Re-Enchanting Nature

An npr story (To the Best of Our Knowledge) this morning that might interest environmentalists (in particular I have in mind Sandi, who posted on a kind of mystical environmentalism in the Avatar discussion on this blog).  James William Gibson has written a book called “A Re-enchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature” about the spiritual and “re-enchanting” quality of contemporary environmentalism.  Click here to get the podcast, the relevant episode is called “Radical Gardening.”

“The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.” —Max Weber.

Weber uses the term “disenchantment” instead of “secularization” for a reason – he is interested in the subjective experience of the modern scientific age.  The world is being transformed into a causal mechanism and what is lost is the poetic, the “magical”.  Any of my students who have read Heidegger with me know that he has lots to say about all of this (the error of technological thinking which treats all things as mere objects in a causal chain which are open for manipulation and the need to re-learn thinking which is poetically open to mystery).

What is telling about the new language of “sacred environmentalism” is not so much whether they get the sacred and transcendent right (they don’t).  I am interested in something much more important and much deeper than “getting it right”, I am here interested in the lived human question.  What is telling about the implicit and explicit language of the sacred and all of the other religious trappings in environmentalism is that it speaks to the radical impoverishment that human subjects experience in a world reduced to efficient cause.  The problem is two-fold.  As Weber himself noted, disenchantment results in a world with no objective grounds for conviction.  “We know of no scientifically ascertainable ideals” is how he put it.  The other impoverishment concerns the lived relationship between immanence and transcendence.  The desire for transcendence is a natural desire in man (I don’t say this as a “nature” claim as much as a phenomenological description), and it is not surprising that people go looking for it in nature.  To the offense of some of my conservative religious friends, I actually have considerable sympathy for those interested in finding locations of transcendence in the natural world.  In a sense (to borrow a term from Levinas), I think animals, plants, and even landscapes or ecosystems have a “face”.  This is why I remain deeply interested in natural theology, though I think of natural theology as more of a “mystical” exercise than a “rationalist” enterprise seeking to prove something.  Natural theology does not seek to prove, it seeks the intimacy of personal understanding.

The error of deep ecology and other movements of spiritual environmentalism is that they misunderstand the sign.  A sign is something that points.  To have an authentic experience of transcendence the sign must be understood to point to a “Beyond”, a Beyond which informs and saturates the immanent phenomenon (I thinking of Marion here).  Though, strangely, Marion points out that when the sign functions as an icon (Gibson uses the word “portal”), one does not so much experience the visible as pointing out to something “Beyond” as he experience a “Beyond” pointing at him through the visible.  I think this goes a long way in explaining the mystical experiences people have in the natural world and the feeling that they are being drawn into, indeed “called” into, something greater.  Many environmentalists speak in this way.  The trouble, though, for spiritual environmentalism is that their language of transcendence is much too weak.  Connecting up with a “larger world” (which is how spiritual environmentalists usually speak) is just more immanence since that language misreads the sign and fails to actually read the sign as having real transcendent significance.  I actually think they are having the experience, but lack the language to articulate it.

But the natural world is capable of being such a icon.  Marion’s work on idols and icons is particularly informative here.  The difference between an icon and an idol is not really in the object, it is in the intentionality of the subject with respect to the image.  One thinks again of Heidegger, the question for us now that is most thought-provoking is the question of thought – how do we and how should we think about things?

But the purpose of this post is not to dwell on where things go wrong (that mere environmentalism is bad theology).  Rather my intent heres is to focus attention on the thirst, the deep desire for transcendence.  I have repeatedly made the point on the SHAFT blog that scientific atheists don’t need argument, what they need is a “baptism of the imagination”.  They need to read poetry.  Hell, read Nz – who is an extremely “spiritual” atheist, if I might use that turn of phrase.  Nz is not closed to human questions which only have poetic (and hence incomplete) answers that are shrouded in mystery.  But what it really comes down to, though, is not reading but being.  Gibson rightly speaks of needing to give sufficiently deep attention to the world.  Go on a hike, hell go outside and look long and deep at a weed, and ask yourself if the rationalism of scientism really explains everything you are experiencing.  Saying that it can or will makes the error that I finally have a great name for: “the science of the gaps” argument, an argument that simply (like god of the gaps args) fails to recognize the nature and limits of a discipline (mode of thinking).

