Thinking etho-ecology with Stengers and Whitehead

I’ve been reading Stengers’ recently translated book Thinking with Whitehead (2011) with an eye to developing an eco-ontology, or ecological realism. Adam and I are still in the process of searching for an adequate characterization for this project, but in nuce, we want to untangle the ethical, epistemological, cosmological, and ontological knot that is the ecological crisis. The hope is that a coherent and adequate philosophical grasp of the complex relations between each of these threads will enable us to bring forth more resilient modes of living and dying as human beings on planet earth. We are just the latest participants in a tradition of cosmopolitical thought, and with the help of philosophers like Stengers and Whitehead, perhaps we can play some small role in transforming the danger of ecological crisis into an opportunity opening up an entirely novel civilizational adventure.

Whitehead’s metaphysical system, if understood in the creative spirit with which it was conceived, is itself always in process, always open to ongoing tests of logical coherence and experiential adequacy. It is an open system oriented toward a similarly processual cosmos without pre-established foundations, material, spiritual, or otherwise. The order and harmony of the universe is achieved, not given. What holds together now may cease to hold together in the future. Global climate change is just the latest creation/discovery by modern scientific practice of the contingency of nature. Such a catastrophe forces us to think of “the environment” in a more participatory way, where organisms are not passively fitted to a stubborn, pre-given Nature, but actively cooperate to symbiotically shape their own environments. Climate change challenges us to conceive of living beings as existing in precarious relationships of trust with their environments: their success depends upon the patience of their environment, of the environment’s ability to maintain a hold on the conditions constituting viability in any given instance.

I quote Stengers at length:

That endurance is a factual success without any higher guarantee may be expressed as follows: may those who are no longer afraid that the sky might fall on their heads be all the more attentive to the eventual impatience of what they depend on. Thus, it is not without interest today that the new figure of Gaia indicates that it is becoming urgent to create a contrast between the earth valorized as a set of resources and the earth taken into account as a set of interdependent processes, capable of assemblages that are very different from the ones on which we depend. In order to distinguish the endurance of Gaia–and of the multitude of bacterial populations that play an active role in its assemblages–from the precariousness of our modes of existence and of those of other large mammals, some speak of Gaia’s “shrug of the shoulders” capable of making us lose our foothold: “Gaia is ticklish, we depend on her patience, let us beware her impatience.” The contemporary period is exploring the difficulty of a transformation of what are called “values” in a sense that corresponds well to the Whiteheadian use of the term: a particular way of shaping our attainments, presupposing the stability wagered upon in this way, while explaining itself in terms of habits (p. 163).

Stengers invokes the Gaia theory, which construes the earth as a self-organizing assemblage of living processes–a superorganism–in order to illustrate the need for an etho-ecology, or an understanding of earth that links the ethos of living beings with their oikos. A living being succeeds in enduring only in relation to other beings, all of whom make their homes within a vast environment upon whose patience they depend.

Thinking ecology with Whitehead has implications beyond just biology and environmental ethics. His ontology is organic, not in the sense that it privileges wholes over parts, but in that it encourages chemists to think reactions in terms of the “ethology of molecules,” and physicists to think protons and electrons as species of elemental organism. Organisms, for Whitehead, are not self-subsistent entities that might serve as explanations for everything else. “Organism” is a concept Whitehead employs to think the active, enduring production of order at any and all levels amidst ever-changing conditions. It risks vitalist associations to avoid any bifurcations between subjectivist free causes and objectivist mechanical causes. Everything from carbon atoms, to elephants, to hospitals survive as organisms amidst their environments due to the ongoing effectiveness of canalized habits in securing the modes of organization peculiar to their purposes. Maintaining their wholeness as organisms requires that their parts continue to play the roles required of the whole. If patients refuse to give up most of their rights upon entering the hospital, the hospital would quickly degenerate. When the patient accepts the role assigned to them by the organism of which they are to become a part, doctors and their assistants can then perform their various expertises upon her, usually without her having the slightest knowledge of the details of the procedure (see p. 175). Organisms are genuine wholes, but only as long as they last, as long as their parts are able or willing to be infected by the purposes of the whole.

