Amoeba Words

“What is an amoeba word?” Amoeba words include many of the words thrown around when people are talking philosophically. The philosopher-priest Ivan Illich explains:

I take the term from the work of Professor Uwe Pörksen of Freiburg, a linguist and medievalist. During the second part of the 1980s, he came to the conclusion that there are certain words in all modern languages which ought to be labelled in a special way when they are put into a dictionary. A dictionary will tell you that a certain word in its common meaning means this; in its antiquated meaning it means something else; when you combine it in a particular way, it becomes vulgar; in another sense it is technical. He came to a conclusion that one major category of word usage had been overlooked, and for it he created the term plastic words. A plastic word, an amoeba word, he found, is a term which has about twenty-five precise characteristics—Pörksen’s very German—and he doesn’t admit any word into the egregious category unless it fits all these twenty-five. A plastic word has powerful connotations. A person becomes important when he uses it: he bows to a profession which knows more about it than he does and he is convinced that he is making in some way a scientific statement. A plastic word is like a stone thrown into a conversation—it makes waves, but it doesn’t hit anything. It has all these connotations, but it does not designate anything precisely. Usually, it’s a word which has always existed in the language but which has gone through a scientific laundry and then dropped back into ordinary language with a new connotation that it has something to do with what other people know and you can’t quite fathom. Pörksen puts sexuality, for instance, into the category of amoeba words, or crisis or information.

He has found these words in every language. There’s only a couple of dozen, and they’re always the same. When I came to Pörksen and said, “Uwe, I think I’ve found the worst of them, life,” he became very silent. For the first time in my life, I had the impression that he became angry with me, disappointed in me. He was offended. And it took about six months or mine months before he could speak about that issue again, because it is just unthinkable that something as precious and beautiful as life should act as an amoeba word. I came to the conclusion that, when I use the word life today, I could just as well just cough or clear my throat or say “shit.”

Ivan Illich in Conversation, with David Cayley (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2007), 253-254

Dumpster/Fire: Traces of Burning Man

With guiding principles like self-reliance and self-expression, and a focus on an inclusive community of free exchange (decommodified gift economy), the event and culture of Burning Man is a great example of the phenomenon referred to as “contemporary spirituality.” Much of my research is concerned with relationships between religious communities/traditions and the ecological systems with which they interact. Insofar as it involves a massive amount of people (upwards of 80,000) converging on a desert ecosystem (Nevada’s Black Rock Desert) and turning it into a city oriented around the values of contemporary spirituality, the Burning Man event is a good example of the kind of phenomena I study. Basically, I want to understand the environmental ethics of contemporary spirituality, and Burning Man seems like a good case to study.

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The Beginning and End of Nature

When people talk about the end of nature, what exactly is this nature that has ended? It’s not like the whole universe imploded. Earth is still spinning. Nature isn’t the universe, and it’s not a planet. It’s nature. Nature is an idea, a word, a symbol, which is not to say that it is merely those things. Nature is also whatever reality people were referring to when they used the idea, word, or symbol of “nature.” That reality sufficiently degraded so as to indicate to many people that it has ended. There are still organisms, ecosystems, lakes, rivers, atmospheric conditions, roots, fruits, and all kinds of things, so what ended? What is the reality to which ideas of nature were pointing or in which symbols of nature were participating? An answer can be found by returning to the beginning, to the earliest appearances of the idea of nature.
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Year in Preview

My first book came out in September 2014, and my seventh book was released last week. Seven books in a little less than three and a half years. I wrote three and edited four. That’s one—or more like seven—of the reasons that I haven’t posted much to this blog in the last few years. With these books behind me, I’m starting to focus more on smaller pieces. Continue reading

Varieties of Climate Denial

Extreme weather events have been happening since there has been weather. The current frequency and intensity of those events clearly corresponds to the symptoms of anthropogenic climate change. For skepticism, we can never really know with a hundred percent certainty precisely what causal factors are at work. That applies to all things, not just complicated things. For example, for a skeptic, we can never really know if the sun is going to come up tomorrow. That lack of knowledge does not necessarily imply a lack of ethical considerations. Epistemic skepticism isn’t necessarily a moral skepticism, and moral skepticism does not necessarily imply personal inaction. After all, the sun may come up again tomorrow. Even though we can’t know it with a hundred percent certainty beforehand, it might be worth acting as if tomorrow will be another day.

The appropriation of skeptical thought by climate denialists (so-called “climate skeptics”) wrongly equivocates a whole series of things: lack of epistemic certainty becomes a lack of moral knowledge, and a lack of moral knowledge is a lack of justified moral belief, and most paradoxically, a lack of justified moral belief is justification for the moral belief that inaction is the appropriate response. This abject failure of epistemic and moral reasoning is not due to a lack of knowledge but to an excess. Climate skeptics know that anthropogenic climate change is really happening, and it terrifies them, because they know that it “changes everything,” as Naomi Klein aptly puts it. They know it’s happening, but they can’t admit it, so they simply disavow it or negate it, repress it or repudiate it. It’s denial. Continue reading

Bacteria and Natural Agency

The latest issue of the Journal of the American Philosophical Association has an article about agency and cognition in bacteria, “Natural Agency: The Case of Bacterial Cognition,” by Fermín C. Fulda. It’s part of a steady stream of research across the humanities and sciences indicating that nonhuman life forms are smarter than most modern philosophers had thought. It’s often billed as a surprise. Even bacteria have cognition! HERE is another piece with an overview of some bacterial cognition research. Fulda’s article is very critical of the looseness with which words like cognition, intelligence, and agency get lumped together, so he adds some philosophical clarity and distinction to those terms, specifically as they apply to research regarding the patterned behavior of bacteria.

Proposing an “ecological conception of agency,” Fulda argues for a move from a Cartesian to neo-Aristotelian perspective. Focusing on different kinds of agency (Aristotle) and not primarily on cognition (Descartes) allows for a broad, fluid boundary between human and nonhuman life instead of the rigid binary of Cartesian mind and matter. Of course, many philosophers make similar arguments for a spectrum of agency. Hans Jonas, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are good twentieth-century examples, but those aren’t exactly the thinkers who dominate discussions in the American Philosophical Association. It’s significant that Fulda is making this argument in an APA context. Is mainstream philosophy becoming less anthropocentric? Maybe. Continue reading

Energy without Conscience

In Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity (Duke University Press, 2017), David McDermott Hughes draws on his ethnographic work in Trinidad and Tobago to analyze the disregard, apathy, numbness with which most people interact with climate change. He highlights the banality of the complicities that connect people with energy, specifically with hydrocarbons (as he refers to oil, coal, natural gas, and bitumen), and he suggests that a moral response to climate change must redesign relationships with energy and replace complicity with conscience. In lieu of a book review, here are a few summary quotations from the book. Continue reading