“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Towards an Eco-Ontology

Adam over at Knowledge Ecology has posted about the need for a pluralistic ontology in thinking the differences between nature and culture. I’ve copied my response to him below:
Another stimulating post, Adam. I love the thinkers you are bringing into conversation. I have not yet read Carolan’s essay, but I have a few comments to share about your summary.

You write that “physical environments can exist without social environments, but not the reverse.” What do you mean, exactly, by “physical” in this context? I remain convinced that Whitehead’s organic realism is the most fruitful approach to take if we are trying to bring forth a cosmology without undue ontological divisions between human beings and every other kind of being, whether they be dolphin beings, flamingo beings, sequoia beings, or helium and hydrogen beings. To say that physical environments precede social environments suggests that molecules, atoms, protons, etc., relate to one another in fundamentally non-living, non-semiotic ways; which is to say, they hardly relate at all, they simply crash into and pull at one another blindly. If we are going to call these physical “environments,” then we are already implying that physical beings “live” in relation to one another, that they are each autonomous boundary generating systems that live amongst other such systems within larger communities of constitutive relations. What are stars but collectives of hydrogen and helium atoms whose gravitational, electronic, and magnetic means of semiosis bring them into emergent social relations, relations so tightly woven that, at least from our earthly perspective, these collectives become autonomous beings in their own right? Are there really physical environments that aren’t always already social? Perhaps you could speak of isolated quarks as asocial beings; but they are almost always artificially separated in human laboratories, and all indications are that even these sub-atomic forms of self-organization are constituted by social relations between even smaller beings. I am pretty sure you agree, it is ecosystems all the way down, which is why I was surprised to read this statement.

Of course, we don’t want to just collapse nature into culture, or physics into society. But as long we realize that “culture” and “society” have never been purely human endeavors, I think a panexperiential or pansemiotic approach is quite fruitful. DNA is, after all, a kind of language. I don’t think genes operate on an entirely different ontological plane then human symbolism and communication. They are both processes that obey the same semiotic logic, and though the latter may be associated with greater degrees of reflexivity and consciousness, the former is the ground and condition of the latter: if my cells stopped communicating with each other, I would very quickly lose the capacity to speak with you.

What I would want to suggest is that we need a stratified or layered ontology to distinguish the multiplicity of umwelts that make up the universe. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that there are ultimately multiple ontologies, since this seems to me to be only another form of reductionism (just a reduction to the many, instead of to the one). There are many distinct umwelts, or worlds brought forth through differing modes of sensory relation. But hey all exist in and as the same encompassing sphere of Being as part of the same universe (at least unless we are going to say that there are some beings we will never, ever, even in principle, come into relation with–which is quite possible, but in that case, even to speak of them is already to assume some relation, thereby bringing them into our sphere). So we could say there are as many worlds, niches, or umwelts as there are kinds of organism, but that each overlaps to varying degrees within a single cosmos. Perhaps, instead of talking about “nature” as some monolithic category, we could speak of “Earth,” which is undeniably the common ground of all the middle-sized creatures threatened by technoindustrial capitalism. Earth is the singular body that houses multiple ecologies.

In terms of an OOO, I think this is where human beings start to become unique, since only we seem capable of thinking about how ‘real’ objects condition ‘sensory’ objects. In other words, only we worry about ontology. The ecological crisis is deeply related to our failed ontology, but I think it still makes sense to seek out a common ground of being with all lifeforms, since it is precisely our human inability to live in relation to other worldlings that has generated a mass extinction. I don’t think a sort of “live and let live” respect for irreducible difference is realistic anymore, we are too enmeshed with the rest of the Earth community for such enlightened ignorance to work. Beings may always withdraw from one another, but in this very quality of mutual mysteriousness, we have something in common.




6 responses to “Towards an Eco-Ontology”

  1. Adam Robbert Avatar
    Adam Robbert

    Your points of clarification are all well taken, and I agree with all of them. I follow your Whiteheadian distinction of recognizing that nonhuman or “physical” systems are also societies in their own right. In this context, however, the paper I was sighting was dealing specifically with certain discourses about human distinctions between nature and culture.

