Environmental Philosophy is Activism

“All environmentalists should be activists, but activism can take a variety of forms.  The way that environmental philosophers can be the most effective environmental activists is by doing environmental philosophy.  Of course, not everyone can be or wants or needs to be an environmental philosopher.  Those who are not can undertake direct environmental action in other ways.  My point is that environmental philosophers should not feel compelled to stop thinking, talking, and writing about environmental ethics, and go do something about it instead—because talk is cheap and action is dear.  In thinking, talking, and writing about environmental ethics, environmental philosophers already have their shoulders to the wheel, helping to reconfigure the prevailing cultural worldview and thus helping to push general practice in the direction of environmental responsibility.”

Baird Callicott, Beyond the Land Ethic: More Essays in Environmental Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), p. 43.

Be afriad: an uncanny thing, a good deed, a joyful leap into the abyss

A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome.  Not me.  Not that.  But not nothing, either.  A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing.  A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me.  On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, or a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me.  There, abject and abjection are my safeguards.  The primers of my culture. 

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 2.


Being there when the situation needed you, some third eye finds the right thing to do somehow; then, like coming up with an idea when thinking, it sticks to the bones like a paradigm.  The hard thing is to be ignorant and concerned and afraid the next time.  Out of that ignorance and concern and fear alone the good deed, the brave deed, could come. 

Alphonso Lingis, Body Transformations: Evolutions and Atavisms in Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 2005), p. 152.


In every exhilaration we sense the possibility that the final leap into the abyss will be experienced as joy.

Alphonso Lingis, Dangerous Emotions (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), p. 162.

Overstatement in Philosophy: A Joke

Whitehead observes that “the chief error in philosophy is overstatement” (Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 7).  That sounds true to me, and, like a lot of philosophical statements, it also sounds like a joke.

It’s not that some kinds of overstatement in philosophy can be erroneous to some extent.  Overstatement is erroneous, period.  And it is not simply an error to make an overstatement.  It’s the most erroneous of errors, the exemplary error, the chief error.  The joke: Whitehead’s statement overstates a point about how erroneous overstatement is.  This joke reminds me of a classic that I heard from my dad growing up, “If I told you once, I’ve told you a billion times: never exaggerate.”  Close by are other fun self-refuting statements: There are no absolutes; Never say never; I am against polemic. 

All joking aside, Whitehead is referring to a couple kinds of overstatement and not to all overstatement, so he isn’t really overstating his case.  Regardless, I think Whitehead is the single most important thinker in the entire history of philosophy.  I’ve said that before, surely trillions of times.

Teaching, winter and spring

I just finished teaching a compact winter semester class on Religion and the Environment. 13 classes over 18 days, 4 hours per class.  The quick pace has its good points and bad points.  The obvious bad point is that you can’t cover as much in three weeks as you can in fifteen, especially in terms of readings.  The good point is that there’s a special comradery or familiarity that happens with day-to-day 4-hour sessions. 

I used two excellent books. First, Grounding Religion: A Field Guide to the Study of Religion and Ecology, edited by my friend Whitney Bauman along with Rick Bohannon and Kevin O’Brien (2010).  Second, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, edited by Roger S. Gottlieb (2006).  Along with those, I included some readings from Bron Taylor’s work with nature religion and what he calls dark green religion, and I used a lot of material from the website of the Forum on Religion and Ecology.  I’m not sure what I’ll use in the future.  I’m thinking of using Graham Harvey’s work on animism.  I also like Matthew Hall’s book (Plants as Persons), in which he develops a critique of anthropocentrism and zoocentrism by analyzing a variety of perspectives on plants, including ancient Greek, Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, indigenous, (neo)pagan, and contemporary plant sciences.

The spring semester starts next week.  I’m teaching two classes: Environmental Ethics and Society and Religion.  I always use an anthology to teach environmental ethics, but I anthologies don’t give the students the opportunity to know any single author  very deeply.  I also use a very accessible book of case-studies, Boundaries: A Casebook in Environmental Ethics, edited by Christine Gudorf and James Huchingson (an updated second edition came out in 2010).  I use some eco-phenomenology, but not enough Lingis and Levinas.  Levinas is a perfect thinker for bringing metaphysics into a class on ethics.  “Ethics is not a branch of philosophy, but first philosophy” (Totality and Infinity, 1969, p. 304).   

