Logos of a Living Earth: Towards a Gaian Praxecology

Logos of the Living Earth:

Towards a Gaian Praxecology

By Matthew Segall

Fall 2009

Science, Ecology, and Contested Knowledge(s)

Prof. Elizabeth Allison

“No More” by Josephine Wall – (from http://www.josephinewall.co.uk/josephine.html): “Progress” – Man’s word to excuse the disgraceful abuse of our precious world. “Gaia” has watched from afar, hoping that the trustees of this world would come to their senses, and finally unable to bear the destruction any more, the “Earth Goddess” returns to force back the advancing darkness. Some animals flee in terror whilst others shelter beneath her life-giving mantel. The battle to restore beauty is joined. “No more” will she allow man’s blindness, greed and intolerance to pervade this planet. As she strides purposefully forward, nature’s beauty is once again restored.


The word “praxeology” has been employed with various meanings in 20th century French and Austrian discourse.[1] Praxecology is a distinct, though not entirely unrelated neologism invented for the purposes of this essay. A new word is not without a history, nor a text without context—praxecology is the mutated kin of its discursive ancestors whose semiotic relation cannot be denied. But my neologism is not just a sign; it is also a materially inscribed event emerging in my life and, having been read and understood, in the lives of each of you, my audience. Words have real effects in the world of material-semiotic cyborgs[2] like us.

Praxecology is the embodied practice of a living planetary systems theory, the enacting of a Gaian way of life. James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, developed in the 1960s while working for NASA to detect life on other planets, has played an important psycho-spiritual role in the environmental movement[3], but half a century later has not been fully realized as an eco-cultural revolt against modern techno-industrialism and the alienation, fetishization, and commodification of self, society, and nature that such a system requires. The results of this Enlightenment project of disembedded rationality are well known: loss of place, self-alienation, social injustice and ecological devastation chief among them.[4] A scientific theory of Earth as a self-regulating system is not enough in itself to overturn any of these aspects of our post-industrial malaise, but the knowledge of a living Earth is compelling enough, I believe, to inspire both the aesthetic skill and religious will of humanity into a renewed relationship with the Earth.

In this essay, I will try to lay down a path in walking toward a Gaian praxecology by offering a more integral, or at least nonmodern (Latour, 1993) narration of embodied practice concerning human-earth relations. As Latour argues in his critique of modern science, the only myth is that there could be science without myth (p. 93, ibid.). I will seek a planetary (and so seemingly universal) mythos, though careful attention will be paid to nature as place, or topos (commonplace).

As Donna Haraway has written,

“We turn to this topic [nature] to order our discourse, to compose our memory …[because] nature is the place to rebuild public culture…[and] is a topic of public discourse on which much turns, even the Earth” (p. 296, 1992).

The title, “Gaia,” has been criticized for its gender essentialism and mythic connotations.[5] I will try to convey why Gaia, the ancient Greek goddess, is among the most appropriate of names for the living Earth. Her theogonic origins in the poetry of Hesiod, Ovid, and others is an apt reminder that disentanglement of science from myth, or knowledge from narrative, while logically possible, is vacuous in practice.[6] Praxecology is not theory or praxis alone, but human understanding-as-participation in the meaningful cycles and evolutions of the Earth community. Science (logos) and story (mythos) are distinct, but in no way separate expressions of the underlying human yearning for knowledge born out of a recognition of our origins in a larger cosmogenic whole. “The Earth,” says cultural phenomenologist Jean Gebser, “is nothing but an event [self-enacted/autopoietic unfolding] which in materialization has become progressively slower” (p. 541, Gebser). Matter and mind, embodied action and theoretical discourse, are not isolated influences or opposed forces, but friendly poles in a holistic process of evolutionary autobiography. As Haraway puts it, “There is no way to rationality—to actually existing worlds—outside stories, not for our species, anyway” (p. 44, 1997).

The protagonists in my story include Haraway, who reminds us that modern technoscientific biology is not life itself, but a cultural discourse about life; Thomas Berry, who evokes an original relationship to the universe by reminding us that an ongoing cosmogenesis is the origin of our existence; Bruno Latour, who demystifies science in action by unveiling the networks of relationships supporting its facts; William Irwin Thompson, whose vision of a Gaian polity helps us re-imagine the world; Francisco Varela, whose enactive cognitive science shows how worlds are brought forth through autopoietic structural coupling; and Gaia, our common ground, producer of all bodies and muse of every mind.Others, too, will lend a helping hand along the way of this logos of the living Earth.

“Ecology,” according to Thomas Berry, “is functional cosmology” (p. 84, 1999). This suggests that an adequate understanding of the universe as a whole is not at all separate from knowing how to live sustainably within one’s particular community of life. The whole and the part are mutually implicated in any “functional cosmology.” Any truly universal knowledge should also be applicable and adaptable to life at home. Such a relational approach to cognition-as-living will guide us along our journey through various philosophical holzwege, or wood paths (German: wegen– “to make a way,” wagen– “to risk”), with the hope that we emerge at a clearing revealing new, perhaps unexpected, ways forward.

Neither representational, nor constructionist epistemologies will suffice for such thoughtful and heartfelt wanderings, as I am concerned here with concrete matters of life and death, not decontextualized ideas of transcendent truth or the moral resignation of unmoored relativism. This discourse concerning the Earth is an attempt to refigure the way words relate to worlds, in part because

“humans are not the ones who arbitrarily add the ‘symbolic dimension’ to pure material forces. These forces are as transcendent, active, agitated, spiritual, as we are” (p. 128, Latour, 1995).

