Paul Ricoeur's Hermeneutics as a Model for Environmental Philosophy

By Utsler, David | Philosophy Today, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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Paul Ricoeur's Hermeneutics as a Model for Environmental Philosophy


Utsler, David, Philosophy Today


Those acquainted with the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, whether they are Ricoeur enthusiasts or just polite readers, will readily acknowledge the remarkable scope of his thought. True as this may be, Ricoeur never directed his powers of philosophical reflection toward the natural environment. The reasons for this are easy enough to understand. Environmental philosophy as a distinct branch of philosophy has scarcely appeared on the scene for more than a generation. ' Over that period of time Ricoeur was obviously busy with otiier questions that ran through his thought nearly all of his Ufe. Who knows, had Ricoeur miraculously overcome the strictures of mortaUty for another forty or fifty years, he may very well have had something to say philosophically about the environment.

That is all, of course, speculative. Nonetheless, environmental philosophy is a logical place for an "expanding hermeneutics"2 to turn. If the claim of the universality of hermeneutics that aU experience is methated through language3 is so, then environmental experience also calls for hermeneutics. Language is related to the "ontological condition of beingin-the-world" and we bring experience to language;4 thus we can infer that the encounter with environments - natural, cultural and so on - is Ukewise expressed (or understood) in language, making them a meaningful locus of interpretation. What I propose in this essay is that Paul Ricoeur's hermeneutics provides a model for various forms of environmental discourse and, in particular, the growing field of environmental philosophy. I am not so ambitious to claim to do so in any comprehensive manner here. The vast scope of Ricoeur's work alone is prohibitive of any such attempt in a single essay. What I will do is provide some examples to illustrate me claim that Ricoeur's work can be employed in me service of environmental philosophy. And while this specific application of his work does not seem to have been in Ricoeur's mind, I will rely on one of Ricoeur's fundamental hermeneutical principles of the distanciation of the writer and the reader by the text. Namely, interpretation is not ultimately about deciphering the intentions of the author; "to interpret is to explicate the type of being-in-die-world unfolded in front of the text."5 The importance of Ricoeur's philosophy for environmental philosophy I will take to be one such possibility that may unfold in front of his work. With that in mind, I will first give a brief description of environmental philosophy. Then I will consider in relation to environmental philosophy Ricoeur's "hermeneutics of the self," his treatment of distanciation and belonging in terms of Gadamer's hermeneutics, and finally the possible role of a critical hermeneutics in environmental discourse.

From Environmental Philosophy to Environmental Hermeneutics

Environmental philosophy, I think, is still trying to find its feet. It has its origin in the growing awareness of me consequences of environmental devastation. The concern for the effects of human activity on the environment led some philosophers to ask what philosophy might contribute to the discussion.6 Environmental philosophy, then, was really an environmental ethics first. And in the mind of some, environmental philosophy isn't philosophy at all but at best perhaps an appUed philosophical ethics.

Philosophical reflection on the environment, however, did not remain merely in the realm of ethics but has expanded to include "environmental aesthetics, environmental ontology, environmental theology, the philosophy of science, environmental political philosophy, philosophy of technology, ecofeminism, and other areas."7 Phenomenologists who have turned toward environmental questions have begun to speak of "eco-phenomenology" and going "back to the earth itself as a way of giving phenomenological descriptions of environmental experience.8 If all of this, why not, then, an eco-hermeneutics? Going further still, I would speak more broadly of an environmental hermeneutics that includes not only ecology or nature, but built environments, social and cultural environments, and any sort of "environs" of which we may speak.

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