Responding to a post on this blog, Kvond, a little while ago, raised the question of the relationship between Arne Naess, originator of “deep ecology,” and Spinoza – which made me think of the interesting if sporadic/uneven/episodic relationships between the main traditions of continental philosophy and environmental thought. A glance at the changing editions of Environmental Philosophy, a reader originally edited by Michael Zimmerman but now collectively edited and in its fourth edition, shows us how the place of continental philosophy has grown from barely a mention in the first two editions (1993, 1998) to an entire six-chapter section in the fourth. How that came to be is a story that has yet to be written, though a few brief accounts exist, such as Michael Zimmerman’s chapter in Rethinking Nature , comments scattered through Zimmerman’s Contesting Earth’s Future, and Bruce Foltz’s brief but excellent piece in John Protevi’s Dictionary of Continental Philosophy, which I discovered as I was wrapping up this post.

What follows is a highly selective and episodic overview of key moments in that unfolding relationship. But I start with a few caveats.


First, to isolate the “continental’ tradition from others is artificial, as it essentializes a basic divide between continental and Anglo-American analytical philosophy (presumed to have separated from a unified Kantian origin point) and is geographically inaccurate, since some of its most ardent practitioners are in North America or are more popular in North America than in Europe. (I recently referred to the possibility that the two traditions might be blurring into each other again. Incidentally, some writers capitalize “continental” while others don’t; in deference to the idea that it’s less a capital-C tradition than a style, I won’t.) Even to do this artificially bounded relationship justice, one would have to speak of at least three streams of continental thought: a Hegelian-Marxist one that traces its way into contemporary environmental philosophy through the Frankfurt School and, to some extent, the social ecology of Murray Bookchin, into the work of current thinkers like Steven Vogel, Andrew Biro, and others; a Heideggerian-phenomenological one, which traces its way into environmental philosophy through the 1980s writing of Neil Evernden, Erazim Kohak, and a smattering of phenomenological geographers and philosophers of technology; and the Nietzschean-poststructuralist one, which only makes itself felt in the 1990s. I’ll be mainly discussing the latter two. For some of the broader background, see David Macauley’s Minding Nature: The Philosophers of Ecology, especially his introductory overview.

A third caveat is that “environmental philosophy” is itself somewhat amorphous. The field of “environmental ethics” got going in the 1970s in the aftermath of Lynn White’s article “The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis” and the burgeoning environmental movement of the time. Andrew Brennan’s and Yeuk Sze-Lo’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article is among the better and most up-to-date overviews of that field and does get into some of its more broadly philosophical connections. The term “environmental philosophy” was not widely used until the 1990s. Finally, I’m far from the best qualified to write about any of these three streams, and the account that follows is skewed in the direction I would like to see environmental philosophy go (which will become clear by the end).

Moment 1, featuring some initial ground-laying, which disappears almost immediately into the woodwork:

This is the moment of a certain Spinozism that enters the stream through Naess’s “deep ecology.” Since Spinoza preceded Kant and therefore belongs as much to the analytical philosophical tradition as to the continental, this moment is really a “prehistorical” one that I mention, frankly, in order to load the dice a bit in a certain process-relational direction. Naess invoked Spinoza, and other deep ecologists after him (like George Sessions) considered themselves Spinozists, but this didn’t seem to leave much of an impression beyond the relational impulse that deep ecology shared with other radical ecologies (ecofeminism, social ecology, etc.). It can be seen most clearly in Naess’s “total-field image” concept of the self. One of the problems, for deep ecologists, was modernity’s isolated individual self, and Naess and the deep ecologists tried to break this open through a change in consciousness whereby humans would expand our identifications both beyond the self and beyond the human. Unfortunately this notion wasn’t well worked out and critics, especially ecofeminists, thought it sounded too much like an androcentric wet dream, a white boy’s fantasy of having one’s cake (individuality) and eating it too (imagining the self to be extended into nature, “thinking like a mountain,” and all that). At this moment, however, the famous “deep ecology”-”social ecology” rift had not yet occurred, and so Naess’s Spinozism could overlap with Murray Bookchin’s Hegelianism alongside a general interest in German Naturphilosophie and Frankfurt School critique of technology which comes in particularly through the influence of Marcuse.

