The Metaphysics of Nature
Rich Grego compares John Dewey’s and Martin Heidegger’s views on ecology.
Martin Heidegger and John Dewey both flourished in the first part of the 20th century, but the two thinkers had very different concerns about the environment. We ’ll examine how their respective concepts of nature, human nature and philosophy of science might apply to current environmental thought and policy. It argues that Heidegger’s latter thought, with its rejection of modern science, technology and commercialism, as well as its quasi-mystical concepts like ‘Being’ is generally less useful for environmental policy than Dewey’s philosophy, which celebrates these institutions as a triumph of both natural and human potentials. However I will also argue that while the spirit of Dewey’s philosophy might be better suited to short-term strategies regarding environmental regulations, laws, and improved technologies, the essential message of Heidegger ’s philosophy may be what is needed for ensuring a long-term commitment to sustainable environmental protection.
Heidegger, Dewy and Environmental Policy
Concern over global warming and other environmental problems has garnered a great deal of public attention recently. The report issued by the United Nation ’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in February 2007 is controversial, but it appears to confirm what many environmentalists have been asserting for some time now: the planet is heating up, and this phenomenon is man-made. Much of the scientific community agrees that the long-term consequences of this could be catastrophic for both the natural environment and human civilization.
At this time therefore, environmental policy makers are attempting to answer two main questions:
1) What is causing the problem? And
2) What can/should we do about it?
Scientists have provided some obvious answers here. Global warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions, and the solution to the problem is to reduce emissions via improved technologies, policies, and regulations. One recent idea in the US along these lines is a change in the federal tax code to encourage the use and development of alternate energy by corporations.
Of course, philosophers, as always, tend to view both the causes and the possible solutions to such problems in more complex and problematic ways than do most scientists. Environmental philosophy encompasses things like ethics, metaphysics and the philosophy of science.
While contemporary environmental philosophy is a rich and prolific field of scholarship, it is sometimes instructive to take a glance at some of its intellectual origins. Though John Dewey and Martin Heidegger lived and thought well before our environmental concerns came to the fore, they nonetheless had much to say about science , nature, and humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Their ideas on these themes have provided a firm foundation upon which much contemporary environmental thought is based. Current philosophers like Michael Zimmerman and Bruce Foltz have synthesized Heidegger ’s thought with environmental philosophy, while philosophers such as Andrew Light, Larry Hickman and Anthony Weston have applied Dewey ’s pragmatism to environmentalism. Thus examining some of Dewey’s and Heidegger’s basic concepts can provide critical insight into some of the philosophical issues at stake in current environmental policy debates.
In fact, although Heidegger and Dewey share certain environmentally relevant ideas, their differences are more pronounced, and would exemplify two distinctly different attitudes toward issues like global warming. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) has been associated with the 20th Century philosophical movements known as phenomenology and existentialism (though he disowned the label). His thinking, as we shall discuss further, tended to assume a decidedly anti-modernist bias – leading him to criticise technology, commercialism, and instrumental science, especially in latter writings. Since these things are so integral to the modern world there is a quasi-reactionary sensibility about Heidegger ’s latter thought (although in all fairness to him, he considered his critique of Western civilization to be forward-looking and visionary).
In contrast, American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) embraced the spirit of modernism enthusiastically. Closely identified with the philosophical movement known as pragmatism, his philosophy has also been called ‘instrumentalism’ and ‘experimentalism’. Unlike Heidegger, he saw science, technology and commerce as creative expressions of human potential. He therefore tended to be more supportive of these institutions and their cultural influence than Heidegger.
The Nature of Science and the Science of Nature
Were they here to comment, both thinkers would undoubtedly see deep connections between concrete problems like global warming and more abstract issues like the philosophy of science, the metaphysics of nature, and human nature. However they would also surely disagree on the character of these connections. Their philosophies agree that science and technology have shaped humankind ’s relationship with the natural world, but they disagree about what this relationship is, how it has come about, and what it means.
Heidegger’s concept of science and technology, for all practical purposes, is a negative one. In his latter work especially, he portrayed the scientific legacy as a manifestation of humanity ’s disregard for and estrangement from the natural world, and from the very ground of existence. This legacy, beginning with the culture and philosophy of ancient Greece, and culminating in the science and philosophy of modernity, is an essentially spiritual phenomenon. Pre-Socratic Greeks first apprehended the awesome wonder and mystery of existence (or ‘Being’ as Heidegger calls it), and began to develop philosophy and science to describe this experience. However, the meaning of the experience was simply too sublime and profound for any descriptions to do justice to it, so thinkers like Plato and Aristotle began to articulate both philosophy and science as logical explanations for the natural world rather than poetic exclamations about this mysterious experience of Being. Such explanations made the natural world rationally intelligible, but did so by neglecting Being ’s original revelation. This made any deep appreciation for the Being of nature impossible, and led to the progressive alienation of humanity from nature in Western thought and culture.
