Navigate / search

A Social and Environmental Philosophy: Human Action in the Biosphere by Kenneth Wilson

This is the first part of the first section [Action] of Kenneth Wilson’s thesis “A Social and Environmental Philosophy”

As G. H. von Wright comments, “The notion of a human act is related to the notion of an event, i.e. a change in the world.”[1] An action then is a manifestation of the cause-effect relations which constitute what it is to be a human being. What is more, any action is undertaken in relation to some external state of affairs, whether these involve other people, other living entities or processes, or simply the inanimate context.

Von Wright also comments that, “To act is, in a sense, to interfere with “the course of nature.””[2] This quotation clearly points the way to the role of intention. Intention is connected to the concepts of free will and the deliberate choice of some course of action. Therefore the use of the concept as valid is underpinned by a position in the opposition between free will and determinism. While I accept the validity of intention as a concept and thus support the existence of free will, I nevertheless see a role for determined behaviour.

Environmental Philosophy

What I have in mind when I say this is the idea that the agent’s actions exist on a spectrum, with at one end, those which are purely, freely and intentionally undertaken; and at the other, situations in which the agent may have no choice concerning possible lines of action to follow. This view sees both free will and determined behaviour at either end of a spectrum, and whichever pertains is a matter of the circumstances in which the agent finds him- or herself. At bottom, this is a view about the nature of the causal nexus the agent finds him- or herself in.

In other words, in the best possible circumstances, the agent will be presented with a set of two or more choices (possible outcomes), which may be undertaken. In this best of possible circumstances an attendant issue is the sense of responsibility which goes along with making such choices. Of course it is just this sense of responsibility that determinism negates. Yet, there are many circumstances in which the agent, through no fault of their own, is faced with only one avenue to pursue, which is not of their choosing.

Thus while determinism amounts to a denial of responsibility, there may be circumstances in which this pertains. Underlying my position is the view that the causal nexus in which the agent finds him- or herself implicated, can fluctuate between allowing the expression of intention and free will, and allowing none whatever. Thus the agent is sometimes lucky enough to experience the joy of freedom in the cosmos, and on other occasions must suffer the agony of being tightly chained by it. In view of this it is not surprising that, certainly in the western tradition, the benefits of an unconstrained freedom, of the expression of intention, tend to be emphasised. What tends to be lacking – in the context of the discussion at hand – is a sense of responsibility, even where that freedom exists, towards the living world we depend on.

One might describe an intentional act as one which involves the role of the cause-effect processes internal to the agent coming to the fore. These have their origin in the mind or consciousness. As important to legal theory as it is to philosophy, it is often pointed out that one cannot be held responsible for consequences one did not intend. Involuntary, unintentional actions such as breathing or blinking offer little of interest to the philosopher. Nevertheless, interposed between the involuntary and unintentional, and the intentional lies a category of actions which may be described as being in some way unconscious.

Let me explain what I have in mind here by means of an example. When we think of the cultural practices which are common to western Europe, in a sense, we do not fully realise their true nature until we contrast the western European modus operandi with, say, that of the Arabian peninsula. When we do this we notice that it is not customary to ritually pray five times a day in western Europe as it is in the orthodox Islamic nations of the Arabian peninsula. It is the many differences of this type which give rise to the phenomenon of culture shock.


From personal experience it took me several months to adjust to life in Arabia. A plethora of differences take time to adjust to. These can range from dress codes, cuisine, institutions and the most difficult to accommodate, the dramatic linguistic change. Thus when one is at home in one’s native cultural context, many of the ways of doing things are simply taken for granted. My point then is that even what is clearly an intentional action is embedded in other components which are usually not noticed.

