Friday, May 21, 2004

Resources in Ecological Phenomenology

In this compendium I refer to quite a few sources not currently available electronically, primarily books and journal articles available in many university libraries. In part this is a deliberate choice: the electronic domain is only one part of the world, and conversations and research conducted primarily in this realm tend to develop a circular shallowness, even a vacuity, unless extended to the other spheres we inhabit. This is only one gathering place, and a new one, and we are impoverished if we abandon other ones.

Here, however, are some electronic gathering sites (additions, suggestions, corrections welcomed; please contact

Articles and Books

Bibliography in Eco-Phenomenology (compiled by Ted Toadvine, Emporia University)

Brown, Charles S. and Ted Toadvine, 2003. Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself. State University of New York Press. Abstract

"Phenomenologies of Environment and Place" (David Seamon, in Phenomenology + Pedagogy, 2(2): 130-135)

Phenomenology, Place, Environment, and Architecture: a Review of the Literature

The Reach of Reflection: Issues for Phenomenology's Second Century. Edited by Steven Crowell, Lester Embree, and Samuel J. Julian. The Centre for Advanced Research in Phenomenology, Inc. Published electronically by Electron Press. See in particular Ted Toadvine's article, "Ecology in the New Millennium".


Alternatives Journal
Continental Philosophy Review (formerly published as Man and World)
Death Studies
Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy (peripatetic)
Environmental Ethics (see especially the cumulative index)
International Philosophical Quarterly
International Studies in Philosophy
Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Southern Journal of Philosophy
The Trumpeter


Association for Death Education and Counseling
Centre for Advanced Research in Phenomenology
Centre for Environmental Philosophy
Environmental Studies Association of Canada (ESAC)
International Association for Environmental Philosophy
Organization of Phenomenological Organizations
Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy

Other Sites

Ecology and Environmental Philosophy Resources
Phenomenology Online
The Natural Death Centre

Phenomenology in the Philosophy of Nature

In a 1988 paper titled "Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Nature" (Man and World, 21: 65-89), the philosopher John Compton captured the novelty not merely of adding phenomenological enquiries to the philosophy of nature, but of having a philosophy of nature at all:

"I have become accustomed to introducing lectures or papers on
phenomenology and the natural sciences with some apologetic
acknowledgement to the effect that even putting the words
"phenomenology" and "natural science" together is likely to be
heard as a bad joke – a sort of cultural impropriety, not something
that is "done". This is because, as I usually go on to say, "we all
know" that the two could have no constructive and probably not
even an interesting connection with one another." (65)

Compton goes on to assert that "none of us – including phenomenological and existential philosophers – any longer knows what a "philosophy of nature" might mean, much less a phenomenological one. ... we do not understand by "philosophy of nature" any inclusive, continuing, or compelling philosophical agenda." (66) Yet, Compton continues,

"Natural science does not tell us all we know about the natural
world. We bring to scientific work a rich pre-scientific understanding
of nature which informs and conditions it. I want to suggest that
there is a task that we may properly call the philosophy of nature
which is to evoke this pre-scientific understanding of nature and, in
a continual dialectic with scientific developments, to interpret these
developments as natural knowledge, as knowledge of the very same
natural world in which we live and move and have our being
even before we have ever heard of science." (66-67)

To Compton, a philosophy of nature undertaken as a phenomenological project contributes to understandings that cannot be achieved through natural science (or even the philosophy of science) alone. A philosophy of nature requires a reversal of the conventional epistemological order in which facts determined by science precede reflections on their meaning and implications. A (phenomenological) philosophy of nature begins not with (derived) facts but with the encounter that precedes and engenders them. Accordingly to Compton, a phenomenological philosophy of nature acknowledges the pre-scientific encounter of self with world as

"a field extended in a horizon of space and time, revealing re-identifiable
events, relations of events, processes, and things, open to exploration and determination, but always transcending any of its presented aspects, and constituting the referent and inclusive situation of all our embodied,
intersubjective praxis." (74)