The following pages will record the traces of my struggle to enact a story, not about Earth, but of, as, and for an Earth personified: Gaia.[7] The clearing I hope will be discovered at the end of my praxecological textual way-making is but the beginning of our long overdue transformation from disembedded techno-industrial consumers into symbiotic participants in a flourishing Gaian polity.[8]

“The urgent task of ecological culture,” says Rosemary Radford Ruether,

“is to convert human consciousness to the Earth, so that we can use our minds to understand the web of life and to live in that web of life as sustainers, rather than destroyers, of it” (p. 250, 1992).

It is my hope that my words may participate in the Great Work of weaving Western consciousness back into the tapestry of life from which it sprang by inspiring a renewed call to situated eco-action.[9]

Praxeology Becomes Praxecology

Praxeology is a word with a mixed history of discursive use. Murray N. Rothbard suggests that: “Praxeology rests on the fundamental axiom that individual human beings act, that is, on the primordial fact that individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals” (p. 58, 1997). Arnold Kaufmann defines praxeology as “the science of human decision-making,” and models his approach after the Cartesian method of logical analysis (p. 12, 1968). Both Rothbard and Kaufmann seek universal, a priori laws of human action; but unlike Kaufmann (best known for his work in computer science), Rothbard criticizes the notion that conscious human beings can be treated like “stones or molecules whose course can be scientifically tracked in alleged constants or quantitative laws” (p. 74). I am in agreement with Rothbard’s (and before his, Ludwig von Mises’) rejection of a quantitative or positivistic account of human action, but because he fails to recognize the feelings, values, and purposes of all the species sharing this planet with humanity, his narrowly humanistic praxeology falls short of enacting the Gaian polity implied by a praxecology.

Kaufmann’s praxeology is even more problematic, as his account of the human nervous system by analogy to a “combinatorial machine [i.e., parallel computer]” (p. 224) neglects the autopoietic nature of living cognitive processes. As will be discussed at length in the following section, the nervous system is not a linear “chain of perception-analysis-decision-action” (p. 228, ibid.), but a recursive and operationally closed loop of sensorimotor coordination within endogenously specified environments of relevancy (see p. 12). Construing cognition as if analysis and decision-making took place as independent steps in a causal chain between perception and action neglects the physiological fact that thinking (i.e., analyzing and deciding) is always already an embodied and embedded sensorimotor activity. Kaufmann’s praxeology re-inscribes the Cartesian dualism responsible for the metaphysical confusions at the root of the ecological crisis. Praxecology is my attempt to re-embody the human being’s conscious analytic capacities by re-imagining the way mind and body, thought and action, knowing and being relate to one another.

Autopoietic Biology and Enactive Cognition

The particular discourse of biology is one that I, like Haraway, “value, want to participate in and make better…and believe to be culturally, politically, and epistemologically important” (p. 218, ibid.). The biology of the late Francisco Varela, more recently carried forward by Evan Thompson, strikes me as especially important because it arises out of an awareness of the “unbroken coincidence of our being, our doing, and our knowing” (p. 25, Maturana & Varela, 1988). In other words, deep inquiry into biology can reveal that our ontology, praxis, and epistemology are knotted together such that “…every act of knowing brings forth a world” (p. 26, ibid.).

Varela’s central conceptual contribution (along with Humberto Maturana) to the study of life is the theory of autopoiesis.[10] The theory is part of a larger move away from current orthodoxy in biology that understands organisms as “heteronomous units operating by a logic of correspondence”; instead, Varela offers a new biology that sees organisms as “autonomous units operating by a logic of coherence” (p. 50, ed. by William Irwin Thompson, 1987). The standard, gene-centric perspective of neo-Darwinist biology maintains that individual organisms are the puppets of their DNA, struggling to achieve fitness by way of natural selection into pre-given niches.[11] They are “other-determined” (heteronomous) because the forms of their bodies and behaviors are imposed extrasomatically by a supposedly objective world[12] and endosomatically by supposedly objective genetic algorithms. Evolutionary success is retroactively explained as the result of a correspondence between an organism’s body, instincts, and thoughts (all reducible to genetic coding) and the external world. Varela’s autopoietic view, in contrast, allows us to see organisms as autonomous and purposeful beings whose success is explained not by correct representation of a pre-given, objective reality, but by adequate structural coupling[13] with others allowing for the enaction of coherent and durable material-semiotic worlds.

Further, an autopoietic biology makes clear that self-production is at least logically (if not also temporally) prior to reproduction (p. 131, E. Thompson). The basis of living organization, therefore, is not the ability to genetically replicate, but to produce a membrane-bound, self-organizing identity distinguishing organism from environment. In this way, the ecopoiesis[14] of Gaia grants it living status, contrary to gene-centric neo-Darwinian criticisms.

Varela’s penchant for transdisciplinarity lead him to link his autopoietic biology to cognitive science, and his enactive theory of cognition to sociology. Varela has described enaction by borrowing the words of the poet Antonio Machado: “Wanderer the road is your footsteps, nothing else; you lay down a path in walking” (p. 63, 1987).

