A while back I asked why it matters whether women are represented in science? I was interested to know if we care about whether a variety of communities show up in fields, professions and pastimes, why do we care? Is it simply a matter of increasing the number of loyalists to our mission, or does it come from an openness to change the very system that stands resolute like Uncle Sam declaring “I want you!” » Continue Reading.
In his poem The Adirondacks Ralph Waldo Emerson begins to describe an expedition into the Adirondack wilderness by noting that the travelers unburdened themselves from their day-to-day lives:
Happier as they
Slipped off their pack of duties, leagues behind,
At the first mounting of the giant stairs.
No placard on these rocks warned to the polls,
No door-bell heralded a visitor,
No courier waits, no letter came or went,
Nothing was ploughed, or reaped, or bought, or sold
I can appreciate this imagery and the attraction of leaving it all behind for a holiday. But many of us reading the Almanack live in the Adirondacks and so our lifework, as I like to think of it, can’t be taken on and off like Emerson’s pack of duties. With that in mind and in light of what seems to be our national predilection with busyness, I’ve been giving some thought to what exactly is in Emerson’s pack?
First, I looked into what it means to be busy and I discovered that an interesting thing happened on the way to the 21st century. It seems that the word “busy” didn’t always signify the frenetic style of hyperactivity that many of us wear like a badge, the depleted yet slightly self-satisfied way we often announce “I am so busy!” These days we declare ourselves in this way as if we’ve accomplished something meaningful simply by darting between moments like hummingbirds, hovering without ceasing at one task before zipping on to the next. In contrast, “busy” used to refer to our earnest engagement in something enjoyable, yet somewhere along the way we began to veer wildly away from this sensibility towards a constant occupation with – what exactly?
At this point I’d hoped to open up Emerson’s pack to discover what all this busyness was all about, but it seems it’s a little bit like that drawer full of random things that don’t have any real relationship to each other or to me. The stuff doesn’t fit into any category yet inexplicably, I need what’s in there. And a “junk drawer” is born. Are we living lives analogous to junk drawers? This seems particularly offensive in a landscape whose pure earthly delight has been an inspiration for poets, philosophers, scientists, artists and novelists for generations.
I don’t know exactly when the common meaning of “busy” changed, or when our gaze shifted from the good life or the beautiful life to the busy life as a thing of virtue. I suspect it was right about the time we created the handy conjunction “busy-work” aptly defined as something that takes up time but isn’t actually productive, never mind earnest or meaningful (the whole notion of which brings Socrates to mind and his caution against the barrenness of a busy life).
My dear friend Craig, with whom I have been writing letters (yes, actual letters) for 19 years, wrote a while back that his delayed response was due to being caught up in “all those things Thoreau railed against.” He was busy, in the contemporary sense of the word. And it’s true that this affliction is at least as old as Thoreau who admonished that “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”
Ultimately, the question of what on earth we’re doing is a personal one and I won’t presume to root through your pack (and let’s agree to keep our hands out of each other’s junk drawers). The question and the intimate cadence of your response will flourish, as everything meaningful will, along a horizon of uninterrupted and unhurried contemplation. Fortunately for those of us committed to a beautiful and a thoughtful life here in the high-country, we aren’t subject to the inevitability of a too-short holiday that as Emerson describes, is fruitful, but must end;
One August evening had a cooler breath;
Into each mind intruding duties crept;
Under the cinders burned the fires of home;
Nay, letters found us in our paradise:
So in the gladness of the new event
We struck our camp and left the happy hills.
(Oh and Craig, you owe me a lengthy letter. Get busy.)
The first thing I noticed was how the light fidgeting on the water moved, like jazz. Usually, autumn Adirondack mornings have more of a classical come-on, in a way that brings Walt Whitman to mind with his longing recollections of halcyon seasons enough to conjure this jigsaw of ochre and red around the pond and up the mountains; this deep and satisfying breeze whispering shhhhhh.
Yet, this morning something about the landscape looked like Carl Sandburg’s poems feel when read aloud. Sandburg, with his 1916 Chicago cadence was on the wind making oozing trombones of those same trees, going husha-husha-hush. A subtle difference sure, but still enough to make me wonder at it.
In a while I cracked on NCPR and let the world into my wood stove morning to shouts of “we are the 99 percent!” I listened, still looking out at the unsettled light and wondered at a world where a protest hundreds of miles away could change the rhythm of this morning, deep in the northern forest. Sandburg, indeed.
How many times have I read aloud in the voice of the “workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes?” With a soft slam down in emphasis right at the beginning as the subject reveals herself boldly, as if stepping out from the same morass of humanity now gathering on Wall Street “I am the people–the mob–the crowd–the mass.”
Further on gaining momentum in a kind of surrender with the repeated act of forgetting:
I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand
for much plowing. Terrible storms pass over me.