In doing so, a phenomenological philosophy of nature not only deepens our appreciation of nature; it simultaneously defines and enlarges the program of the natural sciences. Perhaps above all, it provides a paradigm in which scientific explanations may not only correspond to (in a referential sense) but cohere with (in an inferential -- or perhaps reverential -- sense) pre-scientific experiences of nature. As Compton points out (with reference to philosopher of science Dudley Shapere's list of existence claims in physics) , the criteria for existence in scientific and pre-scientific (or primordial) experience are remarkably similar:

"Now the criteria indicated here are strangely familiar. ... as we earlier
saw, one of the essential structures of the pre-scientifically experienced
world is precisely that it is peopled with entities and processes which
(i) act on us and on which we act, which (ii) constitute "inexhaustible"
sources of perspectives or properties that ever surprise us, and which
(iii) remain constant or have some unity through and transcending
different perspectives – that is, under different transformations. Reality,
as we experience it, is always this perspectival unity; that which is
more than we see, which has another side, an inside, and as yet
unexpressed capacities; that which relates to and interacts with
other things." (79)

To Compton it is not at all surprising that the ‘existence claims' of science and the pre-scientific experience of nature are similar: this is because the "operative criteria of existence in physical enquiry .... presuppose reference to the lived perceptual world." To the extent that scientific enquiry "misdescribes" or ignores the primordial encounter, as (according to Compton) classical empiricism and operationalism do, it remains partial and risks denying whole avenues of existence, experience, enquiry, and understanding. To Compton, a "continuing, critical, and constructive interplay between philosophical reflection, on the one hand, and concrete scientific theorizing on the other" will foster a "dialectic of interpretation" and enrich both scientific and philosophical enquiry. (79)

Although his interests in the philosophy of nature are oriented toward the natural sciences rather than exploring ecology or ecological thought per se, I find Compton compelling for (at least) two reasons. First, Compton's characterization of the gap between naturalistic and philosophical accounts of nature is particularly instructive because it probes directly into the methods and approaches of the natural sciences rather than focusing (only or primarily) on their effects on understandings, policies, and valuations of nature, as ecological philosophers tend to. By doing so, Compton challenges the gap itself, pointing out that scientific and phenomenological approaches to phenomena (such as existence claims in and about nature) are actually remarkably similar, despite how they are conventionally characterized. Secondly, Compton argues that phenomenological approaches function not only philosophically but scientifically as well:

"Taking pre-scientific experience seriously may suggest that
science must eventually modify certain of its explanatory
constructs which appear incompatible with that experience. On
the other hand, taking those constructs seriously may lead to
a revised and more adequate understanding of pre-scientific
experience itself. Usually, both things will happen." (80)

In short, while advancing a phenomenological philosophy of nature, Compton avoids two limitations evident in most efforts to justify ecological phenomenological perspectives; the first being their tendency to shout across the gap while decrying it as harmful (an approach which may simply entrench real and perceived divisions between scientific / quantitative / naturalistic inquiries and philosophical / phenomenological approaches to nature); and the second being the problem of value, a similar ‘two-solitudes' situation in which proponents of intrinsic or utilitarian valuations seem doomed to do battle, wielding their warring axiologies in infinite regress.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Looking Inside the Black Box

How does contemporary western culture look upon death? The literature on western attitudes toward death is collossal, yet notably devoid of consensus. Perhaps, as Heidegger argues in Being and Time, we need to raise anew the question of the meaning of death.

In "The Pornography of Death" (published in Encounter, Volume V No. 4, October 1955, 49-52), Geoffrey Gorer argued that death had replaced sexuality as the new taboo of our culture. He centred his argument around a claim that our culture cannot bear to confront the corruptability of the flesh, cannot tolerate the natural processes of decay. In The Phenomenon of Life (Harper & Row, 1966), Hans Jonas observed that we have replaced a living cosmos with a dead one. The philosopher Jose Ferrater Mora distinguishes death in organic and inorganic nature, and points out that things that do not change can neither be said to live nor to die.

