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.[i] 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.[ii] 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”.[iii]
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.[iv] 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”.[v]
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”.[vi]
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”.[vii]
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”.[viii]
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”[ix] 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”.[x] 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.[xi]
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”.[xii] 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.”[xiii] 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.
For example, Lopez argues that the rational, scientific approach to land loses something profound; rather the land is like poetry. For instance:
“A Lakota woman named Elaine Jahner once wrote that what lies at the heart of the religion of hunting peoples is the notion that a spiritual landscape exists within the physical landscape. To put it another way, occasionally one sees something fleeting in the land, a moment when line, color, and movement intensify and something sacred is revealed, leading one to believe that there is another realm of reality corresponding to the physical one but different.
In the face of a rational, scientific approach to the land, which is more widely sanctioned, esoteric insights and speculations are frequently overshadowed, and what is lost is profound. The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.”[xiv]
[i] Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind – The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason (University of Chicago Press, 1987), x.
[iv] 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.
[vi] 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.
[vii] Ibid, 346; see also Aldo Leopold, A Sand Country Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River (N.Y: Ballantine Books, 1966).
[viii] 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.
[ix] Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 1995), 909-910.
[x] Steve Odin, ‘The Japanese Concept of Nature in Relation to the Environmental Ethics and Conservation Aesthetics of Aldo Leopold’, 350.
[xii] Henryk Skolimowski, The Participatory Mind – A New Theory of Knowledge and of the Universe (Arkana, Penguin Group, 1994), xviii-xix.
[xiv] Lopez (1998) Arctic Dreams, 274.