I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted.
I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and
makes me work and give up what I have. And I forget.
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red
drops for history to remember. Then–I forget.
Then beyond forgetting, lifting the emphasis and re-placing it on a new narrative of resistance:
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the
People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer
forget who robbed me last year, who played me for
a fool–then there will be no speaker in all the world
say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a
sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob–the crowd–the mass–will arrive then.
In the lull between radio reports I realized that I had been quietly reciting this poem to the morning, keeping time with the rat-a-tat-tat of light off the pond and the staccato chanting of protesters. Sometime later, this morning’s tempo eased back into the familiar cadence of Whitman making sense of how each of these stories across hundreds of miles are one:
On solid land what is done in cities as the bells strike midnight together,
In primitive woods the sounds there also sounding
Photo of Carl Sandburg is in the public domain.
Marianne is a philosopher living, writing and teaching in the Adirondack Park.
On its best day, philosophy succeeds in sending “the conversation off in new directions.” With a free exchange of ideas and a commitment to inquiry, philosophy as both catalyst and conveyor ought to “engender new normal discourses, new sciences, new philosophical research and thus new objective truths.”
In this spirit the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Northern Forest Institute invites submissions for its Symposium of Interdisciplinary Scholarship in Land Use and Ethics, to be held at the Adirondack Interpretive Center on Huntington Wildlife Forest in Newcomb.
I envision this project as an opportunity to open up the dialog around issues of land use and ethics on local, national and global scales. This is the place for ideas in-process, unfinished research and to introduce work in its various stages of development. We’re welcoming research from across professions and disciplines on topics related to balancing individual and community priorities with respect to land use and the associated expectations for human and ecosystem stewardship and social and environmental ethics.
I hope to see independent scholars alongside industry and agency professionals and students from across the humanities and the sciences. Presentations are meant to generate conversation around a variety of approaches to land use, the moral implications of these approaches, as well as the ways that they influence the ongoing debate over how to achieve social and environmental justice.
Philosopher John Dewey referred to active discourse as “breaking the crust of convention” and I’d like us to use this symposium to get together and get on with it.
For information on how to join the conversation email firstname.lastname@example.org
References from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty
Photo of Arbutus Lodge, compliments of Huntington Wildlife Forest, Newcomb, NY.
Colleague: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a philosopher, much of my work involves teaching.
Colleague: (Amused) like what, the philosophy of green?
Colleague: So you’re here to do philosophy with the students.
Me: Yes, environmental philosophy.
Colleague: I think that’s great, because students come to me for content and they come to you for this kind of (gesturing as if wafting an unwelcome scent) experience.
Both of these exchanges, and rest assured I have enough of these for a night at the Improv, were with colleagues in environmental science. In fact, most of my interactions are not with other professional philosophers but with scientists and students of science in the Adirondacks. I consider this unusual situation a privilege and one that most of my colleagues in the humanities, philosophy in particular, don’t enjoy and therefore don’t benefit from intellectually – mindfully.
Though from time to time I wonder, when did intellectual curiosity stop at the shore of empiricism? When did it become frivolous or worse, vacuous, to engage in thoughtful discourse about patently irresolvable and fundamentally human notions of ethics, values, personhood, identity, agency, responsibility and so on?
Another colleague that I work with closely precisely because he has never wavered in his certainty that (as I often remind students) this is not nothing, related a conversation to me in which he had explained to a third party “Marianne’s work hasn’t always been taken seriously, so she’s particularly committed to a high standard of academic and scholarly integrity.” The former is true and the latter is kind and yet, ouch!
I spent a little while turning this over in my mind until another colleague came by. I shared with her this bit about being taken seriously and we agreed that this work is bound to have a different contour here among scientists, and that the utility of philosophy outside the silo of the humanities is at once harder to understand and deeply important once it is.
Later that evening I gave a talk to a group of incoming freshmen and returning undergraduates about the critical need for us to interrogate the social/sexual/political “positionality” (as in view point and bias) of established institutions and comfortable habits of scholarship and politics, to name a few. We talked about how “decentering” or removing the privilege of accepted truths and norms that are often the product of a dominant and sometimes oppressive majority is the first step in liberating marginalized communities whose truths and traditions have been relegated to “alternative” status in the process of sanctifying one type of worldview. We talked about “rupturing” (as in creating an opening) in the often codified boundaries that surround disciplines in order to make way for so-called other knowledges to participate in and enrich the discourse.
After the lecture a former student and I stood together quietly until she looked over at me and smiled, “troublemaker” she said. Well, somebody’s got to do it.
They were young, these students, and for some the hour may have been late and some others might have had their minds on the bonfire to follow, but most (most) were enlivened. Emerson called teaching a drawing out of the soul and the Greeks understood happiness as harmony between one’s soul and the good; this is my work.
