Monthly Archives: March 2009

Towards an Ecological Epistemology

Wrote this real quickly for an assignment that required I create something that was related in any way to the environment, completely open ended. This article came out. The environmentalism stuff is sort of fluffy and tangential to the epistemological stuff, and not really something I’ve thought about too deeply, but I thought it turned out pretty good regardless. It was nice not having to cite anyone for once.

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In this article, I aim to first critique the standard epistemological situation as given in traditional philosophical frameworks as being radically hostile to ecological perspectives on the human situation. Then, utilizing philosophical work done in the 20th century, I will lay out an alternative sketch of our epistemological relationship with the environment in which our knowledge concerning the external world is direct and relational. I will then argue that this perspective on epistemology can help frame the environmentalist perspective and give credence to the notion of ourselves as being deeply embedded into the particular environments we inhabit; socially, cognitively, and emotionally.

The Standard Framework and its Problems

If you look at the history of philosophy, you will see a long tradition of separating our essential human nature from the external, physical environments we live in. By proposing that, epistemically, we are shut off from the real world, and subsequently have to build up a systematic mental representation from “given” sensory inputs, philosophers have barricaded themselves within a “veil of ideas.” From this epistemic situation, it follows naturally that there is an internal realm different in kind from the external world of physical worlds and public behavior. To account for the difference between inside and outside, philosophers constructed the notion of a mind that is distinct from the physical environment.

In my mind, this stipulation of mental life as distinct from physical life has created a philosophical atmosphere that breeds contempt for environmentalist endeavors. If we take this standard framework seriously, it alienates our true nature from the ecological niches we inhabit. If, so goes the standard theory, we are epistemically shut off from the external world, then whatever makes us essentially human – be it mind, soul, spirit – is not of the world, and our humanity becomes defined in terms of thinking and not being; that is, being in a physical world. This, at least, was Martin Heidegger’s great critique of cognitivist philosophical schemes: they cut us off from the environment and stipulate a go-between mental representation in its stead, and then from this axiom, go on to conclude that what makes us human is not the fact that we are embedded in a familiar world, but rather, separated from this world by our thoughts.


The Ecological Alternative

The epistemic alternative to the standard framework involves a perceptual theory in which the knowledge we have concerning the environment is much more direct. Not direct in the sense that perceptual knowledge somehow avoids going through different brain filters, but rather, in the sense that there is no representational mediation between the environment and our perception of it. In contrast to this representational framework, the ecological perspective is much more pragmatic in that our perception is tied up with behavior and opportunities for behavior. For example, when perceiving a chair, we do not have a sensation input and then infer that the chair is for sitting, but rather, we directly see that the chair is available for sitting. James Gibson, considered the founder of ecological psychology, dubbed this aspect of perception affordances.

Thus, according to this ecological theory of perception, we are not estranged from the environment epistemically, but rather, intimately entangled with it due to our pragmatic orientation with our ecological niches. In our homes and our cars, our offices and our places of play, we are at home epistemically. Our knowledge concerning the external environment is immediate and direct; it guides us toward different behaviors which enable pragmatic know-how. So in the case of perceiving a chair, our epistemic situation – due to developmental learning and years of experience – is that of familiarity. We know what a chair affords, and this knowledge guides our behavior so that we may cope with the environment sufficiently.

Implications for Environmental Philosophy

The philosophical implications of this ecological framework can be extended from philosophy of mind to philosophy of the environment. While this new epistemological framework provides a clear motivation for abandoning traditional dualisms between mind and world, subject and object, it also provides a backdrop for modern thinking in regards to issues surrounding the environment. When perceptual theories take seriously our epistemic embeddedness within an environment, we arrive at a position readily adapted for environmentalist concerns. By placing the essence of humanity into an ecological niche cashed out in terms of pragmatic coping, we get rid of the traditional bias against seeing ourselves as somehow tied up with the physical world. This philosophical perspective enables a conception of humanity that is intimately connected with the surrounding environment.

Subsequently, once a philosophical system takes into account the profound interrelationship between ourselves and the environment, the philosophical problems surrounding environmentalism fade. Thus, from the ecological perspective, a motivation to preserve the environment naturally emerges. Because we no longer feel estranged from the environment, but rather, wrapped up in it due to our everyday coping, the environmentalist urge to reach out and protect the environment becomes another way of reaching out to ourselves, or at least, to an aspect that is just as important to defining humanity as humanity itself. In other words, the ecological perspective implicitly incorporates a conception of humanity that is at odds with the idea that what makes humans human is not our attachment to the environment, but rather, our detachment form it.

By divorcing itself from this theory of detachment, ecologically oriented philosophy offers a reconceptualization of humanity that has the potential to change the way we perceive ourselves as related to the environment, allowing for a newfound enthusiasm concerning environmentalist issues. By taking our minds out from the abstracted space of Reason, ecological theory puts humanity right back into the social, cultural, pragmatic milieu that structures our experience and guides our behavior. This conception of ourselves is at odds with our traditional Western intellectual heritage, but I believe that our species as a whole is ready and waiting for just such a theory to come along and encourage rampant environmentalism as a way of protecting something that is not just apart from ourselves, but profoundly intermingled with us as humans: the environment.


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