The actions which compose a particular modus operandi in a particular cultural context are often at least partly obscured to the participants. This suggests that there may be deep-seated ways of doing things which are not normally subject to critical scrutiny. Thus, one cannot be satisfied with the treatment of clear cases of intention alone. I would contend that even these are often conditioned by background conditions. Further, what one would usually take as a clear instance of an intentional action is frequently strongly influenced by the cultural context in which it takes place. In order to emphasise this point let me give an example.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am a regular church-goer and that the church I attend is of the Church of Scotland. In addition, suppose that for some set of reasons I intentionally decide to become a member of the congregation of a Roman Catholic church. Let us also suppose that this change of denomination is quite intentional as usually defined. Now, the choice to change denomination is only made possible by some set of background cultural realities. Though there may be many types of cultural reality at play, I will focus on only one for the sake of brevity.

In particular, the intentional decision to change denomination is made possible, inter alia, by the fact that while the Reformation took place and established Protestantism, the Roman Catholic church was not disestablished. Thus I have an intentional choice which is fundamentally conditioned by historical events; which moreover, are neither perfectly known by me nor are they frequently in my consciousness.

It is contended then that even in putative cases of clear manifestations of intentional actions, there are important unconscious or preconscious factors which influence and condition such cases. This helps to further clarify what I have in mind by using the term ‘world-view’. Some of the factors which govern the world-view, and therefore in turn actions, are so deep-seated that they may not be brought to conscious, rational analysis by the agent.

The purpose of this chapter then is to make explicit the manner in which the agent is strongly connected to, and dependent on, the biosphere. As I attempt to point out below, this is an aspect of the modern, western world-view which has been far too long ignored and must be brought into the full light of rational analysis. The difficulty with this is that the shadowy influences on the agent I have described are a perennial reality – the unconscious influence of history can never be fully brought into the light. At the same time, while bearing this in mind, it is folly to deny or under-rate the value of the agent qua conscious, rational being.

In Freud’s terminology this amounts to the acknowledgement of both ego and id. Reason must be involved in the agent’s choice between intentional courses of action if he or she is to behave rationally. My point is that the relationship between reason, intention and the actions which issue therefrom is more complex than is usually admitted.[3]

Thus, the actions any given agent undertakes are always in a cultural context of customs and practices which he or she usually knows rather well – though tacitly. Now, in the context of the discussion at hand, it is clear that the modus operandi of western culture has not had environmental consequences as an object of concern either at the level of clear intention or in the more shadowy sense of background conditions I have described. Of course we have to do what we can to put this right, but we should not be surprised at this absence.

For most of history humankind simply did not have the capacity to interfere with nature on any large scale – it is only recently with technological and industrial advance that it has become an issue. The view of the agent here then, is one in which the agent is a cultural agent. That the agent exists in a cultural context of language, religion, institutions and customs in general, is a crucial aspect of what any given agent is. Again this is a point which is not normally made in traditional action theory. The great cultural diversity one may easily find on Earth means that there can be great variation in what is allowable or usual for the agent.

Against this diversity, all agents share a common dependence on the biosphere. Every person needs clean water to drink, food, shelter and so on. The reality of cultural diversity means that these common, essential requirements are met in a large number of different ways. For instance, while the western action theorist may analyse interesting problems connected with using a knife and fork, from say a Chinese point of view, the utensils in question are usually chopsticks. Thus the cultural context of the agent influences in important ways the types of actions which are undertaken. Once more, against this sense of great diversity of the types of actions an agent might undertake according to cultural context, the case I make concerning the always present connections the agent has with the biosphere may be seen as universalist.

By this I mean that irrespective of whichever cultural perspective one cares to consider, the connection with the living world is always fundamental – if all too often ignored. Conceivably, this line of thought could provide common ground for all peoples and nations to co-operate. Of course, some cultures, and the agents of which they are composed, are more concerned about the biosphere than others. For example, the currently dominant western culture, as indicated, does not have a history which is marked by a concern for harmony with nature. Indeed the importance of technological advance in this case is evidence that there is a widespread desire to be apart from nature. It is almost as if a basic tenet of western civilisation, is a desire to alienate itself from nature.