For Society and Religion, I’m using three books, all of which address trends and controversies related to modernization, secularization, and the so-called return of the religious in recent decades.  First and most formidable is Mark C. Taylor, After God (2007).  Since Taylor focuses a lot on America and Europe, I draw more attention to events in other nations by using Mark Juergensmeyer’s 2008 updated edition of Global Rebellion : Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to Al Qaeda.  Taylor’s deep theoretical questions mix well with Juergensmeyer’s more accessible narrative of historical events.  Finally, I’m using The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, which is based on a conference that brought together Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Judith Butler, and Cornel West.  Along with some basic introductory and supplementary chapters, the book includes chapters from each thinker as well as dialogues between Habermas and Taylor, between Butler and West, and between all four.  I’m also using some readings on the social implications of religious music (Muslim hip-hop, trance dance music in Vodou) and a little on socially engaged Buddhism. 

Sounds like a fun semester.  I love teaching.  It’s a vocation, a calling.

Truth and Philosophy on the Way

Not just Hannah Arendt’s teacher, Karl Jaspers is a great philosopher in his own right.  His work has been influential for many developments in twentieth-century philosophy, theology, and psychiatry.  Here are two quotations in which he provides basic (yet profound) definitions of truth and philosophy.

“Within time, truth is forever underway, always in motion and not final even in its most marvelous crystallizations.”     Tragedy Is Not Enough (1952, p. 104)

“The Greek word for philosopher (philosophos) connotes a distinction from sophos.  It signifies the lover of wisdom (knowledge) as distinguished from him who considers himself wise in the possession of knowledge.  This meaning of the word still endures: the essence of philosophy is not the possession of truth but the search for truth, regardless of how many philosophy may belie it with their dogmatism, that is, with a body of didactic principles purporting to be definitive and complete.  Philosophy means to be on the way.  Its questions are more essential than its answers, and ever answer becomes a new question.”   Way to Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy (2003, p. 12)

Monads: windowless glass houses

Graham Harman has a nice post up “On the Laziness of Comparing Object-Oriented Philosophy with Leibniz.”  One of the points he brings up is that, even though he and Leibniz affirm windowless monads, monads are still determined by their relations in Leibniz , but their reality is non-relational in object-oriented philosophy. 

Although I tend to follow Whitehead and Deleuze in thinking of monads as having windows, I also accept Harman’s Heideggerian conception of a non-relational reality, in which monads would have no windows.  If we are going to continue describing entities as having windows, it would be important to add that contact through these windows is never direct but only happens indirectly… through a glass darkly.  I am committed to affirming relational and non-relational aspects of monads, and I think that the image of windows with dark glass might help draw out the complex tension between relationality and non-relationality.  Really, though, the window still implies too much accessibility, even if the window has bars on it or is wired with a bomb.  Perhaps it would be better to say that a monad does not have windows at all but is a house of glass.  The glass is dark, and what appears dimly in and through the glass is not comprised of reflections but of diffractions (not totally unlike the diffraction glasses that people wear for light shows, raves, fireworks, etc.). 

Windowless and alluring, every object is a glass house of dark diffractions.

Schelling on the object of philosophy

This is a wonderful quotation from Schelling’s 1842 Philosophy of Mythology.  Here’s the German:

Bei jeder Erklärung ist das Erste, daß sie dem zu Erklärende Gerechtigkeit widersahren lasse, es nicht herabdrücke, herabdeute, ver kleinere oder verstümmle, damit es leichter zu begreifen sey.  Hier fragt sich nicht, welche Ansicht muß von der Erscheinung gewonnen werden, damit sie irgend einer Philosophie gemäß sich bequem erklären lasse, sondern umgekehrt, welche Philosophie wird gesordert, um dem Gegenstand gewachsen, aus gleicher Höhe mit ihm zu seyn. Nicht, wie muß das Phänomen gewendet, gedreht, vereinseitigt oder verkümmert werden, um aus Grundsätzen, die wir uns einmal vorgesetzt nicht zu überschreiten, noch allenfalls erklärbar zu seyn, sondern: wohin müssen unsere Gedanken sich erweitern, um mit dem Phänomen in Verhältniß zu stehen. 

