I recently gave a talk at a gathering of philosophical practitioners on making the transition from theory to praxis as it relates to environmental conservation. In other words, how do I make the shift from caring about a situation to doing something about that situation? At what point does sentiment or care become the behavior of care?
Incidentally, this question is subtly though importantly different from the one that those of us who advocate for a particular agenda generally ask namely: how can we get others to care about and participate in this initiative?
The more important question interrogates the self, rather than the one that asks how to elicit action from seemingly disinterested others. As a philosopher, I’m particularly concerned with my own role in an ethically weighted situation and as a result of that I’m often preoccupied thinking about how I move out of mind into body and behavior. As a woman committed to a life of purpose, I inquire in order to deepen knowledge of myself. As a philosopher, I do so in hopes of helping others to develop what they envision as a meaningful life.
I believe that involvement compels us to understand the world in such a way that opens the possibility for abstract conditions to become personal situations, thus creating a motivational bind with action. 19th century philosopher William James was concerned with the condition of understanding the world of “ideas abstracted from the concretes of experience” because inaction and apathy blooms in the absence of the type of relationship that draws individuals into the subject of experience. The act of drawing-in transforms a previously abstract reality into a personal relationship. In that relationship between self and world, the individual has the potential to understand herself in the context of the natural environment. Within this new personal landscape, the problem of motivation to protect is triggered within this series of relations. But what form does this type of involvement take?
Philosopher John Dewey traces the transition from caring about “nature” to participating in our mutual flourishing through “involvement-within” or what he calls “consummatory experience.” Within this type of experience, particularly the relationship between what he poetically characterizes as the “constant rhythm that marks the interaction of the live creature with his surroundings” can be read as reconciliation with the “muddy particulars of experience” that James sought in his striving to overcome the condition I’ve begun to describe. Consummation occurs when Dewey’s theory is interpreted as the connective muscle that binds experience with care as protective agency, or when as Dewey writes, “action, feeling and meaning are one.”
Philosopher Erazim Kohák describes a shift from understanding “the world as an alleged set of space-time objects to the world as experience.” He describes the world of experience as our world, “the playing field constituted by our being and doing.” The aspect of ownership that is written into this way of thinking about ourselves in our, not just in the, world creates a rhetorical proximity that might aid or at least mirror the emotive proximity that is developed through sensual experience, and which promotes familiarity that ultimately motivates beyond desire or sympathy towards the behavior of care.
Alternatively, it has been suggested that we can transcend the barriers between self and other, self and world through narrative or poetry. (I’ve devoted some space to that in earlier postings.) David Abrams argues that poetry is a primary means of coming into contact with the sensual world, while others like philosopher Eleanor Helms have argued that artistic representations “involve and awaken my senses” in a way that simply describing the world through language does not. She recognizes that the best poetry transcends the style of mere description yet she goes on to argue that language, however poetic, represents a division between the natural world and our involvement with it. Rather, she believes that the visual arts bring to mind our personal involvement with the subject of the painting and that the relationship we have (or have had) with subjects that are represented in paintings is present as we enter into the painted world. So if we follow Helms into the painted world or Abrams into the poetically rendered world, do we in either instance satisfy Dewey by integrating self and other?
I’d like us to consider together how to connect environmental awareness (of a problem, of need) with agency in order to avoid the habitual slide into not-doing that James is worried about. Is the connection made through poetry or through other forms of artistic expression? Through politics and public discourse or do we need to take a hike, taking Dewey’s call for “involvement within” literally. My hope in opening up a conversation about how to reconcile this dilemma is that the process of participatory understanding or the kind of understanding that comes out of being involved in a situation has the potential to foster familiarity. With familiarity, I believe, comes an increased awareness of one’s self in relation to the world through, as James would call it “the mother soil of experience.” Ultimately, this familiarity with the subject of our experience, as it penetrates our personal narrative, might nurture a desire to participate in conservation initiatives.