I now turn to a more detailed examination of action in the context of the biosphere. My interest in this line of analysis arises from the now widespread concern that our actions in the world are irreversibly damaging the complex, interconnected systems upon which life on Earth depends. This then is one important aspect of the crisis of modernity. The Cartesian separation between res cogitans and res extensa, which puts into different ontological domains the thinking subject and the objective world, may lie at the root of the deteriorating environmental crisis; in that, it speaks of separation from, rather than connection with, the physical world for the thinking, acting subject.

More specifically, the Cartesian separation between mind and body, makes it difficult to see how the actions the body undertakes are connected with the mind. Yet, actions must be connected to mind, since we believe that it is the mind which directs our actions in the world. If we are to think more constructively about our relationship with the biosphere, and to think more constructively about how actions are linked with mind, it would appear that we have to look for an alternative to the Cartesian paradigm. Having said this, can anything be salvaged from this model of our Being in the world?

In answer to this question I employ Ockam’s razor. Res extensa I take to be a necessary category, but res cogitans has to be either rejected or redefined. With this strategy I defend the notion that there is a physical world of objects, existing largely independently of what we think of them. This can be usefully qualified by pointing out that the body of the agent is not the usual run-of-the-mill extended thing. To be precise, the body is an animate entity as opposed to inanimate ones. Notwithstanding welcome periods of sleep, the body is actively engaged in the world in a manner that, say, stones are not.

This position may be described as realist or materialist. Of course, this still leaves open the precise status of mind. Although this is not a thesis on the philosophy of mind, per se, I prefer a model in which mind is seen firstly as the outcome of a long process of evolution – this much has been argued by Karl Popper. Secondly, mind is an emergent or supervenient system, which owes its existence to a well-functioning body or organism. In distinction from standard epiphenomenalism, what I have in mind here is a “bi-directional” epiphenomenalism, in which mind emerges from the process of evolution, and at the same time, is able to act back on the body in the form of actions. What I have said thus far may be taken to indicate that there are alternative paradigms to that of Descartes.

The title of this chapter owes its origin to Heidegger’s term “Action-in-the-World.”[4] Clearly there have been two conceptual changes to Heidegger’s original locution which may strike the reader as unusual. The first of these is to make it explicit that I am concerned with human action in particular. One has to make this explicit since it makes sense to speak of the action of other species, particularly other higher mammals. The second change is from ‘world’ to ‘biosphere’. The biological term ‘biosphere’ is defined as, “the regions of the Earth’s crust and atmosphere occupied by living organisms.”[5]

By contrast, the term ‘world’ is polysemous. The more usual, though less specialised term, would be ‘environment’. I do not employ this concept here because it suffers from a form of overusage which can result in a failure to consider its full significance. Thus, human action in the biosphere indicates a specific perspective on agency; further, it indicates that I am primarily interested in human action and that that action is to be interpreted in relation to its primordial context – the living world.

On the one hand, if we are to believe evolutionary theory, the very existence of human action has arisen due to interrelations with other elements in the living world – the human agent is the outcome of the evolutionary process; on the other, presently existing agents always act in relation to that living world. As far as it is known, the only humans to have escaped the biosphere are astronauts. Even in this extreme case, they had to take elements of the biosphere with them in order to survive.

It would be very useful to have some definition of what human action is. The most fundamental definition I can propose is that an action must involve some change of state of our physical being, or morphology, in relation to the biosphere (external reality). (Cf. The definition given by von Wright at the beginning of this chapter, p. 29.) This definition has two elements. The first is that one has to describe the agent, whatever his or her action might be. That is to say, the agent is seen as being embodied.

The second is that reference must be made to the context in which the agent acts. It is important to note such changes of state take place in relation to the reality external to ourselves, as internal heart beats or the movement of blood, while involving changes of state, cannot however be considered as actions. The notion of change of state in relation to external reality is a very general definition. Such changes of state have a further feature which makes them distinctive. If one observes human action closely one may notice actions are cyclical changes of state. If one considers the most common of actions namely walking from say A to B, one can see that this is a linear motion.