The scientific principles underlying this poetic insight have been highlighted by Evan Thompson, who offers five features central to the theory of enactive cognition (p. 13, 2007):

1.“…living beings are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain themselves, and thereby also enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains.”

2.“…the nervous system is an autonomous dynamic system [that] actively generates and maintains its own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity according to its operation as a circular and reentrant network of interacting neurons.”

3.“…cognition is the exercise of skillful know-how in situated and embodied action.”

a.“Cognitive structures and processes emerge from recurrent sensorimotor patterns of perception and action.”

b.Sensorimotor coupling between organism and environment modulates, but does not determine, the formation of endogenous, dynamic patterns of neural activity, which in turn inform sensorimotor coupling.”

4.“…a cognitive being’s world is not a prespecified, external realm, represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain enacted or brought forth by that being’s autonomous agency and mode of coupling with the environment.”

5.“…experience is not an epiphenomenal side issue, but central to any understanding of the mind, and needs to be investigated in a careful phenomenological manner.”

One consequence of the enactive approach is that the Cartesian quest for epistemological certainty becomes but the expression of a particular “cognitive domain” (see # 1) made possible by the abstract languages of mathematics, precise measurements of machine technologies, and controlled laboratory environment. If the nervous system is operationally closed (see # 2), its function cannot be to modestly mirror an external, objective reality, even if the modest witnesses are highly trained scientists allied with powerful instruments that extend their sensory reach. The operational closure of the nervous system forestalls a representational account of its activity, as its role is maintaining coherence, rather than correspondence, between organism and environment. New techniques may open up previously hidden worlds, as when Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky and revealed the moons of Jupiter in 1610, or Hooke first recognized cells through a microscope in 1665, but one cannot speak of finally discovering the real as if it existed independently of our bodily and inter-bodily experience of its meaning.

As Haraway has suggested (p. 199, 1997), “…objectivity is less about realism than about intersubjectivity.” She yearns for us to come to see objectivity as a way of “forming ties across wide distances” (ibid.), instead of as the privileged and modest perspective of self-invisible European men who remain somehow unpolluted by their ambiguously situated bodies (p. 23-32, ibid.). If science can claim relative epistemological privilege, it is not the result of transcending culture, but of the ever-accelerating, ever-expanding mobility and combinability of the traces scientists and their cyborg surrogates have constructed within their networks. Outside of these special networks of labs, machines, shared languages, and centrally controlled policy initiatives, scientific facts have little relevance.[15]

Referring to technoscience, as opposed to just science, emphasizes the extent to which knowledge emerges out of skillful action in embodied situations (see #’s 3 and 4). Science has always been dependent upon technological sensorimotor extensions to deepen its understanding of that commonplace called by its peculiar culture “nature.” Artifacts and their articulations, including alphabetic technologies, shape the kinds of worlds scientists are capable of enacting. Even mathematics is a figurative language (p.11, ibid.), constructing analogies between otherwise unrelated domains of experience.[16]

Varela’s biology has implications not only for scientific epistemology, but also for society and human-earth relations. Echoing the sentiments of Haraway, Varela writes that:

“…biology is the source of most metaphors in current thinking…and expresses the possibility of a worldview beyond the split between us and it…what we do is what we know, and ours is but one of many possible worlds. [Enactive cognition] is…the laying down of a world, with no warfare between self and other” (p. 62, ed. by William Irwin Thompson, 1987).

It is our shared biological lineage that secures the basic structure of the worlds we can bring forth together via linguistic and empathic structural coupling. But culture is not bound by nature, or rather human nature is sufficiently malleable that diverse cultural expressions can emerge within isolated social groups. It is often only through inter-cultural confrontation and misunderstanding that members of one society come to recognize the unthought background of their enacted worlds. Varela is at pains to convey to us the message of his biology, that “…as human beings, we have only the world which we create with others” (p. 246, 1988). Unless I can encounter the differences between my (or my culture’s) cognitive domain and another’s with the willingness to make room for their meanings besides my own, I undermine the biological process of structural coupling that produces livable worlds. Meaning emerges out of difference (p. 167, Hornborg), and as W. I. Thompson suggests, “the recognition of differences [is] the consciousness of the unique that contributes to the understanding of the universal” (p. 167, 1985). Bringing forth worlds with others requires tapping into a universal substratum of empathic relation, not to erase difference, but to celebrate it.

Varela calls this willingness to forego self-certainty for the sake of enacting inclusive worlds with others love. Love, says Varela (and Maturana), “is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness” (p. 264, 1988). Most scientists would dismiss such claims because they overshoot the objective scope of the scientific enterprise. But Varela’s biology is an attempt to break down the Cartesian divide between rationality and emotion, between what is and what ought to be. Biology is the study of life, but in the context of the recursive logic of enactivism, it becomes the self-study of our own living. Perhaps some physicists can study the mathematical regularities of measurable matter without too much personal investment, but to study the processes that birth and sustain our very being inevitably calls for profound personal and interpersonal involvement. And because of the identity between knowing and doing, the stories we tell about how life came to be and what it is doing here will determine what sorts of future worlds we bring forth together.

“Whatever we do in every domain, whether concrete (walking) or abstract (philosophical reflection), involves us totally in the body, for it takes place through our structural dynamics and through our structural interactions. Everything we do is a structural dance in the choreography of coexistence” (p. 248, ibid.).