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

25 thoughts on “Re-Enchanting Nature”

  1. Again, branding all “SHAFTers” under a certain light. I am disappointed. I find it offensive that you claim that we need to read poetry and the like. I’m an artist myself, I could have pursued it professionally even. For you to claim that “we” do not participate in such activities is ignorant.

    THE WHOLE REASON PEOPLE PRACTICE SCIENCE IS TO EXPERIENCE THE MYSTERIOUS. I just have to make sure you get this. The scientific method is infinitely more spiritual, mysterious, imaginative, and exciting than what you can experience without an understanding of what science has brought to light. You can stare at a weed all you want, without any scientific understanding of it, and feel great emotions. But once you pepper in some knowledge about the universe, it is mind blowing how that weed gained being and how you are sitting there pondering its existence.

    I think you do not understand this principle behind science. Carl Sagan was a champion of how amazingly beautiful scientific understanding can make things. Just play around on for a while. Watch the Cosmos.

    It’s not that I’m not open to the possibility of there being something beyond what we can determine scientifically. It’s that I know that these experiences hardly ever reflect actual truth. The experience is EXTREMELY subjective. I cannot go to the opera, find it so beautiful that I cry, and then expect everyone to experience that same emotion. It’s the same with religion. You can make yourself believe something is true based on emotional feelings, even physical feelings, but it doesn’t make it true beyond your mind. It doesn’t make it true to others. You feel that it is true for yourself, but you can just as easily be lying to yourself. IT IS NOT USEFUL AS A METHOD FOR DETERMINING UNIVERSAL TRUTHS.

    Sure, love your wife all you want, but you can’t universally say that all people can and will experience love. Actually, psychopaths can’t experience what you can. This goes to show that it cannot be universally applied.

    Besides, if this other “transcendent” force interacts with this world in a physical way (as many people believe), then it can be tested with science. Why would you be against that?

    All I hear of this argument is the standard “Pray about it, and you will know it’s true” that I hear from so many Mormons.


    1. Ben, I really think you are over-reacting to my SHAFT comment. I did not not brand everyone in SHAFT with a label, I only mentioned SHAFT because I have on that blog made this point before there. I was simply speaking to a tendency with scientific materialism to reduce nature to efficient cause. I do not think that all members of SHAFT, much less all scientists, are guilty of this. If you are not a materialist and you don’t want to reduce everything to efficient cause, then you are not subject to the observation Weber has made and are not subject to my criticism. So my claim was more modest – some are guilty of it, and there is a something like a tendency towards this reduction in the outlook of scientific materialism. I take it that this is, at least in part, what Max Weber is saying when he speaks of disenchantment. It is also a big part of Heidegger’s point when he speaks of the tyranny of technological thinking (reduced scientism).

      I’ve read plenty of Sagan, and he speak profoundly about the beauty of the world. My point here is that the condition for the possibility of this is a rejection of the reduction to scientism and materialism and an at least implicit admission that the poetic can also disclose the world. My point, and I think Weber’s point about “disenchantment”, is that the reduced materialist view of nature no longer, on its own terms, really allows for transcendence and “enchantment”. Materialists (like Sagan) who speak of “transcendent experiences” and speak poetically about the beauty of nature are, then, smuggling in the transcendent against their own stated metaphysics of materialism (rather like they invariably smuggle in final cause).

      But I am not in for “either/ors”. I am not saying that one must needs abandon science in order to disclose poetically. I think that the two can work together and one can enhance and inform the other. This is, in fact, precisely what happens in natural theology (where the knowledge of the order of nature gleaned from the natural sciences informs our metaphysical theology of the ultimate source of the created order).

