosmopolitan Ideals (2014), and Human Dignity: Perspectives from Critical Theory (2018). Richard Polt is a professor of philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of Heidegger: An Introduction (1999), The Emergency of Being: On Heidegger’s “Contributions to Philosophy” (2006), and The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century (2015). With Gregory Fried, he has translated Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics (2nd ed., 2014), Being and Truth (2010), and Nature, History, State (2013). Timothy Sean Quinn is professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. His recent publications include essays on the politics of Descartes’s Discourse on Method and on the Machiavellian-Baconian foundations of the Anthropocene. He is currently involved in projects concerning Salomon Maimon’s moral philosophy.

About the Contributors 225

B. Scot Rousse (PhD, Northwestern University, Illinois) is Director of Research at Pluralistic Networks. His publications range over existential phenomenology, philosophy of action, philosophy of film, and the history of analytical philosophy. Rousse’s articles have appeared in Time and the Philosophy of Action, edited by Roman Altshuler and Michael J. Sigrist (2016), the European Journal of Philosophy, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, and the Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy. Byron Williston is an associate professor of philosophy at Wilfrid ­Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. He has published numerous papers on Descartes, Nietzsche, Heidegger, the problem of motivated irrationality, epistemology, virtue ethics, and environmental ethics. His latest book is The Anthropocene Project: Virtue in the Age of Climate Change (2015). Jon Wittrock is a senior lecturer in political science at Södertörn University and Stockholm University in Sweden. He has published several articles and anthology chapters on the thought of Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt, as well as works on utopian thinking and the sacred.