Varela’s autopoietic biology is a critical response to the mechanistic trends of mainstream studies of living organization. He emphasizes the autonomy of individual organisms while also situating them within the eco-social environments that sustain them materially and semiotically. Varela also engages the philosophical implications of biology in a more penetrating way than most other scientists when he recognizes the dynamic unity of mind and body. Thought, perception, and action are knotted together in the process of living, and life is by its very nature a co-creative, world-making affair. Acknowledging this, a Gaian praxecology strives, not to disembed local cultures (whether scientific or indigenous) from their specific histories of structural coupling, but to expand their cognitive domains such that they begin to comport themselves appropriately in light of the knowledge of the whole Earth as a single living system—in mythopoeic fact, a person—that all beings, no matter our cultural or even biological differences, depend upon for survival. The task of our planetary age is to situate the parts in the whole (so human persons can relate to Gaia) while not forgetting that the whole is also to be found in each of the parts (humans are, first and foremost, earthlings). Personifying the Earth not only leads to renewed respect for our home planet, but reminds us of the encompassing and interconnected natural processes responsible for breathing life into individual human persons and all other earthlings. Personhood, it could be said, is granted only when beings are able to meet each other in loving social spaces.

Discursive Earth

Language is the primary instrument of human knowing, the tool of tools that opens up worlds of meaning more flexible (and reflexive) than the bio-semiotic endowments granted to most other organisms. But the virtue of human language is also its tragic flaw, as the creative power of words enable the imagination to almost entirely detach from the actuality of the body and the Earth. One result of such disengagement is what A. N. Whitehead has called the fallacy of “misplaced concreteness” (p. 51, 1925): abstract worlds of words and images restructure not only thought, but perception and action, such that the concrete lived experience of the uniqueness of individual persons, to take one example, becomes obscured by pre-conceived notions of culture, race, and class (etc.), leading to an objectification of others that short-circuits the process of linguistic and empathic structural coupling.

Varela suggests that human language evolved as a result of increased socialization and loving cooperation between our hominid ancestors (p. 220, 1988). The female shift from estral cycles to nonseasonal sexuality and the frontal coitus resulting from upright posture are mentioned as possible reasons for the development of such a complex and expressive behavior as speech[17] (p. 219, ibid.).

Evan Thompson points also to “…the evolution of a new stage of development, namely, childhood,” which provides developing human beings with an incredible plasticity, so much in fact that

“…individual subjectivity is from the outset intersubjectivity, a result of the communally handed down norms, conventions, symbolic artifacts, and cultural traditions in which the individual is always already embedded” (p. 409-411, 2007).

Writing may have arisen later (around the 4th millennium BCE) for economic reasons (p. 13, Jean, 1987), but the spoken word appears to have emerged originally as a result of the desire for increased interpersonal intimacy. This is, of course, a revisionist account of the origins of human language, focusing more on the evolution of consciousness than economic progress or the invention of technologies. W. I. Thompson offers evidence contrary to the standard technophilic and androcentric explanations, citing the work of prehistorian Alexander Marshack, who, like E. Thompson and Varela, argues language arose as a result of neoteny and increased social cohesion:

“If, at any point in the evolutionary process ‘language’ or proto-language was to be learned, it would not have been in the context of the hunt. It would have been learned young, before the individual was economically productive…in the context of the child’s widening, increasingly complex relational competence” (p. 91, W. I. Thompson, 1981).

A Gaian praxecology requires a novel way of relating to language as primarily communicative, rather than descriptive or representational. The meaning of our words comes not from a correspondence between them, our brains, and objects or events in the world, but from the consensual coordination of our lived bodies and their linguistic intentions.[18] Social coherence, rather than representational correspondence, produces meaningful intersubjective linguistic domains.

The communicative origins of language should make it clear that claims to establish a pure observer language free of cultural idiosyncrasy (and so capable of objective description of phenomena) are more political than scientific. Human beings speak with one another in order to share emotion and direct attention, and so any notion of descriptive or explanatory truth must include at least the potential for agreement between structurally coupled agents. If one group’s emically verified description contradicts another’s, there has not been a factual conflict but a failure to communicate. Such conflicts of description are especially insidious when political power is used to enforce “true” accounts of reality despite the resistance of marginalized social enactments of meaning.

The move away from representational accounts of language is the first step toward “…[placing] the human within the dynamics of the planet rather than [placing] the planet within the dynamics of the human” (p. 160, T. Berry, 1999). By recognizing language as a poetic product of the Earth’s own desire to know itself through autobiography, perhaps the psychological alienation and spiritual disenchantment so characteristic of our historical moment can be overcome.[19] According to Berry, “this awakening is our human participation in the dream of the Earth” (p. 165, ibid.). As I shared above, our language and the imaginative capacities it facilitates evolved because humans grew more capable of empathic structural coupling. As the cultural and symbolic systems that emerged became more complex, they began to reify differences between one another and, at least in the Western world, between humanity and nature. In effect, Western consciousness detached from the dream of the Earth and fell into its own nightmare of endless economic growth fueled by technological progress.[20]

A flourishing Gaian-polity will require rooting human imagination and language back in the body of the Earth and Cosmos, such that our evolutionary journey from protozoa to speaking primates becomes an expression of the planet’s own joie de vivre.