      The requirement for this “poetic disclosure” is not so much “prayer” (in the religiously loaded sense of that term) as it is “listening” (I am thinking explicitly of Heidegger here). We can disclose the world in many ways, science being but one mode of thinking. Just because what we can hear through the poetic is not open to the kind of demonstrations you prefer does not mean that there is not truth in the hearings – it simply means that some objective and universal truths are only experienced in a radically subjective way (see Kierkegaard). Just because the psychopath cannot experience love does not mean that the experience of love does not disclose something profoundly true about the human condition and the relationship between immanence and transcendence. The psychopath is just, sadly, missing out on it. Just because the mentally handicapped person cannot understand (experience) scientific demonstrations does not make those demonstrations any less universally true. The universality of a truth is not dependent on how many people actually recognize it. And my point is that the universality of a truth is not dependent on how it is disclosed – some of the most profoundly true things about the human condition can only be disclosed “subjectively”.

      I am actually not sure where you are on this, Ben, and whether or not you are subject to my criticism. You say you are open to the possibility of something that lies beyond the horizon of scientific disclosure. That is good. But then you say that the “poetic” experience of that beyond “hardly ever reflect actual truth”, which suggests that you are, in fact, reducing truth to the horizon of science and denying that poetry, feeling, the experience of beauty, etc, can disclose something deeply true and meaningful about ourselves, the world, and what is beyond those horizons of science. That, I say (and I am leaning heavily on Heidegger as well as Kierkegaard here), is a mistake.


  2. A couple Kierkegaard quotes that speak to “truth is subjectivity” and intent:

    There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there also is the truth, and that in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side. There is another view of life which conceives that wherever there is a crowd there is untruth, so that (to consider for a moment the extreme case), even if every individual, each for himself in private, were to be in possession of the truth, yet in case they were all to get together in a crowd–a crowd to which any sort of decisive significance is attributed, a voting, noisy, audible crowd–untruth would at once be in evidence.

    If one who lives in the midst of Christendom goes up to the house of God, the house of the true God, with the true conception of God in his knowledge, and prays , but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous community prays with the entire passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol: where is the most truth? The one prays in truth to God though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol.

    I’m no scientific materialist but your choices are limited when you’re crowd dwelling. I don’t think Christendom generally avoids reductionism any better than scientific materialists (as a group). They just reduce things differently.


    1. Great quotations, Mike. This point from Kierkegaard that Mike’s quotations reflect, that it is better to pray truly to a false god than it is to falsely pray to a true one, was the insight behind my post. I tried to not focus on whose theology was right but instead tried to focus on the “movement of the spirit” that one finds in the new “sacred environmentalism”. I hope this came across in my post – I was meaning to applaud that.

      That said, for Kierkegaard it is clearly best to truly pray to a true God. Sometimes the truth is subjectivity point makes people think Kierkegaard is a subjectivist about truth when he is not. That he is not is most clearly seen, I think, in his journals.

      I love Kierkegaard’s work, but I do move away from him rather significantly when it comes to his radical individualism and its corresponding denigration of community (“the crowd”). I always find it an odd error for Kierkegaard, since relationality is such an important part of his ontology of subjectivity (see Sickness Unto Death, for example). I think Kierkegaard is too dismissive of community (the crowd or congregations). Heidegger, perhaps owing to his unspoken debt to Kierkegaard, makes the same mistake with the “they” and the apparently (though I think not actually) normative judgment of the inauthenticity that travels therein.

      It is here that, if I might speak in very broad strokes, Kierkegaard’s protestantism (which I think is an essentially modern project) gets the best of him. Catholic and Orthodox theology tends to put considerably more emphasis on the “we” instead of the “I”, and “corporate” expressions and “communal mediations” of our relationship to the Transcendent are really central to those traditions. Point is, I disagree with Kierkegaard in this because I don’t think corporate movements of spirit necessarily are reductionist (they don’t necessarily fall prey to the ill effects of “the crowd”), though they can be. My argument about scientific materialism is that it is necessarily reductionist.