Photo: Illustration by Johannes van Loon.
A few months back one of my colleagues here at the Almanack wrote a fine post that raised the question of whether or not it is feasible for New York State to acquire Follensby Pond and surrounding lands.
I had great fun weighing-in on an element of philosophical gamesmanship that Phil Brown touched on related to Aristotle’s notion of begging the question. A short while later, I was describing what I thought had been my clever contribution to a friend who asked “yes, but what was your position?” Well I never! No really, I never even considered entering the conversation with my position on the situation.
As a philosopher, much of my work involves drawing out the views of others into a constructive space where disagreement operates alongside mutual respect for differences of opinion. In this process I act as facilitator, offering my own opinion only when it might help to further the discourse. This method is useful, at the same time it is almost entirely without risk. Whereas others who participate in a dialog (say around Adirondack land acquisition) lead with their position and without the safety of neutral ground. This came up for me during a recent conversation with a few colleagues who work in the field of environmental education.
We were talking about how much of what we believe can and should we reveal when talk turns to issues that are invariably fraught with tension and where perspectives, and ultimately the people who hold them, are judged by what they believe. In other words, how much of our personal and ideological positions can we show up with while taking care to subject ourselves to the least amount of ire?
Each of us enters into a private negotiation to gauge this type of risk countless times a day. And the stakes are particularly high when viewpoints push past our personal belief into a professional space where often unspoken expectations about who we are and what we think are nearly written into our job descriptions as environmental educators, ecologists, biologists, and naturalists etc.
But what happens when our personal and public personas don’t seamlessly match, or when I hold to a belief that might put the two in conflict? What are the boundaries of my duty or the limits of my professional responsibility when what I believe isn’t consistent with what I am expected to believe? Am I duty bound, as German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed, to conduct myself with an artificial unanimity when I am in service to an institution or organization acting in the interest of the community? In this case is Kant right to call for obedience or submission to a disciplinary or professional agenda?
Maybe, but as members of the whole community or of a society of world citizens and thus in the role of a scholar he can argue without hurting the affairs for which he is in part responsible. In other words, as citizens and public intellectuals we are indeed obligated to speak our minds. Kant’s adamant belief in our responsibility as public and private citizens comes from his belief that freedom and righteousness always operate in concert. He envisions a landscape where we emerge as independent thinkers who value our own worth and every man’s vocation for thinking for himself where a greater degree of civil freedom appears advantageous to the freedom of mind which fosters the propensity and vocation to free thinking.
From What is Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, 1784.
Once upon a time wayfarers, who Thoreau writes “had a genius for sauntering,” were thought to be in search of the holy land. In this, the act of walking is itself a practical expression of a deliberate life that is bound by nothing but the search for something blessed.
These days we walk in solidarity, in opposition, in mourning as a funeral procession, to war we march from the French marcher to stride – and each time it is the behavior of walking and of setting-out that is a declaration.
Here in the Adirondacks on endless paths we go-ahead and follow Thoreau’s lead as he unlatches the door and steps out into the air. We sally forth in the way-making tradition that brings the thinking body into communion with its surroundings almost intuitively responding to Emerson’s call to hear what the earth says, as often we listen for thought’s new-found path.
In discussions around the body as a subject that can be read for meaning the way we read language, there is an idea called the body-moment that is meant to describe a dual sense of observance that happens at once in the body and the mind. In this double-bound world where the body and the landscape operate together, we recognize the self in a world of relations. This is the practice of life – or in our case the practice of walking – and the behavior of living that is twice connected, once with itself in the body and twice in the body on the land.
Whether we walk in service to a cause or in quiet homage for the landscape where we amble on, this fusion of mind and body in simultaneous observance invites a degree of attunement or awareness to the private, often solitary question of what it is we tune into as we wander away…
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?
» Continue Reading.
This week I happily begin work as a public environmental philosopher at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Northern Forest Institute. Naturally I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how I can be of service to the Adirondack community in this position, so I thought this might be a good forum to explain a little bit about what it means to do philosophy followed by what we’re actually planning to do.
On thinking for a purpose
I see philosophy as an integrated practice of right-thinking and right-doing that has led to my decision to work as a philosopher in the Adirondacks. Years ago I became enlivened by an ecstatic pursuit of Philo Sophia and in the process, I became urgently aware that the subtext of my studies drew me towards philosophy as a lived intention that requires its practitioners to push to the outer edge where thinking becomes action and ideas have impact. » Continue Reading.
Her name was Hypatia and she lived, taught and published in Alexandria at the Platonist school from approximately AD 370 – 415. If the practice of western philosophy (φιλοσοφία) as we know it is from the Greek philo meaning lover and sophia meaning wisdom, then Hypatia might have been Sophia herself. One of her contemporaries wrote, “There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.”