A philosophy based in an ecological realism must, I think, rececitate some conception of organism to successfully navigate the new imaginal territories that it enacts. I’m more inclined to speak of “organisms” than I am “objects” when trying to ontologize because the former foregrounds both the active role of these entities in constructing the real, as well as their fragility: the fact that they may perish should their environment suddenly change. I think “organism” also highlights the extent to which relationality and individuality are co-constitive (OOO seems to overemphasize the individual while demoting relationality to a secondary phenomenon).

In subsequent posts, I’d like to flesh out what Francisco Varela‘s and Evan Thompson‘s autopoietic/enactive approach to the life sciences [see The Embodied Mind (1992) and Mind in Life (2007)] can contribute to both an etho-ecology and a more robust account of the epistemic issues surrounding the study of the same life processes constituting our capacity for study. Varela and Thompson’s philosophical attitude runs parallel to Whitehead’s, but neither explicitly mentions being influenced by his philosophy of organism. I’m especially interested in drawing out the connections between these thinkers in light of Ray Brassier’s critique of Thompson to be delivered later this month at a conference in Crotia on vitalism. The enactive perspective is radically participatory, in that it recusisvely weds ethics, epistemology, and ontology. The way we think the world immediately begins to translate into the way we make the world. I feel responding to Brassier’s nihilistic philosophy of extinction is thus more than a merely academic exercise. It is my way of responding to an invasive species of thought threatening to disturb the environmental norms that constitute my life.


12 Comments Add yours

  1. Sam Mickey says:

    This sounds great, Matt. I like where you’re going with Stengers and Whitehead, and I’m looking forward to talking with you more about the Stengers-Whitehead book. I’m also looking forward to hearing your response to Brassier’s critique of enactivism.

    Some thoughts on terminology:
    I like etho-ecology, which ecologists also call behavioral ecology. Your use of ethology in the context of what you and Adam are calling eco-ontology and ecological realism reminds me of two titles of philosophy books, Zoontologies and Onto-Ethologies, which were published in the last decade. Like those books, ecological realism supports the articulation of a philosophy that engages contemporary ecological issues. However, I wonder whether a philosophical engagement with the ecological crisis should be framed in terms of eco- anything.

    I worry that the eco- prefix has connotations that are sometimes too scientistic, sometimes too sensationalized, and sometimes too activist, such that framing your project in eco- terms might end up obfuscating the profundity and breadth of your philosophical project. Eco-ontology sounds a lot like another installation in the same series: eco-phenomenology, eco-criticism, eco-economics, eco-philosophy, eco-linguistics, eco-feminism, eco-spirituality. Plus, we might be jumping the gun a little to address something called an (or the) ecological crisis. Jean-Luc Nancy’s crisis of sense, Bruno Latour’s crisis of objectivity, and Edgar Morin’s complex polycrisis are all potential candidates for more intricate accounts of our critical moment.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love all of this: eco-philosophy addressing our eco-crisis. I’m just problematizing the rhetoric involved in uses of the eco- prefix. Personally, I like Sherman’s term “participatory realism” more than ecological realism. It sounds broader, and a good ontology better be broad. Participatory ontology or relational ontology might sound better than eco-ontology. In short, I just think the eco- thing is starting to sound redundant and played out (and I acknowledge that my perspective could be rather skewed insofar as the majority of my research and teaching is precisely on eco-oriented topics). We could also ask whether the proliferation of eco-talk over the last few decades has been distracting efforts to compose a cosmopolitical collective more than helping those efforts.