However the means by which it is achieved is cyclical since our legs move in their joints in a cyclical fashion. I argue that what is true of our legs is true of all our actions in general as a consequence of the three dimensional structure of the joints which enable our movement. Joints only allow a limited degree of freedom to move. Indeed, it is the nature of such joints that one may only move one’s limbs, as it were, back and forward. Hence our inherited morphology fundamentally conditions the form of actions the agent may carry out. The human agent cannot jump like a kangaroo or gallop like a horse; rather he or she acts qua human being.

A further example of what I have in mind is the case of the jaw. A well functioning jaw is essential for the production of speech acts. At the same time the main avenue of movement for the jaw is up and down. My point then is to make explicit the connection actions have with anatomical structure. (Parts of the chapter which follows take more cognisance of the implications of language for the agent.)

To be precise, I have been concerned to point out that the actions of the agent always take place in the context of the living world, that is to say, the biosphere. A human being qua agent is a dynamic entity which is in virtually continuous motion, and it is this dynamism which issues in actions. At this point I wish to collapse what is often taken to be an important distinction in action theory, namely, that between action and activity. When a change is an on going process, this is referred to as activity. However, the distinction between an act and an activity relies on an arbitrary separation. Actions are always processes and it is far from easy, if at all possible, to say where one begins and ends. There is a seamless, continuous quality to the agent’s actions in the world. At no point does the agent stop moving before turning to the next object of concern.

One of the easiest criticisms that can be made against someone interested in action theory is that they subscribe to a form of behaviourism. Since I am not a behaviourist I should perhaps point out that I see agency as the exteriorisation of the interiority of the subject. To further support this position, I made clear in the Introduction that action and rationality are intimately connected, rationality being some property of mind or consciousness, and thus connected to the interiority of the subject. The interior intention is but a potentiality until it is actualised, “Action is always in a dialectic between intentions and consequences.”[6] Intentions are internal to the Being of the subject, and consequences largely exist in the publicly observable domain.

Human action can never be separated from the biosphere in which it takes place. The agent, from birth to death, is inescapably locked into the context the living world provides. (With reference to the astronauts mentioned above, space exploration may one day discover another life supporting environment on a distant planet. However, this is likely to be many decades or centuries in the future. Consequently, at least for the time being, human agents cannot escape this biosphere.)

It is surely inconceivable to consider human action somehow abstracted from the biosphere, because to consider it in this way would be to fail to consider human action as it actually is. Yet the importance of this connection has been largely overlooked in western philosophy until relatively recently. This may be put down to the widely influential paradigm, outlined by Descartes, in which the mind is separated from the body and in which the biosphere does not even figure. In response to this, I propose an important principle – the principle of the contingency of human existence on the biosphere. I take this principle to be so important because its converse is quite insupportable. The form of the converse I have in mind is the consideration of action in a vacuum.

In contrast to the biosphere a vacuum is a void with little or no atmosphere. Such a void cannot support either life or human agency since any living creature which found itself in such circumstances could obviously not last long. We may relax the criterion of this converse case by supposing the agent is in a sealed room with an adequate atmosphere. In such circumstances the agent would starve to death. Thus an atmosphere and access to food are two features the biosphere must provide if living entities in general and the human agent in particular are to survive at all.

The agent cannot survive if either food or an atmosphere are denied by isolation from the biosphere. Conditions may be relaxed even further by providing a survivable temperature range in addition to an atmosphere and food. Already therefore we have three criteria which the biosphere must meet for life to be sustained and human action to express itself. These three alone are sufficient to make plain the importance of the principle I have proposed, although there are others.

The criterion of access to food for the agent turns out to be an interesting one. This arises because it implies that biodiversity is a condition for the existence of the human agent. If tomorrow, human beings were the only species on Earth, the species would starve to death, since all human food is derived from other plants and animals. The critic might reply that food could be created artificially by advanced bio-chemistry. Though I do not claim that this is impossible at some time in the future, at the time of writing bio-chemistry does not have this capacity. Thus, given the current reduction in biodiversity are we to hope that bio-chemistry will come up with the required science and technology before we are the only species left? Surely this must be repugnant to anyone who values the living world. The more attractive option is that we plan and organise our actions in harmony with nature – even if this is more easily said than done.