Evasions of death are not unique to our culture, as the anthropological and historical literature shows abundantly. Nonetheless, it seems to me that our culture doesn't merely evade death but has become estranged from it. And like other estrangements, it festers. Nothing is so alarmingly present as the thing you pointedly look away from. To our culture, death has become synonymous with extinction, just as "preserving" the environment has become more closely akin to bottling up its inhabitants as pickled specimens in museums than preserving wildlife in their essence, in their place.

Heidegger claims that we evade confrontations with mortality in our "thrownness", our "fallenness" into the everyday world. We occupy ourselves with activities and objects. Arguably this can become a description of modern scientific naturalism, even of Heidegger's "essence of technology", in which the world is reduced to its measurable properties, particularly material ones, and these objects, and the living ourselves, are reduced to what Heidegger calls "standing reserve." I oversimplify a complex series of claims (and promise further elaboration later), but one point here is that the world -- and our Being in it -- is reduced to what Julian Young calls "a flat illuminated disk .... Gripped by [our] metaphysics, in other words, we take it that there is no other 'side' to our world of beings, that its inhabitants are 'suspended' in 'a complete emptiness'" (Young, Heidegger's Later Philosophy, Cambridge, 2003: 68, who cites Heidegger, "What are Poets For" and "On Metaphysics"). "Given such a thing," Young continues, "death presents itself, of course, as absolute annihilation." (ibid.: 68)

Heidegger's conception of death is unusual, but offers a way out of a difficulty the rest of western philosophy seems to have been unable to surmount: the problem of conceving what death is like, and what it means to die and be dead. To Heidegger these are absurd questions. To Heidegger, death must be understood as a phenomenon of life. He describes us as "Beings-towards-death", in that our finitude is a horizon continually before us. We exist as mortals, as Beings capable of not-Being. A recognition of this condition of existence grants us the capacity to be "resolute" in the face of death, to live and choose consciously, aware. It also suggests that we should redefine death itself.

Contemporary western culture is preoccupied with the measurable, and with things. It is also very preoccupied with the ascendent ego. But what if death is seen not as an ontic instant that may be quantified, measured, captured? What if we conceive of ourselves not only as island egos but as Beings-with?

If we consider death as a "phenomenon of life", we become less preoccupied with it as a thing. We can't "Be" dead (death and existence are, in this sense, mutually incompatible), but Heidegger claims death is a way for us to be. And if this is the case, then we may perhaps return to a persistent, unfolding universe, defined not by any particular constellation of egos but by the totality of life swirling and unfurling within it.

To Julian Young, "the Other of beings must be exempt from the dissolution of beings, in particular from that dissolution which is the death of the being I call myself" (69); "overcoming metaphysics entails a relocation of the "I." (71) And so, we might transcend death in a variety of ways. We might acknowledge, for example, that the world and everything in it does not die with us. We might relocate the cosmos outside our own consciousness. We might dwell in it as mortals, care for it, preserve it to unfold in its own essence. All Heideggerian invocations. See also Werner Marx's Toward a Phenomenological Ethics (State University of New York Press, 1992). In my own work I explore how we might re-learn how to dwell.

A personal comment: I orient myself, philosophically speaking, within an expanding universe, accommodating to my explorations and curiosities and voyages. I do not desire personal immortality (to do so seems to me rather narrowly pre-Copernican and an existential evasion par excellence). But I love living, and desire beyond all desires for the persistence of the cosmos in its unfolding. I write, teach, advocate, think, build, and stand. At my best I am resolute (warlike when required). But I know I will die, and I am not afraid, existentially speaking, of my own death, as much as I may also resent it and fear suffering and the loss of all I love and live among. But I believe in the renewal of seasons, and birth, and change. I feel an immense reqponsibility to all these things. I know that when spring comes it is earthworms who draw leaves into the soil beneath the lawn, who perform the slow repair of the season, the truest measure of spring.