As Rick Tarnas has written:

“The human spirit does not merely prescribe nature’s phenomenal order; rather, the spirit of nature brings forth its own order through the human mind when that mind is employing its full complement of faculties–intellectual, volitional, emotional, sensory, imaginative, aesthetic, epiphanic…human language itself can be recognized as rooted in a deeper reality, as reflecting the universe’s unfolding meaning…Human thought does not and cannot mirror a ready-made objective truth in the world; rather, the world’s truth achieves its existence when it comes to birth in the human mind” (p. 435, 1991).

A participatory approach like Tarnas’ is exactly the kind of relationship between language, culture, and nature that praxecology seeks. Humanity, rather than the alienated dominator of Earth, can become Gaia’s most articulate storyteller and most potent dream weaver. Logos did not arrive in the universe in human form from beyond at some point in history, but has been a part of cosmogenesis since the beginning.[21]

Gaian Mythos

Humanity is unique, in the double sense of being both one with (Latin: unus) the Earth/Cosmos and undeniably alone. What it is that makes our species so special is a matter of contention. The risk one takes in defining the difference between human and nonhuman is that some group be marginalized by not being included in the favored category. History makes it quite apparent that societies become more willing to commit atrocities when they adopt antagonistic linguistic classifications (race, class, gender, species, etc.). But even to deny the difference is already to have marked the topic as a forbidden fruit. I cannot avoid this risk if I wish to tell my story (cross-cultural communication depends, at least etymologically, on munitions—on firing an opening shot). I can only provisionally offer that what makes us human is our being always already embedded participants in evolving worlds of meaning, and knowing so. Knowledge is what distinguishes humanity, but all knowing is situated within the promiscuous meanings and romantic-comedic-tragic narratives of embodied life among others, both human and non.

Our human capacity for knowledge also clues us into our ignorance, the fact that we lack, perhaps indefinitely, a complete understanding of how we came to be and how best to live. Nonetheless, as Wendell Berry has written, “…we have to act on the basis of what we know, [even if] what we know is incomplete” (p. 10, 2000). Our cultures must provide us with a flexible way to navigate the unmappable complexities of the terrain of life on this evolving planet. A renewed engagement with the mythopoeic dimensions of consciousness is one way to keep our balance while walking upon such uncertain ground.

Myth, according to W. I. Thompson, “is a state of being, analogous to music [and so] not simply a description, but a performance of the very reality it seeks to describe” (p. 6, 1996). Any knowledge we pretend to have regarding the world simultaneously participates in the bringing forth of exactly such a world. Even modern technosciences of life have deep mythological roots, and so to properly contextualize matters of fact I must invoke the poetic images of the ancient past (of at least our Western, alphabetic tradition).

Hesiod, Ovid, Homer and other Greek orators have given poetic, divinatory, or dramatic tribute to Gaia, the “mother of all [and] eldest of all beings” (Homeric hymn XXX). She is imagined to have emerged at the beginning of the world from the undifferentiated, lifeless mass of Chaos. Once her earthly foundation was in place, she birthed the sky, the mountains, and the sea, along with countless other beings, mortal and immortal. She was, for ancient humanity (on all continents, though by other names), personified as Grandmother, revered for her creative generativity and life-sustaining soils.[22]

For us, despite living thousands of years later in an age of “Reason,” it remains wise to remember with W. I. Thompson that a Gaian evolutionary theory and practice (a praxecology) “requires not simply training and data collection, but imagination” (p. 252, 1991).

Imagination, for Thompson, is what integrates perception and enacts coherent worlds of situated meaning:

“What brings forth a world is the human body as a field of metaphoric extension of the known into the unknown… [Imagination’s] ability to stabilize a world derives from…preverbal geometries of behavior we have come to cognize as the way things happen” (p. 253, ibid).

These preverbal geometries of behavior archetypally structure our unconscious experience of the Earth. In those “mythic times called the ‘Scientific Revolution’” (p. 1, Haraway, 1997), the Cartesian coordinate plane emerged to refigure the human body-mind, constructing a flattened background upon which the Western imagination could perform its world-making magic at relative distance from the local complexities and particular faces of Earth.

The re-imagining of the world I am after requires locating the supposedly universal scientific truths responsible for disenchanting the Earth and Cosmos. “[The scientific tribe], says Latour, “like earlier ones, projects its own special categories onto Nature; what is new is that it pretends it has not done so” (p. 102, 1993). This pretense to objectivity, ironically, is what allowed Lovelock to publish his first hypotheses (p. 568-570, Nature, 1965) concerning how best to detect extraterrestrial life (by searching for “order” and “non-equilibrium”). The ambiguous boundaries between life and non-life, much like those between human and nonhuman, are fraught with controversy.[23] Lovelock’s generalizations, however, seem to offer at least relatively universal characteristics applicable even to alien worlds. As far as Lovelock is concerned, life is a planetary affair[24], involving even the physiosphere in its metabolic processes of growth and evolution (through regulation of atmosphere and plate tectonics [Mann, 1991]).