Therefore, the aforementioned principle goes strongly against the tendency to see ourselves as abstracted from the natural world – which may have been exacerbated by the development and spread of urban environments – when in fact we are quintessentially dependent upon it. Moreover, it is impossible to separate existence itself from agency. To be a living, existing human being, is at the same time to be an agent. To understand this, notice how difficult it is to remain quite still for any length of time. Indeed, human immobility is an illness, that is to say paralysis, and may even be ultimately identified with death itself.

All actions have consequences in the biosphere which range from the barely measurable, such as moving air when one moves, to those which may have quite dramatic consequences, such as the act of cutting down a tree or forest. One may go on to point out that while all human actions have some consequence, only a proportion of these have ethical consequences; and, it is only relatively recently that those actions, which have consequences in the biosphere, have come to be seen as having an ethical component. Since the inception of the industrial revolution, the biospheric consequences of industrialisation, even to-day, are far from central in the cost-benefit analysis of such development. Throughout this thesis I attempt to emphasise the sense in which we are connected to, and dependent upon, the biosphere. As such, I take this to be an important add on to more restricted, orthodox treatments of agency and rationality.


This position can be further supported by appropriating elements of phenomenology. What I will call the ‘phenomenological approach’ to action theory sees reasoning faculties as being intimately connected with, rather than separated from, our bodies which do the acting. So the theoretical revision made by phenomenology with respect to the Cartesian tradition allows one to consider phenomena in terms of interaction and interrelation rather than the separation of substance suggested by the Cartesian dualism of subject and object, and res cogitans and res extensa. Our minds are not separated from our bodies. Indeed as Merleau-Ponty has argued at length, in the Phenomenology of Perception, we might do well not to ignore the fact that we do have bodies. In addition, we are not isolated from each other, and we are intimately connected to the biosphere. Merleau-Ponty makes this point as follows,

Hitherto the Cogito depreciated the perception of others, teaching me as it did that the I is accessible only to itself, since it defined me as the thought which I have of myself, and which clearly I am alone in having, at least in this ultimate sense. For the ‘other’ to be more than an empty word, it is necessary that my existence should never be reduced to my bare awareness of existing….[7]

In this way Merleau-Ponty indicates the implications of Descartes’ method of doubt. In fact, this method of doubt is so sceptical that it deprecates the perception of others – whether they be other human beings, or more generally, other sentient creatures. Allegedly, all that can be known “clearly and distinctly” is the relationship between one’s cognition and one’s existence. I see Descartes’ method of doubt as a sort of anthem to the western intellectual, in the respect that even our most dearly held beliefs may be the subject of critical scrutiny.

However, when this self-questioning goes so far as to question the existence of others, one inclines to suggest that this is a form of destructive intellectual extremism. What is more, if it is intellectually acceptable to doubt or deprecate the existence of others – perhaps one’s family – then it is but a short step to doubt the existence, at the highest level of generality, of the cosmos. At a more restricted level of generality, we might equally speak of doubting the existence of the biosphere. It is perhaps no surprise that the hypostatisation of such extreme forms of scepticism, in the reception of Descartes’ work, has led to a crisis. To the extent that Descartes sense of rationalism is underpinned by radical doubt, it can barely get off the ground.

The Cartesian subject isolates us from each other. In addition it isolates the self from the body and even ourselves from the world in which we exist. By contrast, the encasement of consciousness by the body and by the environment leads to the thought that two consciousnesses would be encased by the same environment thus generating a fundamental bond – even although each consciousness would have a slightly different perspective. Thus, I deny any hermetic encasement of consciousness – through perceptual apparatus we are open to stimuli from the environment and each other. If consciousness were hermetically sealed within the agent we could know nothing and do nothing.

