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).


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