Our living planet has produced not only complex eco-semiotic webs of organic community, but also a special primate who can know the difference between sign and thing (and who surfs the mystery in between with myth). This differential knowing raises the specter of minds separate from bodies, of a noosphere over and above the biosphere using it as a means for its own elevated ends. But we need not reproduce the Sacred Image of the Same by reifying the human difference; we can instead, through a self-critical and diffractive consciousness, bring forth histories of entangled meaning where reality and idea, science and story, nature and culture mutually constitute one another (Haraway, 1997). The cosmogenesis of Earth is as much mental, cultural, and transcendent as it is physical, natural, and immanent. There is no one true and ideal copy of the world that might be reproduced culturally or technologically. Reality is not a reflected image in the human mind, but co-emerges out of the interference patterns generated by the varied material-semiotic activities of countless earthlings, most of whom are not human (p. 299, Haraway, 1992). A Gaian praxecology attempts to make this radically inter-species realization explicit in both our ecological practices and our discourse.

Imagine a world where Lovelock’s scientific narratives about the “Ages of Gaia” are tied together in a distributed and layered way (p. 121, Haraway, 1997.) with the ancient myths and mysterious organic origins of so many other human and nonhuman natures-cultures. Gaian praxecology requires not hegemonic universalism or globalization, but a shared discourse of common origins always open to interpellation (p. 49-50, ibid.). Humanity does not yet share a sacred story of creation, but our global techno-industrial activities have already inextricably linked our biological destinies. The future of our species depends upon a more integral relation between economic theory and ecological practice, myth and science, and imagination and knowledge. A Gaian praxecology is at least an opening gesture toward a more appropriate relation between these dualisms.

Earth recognized and lived with as what Ian Hacking (p. 31-32, 1999) has called an “interactive kind,” a person, would bring our species even closer to what a Gaian praxecology implies. Reconnecting on a personal level with the Earth makes evident the real ways that our ideas are actualized in the bringing forth of worlds. For too long, Gaia has been conceived of as a dead rock mutely bearing oil drills and explosives, a mere standing reserve of resources fed into the human market, and only then made valuable. The result is that much of her body (including the parts of her that we are) has become toxic and infertile. The time has come to pay respect again to the Grandmother of all who eat and breathe beneath the sun. I call for a polyphonic Gaian mythos sung by humans and nonhumans alike, “…for things [quasi-objects] too have to be elevated to the dignity of narrative” (p. 90, Latour, 1993).


The spiritual import of a logos of the living Earth cannot be underestimated. Unless the human spirit can begin to feel at home again upon the planet of its birth, it will surely soon become the planet of its death.

“As physical resources become less available,” says Berry,

“psychic [or spiritual] energy must support the human project in a special manner. This situation brings us to a new reliance on powers within the universe and also to experience of the deeper self. The universe must be experienced as the Great Self. Each is fulfilled in the other: the Great Self is fulfilled in the individual self, and the individual self is fulfilled in the Great Self. Alienation is overcome as soon as we experience this surge of energy from the source that has brought the universe through the centuries. New fields of energy become available to support the human venture. These new energies find expression and support in celebration. For in the end the universe can only be explained in terms of celebration” (p. 170, 1999).

The ongoing celebration of the Cosmos and Earth community, indeed, provides us with a mythos worth performing and participating in. Indigenous peoples have ritually participated in Gaia’s seasonal rhythms for thousands of generations, recognizing the celebratory significance of all life’s activities. A similar re-sacralization of life goes hand in hand with a Gaian praxecology. Ritual is the concrete foundation of culture, the source of our most fundamental habits and dispositions. Renewing our connection with the “mother of all things” can bring an end to the fragmented Chaos of post-industrial civilization, giving us the inspiration to tell the meaningful stories of creation and regeneration going on around, between, and within us. It is through such scientifically informed, mythically imbued narratives and rituals that a Gaian praxecology can be brought forth. All of our cultural institutions must seek their guidance from the roles granted them by such numinous, celebratory stories such that they perform their world-making work for the glory of Gaia, rather than for the profit of a few corporations.

My story has now reached its end, but hopefully the holzwege I have laid down in walking has provided an opening for fellow terrestrial trekkers to follow in my footsteps. Our ultimate destination cannot be prematurely known, as the mythic landscapes we must travel are dense and full of mystery.

“The landscape of myth,” says W. I. Thompson,

“…is that shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being…When we come to [such] an edge we have to shift our mode of thought…from rational analysis to intuitive meditation” (p. 87, 1981).

We can only hope to understand the current planetary moment by wholeheartedly participating in the multibillion-year cosmic performance of powers that produced and continues to nourish us. Science and spirituality must mutually aid us in any joint venture to enact a Gaian praxecology, because only a more integral relation between intelligence and imagination will allow the human being to dream with the Earth once again.

Works Cited

1)Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. 1988. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.

2)Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. 1999. Bell Tower: New York.

3)Berry, Wendell. Life is a Miracle: Essays Against Modern Superstition. 2000. Counterpoint: Washington D.C.

4)Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? 1999. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

5)Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Science. 1997. Routledge: New York.

6)Haraway, Donna J. The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others. Printed in Cultural Studies. 1992. Eds. Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., Treichler, A. Routledge: New York.

7)Hesiod. Theogony. 1953. Bobbs-Merrill: New York.

8)Hornborg, Alf. The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment. 2001. AltaMira Press: Walnut Creek.

9)Jean, Georges. Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts. 1992. Abrams: New York.

10)Kaufmann, Arnold. Transl. from French by Rex Audley. The Science of Decision-Making: An Intro to Praxeology. 1968. McGraw-Hill: New York.

11)Latour, Bruno. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. 1987. Harvard: Cambridge.