The development of science and technology in the modern, post-Enlightenment world are expressions of this alienation. Science and technology have in Heidegger’s term now ‘enframed’ the natural world by turning it into a mere object of empirical study for commercial exploitation. The natural world has become a ‘standing reserve’ for technical manipulation. Science
“Sets upon Nature… Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is now set upon to yield oxygen, the earth to yield uranium... Even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command … the revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of setting upon. ” The Question Concerning Technology, pp320-321
Hence, Descartes’ belief that science’s purpose is to accomplish “the mastery and possession of nature” has come to full fruition in modern life. Science has transformed nature from a living revelation of Being into an intellectual and commercial resource.
Dewey agrees with Heidegger that modern science has its origins in the intellectual life of ancient Greece, and has since changed humanity ’s relationship with the natural world. However, unlike Heidegger, Dewey views the legacy of science as one of liberation and enlightenment rather than one of domination and estrangement. Although the classical founders of Western philosophy and science were engaged in a futile ‘quest for certainty’ in searching for an eternal or sacred meaning in nature, modern science since the Enlightenment has become a more practical tool for framing open-ended questions and generating temporary hypotheses. Unlike the science, philosophy, and theology of ancient times, modern science does not see nature as having any determinate metaphysical structure. Nature, as the subject matter of current science, is a malleable and dynamic construct of the human intellect. According to Dewey, science has created “A natural world that does not subsist for the sake of realizing a fixed set of ends ” and “is relatively malleable and plastic; it can be used for this or that.” ( Reconstruction in Philosophy, p70)
Heidegger agrees with Dewey that this is indeed what has happened, but thinks that it is a bad thing. Dewey however, sees the advent of modern science as the great liberating event in the history of ideas, and extols its possibilities for empowering human potential, advocating “the transfer of the experimental method from the field of physical science to the wider field of human life.” Dewey concludes that in the contemporary world:
“Nature as it already exists ceases to be something which must be accepted and submitted to, endured and enjoyed just as it is. It is now something to be modified, to be intentionally controlled. It is material to act upon so as to transform it into new objects which better answer our needs. ”
The Quest For Certainty, pp80-81
And indeed this is just as it must and should be, for nature is the source of human abilities, and the ultimate evolutionary product of nature is the human ability to transform nature itself. Our ability to bend nature to our will is an aspect of nature. The improvement of human conditions by manipulating and transforming the natural world via science, technology, commerce and the arts, is nature ’s supreme achievement.
In contrast, Heidegger tends to view nature more as “something which must be accepted and submitted to” – as the unfolding of something sacred and supernatural (Being) with which humanity looses touch when it is treated as an object of scientific knowledge or commercial exploitation. Our destruction of the natural world is symptomatic of our spiritual alienation from the ultimate source of meaning in our lives. Having reduced Being to a scientific-technocratic-commercial world of objectified ‘beings’, humanity now finds itself alone in a trivialized world of resources and commodities. Having separated nature from its sacred animating ground, humanity has robbed nature and itself of intrinsic value. Nature now seems lifeless and meaningless in any deep sense.
Thus a kind of ‘homelessness’, as Heidegger calls it “has come to be the destiny of the world”(Letter on Humanism, p243), and the only remedy for this dilemma – which Heidegger seems dubious about even while advocating it – is for humanity to reject the “frenzy of rationalization”, technology, and commercialism in favor of “freedom”. Heidegger describes this freedom as the “letting-be of beings” (The Essence of Truth p125). It involves an attitude of quietism, reverence, and a profound appreciation for nature as a sacred incarnation of Being. In such a state, nature would be celebrated once again as a source of wonder, and would no longer be used as an object of exploitation.
Science, Nature, and Environmental Policy
Having examined Dewey’s and Heidegger’s contrasting views on man and nature, their respective answers to our original questions regarding global warming might seem obvious. Given his rather strong endorsement of an ‘activist’ scientific spirit, Dewey would probably see global warming as a consequence of a miscalculation of our collective goals and methods with respect to our technologies and the environment. His probable solution would involve evaluating how our development (on many levels) is effected by this phenomenon, and then re-evaluating how best to utilize the technologies responsible for it.
However, his radically dynamic and open-ended conception of both nature and human nature would make these evaluations quite problematic. If nature and human development are in perpetual flux, have no inherent structure, and are continually reconfigured by the ever-evolving matrix of inter-relationships of which they are a part, then even defining what the natural environment is, let alone what may or may not be harmful to it, becomes extremely difficult at best. There is nothing intrinsic or essential to nature in Dewey ’s view. It is an ever unfinished project whose limits cannot be defined and whose ‘purpose’ is a matter of interpretation. Whether current policies are benefiting or harming ‘nature’ is therefore a matter of interpretation as well – and our interpretations are largely tentative and change with every temporary change in values, needs, and worldviews. Indeed, the spirit of Dewey ’s instrumentalism suggests that there may be ways still unimagined in which global warming may actually enhance human potentials and improve the environment!
