Ecophilosophy

Presumably philosophy is beyond the bothersome necessities of economics & politics.

Plato’s myth of the cave casts a vivid light on this notion. Those imprisoned in his cave wear blinders and are shown “mock ups” of the real things in the world. The task of philosophers, for Plato, is to take off these blinders and lead the prisoners out into the real world, made visible by a real sun, where there are real trees, stones, people… not mock ups.

In academic philosophy today, philosophers, freed from the cave, flutter in the sunlight of academia, discoursing learnedly. In Plato’s metaphor, however, they are forced to go back into the cave to rescue others from the darkness. If I have trouble on some points with the American philosopher John Dewey, I must credit him with this: he forces us back into the cave, back into the harshness and half-truths of the “real world.”

In my own case, it took a while to see the value of John Dewey. If the Owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk, in my case it did not happen until mid-afternoon when what I know of philosophy and what I understood of the environment and its problems finally met. The results were twofold: the creation (with a colleague, Max Oelschlaeger) of a program in philosophy & environment at the University of North Texas, and, second, a series of articles by myself focused on environmental philosophy.

Alfred North Whitehead

My own approach involved “process philosophy” as a hopeful basis for understanding and valuing the environment as well as for helping us understand our all-too-evident environmental problems. In this I have found the Anglo-American thinker, Alfred North Whitehead, to be more helpful than Henri Bergson: even though I think their philosophies of nature are roughly equivalent. In more practical terms, I have found the American thinker Aldo Leopold helpful in dealing with specific problems in environmental ethics.

Bergson’s, Whitehead’s (or, for that matter, Hans Jonas’) “take” on nature sums up to virtually the same world view:

  1. Things in nature (all things) are inherently interrelated.
  2. Things (protons, people, plant growth communities) make themselves out of their environments and change with them.
  3. The processes that make up the world are best understood as “mind” or “mind like.”

Consciousness is neither an illusion nor an alien intrusion into a clockwork world. Its presence in the world guarantees that all things in the world have some degree of value.

In all of this, as in the metaphysics of Bergson, philosophy has real, effective implications: even if it cannot be reduced to them.

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