12)Lovelock, James. The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of our Living Earth. 1988. Bantam Books: New York.

13)Mann, Charles. Lynn Margulis: Science’s Unruly Earth Mother. Science 19 April 1991. Pgs. 378-381

14)Maturana, Humberto and Varela, J. Francisco. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. 1988. Shambala: Boston.

15)Rothbard, Murray N. The Logic of Action I: Method, Money, and the Austrian School. 1997. Edward Elgar Publishing: Cheltenham, UK.

16)Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. 1989. Harper: San Francisco.

17)Segall, Matthew. On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics. 2009.

18)Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. 1991. Ballantine Books: New York.

19)Thompson, Evan. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. 2007. Harvard: Cambridge.

20)Thompson, William Irwin (editor). Gaia: A Way of Knowing, Political Implications of the New Biology. 1987. Lindisfarne: New York.

21)Thompson, William Irwin (editor). Gaia 2: Emergence, The New Science of Becoming. 1991. Lindisfarne: New York.

22)Thompson, William Irwin. Pacific Shift. 1985. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.

23)Thompson, William Irwin. The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light. 1981. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

24)Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. 1925. The Free Press: New York.

[1] In the next section (see p. 6), I will unpack the implications and limitations of praxeology, explaining why praxecology provides a more appropriate plan of action for our historical moment.

[2] Cyborgs are “the offspring of…technoscientific wombs—imploded germinal entities, densely packed condensations of worlds, shocked into being from the force of the implosion of the natural and the artificial, nature and culture, subject and object, machine and organic body, money and lives, narrative and reality” (p. 14, Haraway, 1997).

[3] See Weston, A. ‘Forms of Gaian ethics,’ pgs. 217-230, Environmental Ethics 9. 1987. Lovelock himself sees his work as strictly scientific, but this has not stopped others from extending the implications of his theory into ethics and spirituality via critiques of anthropocentrism and materialism.

[4] “…the intensified misery of billions of men and women [and nonhuman species] seems organically rooted in the freedoms of transnational capitalism and technoscience” (p. 3, Haraway, 1997). Another result of techno-industrialism is mechanistic biology. I explore the metaphysical substructure of this disembedded perspective in my essay “On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics” (2009).

[5] Refers to class discussion (11/4/09). Also see Richard Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype (1983), where he argues that natural selection could not have produced a self-regulating planetary organism. Dawkins’ definition of life in terms of genetic replication is too narrow for reasons discussed on page 9.

[6] “Even Hegel, for whom the Absolute is fully grasped as such only as Concept or Idea, recognized that art, religion and philosophy all share the same substance, that in fact it is only as reflection on (or refraction through) the myths and symbols of religion in particular that ‘absolute knowing’ can arise in the first place.” –Sean Kelly, Evolutionary Panentheism for the Planetary Era, 2009

[7] This is, essentially, a move away from representationalist epistemology to participatory epistemology, where knowledge “about” a system or process is understood to be an integral part of the same system or process. Personality is not the sole possession of our species, but a refined expression of the primordial personhood of the living Earth.

[8] For more on what a Gaian polity entails, see Gaia, A Way of Knowing: Political Implications of the New Biology, ed. by W.I. Thompson. Several principles are suggested, including the move away from one-sided ideologies to an “ecology of consciousness” (Bateson) and the supersession of nation-state territorialism through a recognition of the atmosphere as our global commons. See also section X (p. 67) of my essay On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics (2009).

[9] Eco-action is action in service of one’s earthly home and all the kin who live there (oikos– household, or family).

[10] The details of the technical definition of “autopoiesis” (self-production) need not concern us in this paper, but in short, a system is generally defined as autopoietic if it is composed of a network of dynamic chemical transformations that produces its own components and the membrane that spatially defines it as a system (p. 46, M. & V., 1988). The paradigmatic example of autopoiesis is the cell.

[11] See Dawkins 1989 and Dennett 1995

[12] Lovelock’s Gaia theory allows us to see that life does not adapt to fit the fixed parameters of a lifeless planet, but remakes its host into a complex, self-regulating living system.

[13] “We speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems” (p. 74, M. &V., 1988).

[14] “In one of his articles Lovelock uses the term ecopoiesis to describe Gaia (Lovelock, 1987). This term seems just right for conveying both the resemblance and difference between Gaia and the autopoietic cell. The resemblance is due to the ecosphere and the cell being autonomous systems, the difference to the scale and manner in which their autonomy takes form” (p. 122, E. Thompson).

[15] “…we might compare scientific facts to frozen fish: the cold chain that keeps them fresh must not be interrupted, however briefly” (p. 119, Latour, 1993).

[16] For example, Thomas Edison wove a chain of associations together to relate Joule’s and Ohm’s equations with economic principles. The result was the electric light bulb (p. 239-240, Latour, 1988).

[17] W. I. Thompson (p. 21-26, 1981) similarly links the evolution of language and sexuality, pointing to, among other things, Alfred Kinsey’s studies in the 1950s showing the intelligentsia (those who have mastered language), unlike the working classes, tended to revel in oral sexuality.

[18] See Maturana’s Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality (1978), where he points to structural coupling as the origin of language. This is in contrast to denotative or representational theories of language, where words stand for things independent of consensual coordination between human organisms.