You can't take anything with you when you die. Nonetheless, the cosmos carries you along with it.

Friday, May 14, 2004

What is Ecological Phenomenology (Ecophenomenology)?

If environmental philosophy is a young field, ecological phenomenology as such is even younger, dating back perhaps two decades to foundational works, most notably Erazim Kohak's The Embers and the Stars (University of Chicago Press, 1984) and Neil Evernden's The Natural Alien (University of Toronto Press, 1985). Both works offer remarkably similar invocations to an encounter of environmental thought with phenomenology. In a lyrical and deeply personal paean to the "moral sense of nature" (13), Kohak asserts that "[we] must approach nature anew, undertaking no less than a phenomenology of nature as the counterpart of our moral humanity" (22). Evernden directly addresses the vitiation (and the possibility of redemption) of the environmental movement, observing that "[i]f what we are is entailed in the story we create for ourselves, then only a new story will alter us and our actions. ... And if we can side-step the protective barriers of common sense, there is the possibility that we can become fertile ground for a new start, a new story, and a redefining of our place in the world." (141). To both Kohak and Evernden, a phenomenological approach represents more than an alternative: it is a required response to the western preoccupation with techne, to reductively quantitative accounts of nature, and to utility-based valuations of the natural world. Also to both, the encounter of environmental philosophy with phenomenology necessarily has both methodological and epistemological implications for the understanding of the meaning of phenomenology as well as the understanding of the meaning of nature.

The ecological phenomenological enquiries most central to my own research are those grounded in the phenomenological work of Martin Heidegger and focused on dwelling and environmental crisis. These include (on phenomenology and environmental crisis) Bruce Foltz's On Heidegger and the Interpretation of Environmental Crisis (1984), Michael Zimmerman's work on Heidegger, deep ecology, and environmental crisis (e.g., 1993, 1996), Ullrich Melle and K. U. Leuven's Philosophy and Ecological Crisis (1994), J.M. Howarth's The Crisis of Ecology: A Phenomenological Perspective (1995). Work on dwelling (some of which pre-dates the development of ecological phenomenology) begins with Heidegger's Building Dwelling Thinking (given as a lecture in 1951; collected in Krell, 1993: 344-363) and includes David Kelly's Home as a Philosophical Problem (1975), Kim Kipling's The Art of Dwelling (1979), David Platt's The Seashore as Dwelling in the Fourfold (1985), Raymond Koukal's work on the phenomenology of homelessness (1996), Bernard Dauenhauser's Heidegger: Spokesman for the Dweller (1997), and Tracy Colony's paper on dwelling in the biosphere (1999). A full bibliography is available upon request (; see also Ted Toadvine's Bibliography in Eco-Phenomenology.

The question of ecological phenomenological method is a slippery one, arising as it does from a philosophical movement described even by its originators as perpetually beginning or "on the way" (Stefanovic, 1994: 58;59) and exemplifying what Don Ihde characterizes as an "essential obscurity" (1977: 17) experienced not only by people newly encountering phenomenology but by phenomenology itself, as its language and constructs are learned and criticised. Moreover, given a propensity within phenomenology for what might unflatteringly be described as naval-gazing, it is sometimes difficult to sort out actual enquiries into experience from the seemingly much larger body of reconsiderations and rethinkings of phenomenology itself. Even further, the range of phenomenological enquiries is so great that while any collection of explorations may clearly be ‘phenomenological', their methods, approaches, and central questions may resist transferral: broadly considered, there may be as many phenomenologies as there are phenomenologists. Perhaps in the same way that phenomenological considerations of experience challenge reductive theorizing, so to does phenomenological method resist generalizing. Notwithstanding these difficulties/opportunities, it is possible to discern some constitutive and methodological commonalities among ecological phenomenological enquiries. One such set is grounded in Martin Heidegger's ontological phenomenology and rooted in the question of the meaning of Being.