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Philosophie der Mythologie: Volume 5, Schellings Werke, ed. Manfred Schröter (C. H. Beck, 1984), p. 3.

A translation:

With each explanation this is first: do justice to that which is to be explained, and do not suppress it, interpret it away, belittle it, or mutilate it in order to make it easier to conceptualize.  Here the question is not, “At what view of the phenomenon must we arrive to explain it in accordance with one or another philosophy?”  Rather the reverse, “What philosophy is requisite if we are to live up to the object, be on a level with it?”  It is not a question of how the phenomenon must be turned, twisted, confined, or atrophied so as to become explicable at all costs on grounds that we have completely resolved not to surpass. Rather, to what point must we enlarge our thought so that it is in proportion to the phenomenon? 

To the Poems Themselves

 I am always dissatisfied with definitions of poetry that focus on how poetry expresses connections between humans and the world (and maybe God, too). I have metaphysical objections to those kind of definitions, but aside from that, I just don’t enjoy the kind of analyses that follow from them. If you define poetry in terms of its expression of different human experiences or modes of thought, then your analyses of poems tend to talk a lot about humanity, culture, civilization, god, cosmos, etc., and the poems themselves get left out in the cold.  I prefer definitions of poetry that help us attend to poems themselves. To the poems themselves! Let’s attend to poems in their poeticity. In particular, I’m very influenced by Roman Jakobson’s approach to poetics. Although I would want to make a lot of changes to his structuralist thinking, I like the fact that Jakobson analyzes poems in a way that focuses on the actual sound and syntax patterns of the poems themselves.

Jakobson’s articulation of poeticity is situated in his account of the six functions of verbal communication. Alongside the poetic function, there are emotive, conative, referential, phatic, and metalingual functions. The poetic function of language, i.e., poeticity, “is present when the word is felt as word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion” (Jakobson, Language and Literature, 1987, p. 378). The poetic function has its own autonomy, and thus needs to be differentiated from the other five functions.

Poeticity is not apparent 1) when the word is reduced to the emotions of the speaker (emotive), nor 2) when it is reduced to its comportment toward a listener (conative), nor 3) when it is reduced to the contextual reality that it supposedly represents (referential), 4) nor when it is reduced to the psycho-physical contact of those speaking and/or listening (phatic). In each of these four cases, poeticity is not apparent because the word is reduced to something other than word, e.g., addresser, addressee, psychophysical contact, and referential context. Furthermore, poeticity is not apparent when a sequence of words is reduced to the codified equations given in metalanguage, such as A = A1 (bachelor = unmarried man). In fact, the poetic and metalingual functions of language “are in diametrical opposition to each other: in metalanguage the sequence is used to build an equation, whereas in poetry the equation is used to build a sequence” (p. 71).

Of course, poetry isn’t only in poems. The poetic function is at work whenever the word is felt as word, when the message is felt on its own terms. It is not about the speaker, the poet, consciousness, humanity, the world, or anything else but itself. Poeticity is present “when words and their composition, their meaning, their external and inner form, acquire a weight and value of their own” (p. 378).

I’ll give an example. Jakobson discusses the old political slogan “I like Ike.” The combination of “I,” “like,” and “Ike” is not merely a matter of “like” being selected from its synonyms (e.g., “admire,” “love,” “support,” etc.) because it accurately represents the speaker’s emotions and/or psychological relationship to Ike, nor is it merely a matter of “I” being selected because it represents the subject more grammatically than does “me,” or “my,” etc. If the message “I like Ike” is understood as its own thing (to the message itself!), then the combination of “I,” “like,” and “Ike” manifests an equation of the three occurrences of the sound /ay/, wherein “like” paronomastically envelops both “I” and “Ike”—as if all liking always already implies that “I” and “Ike” are together within it. From a metalingual perspective, the meaning of the “I” in this sequence is given according to other words with similar meanings; but from a poetic perspective, the meaning of “I” is given according to its similarity (in this case phonetic) to “like” and “Ike.” It is in poeticity that sound symbolism is most intensely felt.