[19] “The governing dream of the twentieth century appears as a kind of ultimate manifestation of that deep inner rage of Western society against its earthly condition as a vital member of the life community” (p. 165, ibid.).

[20] See section VIII (p. 42) of my essay On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics (2009) for a possible account of why Western consciousness became so detached from the ecopoiesis of the Earth.

[21] “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through [the Word] and without [the Word] was not anything made that hath been made” (John 1:1-1:4).

[22] See James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (3rd ed., 1915). Frazer points to the common origin of all modern religions in the ancient goddess worshipping traditions of the world. Especially significant in the context of my essay is his statement that “…imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid” (ch. 22).

[23] Autopoiesis has been suggested in an earlier section on Varela’s systems biology as a possible scientific definition of “life” that recognizes self-production and self-regulation (rather than genetic replication) as essential to living organization, thereby granting Gaia living status. The economic implications of the controversy over what counts as “life” are central to my essay On the Matter of Life (2009), where I argue, with the help of Whitehead and Varela, that all actual occasions are autopoietic organisms.

[24] While Lovelock was working with NASA to detect life on Mars, he had “a gentle discussion with Carl Sagan, who thought it might be possible that life existed in oases where local conditions would be more favorable. Long before Viking set course from Earth I felt intuitively that life could not exist on a planet sparsely; it could not hang on in a few oases, except at the beginning or at the end of its tenure. As Gaia theory developed, this intuition grew; now I view it as a fact” (p. 6, 1988).

10 thoughts on “Logos of a Living Earth: Towards a Gaian Praxecology

  1. Haven’t seen some of those names in a while…

    Could also be that when you finally stop looking for and asserting a ground and instead allow yourself to fall that you find that you were actually in an empty space all along and your intentionality has simply made you aware of your relative motion.

    This is a very thoughtful paper…

    Personally I think of groundlessness as a much more mystical type of problem and dont see it as one that we can really talk through except by way of allusions and illusions.

    One could also argue that an equally valid praxis would involve an ongoing and direct engagement with this terrifying vertigo…

    That an existential response is really the only truly valid one… But that privileges the irrational in a way that lends it reasonable legitimacy… Perhaps…

    There is something plainly fishy about consciously making myth out of scientific discourse… Its not even that its wrong… It just strikes me as a very strange idea…

    It does still privilege the western technocentric forces that are held beneath the surface here by way of Harraway’s mediating voice…

    For anyone who has really struggled with life or death conundrums and/or who has personal forces and projects that animate a life that is not particularly well supported by the pettiness of people at large… Like certain transgendered philisophico-mystical-erotic types… Well lets just say that I don’t really care so much about appeals to larger meaning structures anymore.

    As someone who has been struggling with realities that the world at large and teachers in general (including one quoted directly in this writing) have sought to convince me is at best neurotic and at worst pathological and who has never really found much in the way of external support and validation for the profoundly challenging and also enlightening realities of my personal journey… And who has also had to consistently engage with others tendency to read their fears insecurities and other baggage onto me through their personally ordained narratives of choice… I for one find myself wondering sometimes… Why should I care?

    And if we want to say well we will all die…


    Is that not a serious question in and of itself for us to be rolling right past it?

    The idea that “the world” “the logos” “the meaningful” are in fact grounds that we can all affirm is to me a real stretch… And that doesn’t have to result from anything as severe as an outright rejection of life and can instead be a left hand homage to the erotic secrets of death in the sense of an appeal to the idea that we probably dont know nearly as much as we think that we do…

    Above all else I find our sudden elevation to the role of decider in all things cosmic to be quite amusing…

    We struggle so much with basic honesty as individuals and as a species. We rarely if ever readily admit… Well we just don’t know…

    I think that its bad news to think that anyone can ever come to really truly value something that is not fundamentally them and talking about ecology and systems and auotopoeisis doesn’t necessarily bring us to an understanding that we live in a seamless web…. We don’t walk around making decisions based on its objectification insofar as some reference to “a web of life” for instance…

    These are embodied practices… They are not the products of didactic reasoning…

    To me the real question is why do we cower in the face of death and seek to preserve our certainty in its liberating face?

    We typically lack the courage of our convictions when it comes to consciousness and so we see the world as a place in need of our help… Ironically its only in realizing that there is no help that we begin to help ourselves…

    I am speaking here to the level of the unconscious here but to me so much of the surface that we project. The one that wants to protect the future at all costs is the one that hides from the present and that hides from death… That hides from the potentially tragic abyss of profound evolution.

    Batailles reminds us that at base the fundamental principle of life is waste… Its all a free giving that is wasting itself in the giving… At least in terms of our tendency to objectify… Its like a celebration in which the value of an object is relevant to the fact that we are giving it wasting it… At a celebration the champagne is shared the one who buys it certainly doesn’t drink all of it…

    The waste at the heart of death is somewhat central to celebration and Batailles brings this before us and cautions us not to run off to the light… That we can in fact save the pieces in the process… At least for some time… provided that we realize that the value is in the celebration and not in the objects themselves…

    We don’t live this way… We live in fear of death… In fear of the future… In fear of ourselves of our sexuality of whatever… Transformation of consciousness is fundamentally a transformation of this way of being…

    And so ontologically we can even argue that this crisis will only deepen in intensity for all who fail to grok its deeper and more unsettling implications.


    This is just one woman’s opinion.


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