    I don’t think that calling something “physical” implies that we are not dealing with relations or semiotics, and only blind, dumb matter. I didn’t emphasize this much (except for my shout out to Bennett), but I also don’t think we need to argue against an 18th century conception of matter every time we bring up “physical systems;” I’m assuming enough people have already abandoned this conception. Its affective, ecological societies through and through as far as I’m concerned.
    My point in writing out this post was precisely to further my previous thinking in this area (i.e. ecology does go all the way down). I’m wondering though, how do we distinguish between “ecology” and “society” if we can, on the one hand, say that a star is a “society” of hydrogen atoms, and, on the other, suggest that a political or cultural system is an “ecology.” I want to sort through some of the common mistakes in thinking “nature-culture” divides precisely in the context of cosmologizing ecology, or socializing nature (either way works, I think).

    Nevertheless these are both big moves and I think pieces like this help us slow down and figure out what sorts of world spaces we are creating.
    I’m also enjoying thinking about the difference between reducing to a unity versus reducing to a multiplicity. I would counter this by saying that I am not reducing to either (things are rooted but not determined) and if I was going more in a OOO direction here, things are not only rooted and not determined, but withdrawn. If we wanted to throw Latour back in, things would also be irreducible. So between rootedness, irreducibility, and withdrawal, I wouldn’t say that I am reducing anything to a multiplicity, and rather suggesting the ground is multiple, but not necessarily reducing things to that ground.

  2. A Marxist Approach to the Nature-Culture Divide: A Reply to Adam Robbert’s “Six Common Problems in Thinking Nature-Culture Interactions” « The Charnel-House Avatar

    […] another interesting response to the article, check out Matthew David Segall’s reply here, “Towards an Eco-Ontology.”  My Adornian opposition to ontologies of any sort remains unchanged, and while this doubtless […]

  3. Ross Wolfe Avatar

    I would stress that it is our society’s inability to master its own form of social organization, which is presently being driven by the insatiable category of capital to supervalue any and every natural resource it can come across through its technologies and human labor. International regulatory laws on environmental exploitation are all-too-hard to come by and all-too-easy to break once they are in place. Of course, the exploitation of the environment in and of itself is not a bad thing, either. It’s completely necessary to the perpetuation of any biological organism, human or otherwise. The difference with humans is that, having differentiated themselves from nature through self-conscious recognition, instrumental rationality, and the ability to think systematically, we have created an artificial society which far outstrips that of any other living being. Only by transforming this society, by overcoming capital, can humanity hope to live in peace with itself as well as with the world.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Hey Ross,

      I am not sure if any society, be it human or otherwise, will ever be mastered, at least if mastery implies complete control and total predictive power. “Nature” is too slippery for that, too complex. And I don’t mean “complex” in the sense that there is just “too much” for current science and technology to grapple with; I mean “complex” in the sense that no “master” will ever be able to step outside the infinite web of relations within which they are embedded in order to direct the course of events. It is an ontological issue, not an epistemic one that might be solved by more research or a more conscious populace. Mastery, especially at the level of whole societies, is a rationalist delusion. Not that the free for all of capitalism is ideal, I just think the top-down state engineering of society is both ethically precarious and logistically intractable. I do think we need a planetary federation of some sort to regulate environmental practices, but I am still at a loss as to how such a federation could take shape given the current geopolitical climate. I don’t think transformations in individual worldviews is nearly enough, since such changes leave deeper economic and political structures in place. But I think cosmology is an important site of inquiry, since capitalism can only function so long as people, plants, animals, and ecosystems are treated as resources to be exploited by for profit corporate entities. Instrumental reason is not an evil per say, but I think a major part of any shift into a more resilient/sustainable human society will be the emergence of an appreciation for the intrinsic value of the non-human Earth community independent of any use-value it may have for our species. I think “deep ecology” takes this a bit too far, almost into misanthropy, but there is still an important moral realization trying to find proper philosophical expression somewhere in there.

      1. Ross Wolfe Avatar

        Sorry for replying to this so late. You’re right to say that instrumental reason is not an evil in and of itself. Its super-refinement and anarchistic deployment under capitalism lead to extreme excesses, however.

        Regarding a “top-down state engineering of society,” I think that this is a misconception of Marxist political theory brought about by the Stalinist experience and its generalization to all the supposedly “socialist” nation-states that followed. As early as 1923, Trotskii and Lenin warned against the development of “bureaucratic disfigurements” accumulating to the state apparatus. Marxism as a sociopolitical theory is anti-state. The state has historically always been the instrument of class oppression. And, following the argument laid out by Lenin in State and Revolution, the state should fulfill only a minimal administrative function informed by democratically-governed economic planning. As its function would grow increasingly redundant as society began to automate these processes by itself, the state would gradually “wither away,” to use the famous analogy.

  4. […] seems that Michael, Matt, and I have been running around searching to articulate a similar, emerging possibility; that of an […]

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