How “thick” are the ontological connections between ourselves? That we communicate by means of symbols is surely constitutive of such connections. I have said that consciousness is encased in the body. Yet, if this were an absolute encasement then communication would not be possible. The encasement “leaks” not only symbolically but also as we express consciousness in action in general and speech acts in particular. What is more, to emphasis this point, Merleau-Ponty notes,

There is one particular cultural object which is destined to play a crucial role in the perception of other people: language. In the experience of dialogue, there is constituted between the other person and myself a common ground; my thought and his are interwoven into a single fabric….we are collaborators in consummate reciprocity.[8]

Thus we may use this model to instate the connections between the other person and myself, and between people in general. This may be more relevant to the case of environmental philosophy than it first appears. By establishing important linkages between people, one also by implication establishes linkages between living elements in the biosphere. Thus, we might take this as a first step – if somewhat anthropocentric – towards the idea of the interdependence of the living elements in the biosphere.

On this model, speech acts in particular being at issue, we can see that our actions are fundamentally directed toward each other. Moreover, speech acts often have a content which relates to solving problems in the world in which we exist – they aid us in overcoming the challenges of survival. In ideal circumstances, one would hope that people would have ready access to the essentials of life, and thus be able to turn their energies to matters of pleasure, enjoyment and self-improvement. I have in mind then an agent who must act in the biosphere in order simply to survive.


To the western reader this may seem to debase the qualities of the human agent. However, one need only recognise that many millions of people, particularly in developing countries, have difficulty in securing the basics for survival. The biosphere is not always a benign home for the agent. Often a hard battle has to be fought with nature just to survive. The desert dwelling Bedu tribespeople or the sub-arctic dwelling Inuit would serve as particularly harsh examples. This is something which is certainly ignored in action theory to date. To continue to exist, to continue to survive is the fundamental problem the agent has to overcome in his or her actions – survival is the ultimate existential challenge – and this challenge is considerably easier in some circumstances as opposed to others. Hence human action in the biosphere may also be interpreted as an existential category – perhaps the existential category.

If we rework Descartes’ cogito in this light, we might have: I am thinking (process), therefore, I am alive. Put differently, I think, therefore, I am, though I have not always been, and will not always continue to be.[9] Seen from the perspective of the individual subject, we are, most would agree, transient creatures even although Descartes attempted to ascribe eternal properties to the mind – which was characteristic of the Jesuit theology with which he was imbued. By contrast with the transience of the individual subject, the biosphere, given a chance, might persist for billions of years to come. Looked at in this light, animate existence has the potential to approach, as a limit, the eternal.

The phenomenological idea that the subject exists in direct interrelation with reality in all its manifestations, is one that I cannot adopt in an unqualified way. Part Three of this thesis may be read as the first qualification I would outline, in that, it describes how the mediators of language and technology intervene between human existence and that of the cosmos. The second is that I reject the idealist implications often latent in phenomenological thought.[10] I subscribe to a sort of realist phenomenology. More positively, thinkers in the phenomenological tradition reject science as the only valid means of enquiry. For example, as Merleau-Ponty notes,

It is a matter of describing, not of explaining or analysing. Husserl’s first directive to phenomenology, in its early stages, to be a ‘descriptive psychology’, to return to the ‘things themselves’, is from the start a rejection of science.[11]

For such thinkers the phenomenological method is seen as more fundamental. I share the concern that science should not be seen as the only valid means of enquiry, but I am critical of it and I defend this position in the second chapter of Part Two.

Given these qualifications, the account of action given here arises from what one might, as a term of art, call the dialectic of existence. Dialectic of existence as used here refers to ontological interrelationship rather than dialectics understood as the art and science of disputation. The account of knowledge and values given here is one in which they are seen as phenomena generated in the dialectic of existence itself. The logos in which knowledge and values are embedded is generated in the semiotic and non-semiotic dialectic of existence between (zoo)logos and cosmos.

