All That We Are: Philosophical Anthropology and Ecophilosophy

By Peterson, Keith R. | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, January 2010 | Go to article overview

All That We Are: Philosophical Anthropology and Ecophilosophy


Peterson, Keith R., Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


   We are, like other things, physico-chemical systems; we live, like
   other animals, bodily lives dependent on bodily needs and
   functions; but we exist as human beings on the edge between nature
   and art, reality and its denial. (1)

1. ECOPHILOSOPHY AND PHILOSOPHICAL ANTHROPOLOGY

Voicing a view that has become common among environmentalists, Arran Gare argues in a recent essay that 'philosophical anthropology is central to ethics and politics' and that a genuine philosophical anthropology 'can orient people in their struggle for the liberty to avert a global ecological catastrophe.' (2) The ecosocialist Joel Kovel has argued that 'the notion of human nature is necessary for any in-depth appreciation of the ecological crisis, and its lack is a sign of the crisis itself.' (3) Ecoliteracy educator David Orr states that '[w]hatever a sustainable society may be, it must be built on the most realistic view of the human condition possible.' (4) Other radical ecophilosophers as diverse as Arne Naess, Murray Bookchin, and Val Plumwood have consistently held that new views of human nature are vital to reinforcing the ecologically-informed conception, perception, and evaluation of nature that is called for in environmentalism. (5) This is only a small sample of the many authors who suggest that a renewed, critical reflection on human being, or philosophical anthropology, is called for not only in order to motivate an effective ecological ethics and politics, but also to combat reductivist and dualist approaches to human being. The challenge today is to combine the anti-essentialist critical resources of post-Kantian constructivism with a naturalist's appreciation of biophysical reality. (6) What follows is an initial attempt to adequately characterize the problem and to suggest directions for a solution. Many thinkers concerned with this problem today consider themselves 'naturalists.' We should begin, then, by asking what kind of naturalism best motivates ecological consciousness.

2. 'CONSERVATIVE' AND 'PROGRESSIVE' NATURALISMS

Val Plumwood has spoken of disentangling 'the liberatory roles of the concept of nature from the anti-liberatory ones,' thereby distinguishing 'progressive naturalisms' from 'conservative naturalisms.' (7) In the words of another ecofeminist, conservative naturalisms 'try to expand the domain of what is accepted as biological or natural and therefore inalterable, at the expense of what might otherwise be thought of as social and therefore subject to human alteration. Conversely, it is an emancipatory step to try to expand the realm of what convention holds to be social at the expense of what it defines as biological, precisely to open up possibilities for the transformation of existing social relationships.' (8) This is an important and indispensable insight, and is shared by many purveyors of anti-essentialist, critical post-Kantian social theory. But in it the problematic dualism between culture and nature lying at its foundation remains intact. The boundary between the fixed and the malleable may shift but the terms remain stable. This prevents us from sufficiently appreciating the complexity of the human condition so long as critical thinkers, in the process of combating conservative naturalisms, do not reflect on the persistence and influence of this dualism in all its forms. The problem for the nonreductivist, critical ecophilosopher is not only to find the right conception of the continuity of human being with 'nature' (however understood), but also to articulate a conception of the unique place of the human in nature. One interpretation of the nature/ culture dualism is to consider it to be an ontological question of the identity of humans with nature or of their difference from it.

The question then is: which kind of ontology allows us to best characterize the kind of continuity and difference of the human within nature for the purposes of motivating political ecology? …

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