Ingrid Leman Stefanovic offers the following methodological account of phenomenological enquiry:

Through (a) an empathetic "seeing" and "releasement toward things";
(b) through as careful, thorough and foundational a description
as possible; and (c) through interpretation of the essential
structures which are revealed through such description –
Phenomenology aims to supplement conventional approaches
to the study of the relation between human understanding and
the lived world, with a more holistic and comprehensive description
of taken-for-granted foundations of such relation. (1994: 71)

She suggests beginning with a commitment to remain true to the notion of phenomenology being in progress (1994: 59) and its program of "shedding light on the taken-for-granted, prepredictive origins upon which explicit theoretical reflection and scientific understanding are grounded" (2000: 10). Heidegger's path into phenomenological enquiry is "to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself" (quoted in Stefanovic, 2000: 9-10; from Heidegger, 1962: 58). Stefanovic continues,

One of [phenomenology's] primary tasks is to articulate essential
meanings as they appear to human understanding[,] ... to discern
underlying patterns of meaning that may not be self-evident but that
permeate our efforts to interpret the world in which we find ourselves
[, and] ... to crystallize some essential truths in their historical and cultural rootedness." (11)

Subsequently, Stefanovic quotes Thomas Nenon as describing phenomenology as being about "the possibility of certain kinds of experiences which any reader should be able to recreate imaginatively on his or her own and thereby see that the possibility for such an experience is universal, even if the reality is not. .... [Phenomenology] exhibits possibilities as possibilities that any human being could undergo" (11). Stefanovic proposes "originative" thinking (after Heidegger's notion of meditative thinking) as a key to "uncover[ing] the taken-for-granted origins and grounds within which calculative paradigms are rooted." (51) Originative thinking is creative and open; its call to holism (a notion that the whole -- a referential whole, not a totalizing paradigm -- is greater than the sum of its parts) is not intended to be thought of as emotional or "wildly intuitive", but rather to evoke an awareness of meaningful connections and interrelationships between and among humans and their environments (51-52; 56).

From the above, (at least) three questions should become evident: What is it that shows itself from itself?; What sorts of experiences are open to phenomenological interpretation?; and, How are seeing, describing, and interpreting accomplished (and presented) in a phenomenological enquiry? In (ecological) phenomenology, the ‘phenomena' available for enquiry include not only ‘real'/material entities, but also ‘ideal' phenomena, including "images, percepts, moods, arithmetical phenomena" (Ihde, 1977: 23), and in particular, the relations among these types of phenomena within structures of intentionality. Moreover, phenomenologists do not rigidly distinguish between "real" things and things as they appear, at least not in the initial phenomenological description. Don Ihde identifies a series of "hermeneutic rules" for ‘doing' phenomenology. These are:

(a) attend to phenomena as and how they show themselves,
(b) describe (don't explain) phenomena
(c) horizontalize all phenomena initially [suspend hierarchies of
beliefs about phenomena]
(d) seek out structural or invariant features of the phenomena
(Ihde, 1977: 38-39)

This template for phenomenological reduction (derived from Husserl) supplies a means of tracing phenomena from experiences as experienced to the level of the transcendental (ibid: 41), primarily through the field of intentionality, explained as the "correlation apriori" in which "every experiencing has its reference or direction towards what is experienced [noema], and, contrarily, every experienced phenomenon refers to or reflects a mode of experiencing [noesis] to which it is present." (ibid: 42-43). And so, while an appreciation of the transcendental may "elevate" (ibid: 41) phenomenological enquiry to philosophical significance, it must also remain grounded in the concrete experiences of the self. In ecological phenomenology this has extended to the consideration of how concrete or ideal phenomenon (such as the seashore; see Platt, 1985 or a report on sustainability; see Stefanovic, 2000) exemplify or illuminate the experience of being in the world and the understanding or valuing of nature.