      1. Well, you said “there is a something like a tendency towards this reduction in the outlook of scientific materialism” which is exactly what I see in Christian communities. A tendency and an impotence in the face of the tendency. A few individuals transcend it but I think that’s for other reasons than anything internally available in the perspective itself.

        …If there even is a “perspective itself”.

        Glad you liked the quotes they seemed relevant to me but I thought they might also be a stretch.


      2. Fair enough. I waffled on the point on scientific materialism. I am actually comfortable with the stronger claim – that scientific materialism is necessarily reductionist (not that it just has a “tendency”). I would think scientific materialists would readily admit this, my experience with those who profess that view is that they are not particularly ashamed of their reductionism but are actually rather proud of it.

        My weaker first version was meant to include people who might profess some sympathy with scientific materialism but who, in fact, don’t really reduce their understanding and experience in the way that real fidelity to that metaphysical and methodological reductionism would require.

        Anyway, your point is well taken. I rather imagine this tendency is simply part of, phenomenologically speaking, the human condition. There is a tendency to “fall” into “inauthenticity”, a tendency to fall prey to the tyranny of technological thinking, a tendency to reduce Thous to Its. My quibble with both Kierkegaard and Heidegger is that they are sometimes too individualistic on these matters, presuming that being-with-others is always marked by inauthenticity (I actually think other readings of both figures are possible, but this is a common reading). To my way of thinking it is a surprising mistake, since both thinkers are soil out of which one can grow a very robust relational ontology.


      3. I’ll probably be getting into Kierkegaard a bit more soon. At least I’m planning to read his essay on Repetition. I also noted the relational ontology stuff but I haven’t spent much time with it and that’s probably necessary to really understand it — if only philosophy were my profession :). This quote got me thinking a bit:

        The objective accent falls on WHAT is said, the subjective accent on HOW it is said.

        Aesthetically the contradiction that truth becomes untruth in this or that person’s mouth, is best construed comically: In the ethico-religious sphere, accent is again on the “how”. But this is not to be understood as referring to demeanor, expression, or the like; rather it refers to the relationship sustained by the existing individual, in his own existence, to the content of his utterance.


  3. Very well put, Vince. Let me ask a series of questions regarding materialism and the possibility of “enchantment”:

    a) Is materialism a philosophy / metaphysics of immanence? To put it another way, does materialism necessitate a philosophical orientation that moves us away from transcendence, and even denies such a thing outright?

    b) Assuming the answer to (a) is ‘yes’, how can there be a “face” when there is only immanence? Note that I am not intent on couching this in terms of the “spiritual”, but I think that this is so: where there is no orientation towards transcendence there is no possibility of seeing a “face.” The Face is there (“it precedes me” Levinas says), but recognizing it requires a certain comportment on my part. Is that a fair reading of Levinas? (It goes without saying that this is my reading, this is why I said what I said about materialism).

    To put it another way: materialism is the view that the only thing that exists is matter. This is a metaphysical view. Scientific naturalism is the epistemological view that the only reliable way of knowing is by studying material causes. Now if you put the two together, don’t you have a view that is committed to the claim that science could, at least in principle, explain everything (because the everything there would be to explain would be material which falls within the horizon of scientific inquiry)? Which is to say, everything that is could be enframed within the horizon of technological thinking. If that is an accurate gloss on scientific materialism (someone correct me if it is not), then there could be no “face”, because the “face” (the other, the transcendent) is precisely that which cannot be reduced to an technological account.

    An aside: “Creation Care” is an exciting movement in Evangelical environmentalism. They are fighting against the ‘nature as a tool’ view in evangelical circles. Sadly some evangelical leaders have resisted the movement thinking it detracts from the more important life issues (I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time). It is something worth supporting: Greenpeace is not going to move US policy on the environment, it is necessary to get the ‘fly-over’ part of the country (evangelical nascar / hunter & sportsman nation) on board. Have you heard of this, Vince, and is it getting much traction in your neck of the Christian woods?


