Setting the Climate

POSTMODERNISM SETS THE SCENE for an archetypal analysis of landscape. For this reason it is worth looking briefly at postmodernism and postmodern theology.

David Harvey defined postmodernity as the situation in which the world finds itself after the breakdown of the Enlightenment project. Modernity lasted from the latter part of the eighteenth century until well into the twentieth and it was aimed at getting all the world’s diverse peoples to see things the same way, that is, the rational way.[i]

Other writers on postmodernism have expressed similar views to Harvey. Kevin Vanhoozer, for example, notes that postmodernists reject the epistemological foundationalism of reason: “They do not reject ‘reason’ but ‘Reason’. They deny the notion of a universal rationality; reason is rather a contextual and relative affair. What counts as rational is relative to the prevailing narrative in a society or institution”.[ii]

Postmodernism calls into question ‘foundationalism’ and ‘methodology’. It is the result of the repeated failure of modernity to establish a secure foundation and a secure method built on this foundation.[iii] “Classical foundationalism” and “rigorous method” are characterized by “objectivism”; which as Richard Bernstein argues, “is the basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth, reality, goodness, or rightness”.[iv]

The theory of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is regarded as an important precursor of postmodernism. Nietzsche:

“announces the death of modernity’s god. In doing this his work expresses both the final working out of modernity’s project and a postmodernism that will gather pace to become, finally, a culturally dominant force… With the death of God Nietzsche announces the overcoming of metaphysics, for he announces that there is no foundation, no ground, no origin that ultimately is not governed by a perspective, i.e., we, as human beings, desire and require it.”[v]

Similarly, the ideology of modernism was systematically challenged by philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), a seminal, if not the earliest, advocate of postmodernism – “Although the term ‘postmodern’ was not used by Whitehead himself, the notion is implicit in his 1925 book Science and the Modern World”.[vi]

Postmodern Quantum Physics

QUANTUM PHYSICS AND POSTMODERNISM are inextricably linked as many philosophers since Whitehead have recognised. Both pose revolutionary challenges to traditional epistemologies, whether they be cultural, religious or scientific. The implications of quantum physics have given impetus to postmodern challenges to modernist epistemologies.[vii]

For physicist David Bohm a “postmodern world” and a “postmodern science” are not only feasible and logically consistent but amount to a revolution in world view and an imperative for survival.[viii] This is not to negate the successes and positive advances made by the modernist world view. As Bohm points out, the mechanistic reductionist program still provides the motivation of most scientific enterprise and has been very successful in certain areas, for example genetic engineering in medicine; but it is not the whole picture and, in fact, mechanistic reductionism has been “so successful that it threatens our very existence as well as to produce all sorts of other dangers”.[ix]

Theologian David Ray Griffin reinforces this view of constructive postmodernism as not being an anti-modernism: “The term postmodern, however, by contrast with premodern, emphasizes that the modern world has produced unparalleled advances that must not be lost in a general revulsion against its negative features”.[x] And postmodern science, according to Bohm “should not separate matter and consciousness and should therefore not separate facts, meaning and value”.[xi] Postmodern epistemology is situational, contextual, perception bound and composed of multiple realities. Postmodernism is inherently pluralistic. As Walter Anderson states:

“Seeing truth as made, not found – seeing reality as socially constructed – doesn’t mean deciding there is nothing “out there”. It means understanding that all our stories about what’s out there – all our scientific facts, our religious teachings, our society’s beliefs, even our personal perceptions – are the products of a highly creative interaction between human minds and the cosmos.”[xii]

[i] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change
(Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 27.

[ii] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity: A Report on Knowledge of God’ in: Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 10.

[iii] Cf. Dan R. Stiver, ‘Theological Method’ in: The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, (Cambridge University Press, 2003),170-173.

[iv] Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics and Praxis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 8.

[v] Graham Ward (ed.), The Postmodern God – A Theological Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), xxix.

[vi] David Ray Griffin, ‘Reconstructive Theology’ in: The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (2003), 92.

[vii] Timothy E. Eastman and Hank Keeton (eds.), Physics and Whitehead: Quantum, Process and Experience, SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought (State University of New York, 2004), 260.

[viii] David Bohm, ‘Postmodern Science and a Postmodern World’ in: David Ray Griffin, ed., The Re-enchantment of Science (State University of New York Press, 1988), 57-68.

[ix] Ibid, 61.

[x] Griffin (1988) The Re-enchantment of Science, x-xi.

[xi] Bohm (1988) ‘Postmodern Science and a Postmodern World’, 60.

[xii] Walter Truett Anderson(ed.),The Fontana Postmodern Reader (London:Fontana Press, 1966), 8.

Participatory, Poetic Landscapes

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.

[ii] Ibid, 207.

[iii] Ibid, 212.

[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.

[v] Ibid, 241.

[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.

[xi] Ibid, 360.

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

[xiii] Ibid, xvii.

[xiv] Lopez (1998) Arctic Dreams, 274.