An ecological phenomenological enquiry grounded in its ontological foundations must address the question of the meaning of Being. To Stefanovic, this involves an acknowledgement that human Being perceives and interprets entities "within a web of relations in which they are primordially situated." (67), in which our surroundings are intelligible as environs (68). It is possible to discern meanings and relations among entities as elements within a whole that are not generally fully revealed but are nonetheless always already present and understood (69). It is as though a lens might be focused and refocused on objects in a room, exposing to light not only various aspects of their existence and their relatedness to one another, but illuminating our own primordial Being amid them. This "‘ready-to-hand' immersion in the world is such that perception is accompanied by memory, imagination, emotion, and understanding" (69), which collectively constitute the basis of meaning. Thus, our direct experiences of the world are shown to emerge "within a horizon of interpretation" (70), in which we are always already present in the world (hence, in part, Heidegger's conception of Dasein, "Being-there") and oriented within a temporal horizon (71-72). Like phenomenology itself, as Beings we too are "on the way".

Turning to ecological questions in particular, phenomenology offers both theoretical and practical possibilities. Phenomenology, for example, is useful in exposing and contributing to the "rethinking of hidden assumptions" and the foundations of human attitudes themselves (Stefanovic, 2000: 13; 15). By doing so, phenomenological insights may contribute to better decisions on environmental matters, ranging from policies and laws to the design of the environments we dwell and work in. Stefanovic suggests also that phenomenological perspectives may provide a middle way between anthropocentric and ecocentric viewpoints, in which the world is perceived as something to be neither controlled nor revered (43). Beyond this still, phenomenology may help us regain a sense of the "grace of nature", in which we emerge from and return to a "self-emerging" natural world (76).

Thursday, May 13, 2004

The Ivory Tunnel

In The Social Creation of Nature (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) environmental philosopher Neil Evernden suggests that instead of looking down from the ivory tower, we may instead enter an ivory tunnel, a "viaduct to the roots of societal understanding," where we may join "those who undertake the task of describing the fragments and aromas that drift past in the ivory gloom ... with the hope of sufficiently changing the landscape of assumptions that new questions can be asked." (1992: x)

Sometimes the questions aren't new; sometimes they have been forgotten. In Building Dwelling Thinking (1951 lecture published in Basic Writings 1992: 363) Martin Heidegger asked, "What is the state of dwelling in this precarious age?"

The Ivory Tunnel considers the state of dwelling in this "precarious age", seeking to uncover how the environmental crisis may be understood as a crisis (or as Bruce Foltz puts is, krisis) of dwelling. Heidegger held that we dwell as mortals; a crisis of dwelling must be considered in its roots as a crisis of finitude as well. This is the subject of my research and current writing.

How is it that our culture has moved from a living cosmos to a dead one, in which we have come to understand saving and preserving as pickling rather than letting be? Why have we come to fear change, and see death only as extinction? We still amass flowers at funerals, yet embalm our dead and bury them in hermetically sealed caskets and concrete vaults designed to separate vulnerable human flesh from the encroaching soil. A suspicion arises that we have traded meaningful Being for transient materialism.

If we consider the environmental crisis, we might see both the difficulty and the possibility of response. Environmental philosophers argue that the environmental crisis is not only physical but metaphysical. Bruce Foltz (On Heidegger and the Interpretation of Environmental Crisis, Environmental Ethics, 6 (Winter 1984), 323-338) suggests that our "fundamental relation to nature, rather than nature alone" (1984: 324) should be taken as the subject of this crisis, and further, that we should speak not of a crisis but a "genuine krisis: a deciding, a judgement, a sentence in which not only our future survival, but our comportment toward nature in general is called into question." (ibid: 324).

How might we reconsider our "fundamental relation" to nature? I argue that one way we can do so is by looking at finitude, and how our culture deals with death. Of particular interest to me are explicitly 'ecological' responses, such as the natural death movement, natural burial, garden memorials, and the like. As an addendum to my more formal ongoing research program, The Ivory Tunnel is a repository for musings and serves primarily as an annotated bibliography of the otherwise uncategorized. Much like the mind of its author.