  4. Really thought-provoking posts, Vince! I won’t do them justice now, I need to think more about it. My knee jerk reactions:

    a) I am not sure I am ready to equate humility with transcendence. Can scientists be humble? Sure. But does that humility account for the “call” that re-enchanted “sacred” environmentalists are speaking about (which has all of the marks of mystical religiousity)? I don’t think so. More on this in point (b).

    b) I love Pascal, but he makes surprisingly “modern” reductionist errors. In Pensee 199 he remarks, “Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhwere.” But that is how Pseudo-Dionysis described God, not nature! In other words, I think Pascal has been taken in a bit by the modern reduction to immanence. These are slips for Pascal. We know this because Pascal feels called by a Who from Beyond. But Nature is not a Who, nature cannot “call”. The call comes from “everywhere and nowhere”, from myself and yet from the Other (these characterizations are from Heidegger and Levinas).

    Point is, I am tying transcendence/Transcendence in with “the call” or a “summons”. This is central to the Face, so I think I am just following Levinas here (though I am open to amending that interpretation). Levinas claims that the face says “Guilty!” or “Thou shall not kill!”. But nature does not say that for materialist nature cannot judge. This is what we so constantly hear from the materialists – the material universe doesn’t care, it is utterly indifferent. So the materialist might be humbled by, say, the immensity of space, but materialist nature does not – materialist nature cannot – prescribe action. Materialist nature cannot summons you. This is not to say that natural objects cannot call – but when they call they function as icon (“portals” is how the original radio address of this post put it). See point (c).

    c) You say, “[For Levinas] the transcendence is found in the relations of things within that world.” Yes but with an important disclaimer. Yes, I encounter the face in my concrete lived existentiality. But keep in mind that Levinas actually appropriates Plato’s Good beyond Being and Descartes Idea of Infinity (if memory serves, the latter is done most explicitly in “Of God Who Comes to Mind”). The “Others” I encounter in this world are “other” precisely because they are always already marked by the Absolutely Beyond, they are already pregnant with transcendence – no, Transcendence. I think Levinas’ view – though this is most explicitly taken up by Marion – is an iconography. So yes the transcendence is found here and now in my concrete relations with persons and things, but the Its are always already Thous for they are always already ICONS of Transcendence. It is really a brilliant phenomenological description as it is the perfect “philosophical” synthesis of Transcendence and immanence. (What you do to the least of these, you do to Me). I think this is why Buber and Levinas have been so fruitfully taken up by Christianity (in some ways, taken up more fruitfully by Xians than by Jews).

    (I don’t know if anyone else cares about this Levinas stuff other than us, Vince, but I love it!).


  5. We’d need to get clear on what we mean by “wonder” here, and then see if wonder is any different than “enchantment” or whether wonder is distinct from “the call”.

    I don’t doubt that materialists can experience wonder in some sense. But do they experience wonder in the full philosophical sense? Let’s start with Aristotle since he is the one who tells us that ‘all of philosophy begins in wonder’.

    For Aristotle this wonder is an amazement at puzzles (aporia) and the point is made at the beginning of the metaphysics as something of an “epistemological” point. What we wonder about it thinking. Wonder is the mark of the active intellect and the aporias that arise out of the dynamic relationship between the “mental world” and the world ‘out there’. What is at first a cause of wonder is that our active intellect is not like the world but yet it can “becomes all things” (De Anima). For Aristotle, then, the possibility of wonder is precisely rooted in our NOT being like the rest of the world, it is rooted in our having a “share of the divine” (this is how he speaks of intelligence late in the Ethics).

    Now I am not suggesting that “wonder” in this sense is identical to the “enchantment” point the original post tried to make. But there is an important overlap – both wonder in this classical philosophical sense and “enchantment” or “the call” require that the person be both of and not of this world. That is, both require that the person be a unique intersection of immanence and transcendence. So, on my reading, materialist metaphysics does not allow for either.

