Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Finding Philosophy With a Mad German

So a couple of months ago, I had an insane idea. I’m working on my doctoral thesis right now, a philosophy of ecology. It’s a way of thinking about nature that focusses on the contingency of human existence, and the continuity of humanity with nature, understanding humanity and its technology as a natural creation. All this involves re-thinking concepts of nature, subjectivity, life, and existence. Even though I won’t start actually writing this for another four or five months, and don’t expect to finish for a year and a half, I’m already thinking of the sequel.

The doctoral thesis, which I hope to publish as a book of philosophy, will work as a framework for an ecological ethics. And I want to approach ethical problems differently than the tradition of philosophy tells me I should. The traditional approach to ethics is to look for universal and wide-ranging normative principles that can be applied to particular situations. The problem is that I expect that my concept of existence won’t be amenable to such a dualist ethical thinking.

Instead, I’m thinking that an ethics based on characters would work better. In an ethics based on normative principles, one meets a situation and asks what universal imperatives apply here. In an ethics based on character, one asks what kind of person would you become by acting in different ways. Now think about working in a framework of ecology, thinking about problems of ecological destruction. The kind of person you would become in dealing adequately with these problems would be a human whose existence and personality included all the creatures and ecosystems around you. You would think about yourself less as an isolated human body, and more as a field of interconnected activities. The question now remains: How does one learn to think in this way?

My suspicion that most people would consider insane is that I can find the answer by engaging with art. In particular, I intend to work with the art of Werner Herzog. I’ve always been aware of his giving animals, architecture, landscapes, and forests prominent roles in his films. Sometimes, the actions of these elements are key expressions of the aesthetic structures of the entire films. Herzog’s films themselves are bodies that include non-human actors among their most important constituents. They are bodies where multiples species and ways of being intersect in clear and creative ways.

His protagonists often become other than human over the course of the story. Sometimes they journey among forms before returning to a similar shape to that as which they began. Sometimes, they try to impose their rigid human shapes on worlds alien to them, like the jungle, or the Antarctic, with mixed results. There is nothing necessary about the success or failure of conformity to non-human forms, or trying to force a non-human form to conform to one’s own. There is no universal principle to be found: success or failure of a plan of differentiating or imposition depends on the situation. Sometimes, it’s a matter of contingent features beyond the actor’s control, dumb luck. Sometimes, it’s the protagonist successfully anticipating contingencies.

These ethics do not deal with rules and applications. They deal with characters and situations. I’m not sure how successful my own philosophical project here will be, but I am hopeful that I’m onto a very productive path.