On the other hand, Heidegger’s response might not be quite as predictable, if he chose to respond at all. Commentators have speculated widely on the reasons for the attitude of philosophical disregard and personal aloofness that Heidegger seemed to hold throughout his life. Some have suggested that it had obvious origins in his rejection of science, commerce and modern culture generally. Others have claimed that the abstract quasi-mystical themes like freedom, Being and Nothingness that dominated his later writing led to an ivory tower disinterest in worldly concerns. Still others have suggested more cynical and opportunistic motives behind his unwillingness to risk taking stands on controversial issues. Whatever the reasons, Heidegger claimed that humanity and nature have now reached the end of their potentialities, and that humanity cannot hope to ‘engineer’ its way out of the spiritual malaise wrought by its alienation from Being via science and technology. Being has now exhausted its possibilities in Nothingness; this manifests itself in contemporary culture as nihilism and meaninglessness. World civilization is dominated by an instrumentalist mentality in which nothing is intrinsically valuable or sacred. The devaluation of nature to the status of a mere resource for technology and industry is an example of this nihilism.
Unfortunately, Heidegger also says that any attempt to engineer yet another scientific solution to this dilemma would be, paradoxically, a perpetuation of the very nihilistic mentality that has caused it. Scientifically-generated public policies, ecological initiatives and environmental regulations, are part of the same mentality that enframes or objectifies nature by controlling and manipulating it via science and technology. Neither humanity nor nature can be redeemed in this way. In fact, since the only hope for an authentic encounter with nature (Being) involves appreciating it in freedom – which means letting-be rather than trying to change or improve it – Heidegger would seem to be claiming that inaction, simply doing nothing, is our best course of action. We must, he states, wait patiently for the “soundless voice of Being” to reveal itself once again. But it must come to us during an experience of the kind of quietism in which the ‘frenzy of rationalization’ is finally stilled.
How any of this might translate into actual environmental policy is anyone’s guess – and contemporary interpreters of Heidegger are certainly doing a lot of guessing! But some general possibilities come to mind. Environmentally, Heidegger is heir to the legacy of Medieval Christian mysticism, German idealism and Romanticism, and he is the inspiration for much contemporary thinking associated with ‘deep ecology’. He encourages a heartfelt awareness of and appreciation for the natural world as a dwelling-place of the sacred. With this awareness and appreciation may perhaps come a general shift in the public consciousness – a renewed revelation of Being –which can lead, in turn, to a new way of “dwelling authentically” or living harmoniously with the natural world. Such living will then lead effortlessly to policies that sustain this harmony. However we cannot make these policies unless the shift in conciousness occurs first.
In distinction, Dewey’s views are quite compatible with the spirit of instrumental science, technology and commerce, and are readily applicable to environmentally sound policies like low-carbon technologies in industry, international regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, and the environmental standards in the Kyoto Protocol. These are temporary, flexible innovations made by interested political and commercial parties that are based on tentative findings which may be revised. Dewey does not share Heidegger’s antipathy toward modernity, and would see things like environmental problems as incentives to further research and improvement rather than as the end to human possibilities.While Dewey endorses a kind of Heideggerian-sounding awareness and appreciation of the natural world, lauding the value of aesthetic experiences in the appreciation of nature, for instance, he sees this as only one capacity among many that may be employed to protect or improve the natural environment of which humanity is an integral part. The Global Roundtable On Climate Change based at Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York, at which various scientists, corporations, civic organizations and political action groups from around the world are researching and adopting a comprehensive statement on environmental science and policy, seems like precisely the sort of initiative Dewey would support.
Yet while Heidegger’s views may seem too extreme for the practical necessities of our current situation, Dewey’s more practical approach is vulnerable to the Heideggerian criticism that it may be too accommodating to our situation. Heidegger would probably say that the attempt to preserve, protect or improve nature by tinkering with it through science is selfdefeating. And it does appear that every new ‘solution’ to natural problems over the past half-century has created new problems, only the latest of which is global warming. (Some of the proposed scientific solutions to this problem are ominous themselves â€“ from giant space shields, to spreading aerosol particles in the upper atmosphere, to spraying water-clouds into the air from the oceans.) Thus perhaps the very impractically of Heidegger’s profound ideas make them particularly worthy of consideration. It is fairly obvious that environmental degradation is largely, if not primarily, a result of the impact of technology and commerce on the natural world, and that, on the contrary, the kind of reverent appreciation for nature’s sanctity that Heidegger advocates would engender a deeper concern and respect for nature.What may therefore be needed for environmental protection over the long-term – as opposed to short-term fixes for temporary ‘fashionable’ issues like global warming – is a Heideggerian-type transformation of the global public consciousness, rather than further Deweyan technological innovations. A renewed experience of authentic freedom, and the revelation of Being which is the groundless ground that sustains both nature and humanity, might be just what is needed for Earth’s sustainable future.
© Dr Richard Grego 2008
Rich Grego is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Culture, Daytona Beach College, Florida.