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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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Towards an Ecological Epistemology

  1. Bill Angelos

    I just happened upon your Minds and Brains blog…. am not much of a blog reader, but the ongoing content of yours impresses the hell out-of-me for more reasons than I can go into at this time…

    Except to tell you that I am a former TV Comedy Writer who met a man 40 years ago whose writings you may have come across since he’s considered to have possessed one of the most original minds of the 20th Century – or any century, for that matter. His name is J. Krishnamurti. JK, in turn, introduced me to another man who was a sort of protege of A. Einstein’s and went on to turn the generally accepted mainstream perception of Theoretical Physics on it’s head, before passing in ’94 – Theoretical Physicist David Bohm.

    These two men maintained a fascinating ongoing dialogue of their own over a 20 year period, that might be described as an attempt to find a common language that would explain how their individual perceptions of the “Totality of What Is” – one “scientific” the other “spiritual” – point to a deeper understanding that goes beyond the time/space constraints imposed upon us all by the present realities of life on Earth.

    They each also found the time to “mentor” me privately over that same period of time. As a result, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I have since left my highly lucrative career in “show biz” while it was still blossoming.

    Why, specifically, did I do this?…. Well, although I didn’t do it consciously, I’m pretty sure it was an unconscious intention that was planted in me to answer a question Mr. Krishnmurti asked me at a time, when that seemingly ideal life of being at the top of my game as a (don’t laugh)TV comedy writer, married to a beautiful woman with an adorable little 3 year old running around our 15-room mansion of a home had reduced me inwardly to a state of utter despair… None of it was “working”!

    So one day – I went to see JK who was always kind enough to listen to my ranting.. … This time, he listened to me describe a trip I had just returned from during which i had taken a Hopi Spiritual Elder to a meeting of spiritual reprentatives from around the world that was being held to commemmorate the United Nations 30th or 35th Anniversary … i forget which one…. Anyhow upon my return I went to see K and found myself spilling out a narrative of everything that was going wrong in my life – including my impending divorce… when he asked me that question:

    “What do you want to do with your life?”

    I’ve spent the last 35 years answering that question to the only person one would think it really affects… ME!…

    Of course I’m wrong about its only affecting me, since as both JK and Dave Bohm made it quite clear… Life is about relationship! So, in affect that’s what I’ve really been doing… allowing the wind to blow me from one environement to another, within in which I try to figure out how I can apply my craft, i.e., writng producing, directing in all media… while the media themselves keep morphing into who knows what’s next…

    You seem to have already figured the relationship part out… and interestingly (to me) it was the work of James J. Gibson who seems to have pointed you in the same direction JK and David were pointing me to… The concept that Gibson (and JK) called “Direct Perception”. In fact David even referenced Gibson’s work in the Appendix of one of his classic books -the one on “Special Relativity”…

    Here’s David responding to my question about that reference during a onversation I had with him back in ’90 when we were in Amsterdam Holland together.(He was attending a Seminar that placed him and his close friend the Dalai Lama on the same dais– he had asked me to come along for the ride… what a ride! I’m still on it!…)

    Our conversation was videotaped by Dutch TV and I had edited out a little 5 minute excerpt which I’d uploaded to on an old website of mine (now defunct)… But while it was still available, someone swiped it and put it up on YouTube about a year ago… Since then it’s attracted more than 20,000 unsolicited visitors… perhaps what he has to say is becoming more relevant in the ” minds and brains”of people of your generation … just like I’ll bet more and more people will find what you are presently learning how to articulate so clearly more and more relevant… Really! what you’re doing on this blog of yours is not only amazing, it’s fearless!

    So …

    Bravo! ( a word which probably has a similar route as the word Brave!)

    Bill

    PS: Here’s the link to that YouTube excerpt of David and me… Maybe it’ll show you what I mean – that is, the relationship of your work to his… and , for that matter J. Krishnamurti’s…

    If I copied the link wrong , you’ll find in on youtube under the title “David Bohm on Perception”

  2. Bill Angelos

    Correction…

    That David Bohm on Perception YouTube link should read:

    Bill

  3. Bill Angelos

    cannot translate… please submit comment in english if possible

    thank you

    bill

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