    Point is, “enchantment” has less to do with amazement (one can be amazed by many things, even the immanentist “lovers of sights and sounds” experience a kind of amazement – but Socrates is quick to point out that they are not experiencing genuine wonder) and more to do with the “call” or “summons” that is expressed through the Other (leaving open for now whether or not animals and plants and ecosystems can have a Face in this sense). So I don’t know that the Sagan quotation really gets to what we are talking about here.


  6. Saying that Levinas is an “a-theist” is accurate in one sense but it is also extremely misleading. Levinas is an “a-theist” in the sense that he thinks the “god of theism” is already reduced and enframed by “egology” and has been entrapped within a horizon of “Being” (ie metaphysics). But saying he is an “atheist” might imply to some readers here that Levinas is not deeply invested in “God-talk”. That would be a mistake. Levinas is not the least bit interested in doing “metaphysical theism”, but he is interested (to use a word from Vince’s post) in “witness”. The language of the trace and the Other (and indeed the Absolutely Other) is, if I may say so, theism by another name and of another sort. It is an attempt to do theology without doing theology. This is, of course, the challenge set forth by Heidegger – how can we think without thinking? Or, what comes after philosophy? And what comes after theology? As it turns out, more God-talk. But now hiddenness and icon become central to the discourse, rather than being and substance.

    So I am with Vince on his reading. And I second his remark that one should be careful to not lump Derrida and Levinas together. It is easy to do so since later “messianic” Derrida depends so heavily on Levinas (Derrida remarked that ‘before the thought of Levinas I can have no objection’). This is too simplistic, but Heidegger, Levinas, and Marion do “deconstruction with recovery”. Derrida, or at least earlier Derrida, does “deconstruction wall to wall”. For Derrida, there is nothing on the hither side of deconstruction. This is not so with Heidegger and it is not so with Levinas. On that point, I consider them both much deeper and more important thinkers than Derrida.

    That said, it is not even clear that Derrida is an “atheist”, even though he said that he can “rightly pass as an athiest”. Point is, that term is being used in a very complicated way, in a way that is more wrapped up in critiquing metaphysics than it is saying something about the “existence” of God. Keep in mind that Marion wrote a book called “God Without Being”, but remarks that saying that God is without (or beyond) Being “is not to say that God does not exist.”

    Don’t feel bad if your head is spinning!


  7. Just for the record, I am neither a mystic nor an environmentalist; I am a materialist who believes that, not only is everything material, but that all matter is intelligent [enchanted? okay.] in some potentially explainable way. As a result, I feel: 1)inclined, if not compelled, to REALLY understand the TRUE “nature” of matter [it’s objective and subjective nature] by whatever means available and 2)responsible to consider “its” interests in some way. If this is “mystical environmentalism” or “deep ecology” so be it, I guess, call it whatever you like. I like Vince’s notion of “hiddeness” better though.


    1. Yes, you could not have made a better recommendation for me. After all, if one is to be a real materialist “as one must be”, it is steadying to have such an ally, at least until everyone “gets used to it” and realizes that “there is no alternative”. (These Strawsonisms just kill me–I mean the audacity of anyone to be so confident…I love it.)Thanks again for really discerning what it was that I might be looking for and putting me on to him, I would not have found him otherwise. (Or would I have…hmmm?)


  8. First of all, I apologize for high-jacking your notion of hiddenness. I know the Kabbalah refers to this idea more as G-d’s ability to become hidden from human perception; that this perceived “restriction”, or Tzimtzum, makes “creation” possible by allowing the illusion of a diversity of manifestations in the world, at least as we know it. I am not familiar with Democritus’ void but am genuinely interested in hearing more about how it relates to atoms.

    I am also curious…What do you make of Kabbalastic claims that the first sefirot of intelligence are made manifest, or “Malchut” by virtue of the first active principle, the Sephirah Chesed, or compassion? I find this construct of nature extremely enchanting and poetic.

    By the way, I completely agree that there are poetic notions worth liking–even believing!