Because “I” is typically employed as an index referring to the person saying it, the sound of the word “I” does not usually appear particularly meaningful; instead, it appears arbitrary—as if another sound referring to the same person (e.g., “me,” “ich,” “yo,” etc.) would have an identical meaning. Poeticity, on the other hand, relates the meaning of speech sounds back to the word itself, and not to a human poet, an autonomous signified, or a contextual reality. “I like Ike” is easy to analyze because of the obvious repetition of /ay/. A more difficult pattern to recognize would be William Blake’s “Tyger,” where the liquid consonant at the end of the word “Tyger” patterns with the liquid consonant at the beginning of “Lamb” (“Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”). That is one of my favorite aspects of Jakobson’s poetics: to analyze a poem, you have to study phonetics and other aspects of linguistics. Doesn’t this make perfect sense? To study a poem, you have to study language. To the poems themselves! To the words themselves!

A New Philosophy for the 21st Century

What is becoming of philosophy in the 21st century?  There’s a great piece on that topic that just came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review. It is written by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, who both teach at my alma mater, the Philosophy and Religion Studies department at the University of North Texas.

We have devoted our lives to philosophy. We want the field to survive and, if possible, prosper. But it is increasingly doubtful that academic philosophy can thrive in an era of declining budgets, soaring debts, antipathy to tax increases, and new technologies such as distance education.

Of course, philosophy is secure at America’s elite universities. But what of the vast number of universities whose future is tied to the decisions of state legislatures or other financial conditions?
Field philosophy, found philosophy, public philosophy, experimental philosophy, philosophy of/as interdisciplinarity—these are all expressions of a growing feeling that change is afoot. We seek to promote this change. We view 20th-century philosophy as an aberration—academically challenging work that forgot half of philosophy’s task. It is time to strike out in new, intellectually exciting, and socially useful directions.

I did my BA and MA at UNT, and I am continually impressed with the developments taking place in my old department. I can think of no better place to study philosophy and religious studies in a way that is cutting-edge, rigorous, and socially relevant, especially in light of contemporary environmental issues (they specialize in environmental ethics). They are making incredible strides toward “integrating philosophic insights with problems on the ground.” In short, if you want to see 21st century philosophy at its best, you’ll need to take a look at UNT.

Integral Dabbling

The word “integral” connotes wholeness or completeness, like an integer.  What interests me is that, etymologically, integral also means un-touched.  The prefix “in” has a negative force (like “un-“ or “non-“), and “teg” comes from the Latin tangere (“to touch”).

An integral philosophy would be a philosophy of untouched unity or untouched units.  How, then, can we philosophize about that which exceeds the limits of our touching, grasping, and reaching.  Theorizing the untouched is a way of paradoxically touching the untouched.  Jean-Luc Nancy has a lot to say about touching, including the way touch makes contact with that which is intact, untouched.  If you touch too much, then the intact is no longer intact.  If you touch too little, then you haven’t made contact.  The question is how to touch with tact, making contact in such a way that a connection is made without assimilating the intact core of the other.  It’s important to note that I am not referring to human touch exclusively, but to all kinds of contact, human, nonhuman, and otherwise.  I’ll have a lot to say about this in the future, as the name of this blog indicates.  For now, I want to talk about a kind of light touch, dabbling.

Dabbling touches without penetrating the depths.  The dictionary definition of dabbling describes it as an act of moving one’s hands or feet around in water.  In other words, it is an act of getting partially wet.  It also refers to movement in shallow water (ducks that feed in shallow water dabble therein).    

From this basic definition comes the extended definition of dabbling as any kind of partial involvement in something.  Like dabbing or daubing, dabbling is a partial touch, a slight and light touch.  That partial involvement connotes superficiality in some cases, as if one is “merely” dabbling and not “really” doing it, like a hobby as opposed to a career.  However, dabbling is not necessarily superficial.  It might be a very effective way to forge connections with the untouched cores of things.  Perhaps touching things any deeper would just slow down the process of making and breaking connections.  Even worse, it could do violence to the one touching or to the one touched, or to both of them.

What is this effective kind of dabbling?  Integral dabbling.  I think Jean-Luc Nancy practices integral dabbling, but it is not to be found only among philosophers.  I think you can also find integral dabbling in pop culture.  I’ll post more later on a pop analysis of integral dabbling.