Science and Externalisation of Natural Landscapes

GEOGRAPHERS HAVE LONG maintained that landscape involves relationship and interaction.

However this constitutes a challenge for the epistemology, or theory of knowledge and meaning, of modernism, objectivism and scientism. Inherent in relating to and interacting with the landscape are questions concerning concerning certain traditional dualisms, which have been of ongoing concern to geographers.

ENVIRONMENTAL PSYCHOLOGIST Cindy Katz and geographer Andrew Kirby also address the issue of relating in environment and landscape perception.   

They argue that the “externalisation of nature is built into our concepts of science”; that the perspective based on natural rationality “has insinuated itself into our lives, and has withdrawn from us the comprehension of nature within everyday life”.

WESTERN SCIENCE EXCLUDES AND MARGINALISES ALTERNATIVE EPISTEMOLOGIES. Science’s tenability and applications in dominant social practice are based on the assumption that “this world view evolves in isolation, that science is ‘pure’… (however, in reality) … science walks hand in hand with other representatives of domination”.

In point of fact, ever since the Enlightenment, “the narratives of science have been embedded in the social relations of capitalism within which projects are constructed in particular ways, unmistakably tied to the manipulation of nature”.    Within the ideology of Western advanced capitalism, Katz and Kirby conclude, it is attractive to construct nature as very different from ourselves. By encoding ourselves as a civil society apart we then “engage in the collective repression of universal nature and of ourselves as part of nature”.

Challenge to Rational Scientific Objectivism

HUMANISTIC, EXISTENTIAL AND POSTMODERN GEOGRAPHERS, who have questioned viewing the world through an objectivist epistemology, or theory of meaning – are supported by some Western philosophers, biologists, neurophysiologists, environmentalists; and East Asian philosophy, particularly Taoism and Buddhism.   Here very briefly, are the arguments of some others who advocate meaning or an epistemology based on an active and relational process of perception and cognition.

OBJECTIVISM AS A ‘GODS-EYE-VIEW’ of reality independent of human understanding is opposed by philosophers Mark Johnson and Hilary Putnam.    According to the Objectivist orientation, which is rooted deeply in the Western philosophical and cultural tradition, the world consists of objects that have properties which stand in relationships independent of human understanding. Human beings can have no significant bearing on the nature of meaning and rationality. Johnson, like Putnam, argues for realism based on our mediated understanding of our experience. They argue that experience is an “organism-environment interaction”. The organism and its environment are not independent and unrelated entities. Johnson concludes that objectivity “does not require taking up God’s perspective, which is impossible; rather, it requires taking up appropriately shared human perspectives that are tied to reality through our embodied imaginative understanding”.

Biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela reach very similar conclusions to Mark Johnson’s “embodied understanding” by “offering a scientific study of cognition as a biological phenomenon” wherein “the extremes of representationalism (objectivism) and solipsism (idealism)” are eschewed. The act of cognition does not simply mirror an objective reality “out there” – rather it is rooted in our biological structure and is an active process in which we actually create our world of experience through the process of living itself. We are “continuously immersed in a network of interactions, the results of which depend on history”.

Steve Odin observes that “the primacy accorded to relational ‘field’ over that of the ‘substantial objects’ implicit in the ecological world view is also at the heart of the organismic paradigm of nature in East Asian philosophy, especially Taoism and Buddhism”.

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), environmentalist, scientist, ecologist, forester and writer of the classic ‘A Sand Country Almanac’ (1949) is widely regarded as establishing environmental ethics as a distinct branch of philosophy. His ethics arise from a “metaphysical presupposition that things in nature are not separate, independent, or substantial objects, but relational fields… the land is a single living organism wherein each part affects every other part”.

J. Baird Callicott an American philosopher of environment and ethics, follows the insights of Leopold and argues that “object-ontology is inappropriate to an ecological description of the natural environment. Living natural objects should be regarded as ontologically subordinate to “events” and/or “flow patterns” and/or “field patterns”.

The Relational Field – A.N.Whitehead

THE RELATIONAL FIELD idea of environment or landscape, has been promoted by ecologists and some significant philosophers, East and West. In the Western philosophic tradition, English philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was seminal with this view.

MODERNISM AND HENCE OBJECTIVISM was systematically challenged by Alfred North Whitehead. Regarded as one of the earliest postmodernists, Whitehead whose contribution to philosophy, mathematics and logic as well as metaphysics is “considered by many to be one of the great intellectual achievements of all time” is known in particular for his relational field view of reality. A.N. Whitehead gave the field concept of nature implied by ecology its fullest systematic expression in his process metaphysics and philosophy of organism.

As Odin points out, Whitehead “elaborates a panpsychic vision of nature as a creative and aesthetic continuum of living field events arising through their causal relations to every other event in the continuum”. Odin argues that nature, in terms of the Gaia hypothesis, is “a synergistic ecosystem of symbiotic relationships” and this is the relational view of reality of many ecologists as well as much philosophy of East Asia based on Taoism and Buddhism.

POLISH PHILOSOPHER HENRYK SKOLIMOWSKI is another one who argues for a new epistemology based on a “participatory concept of truth” wherein ‘objectivity’ “has become a myth which is pernicious and which we need to transcend”. He holds that there is “a close and inevitable relationship between the view of the cosmos of a given people (cosmology) and the system of knowledge of a given people (epistemology). One recapitulates the other, and is in the image of the other. Thus the outer walls of the cosmos are the inner walls of the mind.”   In other words, there is a close and inevitable relationship between the landscape ‘focus of perception’ of a given people and the system of meaning or knowledge (epistemology) of a given people.


1 Cindy Katz and Andrew Kirby, ‘In the Nature of Things: The Environment and Everyday Life’, Transactions – Institute of British Geographers, v.16, no. 3 (1991), 259.

2 Ibid, 261.

3 Ibid, 262-263.

4 Ibid, 263.

5 Ibid, 265.

6 Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind – The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason (University of Chicago Press, 1987), x.

7 Ibid, 207.

8 Ibid, 212.

9 Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge – The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (New Science Library, Shambhala Publications, Inc. 1987), 214.

10 Ibid, 241.

11 Steve Odin, ‘The Japanese Concept of Nature in Relation to the Environmental Ethics and Conservation Aesthetics of Aldo Leopold’, Environmental Ethics, v.13, no. 4 (1991), 350.

12 Ibid, 346; see also Aldo Leopold, A Sand Country Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River (N.Y: Ballantine Books, 1966).

13 J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames (eds.) Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought – Essays in Environmental Philosophy (State University of New York, 1989), 58.

14 Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 1995), 909-910.

15 Steve Odin, ‘The Japanese Concept of Nature in Relation to the Environmental Ethics and Conservation Aesthetics of Aldo Leopold’, 350.

16 Ibid, 360.

17 Henryk Skolimowski, The Participatory Mind – A New Theory of Knowledge and of the Universe (Arkana, Penguin Group,1994), xviii-xix and xvii.


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