  9. Bill Gibson, the author of the book featured in the original post, emailed me (he had stumbled on our blog). I’ve not read his book (though I am growing more eager to do so), but he did pass along a few things. First, it sounds like he also places an emphasis on “the need for transcendent experience as a source of meaning”. And, when I expressed an interest in Heidegger and the poetic experience of nature (which is pregnant with something that resists reduction), he passed along this passage from his book:

    “Most efforts to make something sacred, what Durkheim calls “rites of consecration,” depend upon this principle of contagiousness and are most effectively accomplished by hybrid discourses that mix the secular and the religious. As Rachel Carson said of her approach to writing “The Sea Around Us (1958), “If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” Poetry acknowledges and tries to illuminate the mystery of the sea, its beauty, its abundance of animal life, and its ability to inspire awe. In short, it helps create what Durkheim called feelings of sacredness–and those feelings help its audience grasp the essence of a creature and form a connection with it.”


    1. What necessary difference or distinction, if any, exist between some thing’s ‘ability’ to “resist reduction” and ‘its’ ability to resist explanation? How is this to be accounted for?

      This talk of hybrids seems to resemble relational theory. These “hybrid discourses”, or relationships, seem to produce new meaning or perhaps it is the deep and abiding meaning ‘itself’ that produces hybrid discourse. I was reading somewhere [William Seager from Strawson’s Consciousness and its place in nature] that Graph Theory purports that “there is nothing more to a graph than the set of relationships between the nodes”, suggesting that abstract notions may arise from the relational meaning itself. Does this mean that necessarily existent meaning M may have a different meaning than the more superficially existent meaning m of everyday vernacular? It is way too late be thinking this hard.


      1. One issue from the start: you and I approach this issue with different tribal languages (I come at this from a Continental point of view). I know nothing about Strawson, so I do not feel well equipped to engage your comment. This does not mean there isn’t overlap, just that our language is pretty far apart. It seems to be that materialism – as ordinarily understood – naturally travels with a reduction to scientism. Again, I know nothing about Strawson, so perhaps this view that “matter is intelligent” gets you out of this. (whatever it would mean to say that “matter is intelligent”, which on the face of it does not make much sense to me at all!). Maybe Huenemann can help bring these two points of view together?

        I think there is a difference between resisting reduction and resisting explanation. Or at least I prefer the former because the latter might imply only a “poetry of the gaps” account of these enchanted experiences with the environment. Let me explain:

        My view (like Heidegger’s “aletheia-ology”) is that there are many different ways of disclosing truth. Scientific disclosure is one way of disclosing an entity, and it will disclose it in a certain way and on certain terms. But, as Heidegger points out, very often disclosing something simultaneously conceals it. So in disclosing something technologically, I at the same time cover over something true. In this sense, even something that is “entirely explained” by science (on science’s own terms) is not entirely explained, because science is just one mode of disclosure (it is just one way of thinking about things). Point is, we don’t turn to poetry to fill in the gaps in our scientific explanations (a poetry of the gaps?). Rather, poetic thinking and scientific thinking are just two totally different modes of disclosing.

        In this sense, the task of thinking is never complete because it is impossible to hold something in your mind in all of its possible meanings. That said, some modes of disclosure are “open” whereas others are “closed”. “Technological thinking” is a kind of thinking that has, historically, frustrated other modes of thinking. We are in an age of a tyranny of technological thinking (a tyranny of science). The cure to this tyranny? The cure seems to be two-fold. First, we have to learn how to think anew. But also there seem to be phenomenon that uniquely resist this reduction to one mode of disclosure. Jean-Luc Marion calls these “saturated phenomenon” – phenomena that are so saturated and overflowing with givenness that they flood or overrun our intentionality toward these phenomena. (See Heidegger’s remark that “only a god can save us”, or Levinas’ language of the “face”).