Moment 2, which is a moment of phenomenological foreplay that begins a cross-pollination via Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty and sets the stage for more to come:

Among ecophilosophers, it was (to my knowledge) Neil Evernden who first brought Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty into the environmental discussion in his The Natural Alien. (I should add that I studied with Neil at York University in the 1980s and my thinking, to some extent, crystallized in this philosophical “moment.”) Neil was reading a wide range of thinkers at the time, including ethologists and philosophers of science such as Adolf Portmann, Jakob von Uexkull (a Deleuzian connection there!), Max Scheler, Hans Jonas (a student of Heidegger’s, Frankfurt School associate, and influence on Murray Bookchin), Jacques Ellul, Suzanne Langer, Canadian philosopher George Grant, and even C. S. Lewis, but the Heideggerian and Merleau-Pontian pieces were central to his project. So was a counter-cultural romanticism that Theodore Roszak, among others, had brought into environmental thinking in the 1970s (in books like Where the Wasteland Ends; Roszak was to later lay the groundwork for the interdisciplinary field of ecopsychology).

At around the same time, in the early 1980s, a handful of humanistic geographers and architectural philosophers including David Seamon, Robert Mugerauer, Anne Buttimer, and Edward Casey were bringing Heideggerian and Merleau-Pontian ideas into the conceptualization of space and place (see Dwelling, Place, and Environment), and Czech-American philosopher Erazim Kohak was drawing in Husserlian phenomenology, alongside Kant, into a self-conscious “ecophenomenology” in his The Embers and the Stars. Don Ihde and Albert Borgmann were also developing a Heideggerian philosophy of technology that was to influence the direction of enviromental philosophy.

Eventually this phenomenological trickle became a fluid stream. While Michael Zimmerman (who’d written a few sympathetic books on Heidegger already) began questioning whether Heidegger’s philosophy shared a complicity with his Nazi political episode, others like David Abram, Bruce Foltz, Ingrid Leman-Stefanovich, and Carol Bigwood, and David Rothenberg were mining Heideggerian and Merleau-Pontian philosophy for environmental insights and taking it in innovative directions (such as Bigwood’s move toward French feminism). Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous was arguably the first environmental philosopher’s book to break through into the popular domain, and while its speculations on language haven’t been taken up much among peers, its first few chapters remains among the clearest articulations of a Merleau-Ponty-inspired ecophenomenology. Eventually, established continental philosophers like David Wood and John Sallis joined the discussion. Charles Brown and Ted Toadvine’s Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself is an excellent collection showing the diversity of this vein of ecophilosophy.

Moment 3, overlapping a little with Moment 2, is the post-phenomenological, poststructuralist moment, which percolates slowly into the field, almost imperceptibly and a bit subversively, but becomes a veritable flood.

At this point, in the early to mid 1990s, environmental ethics was still dominated by debates over anthropocentrism and bio/ecocentrism (which is where the radical ecologies have situated themselves), which wasn’t exactly fertile ground for the poststructuralist ideas of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and others. “Postmodernism” first began making inroads with articles like Jim Cheney’s programmatic “Postmodern Environmental Ethics: Ethics as Bioregional Narrative” and books like Arran Gare’s Postmodernism and the Environmental Crisis and Borgmann’s Crossing the Postmodern Divide. Max Oelschlaeger’s collection Postmodern Environmental Ethics reprints several essays of this period from Environmental Ethics , all grappling with poststructuralism’s linguistic turn, “deconstructive” and “reconstructive” postmodernisms, and related currents (including the Cheney piece, Thomas Birch’s Foucauldian-Baudrillardian “The incarceration of wildness”, and others). In the later 1990s and early 2000s, Mick Smith, Eric Darier, Verena Andermatt Conley, Cate Sandilands, Peter Van Wyck, and others were all pursuing innovative hybrids of poststructural theory (of one kind or another) and environmental thought. The burgeoning field of “animal philosophy” or “critical animal studies” was also taking off under the impetus of continental thinking (e.g., Derrida’s latter writings on the animal, Nietzsche, Levinas, et al). This period also sees the founding of the International Association for Environmental Philosophy, which has become an institutional home for “continentalist” ecophilosophy.