I had Hypatia on my mind this past weekend as I prepared for a Young Women and Girls in Science event sponsored by SUNY ESF’s Northern Forest Institute. I was asked to talk about the intersection of science and the humanities and more specifically, why the study of science is incomplete without the study of philosophy. Not least among the reasons why, is that the western scientific tradition comes from the western philosophical tradition and before knowledge splintered into specializations and narrow silos of information, there was unbounded curiosity and conversation. This style of conversation became the dialectic or discussion model that some of us are trying to move back towards as a method of inquiry, interdisciplinary learning and teaching.
So I thought I’d begin to introduce young women and girls who might be thinking about a career in the sciences, to this question of why scientists should care what philosophers think. It seemed that the best way to do this would be by talking about a philosopher who happens to be a woman and who is as often cited as a mathematician and an astronomer as for her progressive attitudes on sex, or what currently falls within the realm of identity politics. So if taking on the question of what philosophy could possibly have to do with science wasn’t enough, I’d planned to head straight towards what identity politics has to do with science.
Talking with young women and girls about why philosophy matters to science made me think about why women and girls matter to science. In other words, why should we care that women and girls enter into the sciences? Why, for that matter, should we care that any particular group is represented in any public/professional area? In the case of science the answer is somewhat heretical (and I’m mindful here that Hypatia met her unspeakable demise for such acts…). Science is not objective; in its entirety it is not the pure and objective pursuit of extracting truth from the physical world.
As the philosopher Cornel West puts it truth “is a way of life, as opposed to a set of propositions that correspond to a set of things in the world.” Well, that’s all well and good for the humanities but science isn’t subject to the complicated dynamics of culture, perspective, subjectivity and the human condition generally – or is it? As philosopher and scientist Hypatia cautioned “Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth — even more so, since a superstition is intangible, you can’t get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”
The scientific method is bookended by the philosophical method. Empirical data collection doesn’t emerge in a vacuum but first a mind (not exhumed from, but as one part of the sensual human condition) has to be drawn to an inquiry, has to draw the parameters of that inquiry based on the desire to discover one thing or another about the physical world. These elements of drawing towards and of desire have no relationship to the type of objectivity that science is premised upon. (I’ll leave politics and capitalism as drivers of science for another post…) Even the most basic scientific discovery has to be interpreted, given meaning and brought about in language and often through metaphor.
All of which brings us again into the philosophical domain including ethics, emphasis, coercion, manipulation, bias and on and on. Every discipline including science, which in contrast with West’s earlier assertion, understands truth and fact as discoverable aspects of the world through its method, is a discipline brought about in the context of the human condition and the human condition is the concern of philosophers.
I understand truth to be something that is emergent and as the philosopher Richard Rorty suggested, it is created in the swamp of the human condition or in the lifework of a people rather than discovered whole in an objective state. Moreover, as soon as we begin pointing out truth with certainty and locating it within particular disciplinary or societal boundaries, then we invoke a universal style of truth that can’t be extracted from dynamics of power and ultimately (at least ultimately as history shows us) hegemony.
Philosophy (or at least some of its more recent work) has become about recognizing the amorphous nature of nature and navigating it for – as a conservation biologist colleague of mine so beautifully states, for “meaning and purpose” rather than mining it for truth and certainty. This leaves us on very unstable ground wherein all of these issues (including scientific issues) seem endlessly unstable. It is not, I believe, a matter of firming up that ground but rather of entering the landscape differently, recognizing that stability is (as Foucault would say) a chimera and the only truth that we can hope to achieve is subject to culture, identity and perspective.
If these ideas are useful at all I hope it is because they bring us closer to answering the question of why philosophy and women matter a great deal to science and why science as our most exacting tool of understanding the physical world, should be important to all of us. I hope it also seeds the ground for more conversation around these topics …
Portrait of Hypatia by Elbert Hubbard, 1908
Marianne is a philosopher living, writing and teaching in the Adirondacks.
Discussions around the American wilderness story are numerous and they stem largely from the historical narrative established by long-revered visionaries of Wild America including Ralph Waldo Emerson, the subject of my last post, and his neighbor and fellow philosopher Henry David Thoreau.
I often hear Thoreau cited for his 1851 declaration from his essay “Walking” that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” This sentiment is invoked time and again when Adirondack citizens, scholars and officials tell the story of how the cultural and regulatory boundary of the Park evolved and also to underscore why the Preserve is important – why it should be important to all of us. » Continue Reading.
It has been suggested that the philosopher must go to school with the poets in order to learn the art of exploring one’s own mind. As a philosopher I have a preference for the narrative and the poetic method, and since the Adirondack Park is the landscape of our philosophical inquiry it seems fitting to begin with our patron poet. Ralph Waldo Emerson reflects on his time at Follensby Pond: » Continue Reading.