Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Wendell Berry, Deep Ecology, and Hermit Studies

Free Photo: Posing Lumberjacks

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading some writing on the environment recently. It’s my first significant exposure to the field of environmental studies, and I’m still sorting out some of the basic categories. The term “environmental studies” seems to refer to the interdisciplinary study of the environment not only through natural science but through the social sciences and the humanities. It’s a major or concentration in some colleges. But if you read an anthology of “environmental writing” in America, it will probably have few contributions by natural scientists. Most of the writings will take a more or less humanistic (philosophical, historical, literary, journalistic) approach, in the tradition of Thoreau, although these writings will often make reference to or draw upon the writings of natural scientists in a non-technical way.

Then there’s the term “ecology,” which seems to be used by many different people to mean many very different things. (The unusually disorganized entry on “ecology” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may reflect this confusion.) On the one hand, ecology might simply refer to the work of natural scientists — such as biologists — who study ecosystems. On the other hand, ecology might refer to a philosophy of the interconnectedness of all things in nature, sometimes accompanied by a commitment to the inherent value of all living things: biocentrism, as opposed to anthropocentrism or (what I called in the last post) animacentrism. This biocentric commitment is sometimes associated with the term “deep ecology.” There also appear to be a number of uses of the term ecology that aren’t primarily focused on the study of the natural environment as we usually think of it — urban ecology, social ecology, molecular ecology, and so on.

I’ve mostly been reading the non-technical, humanistic variety of environmental writing — especially by American writers like Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry. In the last post, I mentioned my concern that ecology in the second sense above appears so dominant in environmental studies that competing perspectives may be excluded. Now I’m less concerned. Ecology in the sense of the scientific study of ecosystems appears to be no different than any other natural science, and does not appear to be dominated by any problematic methodological orthodoxy. Ecology in the philosophical sense of “deep ecology” may represent a problematic orthodoxy in humanistic environmental studies — but the orthodoxy doesn’t appear to be enforced in a problematic way. In fact, nearly all of the key figures in American environmental writing have worked outside the academy, with very few tools to enforce orthodoxy.

Oddly, I couldn’t help but noticing that a surprisingly large number of these figures also lived at various times in isolated wilderness cabins as hermits: Thoreau, Leopold, Annie Dillard… The rumor is that even Robert Pogue Harrison, author of the classic literary study Forests (1992), lives in a cabin in someone’s back yard in the Stanford area. Then, of course, there’s Heidegger, whose later writings have profoundly influenced deep ecology and green parties in Europe, and who sometimes lived in a cabin in the Black Forest. And any list of environmentalists living in cabins would not be complete without mention of the Unabomber.

Continue reading

Standard
Uncategorized

Thomas Sheehan on Heidegger

Free Photo: Mail Chute of the Lusitania

For anyone who has been perplexed by some of this blog’s past references to Heidegger, I wanted to draw attention to some recent appearances on the Internet by Thomas Sheehan, a professor at Stanford. Sheehan’s writings, some of which are available on his Stanford website, are the route I would recommend to anyone trying to make sense of Heidegger. The appearances coincide with Sheehan’s new book, which is called, appropriately enough, Making Sense of Heidegger.

Sheehan is apparently a little controversial in the world of Heidegger scholarship — a student in Germany once responded to my mentioning him by saying: “Thomas Sheehan? Oh, you mean the one who says ‘everyone is wrong about Heidegger except me’?” But based on my limited reading of Heidegger, Sheehan actually is right. He’s right by a standard that even non-experts can use: when you adopt Sheehan’s understanding of what Heidegger is getting at, Heidegger’s otherwise impenetrable texts make sense. By contrast, other interpretations — especially, I’m sad to say, many interpretations by literary scholars — all too frequently seem simply incorrect, as when the interpreter treats Heidegger’s ontological claims about the structure of human existence as though they were evocative literary descriptions of common emotions. Or they take Heidegger’s initially mystifying language and use it to spin further mystifications — as Sheehan criticizes in both of the pieces below.

Continue reading

Standard