        This is extremely mystical language. And this was one of the things I was driving at in my original post – that these “enchanted environmentalists” are having an experience of something that not only “resists explanation” by science or materialist metaphysics (because it is an experience of transcendence), it resists a reduction because its givenness cannot be contained. They are encountering nature as “saturated”. (In the good ole days of metaphysics, we used the language of transcendence, language I still freely use). Our first response is silence, poetry our next best (though still futile) attempt to speak what cannot be spoken, to say without our saying turning into a said. In other words, we are speaking about a totally different optics, an entirely different way of encountering the world (and others), rather than just trying to fill in with poetry what our science cannot yet explain.

        Is that a distinction without a difference? I don’t feel like I am being very clear here. And I think it is entirely possible that I we are talking way past each other (though when you came by my office to chat we did not feel that way). Like you said, it is too late for this kind of stuff!


  10. Like I said, too late to think–definately too late to weave this favorite quote of Antoine de St. Exupery into a meaningful context but somehow I am confident it fits in with transcendence, poetic essence, and connection [Humor me even if it doesn’t–at the very least Rachel would have liked, maybe that is connection enough.]

    “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”


  11. My take on materialism just allows for more than “normal matter” to be material and therefore explainable in some possible physics (or at least explainable to God!), though certainly not limited to current physics. I appreciate your insights here. You don’t need to sell me on Heidegger–on this we are completely agreed, modern science is only ONE way, albeit an interesting and important one, of disclosing truth. I think the simultaneous concealment that seems to accompany disclosure is likely responsible for the apparently perceived differences in our “framing” of these totally bound up in this concept of “hiddeness” that Vince refers to.

    You have a give for poetic expression and I think that kind of language might even been necessary in any kind of meaningful explanation. I think our lengthy personal visit allowed us to overcome what seems to be an almost entirely definitional language barrier. In all honesty, my redneck roots cause me to vehemently reject many prevailing perceptions and definitions of environmental concern. I have never self-identified as an “environmentalist”, although you you were fairly justified in your assumption based on my deep concern for the environment. Honestly, our views diverge here only slightly. Likewise, I tend to equate “mystical” with a sort of “unexplainability” or randomness that I don’t believe exists in Nature. I am not saying that faith is misguided–it may even be fundamental to understanding all of this–I just choose to put my faith in the potential explainability of the world, though again, not limited to scientific explanation alone.

    While I have always felt nature’s “enchantedness”, it seems worth mentioning that there are risks involved in re-enchanting nature. This may just be paranoia on my part as I can’t really explain it. But, I do foresee potential problems with mainstreaming notions of re-enchantment as a mere cause; a sort of superficial social norm–it just seems to run deeper than that. A more meaningful application would be required. Like the wisdom of Eastern philosophy, it ought/has to be experienced in addition to being taught for it to become a meaningful course of action.

    However, I think your assessment of distinction without difference is the kind of unifying principle that ties Heidegger’s disclosure and concealment to Parmenides’ “Goddess Truth” and reveals the complimentary, yet irreducible nature of the world to its essential being which somehow seems to, at once, transcend and include.

    Would love to talk more Heideggar with you again, Should I stop by if you have time after finals? Thank you for your valuable insights here, in your most recent reply in particular.


    1. Great post, and I do think we are closer on this than would appear from the language divide.

      One question where we might diverge is that I am inclined to make a theological turn. My first post here included a suggestion that enchanted environmentalists would be well served to do the same. Why is nature ultimately “unexplainable” or uncontainable? Is this just a bare fact about nature? Or does it suggest that nature is a sign or an icon, that nature is always already pregnant with an overflow of givenness which is given by a Giver? What kind of metaphysics do you need to account for this? This “theology of the gift” is where I feel most at home, and it informs my ethics generally, including my environmental attitudes.

      I’d be happy to talk more with you, and I am glad our discussions have moved your thesis project forward in some ways. But I am a stay-at-home Dad over the summer months, spending my days with truly mysterious gifts that cannot be contained or explained (little girls). So if you want to visit after finals, email me and we’ll try to set something up.


      1. I appreciate that. I will be in touch. P.S. I am developing a linguistic theory that is largely centered in the concept of “the gift”, I would be very interested in your critique–it’s a primal etymology of sorts.


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