Knowledge, values, and reason itself, are considered here as emergent phenomena of this dialectic which is in continuous, dynamic motion. Consequently knowledge, values and reason are not a necessary imposition on the cosmos, they are rather a product of it. All that has meaning for human beings – what I call the semiotic – is generated in different types of interrelationship with reality. All our interaction with reality, as I have already indicated, is not static it is dynamic – as Heraclitus said one cannot step into the same river twice. Indeed cognition, the means by which meaning is apprehended, is itself an ongoing process – the neocortex functions in time. Thus, the agent is in a dynamic interrelationship with his or her context, and actions are the primary response to that context. In addition, it is through the actions of the agent that important aspects of the context are themselves created. For example the agent may find him- or herself in a man-made landscape – say an ornamental garden, or a city.

Human interrelationship with the environment

Here human existence, experience and conscious awareness, are considered as having their basis in forms of action which always exist in interrelationship with other entities and phenomena in the biosphere. The alternative is to see the agent as isolated from the world in which he or she exists. That there is a crisis of modernity strongly suggests that there is something wrong with our interpretation of the world and our role in it. The tendency to interpret the agent as isolated from the biosphere, which is in fact essential for survival, may be one feature which lies at the origin of the crisis. If we act as though we are isolated from the biosphere, pollution could be one consequence, since it may be said to arise as a consequence of a failure to take into account the full implications of what we do. There is clearly a serious problem when we act to damage that on which we depend.

At the time of writing, there are many aspects of the functioning of the biosphere which remain poorly understood. Along side this it is noticeable that the great advances in science and technology which have taken place in the modern period tend to generate a sort of illusion to the effect that everything is understood, and this is in turn generates a confidence that the agent can do whatever he or she likes vis-à-vis the biosphere. Thus the conflict between the at best incomplete understanding of the biosphere, and the confidence that there is little left to learn can be nothing but a cause of problems. In industrialised, technological societies the agent is alienated from a nature which is poorly understood. The overcoming of this sense of alienation is not an easy task, since modernity may be said to be characterised by an obsession with artificial, mechanistic processes, rather than the natural processes of the living world.

In conclusion, it is a serious error or deficiency in the modern, western world-view to the extent that this is underpinned by a Cartesian tradition which is so sceptical as to doubt not only the existence of the world but also of others. When misapplied scepticism can be pathological. The aim in this chapter has been to show, by contrast with Cartesian scepticism, a more positive view which establishes the essential connections between every agent and the biosphere; and moreover, connections between agents themselves. It is to a more detailed examination of these inter-agent connections that the following chapter turns.


[1] G. H. von Wright, Norm and Action, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 35.
[2] G. H. von Wright, Op. Cit., p. 36.
[3] Goya’s painting The Sleep of Reason is an elegant depiction of what is at stake here. The sleeping figure to be found in this work rests on a pedestal bearing the inscription, which when translated from Spanish reads, “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.”
[4] Extensive discussion of this concept may be found in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (Trans., J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988). For the view I wish to take, this is an important terminological development. At the same time, I would wish to distance myself from Heidegger’s brush with realpolitik in the Germany of the 1930s. A reading of Michael E. Zimmerman’s Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, Art, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), Chps. 2-5, makes it quite plain why.
[5] Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Eighth Edition, Edited by R. E. Allen, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990).
[6] Seyla Benhabib, Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study in the Foundations of Critical Theory, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 87.
[7] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, POP, p. xii.
[8] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, POP, p. 354.
[9] It is quite likely that Descartes thought something of this sort. It is well known that he conducted medical research, the main problem of which is human mortality, that is to say, the failure to survive. One might go so far as to say that Cartesian dualism made possible the foundation of modern medicine, in that, his model enabled physicians to consider the body as but a machine distinct from the soul or self which inhabits it. This in mind, Descartes’ legacy is ambiguous.
[10] An example of this can be found in POP, where Merleau-Ponty subscribes to a form of radical idealism at the end of this work (p. 432).
[11] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, POP, p. viii. It should be noted that Merleau-Ponty makes extensive use of empirical data in both the POP and The Structure of Behavior, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Press, 1983).


 Click Here For Previous Section

Click Here For Next Section


Leave a comment


email* (not published)