    Another quick note. I’m not sure if OOO demotes relations to a secondary phenomenon. I think we could say that relations are objects (i.e., integral units that can’t be exhausted by the relations they enter into), and objects are made of relations (i.e., made of other integral units). I could be wrong. Stranger things have happened.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Sam. I think you’re right, the “eco-” prefix might be a bit overplayed already. “Etho-ecology” is actually Stengers’ term, which she coins at the end of chapter 10 (p. 164). Also, I agree that framing this as a response to the “ecological crisis” might oversimplify the situation a bit, leaving out some quadrants, if you will. All things I look forward to sorting through with you!

  2. Adam Robbert says:

    These are great comments, Sam. Incidentally, I was having very similar thoughts, except my objections (to our own terminology!) hang on the other end of the term “ecological realism.” For me, the term “realism” was the one being over-played. Maybe we should just throw the whole thing out? If ecology sounds scientistic, than an emphasis on “realism” might throw us in the other direction; making it sound like we have just congratulated ourselves on commenting on the “real” world (which I think impresses few non-philosophers).

    I like your appeal to a broader name when thinking about ontology, and yet I find it hard to throw out the “eco” all together since so much of the philosophical thinking we are developing here comes precisely from the insights of ecology (though I don’t think you are suggesting we throw it out all together, I’m just holding the other pole here). In this sense I think Morin’s “complex polycrisis” is precisely a call, as you know, to “ecologize” our thinking. I take him rather literally when he says this, since, for Morin, the ecology of ideas and the ecology of action are ontological domains, not just epistemological lenses.

    I think cosmopolitics is also interesting here. I have been having a great deal of difficulty sorting out what the difference between “society” (in a Whiteheadian sense) and “ecology” is in concrete terms. I think Latour is doing great things in this area with his move away from “res extensa” towards “res publica,” and yet, even with Latour, he seems to waffle in between using “networks” and “ecologies” as descriptors for what he is doing.

    Personally, I have moments where I feel I can use the terms “society” and “ecology” interchangeably, and yet other times this seems very unsatisfying. Stengers’ “ecology of practices” also complexifies this for me. Cosmos, socius, oikos, ontos, ethos…. I am confused and excited at the same time.

    At the end of the day, I think we all agree that “eco-ontology” is unattractive and unwieldy, and perhaps more importantly, problematic because of all the reasons you mention, Sam.

    1. Sam Mickey says:

      …some quasi-serious alternative names in lieu of a philosophy of ecological realism and eco-ontology:
      philosophical cosmopolitics
      pariticpatory ontology
      ethopolitical ontology
      participation-oriented ontology (POO)
      mycelial ontology (aka, rhizomatics redux)
      speculative social ontologies
      strange and dark network theory (SAD Net Theory)
      procedure philosophy (aka, process philosophy redux)

      In any case, we’re underway. Let’s keep thinking.

  3. Leon says:

    Enjoyed this quite abit, Matt. I’ll be reviewing Stengers’ book in the upcoming issue of Thinking Nature. It’s really a great book. Although I wonder in what ways ecological realism might also relate to religious approaches within ecology and naturalisttic philosophy. Have you read any of Robert S. Corrington’s books? Some of what you are discussing sounds alot like what he does in places – you should check out some of his books/articles.


    1. I have not read Corrington, Leon. Thanks for the suggestion!

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    An organis is formed by organi limited to total membership of 25 people with a enaction core of five networked together on demand within seconds giving rise to a virtual organis fit do meet any global or local development. examples: Linux dev group, Source Forge dev groups, the Internet its self and many other examples that are based on the use of digital materials and processes including other physical processes that are digital enhanced. Virtural / digital organi emerges from the physicality or the lack thereof of photons and electrons (sub atomic matter) having the prestige of materialist fitness for massive computational processes . Digital materials are use by our research group uses to form robust and independent from platform, massively complex, synthetic, dynamic, enactive, volumetric objects of mixed materials and the attendant synthetic worlds / volumetric spacetime dimensions. has just released free software call SymVol based on a pure symbolic mathematical language call Function representation (Frep)

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