Philosophy, Civilization, and the Global Ecological Crisis: The Challenge of Process Metaphysics to Scientific Materialsim

By Gare, Arran | Philosophy Today, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Philosophy, Civilization, and the Global Ecological Crisis: The Challenge of Process Metaphysics to Scientific Materialsim


Gare, Arran, Philosophy Today


In Science and the Modern World Alfred North Whitehead proclaimed:

Philosophy is the most effective of all the intellectual pursuits . . It is the architect of the buildings of the spirit, and it is also their solvent:-and the spiritual precedes the material. Philosophy works slowly. Thoughts lie dormant for ages; and then, almost suddenly as it were, mankind finds that they have embodied themselves in institutions.1

Whitehead's conviction was based on his analysis of the seventeenth century scientific revolution and its aftermath, and he further defended it through the historical studies described in Adventures of Ideas. Such a conviction is encouraging to those involved in developing philosophical ideas who, for whatever reason, have become convinced that civilization requires a radical reorientation in thought. It suggests there is reason for optimism, at least in the long term.

But some of us are becoming impatient. Problems now confronting humanity call for a more immediate response. The global ecological crisis is a crucial case in point. It is this, I believe, that makes the practical success of radical philosophical ideas an imperative rather than an ideal. What would such success involve? What does it mean for thoughts to be embodied in institutions? How did past thoughts come to be so embodied? And how might new philosophical ideas come to be embodied in this way? To this end we need to analyze the relationship between philosophies, individual and collective action, and institutions.

The work of Alasdair MacIntyre provides a useful starting point for such an analysis. MacIntyre has squarely faced the present problematic status of philosophy in Anglophone countries and reflected deeply on the relationship between philosophy and social life. Such reflections have led him to defend systematic philosophy and to consider the relationship between philosophy and narratives. He has argued that narratives are central to adjudicating between fundamentally different ways of thinking, and that narratives are constitutive of social life and are of central importance to ethics. While Maclntyre has not fully developed his ideas on narratives nor sought to integrate his observations on these issues, my contention is that doing so reveals the crucial missing link between systematic philosophies and everyday life. The missing link is narratives; that is, stories.

Systematic Philosophy, Narratives, Practices, and Institutions Philosophy, Maclntyre argues, is now seen to be:

a harmless, decorative activity, education in which is widely believed to benefit by exercising and extending the capacities for orderly argument, so qualifying those who study it to join the line of lemmings entering law school or business school. The professor of philosophy, on this view, stands to the contemporary bourgeoisie much as the dancing master stood to the nobility of the ancien regime. The dancing master taught the eighteenth-century expensively brought up young how to have supple limbs, the philosophy professor teaches their twentieth-century successors how to have supple minds.2

Academic philosophy, with "its piecemeal character, its selective history and its inability to bring any issue of importance to agreed resolution,"3 provides no basis for opposing this popular view.

But, Macintyre argues, pre-philosophical discourse invariably gives rise to what are essentially philosophical questions. Present day philosophers are not doing their job. They are not providing solutions to these problems but are proliferating arguments which confuse rather than clarify pre-philosophical discourse. Only systematic philosophies can provide the requisite means to provide determinate solutions to the issues raised by pre-philosophical discourse.

A philosophy is systematic, MacIntyre proposed:

when as large a range as possible of the problems, incoherencies and partial unintelligibilities of prephilosophical discourse, action and enquiry are made the subject matter of an enquiry in which the questions to be answered are of the form: How are all these to be understood in the light of the best unified and integrated conception of rationally adequate enquiry possessed so far? …

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