The best state-of-the-art survey of this “moment” is Foltz and Frodeman’s Rethinking Nature collection. Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are still central here, with their concerns for lived experience, embodiment, modernism and the technological enframing of nature, and so on, but other voices and issues abound including those of Derrida, Deleuze, Hegel, Kant, Goethe, art, aesthetics, the sciences, and so on.

Finally, moment 4 is the moment we may be in the midst of now (or so I hope):

This is the moment when Spinoza and other relational thinkers make their return via Deleuze, among others, into a field already imbued with phenomenological-hermeneutic and postmodern-poststructuralist thinking as well as the non-dualist provocations of Bruno Latour (actor-network theory), Donna Haraway and the critical animal studies folks, and other schools of thought. What’s missing in much of this work is an adequate ontology, and what Spinoza, Bergson, Whitehead, and the Deleuzians bring is an attention to the complex networking of the temporal-relational processes that constitute the world. This moment is ontologically anti-essentialist in its focus on processes of subjectivity (or subjectivation) and network-building (relationality, complex systems, etc.). Epistemologically it is realist in its understanding of cognition and affect as intertwined, relational, dynamic parts of the process by which organisms/subjects encounter environments/contexts. It is both materialist and discursive, politically and ethically engaged, holistic but not totalizing. It works its way out of the social constructivism that had been dominant in the social sciences and humanities by acknowledging and theorizing human interdependence and embeddedness within broader-than-human material and ecological conditions. It is carefully attuned to scientific developments including complex systems theories and the like, with an eye for the more advanced and synthetic developments within the biological sciences (Varela’s and Thompson’s enactive cognitivism, Susan Oyama’s work theorizing developmental systems, Prigogine and Stengers’ theorization of complex emergent systems, and so on) as well as post-constructivist movements in the social sciences such as bioculturalism, ecosemiotics, and the non-dualist anthropologies of Tim Ingold, Alf Hornborg, Descola and Pálsson, Feld and Basso, and others. (I realize that I’m defining my own project here…)

While this covers a lot of ground, I would single out the Deleuzians as important innovators in this ontological rethinking — in particular, Manuel DeLanda, John Bonta and Mark Protevi, Keith Ansell-Pearson, and Brett Buchanan, among others (see Herzogenrath). I would also point to the overlaps between environmental thinkers like Freya Matthews and Joanna Macy and recent work on panpsychism , Whiteheadian relationalism, and Buddhist onto-phenomenalism — all of which needs more exploration (begun to some extent by Michael Zimmerman, though he’s moved on to a Ken Wilber-inspired “integralism” that is a little bit at odds with the trend I’m describing here). To all of this the work of Deleuzians and Whiteheadians (like Steven Shaviro) has much to contribute.

There is much more going on in environmental philosophy and, as I mentioned, this is my own account that privileges what I see as a necessary move that may be taking place, but maybe it isn’t yet. To follow developments within the field of environmental philosophy as it’s defined more strictly, one should keep track of the Journal of Environmental Philosophy, Ethics and the Environment, Ethics, Place and Environment, Environmental Ethics, and Environmental Values. But what I find more interesting is what’s been happening on the outskirts of the field, and in particular in the growing interest in eco-ontological issues among philosophers who have not previously thought of themselves as environmental philosophers. I’ll have more to say about these developments in future blog posts.

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